Monday, March 24, 2008

Creationists at the Museum

This is incredibly disturbing.

As a once and future teacher, I find this both maddening and sickening.

The very worst part is at 2:04, when the creationist is asking the kids a ridiculous question and is expecting the kids to chant "no." The little girl at the front of the group starts to say "yes," then switches mid-vowel to "no."

Young Earth Creationism offends me as an historian, both on empirical and methodological grounds.

Empirically, a literal Biblical history does not conform to what we know about the ancient world. A strict Biblical timeline indicates that the Flood occurred in 2348 B.C.E and that the Tower of Babel incident took place around 2200 B.C.E. That really doesn't allow very much time for the Chinese to develop the distinctive society of the Shang Dynasty by 1600 B.C.E. (and this assumes that the Xia dynasty is entirely mythical, which is not likely). There is quite a lot of debate about when Native Americans first peopled the "New World," but the question is whether the migration happened 10,000 years ago or 15,000 years ago (long after the supposed Creation). I won't even get into the historical discrepancies between the Biblical account of verifiable dates during the life of Jesus (i.e. Herod's death, the dates of the Roman census, etc.). My point here is not to chronicle the many points at which the Bible diverges from the evidence we have about the ancient world. I only mean to say that the legends and metaphors of the Bible can not be nailed down to specific historical dates (poor choice of words?).

Beyond the empirical problems presented by both archaeology and the historical record, Young Earth Creationism offends my methodological sensibilities. I am no scientist, but historians' tools are distantly related to the scientists' tools (perhaps the same Phylum or Class - I'll let a biologist choose the best analogy). Historians aren't so big on the experiments, but we do build arguments based on available evidence. We then spend vast amounts of energy correcting, refining, extending, and synthesizing the work of others.

Creationists do not operate this way. They do not value evidence that contradicts the Bible, and they refuse to be skeptical about the Bible. A good historian is pathologically skeptical about even the most reliable source - we make our livings examining the biases of written records. Studying biology or geology while presupposing the infallibility of the Bible is like studying history while presupposing that English-speaking peoples are infallibly more intelligent, moral, and righteous than non-English-speaking peoples. You're certainly entitled to your views, even if they are batshit crazy, but that doesn't make them good history (or good science).

The thing that confuses me about Young Earth Creationists, Intelligent Design proponents, and the rest of the anti-evidence crowd is that they seem not to understand how the academy works. The people in this video and the people who run the Discovery Institute (no link - look them up on Google if you need to) believe that there is a vast orthodox conspiracy upholding tenuous theories. Don't they know that academics salivate over the tiniest flaw in their colleagues' work? Whole careers are built on exploiting minor differences in interpretation or correcting small errors in earlier published work. If someone really could supply evidence - solid, testable, plausible evidence - that evolution is a crock or that radiometric dating is hopelessly flawed, they would be embraced and feted by the scientific community. The reason that IDers and Creationists don't have a tremendous following among scientists is that they haven't presented plausible evidence, not because scientists are unwilling to challenge orthodoxy.

Now, being a good little historian, I have to add the obvious caveat: many people have presented theories that turned out to be true but were not immediately accepted. The difference is that they built and tested their theories based on evidence. They challenged orthodoxy by proposing new theories that conformed to the empirical data they collected in their experiments. Just because the scientific community has not immediately accepted all good theories does not automatically make Creationism or ID scientifically plausible.

I will be among the first to criticize science for naturalizing political and social arguments. Scientific authority is often employed for non-scientific purposes, and science has been at the forefront of professionalizing, medicalizing, and naturalizing authority for morally questionable purposes. The list of atrocities backed by science is not as long as the list of atrocities backed by religion, but that is mostly a function of science's relatively recent divergence from religion as an organizing explanation for the universe. Still, Creationism is odious because it exploits people's ignorance rather than engaging in responsible conversations about the limits of scientific knowledge.

Video via Pharyngula.

*Update: I would like to add that I agree with the many commenters over at Pharyngula who have pointed out that the reporter's math is pretty bad. Clearly, a person who lives to be 800 does not have children during year 800. The Bible says that Noah was only about 500 years old when his children were born, so the reporter's math is clearly off.


Anonymous said...


I must say I'm impressed by your post. I read the opening line and expected to read a rant, not a reasoned, well presented case.

I am a young earth creationist and have never considered the impact my belief has on the history of China. I have a bachelor's and a master's, but not in history. What are the ramifications of a young earth in terms of ancient history? What do young earth historians say about standard timelines? If you don't know that's ok, I'll do some research of my own.

If you have time, what are the historical discrepancies regarding Jesus' life?

I don't believe in a vast conspiracy but I do believe in vast systems of indoctrination that ensure the YEC worldview is maligned and their research is discounted as it is submitted.

I agree that researchers get published by finding issues with the academy, but there are non-debatable items that will ensure that you are blackballed vice published with the latest iconoclastic study. I'd say that a YECr with a study following either historical or scientific protocols to the tee would still have a very hard time getting published in a mainline publication.

I don't consider myself anti-evidence, anti-science, anti-historical. I am, however, presupposing the accuracy of the bible and believe that if I have data that conflicts, I need to reconcile the two. Anti-supernaturalists make the same kind of presuppositions when the evaluate their data.

Thanks for your post.


CD said...

Thanks for your comments. To tell the truth, I'm a little surprised to find that this blog has readers :)

My official area of inquiry is colonial America, not Mediterranean antiquity, but I will my best to point you toward some good resources.

Most of the Young Earth Creationist arguments I have encountered tend to focus on geological arguments (for example, sediment and rock layers supposedly put in place by the Flood) rather than accounting for human civilizations that do not appear in the Bible.

As an historian, I would be interested to know how a Young Earth Creationist would explain archaeological finds in China and the Americas that contradict a 6,000-year-old earth. For example, if all people are descended from Noah (everyone else having been killed by the Flood), then all civilizations have their roots in the Middle East around 4,500 years ago. How then can we explain the Chinchorro mummies of South America, many of which are at least 5,000 years old? If Young Earth believers want to argue that all people lived in the Middle East so recently, then they are contradicting the (debated, but still prevailing) argument that Native Americans crossed the Bering Land Bridge to reach America. Since the Bering Strait was created at least 7,000 years ago, early Americans would have crossed before then. This argument is not consistent with the Young Earth timeline, but I don't know of any YECs who have endorsed alternative theories (they may well be out there - I just don't know about them).

The main issue with the timeline of Jesus' life is that the verifiable events mentioned in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew do not correspond to the dates established by historians. For example, the Gospel of Luke says that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem for the Roman census of Quirinius (Luke 2:1-3), which took place in 6 C.E.

Yet, the Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod (Matthew 2:1) and that Jesus and his family returned from Egypt only after Herod died (Matthew 2:19).

Since kings and empires often keep good records, historians know that Herod died in the year 4 B.C.E., but the Census of Quirinius did not take place until 6 C.E. If we are using a strict interpretation of a Biblical timeline, Jesus is said to have been born both before 4 B.C.E. and in 6 C.E., which is historically impossible.

Just to clarify, this discrepancy does not bother me personally. I was raised Catholic and grew up believing the Bible was a collection of legends, metaphors, and useful parables. It doesn't bother me when the Bible gets the dates a little bit wrong or contradicts itself because I never supposed that it was supposed to be literally true.

Here's a short paper by Richard Carrier that might be helpful if you are interested in more detail. Carrier is much more of an authority on Ancient History than I am:

As for your next point, I think we differ on our definition of indoctrination. While it is perfectly possible for someone to be indoctrinated into secular thinking (for example, if a parent adamantly insists that there will be no talk of God in the home), the system of questioning that underpins academic inquiry is very hostile to indoctrination (which I define as requiring adherence to specific explanation while precluding all contrary evidence). That's not to say that academics aren't biased — just that the system values questioning, skepticism, and arguing against previous works. The reason YEC is maligned in this system is because the best scientific evidence does not support a strict Biblical world history, but YECers insist on fitting the evidence to a human-created document.

We can certainly disagree on whether the Bible is a human document, but it is my professional opinion that it is. For more information on that topic, I would recommend the works of Bart Ehrman, professor of religion at the University of North Carolina. Misquoting Jesus is probably the most relevant:

You are correct in saying that it would be difficult for a YECer to get published in a mainstream academic journal (unless the topic is totally unrelated - I'm sure many YECers have published research on 19th century history or music theory). But I think you are mistaken in your assumption that a YECer can ever follow "historical or scientific protocols to the tee." A YECer by definition accepts the ultimate authority of the Bible. Both historical scientific protocols require that the researcher be relentlessly skeptical of all sources and follow wherever the evidence leads, even if (especially if!) that contradicts previously accepted arguments.

It is certainly your right to require that all evidence be reconciled with the Bible, but you must understand that that is not accepted professional practice for historians or scientists.

I suppose I would define myself as an anti-supernaturalist, but I certainly didn't start out that way. In fact, I believed in God and Jesus until fairly recently. My unbelief is an outgrowth of my professional work, which has taught me to question orthodoxy, probe arguments and evidence, and recognize the multiplicity of perspectives inherent to any historical moment. I am open to the idea that the supernatural exists, I just don't have any evidence that suggests that it does.

Thanks for visiting my blog (I'm sure you are one of a very few), and thank you for your comments. Responding to your feedback has made me think about how best to express my main points, which is always a good exercise in self-reflection. I hope you'll come back soon. Also, I promise to check out your website.

CD said...

Just to clarify: I am both CD and CGDH - I got married recently and got a new gmail address, so sometimes I'm signed in on my old account and forget to switch it over before I post.