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Sadly, an Honest Creationist

by Richard Dawkins


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 21, Number 4.


Creation “scientists” have more need than most of us to parade their degrees and qualifications, but it pays to look closely at the institutions that awarded them and the subjects in which they were taken. Those vaunted Ph.D.s tend to be in subjects such as marine engineering or gas kinetics rather than in relevant disciplines like zoology or geology. And often they are earned not at real universities, but at little-known Bible colleges deep in Bush country.

There are, however, a few shining exceptions. Kurt Wise now makes his living at Bryan College (motto “Christ Above All”) located in Dayton, Tennessee, home of the famed Scopes trial. And yet, he originally obtained an authentic degree in geophysics from the University of Chicago, followed by a Ph.D. in geology from Harvard, no less, where he studied under (the name is milked for all it is worth in creationist propaganda) Stephen Jay Gould.

Kurt Wise is a contributor to In Six Days: Why 50 Scientists Choose to Believe in Creation, a compendium edited by John F. Ashton (Ph.D., of course). I recommend this book. It is a revelation. I would not have believed such wishful thinking and self-deception possible. At least some of the authors seem to be sincere, and they don’t water down their beliefs. Much of their fire is aimed at weaker brethren who think God works through evolution, or who clutch at the feeble hope that one “day” in Genesis might mean not twenty-four hours but a hundred million years. These are hard-core “young earth creationists” who believe that the universe and all of life came into existence within one week, less than 10,000 years ago. And Wise—flying valiantly in the face of reason, evidence, and education—is among them. If there were a prize for Virtuoso Believing (it is surely only a matter of time before the Templeton Foundation awards one) Kurt Wise, B.A. (Chicago), Ph.D. (Harvard), would have to be a prime candidate.

Wise stands out among young earth creationists not only for his impeccable education, but because he displays a modicum of scientific honesty and integrity. I have seen a published letter in which he comments on alleged “human bones” in Carboniferous coal deposits. If authenticated as human, these “bones” would blow the theory of evolution out of the water (incidentally giving lie to the canard that evolution is unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific: J. B. S. Haldane, asked by an overzealous Popperian what empirical finding might falsify evolution, famously growled, “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian!”). Most creationists would not go out of their way to debunk a promising story of human remains in the Pennsylvanian Coal Measures. Yet Wise patiently and seriously examined the specimens as a trained paleontologist, and concluded unequivocally that they were “inorganically precipitated iron siderite nodules and not fossil material at all.” Unusually among the motley denizens of the “big tent” of creationism and intelligent design, he seems to accept that God needs no help from false witness.

All the more interesting, then, to read his personal testimony in In Six Days. It is actually quite moving, in a pathetic kind of way. He begins with his childhood ambition. Where other boys wanted to be astronauts or firemen, the young Kurt touchingly dreamed of getting a Ph.D. from Harvard and teaching science at a major university. He achieved the first part of his goal, but became increasingly uneasy as his scientific learning conflicted with his religious faith. When he could bear the strain no longer, he clinched the matter with a Bible and a pair of scissors. He went right through from Genesis 1 to Revelations 22, literally cutting out every verse that would have to go if the scientific worldview were true. At the end of this exercise, there was so little left of his Bible that

. . . try as I might, and even with the benefit of intact margins throughout the pages of Scripture, I found it impossible to pick up the Bible without it being rent in two. I had to make a decision between evolution and Scripture. Either the Scripture was true and evolution was wrong or evolution was true and I must toss out the Bible. . . . It was there that night that I accepted the Word of God and rejected all that would ever counter it, including evolution. With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science.

See what I mean about pathetic? Most revealing of all is Wise’s concluding paragraph:

Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.

See what I mean about honest? Understandably enough, creationists who aspire to be taken seriously as scientists don’t go out of their way to admit that Scripture—a local origin myth of a tribe of Middle-Eastern camel-herders—trumps evidence. The great evolutionist John Maynard Smith, who once publicly wiped the floor with Duane P. Gish (up until then a highly regarded creationist debater), did it by going on the offensive right from the outset and challenging him directly: “Do you seriously mean to tell me you believe that all life was created within one week?”

Kurt Wise doesn’t need the challenge; he volunteers that, even if all the evidence in the universe flatly contradicted Scripture, and even if he had reached the point of admitting this to himself, he would still take his stand on Scripture and deny the evidence. This leaves me, as a scientist, speechless. I cannot imagine what it must be like to have a mind capable of such doublethink. It reminds me of Winston Smith in 1984 struggling to believe that two plus two equals five if Big Brother said so. But that was fiction and, anyway, Winston was tortured into submission. Kurt Wise—and presumably others like him who are less candid—has suffered no such physical coercion. But, as I hinted at the end of my previous column, I do wonder whether childhood indoctrination could wreak a sufficiently powerful brainwashing effect to account for this bizarre phenomenon.

Whatever the underlying explanation, this example suggests a fascinating, if pessimistic, conclusion about human psychology. It implies that there is no sensible limit to what the human mind is capable of believing, against any amount of contrary evidence. Depending upon how many Kurt Wises are out there, it could mean that we are completely wasting our time arguing the case and presenting the evidence for evolution. We have it on the authority of a man who may well be creationism’s most highly qualified and most intelligent scientist that no evidence, no matter how overwhelming, no matter how all-embracing, no matter how devastatingly convincing, can ever make any difference.

Can you imagine believing that and at the same time accepting a salary, month after month, to teach science? Even at Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee? I’m not sure that I could live with myself. And I think I would curse my God for leading me to such a pass.


Richard Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. An evolutionary biologist and prolific author and lecturer, his most recent book is Unweaving the Rainbow.


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