Why I won’t debate with a creationist. And what to do instead.



debate on stage

Bill Nye trounces Ken Ham in debate, and helps save the Creation Museum from bankruptcy. A triumph of reason, or a Pyrrhic victory? Opinions differ

Recently, here, I publicly refused an invitation from a creationist to debate our respective standpoints. I gave the usual reasons; it would look better on his vita than on mine, and I saw no advantage in publicising his absurdities. This even though he most graciously offered to allow me to nominate someone else from the British Centre for Science Education, if I did not myself feel up to the intellectual challenge involved.

On reflection, I feel that I was less than open, and that the dilemma posed may have some more general relevance to education about evolution, which is why I am discussing it here. In brief, the kind of debate suggested is not symmetrical. There are more ways of being wrong than being right, and the scientist is constrained by reality, while the creationist is constrained only by plausibility. Creationist arguments revolve round memes that have undergone prolonged Darwinian evolution, and such memes when successful do not disappear merely because they have been logically refuted. We tend to believe what we are told, especially if we are hearing it from a speaker dignified by a public platform. Critical evaluation of complex arguments is always difficult, and in areas that we have not studied can approach the impossible. The spoken word, above all, is fleeting; we have time to form an impression, but not enough for critical analysis, making it the perfect medium for the seemingly learned non sequitur. Speech is also the natural medium for the rhetorical trick of equivocation, an apparently convincing chain of reasoning that depends on sliding from one meaning of a word to another. We cannot rebut creationist claims without publicising them, and rebuttals sound too much like excuses. In any case, rebuttals cannot possibly be more memorable than the claims rebutted, and the very act of debate suggests an intellectual balance that does not in fact exist.

Some of these problems still persist in writing, but less so, and I was tempted to present here a brief rebuttal of the few specimens of creationist nonsense that I have come across recently. Claiming that Intelligent Design isn’t creationism, pretending that macroevolution is still speculative, anomalous dating of coal deposits, irreducible complexity, information requiring an intelligence, the Missing Link (actually found in 1924), polystrate fossils, that kind of thing. And then I realised that this would be a singularly futile exercise. Most of my readers can do this just as well for themselves, while the dissenting minority will merely echo more long-refuted creationist myths, or, in the case of one reader, generate new myths of his own, and engage in tedious verbal trench warfare to support their positions. No opinions dented, and nothing learnt.

How then to proceed? I would suggest starting from the fact that people tend to believe what they want to believe, and want to feel comfortable with their beliefs. So a two-pronged approach. Make creationism less comfortable for the creationists, and make scientific reality more comfortable for all of us.

My contribution towards the first of these goals is to point out, as I have here already, that creationism is blasphemous because it requires a God who lied in the Great Book of Nature. As an atheist, I have perhaps poor credentials to argue this point, although I would say in my own defence that it was my own position when, many years ago, I was myself a believer, that I seem to have struck a chord among some of my believing friends, and that similar sentiments have just now been independently and eloquently expressed, albeit more graciously, from within the community of believers.

As for the second of these goals, one promising technique is to render evolution personal, by connecting it to our individual development in the womb, or our individual ancestry, or to the parallels between biological evolution and aspects of cultural and historical development, not all of them benign. Recently, some outstanding books have appeared using these approaches, and I will be reviewing them here early in the New Year.

All of this has serious implications for me as I contemplate my next major writing project.

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on December 20, 2014, in Creationism, Education and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. An excellent piece Paul. You never stop.


  2. Reblogged this on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin and commented:
    It speaks for itself!!


  3. I would suggest that the people who should be debating the Creationists is’nt the atheists but rather those who share a common core of ‘faith’ but accept evolution as true.
    So the more enlightened ‘Christians’ should be working to bring their Creationist brethren out of the dark ages because it makes Christians look so silly!
    Similarly, surely the Creationists would be better served trying to pull back those ‘lapsed’ Christians who have fallen for the Evolution story …

    All about going for the low hanging fruit!

    We atheists are similarly better served approaching those on the edges of their religion. Those who already have doubts, to show them that stepping away entirely is actually a good thing!


    • Actually, I see no point in trying to persuade people to abandon their irrational beliefs (one of my colleagues in my project of affirming evolution believes in the Virgin Birth, another in Free Market capitalism and I am not going to budge this). I concentrate on the core principle of acknowledging reality, and if that gives believers problems, they are their problems, not mine.


  4. It’s always better to define the topic as narrowly as possible. I’d only ever debate on the subject of creationism if the topic referred to creationism as wanting to be equal to science. That way the burden is on the creationist to provide substantial evidence for their own position and any attempts to discredit evolution can be discounted as that’s not the issue being discussed. Any arguments put forwards that rely on the ‘flaws’ in evolution can easily be turned around as the creationist actively lowering the standard by which their own opinion must reach.


  5. Seems you rediscovered the perils of the Gish Gallop: http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Gish_Gallop


  6. “people tend to believe what they want to believe, and want to feel comfortable with their beliefs”, YES – and what their group believes. So, first we need to tell a good story – critical skills and “scientific method” come later.
    Religious education in schools is blocking both parts. We need to change RE to telling the best story of humanity that we can, including how religions arose and their strengths and weaknesses – not in order to win an argument, but because good education is both necessary and also a moral responsibility .


  7. I have to second the idea of trying to show creationists that evolution doesn’t threaten their belief in God. If you google me you’ll see I have a paper in a theology journal where I make the case that theists need evolution in order to account in part for the problem of evil.


    • I’ll check it out. You will know, although some readers may not, that there is by now a whole tradition of “evolution theology”. My own amateur apologetics; a world run by laws is better than one run by a succession of arbitrary miracles. No mutation, no evolution. But most mutations are harmful (cancer is caused by mutation). Darwin (autobiography http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?viewtype=text&itemID=F1497&pageseq=1 p.89) argued that both pleasure and suffering are evolutionary adaptations, but evolution required pleasure to predominate, otherwise living things will give way to depression (he actually used that word).


      • John O, having read your piece, it seems I am just restating the idea that a causally ordered universe is better than one that requires continual miacle-working, combined with what you call Theistic Evolutionary Theodicy. Unfortunately, the most obstinate theistic creationists will disagree with you because they regard acceptance of soteriology as essential, or else. How to budge them? Or, since that is impossible, discredit them?


    • I’m catching up with my homework.I’m now seriously compiling materials precisely for teachers who may well be believers and will certainy be fielding questions from believers in their classes. So I’d be very happy to google you; but “John O” isn’t a precise enough search term. I look forward to learning more


  8. evolutionist many times will not talk about how DNA and genetics really work as Steven C Meyer does in his book Signature in the cell, they just claim Change takes place over time because of faulty genes, Not true!


    • Quite right, Martin. How dare those Nobel Prize evolutionists disagree with Stephen Meyer (PhD in philosophy; undergraduate degree included no life sciences but some geology), who knows, as they do not, “how DNA and genetics really work”?


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