Sunday, 25 September 2011

Creationism: why it is dangerous

Some time ago I went to observe a presentation given by a creationist from the UK. I did this out of concern about the first signs of this phenomenon in Malta. Some people don't see any problems with creationism. It's just a belief, they say. I would like to point out why creationism is a dangerous phenomenon.

First however I should clarify what I mean by creationism. All Christians and most religious people believe that God created the universe, and technically this is creationism. However the creationism I have in mind, and the creationism presented by this visiting speaker, is the belief that the entire universe, including the world and every form of life on it, was created over a literal 6-day period, approximately 6000 years ago. It generally includes the belief that, some time after this, the entire surface of the planet was completely covered by water, drowning every living thing except for the contents of one large boat, and that it is from the animals and humans that were on this boat, that all life on earth today is derived, from kangaroos in Australia to polar bears at the North Pole, from tigers in India to grizzlies in the US, from Inuit to Somalis to Nepalese.

Most Christians do not believe these things literally of course, but there is a strong lobby in certain parts of the world, notably the United States. It is from here that most creationist churches hail, and they have established "missions" around the world - including Malta - to spread their particular beliefs.
I'm all for religious freedom, but most religious beliefs are relatively harmless. Creationism is different. Consider for a while how many areas of science are contradicted by creationism: It explicitly contradicts evolution, which is a fundamental area of biology. It contradicts geology due to its insistence that the entire world is 6000 years old. It contradicts cosmology, since it insists that nothing can be more than 6000 light years away. It explicitly contradicts the big bang and the age of the universe. It contradicts radiometric dating, especially carbon dating. It even contradicts local prehistory - the age of the early megalithic temples would have to be rewritten, not to mention Għar Dalam and other remains.

Now, if someone is a pensioner, they can believe anything they like about the above and it's unlikely to affect their lives. If he or she is an adult with an established career that does not involve any of the above areas, they are unlikely to be affected either. However children are a different matter. Creationism contradicts almost all branches of science, which means that children would be denied a very important part of their education - education that ultimately translates into good potential careers, such as medicine, microbiology, physics, several areas of engineering and many others. After all, when people go to a doctor they want someone who believes in medicine, not someone who insists that the bacteria cannot possibly be evolving a resistance to antibodies.

These problems caused directly by denying science is only one aspect of the dangers of creationism. In the United States and other places, a more insidious danger is becoming more obvious. Creationism has created an atmosphere of "us versus them" between students and teachers. Students, especially teenagers, are already naturally inclined to rebel. When they are getting constant encouragement from their parents and priests to reject and ridicule the science that their teachers are trying to explain, this attitude affects all areas of education, and educational levels plummet across the board.

Of course, even creationists have abandoned several arguments they used to use, and steer clear of others. The creationist organisation "Answers in Genesis" has a webpage containing arguments that they feel are so discredited that their use is actually detrimental to their cause, and no creationists today argue that the world is flat. And yet, the Bible implies this in Matthew 4:8, where we have a mountain which is so high that you can see the entire world from it. Similarly, few Christians today literally believe that rainbows were placed there by a god who might otherwise forget his promise and drown everyone in the world again. Today we know a thing or two about optics, refraction, water droplets and so on, so we accept rainbows for what they are - colourful, beautiful but quite natural phenomena.

The problem with creationism is that it imposes a strict precondition on knowledge. Everything has to agree with a literal interpretation of every part of the Bible. Any evidence that does not is rejected, or must somehow be reinterpreted to fit. Rather than going for the most obvious and reasonable explanation, one must go to extreme lengths to fit the Biblical account. A simple example is, how did all the animals from the ark get to the various places around the world without leaving any individuals behind - no koalas or walruses in the middle east for instance. When asked what did the lions eat in the ark, some will even insist they were vegetarians back then. After all if you only have two gazelle you can't afford to let the lions run amok.

With science, by comparison, one starts with the evidence, and finds explanations to match. If the evidence is not what you expect or want to find, you have to accept that and revise your expectations. Just a couple of days ago as I write this, scientists working at CERN and Italy published preliminary results that indicated they may have seen a particle exceed the speed of light. This discovery, if confirmed, is shocking and will bring a significant chunk of physics crashing down, because they are based on the premise that nothing, nothing, can exceed the speed of light. And yet as this news sent shock waves through the entire scientific community, there is no sense of animosity. Certainly many have expressed doubts and speculated that we might still discover that it was some kind of mistake in the measurements, but if it is confirmed, then the affected areas will be revised or, if necessary, discarded and rewritten.

It is this willingness to admit to mistakes and correct them that sets science apart from creationism. By starting off with the assumption that they cannot possibly be mistaken in their, creationists attack the evidence and resist learning anything new.