I was talking to a friend about being sceptical about being sceptical, and he raised the question: “where’s the harm in creationism?” Creationism is offensively stupid, of course, but then so are lots of other commonly held beliefs – like that anything Paris Hilton (2016 update: any of the Khardashians. Paris Hilton has lost her appeal, it seems) does is interesting and should be monetised – which are equally stupid, but probably don’t do much harm. Other –isms – racism, sexism, sectarianism, homophobia-ism – are clearly harmful and can be directly linked to discrimination, ethnic cleansing, rape, murder, war….Those are isms clearly worth combating – but is creationism anything to get het up about? What did the creationists ever do to us?
A good question, and it got me thinking. Here is why I think creationism is damaging. I’m talking here about Abrahamic creationism – mainly because that’s the only kind of creationism that I have any theological grounding in: I was raised as a Christian. There are lots of other versions of creationism (the ones involving Raven and Halibut are part-way convincing), but I guess one set of creationists aren’t prepared to co-opt other sets’ versions to work towards a general theory of creation.
So, where’s the harm in creationism? What did the creationists ever do to us?
1) It supports lots of the other –isms.
Sexism: Woman was created secondarily to Man, and therefore inferior and subservient to Man.
Speciesism: Man was created master over the rest of creation.
Racism: the curse of Ham falls on people with dark skin (‘a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren’*) – no, wait: that is in Genesis, but it’s not really part of the story of the Creation, which ought to end with the abatement of Noah’s flood, if not with the expulsion from Eden.
Sectarianism: no, that’s probably post-Holy Scripture.
Condemnation of same-sex acts: biblical, but not part of the creation myth (though it could have been: lots of creation myths have the creator making several false starts before getting humanity right; so there could have been a version in which God first created two same-sex individuals, rather than a man and a woman, and then decided that that wasn’t a good basis for procreation. Missed a trick there, 5-10th century B.C.E bigots.)
But then many evolutionists are just as bad. The eugenics movement developed alongside, and as a natural extension of, really, the theory of evolution. The (mistaken, admittedly) notion that some species and races are ‘more evolved’ than others is used to justify speciesism and racism.
There’s a whole genre of sexist evolutionary thought. You know the kind of thing: women evolved to have better colour discrimination than men because back in the old hunter-gatherer days, out on the savannah, those women with excellent colour discrimination were better able to choose the right colours to use to knit** effective camouflage garments for their mates, which enabled those men to go out and kill more sabre-toothed mammoths than those who had partners with mediocre colour discrimination, and therefore raise more offspring. Conversely, men are more stupid than women because back in those evolutionary days, you had to be stupid to go out trying to kill sabre-toothed mammoths when you could easily have raised (rather fewer) offspring on worms and beetles. Evolutionists have a problem understanding same-sex relationships, too: what’s the point? However, I think you can model an evolutionary advantage to having a gay uncle (a lesbian aunt probably enhances infant survival odds even more). So, from the point of view of harmful isms, there may not be much to choose between creationists and evolutionists (though maybe not all evolutionists are as bad as evolutionary psychologists).
And don’t get me started on Social Darwinism.
2) Some of the big problems and dangers which face us depend on evolutionary mechanisms, and if we don’t understand or believe in those we could be stuffed.
One of those problems is species loss and reduction in biodiversity, and the food security risks of genetically limited monocultures. Reasons for thinking these things are dangerous depend on at least some acceptance of evolutionary processes (though presumably lots of good creationists got the point of the Irish potato famine at the time).
From a creationist point of view, what’s the problem?
Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.
And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food. Genesis 1: 28-29
There you go; we’ve been given it, and it’s there for us to exploit AS WE THINK FIT.
Well, you’d hope that a sensible creationist would think that even if the rest of the world was created to serve humanity, that doesn’t mean we can trash it with impunity – and for less sensible creationists, surely any act of deliberate or negligent extinction is blasphemy? Do we really have the right to destroy what God saw fit to create?
Of course, selective breeding itself ought to be a problem for creationists. Obviously it can’t work, because the mechanisms we use (artificial selection) are too close to the natural selection which doesn’t work and doesn’t modify organisms. Or if it does work, we shouldn’t do it. Modifying that which God saw fit to create in all its perfection has to be blasphemous, again. Every heavily overbred bulldog is an Abomination Unto The Lord (they’re probably right on that one***). This interpretation seems logical to me, but I’ve not heard it raised by creationists, though it does appear in John Windham’s post-apocalyptic novel The Chrysalids.
The other evolution-based problem that’s worrying me is the evolution of antibiotic resistance in common bacteria. Here’s somewhere where lack of belief in evolution and natural selection will surely kill our grandchildren. This one in itself is enough to condemn creationism.
Having said that, the bland refusal to bother with scientific stuff shown by our ruling and communicative classes is just as dangerous. Last week, I heard an interviewer on Radio 4’s Today programme, interviewing an expert about antibiotic resistance, twice saying that antibiotics had become less effective because ‘our bodies have got used to them’. The second time he said it, the interviewee gently (much too gently, I think) corrected him – but such cluelessness can be as dangerous as creationist resistance. I blame Oxbridge education.
3) Creationism sets a bad intellectual example, which may warp people’s ability to cope with other aspects of the world. Ever since Darwin, what we’ve discovered in all kinds of areas apart from the zoology and botany he was mainly using for evidence – geology, physics, molecular biology – has fitted in with the general notion of the change and diversification of organisms and the age of the earth, most spectacularly in genetics and molecular biology, where we’ve understood the mechanisms for processes which Darwin could only infer, and plate tectonics, where we understand the mechanism for a process which seemed necessary to account for the distribution of living things (and rocks) over the surface of the earth, but which, even in my lifetime, seemed manifestly impossible. By and large (there are always complications in science) the evidence FITS, even in areas which seemed to have little to do with the original thesis****.
If you’re prepared to deny all that, you’re prepared to deny almost anything in science, and probably everyday logic as well. So a the cast of mind which allows a belief in creationism (or, more accurately, denial of evolution and the age of the Earth) is a serious intellectual handicap which can spread to all kinds of other areas of life, with potentially damaging effects, like starting wars to protect ourselves from Weapons of Mass Destruction. Put more simply, creationism is monumentally stupid, and choosing to be monumentally stupid is a hazard to your health, and probably to the health of those around you.
4) Creationism is a subset of a wider problem: literal belief in every single word in the Christian Bible, as the word of God. One problem I have with this is that I can’t find a solid provenance of the fully divinely Authorised Version. I’ve read lots of English versions of the bible, which are all translations of translations, as far as I can make out, and different versions say different things, and I know that in the past people were put to death for asserting that some sentences in the bible should be translated one way rather than another. But maybe that can be put aside as an epistemological problem for believers which we non-believers don’t have to worry about.
But have you seen what the Bible says outside of Genesis?*****
Leviticus 11: 30 forbids eating ferrets and chameleons, which seems fair enough, but 11: 23 forbids eating flying creeping things with four feet (which are extinct now, though not as a result of evolutionary pressure), and 11: 10 bans lobster bisque and moules marinière, which is going a bit far.
Leviticus 19: 19 bans linen/wool blends, though the abomination that is cotton-rich seems to be spared.
More seriously, Leviticus 19: 33-34 says:
And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
– which rules out any anti-immigration policy. Exodus 35: 2 says:
Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a sabbath of rest to the LORD: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death.
This should be grim news for many workers in modern retail.
The New Testament is worse. We are encouraged to undermine the economic and moral order:
Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.
Matthew 5: 44
(The quotes above are from the King James version: authenticated by the King as the Lord’s agent on Earth at that time.)
So, apart from decimating fine dining and retail, the Bible requires us to welcome immigrants, sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor, and do good to those that hate us. That would hit the Home Counties like a Zombie Apocalypse. Imagine what the Daily Mail would say.
If creationists believed all this stuff, and acted on it, society as we know it would be in big trouble. THAT’S where the real harm in creationism would lie.
5) However, either most fundamentalist creationists don’t believe what it says in places like this in the Bible, or believe it and aren’t prepared to act on it – which seems like monumental hypocrisy. And, eventually, that may be the biggest harm: just as creationism is a training in intellectual inadequacy, claiming to believe and follow the Divine Word of God as set out in the Bible – but not doing so on matters like those above – is a moral failure, which softens people up for accepting all the other injustices, cruelties, prejudices and meanesses of life.
Many thanks to Andy Sutton for the original question.
* Although Wikipedia points out that in the original story (or factual account, if you want it that way), there’s no reference to Ham being Black, and Abraham’s curse is on Canaan (Ham’s son, or maybe the nation descended from Ham’s son), not on Ham himself: “And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.” (Genesis, chapter 9)
** Yes, I know that’s pastoralist, but it’s a shame to get historical accuracy get in the way of a good evolutionary psychology story.
***And the hairless cat is Satan’s Work Right Here On Earth: http://www.thefeaturedcreature.com/2011/12/6-strange-breeds-of-hairless-cats.html
**** Note that this is strikingly different from modern cosmology, where developing research and theory has led to more and more weird notions because the evidence doesn’t fit. Dark matter and dark energy do seem very like theological inventions to explain away awkward reality, and not that unlike celestial spheres. Doubting the big bang theory because of these counter-intuitive accretions is probably unjustified, but does make intellectual sense.
***** West Wing fans will know that I got most of the ideas for this bit from ‘Bartlett’s Quotations’: http://westwing.bewarne.com/second/25admonitions.html