Files from the Academic Fringe: Pt. 2 — Creationism


St. Richards, Patron of Biology Teachers

Read Files from the Academic Fringe: Part 1 — Scientism here.

In a humdrum secularist society, religion emerges as the life of the party. Yes, yes, Crusades and jihads and widows burned alive—all big time bummers, I know. On the bright side, religious worldviews breathe life into an otherwise inanimate and utterly pointless universe. It’s a good book you never have to put down. It’s sex before germ theory. It’s rum in a tepid punchbowl.

Weary of dry Darwinians, I decided to pay a visit to the Creationists.

It was October of 2012. I drove out of Nashville past farmland and swamps and into the wooded Kentucky mountains. Bright red leaves swept past me. The trees appeared translucent, shimmering, the blend of orange and green leaves creating strange illusions, as though Creation was decorated for winter’s arrival. A crushed coyote lay dead beside the highway, his paw limp over his sternum, facing the sky, a subtle smile on his snout.

Why have you forsaken me?

Why should I care?

I was out to find signs of intelligence among the proponents of Intelligent Design. Tennessee had just passed the “Monkey Bill” back in spring, which allows public school teachers to present arguments for and against evolution and Darwinism. Fashionable intellects were calling the South stupid—but then, they always do. Most wouldn’t know the difference between evolution and Darwinism if Lamarck were to smack them into the noosphere. (Hint: all toads are frogs, but not all frogs are toads.)

The event’s title struck me as clunky: “Science and Faith: Friends or Foes?” It was held at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and co-sponsored by The Discovery Institute: the academic backbone of the Intelligent Design movement.

In order to distance themselves from loud biblical literalists, Discovery Institute fellows strive to avoid specific religious claims. Their arguments are instead directed at perceived weaknesses in neo-Darwinian theory, such as the discontinuous fossil record or the low probability that random mutations could produce viable adaptations.

Their central claim is that certain levels of irreducible complexity are best explained as the result of a Mind rather than known natural processes, as with the bacterial flagellum or DNA itself. A few accept that humans descended from a single microbe through an apelike phase, claiming that evolution is the product of intelligent design. Whose design? Could be aliens, or a super-duper computer, or You-Know-Who. Mum’s the word.

This is not a religious conviction, they insist. It’s a hypothesis.

Despite these efforts toward scientific credibility, ID theorists are the laughingstock of academia and punching bags for the general public. And yet they carry on.

The Discovery Institute’s philosophy reads:

“Mind, not matter, is the source and crown of creation, the wellspring of human achievement. … In contrast, the contemporary materialistic worldview…of a closing circle of human possibilities on a planet of limited horizons summons instead the deadening ideologies of scarcity, conflict, mutual suspicion and despair.”

Ouch. I’ve got the beans if you’ve got the bullets.

* * *

The symposium was held in a chapel on campus. A local minister commenced the occasion and led us in prayer to sanctify the forthcoming lectures (so much for keeping the Intelligent Designer anonymous). As usual, I kept my eyes open.

You find other members of the Godless Open Eyes Club by looking around as everyone else prays. I was surprised to find only one other member, St. Paul. He was a 26-year-old who’d lost his Christian faith to a New Atheist writer the previous year. It was a lonely time for the guy. Now everyone who meant anything to him was a Christian, with the exception of his father, Reverend Steve, also in attendance. Reverend Steve had recently been pushed out of his ministerial position due to his acceptance of Darwinian evolution. My kind of guys.

The first talks were given by two Discovery Institute fellows, Jay Richards and John West, whose stated goal was to defend “academic freedom.” West put it best:

“If God exists, it is highly unlikely that any one finite person, organization, or idea can adequately explain the fundamentally inexplicable.”

Zen koan, anyone?

John West is part political scientist, part preacher. His lecture reflected the dystopian vision which pits Creationists against the consensus. Many leading scientists deny God’s existence, and their opinions trickle down to the masses. As Richard Dawkins proclaimed, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Next comes eugenics and nuclear weapons.

West claims that Darwinism devalues human life, citing George Gaylord Simpson: “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”

Consider evolutionary psychology. Moral codes are not hard and fast—they evolved through natural selection, relative to various circumstances. E.O. Wilson once wrote: “Ethics is an illusion fobbed off on us by our own genes to get us to cooperate.”

To loosely paraphrase West: we find brutal survival strategies in the animal kingdom—murder, rape, adultery, infanticide. If these work for our primate cousins, why not for us? Darwin may have been magnanimous, but his magnum opus, subtitled The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, opened a wellspring of human cruelty and impolite humor.

John West spotlights John Derbyshire on the right wing: “The broad outlook on human nature implied by Darwinian ideas contradicts the notion of human exceptionalism … we are merely another branch on Nature’s tree.” Such thinking led Derbyshire to pen a “racist screed” claiming African Americans are disproportionately dangerous, due to genetics, for which he was ousted from mainstream conservatism.

John West spotlights Peter Singer on the left wing: “[T]he life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.” But is Singer actually trying to justify infanticide and bestiality here?

To be fair, Singer later wrote: “[K]illing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.” He also wrote: “[S]ex with animals does not always involve cruelty … occasionally mutually satisfying activities may develop.” As a result, Singer’s babysitting career is ruined and no one lets him near their pets.

During the Q&A, a pregnant woman with a thick Missouri accent—who wore a t-shirt supporting Rep. Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin (R)—took the microphone from West and delivered a stream-of-consciousness tirade:

“If a theorem is proven it’s a law … Evolutionary biolisists [sic] don’t want a cure … if a cure was found for cancer, AIDS, or MS, then they can’t reduce the population … they just want photos of your baby … Have you ever seen Gattaca?…” On and on. Conspiracy theories are the sigh of the oppressed creature.

Faced with this tinfoil hat monster—which he arguably helped to create—West forced an embarrassed smile and replied, “I think you’ve made some interesting points.”

Next up: How to breath life back into this soulless world.

* * *

Analytic philosopher Jay Richards took the podium looking like a Christian Ken Doll with supernaturally thick blonde hair. He says a big problem with modern science is that two of Aristotle’s “Four causes” are ignored.

Three centuries before Christ, the pagan Greek taught that phenomena are properly explained by four causes: a material cause, an efficient cause, a formal cause, and a final cause. To take a familiar example, I will use a glass of beer:

The material cause is the substance of the phenomenon: barley malt, water, hops, and yeast.

The efficient cause is the force which brought the phenomenon into being: a brewer steeps and ferments ingredients.

The formal cause is the phenomenon’s structure—its essence: a delicious glass of liquid gold.

The final cause is the purpose toward which a phenomenon moves—its teleological goal: to refresh the masses, loosen their tongues and belt buckles, and give them something to laugh about in the morning.

The same rubric could be applied to butterflies or brain cells, but as Richards explains, neo-Darwinism denies that efficient causes in nature are conscious, and it ignores formal and final causes altogether.

So there is no Creator, no ideal creation, and no purpose. It’s just a glass of beer and it’s half empty. Go cry about it.

Intelligent Design, Richards says, is a revival of formal and final causation in scientific inquiry, making science and faith compatible once again.

I found Richards’s talk to be fascinating, but others were not so sure. During the Q&A, a local scientist demanded to know what Intelligent Design has done to advance the study of colon cancer, or any other medical issue. The pregnant lady yelled “Christ help you!” at the challenger and yammered wildly before she was finally shushed.

Reverend Steve and St. Paul weren’t buying it either. One panel featured geneticist Ann Gauger, who suggested that common markers in Y chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA didn’t point to an archaic population bottleneck, but perhaps to Adam and Eve. Afterward, a frustrated Reverend Steve stood up in his pew and asked, “Have you ever considered publishing in an actual, legitimate journal?”

The crowd grumbled and hummed and hawed.

St. Paul invited me to have dinner at his family’s house that night. Although I was discouraged from bringing booze or mentioning atheism, it was a fine time. St. Paul’s gracious mother served a delicious lasagna with squash and a glass of juice. I also met St. Paul’s best friend, a seminarian, who was intensely concerned about St. Paul’s immortal soul. Personally, I was more concerned about a second helping.

The next night I found myself drinking at a hotel bar with Discovery Institute staff members. I invited St. Paul to join us, and to my surprise, he brought along a cute Christian girl he’d met at the symposium. She was starstruck by the illustrious company. “Don’t corrupt her,” I warned.

He smiled slyly.

The beers flowed freely, as did the conversation. Let me say something that the Creationists wouldn’t want me to say: despite their well-meaning prevarications, Intelligent Design is not simply a hypothesis for them. Whether correct, incorrect, or incomplete, the theory is an expression of their souls. And in my highest moments, I resonate with their morphogenesis—if you catch my drift.

When atheistic superstars like Carl Sagan or Richard Dawkins wax poetic about their personal cosmos, they are celebrated as heroes fighting religious intolerance. Somehow, mass media personalities are portrayed as rebel forces. On the other hand, these obscure Creationists are straining to fit in to that world—they bracket their personal views, argue from the facts, show respect to their opponents—and yet the cynical masses, perhaps shaking off a fundamentalist hangover, pile on and accuse them of perpetuating oppression.

I would suggest that religious scientists say “fuck fitting in,” but you know how it is: good Christians just turn the other cheek.

© Joseph Allen

Joe Allen

Joe Allen is a writer and fellow primate who wonders why we came down from the trees. A lifelong student of religion and science, he's also kept his hands dirty as a land surveyor, communal farm hand, kitchen servant, and for over a decade, by climbing steel as an entertainment rigger. His work appears in various outlets from left to right because he prefers liberty to security.

Daily interjections: @EvoPsychosis

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