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.