by Art Hobson
NWA Times 28 May 2005
The 18th-century "Enlightenment" was a time when the supremacy of religious dogma, and such practices as executing religious heretics, were replaced by experience and reason as the best guides to reliable knowledge. Enlightenment values guided the founding of our nation and are part and parcel of science, technology, education, and indeed modern culture itself.
But experience and reason often reveal new truths, and religious fundamentalists--those who regard a literal reading of ancient religious texts as the most reliable guide to knowledge--are increasingly uncomfortable with those new truths. Thus we witness today a cultural clash between Enlightenment and pre-Enlightenment values. Fundamentalists of all persuasions--Moslem, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant--seek to turn back the clock. It is not yet twilight for the Enlightenment, but in America the forces of darkness are gathering around two key institutions: science and education. This cultural clash is most evident in fundamentalist efforts to replace our understanding of biological evolution with creationist dogma.
Scientifically, there is no debate at all. Scientists don't debate or even discuss creationist ideas in the scientific literature, except as an example of a dangerous pseudoscience (conclusions masquerading as science but not supported by evidence or reason). As President Bush's Director of Science and Technology Policy, Dr. John Marburger, puts it, "Evolution is a cornerstone of modern biology." An overwhelming scientific consensus supports the interconnectedness and evolution of all life on Earth. The evidence for the evolution of humans is especially impressive, stretching back over six million years and including over 20 different species of two-legged human ancestors since we branched off from the other apes. The evidence for evolution is broad and deep, and comes from biology, physics, chemistry, geology, anthropology, paleontology, archeology, and astronomy. The creationist campaign thus threatens all these sciences. In my own field, physics, creationism challenges radioactive dating, many other dating techniques, the big bang, the age of the universe, and the age of Earth, while distorting the laws of thermodynamics.
The fundamentalist assault on science and education has been winning. School boards are eliminating evolution or requiring teachers to teach creationism alongside of evolution--which is just like requiring teachers to give the flat-Earth theory equal time with the spherical-Earth theory. School boards order that anti-evolution messages be attached to biology textbooks. Science films that mention evolution are being banned from science museums. A state-supported creationist museum has been established in Eureka Springs. An estimated 50 percent of Arkansas science teachers do not teach evolution at all because of creationist pressures. Over half of all Americans do not believe that humans evolved from other animals.
How can creationists be winning when their scientific ideas have no merit? The answer is propaganda, politics, and perseverance. Creationists' religious fervor goes into fiery sermons, political activism, influencing and electing school boards, and writing popular books and magazine articles that can appear to be scientific but that are based on rigid ideology rather than experience and reason.
If creationists have a theory to replace evolution, they should follow the normal scientific process of presenting this theory in peer-reviewed journals. Except for a single paper, since repudiated by the journal that accepted it, creationists have not done this Creationists would like to believe that they are repressed by a dogmatic evolutionary establishment, but there is no repression; the problem is that creationist ideas are not backed by either evidence or reason. Many revolutionary theories have been published in the scientific literature and accepted. Examples include Darwin's evolution, the special theory of relativity, the general theory of relativity, quantum physics, neutrinos, the big bang, plate tectonics, dark matter, dark energy, and the accelerating universe.
The latest creationist ploy is "intelligent design," according to which life is too complex to have evolved by Darwinian processes. This is a rerun of the old "watchmaker" argument first proposed by William Paley in 1802 and discredited long ago by biologists. As Marburger puts it, "Intelligent design is not a scientific theory" because it offers nothing to replace evolution. If complex structures did not originate through evolution, then how did they originate? Arguing that God did it explains nothing, stifles further scientific research, and is beside the point because it doesn't tell us how a complex structure came to be complex. For example, did complex biological cells spring into existence suddenly, from nothing, and if so does this have implicatons for the accepted principles of physics?
The irony is that fundamentalists surely acknowledge that nature, the human brain, and reason are among God's gifts. What could be more Godly, for example, than the attempt by contemporary scientists to understand the creation of the universe by observing the heavens themselves? Did sacred revelation suddenly cease 2000 years ago? Indeed, it seems egotistical and presumptuous to allow creationist dogma to trump the evidence from both God's universe and our God-given brains. Why do fundamentalists so despise the notion that we are connected through evolution to the rest of God's Earthly creations, that indeed God created humans and evolution is the way he/she did it?
Creationism promotes the worst form of pollution, namely pollution of minds. A person who is convinced that eternal damnation is a possible consequence of rational thinking is likely to shun rationality, and thus forfeit the very faculty that most makes us human. As the Enlightenment forerunner Galileo put it, "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use." America's future will be dim if fundamentalists win their home-grown holy war.