Fundamental mistakes about evolution

By Phil Plait | September 11, 2008 10:36 am

Religious fanatics of the fundamentalist streak love to make up weird stuff about evolution. There’s no evidence, scientists are in disagreement over it, lots of scientists don’t believe in it, and on and on. It’s all lies.

One of my favorites is their trying to turn the tables, making it seem like evolution is a religion and therefore cannot be taught in schools. First, science is not a religion. It’s not faith-based.

Second, science represents reality. When you inform people about science, you are teaching them. You are not indoctrinating them. Some folks seem to miss this subtle point (subtle like an Alice Cooper concert is subtle, at least). However, James McGrath, a religion professor, makes this point very clearly. I suspect there is much in this world that Dr. McGrath and I would disagree on, but on this we are reading the same page.

Tip o’ the finch beak to some random BABLoggee who pointed me to this.


Comments (62)

  1. Dr Plait, try living in the Panhandle of Florida… You would get so much daily ammo to blast the anti-science crowd, you could probably write a volume of books… While those of us who read your blog on a daily basis (or try to read on a daily basis) appreciate what you are saying, the audience that NEEDS this information will shun you. You make them think! Thinking is dangerous!

    I am glad to see that Dr McGrath has intellectual integrity in this regard. Hopefully that bodes better for thinking human beings.


    Fundamentalists are like the pet shop proprietor in this Monty Python sketch:

  3. SLC

    I don’t think that Dr. Plait really understands the born again mentality, such as it is. I suggest that he mosey over to Jason Rosenhouses’ blog and look at some of the comments by a nutcase calling himself Jon S, a Kurt Wise wannabee without the Harvard/Chicago U. education.

  4. HOWTO: Talk to an Evolutionist Without Being Dismissed as Ignorant and Stupid

    It’s actually sincere!

  5. ELB

    I think part of the problem stems from the language we use when we talk about evolution. When I am asked if I “believe” in evolution, my answer is “no.” I don’t “believe” in any scientific theory. I accept or reject. I am either convinced by the evidence that the theory is correct or I do not find sufficient evidence to subscribe to the hypothesis presented. I happen to concur with many of the findings with regard to evolution. I

    In my opinion, “believe” is a word that should not enter into scientific conversation. I think that is part of the reason why nay-sayers find it so easy to argue that evolution is some sort of doctrine. Because we use the language of relgion when talking of science, they mistakenly assume that language actually applies.

    As I mentioned before on this blog, I live in the buckle of the bible belt. I have found it does make people think twice about the whole “evolution is a religion” nonsense. It may not change their minds, but I enjoy the puzzled looks I get when they try to think of a response.

  6. Thanks for noticing my post! I think the points commenters have made about the “born again mentality” are important and yet not quite on target. I was once upon a time a young-earth creationist. What changed my mind? Checking out the book Science and Creationism (ed. Ashley Montagu), in which biologists and other scientists took the time to show where young-earth creationism was not merely wrong but dishonest.

    It remains the case that, as long as people are convinced that their choice is between God and evolution, meaning and evolution, their profound personal experience and evolution, the Bible and evolution (with all of the aforementioned running together in their minds), very many people will reject evolution no matter how much evidence is persuaded. Ultimately it isn’t about the scientific information, but the claim they hear from the pulpit and elsewhere that evolution is at odds with the meaningfulness of their lives.

    That’s why, even though I try to point to the relevant scientific evidence whenever I can, I think the best I can do (as a religion professor and as a Christian) is to point out the falseness of these dichotomies and the problematic ways young-earth creationists treat Biblical texts (as well as the scientific evidence).

    I recently did a round-up of my posts on Intelligent Design, in case you’re interested in seeing if there is anything else we’d agree on! :)

  7. Greg

    Being an atheist, I am very much in favor of this “new” atheist movement to be more aggressive and assertive. The religious right has had their way long enough and needs some pushback.

    That being said, I will be happy when we can return to the Mills-ian days of “swing your arm wherever you want so long as it doesn’t hit me.” You know, the sort of foundational philosophy that went into our religion and privacy laws in the first place.

    But let’s be honest. When you sue to a University that will not accept your Bible-based biology course, your arm is hitting the country. When you try to elect leaders that want to rewrite the constitution with “the Bible in mind” (or whatever Huckabee wanted), your arm, again, is hitting the country. When you push religion into public schools, you are hitting not just secular people, but everyone who is not your religion. The other side makes the argument that secular law is anti-Christian… but that’s a distortion. Secular, pluralistic policy is both simultaneously anti-something-specific, and pro-everything-generically.

    Which brings us to the crux of the issue: their sect feels morally compelled to convert anyone, by any means necessary. This includes creating an alternate reality, indoctrinating masses of people into it, and forming an army of misinformed people ideologically opposed to understanding reality. It’s going to be a tough fight, and hopefully the British are right… “truth will out.” I just don’t know how. Science is a product of reason, the very thing this army is inoculated against.

    In other words, as nice as it is to read posts like James McGrath’s, in all likelihood it doesn’t change a thing. Sigh. Sorry for the length, I get worked up.

  8. Gnat

    Can I just say…loved the cartoon on McGrath’s website!

  9. Wayne

    @ Marc,

    Did you actually read the entire post you linked to? If not, I think you’ll be surprised by where it ends up. It could be more properly titled, “How to convince yourself of evolution without having a crisis of faith”, but that would sort of defeat the purpose.

  10. @Wayne,

    Two points for your powers of perception 😉

  11. RL

    I really loved the cartoon. I’ll have to check out more of James McGrath’s blog.

  12. Gary Ansorge

    There really is no dichotomy between spirituality and reason. Spirituality is the certainty that there is more to this reality than we can currently discern. Reason is the method by which we seek to discern reality more accurately, and, one might note, in a replicable fashion.

    GAry 7

  13. Blu-Ray-Ven

    the “is science faith based” is one of my favorite BA aricles, hits the nail on the head

  14. I like this poster (a few clicks away from the link you provided):

  15. I loved McGrath’s article. Finally a Christian that is not afraid of reason and science. Hopefully more people like dr>McGrath will come out and share their views with the faith community. Where Phil may not get an audience, someone like James McGrath will.

  16. kuhnigget


    Excellent point. I, too, cringe when I hear scientists and laymen (usually idiot TV “news”casters) bandy the world “belief” around as if it means the same as “accept” or “conclude.”

    A little precision on the language front won’t stop the creationists, but at least it will help prevent well-meaning rationalists from stepping into their traps.

  17. ELB (and kuhnigget), if you either accept or reject a scientific theory, you have no wriggle room. For example, the theory of the Higgs mechanism (which gives fundamental particles their mass) is part of the Standard Model, and therefore many physicists tend to “accept” the Higgs theory. Physicists also “accept” General Relativity. However, GR and Higgs are not on an equal footing when it comes to acceptance: GR has been corroborated to extraordinary precision, while the Higgs particle has not (yet) been found. You can add another category called “untested”, and then you are on your way to a more even-handed approach, in which theories can be rated according to their supporting evidence. If asked if you believe in a particular theory, you can then weigh the evidence and respond accordingly. In the case of Evolution: “given the overwhelming evidence supporting Evolution, I believe that the theory is in its essence correct”.

    I understand your reservation when your discussion partners latch on to your use of the word belief and turn it around to argue that science is a religion. However, it is not the term “belief” that is problematic, but the disingenity of the people using it in the way you describe.

  18. Marc,

    I very much liked your post on arguing with an “evolutionist”.

  19. Bunk

    I’ve always thought that your post about science not being faith based was one of your best and just recently used it on a local forum where I’m one of only a few who don’t think scientists are evil men in dark castles who alway run around going buwahahahahaaa and zapping dead tissue with lightning!

    I couldn’t get the direct link to “It’s Not Faith-Based” to work then and it’s still not working for me now. Is it just me? I can get to it by wandering through the archives. I’ve tried on Safari and IE7.

    I hope you don’t mind if I copied and pasted it, in light of my difficulty. I gave you proper attribution and listed the direct link, even though somehow it wasn’t working for me.

  20. kuhnigget

    @ Pieter:

    Yup to all, but in cases like this, people use the word “belief” to mean a very specific thing: not, as you or I might when we say ‘I believe this is correct,’ i.e. ‘I have examined the facts and they seem to support the hypothesis in question,’ but rather ‘the facts don’t matter because I have my belief and that’s all that counts.’

    Your average creationist (or above average TV talking head) can’t see the difference, and that’s where the trouble lies.

  21. Todd W.


    I can’t open the link, either. I get the following text:

    There is a problem with the page you are trying to reach and it cannot be displayed.


    Please try the following:

    Open the home page, and then look for links to the information you want.
    Click the Refresh button, or try again later.

    Click Search to look for information on the Internet.
    You can also see a list of related sites.

    HTTP 500 – Internal server error
    Internet Explorer

    That’s the same error I get when I try to open the Followup to the Ed Mitchell posts and one of the antivaxxer posts (Antivaxxers and the Media, I think).

  22. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    if you either accept or reject a scientific theory, you have no wriggle room.

    There are other options. (There always is.) You can accept or reject based on tests, while using beauty criteria such as parsimony to grade remaining theories.

    That would make Higgs provisionally used with the more parsimonious forms of the Standard model – with the possibility of rejection after tests in LHC. It would also make nonrenormalizability of gravity provisionally used with the parsimonious theory that is General relativity – with the possibility of rejection (likely demoting to a practical model) later.

    In neither case there is a need for belief as I see it, but for judgment, to weigh the theory against a few simple criteria. (The problem being that these criteria may allow objective weights, see the Standard model for cosmology choice of parameters, but are subjectively chosen among a larger set.)

  23. kuhnigget, just as with the use of the word “theory”, I think education is the key. I am not prepared to give up perfectly good terminology because some nitwits like to abuse it. I rather take an extra five minutes to tell them exactly how they are wrong (in a polite and friendly manner, of course). They either lern something, or they won’t listen, in which case they’re a lost cause anyway.

  24. Todd W.

    Here’s the thing with “belief”. For the average person who accepts evolution, belief is a perfectly acceptable word. To me, it implies that they accept it, but they have not studied the subject in depth, preferring instead to rely for the most part on those whose specialties lie in evolutionary biology. They don’t personally have all of the evidence that proves evolution, but they have seen some and find the explanation credible. I.e., they believe it.

    This is in contrast to faith, which is belief without proof.

    Just because some people choose to construe a word differently than what is intended does not make it a bad word or invalidate its use.

  25. What I can say I agree with is that wording is very important… Belief isn’t something that should associated with a science conversation.

  26. The following article is by Richard Bradshaw (Rev), Mental Health Chaplain, Teesside, England, which I’ve posted here from the No Answers in Genesis web-site (Click on my name for the link) that you lot here might find interesting:

    Creationism As A Thinking Disorder

    “Creationism is a curious phenomenon which calls for an explanation. Some would say that applies to all religious belief and maybe so, but there can be few philosophies in the modern West that display such intense irrationality; that require devotees to set their faces against such a vast body of modern knowledge – cosmological, biological, geological, anthropological. I was warned early on in my attempts to understand creationists that any attempt at debating with them is futile, and my experience confirms this, although I have had some perfectly civilised exchanges, verbal and written.

    “It is rather like dealing with anorexics; thin people who are convinced they need to lose weight, to the point of putting themselves at risk. Plonk them on scales and the scales are wrong. Show them their emaciated reflection in a mirror and they will still see a plump person. Reason with them and you are part of the conspiracy to make them obese. While anorexia is normally referred to as an eating disorder it is also, clearly, a form of mental illness, whose victims can be sectioned and force-fed to keep them alive – which they will interpret as cruelty. Anorexia is something that happens to other people; they are perfectly normal.

    “The parallels with creationism are as obvious to anyone who has engaged with it as they will seem outrageous to creationists themselves; which proves my point. Anorexics, victims of an eating disorder, cannot always be helped because the very condition leads to denial of what’s wrong with them; creationism we might say is a thinking disorder which also generates denial about its own irrationality. In their own eyes, creationists are sane and impartial, the competent scientists, the faithful interpreters of scripture, the true Christians. To everyone else their science is worthless and their religion deviant; and they can’t see it, so they’re crazy. They have a religious disability. You can do the equivalent of holding a mirror up to the anorexic, which is to quote the immense body of scientific and theological expertise proving their errors; but to the creationist, this simply proves that you are part of a Satanic conspiracy to undermine the true faith.

    “Pursuing the parallel further, I think it follows that certain approaches to creationism should be avoided. You do not arrange debates between anorexics and people with a properly adjusted body image; you call sickness by its name and attempt to treat it. They are mentally ill, so they’re not fully aware of what’s wrong with them; you make allowances for this. Humour them, up to a point. So with creationists: their thinking is disordered, they’re in denial about it, they’re convinced you’re out to get them, so to debate with them is not only futile, it’s actually inappropriate, because it treats them as equal partners in a search for truth and insight – which they are not. It will not help their recovery. Books and pamphlets that put both sides of the case, as though there are arguments for and against creationism worthy of equal consideration, are similarly misguided. This would be like publishing the anorexics’ argument for starving herself to death and weighing it respectfully against her consultant’s view that she’s a very ill person.

    “You do not, you cannot, respect an anorexics’ beliefs; you respect her as a person, which of course is quite different. Ditto with creationists; ridiculous though their beliefs are, it’s important to respect them as people. This will not be reciprocated. You may treat the creationist as a Christian, but he will not so regard you, unless you buy into his world-view, which you can’t. (If you don’t profess to be a Christian anyway you don’t have the same problem.) And you do not put the anorexic in charge of the food counter at Wal-Mart, because she doesn’t understand what a normal diet is: likewise, you don’t let creationists anywhere near a school curriculum because they don’t understand what education is, certainly not what science is. You don’t discuss this with them, because they think your intentions are sinister, can’t grasp that they might be honourable. That’s what having a disorder implies. The anorexic really is an overweight blob. Evolution really is an atheistic fantasy with no evidence to support it. Sure. Time for your medication.

    “There are really two issues worth discussing here and I think that those who are trying to cure the creationist disorder should concentrate on them, rather than on sterile debates about radiometric dating and imaginary subjects like “flood geology”. The first has to do with protection. Anorexics need protection from themselves; schools need protection from creationists. The debate was over long ago. The question to be asked is not whether creationism can be taught but simply how we can ensure that it isn’t taught. Anywhere, ever.

    “The second really interests me. Anorexia is a condition with causes, typically in the patients’ dysfunctional family circumstances. Understanding these can help towards a cure of existing victims and preventing the illness from flaring up in others. What are the conditions that give rise to the disorder of creationism? It’s not just the decadence and insularity of American fundamentalism, with its focus on Biblical inerrancy; although this doesn’t help, not all inerrantists are YE creationists. I think it’s a combination of fundamentalist culture, a particular personality profile, the politicisation of American religion and the polarisation of its popular culture. These streams feed the swamp in which the malarial mosquitoes of creationism breed. How can we drain it?

    “For God’s sake, for humanity’s sake if you don’t believe in God, isn’t it obvious? Liberals of the world, unite! The open, pluralist society which guarantees every one’s freedom – including that of creationists themselves – is under threat here. What does liberalism mean if not shouting from the roof tops: beware absolutes! Beware those who know they’re right! Beware those who can’t cope with shades of grey and who insist that everything is either black or white! Beware those who would send you to hell if you don’t believe in their God! There is more than one point of view on any subject and it’s a pretty boring subject on which there are only two!

    “Fundamentalists, creationists, sectarians in general, can be perfectly charming people: but their underlying position is unavoidably arrogant, and that’s the great danger. They know they’re right. Liberalism is, or should be, about humility; but it doesn’t preclude conviction. It doesn’t have to be woolly. I know what I think, you know what you think, but we could both be wrong, or only partly right: let’s talk about it and by discussing what divides us arrive at a truth greater than either of us understood before. I believe in one God, you believe in another God, and she doesn’t believe in God at all. Isn’t that interesting? Let’s discuss it and see where we get. It might be that we all finish up believing in something none of us do just at the moment: such as (and how many creationists dare play with this thought) whether or not there is a God, whether God can sensibly be said either to exist or not to exist, may not be the issue. Perhaps the question really is: how does “God” language work for me, and how does her “no God” language work for her? Do we perhaps have more values in common than we realise?

    “Liberalism is a precondition of cultural health. Liberalism provides for the flourishing of science. Absolutist positions, whether rooted in religious or secular ideology, lead to totalitarianism. Call it the Taliban, call it Stalinism, call it creationism, call it the Spanish Inquisition, any mindset that believes it alone has the truth and damns all opposition to hell, is the enemy of the free society. As someone once said, we need seekers after the truth, but protection from anyone who is dead certain he’s found it.

    “For the evil of creationism to triumph, it is only necessary that all the good liberals do nothing. And perhaps, with Ken Ham’s new museum drawing crowds not all of whom can have paid their entrance fee just to have a laugh, now is the hour for liberals to gird their loins.
    Though I could, of course, be quite wrong about that.”

  27. Torbjörn, when you introduce the other options (with which I agree), you move beyond the on/off button accept-reject that I was criticizing in the first place. And the difference between what you call judgement, and belief based on evidence (a Bayesian approach, if you want to be specific) is hardly substantial: In both cases you make a measured (possibly even numerical) estimate of the truth value of the theory under consideration.

  28. Ruprecht

    Roger Penrose wrote (in “The Emperor’s New Mind”) that all theories can be divided into three categories, to wit: 1 Superb, 2. Useful, 3 Tentative.

  29. RL

    1. There’s always wiggle room.

    2. Words have meaning and context is a part of their meaning. The word belief has many meanings. One such definition has a spritual context (accepting without proof) but there are others. When having technical discussions I use the word belief but it is always in a clear context. “I believe this to be true…” Meaning that I have the facts but think I may being missing something, (I have interpreted the facts to mean this or that). Since I’m not 100% sure, I’ll almost always choose the word belief to convey some uncertainty. If I am 100% sure, then I’ll say that its true.

    The meaning of all this is that the word belief has use in scientific discussions.

    3. ANY word or text can be taken out of context. For any purpose.

  30. There’s no wriggle room in an either/or statement.

  31. Christopher Ferro

    All this discussion of “believe” and “belief” is silly. Of course I “believe” in evolution… I do not have the skills or education or time to read through all the books and journals required to know all of it. I “believe” it because I trust that the people who DO know and who WROTE the journals and books followed the evidence and came to logical and consistent conclusions.

    I “believe” the Big Bang theory best explains how the universe came to be in its current state. But I don’t have the personal knowledge or observations to evaluate all of it myself. I trust that others have done so. While what they’ve written seems self-consistent and logical, I have to trust that they have done the proper research and scientific methods.

    I believe viruses cause illnesses, but I have never personally seen a virus attack my cells and multiply and then document the effect all that virus DNA replication does to me. I trust that the doctors and disease researchers or whomever have followed a long line of scientific reasoning.

    That’s all belief is. It isn’t explicitly tied to religion or theology.

    In my humble opinion.


  32. Brad Morton

    What I don’t get is the fundies claiming they have to believe creation because they can’t just go around tossing out parts of the bible but I don’t see them out stoning their neighbours to death for working on the sabbath? If I was a god fearing christian I’d be out doing just that.

    Love your no BS attitude Phil!

  33. Will. M

    We’ve had this discussion about the meaning of belief (and in what context to use it) several times before on this post. I forgot who the poster was; the discussion was about science and evolution, and creationism and faith. He correctly pointed out that acceptance of anything, whether based upon many scientifically-substantiated proofs or merely upon faith, is belief. It took me four hours of reading and re-reading the chain of linguistic, philosophic, religious and scientific arguments for use of the word in its many contextual meanings before I came to agree with the original poster. Belief is acceptance is faith is agreement in every context where an assertion of personal opinion has to made about something – which is damn near all the time. “I know the sun will rise in the east tomorrow” is basically a statement of faith, no matter what you base your statement upon: scientific evidence or just because; it is essentially no different than the statement “I believe in an afterlife.”

    As to attempting to persuade anyone who has made up his mind about something that the contrary is real, actual or true: I simply don’t think it can be done, no way, no how.

    For several years I have been trying to persuade a friend about the venality and destructiveness of the Bush administration, totally without success. He was convinced that all Republicans are the salt of the earth and that all Democrats are the spawn of the devil. (He is now on the other side, sitting at the right hand of his god.) For all my demonstrations of the administration’s deceit, irrational decision making, etc., he would counter with anything he could find about some Democrat who did the same or a similar thing – usually the great Satan himself, Bill Clinton. But we argued our diametrically opposed positions mostly in good humor. Now I know this is only anecdotal evidence, not subject to extension to all folks like my friend. I also know this friend was college educated, hip technologically, was a skilled mechanic for General Motors for twenty years before he became a high school teacher, and never watched anything beyond Fox News because he didn’t believe anything the “liberal press” said.

    In my readings of this blog and of other, politically oriented blogs, I think it would be safe to say that there are some folks who will never change their belief for any reason. Perhaps that kind of conviction was what made the martyrs martyrs. Personally, I think anyone with such absolute convictions must be flawed somehow, either emotionally, mentally, psychologically or genetically – perhaps all of them.
    And it is for those reasons that I wholly agree with the Rev. Richard Bradshaw as posted above.

  34. Ivan3Man – thank you for posting that. It’s one of the most intelligent things I’ve read in months. Ceratinly makes a lot of sense.

  35. Grand Lunar

    I’m glad to be a product of evolution. Makes me proud. Even prouder to have once been part of a star.
    You ought to write a blog entry about our ultimate origins, Phil; our atoms being made in the center of stars that are now long gone. I think it’d be cool.

    To me, it’s too ridiculous to entertain an idea that we were created; our bodies has so many faults, it’s amazing we managed to survive as a species for so long. Well, maybe not as long as other species have.

  36. I just quickly scanned some of Dr. McGrath’s ID posts. There’s some good stuff there.

  37. SLC

    I think that Reverend Bradshaws’ take is pretty much on the money. As evidence, I am posting the following article about Kurt Wise, Un. of Chicago BS in geology, Harvard PhD in paleontology (thesis adviser Stephen J. Gould), young earth creationist, written by Richard Dawkins. If somebody as intelligent as Dr. Wise can be so brainwashed, what hope is there for the average born again with average or less intelligence.

    Sadly, an Honest Creationist
    by Richard Dawkins

    The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 21, Number 4.

    Creation “scientists” have more need than most of us to parade their degrees and qualifications, but it pays to look closely at the institutions that awarded them and the subjects in which they were taken. Those vaunted Ph.D.s tend to be in subjects such as marine engineering or gas kinetics rather than in relevant disciplines like zoology or geology. And often they are earned not at real universities, but at little-known Bible colleges deep in Bush country.

    There are, however, a few shining exceptions. Kurt Wise now makes his living at Bryan College (motto “Christ Above All”) located in Dayton, Tennessee, home of the famed Scopes trial. And yet, he originally obtained an authentic degree in geophysics from the University of Chicago, followed by a Ph.D. in geology from Harvard, no less, where he studied under (the name is milked for all it is worth in creationist propaganda) Stephen Jay Gould.

    Kurt Wise is a contributor to In Six Days: Why 50 Scientists Choose to Believe in Creation, a compendium edited by John F. Ashton (Ph.D., of course). I recommend this book. It is a revelation. I would not have believed such wishful thinking and self-deception possible. At least some of the authors seem to be sincere, and they don’t water down their beliefs. Much of their fire is aimed at weaker brethren who think God works through evolution, or who clutch at the feeble hope that one “day” in Genesis might mean not twenty-four hours but a hundred million years. These are hard-core “young earth creationists” who believe that the universe and all of life came into existence within one week, less than 10,000 years ago. And Wise—flying valiantly in the face of reason, evidence, and education—is among them. If there were a prize for Virtuoso Believing (it is surely only a matter of time before the Templeton Foundation awards one) Kurt Wise, B.A. (Chicago), Ph.D. (Harvard), would have to be a prime candidate.

    Wise stands out among young earth creationists not only for his impeccable education, but because he displays a modicum of scientific honesty and integrity. I have seen a published letter in which he comments on alleged “human bones” in Carboniferous coal deposits. If authenticated as human, these “bones” would blow the theory of evolution out of the water (incidentally giving lie to the canard that evolution is unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific: J. B. S. Haldane, asked by an overzealous Popperian what empirical finding might falsify evolution, famously growled, “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian!”). Most creationists would not go out of their way to debunk a promising story of human remains in the Pennsylvanian Coal Measures. Yet Wise patiently and seriously examined the specimens as a trained paleontologist, and concluded unequivocally that they were “inorganically precipitated iron siderite nodules and not fossil material at all.” Unusually among the motley denizens of the “big tent” of creationism and intelligent design, he seems to accept that God needs no help from false witness.

    All the more interesting, then, to read his personal testimony in In Six Days. It is actually quite moving, in a pathetic kind of way. He begins with his childhood ambition. Where other boys wanted to be astronauts or firemen, the young Kurt touchingly dreamed of getting a Ph.D. from Harvard and teaching science at a major university. He achieved the first part of his goal, but became increasingly uneasy as his scientific learning conflicted with his religious faith. When he could bear the strain no longer, he clinched the matter with a Bible and a pair of scissors. He went right through from Genesis 1 to Revelations 22, literally cutting out every verse that would have to go if the scientific worldview were true. At the end of this exercise, there was so little left of his Bible that

    . . . try as I might, and even with the benefit of intact margins throughout the pages of Scripture, I found it impossible to pick up the Bible without it being rent in two. I had to make a decision between evolution and Scripture. Either the Scripture was true and evolution was wrong or evolution was true and I must toss out the Bible. . . . It was there that night that I accepted the Word of God and rejected all that would ever counter it, including evolution. With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science.

    See what I mean about pathetic? Most revealing of all is Wise’s concluding paragraph:

    Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.

    See what I mean about honest? Understandably enough, creationists who aspire to be taken seriously as scientists don’t go out of their way to admit that Scripture—a local origin myth of a tribe of Middle-Eastern camel-herders—trumps evidence. The great evolutionist John Maynard Smith, who once publicly wiped the floor with Duane P. Gish (up until then a highly regarded creationist debater), did it by going on the offensive right from the outset and challenging him directly: “Do you seriously mean to tell me you believe that all life was created within one week?”

    Kurt Wise doesn’t need the challenge; he volunteers that, even if all the evidence in the universe flatly contradicted Scripture, and even if he had reached the point of admitting this to himself, he would still take his stand on Scripture and deny the evidence. This leaves me, as a scientist, speechless. I cannot imagine what it must be like to have a mind capable of such doublethink. It reminds me of Winston Smith in 1984 struggling to believe that two plus two equals five if Big Brother said so. But that was fiction and, anyway, Winston was tortured into submission. Kurt Wise—and presumably others like him who are less candid—has suffered no such physical coercion. But, as I hinted at the end of my previous column, I do wonder whether childhood indoctrination could wreak a sufficiently powerful brainwashing effect to account for this bizarre phenomenon.

    Whatever the underlying explanation, this example suggests a fascinating, if pessimistic, conclusion about human psychology. It implies that there is no sensible limit to what the human mind is capable of believing, against any amount of contrary evidence. Depending upon how many Kurt Wises are out there, it could mean that we are completely wasting our time arguing the case and presenting the evidence for evolution. We have it on the authority of a man who may well be creationism’s most highly qualified and most intelligent scientist that no evidence, no matter how overwhelming, no matter how all-embracing, no matter how devastatingly convincing, can ever make any difference.

    Can you imagine believing that and at the same time accepting a salary, month after month, to teach science? Even at Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee? I’m not sure that I could live with myself. And I think I would curse my God for leading me to such a pass.

  38. Gary Ansorge

    AS an aside, Here’s Sarah Palin, in the snooze again:

    Palin leaves open option of war with Russia (AP)

    AP – Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin left open the option Thursday of waging war with Russia if it were to invade neighboring Georgia and the former Soviet republic were a NATO ally.

    I guess someone forgot to mention to her that Russia still has enough nukes to STERILIZE the whole bloody planet.

    I’m SO looking forward to this election. If the Repubs win, I’m going to Amsterdam and wait out the Interregnum.

    GAry 7

  39. Todd W.

    @Gary Ansorge

    Technically, if Georgia were granted membership in NATO, and Russia invaded them, according to the terms of the treaty, the U.S. would need to go to Georgia’s aid. Either that, or break the treaty.

    What concerns me more than adhering to the treaty is her stance that we should have “all options available” on the table for pursuing terrorists, including sending troops from Iraq/Afghanistan into Pakistan, even if Pakistan objects to such action.

  40. Grinspoon

    What’s the best way to respond to the question,

    “tell me one species that has evolved in to another?”

    Ive gotten this one, and going on about how species don’t give birth to other ones, and how its a very slow process. How do you define species ect? they all branched off a long time again.

    You get them asking the same question again. Anyone got a good simple response?

    Oh i heard a great one the other day, “they say birds evolved from dinosaurs, but then they tell us the dinosaurs all died out”
    I don’t know if the person was being stupid on purpose or serious..

  41. TheBlackCat

    “tell me one species that has evolved in to another?”

    You can tell them a bunch:

    Some examples I recall off the top of my head:
    Fruit flies reproductively isolated in the lab and given different selective pressures evolved into two different species. The same thing happened accidentally in a lab.
    Since the building of the London Underground roughly 100 years ago a new species of mosquito has evolved there
    Since they were introduced to a small pacific island 200 years ago a population of common house mouse has evolved into a new species

  42. TheBlackCat
  43. Greg in Austin

    @Will. M

    You said,

    “Belief is acceptance is faith is agreement in every context where an assertion of personal opinion has to made about something – which is damn near all the time. “I know the sun will rise in the east tomorrow” is basically a statement of faith, no matter what you base your statement upon: scientific evidence or just because; it is essentially no different than the statement “I believe in an afterlife.””

    I wholeheartedly disagree.

    Based on thousands of years of historical fact, based on the knowledge we have learned over centuries of mathematics, astronomy, and physics, and based on millions of hours of observation, the fact is, the earth rotates on its axis every 23 hours, 56 minutes, 4 and seconds. Because of this fact, the sun will appear to rise in the east tomorrow, regardless of our beliefs, and it has absolutely nothing to do with faith.

    “I believe that I will be here tomorrow to see the sun rise,” would be a statement of faith. “The sun will appear to rise tomorrow,” is a statement of fact.

    There is no historical data showing that there is an afterlife. There are no mathematical proofs, no calculations we can work out, and no way to observe if there is or is not an afterlife. There is no real way to test for an afterlife, which is why it is solely based on faith.

    See the difference?

  44. Kaleberg

    I’m with Philip K. Dick: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

    On the other hand, I’ve nothing against the colloquial usage of believe as in “I believe in evolution.” There’s no need to be pedantic. Yes, it is incorrect to say that bacteria evolve antibiotic resistance or computers add numbers, but it is perfectly reasonable to do so.

    As for the afterlife, I go with William Shakespeare: “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns”

  45. Dave Hall

    Grinspoon Says:
    What’s the best way to respond to the question,
    “tell me one species that has evolved in to another?”

    You any kin to the guy that wrote “Lonely Planets?”

  46. baryogenesis

    I saw Alice Cooper with a whack of friends all on acid in a club in 1969. He’s old. (ref to Phil’s 3rd intro paragraph).

  47. linusrp

    I usually try to use the word think instead of believe (as in I think that evolution is correct, instead of I believe that evolution is correct). To me believe smells too much of uncritical acceptance and not a critical look at the subject. To make matters worse, here in Denmark, it is much more difficult to avoid the word “tror” (danish for believe) since it more or less also means think :( If I want to avoid that word I will have to use the danish word for means (ie. that means so and so…) which, in all honesty, is not as convincing but and more or less make me look like someone who will not accept other explanations (it is often used as a statement of personal belief in a subject) or , depending on how it is said, makes me look like someone who cannot stand up for me own beliefs :s

    Danish language is, sadly, not always practical in discussions about belief.

  48. Hoshisato

    Today’s article in the UK Times newspaper: tries to argue “If evolution is presented as theory, not dogma, fewer children might turn away from science”. Enjoy :-)

  49. Darth Robo

    “But-but… they’re still Mosquitoes!”



  50. Will. M

    Greg in Austin:

    You still believe the data about the sun; you have faith that the data is fact. You cannot escape the premise that your conclusion about the sun is an either/or choice: what has been presented (to me) as fact IS or ISN’T reality, truth, fact, evidence, etc. You cannot divorce yourself, your mind, from the idea that the sun will rise whether or not you approve or disapprove, are concerned or indifferent, deny or accept. Once the premise that the sun rises is attached to a mental idea, it is either one or the other: the sun will rise because of the data or in spite of the data, both of which premises you have to believe.

    Perhaps the language is at fault. The confusion arises in the faith=belief definitions. Perhaps we need another word -credence?- to describe a belief in what we perceive to be reality, truth, factual, etc., as different from what we hold to be true on faith, without any such corroboration in reality. At any rate, this is a hair-splitting argument which went on for many comments in the old post on BA’s blog, and which generally obscured the main idea that science is reality-based and creationism is not.

  51. Greg in Austin

    For me, there is no confusion as to the difference. The ground exists. The air exists. The sun exists. I don’t have to believe it, those things exist regardless. Call it the Truth, or call it a Fact, or call it Reality or whatever. The important thing is there is a major difference between fact/reality/whatever-you-call-it and beliefs/faith/whatever-you-call-it.

    The difference is between Knowledge and Beliefs. Perhaps you don’t need to see a difference, and that is fine for you. I do need to know there is a difference.

    Some people believe in fairies, Santa Claus, the Wolf-man, and ET. I am not one of them. I like to read about them and watch them on TV and the big screen. I enjoy a really good fantasy/sci-fi/myth, and I am well versed in the genre. But those things are not real, which is why they are called “Fantasy.”

    So, I stand by my comment: “The sun will rise tomorrow,” is not equally comparable to, “I believe there is an afterlife.”

    If you insist on calling what I “accept” a “belief,” then I would agree only if your statements were less dissimilar. For example, “I believe the sun is, on average, 93million miles from the earth,” because that is what I have been told. I have not measured it, and I have only done rudimentary calculations on the orbit of the earth, days in a year, etc. That statement is based on reality, and can be verified, unlike “the afterlife” or “Wolf-man.”

    Does that make sense to anyone outside my head? 😉

  52. Willo the Wisp

    While it’s always pleasing to hear a theist informing themselves of the true nature of evolution, it strikes me as odd that one could reach such understanding and still believe that a god is necessary.

  53. edc

    so, you’d be against teaching pantheism?
    I was a long time atheist, then I got smarter.

  54. SkepTTic

    That Creationism As A Thinking Disorder is fantastic.

  55. SkepTTic

    Is Creationism mainly an American thing? I can’t recall seeing any sort of similar battle going on in Europe or the rest of the developed world?

  56. abb3w

    Actually, there is some Faith involved in Science. Specifically, that formal Logic is a valid basis for inference between propositions, that ZF-based Arithmetic is self-consistent, and that Evidence is connected to Reality. These are not particularly interesting propositions of Faith, nor are they particularly controversial in a philosophical sense; the leaps involved are smaller than from a 1s to 2s hydrogen orbital. They are, however, necessary.

  57. Davidlpf

    @SkepTTic, no there are creationists in all over place they just do not have numbers as they enjoy in the states. Also find a bit ironic that a nation in its consitution has clause against church and state that the issue of teaching a religious theory in school is still considered logical to some.

  58. Richard

    I note the singular absence of scientific facts and discussion here; merely statements of religious bigotry and ridicule. May I point out that personal attacks upon religious belief DO NOT equate to rigorous scientific effort and evaluation. Neither do flimsy philosophical fantasies regarding the origin of the species equate to truth.


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