Saturday, June 25, 2016

GRAVITY WAVES, CREATIONISM, AND THE INFALLIBILITY OF SCRIPTURE

In my discussions with creationists about evolution I have been going about things all wrong.  I have been appealing to objective evidence and rational analysis in trying to move creationists in my direction.  My efforts have been entirely unsuccessful.  To my knowledge, I have not changed the beliefs of a single creationist about the facts of evolution.  Not one.  But I think I now better understand why.

Recently, I attended a lecture on gravity waves, the detection of which was announced earlier this year.  This scientific advancement was truly amazing on a number of fronts.  First, it represented the confirmation of a 100-year-old prediction based on Einstein’s theory of general relativity.  Second, it involved—indeed required—the construction and use of scientific and technological equipment of the very highest sophistication.  And, third, the event that triggered the detection of gravity waves was extraordinary in its own right.  It was the merger of two massive black holes, each approximately 30 times the mass of the sun, an event that occurred in a distant galaxy 1.2 billion years ago.  For anyone interested, here is an article about the discovery:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/12/science/ligo-gravitational-waves-black-holes-einstein.html.

The existence of gravity waves was confirmed by a single, highly extraordinary event using apparatuses of enormous complexity and precision.  Even so, I have not heard of any creationists who are questioning the authenticity of the findings.  I suspect that I won’t.  Contrast that with the fact that, despite vast amounts of consistent corroborative observations and evidence to support macro evolution, creationists persist in denying its existence.  Why would fundamentalist Christians continue to deny the reality of processes that have overwhelming scientific support and yet not dispute the existence of an extraordinarily exotic phenomenon based on a single event?

Here’s my point.  Creationists’ objections to evolution are not based on a dispute over the adequacy of the evidence or over the analysis or interpretation of that evidence.  Rather, their objections are based on the fact that the evidence for evolution conflicts with a literal interpretation of scripture.  In a very real sense the most fundamental anchor for creationists’ beliefs is the inerrancy of scripture.   

Creationists haven’t objected to the detection of gravity waves, I suspect, because they have been able to rationalize a compatibility between the existence of such phenomena and the Genesis creation story, even though that rationalization might be a tortured one.  The theory of evolution, on the other hand, states that modern humans have evolved over millions of years from earlier hominids.  Creationists haven’t been able to rationalize a compatibility between this statement and the Genesis account of creation.  Ipso facto, the evolutionary account must be rejected.  Hence one reads in creationist literature that intermediary hominid fossils either do not exist or have been misclassified.  Likewise, to refute the accepted geological record, creationists argue that the systems used to establish geological dating must be wrong or they point to what appear to be anomalies in the geological record.  Such anomalies are easily explained by natural processes, but creationists discount those explanations while ignoring the overwhelming evidence supporting much longer timeframes.

So now what?  Beliefs do change.  Mine did.  And I have a number of acquaintances who once were creationists that believed that God created the world in six literal days less than 10,000 years ago but who now understand that humans are the result of evolutionary processes extending over millions of years.  How did that happen?  I believe such changes occurred largely because the individuals came to realize that scripture should not be considered literally true.  

In sum, the key is to recognize that the debate is not between the evidence in favor of evolution and the evidence in favor of creationism.  Rather, the debate is over the basis for determining whether or not scripture is infallible.  More fundamentally, the issue is whether belief should be based on received authority or on objective evidence, since there is no objective evidence to support the literal truth of scripture.  

It is futile to try to persuade a creationist to accept evolutionary theory based on objective facts and rational argument.  Any hopes of persuasion must come, instead, by convincing individuals, not that evolution is true but that scripture is not.  This is a manifestly daunting task.  After all, as a friend observed years ago, a belief that was not arrived at through rational analysis is not subject to change based on rational argument.  And perhaps it’s not worth the effort, at least for me, particularly with those individuals who have held creationist beliefs since childhood.

But it is not futile to pursue such an understanding with those who have not been indoctrinated in an authoritarian approach to belief.  We need to focus on teaching the value of reliance on rational analysis of evidence and the application of the scientific method rather than reliance on received authority.  This is the very definition of skepticism.


© 2016 John M. Phillips

5 comments:

  1. I read clear through your very well written article. I am so sorry to say I didn't understand much of it. I have to take God on just one faith

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    1. Wanda, I'm concerned as I thought the essay was pretty clear. What did you not understand? Maybe I can clarify or simplify. My goal here was to communicate.

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    2. It still amazes me that normally rational people require evidence when it comes to most everything in their lives, yet when it comes to the most important question concerning their lives, they find facts and evidence unnecessary, leaving only blind faith as their guide. It's the equivalence of skipping class and expecting an A.

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  2. I agree with your conclusion that the way to enlighten a creationist is to first discredit their original beliefs, particularly their ancient texts. And the best way to do that is to get them to actually read their holy books.

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    1. Good point, Ted. However, my success in dialoguing with creationists has been dismal. What I meant to get across in the essay is that, while we may not be able to change the beliefs of most long-term creationists because of their commitment to believing in the infallibility of scripture, we can make sure that the next generation are properly educated in critical thinking. We can make sure that they are taught that the best way to understand the world is through insistence on objective evidence and scientific investigation rather than on acceptance of authority. In other words, teach them to be skeptics.

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