Confessions of a former creationist

planet-apes

Still from Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011).

I used to be a creationist. I have no qualms about admitting this now, despite being an established academic ecologist. I teach evolution at university, have written a textbook in which evolution is simply an accepted fact, and have donated to campaigns to teach evolution to schoolchildren. I’m not ashamed of my past, partly because there’s no point, but mostly because I still remember how creationism fit into a wider pattern of beliefs and attitudes that I once held. Evolution is scientifically, factually, demonstrably true. But at the time, for me, divine creation was The Truth.

This post is an attempt to explain how my background allows me to remain sympathetic towards creationists, and to help others from more secular or scientific backgrounds to understand how a creationist worldview can persist despite such overwhelming and widely-available evidence to the contrary.

I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian church. Which one is immaterial — there are many similar religious groups across the world, and they are not exclusive to Christianity. What they share is a collective desire to inculcate the children of their members in a specific set of beliefs. Mine was regressive in many ways; women had to wear hats in the church and were excluded from any formal roles. It has taken many years to realise how these features of my upbringing, which I accepted as normal practice, shaped attitudes in my later life that I have fought hard to correct. Perhaps this can be a subject for a future post. But one clear message, delivered from lay preachers at the pulpit, from Sunday School teachers, from the in-house literature laid out for our edification, was that evolution was a lie.*

The vehemence with which evolution was rejected was derived from a foundational belief in absolute Biblical truth. This didn’t quite go so far as a strictly literal interpretation: not all members of the church thought that creation took place in six days, and the extreme positions of Young Earth creationism were rarely advanced. But the Genesis account contained several features that were inconsistent with evolutionary theory, particularly in the order of appearance of different life-forms, or the idea that all species were created simultaneously. Most importantly, it conflicted with the separate creation of Adam as the first human, and of Eve as being formed from his flesh.** From an early age it was drilled into me that the Bible was the first authority, and evidence that did not fit was inherently suspect.

I recall being startled that so many people were willing to swallow the lie that was evolution. This genuinely perplexed me; what was in it for them? I don’t recall any cognitive dissonance over the overwhelming evidence in favour of evolution, mainly because I didn’t hear it, or look for it, and most likely would have ignored it anyway. One evening that has lived long in my memory was when our church held a ‘debate’ about evolution. In the absence of anyone willing to make a case for evolution, my father and I were enlisted to act as Devil’s advocates. That we were entirely unable to muster a coherent argument illustrates the depth of our ignorance at the time.***

Another feature of our church, and indeed of many non-conformist sects, was a confrontational approach to debate. We were trained in this, even taught to expect it when defending our beliefs. Differences of opinion within in the church were usually resolved by the open setting out of arguments and persuasion, rather than by respectful listening and thoughtful contemplation. In argument I am a belligerent opponent, not averse to deploying a battery of dirty rhetorical tricks to sway an audience. On the other hand, once persuaded of a case, I can be a strident ally. I know full well that this is not one of my most endearing personality traits.

What this meant was that the concept of being set against the world and its lies was impressed upon us at an early age. It was almost a heroic mission. At school as a late teenager I thought nothing of confronting my teacher when evolution was considered, turning one particular class into a fractious dispute. Who knows what the rest of the class thought; they were kind enough not to tell me.**** To my teenage mind, I was simply standing up for my beliefs, and being a lone voice only increased the responsibility I felt to hold my ground.

At the time the school syllabus in the UK contained very little evolution; it may be central to biology but the majority of the content was narrowly factual. It was entirely possible to get through school with straight-As in science while denying evolution entirely. I know because I did. Right up until I arrived at the University of Cambridge to study a degree in Natural Sciences. I reached the pinnacle of academic achievement within the UK educational system, and walked into the gates of Trinity College at the age of 18 still an ardent creationist.

My Damascene conversion came quickly, but it was not caused by losing an argument with a more experienced opponent, hearing a case against creationism, or even for that matter encountering one in favour of evolution. It came as I was exposed to a semester of lectures and laboratory practicals on invertebrate anatomy and physiology by Richard Barnes (our textbook was the magnificent Barnes et al.). He methodically outlined the structures of organisms, their development and the linkages among them. I don’t recall him ever even mentioning that this was magnificent evidence for evolution over creationism. He didn’t need to: it was obvious.

Halfway through the semester I got into another argument, only this time the tables had turned. In the church I was attending in Cambridge, I tackled a speaker on the subject of evolution, armed with only a few weeks of first-year undergraduate knowledge. I was a lone voice. This did not dissuade me. Looking back what is most striking is that, within 12 months, I had entirely switched corners, but was still quite willing to take on the whole room against established authority. Plus ca change…

That argument was particularly vitriolic, and led to me leaving the congregation. For some time afterwards, members of the church would track me down to explain the errors of my ways, but I never went back. It started a three-year journey that led, eventually, to my leaving religion altogether and becoming a firm atheist. It is a position I have held, against the views of most of my family and childhood friends, for nearly 20 years. I believe in humanism now as strongly as I ever believed in Christianity, and I will stand toe-to-toe with anyone on the topic. But my arguments are more securely formed for having the experience of once taken the other side and been entirely committed to it. I have fought with myself and, while one side won, I can still hear the other.

Here is where I think many fellow scientists, sceptics and rationalists can learn a trick, because there are many who simply find the creationist perspective as incomprehensible as I once found theirs. If you were raised in a secular household then you may never have met the arguments raised against evolution, and treat those who hold them as ignorant dinosaurs. If your knowledge of evolution is based solely on the high-school syllabus and received truth from scientific authority figures then, quite frankly, you’re not fully equipped to enter a debate on the subject with a well-prepared adversary.

To conclude, here are some lessons from my experience which may help in thinking about tackling entrenched, anti-scientific attitudes such as creationism.

Don’t bother getting into an argument with a committed creationist. Someone who holds creationist views based on their religion will not back down, even when outnumbered and in a corner. They have been trained to expect this. Ridicule, exasperation and insult are never effective tactics for persuasion, but actually the debate in itself usually won’t be sufficient either (for your opponent at least, although you can still win over an audience). A calm presentation of evidence is usually more effective. It is unlikely that they have ever been exposed to the facts supporting your case. Suggest to them that, in order to better understand what they’re objecting to, they should read one of the many introductions to evolutionary biology, then invite them to come back and discuss it at a later date. Out of politeness you might agree to do the same (and you can probably guess which it will be).

If you teach biology in Higher Education then you have creationist students. This is a simple statement of fact. In my twelve years of teaching at the University of Nottingham I’ve known of several; many more have no doubt kept their heads down. Insulting creationists for cheap laughs in lectures is unlikely to do anything to persuade them (sadly I haven’t been above this myself); more likely they will stop coming to your lectures. I would advocate not even mentioning creationism at all. Let evolution permeate your teaching, and eventually it will filter through to any thoughtful student.

Most of all, don’t look down on creationists. They are not ignorant, nor stupid, although they may be misinformed (wilfully or otherwise). They are often highly intelligent people whose opinions are internally consistent, and whose arguments are coherent, but derived from a different set of authorities to your own. Evolution is often rejected because it is perceived as a challenge to this framework, even if not a fundamental element. You will achieve more by finding ways to make evolution fit within their existing mindset than attempting to bring the whole structure down.***** Realising that evolution is true is revelatory and inspiring, but to accept this, your listener has to be convinced that it isn’t a threat. Otherwise you will only encounter an aggressive defence.

 


* One visiting speaker to our youth group made the case that dinosaur bones had been placed in the earth to give a 6000-year-old Earth an illusion of history; in other words, God had placed them there to test and deceive us. He got short shrift from many of us, but the point is that he was invited in the first place. It’s an old lie, but somewhere in your local town, I’m prepared to bet that children are still hearing it to this day.

** It is ironic that misrepresentations of scientific evidence, such as ‘mitochondrial Eve’ or ‘Adam’s Y chromosome’, have in recent years become an established part of attempts to defend the biblical account. Creationists are not averse to adopting the language of science when it fits their overall narrative.

*** To his credit, and partly as a result of taking an interest in both science in general and what his children do do, my father has since changed his mind.

**** A factor in this was that there were two biology teachers at our school, and one of them was a creationist. During my final few years he was away for long periods, but he had a continuing influence on me. On the one hand, I can genuinely thank him for inspiring me to study biology. Nevertheless, even in his absence, he gave me confidence that there was a scientific case for creationism.

***** There are of course many religious scientists who have no problem with evolutionary theory. I have several colleagues who are committed Christians, and suffer no cognitive dissonance as a result, despite the assumption by many hardline sceptics that they should. In this I would only note that we all hold internally contradictory positions on a range of topics; perhaps your weak spot is in politics or educational theory. I’m sure that I have plenty.

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31 thoughts on “Confessions of a former creationist

  1. sleather2012

    Very frank and interesting. My father was an agnostic/atheist and my mother a wishy-washy Church of England type; both my parents were botanists. My father let my mother take us to church but I can never remember being a believer. In fact I can remember being given an illustrated book of bible stories (Old Testament) and thinking that although they were jolly good stories they were obviously fiction šŸ™‚ similarly for the New Testament. I guess I am an atheist/agnostic humanist.

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    1. Markus Eichhorn Post author

      I think that’s a very common position. The most vocal atheists I’ve encountered tend to be the ones who came from strict religious upbringings and reacted to it; for a while I was one of them. It’s difficult to be a passionate agnostic šŸ™‚

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      1. jeffollerton

        Hmmm, maybe, though I’m passionately sure that I have no f**king idea whether there is a god an afterlife, or any of that stuff! I moved from atheism (which I embraced at a very early age) to agnosticism in my 40s because it seemed to me to be the only logical position given that we are all as clueless as one another and will only discover the truth once we die.

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    1. Markus Eichhorn Post author

      Your experience sounds very familiar, and I’m one of the many who reject all offers to take part such events, though I salute you for trying. The debate format is simply not appropriate for reaching any kind of consensus on scientific fact, and the ‘winner’ usually depends on the rhetorical skill of the presenters and the preconceptions of the audience. This is why creationists continue to favour the format.

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  2. rcannon992

    I can’t help thinking how lucky (talented) you were to go to University and be exposed to all those fine minds and scientific thinking. Otherwise, you might still be a creationist? I wonder. Richard Dawkins would probably point to the power of ‘indoctrination’ in children, and he always points out that children usually have the same religious beliefs as their parents. Recent research suggest that no matter how clever we are, we use our intelligence to support pre-existing political (and religous?) beliefs, rather than change our beliefs in the light of evidence. It takes a sort epiphany to make the change and embrace a completely different world view. Yours seems to have been a sudden immersion in the intellectual atmosphere of Trinity College!

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    1. Markus Eichhorn Post author

      Who knows what might have happened in an alternative life. Most universities provide similar opportunities simply by bringing people from different backgrounds together. As for children, I think we need to be cautious what form of words we use; one person’s indoctrination is another’s education. Parents and communities make decisions — not always easy — about what to impress upon their children. I’m in Jared Diamond’s camp in believing that we need more religious education rather than less. Children exposed to viewpoints from all religions (and none) at least have the option of making a free and informed choice. I don’t see that being likely though.

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      1. rcannon992

        I take your point about teaching comparative religion, but there are thousands of different creation stories, and none are as interesting as the scientific explanation, in my opinion. I went to an RC primary school (only one available in Guyana) and the nuns told us that God made the rain. I already knew the hydrological cycle – from my atheistic scientist father – and contested their explanation. Or so I am told! My point being that many religions explanations are facile. Science is at least testable. I think kids need to be taught the useful belief systems (such as ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘love thy neighbour’) within major religions. In other words, the ideas which produce more harmonious societies, but they need to know the context in which these different religious ideas and explanations arose and developed. What I think they really need however, is a better scientific understanding of the world and a reverence for the phenomenon of life, its incredible biodiversity and the astonishing process of evolution which has produced this precious richness.

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  3. Pingback: Friday links: growing up creationist, professors as buzzards, and more | Dynamic Ecology

    1. Markus Eichhorn Post author

      A reasonable question, although sometimes a leading one. Here I’m using the word evolution as a shorthand to refer to genetic changes in populations through natural selection, which is recognised as the main driver of adaptation and the generation of new species.

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  4. Brian McGill

    Very important post. I appreciate your compassion for all sides (including all versions of yourself). I had a PhD student who was the son of an evangelical pastor but who also recognized the evidence for evolution. I respected his path and journey a lot.

    Partly for that reason, I just wanted to say its quite easy to hold religious (or Christian) views and believe in evolution. without having to have “internally contradictory positions”. I go to a church full of such people. It just requires a different flavor of religion or Christianity. In particular there are a wide variety of ways to approach interpreting the bible. Believing that every single word is the inviolable literal word of God is but one interpretative approach (which is contradictory with evolution). But, for example, seeing the bible as an imperfectly human-recorded representation of the word of god, as a mytho-poetic inspiration, as moral fables, as history (written in the way history was written thousands of years ago) are all approaches that can still lead to one calling oneself religious or Christian but not having an internal conflict with evolution (and plenty of people and churches subscribe to each of those views and more). There are probably hundreds of different flavors, only some of which are contradictory to evolution.

    Again its really important to talk about this. And I completely agree with your main point that every large college class has committed creationists and that while debating them on the spot doesn’t do much for them or the rest of the class, treating them with derision doesn’t do much for anybody either. Thank you for posting this.

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    1. Markus Eichhorn Post author

      I absolutely agree with you. By coincidence, a former colleague just sent me some draft chapters of a book he’s writing which tries to explain biological science from a religious perspective; he’s also an ordained Anglican minister. The current President of the British Ecological Society, Sue Hartley, is Christian. So I’m well aware that religious and scientific worldviews are not exclusive, at least because I know so many people who hold both.

      Having said that, I think it’s also worth acknowledging that there are plenty of people — on both sides — who argue that they’re not. I have met (and grew up with) many people who contend that evolutionary theory is not consistent with their religious beliefs; within professional scientific circles there are as many who would claim that the rational scepticism embedded in scientific culture is inimical to religious belief. It’s this mutual intransigence that remains the greatest barrier to proper dialogue on the subject.

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  5. onebendintheriver

    I’ve been fascinated for a while at how we can hold onto ideas despite evidence to the contrary. Really interesting, and admirable that you were able to get past that. I have a friend in the US who introduced me to some of the strange (to me) concepts used by fundamentalists that you might get find interesting at http://journeyfree.org. She coaches people on some of the fallout from leaving their religion, like losing contact with family.

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    1. Markus Eichhorn Post author

      Thanks. Leaving a religious community is indeed a difficult process, especially when family and close friends are involved. I’m glad that there are now so many resources on the internet to help people going through that; for me it was a lonely and isolating experience. It’s not something I want to get drawn into discussing here, but I think it’s helpful for people to know that whatever direction they’re going in, someone else has gone there before them.

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  6. Greg

    I know this is a tangent, but head coverings for women in a church are characteristic of many churches that are not fundamentalist – as well as not permitting a man to wear a hat. Think Brethren (often strongly anti war and progressive), normative for many Catholic and Orthodox countries, where women often have more assertive roles than they do in the West. Frankly it is a lovely and often elegant tradition in many cases that helps create a different “space” for liturgy. I would hate to see it relegated to some kind of fundamentalist category (as an aside I have never seen women in fundamentalist sects wear head coverings personally).

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    1. Markus Eichhorn Post author

      Absolutely. The views encompassed by the many varieties of Christianity are broad, and there’s no point making generalisations about the significance of one particular rule. I commented largely because it’s an uncommon regulation within the major denominations in English-speaking countries, and with which I expect the majority of readers here are familiar. Personally, for the church I grew up in, it stands out as a visual signifier of an entrenched Victorian attitude towards the appropriate roles, behaviours and status of women in the church.

      Finally, your last comments describe it as a ‘lovely and elegant tradition’. I don’t dispute this, and I’m sure that many would share your view. I would add that, having myself lived in Islamic countries, many people feel the same about women wearing the burka, niqab or chador. I raise this as comment only, and suggest that we as men should probably let women speak for themselves on which ‘lovely, elegant traditions’ they would like to maintain.

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  7. Richard Gunton

    Thanks for sharing all this, Markus – really fascinating!

    Personally I remember finding RSK Barnes’ lectures a little disappointing on the question of the evolution of complexity in animal bodyplans… and at the end of the lecture on neoteny and progenesis I went up to ask him about it, in case I’d missed something. Maybe that’s why I went for botany instead!

    Like Brian, I’ve moved in Christian circles where all kinds of views on origins mix and knock chips off each other (sadly damaging relationships too in some cases). And I actually found stimulation to engage in ecological research arising from these challenging experiences (you don’t mention whether you did too?). It would be interesting to know how often this strange cultural phenomenon encourages a young person to become a research ecologist…

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    1. Markus Eichhorn Post author

      Thanks Richard. I’m glad your interactions had some constructive effects; the same can’t be said for mine. As for whether it leads to people thinking more deeply about scientific questions, I’m less certain. I know of several students who chose different pathways in their degrees to avoid encountering evolutionary theory. Which prompts the counter-question: how many potential research ecologists have been put off because they didn’t want to have to deal with a field that’s permeated by evolutionary thinking?

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  8. bibleandbeeswax

    Your journey is very interesting! I was raised as a conservative Presbyterian pastor’s-kid, and am now (go figure) a conservative Presbyterian pastor. My family never taught YEC, though a school I attended had some very committed espousers. A number of friends and family members adopted a theistic evolutionary framework when I was in seminary, which lead me to really consider the arguments for evolution. Personally, I distinguish between generic evolutionary theory and the specific arguments about human evolution. I wrote about my experience with this as well a while back on my blog, and kind of generalized the routes people from our background take when they encounter arguments for human evolution. You might be interested if you have some time: https://bibleandbeeswax.com/?p=66
    Blessings, Chris

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    1. Markus Eichhorn Post author

      Thanks, your article is very thoughtful. Unfortunately from a scientific perspective it’s impossible to maintain any pretence of human exceptionalism. One of the key insights of evolutionary theory is that we are animals like any other; there is no comfort for those who want to identify some numinous spark that sets us apart from the rest of life on earth. Indeed the evidence for the origins of humans by prosaic evolutionary means exceeds that for almost all species, if only because it attracts so much scientific attention.

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      1. bibleandbeeswax

        Well, personally, I don’t account infallibility or even exceptionalism (*cough* *cough*) to human reason, nor to the conclusions we reach via empirical methods. It even seems that one rather relies upon an assumed human exceptionalism to suggest they may conclude with such certainty about our origins from a rationalistic standpoint. Further, it seems that prevailing or dominant schools of empirical thought are radically overturned every few-hundred years. For these reasons I am somewhat agnostic about empirical conclusions.
        Meanwhile, I do believe God exists and speaks, not only for logical reasons like the moral or ontological argument, but primarily for belief in His own revelation in the Bible. Seems old-school–yes. But the Bible itself convinced me. And I can’t get past Psalm 8 when I consider whether humanity is exceptional. Also, doesn’t it go against every built-in fiber of your own being to deny that humanity is special? And the conclusions are catastrophic, rather than beneficial, to suggest we are not unique and exalted. Obviously, the conclusions don’t necessitate that this is untrue, but the practical implications really are horrifying to me.

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      2. Markus Eichhorn Post author

        I’m afraid that we will have to agree to differ on this point. It doesn’t trouble me to believe that humans have no higher origin or purpose, and the evidence of history suggests that groups who believe they do — i.e. organised religions — have a rather tarnished record. I don’t make any claim that atheists or humanists are necessarily any better, but they’re no worse either. I simply prefer to examine evidence rather than assume what the practical implications of particular standpoints might be.

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      3. bibleandbeeswax

        I agree that we disagree. But, I do feel the need to vindicate myself and religion here too: I also enjoy looking at the evidence, and seeing where it leads. Indeed, I think this habit of hypothesis, investigation, demonstration, and conclusion is a particular trait of humans only, and lends credit to the idea of our exceptionalism. It is a gift, and a responsibility. It is an exception–a unique trait or characteristic of humanity. But I don’t believe it is infallible or exceedingly trustworthy as a system of belief about: origins of all life, meaning, purpose, or the future.

        And I think there is a bit of an issue saying, “Organized religions believe in human exceptionalism therefore they have caused problems”. Organized religions that believe in this are guilty of hypocrisy, not consistency, if human exceptionalism leads to abuse of the earth or of other creatures. In Biblical teaching, our place in this earth as rulers is for order, care, preservation, and harmony. As the author of Hebrews explains, even Jesus’ rule over the earth is being realized by *restoration* of people to goodness, and by the eventual re-creation of the world as a paradise.

        And contrarily, it could equally be charged that because atheistic regimes deny human exceptionalism, they therefore have caused the most problems: mass murder on a scale almost unbelievable, industrialization that has devastated the environment, as well as the oppression of both the poor and rich. This, unlike organized religion, is entirely consistent with the logic of its teaching.

        Anyway, I too think the evidence is important. But I also believe logical deduction from a set of propositions is valuable.

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      4. Markus Eichhorn Post author

        While this is an interesting and important discussion, it’s drifting a long way from the original topic of the post, so I’ll acknowledge your different persective on this topic but let’s leave it there for now.

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    2. sleather2012

      I agree with Markus, humans are part of the evolutionary pathway and of course to me there is infinitely more proof of evolution than there is for any god. Even as a small child I found the god concept untenable and given the written record of all gods and their treatment of humans not something I would find any comfort in actually believing in.

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