How to talk to creationists

by woceht

Only in the US, where science and life and religion is conflated.  Sigh.  I’ll preface this post with I don’t have the answers, so any insight shared in the comments would be much appreciated.  For folks reading this from outside the US, you may want to read the Wikipedia entry on creationism for some relevant background.  Basically it is a belief that everything on Earth was created by a supreme being.  There are variants of this, some of which are not contradictory with modern scientific understanding.  But there are religious people who interpret the bible literally and believe that the earth is 8000 years old and that all life was created by God; these are the people I’ve had problems with in the biology classroom.  To me creationism clearly falls under the realm of spiritual beliefs and therefore discussions ought to lie in theology classrooms.  But somewhere in the past, some fundamentalist religious sect posed it as an opposing theory to the scientific biological concept of evolution, which resulted in much of the confusion we see in the US today.  You can’t test a faith-based belief system in the same way you can test material observations scientifically, so contrasting the two as alternative theories seems rather pointless to me.

I met a bona fide young earth creationist the other day.  A first for me.  This happened in a workshop on evolution at a local aquarium.  We were talking about ways to incorporate evolutionary concepts into the aquarium.  One of the the ideas was to provide evolutionary relationships and phylogenetics as an overarching organizing framework while discussing the different phyla during volunteer training.  This was when one of the participants piped up and said something to the effect of “Why do we need to do this?  It would turn off people like me for whom such concepts conflict with my beliefs.  As a young earth creationist I can still share my knowledge of what these beautiful organisms are, without going into relationships which I don’t believe in”.

My initial reaction was dumbfoundedness.  Of course I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that people like this, and people like Michael Behe exist, but I guess I just never expected to encounter one in person.  And I had never thought about what I would say to them.  Thankfully the guy leading the discussion was able to diffuse the situation leaving everyone’s egos intact.

After some thought, my feeling is that it’s cool that the creationist in the audience felt brave enough to pipe up.  It is a very different viewpoint.  And definitely a minority one in that room.  I would love to chat with her more about her beliefs, but am not sure how to follow up.  How do you have a conversation with someone who has such a wildly different frame of reference?

The next thought, regarding her question, is that the aquarium is going to have to decide if they are a science institution or a religious institution.  If they are scientific then they have to go with the peer reviewed scientific literature, which includes phylogenetics.  At this point, some of the people I’ve discussed this with have interjected with “Why don’t we just leave the phylogenetics out, like she suggests?”  My answer to that is that the concept of phylogenetic relationships is too important to leave out.  When you lose the organizing principle, all you are left with is a list of unrelated things.  It doesn’t make as much sense anymore.  It is not fair to penalize the bulk of the aquarium visitors, who come to the aquarium as a scientific institute and can stand to learn so much more about biology.  We owe them the complete story, not some lobotomized version for the purposes of being nice and politically correct.

Which brings me to the next point, on creationism in the science classroom.  Does it belong there?  And how do we deal with it?  From my opening spiel, it is clear I don’t think creationism belongs in the science classroom.  I have felt for some time now that there should be a clear distinction that creationism belongs in theology classrooms and should be kept out of science classrooms.  A geologist friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that she got her first student essay claiming that the Earth is 8000 years old.  So creationism seems to be successfully creeping into geology classrooms too.  She kindly offered a re-write opportunity for the student in question.  I think I would not have been so kind.  This is a science class in a secular institute of higher learning.  If you can’t follow instructions to cite sources from the scientific literature to write your essay, you should just get a zero for the assignment.  But there is also the bigger question of how to deal with students’ legitimate concerns about studying something that conflicts with their personal beliefs.  To this I only can say the whole point of higher education is to learn to contemplate and discuss ideas.  Belief in the idea you are discussing should not matter.  Even if those students believe personally that all life was created by a supreme being in a day, they can still engage in an academic exercise in the scientific realm, discussing scientific evidence for the Earth being billions of years old.  Just like sociologists can study cultures they are not part of.  Conversely, I can also discuss spirituality with someone from the Christian faith in a theology classroom, even though I myself am not a Christian.

Perhaps making the clear distinction between theology and science, as well as gentle reminders that we can discuss things we don’t believe in can bring back a culture of mutual respect and understanding, and meaningful discourse that I feel has been somewhat lost.  As for whether some minds are simply too closed to even contemplate this, that remains to be seen.  Wish me luck.