More stupidity from Andrew Brown: creationism doesn’t come from religion

September 23, 2011 • 5:17 am

I always wonder why the Guardian hasn’t yet put Andrew Brown out to pasture.  Can there really be people who like what he writes? Even if you’re an accommodationist or faitheist, his arguments are so egregious, so flagrantly abusive of logic and rationality, that it seems embarrassing to be on his side.

His latest piece, “At least creationists have given it some thought,”  perfectly displays his mixture of faitheism (remember, the man is an atheist) and obtuseness.  Its point is twofold: that creationism doesn’t have anything to do with religion, and that scientists and unbelievers who sneer at creationists are both ignorant and misguided. Although the first thesis  seems flatly wrong (how many creationists do you know who aren’t motivated by faith?), Brown sees two other causes:

Last year’s Theos study, for example, showed something like 40% of the UK’s adult population unclear on the concept [of evolution]. There are also stupefying numbers for the proportion of the British population who think, or who at least will assent to the proposition, that the Earth is around 10,000 years old.

This is quite clearly not a problem caused by religious belief. Even if we assume that all Muslims are creationists, and all Baptists, they would only be one in 10 of the self-reported creationists or young Earthers. What we have here is essentially a failure, on a quite staggering scale, of science and maths education. The people who think the Earth is 10,000 years old are essentially counting like the trolls in Terry Pratchett: “one, lots, many”. Ten thousand is to them a figure incalculably huge.

I don’t think this particular innumeracy matters nearly as much as the related inability to calculate that, say 29.3% annual interest on credit card debt is in many ways a much larger and more dangerous number than 10,000 years. But you can’t blame either flaw on religious belief.

Okay, so this is a failure of science education, not the teaching of religion.  But if that’s so, then why aren’t people (Brits as well as Americans) up in arms about issues of chemistry and physics? And why do these people see a Biblical form of instant creation, and a 10,000-year old-earth, as reasonable beliefs.  Did they just pull those notions out of their heads, or do they, perhaps, come from exegesis of an ancient book?

Nope, Brown’s second excuse is that children are “natural creationists”, so creationism just comes from their tendency (one elaborated by Pascal Boyer) to find willful agency in the facts of nature:

You could perhaps blame it on human nature. There is a lot of good research to show that children are natural creationists, who suppose that there is purpose to the world, and that we have evolved that way. That needn’t worry teachers terribly much.

Well, yes, research does tend to show that young children do attribute agency to much of nature.  But those children are often inculcated with religious belief from the time they’re able to understand language, and the particular form of creationism that many children espouse (if you’re a teacher in the U.S., you can vouch for this) is religiously based.  Further, it is the persistence of religiously based creationism into the adult stage—after all, by the time you’re 20 you’ve had plenty of exposure to the arguments for evolution—that damages science education..

So what is the evidence that creationism has something to do with religion.  Here are three bits, two obtained by some quick Googling.

Here are data from a 2009 Gallup poll showing the incidence of belief and disbelief in evolution divided up by how how often the respondent goes to church.  The effect of religion is clear:

Here are data from a 2009 Pew Forum.  Check out the size of the dark, olive-green bar, which is the proportion of people who accept unguided, natural evolution.  The data are divided up not only by denomination, including “unaffiliated,” but also by frequency of church attendance:

Finally, a graph I made myself from data taken from the European Union and the paper on acceptance of evolution (from the 2006 Science paper by Miller et al.) in 32 countries.  The negative correlation is clear and statistically significant (the circled point is the US, #31 out of 32—above only Turkey— in acceptance of evolution).  Now this correlation could mean several things, including that those countries whose residents learn and accept Darwinism become less religious, but I think that the explanation is the other way round:  in those countries whose citizens are most religious, people are conditioned by their religious teachings to reject evolution.

The last part of Brown’s article is bizarre: not only does he draw a sharp distinction between students who are creationist because they’re religious rather than intellectually lazy, but says that that distinction is important in helping student accept evolution:

The distinction I am making here is one between being wrong, as the biblical creationist or intelligent designer is, and not even getting that far, like the wholly irreligious child who leaves school thinking, if he thinks about it at all, that the Earth is around 10,000 years old, and dinosaurs and cavemen probably did live side by side.

The question, then, is which kind of pupil does more harm in the science classroom. Is it the passionately wrong child, or the dully indifferent one? Which would you rather argue with, and which argument would teach the rest of the class more? . . .

. . . But let’s assume a classroom that has already taught the fundamentals of learning: where facts are true, whether you like them or not, and where arguments are examined on their merits, and not on the political force behind them.In such a hypothetical classroom, is it really a catastrophe if some child comes in and says that he knows evolution is false and gives some wholly spurious scientific explanation?

First of all, I don’t know of any teacher who would suppress questions about creationism from a student.  When that happens (rarely) in my undergraduate class at Chicago, I try to deal with them honestly and respectfully, showing why the creationist assertions are wrong.  And what does it matter if those questions come from a student who is religious versus simply ignorant? Both provide those vaunted “teachable moments.”

At the end, Brown simply can’t resist getting in a lick at the atheist anti-creationists (read “Dawkins”) for their hauteur and arrogance:

The experiment I am describing has to some extent already been played out over the last 30 years, on the internet. There, the arguments between “scientific creationists” and real scientists have resulted in the creation of a vast collection of arguments and facts showing that evolution is in fact observable, and, in a word, true. . .

. . . So perhaps we could stipulate that this material could be produced without sneering at the intellect and character, and without the ambition to crush their egos as well as to prove them wrong – ah, but that would require a different kind of education, in another classroom.

Umm. . . has Brown really read the wealth of material produced by scientists, popular writers, and educators to support evolution and dispel creationist arguments? Has he read, for instance, Why Evolution is True?  I don’t think he’d find a lot of ego-crushing and sneering in there, or in most of the other material designed to show the student why evolution is true and creationism isn’t.

The man is maddeningly obtuse.

96 thoughts on “More stupidity from Andrew Brown: creationism doesn’t come from religion

  1. The experiment I am describing has to some extent already been played out over the last 30 years, on the internet.

    Thirty years ago, Reagan had just taken office. It wouldn’t be until another year later that TCP/IP was standardized; in ’81, it was still ARPANET. You’d have to wait another decade before commercial ISPs started to come on the scene, and most of another decade still before the Internet was more dominant on university campuses than other networks like BITNET. NCSA Mosaic, the first graphical Web browser, wasn’t published until ’93.

    How can such blatantly obvious cluelessness get published?



    1. How can such blatantly obvious cluelessness get published?

      Easy. Telling people what they want to hear is big business. L

      1. Once upon a time, that sort of thing used to be filed under “fiction”….

        At least, I seem to recall that it was. Maybe I was just young an naïve then? I wonder how Brown would have characterized my youthful misconceptions.


      2. Well It’s Andrew Brown innit? He just loves to throw out this kind of provocative BS and let people get all upset about “his obtuseness”.
        As in “Alice in Wonderland” – “he only does it to annoy because he knows it teases”. Ignore him.

    2. I don’t think it’s quite as sloppy as you’re suggesting. While in 1981, the core was still the ARPANET, a case can be made that the “Internet” was born circa December 1974 with RFC 675, “Specification Of Internet Transmission Control Program”. Usenet NNTP traffic was gated back and forth to to BITNET as early as 1981, and to the more publicly accessible FidoNet starting in 1986.

      Also around 1986 was when the newsgroup was started, to concentrate discussions from elsewhere on Usenet that seem (from the Google Groups archive) to have begun as early as 1982. The process begun on via NNTP spread to HTTP via, which continues today to influence in turn discussions elsewhere via the WWW.

      So, 30 years is somewhat an oversimplification, but the Internet discussion predates the World Wide Web parts of the discussion. I’d consider the most clearly marked “start” of the flamewar^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H discussion to be the control message at 1986-09-05@17:25:45 EDT that created the talk.orgins newsgroup — just over 25 years now.

      Ergo, to one significant figure, 30 years is correct. Saying “over at least the last 25 years” would be easily defensible, but I doubt an Ombudsman would bother with a correction.

      1. Oh, I know full well that the Internet is much more than just HTTP{,S}. You’ll find me all through the USENET archives if you look back far enough, and even in some surviving LISTSERV archives from the BITNET days.

        My point is that the Internet itself hasn’t been culturally significant for more than a decade at absolute most. Going beyond that…well, I’m sure you could find some random pub or book club that’s been debating these topics as long or longer, but who cares? A small handful of nerds debating religious philosophy doesn’t mean jack in the bigger context that Brown’s trying to fabricate into existence.



        1. True, the the cultural significance of the Internet is more recent. Contrariwise, the debate has been ongoing within the confines of the Internet, even while those confines were of lesser cultural significance. As such, his claim that an experiment analogous to “some child comes in and says that he knows evolution is false and gives some wholly spurious scientific explanation” has been ongoing that long is somewhat justifiable, even if the experiment has not been run on a large scale the entire period.

          I agree that whether this sub-point supports his larger thesis is easily contestable, but I think the limiting of support is more from differences in the communication medium — largely asynchronous on the internet (allowing time for checking reference material), compared to real-time face-to-face response in a classroom.

          That said, I suspect a teacher could take advantage of the benefits asynchronicity allows, by maintaining the option to require that questions of the instructor’s choice be submitted in written form, to be addressed in a subsequent class. Contrariwise, this reduces “teachable moment” opportunities, and also might allow a creationist teacher to try doing something similar in the opposite direction…. though not, in the US, without risk of legal consequence.

    3. This is a bit of a pet peeve of my own. Saying the “internet” was around in the ’80s is like saying television was around in the ’30s. Technically true, I guess, but it’s not what most people are talking about.

      When it comes to the internet, most of us didn’t begin to experience it in any meaningful way until the ’90s, as you point out. But there are always smartasses around anxious to remind everyone that they were on ARPANET in 5 BC or something. Shut up, nobody cares.

      1. And, what’s worse, everybody old enough to drink knows it’s bullshit from first-hand experience.

        Yes, yes. The Wright Brothers flew a bit over a century ago and Armstrong stepped on the Moon in the Summer of Love. But commercial aviation wasn’t a part of common life in the West until a bit before the Apollo program, and, within rounding errors, 0.0000000% of people have ever even gotten a close-up look of a serviceable spacecraft.

        It makes as much sense to talk about now as the Space Age as it does 1981 as part of the Internet age.



    4. How can such blatantly obvious cluelessness get published?</blockquote.

      What we have here is essentially a failure, on a quite staggering scale, of science and maths education.

  2. I really can’t believe people are writing crap like this in the UK. It seems to me to be quite a recent phenomena, I don’t recall seeing it as I grew up.

    It reminds me of an otherwise placid creature that starts lashing out to save itself from the predator that is about to consume it.

    1. It’s worth pointing out to those unfamilar with Brown that his columns are usually means to single out Prof. Dawkins for criticism (I would guess it’s Dawkins’ success that really gets under Brown’s skin).

      When Brown soft-soaps the religious it’s invariably an excuse to attack one person. Whether he believes the balderdash he writes is a secondary question.

  3. “Creationists.” The whole point of creationism is that there is an alleged “creator.” How is that not religious?

    I took a glance at Brown’s article but don’t have a lot of time. Is simply calling any undereducated person a “creationist”?

      1. But does the “aliens seeding life on Earth” idea count as creationism? The Earth, the aliens, and the universe already exist in that “theory.”

  4. The negative correlation is clear and statistically significant

    But no r or p values? Jerry, for shame — saying that a correlation merely exists doesn’t tell one anything about how strong the correlation is, how much of the variability is accounted for by the one factor. If we’re going to complain about Brown’s science illiteracy, let’s make sure we present statistics in a proper fashion.

    1. r = -0.598
      r^2 = 0.358
      p = 2.97e-4

      For shame! The data’s in the figure. Just slurp it out using read.jpeg(),locator(), and lm() in R!

      Exercises left for the reader aren’t O.K.? 😉

      But seriously, any decent figure published at sufficient resolution contains sufficient information to get approximate values for the values that went into making them. If all you want is the correlation, you don’t even need to use lm() to change coordinates back from the device’s system into the figure’s system.

  5. Jerry you’re overreacting and getting too defensive. I didn’t see much that is objectionable about the article. You don’t get 10,000 year old age for earth from official catechism. No doubt you can get that from creationist sources. But do you really think creationist websites/publications reach 40% readership in the UK?

    The 30 years internet mention is a minor mistake.

    1. The 30 years internet mention is a minor mistake.

      No, it’s not.

      It’s only been a decade that the Internet has been something that “regular” folk have used. Claiming the Internet debate has been going on for three times that shows that he’s either really, really, really clueless and / or careless, or that he’s happy to tell a blatant lie to basically the entire Western world.

      If I said that being able to get real-time information about 9/11 on an iPhone as it happened changed the way we perceived it, you’d think I was barking mad. And yet, that’s no different from what Brown is claiming.



        1. Sorry, I’m not buying it. Read the very next sentence and it’s clear that the argument in question has taken place “there,” referring to “the Internet.”



      1. I think Brown is counting the past 30 years as part of the current evolution-creationism debate because the Arkansas State law that mandated the teaching of creationism was in 1981. Of course not until late 90’s did the debate really take place on the internet. But since then, the bulk of the debate and the materials are on the internet, which he thinks is a good thing.

        Brown said this (Jerry didn’t quote): “Some of that must have changed people’s minds or provided useful and vivid teaching material. That couldn’t have happened without the development of creationist intuitions into pseudo-scientific hypotheses. It really is an inspiring example of good ideas triumphing over bad ones – or it would be, if there had been any notable diminution of the number of creationists in the last 30 years.”

          1. revisionism of history?? sheesh. you’d think Brown said Bush didn’t start the Iraq war. At best he was unclear, at worst he got his number wrong. that’s not even his main point. make it 10 years. and his point still stands. and jerry still overreacted.

      2. Except he’s arguing based on duration of experiment, not that the base of participation was all of society.

        Of course, the difference in education/intelligence/instructability level of the swarm of undergraduates every (pre-1993) fall compared to the general population also puts limits on how much the comparison supports his thesis.

    2. Of course; if you take out what is blatantly erroneous (that creationism does not stem from creationist religions, see Coyne’s post) or what is mistakes, most every article cease to be objectionable.

      You don’t get 10,000 year old age for earth from official catechism.

      Why the order of magnitude of official catechism then?

      If it was a 1000 years or 100 000 years or more, it wouldn’t so obviously be tied to a compromise rounding off of religious dogma.

      It looks like the one being defensive instead of presenting facts would be you.

      1. All I see Brown saying is that 1 in 10 of self-described creationists are religious creationists. You can argue against the 1 in 10 calculation. But Jerry took this to mean: “creationism doesn’t have anything to do with religion”. He is objecting to something not said in the article.

        I didn’t know that official catechism even puts an age for the Earth. That kind of stuff comes from non-official “creation research” sources. Which again I doubt reaches more than a small minority of the population.

        1. It reached one-half of the graduating class of my secondary Teacher Ed. course in Pueblo CO, back in 1987. (by show of hands) N=200. Stunned, I asked the Prof. if it was always this way (I was young and idealistic). He said it was a typical result (and he’d been teaching teachers for 30 years).

          Just sayin’.

        2. He’s probably doing the calculation for Britain, and I’m not as familiar with data sources on that. He’s basing it by picking out (UK) smaller denominations particularly known for members being particularly religious, rather than considering religiosity directly – which badly weakens that part of his argument.

          For the US, however, the 2004 GSS data for CREATION=1 “God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years” versus strength of religious identification (RELITEN) indicates about 55% of creationists are strongly religious, 10% somewhat, 30% not very, and 5% religiously unaffiliated. Note that comparison between CREATION and the breakdown of a more nuanced poll question from the 2002 Ohio Plain Dealer poll on ID suggests that this (and the usual Gallup) response lumps young-earth and old-earth creationists together.

          While most official catechisms do not directly state the age of the earth, it for any catechisms that takes the Inerrancy of the Bible, the age follows from time spans stated in Genesis, Acts, and referents to external events dated by non-Biblical chronologies such as the fall of Jerusalem.

      2. btw it doesn’t seem like the survey respondents were asked to come up with a number. instead, they were asked if they agree with the proposition that the earth is around 10,000 years old.

        it would have been much more revealing if they were asked multiple choice of numbers.

  6. It should be remembered – not so much in defense of Andrew Brown – that there are many people who just don’t care that their beliefs are contradictory, that their knowledge of “boring science stuff” is pathetic. This isn’t even a failure of science education – its is a cultural defect that will take a lot of work to fix, work that involves more than science education. You cite the experience of creationists in your class. But those are people who bothered to take a biology class – at a premier institution like the University of Chicago – hardly a representative sample. How many people either never get through high school or just scrape by? Of those who get through college, how many went to 3rd- or 4th-tier colleges and took little or no science there? Not only have these people not learned much about science, somewhere they’ve learned it is perfectly OK to ignorte science. Science education won’t fix that.

  7. At least in the Guardian, the comments section is 100% against this pap (at least on the 1st page, last I looked). I’d hate to see a comments section in the Gazette Telegraph in my hometown, Colorado Springs.

    I bet the Guardian keeps publishing this douche for no better reason than to get a rise out of its readership. The Guardian is trolling their consumers. (spits)

  8. You stated it exactly: “Now this correlation could mean . . . that those countries whose residents learn and accept Darwinism become less religious.” This can be seen happening over the last 50 years where religion has been thrown out of society, and schools, museums, TV, etc. have been teaching (indoctrinating?) the public in evolution, and as a result the percentage who attend church has fallen into the single digits.

    This correlation also has been shown to be true by studies of conservative Christian youth who left the church after their teen years. About 1/2 of them stated that the teaching they received in school about evolution and the age of the earth was one of the reasons they left church, and began doubting the Bible and their faith.

    It seems that it is not so much religious belief that causes people to reject evolution as much as it is that evolutionary teaching undermines their religious belief.

  9. Actually, I’ve had students who say they’re atheist and who also don’t believe humans evolved from animals. (Other animals, we’d say, but they don’t.)

      1. I’ll hazard a guess that they think that the Earth and all its species have existed in their current forms forever.

  10. I think Brown is failing to distinguish between what I might call active vs. passive Creationism.

    I do think that children are naturally “Creationists” of a sort… even children who are not inculcated with these sorts of beliefs tend to display what some have called a “promiscuous teleology”, e.g. the reason it rains is for the plants to have something to drink. And many adults surely believe the Earth is ~10,000 years old, not out of a motivated religious belief, but simply because they have no fucking idea beyond knowing that the Earth is “ass-old”, and 10,000 years seems like a long time.

    But the difference is that naturally teleological children, and scientifically ignorant adults, will not put up the kind of resistance shown by fuckheads like the Discovery Institute when their misconceptions are corrected. If you take a non-religiously-motivated adult who has no idea of the age of Earth and just guesses 10,000 years, and you tell her, “No, actually it’s over 4 billion years,” she is not likely to invent all sorts of pseudo-scientific rationalizations why she is right and you are wrong.

    The brand of Creationism that doesn’t just leave people ignorant, but motivates them to concoct all sorts of retarded arguments to maintain their ignorance — the sole source of that “active” Creationism is religion. Well, and maybe some UFO nuts, but that’s pretty much an informal proto-religion itself, ain’t it? That’s IT.

    Brown is conflating contingent ignorance with deliberate ignorance. They are just not the same thing.

    1. Why do we want to call children who simply haven’t yet learned to think correctly about the world, or any other undereducated person a “creationist”? Are there a lot of scientifically illiterate folks out there? Sure. Are they all illiterate expressly because of religion? No. Should we call them all “creationists” and then insist “creationism” isn’t a religious notion?

    2. I have friends who are creationists (yes, it’s true – I have friends). We’ve had these discussions. One in particular understands that the science is on my side, but he just prefers to believe the creation stories as told by the bible. It’s too much work to actually understand reality.

      And since there’s no advantage to being a realist and no penalty for being a creationist within the context of his life, I really have no response to that.

      Yes, he thinks Rick Perry is the bee’s knees, and we’ve had discussions about that (like whether or not god was saying something important when Governor Goodhair prayed for rain and got fire). He’s also constantly sending me stuff about Obama that has me respond by sending him the Snopes link disproving it. And once or twice, he’s even apologized. So, small steps.

      But creationism is comfortable for him. It’s a well-worn shoe that fits just right. Even though he realizes that the science isn’t on his side.

      1. “he just prefers to believe the creation stories as told by the bible. It’s too much work to actually understand reality. And since there’s no advantage to being a realist and no penalty for being a creationist within the context of his life, I really have no response to that.”

        I have the same problem as you, but in reverse: My friend just prefers to believe the evolution stories as told by the secular scientists. It’s too much work to actually understand reality.

        And since there’s no advantage to being a realist and no penalty for being an evolutionist within the context of his life, I really have no response to that.

        1. Ah, but there is an advantage to being a realist. An entire world is opened up — a wondrous world of enlightenment.

          Hiding your head in the darkness is a choice, but a bad one. One that diminishes you to a tiny, ill-equipped primitive who thinks that the weather is controlled by invisible fairies.

          Yes, my friend is wrong, and is comfortable in his wrongness. And at this stage in life (he’s 70), there’s no compelling reason for him to re-think his tiny, constricted worldview. That he does so in discussions with me is to his credit.

          He knows intellectually that he’s wrong — it’s the emotional side of him that’s the issue. I suspect — as is usually the case with most Christians — it’s his fear of the after-death that’s the bottom-line issue. He can’t let go of his creationist views because it would interfere with his religious views on the after-death.

          What’s your excuse?

    3. N=1, but I was brought up without reliion and I don’t remember ever thinking things needed a Creator (though I do remember wondering if there were people in the radio, and having some ideas about where babies come from that are too embarassing to repeat here). And I remember setting a trap to expose Santa, by tying the stocking to a light switch.

      So I think that gullibility and scepticism are both taught.

  11. Not ALL creationism comes from religion. Unfortunately I know because of my family. One family member doesn’t accept organized religion but believes in “god” or “gods”. He didn’t accept evolution as he thought that this was just a matter of fallible human scientists just making something up (it is the old “if I don’t understand it, it must be BS” fallacy).

    He didn’t accept the Bible either (that was ALSO “just made up by men”) so he figured some god must have done it somehow.

    I’ve also met…wait for it….atheists who were evolution deniers. Don’t ask.

    But yes, there is a clear correlation between religiosity and creationism.

    1. If he thinks there’s some kind if god, that’s religious.

      Why should denying/not understanding evolution = creationism?

      My 2yo daughter is woefully scientifically illiterate. Is she a default creationist?

      1. yes she would be. evolution is non-intuitive. people not taught the science will naturally guess that some powerful agent must have created all living things – that’s creationism in a broad sense of the word.

          1. i wasn’t respondings specifically to the 2 years age. my point is that scientifically illiterate = default creationist. Before Darwin, all people were creationists. Not talking about christians — all people in history from the time humans could ask questions about origins.

            What is “actively positing a theory of a creator god”? you’re trying to narrow down the definition just to avoid using the label creationist.

            1. My use of my 2yo daughter is an example of reductio ad absurdum. If you follow the idea that scientific illiteracy all by itself = creationism to it’s utter conclusion, then you wind up with 1-minute-old creationists. Which is absurd.

              A less absurd example: I myself, as a result of my fundie, Mormon upbringing was not very well educated in the biological sciences. In my early/mid teens, I started to see that religion was manifestly a human creation. By my late teens, I was completely atheist, but still wouldn’t have been able to answer any questions about how evolution works.

              Where do you think the “create” in “creationism” comes from? You think I’m redefining “creationism” to mean “the idea that something created everything”? Lol.

              1. i don’t think it’s even correct to say that 2 year olds (much less newborns) are illiterate. they’re too young for the concept of literacy to even apply. so your attempt at reduction ad absurdum is somewhat.. er.. absurd. 🙂

        1. Yeah, I know this thread is old, but I call bullsh*t. First of all, why do you think that the default position is that the world had to have a beginning at all? I would speculate that a child would have a “world was always here” assumption just as often (if not more so) than a “world had to be created or born*” assumption. Second, I don’t think you’ve read much classical or enlightenment literature if you honestly believe that everyone before Darwin was a creationist. That’s so preposterous it’s not even ridiculous.

          *I noticed you left this option out too.

  12. I thought I made this point upthread.

    “Creationism” is religious. “Some supreme something-or-other created life, the universe, and everything.”

    Simply being uneducated is not the same. It’s dishonest of Brown to point at all the uneducated non-religious people and say “Look! Creationists! Therefore, creationism is not a religious notion! QED!”

    1. But he didn’t do that (point to uneducated people and call them creationists)!

      People described themselves as creationists. And all Brown did was point to the fact (this you can question) that only 10% are religious creationists. Therefore he concluded that the other 90% must be just ignorant of evolution.

      1. I’d be very interested to see the research/polling that led to the conclusion that 90 percent of people that actually call themselves creationist are not religious. Did they honestly, explicitly refer to themselves as creationists?

        The impression I get from Brown is that he’s taking the liberty of saying people who were found to be scientifically illiterate in some way, shape or form (say, because they answered the poll question “do you accept evolution?” with “no”) “self-identified” as creationists.

  13. That sounds like a man who’s never tried to personally “educate” a creationist. Does he really think it’s as easy as showing them the facts and expecting them to change their minds? Good luck with that.

    1. Where did you see that Brown thinks “it’s as easy as showing them the facts and expecting them to change their minds”?

      1. Because he characterizes the problem as merely a failure of education, rather than the result of religious indoctrination.

  14. Readers might also want to note that Jerry’s chart treats the US as a unified point, when there are wild differences between (say) Oregon and Mississippi. A quick poke (via Berkeley SDA) at the GSS to compare variables EVOLVED(1=True) and GOD(6=Certain Belief) over United States census REGION(1-9) also shows a line that’s looks likely of statistical significance…. though, interestingly, of steeper slope.

    As I recall, something similar happens state-by-state, but I don’t have as handy a data source for that.

    1. …also shows a line that’s looks likely of statistical significance

      That wouldn’t happen to be the Mason-Dixon line, would it?

      Ba-DUM! That’s my time, folks. You’ve been GREAT! Please tip your servers and be careful on the roads out there…

      1. Actually I was kind-of serious there. I’d bet you’d see an urban-rural split at the county level (looking at a census tract map, say), and similar urban-rural splits at other scales. Seeing the whole lower 48, it would look like a Civil War map, mostly. Or simply call up the Red/Blue state maps from the infamous 2000 election. Prooove me wrong.

        1. “Mason Dixon line”. Cute.

          Yes, the problem is the South, likely (from other data, such as Pew) centered on Mississippi. Yes, contrasting EVOLVED and CREATION (the single year gives too small a sample) versus SIZE while controlling REGION shows the rural-urban split is also a factor; however, the rural south (regions 5-7, leans more strongly creationist than the rural non-south, and even fairly urban parts of the south can reject evolution fairly strongly.

          1. Far out. I bet we’re seeing the legacy of the Civil War, and the subsequent fleeing of their intelligentsia (and the concomitant decline of their University libraries) – much as Susan Jacoby has observed in her historical analysis.

      2. This is, actually, another way to prooove Andrew Brown is full of it. It’s a method we used in Colorado Springs to show that our study cohort of high-risk heterosexuals had little, if any, selection bias. Not only did they match on demographic and risk-categorical criteria, but when you mapped both study respondents against eligibles not interviewed, you got the same geographic pattern.

        The same thing could be done here, by mapping acceptance of creationism, religiosity, and party affiliation against an urban-rural chloropleth map (at any level, neighborhood, city, county, state, country, world). I would safely bet my left nut that you would get the same pattern no matter what you did. Works every time. The biggest outlier at the world level would, of course, be the United Dipshits of America. We’re always the exception. (being highly industrialized / urban, yet religious and creationist as it gets).

        1. Logit regression on region, religiosity, party id, and size suggests that the effects of size on creationism are mostly due to (or expressed more directly by) differences in the others.

          1. Not sure I’m getting it. By size – you mean geographic area – or general population? And differences in the others meaning… (I’m a bit dense myself. Sorry to ask to be spoonfed).

            1. GSS variable SIZE – population of the (city/town/village/farm) where the interviewee lived at the time of the interview, measured in 1000s.

              By “differences in the others”, I mean that the levels of creationist belief measured change with region, religiosity, and political party identification. Figuratively, if you control those to compare regions of different size but the same region, religiosity, and party ID, there’s no difference in creationism levels.

  15. “But if that’s so, then why aren’t people (Brits as well as Americans) up in arms about issues of chemistry and physics?”

    In a way, they are. The pervasive belief in, and passionate defense of all forms of alternative medicine and related woo, against all science that points to the contrary, shows people just don’t give a crap about what the facts are.

    1. It’s even more straightforward than that. As Captain Obvious would say, evolution, and all biological processes, are ultimately chemistry & physics.

  16. First, if I were a teacher, I’d prefer to teach the ignorant over the passionately, devoutly wrong. That seems like it would be much easier.

    Second, I think saying children are natural creationists is inaccurate. I think it’s much more accurate to say that children are natural animists and that can be easily channeled into other religious beliefs.

  17. comment by Vania at CifB, 22 September 2011 5:02PM

    I am pointing out that the people who bring it into science classes are children, for a variety of reasons, few of which can be religious (see the figures above).
    “Well, true, but the question that you posed was whether they enriched the conversation more than a kid quietly fiddling with their iPod at the back.
    “As a mathematics prof (granted undergrad Bachelor level, though), who practiced for two years in secondary, (10-14), and then high school (14-18) – different schooling system – I can tell you hand on heart that the child who aggresively questions: Why do I need to know this? Cheryl Cole never learned second degree equations, and she be doing well! (I don’t believe in evolution, as God made the world!) and the child who taps on their phone text are equally classroom damaging, and I would tackle both head on. Math is math, science is science.
    “Of course children may bring creationist beliefs into the classroom, but it is not for the benefit of all for these to be discussed in public, at the expense of facts. If one does so, one detracts from the purpose of the lesson and may never get to the ‘Earth is not 10,000 old’ part. Public discussion of religion in a science class, especially in gymnasium and highschool may expose that child to ridicule and bigotry. My purpose there, as a teacher is to teach them that the Earth is not 10,000 years old, and debating it with a confused or entrenched 12yo will not help me in doing so.
    “Education is to benefit all kids in the classroom, and going in the weeds does not achieve that.
    “If one kid wishes to debate further – and those kids who wanted to debate further I adored – one can approach them in private and explain why equations are useful; what one does with math and science, and how the second degree equation leads to their iPhone. Or, if you will, though that is harder, that God works in mysterious ways.
    “It is however not to the benefit of a public discussion.”

    coment by AndrewBrown, 22 September 2011 5:53PM

    “Incidentally, my question was not a rhetorical one, which is why I liked Vania’s input so much. And it was also about British conditions.”

    The question was, how do you handle kids in lower grades who are at least engaged. Should you crush their egos by telling them they are wrong, ignorant, retarded? The proposed answer: stick to the subject. Teach the science.

  18. “swipe at …(read “Dawkins”) for their hauteur and arrogance”

    As a child I was raised in a fundamentalist household in a fundamentalist community. A critical link for me to the world of science was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series which, ironically enough, came on right after Sunday evening church (we went twice on Sunday). The thing that struck me most about Sagan when he talked about religion was how calmly and mildly he put his case for atheism. This was the polar opposite of the many preachers in my life at the time, who spoke of everything with shrillness and, well, hauteur. Long before I was able to draw my own conclusions about the actual science I was won over by Sagan’s manner. So there is something to be said for tone, as a practical matter.

    I have read Why Evolution is True and I felt the tone was good, and I applaud you for that, because I know it’s tempting for the irritation with people’s willful lack of understanding of evolution to seep into one’s teaching.

    1. Don’t let Sagan’s relaxed speaking voice fool you — the words he spoke were no different in substance from those spoken by any of the modern crop of Gnu atheists. Or, for that matter, from those of generations and millennia earlier. Indeed, Sagan’s invisible dragon in his garage is an even more pointed and scathing caricature of religion than Dawkins’s use of Russell’s Teapot.

      All that’s “new” about the Gnus is that they’ve made it onto the top bookseller lists.

      Centuries before the Caesars, Epicurus made it impossible to seriously propose a benevolent god of any variety — and Plato had made it clear that morality cannot have its source in the gods, either. The Christians blithely ignored both, and continue doing so to this day. So, why should one be surprised that the arguments with the foolish and primitive superstitions haven’t changed any more than the superstitions themselves?

      Just as you don’t need any sort of modern, sophisticated reasoning to debunk the Flat Earthers, you don’t need anything new or exciting to debunk religion. We’re not still debating the possible existence of the largest prime number…I just wish I could figure out why we are still debating the possible existence of the equally-impossible greatest prime mover.



      1. We’re not still debating the possible existence of the largest prime number…I just wish I could figure out why we are still debating the possible existence of the equally-impossible greatest prime mover.

        I see what you did there! Neat.


  19. Although Brown’s article is muddled, I confess to a bit of sympathy for his point in one regard. Outside of the scientists I work with, the greatest number of people I know are completely indifferent to science. Science is trivia to them, at best. Asking them how old the earth is falls on them much like asking them how many leaves there are on the olive branch the eagle is holding on a dollar bill. Given a multiple choice question, they will pick some answer, but it’s a stretch to say that they even have anything like a “belief” on the topic.

    So I find this irony in my own personal life. I much more enjoy conversations with fervently religious people that I disagree with than with the indifferent who nominally agree with me, and for exactly the reason that Brown gives: at least they care, and so at least I can have a conversation with them about, say, the age of the earth without them dozing off. I wouldn’t say that it’s better to have such people in the classroom, say, but I do find them more interesting at a party. It saves me from talking about my lawn, or insurance. For that matter, on the occasions I have, with relatives and such, to visit various churches, I find that I enjoy going to fundamentalist churches more than more fuzzy churches (e.g. United Church of Christ). Even though I disagree with almost everything said from the fundamentalist pulpit, they are at least saying something that I can engage with. In other places, it seems, nothing at all is being said. But I prefer them both to the guy who’s concerns do not go beyond cars, beer, insurance, and the sort.

  20. “I always wonder why the Guardian hasn’t yet put Andrew Brown out to pasture.”

    For a moment I thought I was going to read:

    “I always wonder why the Guardian hasn’t yet put Andrew Brown out of his misery.”

    That would have been a bit harsh.

  21. You could perhaps blame it on human nature. There is a lot of good research to show that children are natural creationists, who suppose that there is purpose to the world, and that we have evolved that way.

    As I see it, the problem here is that Brown evidently defines “religion” as “organized religion,” and seems to feel that if a church pulls its doctrine from tendencies in human nature, then the doctrine isn’t really “religious.” You can find it in or out of religion.

    I would instead argue that supernatural beliefs are religious in nature — whether these anthropomorphizing, teleological, egocentric assumptions have been channeled into a specific doctrine or not. Organized religion exploits what is already there: it encourages it, promotes it, reinforces it, and sets it in stone. But the child’s instinctive sense that “someone” must have made the moon is a religious sense.

    It is also wrong. Religion just takes as a given the idea that our childish tendencies are reliable guides, a deep wisdom. Not necessarily.

  22. There is something to this. I’ve noted before on PZ Meyers blog that New Atheists are too quick to explain creationism with levels of religiosity and that the surveys to measure acceptance of creation vs. evolution are questionable.

    The option “Humans and other living things have … Existed in the present form since the beginning of time” doesn’t imply creationism. It in fact contradicts Creationism just as much as it does contradict the theory Evolution.

    Theistic creationism claims after all that only God existed in the beginning and that he created living things later on.

    The notion that living things existed right from the start is perfectly consistent with atheism and it is more reasonable than theism, which adds another unnecessary and unobserved entity named God. (thus failing Occam’s razor)

    The problem with these surveys is that they assume that everybody strongly identifies with a position somewhere on the spectrum from evolution to young earth creatonism. Ignorance, indifference and altenative ad-hoc explanations are not considered.

    Here’s the comment I posted at PZs.:

    “As an Austrian, I seriously doubt that 45% of my compatriots are creationists. There is no noticeable creationist movement in Austria whatsoever. Muslims make up about 5% of the population and evangelicals few and far between.
    I suspect that the question: “Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals.”, is too confusing.
    Why not simply ask something like: “Are we related to monkeys?”. I would predict a higher approval if it is framed in this manner.
    There is also the possibility that large numbers of people simply don’t have a theory of human origins whatsoever and don’t care or think about the issue.
    I don’t think that general levels of religiousity are that relevant to the question either.
    Many of the former communist nations had good education systems. Communism increased atheism and reduced religiosity, but it also opposed Darwinism and reduced economic growth.
    What is truly exceptional about the US, is that there is a large, influential, both populist and elite driven movement against evolution and for creationism that developed for idiosyncratic historical reasons.”

  23. Jesus Christ, I, a mere “resident moron” can’t possibly imagine why anyone would think Jerry Coyne guilty of sneering or attempted ego-crushing. No, of course not.

    Nor can I imagine why he thinks that American data explains or contradicts the result of a British survey.

    My argument is simple. If your purpose is to see a scientifically literate (or even simply literate) population emerging from English schools, then the problem confronting you is not religious belief. It is smug ignorance and wilful refusal to engage in argument. This is what’s wrong with British classrooms, and, apparently, some biology professors too.

  24. I think the most telling thing in this blog entry is the Gallup Poll results that show 35-45% of respondents simple don’t get a shit about evolution. After seeing that, I am actually more inclined to agree with Andrew Brown’s main thesis. Our main problem IS lack of science education!

    1. And why do you suppose it’s so hard to improve science education?

      Couldn’t possibly be at all related to the number of religious adherents in the government and on school boards that actively try to block evolution from being taught, could it?

    2. Lack of Science education?

      Or lack of quality in our education?

      There is a huge problem in our schools.

      We have thrown huge amounts of money at them. It used to cost twice as much at a private High School as it did at a public school …. now it costs more than twice as much at a public HS than a private HS.

      We are throwing huge sums of money at education. And we get very little in return.

      1. Perhaps it would cost less if science teachers didn’t have to spend time striving against the irrational and superstitious nonsense with which too many of their pupils have been inculcated by scientifically illiterate religious parents and pastors (and bloggers).


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