Brynn Craffey

Happy birthday, Charles!

Filed By Brynn Craffey | February 09, 2009 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Fundie Watch, Politics
Tags: creationism, fundamentalism

The 200th birthday of Charles Darwin is next Thursday and may I be the first one on Bilerico to wish a rousing "Happy birthday!" to the distinguished British naturalist, whose brilliant "On the Origin of Species" threw religious fundamentalists into a tizzy they're still refusing to conclude?

The United States stands alone among modern western nations in that roughly half its adult population still disbelieves in the theory of evolution.

In case you are one of the many who don't realize that the word "theory" in this context does not convey uncertainty, let me clarify. In a scientific context, "theory" refers to an explanation or prediction based on a body of evidence that is under scientific examination. It can be a new theory with weak supporting evidence that is eventually discredited; or, as in the case of evolution, a theory that is firmly established by two centuries of investigation, experimentation, and supporting evidence.

To put it another way, any scientist worth his or her salt accepts evolution as a scientific fact.

But not half of American adults. Unsurprisingly, the percentage is even higher among religious fundamentalists, a portion of whom believe the Earth and humanity are between six and ten thousand years old. Scientists, on the other hand, date the Earth at approximately 4.5 billion years old, with life having its origins about 2.5 billion years ago, and modern humans approximately 200,000 years ago. Among believers in a "young Earth," are Americans who also believe that humans walked the planet with dinosaurs. Among them are fellow voting American citizens who actually believe dinosaurs still live: and I don't mean in the evolved form of birds.

Meet "Dr." Richard Paley of [Mt.] Fellowship [Baptist] University Theobiology Department. (Hat-tip to Crooks & Liars.) Dr. Paley is so certain that Apatosaurs, Plesiosaurs, Pterosaurs, and Velociraptors (yes, as in "Jurassic Park") still walk the planet that he's putting together an expedition to Africa to bring back "living specimens of pterosaurs or their fertile eggs," to display "in a Pterosaur Rookery that will be the center piece of the planned Fellowship Creation Science Museum and Research Institute (FCSMRI)."

Deep breath... OK. Paley and his co-religionists represent a wingnut fringe in America. Among them are those who brought us Proposition 8 in California and anti-LGBT legislation across the states. That a single, functioning adult can believe in the pablum some of these folks do is astonishing; Mt. Fellowship Baptist Church has a congregation full of believers. And while their website is either accidentally or intentionally guarded as to where they are geographically located, they could be anywhere in America. San Diego County, for that matter, has a "Creation Museum."

How can the US hope to contend with an ever more technologically complicated and competitive world when more Americans believe in the existence of angels than do in evolution?

How can we hope to pull ourselves out of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression when our elected representatives and mainstream media have allowed the conservative purveyors of the failed economic policies that got us here in the first place have a large role in writing the legislation to ostensibly reverse the catastrophe?

Far too many Americans are scientifically illiterate, unable to identify fallacious and/or illogical arguments, and woefully ignorant of history, geography, simple mathematics, current events, the fundamentals of our Constitution, and the basic structure of our government. Our corporate-controlled media, attentive to right-wing demagogues and dominated by Republicans and their talking points, panders to and perpetuates this ignorance.

Is it any wonder, then, that the repudiated Republican minority has determined the public discourse over the two-week debate on economics and Obama's stimulus package?! That they are now obstructing and rewriting that legislation in a form that Nobel-Prize winning economist Paul Krugman fears will render it too little, too late?

If people believe in living pterosaurs--and angels!--then why not believe that further tax cuts will reverse our economic collapse?

Charles Darwin must be rolling in his grave.


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Opposite the Title Page of Origin of the Species Mr. Darwin included the following quote from Francis Bacon:

Let no man . . . think or maintain that a man can search too far or be too well-studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works . . . but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficiency in both.

Lest we enlist Darwin in an argument outside of his context it might be helpful to remember that he began his study of nature and died a man of faith. He sought that we not look at nature or God too simplistically.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | February 9, 2009 1:28 PM

Greg, although it is not central to my argument here, from what I know, Charles Darwin died an affirmed agnostic, not as you say, "a man of faith."

To put it another way, any scientist worth his or her salt accepts evolution as a scientific fact.

Even though I agree basically with your above statement, Brynn, that is not to conclude that the theory of evolution is now complete. It is true that there are parts of evolution theory that are still being worked out, the most controversial of which is that some living mechanisms are so complex, and are so far removed from anything similar design-wise, that the complexity and uniqueness are difficult to explain plausibly by any mutation-and-natural-selection process.

This is exactly the point at which anti-evolution activists suggest Intelligent Design, a theory which itself has many flavors, some more "intelligent" than others. While the notion that God created the Universe during a six-day period 6000 years ago is bunk (unless, of course, he was so crafty as to create the Universe as if it had evolved! ... a suggestion that might give any evolution activist a moment of pause ...), it is still possible that some type of Divine Intervention is going on as this or that DNA codon mutates in this or that direction ... and how in the world will science ever test for such intervention? If divine miracles happen at quantum levels that are impossible for us to observe (and the existence of such levels is exactly what quantum theory states) then how will science ever rule out (or rule in) the question of Divine Intervention?

I present this argument for a number of reasons: (1) Although most Intelligent Design activists are religious idiots, not all of them need to be, and (2) the Intelligent Design question is deeper than most evolution proponents admit, and (3) the different camps on this debate are not all mutually exclusive: it is possible to be a theist who believes in evolution (such as Francis Collins); and even at that, it is possible to be an evolution theist who either does or does not also believe in various versions of Intelligent Design. One can believe that a Creator Intelligence initiated a Universe that was designed and destined to produce life entirely on its own without further dynamic guidance, or one can believe in a Creative Intelligence that guides the process at a quantum level on a day-to-day basis.

Finally, among the atheistic possibilities, one can suggest the "Many Worlds" hypothesis, that countless Universes exist naturally with many different combinations of physical relationships, but only a few (or maybe even only one) of those Universes are capable of producing life. The notion that we can be present to be observers only in one of these life-producing Universes is an obvious tautology.

gregC pointed out above that Darwin was himself a theist, and in fact he was distraught as it became apparent that so much of humanity would view his evolution theory as evidence favoring atheism. February 12, 1809 was not only the birthdate of Charles Darwin, but also of a famous American by the name of Abraham Lincoln. What a coincidence it is that two of the most important and controversial figures of the 19th Century would have been born on exactly the same day.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | February 9, 2009 1:44 PM

some living mechanisms are so complex, and are so far removed from anything similar design-wise, that the complexity and uniqueness are difficult to explain plausibly by any mutation-and-natural-selection process.

A.J. while it is true that the details of the theory of evolution are still being worked out, the "intelligent design" argument has been soundly refuted. Often, "intelligent design" proponents use the eye as an example. Scientists have no problem explaining the evolution of the eye--and other complex organisms or structures--through a mutation and natural selection process.

In fact, the idea that scientists cannot is simply part and parcel of the "intelligent design" myth.

Brynn, ultimately "intelligent design" is not a scientific argument, it is a philosophical one. Your example about the eye may be correct, but there are other examples of complexity and uniqueness that remain to be explained (as you admit, and this is not so surprising, actually, considering the enormity of the biological world).

My problem with the ID proponents is that they are trying to sell a religious/philosophical argument as if it were a scientific one. I am sure you will agree with me on this point, and share my disgust as well. But as long as one is willing to be honest about ID being a philosophical/religious train of thought and not a scientific one, I have no problem with it. In fact, I myself haven't entirely decided where I stand on it philosophically, but I will say that I don't see any way that it can be scientifically disproven. (In fact, Brynn, you claim that ID "has been soundly refuted" but I do not see how that can possibly be the general case --- it can only be refuted when a purely evolutionary explanation is found for a specific biological question at hand.)

As I said, many ID people are idiots trying to push an ultimately political agenda, and, I am sure, we both oppose them, and they deserve the ridicule you impose. But if one more honestly puts Intelligent Design into a classroom dealing with Religion or Philosophy, with only the briefest footnote in the Biology class (see below), then I believe it has a valid place in academic discussion which should be met with a modicum of respect.

When I say "briefest footnote" I mean that the early biology student deserves to be told, "This is Biology class, and here you will learn biology. If you or your family have different ideas because of religion or whatever, it is your duty, not mine as your biology instructor, to figure out on your own what you really believe. Having said that, I will teach you biology and nothing else, and when the mid-term and the final come along, you will be expected to show that you know it."

And if, Brynn, you choose to pick and choose regarding which Religion and/or Philosophy class you select to sit through, that is your right as well. But ultimately, I must ask you what your goal is here: Are you arguing to convince me to support evolution theory, or are you trying to convince me to be the most sure-footed of atheists?

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | February 9, 2009 3:28 PM

A.J., when I say that ID "has been soundly refuted" by scientists, I mean that scientists have shown that complex organisms and biologically structures, like the eye, can evolve through mutation and naturals selection. They have refuted ID's basic premise, namely, that an intelligence or supreme being is required.

As you yourself state, ID is not science. It is religion. Faith. Thus I would not object to it being taught in religion or possibly philosophy classes. But I strongly object to it being taught in biology classes.

One of the basic tenets of science is that theories be testable. Faith is, by its very nature, not. In fact, people who believe in God are quite proud that they believe in the face of no proof, or even proof to the contrary. (In the latter, God is seen as "testing their faith.")

As someone who studied biology recently, I'd just like to point out a few things.

First, those instances in which something is "too complex" for simple mutation and natural selection doesn't mean that those features didn't evolve, it just means that we don't have a full understanding of all the mechanisms involved at this point.

Which is really what "intelligent design" is: God in the gaps. It's a theory that if we don't know something yet, that means it must have been performed by God, and when we do know how it happened then it will have happened through that mechanism, not God. Which is all well and good if someone wants to believe that, as long as they understand that their version of God is simply a substitute for intellectual curiosity.

But that's generally not what intelligent design proponents say. As you point out, they distort facts, ignore others, and generally abandon reason in order to push their pseudo-science. Usually they're not making statements about how morality isn't fit a la Francis Collins (even though there are arguments for that that he doesn't feel the need to respond to some of the more recent theory in that field), they're usually saying things like "A banana fits really well into a human's hand, so there must have been someone behind that."

I agree with your statements in a later comment that ID can't be disproven... it also can't be proven. Which is exactly what makes it a neat philosophical question but not at all science. The problem is, and we agree here, is that it's being sold as science when that's not what it is at all. But I'd just go further to say that the only question appropriate to ID is if it was all done by God in the end, just like if a long, complicated movie turns out just to be a dream in the end.

As for the study of evolution being complete, well, that's not even the goal. There will always be something to study in that field, which is what makes science exciting.

Brynn : I don't know your motivations, but don't you think it appears a bit self-hating of you to, not only ignore the anti-Irish setiments of so much of the gay communities, but to post a happy birthday to an Englishman !

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | February 9, 2009 10:03 PM

JJJJ, you ARE joking, right?


Charles Darwin died an affirmed agnostic, not as you say, "a man of faith."

I'll concede that point, what old men do and believe in their dotage is usually understandable only to them.

In fact, people who believe in God are quite proud that they believe in the face of no proof, or even proof to the contrary. (In the latter, God is seen as "testing their faith.")

Fact? Really now? Categorical statements like that have a tendency to reach up and bight you in the butt. I can refute your statement by simply saying, "not me". Now I have no reliable yardstick to measure what in your estimation constitutes fact or science.

Yes, collectively we are woefully illiterate when it comes to scientific understanding. ID or creationism have no place in a modern science curriculum.

That's not what has my boxers in a bunch. It is the generalizations and the name calling that otherwise well meaning, enlightened people of faith find themselves subjected to. As an ordained minister I believe in the existence of God without reliance on proof, on tuesdays, thursdays, and every third saturdays if it isn't raining I believe in Angels and for me Charles Darwin is a personal hero. It isn't just this post, and it isn't just you. So can we dial back the generalizations and the name calling. I don't make snide comments about the parts of your life and existence that I don't understand, please extend me the same courtesy.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | February 9, 2009 10:19 PM

So can we dial back the generalizations and the name calling.

Personally, I am tired of the special status religion holds in this culture. When you look objectively at the world's major religions, you can easily make the case that they have collectively done more harm than good. Christianity? The Inquisition. Witch trials. Crusades. In our modern era, the ongoing pogrom of the Vatican, evangelicals, Mormons, and other stripes of Christianity against the LGBT community (and women!) which has been responsible for countless deaths either through suicide and gay bashings, not to mention countless ruined lives of people who "renounce their sin of homosexuality" to marry the opposite sex. So, no. I'm not making snide comments--unlike your "what old men do and believe in their dotage," remark dismissing Darwin's agnosticism. I'm out and out saying: I believe religion and other superstitions are destructive, pure and simple. I do not believe they deserve special respect nor protection. No other philosophy --or science, for that matter-- demands respect, legal protection, and tax exemption the way religions do. I, for one, am fed up with it.

Clearly, Brynn, you have amply answered the question at the end of my second comment above. Now we are clear on what your agenda is --- an agenda you have a perfect right to state. While I disagree with your disdain, I do have a certain understanding and empathy about it.

I disagree, specifically, that theism does not command the civil respect of atheists --- but OTOH, the atheistic sentiments of fine individuals and careful thinkers such as yourself (and Freud, and Sagan, and Richard Dawkins) deserve a level of respect that you are rarely extended in the dominant societies of both America and the British Isles. (Luckily, I gather that mainland Europe is somewhat better.) That is where I think the current problem lies: theists have not learned that demonizing intellectual atheism is a remnant of medieval tribalism, an extreme of dogmatism, and has no place in modern civil society. Quite the opposite, theists need to acknowledge that atheists have a civil right to their viewpoints, even if in our hearts we might (or might not) believe that such unbelief is "the work of the Devil" --- but that is only the mental framing that theists impose upon a mere intellectual difference of opinion. (And as has been said so often by so many educated people, generally the atheists I know treat their fellow humans more morally than most of the Christians I know, especially the ones that think the motto "In God We Trust" is required in order to make currency valid.)

I may still be a theist, but I am more of an agnostic now than the dogmatic simpletons that gave me my childhood religious teachings, and I am less agnostic than I was in my 30's and 40's. Like Darwin, who died a self-labeled agnostic but was clearly a theist at the time that he wrote Origins, my views regarding religion and nonreligion have evolved through stages as the decades roll by. An individual's intellectual journey, too, is an evolution that is worthy of respect.

I think your feelings about religion not deserving "special respect" would be different if theists learned to be kind enough to extend to your views the same respect. As things stand now, this usually happens only in the best of academic circles. And I hope that, despite whatever counterarguments I may have presented, that it has happened here.

Half and half.////// I'm deadly serious about always wondering how anyone of Irish descent can ignore that subject. But, admittedly, you might have covered it already or....maybe Bil is genuinely trying to be open to all homosexuals (real diversity; as opposed to the fake we too often see)./////// I'm being more tongue-in-cheek about Darwin. I'm sure plenty of Irish, in spite of history, recognize the gifts of Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon, Englishmen (gay ones, too) without who the world would be very different. Just as Americans will admire the gifts of German and Japanese scientists in spite of WWII. Mankind has to go on learning from "enemies" both past and present, or knowledge just stops. But, I know, this is all obvious. It's just that, if you're going to celebrate a historical figure's birthday (and an Englishman yet!), I find Darwin a questionable choice. Undoubtedly he was a great mind, who made an enormous difference to science and in how we think, and- whether he was 100 percent accurate about everything or not is sort of beside the point (just as Freud is recognized as the Father of Modern Psychiatry, even though he might have got a lot wrong). And challenging certain religious dogma is always a good thing, if it conflicts with evidence. I guess Darwin can be used for good or for bad: there's too much racism, and excuses for racism, in his writings, too much of that whole survival-of-the-fittest connection to philosophers like Nietzsche (and even Hitler) and.....it just seems like it can be a very MEAN type of belief to fall into unquestionably, without looking for higher moral values on things. But, you don't have to answer this: I'm honestly not trying to put down or dismiss Darwin or your admiration for him. You already KNOW he's controversial.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | February 11, 2009 10:15 AM

JJJJ, it's true I ignored the "dark side" of Darwinism, namely human eugenics. I'm not sure we can hold Darwin responsible for what was done with his theory in that regard.

Likewise, I was going to add something about "Social Darwinism," but decided it wasn't a topic I wanted to address superficially.

Backing away from that decision, one thing I find fascinating is that many of the same folks who condemn biological evolution, ascribe wholeheartedly to the idea of "social Darwinism."

As for the Irish/English question...of course I abhor what England did historically to Ireland. I'm not one who supports nationalism or sectarian violence in any form, however. As well, England itself is doing quite a lot at this time to resolve the situation in Northern Ireland. I'm not alone in believing England would like nothing better than to pull their troops out, if they felt confident the locals wouldn't then proceed to slaughter one another.