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The Mind of Creationists and Our Communication Gap PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Matt Lowry   
The following is one of a series of articles by skeptical teachers who use the investigation of the paranormal, fringe science, and pseudoscience to teach methods of science and reason. If you would like to be involved in this project, please contact rjblaskiewicz@gmail.com  

 

I have spent many electrons typing on my keyboard and posting online about those who would use the government to impose their religious beliefs upon the rest of us by undercutting science education in our public schools. In fact, the most published category on my blog is in reference to creationism, that bugaboo which never seems to go away, like a bad game of Whack-a-Mole that you can’t ever finish.  

Like many who call themselves skeptics of pseudoscience, the paranormal, and religion, I have some friends who are into one or more of the aforementioned areas. Specifically, I have friends who proudly call themselves creationists, in the sense that they adhere to the most common variant called Young Earth Creationism (where their reading of the Bible says the Earth/universe is roughly 6000-10,000 years old). What I want to do here is to recount a conversation I had with one of these friends and how it opened my eyes into how the creationist mind seems to work.  

A couple of years ago, I had posted an article on my blog about an upcoming geocentrism conference, which was titled "Galileo Was Wrong” – in the sense that the participants in this conference were actually arguing the Sun isn’t the center of our solar system and that astronomy and physics for the last 400 years or so is completely wrong. In my post, after presenting a plethora of scientific reasons as to why geocentrism is outright wrong, I took some time to focus upon one of the primary arguments presented by the geocentrists: their reading of the Bible.  

On my blog entry, I stated:

… Last, but not least, it seems that the motivation for modern geocentrists to hold these loony views, despite all of the evidence & science against them, is based in their particular reading of the Bible. In other words, their particular set of religious beliefs trump all of scientific reality. Or, to put it another way, they are engaging in some really interesting mental gymnastics to come to the conclusion of “the Bible is literally true” and retrofit all evidence (through liberal use of cherry-picking, goalpost moving, and in some cases outright lying) to jibe with their religious views. <p>

Yes, just like Young Earth Creationists (YECs), they call themselves “Biblical literalists” and use their reading of various Bible passages to justify their pseudoscience (by the way, it seems that all of these modern geocentrists are YECs, but not all YECs are geocentrists). I must say that it is nice to see that while most YECs may reject modern evolutionary science on the basis of their “literal” interpretation of the Bible, a large number of YECs aren’t quite so far gone as to go down the rabbit hole of geocentrism. Which, interestingly enough, begs a question: how can two different groups of people (geocentric vs. heliocentric YECs) claim two disparate “literal” readings & interpretations of Biblical scripture? How can the two groups claim to be reading & interpreting The Truth from the Bible, yet also disagree on this topic? Hmmm… 

In every interaction I have had with geocentrists, whether it be perusing their “Galileo Was Wrong” website or looking through their literature (my favorite one is a book mailed to me at the school where I teach titled “The Geocentricity Primer: The Geocentric Bible #7”), I have found their arguments placing a heavy emphasis upon their reading of the Bible.

Enter my discussion with my YEC friend. After posting my blog article onto my Facebook page, my friend was among the first to comment that these geocentrists were nuts. I agreed, but then I began to engage him in a deeper discussion as to why he thought they were nuts. His initial response was pretty simple, saying that it was pretty much because of the scientific reasons I outlined in my blog post (i.e. geocentrism cannot explain inner planet phases, parallax, retrograde motion, and is inconsistent with basic physics). Upon seeing his response, I asked him another question: “Did you notice that these geocentrists based most of their arguments upon their reading of the Bible?”

He responded quickly: “Well, they’re wrong.” To which I responded: “Yes, but why do you think they’re wrong? You stated just now that it was because of the scientific arguments that I presented. Therefore, you must agree that science can trump someone’s reading of the Bible.”

He saw where I was headed with this line of thought, and he quickly changed his tune. “Well, their reading of the Bible is incorrect. That’s why they’re wrong,” came his reply. Never mind the fact that he never bothered to point out to me any kind of Biblical evidence, such as Scriptural passages, which outlined exactly what was wrong with the geocentrist arguments. When I pointed out to him that he was changing his argument he became increasingly uncomfortable, especially when I followed up with the logical conclusion: if you think that scientific facts can trump a geocentrist reading of the Bible, then why can’t scientific facts trump a YEC reading of the Bible?

At that point, I could see that my friend had cognitive dissonance in full swing within his mind, as he kept insisting that “all you need is the Bible to see the truth” and whatnot. I insisted on pointing out to him that the geocentrists, whom he labeled as nuts, would make exactly the same argument contrary to his personal reading of the Bible. Once again, he squirmed, merely insisting that he was right and they were wrong. Eventually, I let the matter drop, but not until after I had planted that skeptical seed of doubt. Hopefully, one day, it will start to grow. 

This entire interaction taught me something which I hadn’t quite internalized until that point, and I think this is something which skeptics and supporters of science often struggle with. We often lament about how many people seem to be almost willfully ignorant of science and its wider implications, as if we simply expect everyone to give science as much credence and importance as we do. Now, don’t get me wrong – YECs and geocentrists alike enjoy the fruits of science’s labors, such as TVs, computers, the Internet, planes, cars, etc. But what they seem to fight, and where the aforementioned cognitive dissonance seems to come in, is when the questions go beyond the mere “toys” of science to larger issues of one’s belief system and/or worldview. Once science starts to encroach upon that territory with its pesky facts and logic, many are willing to either ignore science or even fight against it openly!

So it seems to me that we have a pretty serious communication gap with people like YECs, in that we naively expect them to think like us, when nothing could be further from the truth. In many ways, those of us who embrace the scientific mode of thinking are the exception, and even then you don’t have to look far to find a skeptic who all-too-easily slips back into the more common mode of unscientific thinking. Because of this gap, in many ways when attempting to engage in discussion with them, we are literally speaking different languages: we are coming to the issue from a naturalistic, science-based framework, and they are coming to it from what they consider a Biblically-oriented worldview. And, in many ways, never the twain shall meet, as the saying goes. 

So, what to do? How can we bridge this gap? I think my interaction with my YEC friend on the question of geocentrism might provide a lesson in how to address this question. Rather than argue with him about how YEC was scientifically unsound, which I had futilely attempted to do before, I went right to the core of his arguments: I used his own language of “truth in the Bible” against him by providing him with an example of a worldview (geocentrism) which he considered incorrect, even though that worldview made exactly the same kinds of appeals to Biblical literalism which he himself had so often made!

Now, will such argument be effective? I don’t know, only time will tell. But I think it will accomplish two things: 1) it will give my friend some pause to think, in a manner in which he is able to think, and 2) it can keep the conversation going because now we are, in some way, at least sharing the same language.

 

Matt Lowry is a high school & college physics professor with a strong interest in promoting science education, skepticism and critical thinking among his students and the population in general. Towards these ends, he works with the JREF on their educational advisory board, and he also works with a number of grassroots skeptical, pro-science groups. In what little spare time he has, he blogs on these and related subjects at The Skeptical Teacher.

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Problems with Biblical Literalism
written by StarTrekLivz, January 16, 2013
The challenge goes even further: one will run across people who would never dream of opening their laptop to try to replace a component, nor even attempt to change the oil & air filters in their car, yet believe they can infallibly interpret the Bible. Appealing to the discrepancies is futile since there is always an escape clause they can invoke. ("You claim to be a Biblical literalist, so why do you go to football games on Sunday?[Sabbath violation - Jesus changed the Sabbath laws]" "Jesus, John, and Paul all said Jesus would be back before his peers had all died. They're all dead, and Jesus still isn't here. How do you explain that?[major fail of prophecy - Jesus meant that "figuratively" or even one interlocutor, "How do you know they're ALL dead?"]") They are hanging onto parts of the Faith that for some reason give them comfort, and attempting to move them outside of the comfort zone literally inspires fear, frequently accompanied by anger and even violence (whether verbal or physical) as they retreat. I'm not certain what the solution is.
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Emotion vs. Reason
written by GrahamZ, January 16, 2013
Deep beliefs most often come from emotional conviction rather than one of reason.

Back when I admitted to myself that I really had no religious convictions, I told my dad that I didn't want to continue to be a member of our Synagogue. My dad, was always the most religious person in our family, but he understood. But his counter-argument to me was that I shouldn't reject it because we had friends their and I could meet people and so on. In other words, he understood that I didn't believe, but that I should stay because of the community.

This got me thinking that maybe one of the reasons why believers have such a hard time accepting things, even when confronted with contradicting evidence, is that their entire support structure, their family, their neighbors, their church, also holds those beliefs, so rejecting them would be kind of like excommunication. It would exclude you from everything that you feel a part of.

I'm not saying that this is exactly right -- this is just something I'm trying to think through myself.

Anyway, very interesting article, and I agree with you that using people's own beliefs to convince them can probably be more effective than attacking the beliefs directly.
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written by kerrihud, January 16, 2013
Thank you for this article Matt.

I have tried to explain my thoughts on this to my own circle of friends before, but you have given my thoughts shape and words. Your last point about bridging this gap was exactly how I came to examine my own religious views - I read Richard Wiseman's book Paranormality and absolutely loved his explanations of why we see what isn't there. At some point in the book, I realised I needed to apply the same logic to my personal religious beliefs and apparent spiritual experiences. It was the most difficult critical thinking exercise I have ever had, and many people who have never held to any religious beliefs and never gone through such a deconversion experience can't understand how we can hold opposing ideas in our heads an not even realise it. Also I have many religious friends who in a similar situation to mine have found it easy to explain away the science.

Since that time, I have read many apologists arguments for specific religious ideas, and I can identify with their logic, however flawed it may be. Usually it takes many generations of new thinkers exposed to these scientific and rational ideas for them to take hold and become accepted public opinion, as was the case for a heliocentric universe, and most of the great scientific discoveries since then!
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written by hdhondt, January 17, 2013
Some time ago I had a similar blog discussion with someone who was both scientifically knowledgeable, and a firm YEC.

I pointed out to him that his PC and especially his GPS cannot possibly work if the world is only 6000 years old. The branches of science that give us the age of the universe are quantum mechanics and General Relativity, and the PC and GPS use both in their design.

He agreed with me that PCs and GSMs work. He understood the arguments I used. He even agreed with me that a GSM is hopelessly inaccurate if the position is not adjusted for GR effects. Nevertheless he utterly refused to accept that the earth therefore has to be much older than 6000 years.

We terminated the discussion at that point. Hopefully it will eventually sink in.
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