Thursday, July 10, 2008

Correspondence with a Creationist

HASSERS highlights in bold

By Margaret Nelson - Posted on 08 July 2008

Detail, the creation of Adam, Michelangelo

It’s usually a waste of time responding to Creationist nonsense privately, as nothing penetrates their stubborness, but is worth doing so in public, if it makes people think.
Accordingly, here is an exchange of correspondence between me and Mr George Gardner, who wrote to the local Evening Star about a feature article (see attachment) on Humanism with the usual anti-atheist, pro-Creationist drivel.

The Star published my letter in response to his:

George Gardner responded to Lynne Mortimer's feature about Humanism by writing that it's "founded" on atheism. I'm an atheist, but I'm also a-fairyist, a-ghostist, a-lots-of-other-things. The prefix "a" simply means "without".

Humanism is a positive approach to life, not just a lack of something. True, I don't have faith; faith means believing in something without evidence; I reject the notion that this is commendable.

Humanists have values, though they may not be "spiritual" (whatever that means); we use reason and experience to form those values. Mr Gardner writes, "if there is no God we can do what we like." We can do what we like anyway, but Humanists like to be responsible for their actions. Relying on some external authority to tell us what we can or can't do is infantile. Grown-up people can make up their own minds about right and wrong, and altruism is a natural human tendency because it benefits everyone. You don't have to believe in God to be good, while many cruel and destructive acts are committed in the name of God.

Mr Gardner asks, "Is Margaret Nelson content with a purposeless and meaningless life?" Does he imagine that everyone who lives without religion is living without purpose and meaning? That's about a third of the population; people who help to keep Mr Gardner warm and fed, housed, clothed, healthy, and supplied with all his needs. Having interviewed thousands of people while preparing funerals for the religion-free, I can assure Mr Gardner that the majority of them were honest, decent, and moral. Most are more tolerant and less judgemental than the religious fundamentalists I've come across. So yes, I'm quite content with my life, thank you, despite its challenges.

Mr Gardner writes that the alternative to "creation" (presumably the mythical "creation" of Genesis) is that "everything came about accidentally". Well, since the earth is about 4.5 billion years old and life began in a primordial soup about 3.85 billion years ago, it's inaccurate to describe evolution as "accidental", as though it "just happened". Each stage depended on a precise set of circumstances that allowed living things to develop, including Mr Gardner. The story is far more awe-inspiring than the creation myth, and there's plenty of evidence for it, while there's no evidence for "creation".

One friend got very indignant about the “purposeless and meaningless life” bit. “He doesn’t know you!” she said, “stupid man!”

Next, I had a typewritten letter from Mr Gardner:

Dear Margaret [such familiararity!],

Yes, I am the person who replied to your dissertation on humanism. I replied to your reply, but one cannot expect the Evening Star to continue correspondence; that is why I am replying direct.

I am in my 80s and throughout life have had numerous correspondents with whom I have had controversy. I always, even in my 80s, ‘come alive’ when there is a debate. One of my sayings is that life is a jigsaw puzzle many parts of which are missing. They are missing for the Christian who cannot explain why God created him; they are missing for the atheistic scientist because he does not know how the universe came about, and, if he believes in the Big Bang, how order came out of sheer chaos.

I shall now get down to the business of a reply to your reply.

(1) One must accept - everyone accepts - that either the universe was created or it happened accidentally. You speak of 'each stage depended on a precise set of circumstances that allowed living things to develop'. Thus, you dodge the issue. I repeat my point that if everything came about by chance, how is it that you are able to reason about it?

(2) You speak of humanists being honest, decent and moral, which is fine, and relevant to this you state 'we can do what we like anyway'. That is precisely my point, and why I quoted H.G.Wells in my original comment. If there is no God we can choose to do what we like: there is no moral imperative.

(3) You also state that there is no evidence for creation. The entire order of the universe, you allege, came about accidentally. This is nonsense. Order is crying out to be recognized. May I tell you the story of initially four stones. If they were randomly placed no one would think that they were placed there. ~they were positioned in an exact square, one might think that someone had so placed them. If one put two more stones equidistant from the others to form two squares, one would certainly begin to consider that they were so positioned. Add a few more stones and there would be no doubt in one's mind that they had been deliberately so placed. The universe is a little more complicated than my array of stones: there is no doubt that it was created.

(4) In your original symposium you decried faith. Faith pre-eminently, but not exclusively, is a religious phenomenon. You have faith only in the rational world, as do atheistic scientists. You must have faith, with them, that you are right. They hope, and you hope, if you think about it, that they will find a formula called The Theory of Everything to explain how everything arose. Christians believe that there is a person behind the universe who created it.

C.S. Lewis was originally an atheist. A chap called Alister McGrath, once an atheist, wrote a book called The Dawkins delusion about Richard Dawkins. As you know, Richard Dawkins is the epitome of atheists. There is hope for you yet.

Yours sincerely,

G. L. Gardner

My reply (and I won’t be writing again):

Dear Mr Gardner,

Thank you for your letter. I’m glad to learn that the prospect of a debate still excites you as an octogenarian. However, your letter is full of erroneous assumptions.

“Many parts are missing”

This is true, in terms of human knowledge, but I prefer to leave a question mark where there are gaps in our knowledge, rather than fill them with God-based explanations. I’m happy to admit my ignorance and to look for more answers, which inevitably lead to more questions. This is different from taking a pride in being ignorant and doing nothing about it.

“Either the universe was created or it happened accidentally”

There’s a third alternative. Using the terms “accident” or “chance” to describe the theory of evolution by natural selection is inaccurate. These words describe an incident, rather than a process. In his book,

“Climbing Mount Improbable”, Richard Dawkins explains the process
as follows:

“One side of the mountain is a sheer cliff, impossible to climb, but the other side is a gentle slope to the summit. On the summit sits a complex device such as an eye or a bacterial flagellar motor. The absurd notion that such complexity could spontaneously self-assemble is symbolised by leaping from the foot of the cliff to the top in one bound. Evolution, by contrast, goes around the back of the mountain and creeps up the gentle slope to the summit: easy!”

Unfortunately, few people understand evolution, which has, so far, taken millions of years. Many people have had only a limited science education. I recommend Prof. Dawkins’ book, mentioned above, if your mind isn’t closed to challenging ideas. We do not say that the alternative to “creation” is chance, and Prof. Dawkins explains this in terms that any intelligent person ought to be able to understand.

As for the ability to reason; as the dictionary says, reason is the power of the mind to think, understand and form judgements logically. There is evidence that other species, including our first cousins, the apes, share this ability, but human beings have developed their cognitive abilities as our brains have developed over millennia. It’s been said that most people use less than 10% of these abilities most of the time, allowing the organ between their ears to atrophy for lack of use, which is a huge waste. The more I’ve learned about what religious people choose to believe, the more I despair of their lazy illogicality.

“If there is no God, we can choose to do as we like”

We always could, and we always will, by which I mean humanity, and not just the religious. Some say that they do what they do because their god tells them to, and some of these religiously-inspired acts are appalling, cruel, and destructive. Neither believers nor non-believers have a monopoly of either morality or immorality. Moralisers of all types seek to impose their views about how we ought to behave on everyone else, and the worst of them are prejudiced, illiberal tyrants. We ought to know by now that exhortations to behave responsibly towards each other are a waste of time if there is no appreciation or understanding of the reasons why we should. Small children may not need to know why they shouldn’t do some things – for their own safety, for example – but any responsible adult is capable of working out his or her values, and most do. Religious fundamentalists may not like some of those values – about sexuality, for example – but that’s just too bad.

“The entire order of the universe … came about accidentally. This is nonsense.”

Yes, it is, but that’s not what we say. I refer to what I wrote earlier. You may have no doubt that the universe was created, but your story about four stones doesn’t change the fact that “creation” is a myth, and there is no evidence for it, and never will be. As my son wrote in an online essay, “I find the idea that millions of years of struggle, survival, mutation and development by life on Earth, and that we have become Earth’s most successful species, awe-inspiring – and the idea that it was all the work of a divine creator abhorrent and laughable.”

Every religion has its own version of how life on earth began.
The Jains don’t believe in creation; they say that there was always life, and always will be. The Zulus’ creator, the “Ancient One” called Unkulunkulu, taught them how to hunt, they say. According to the Qur’an, the skies and the earth were joined together at first, then “cloved asunder”, and God made man out of earth, clay, sand and water, and then breathed life into him. The biblical Genesis myth is just one of many creation myths, all reflecting the circumstances of the people who first spoke about them. When humankind had no other explanations for how life began, or our existence, they told stories about supernatural beings or events. These were passed down, elaborated on, and are now largely forgotten. Some, however, were written into the teachings of the dominant patriarchal monotheistic religions because it was expedient to do so;
as long as the devout accepted nonsense like creation, they’d accept a lot of things without questioning them. Religion thrives on ignorance.

“You have faith only in the rational world.”

No, I don’t, because I don’t have faith at all. “Faith” means accepting something without proof, and in the case of religion, it makes a virtue of this. The sub-editor at the newspaper wrote “We put faith in humans,” but I didn’t say that, and never would. I have trust in people, if I have good reason to, but I don’t have faith.

“… you hope … they will find a formula called The Theory of Everything to explain how everything arose…”

No, I don’t.

“There is hope for you yet.”

This is patronising. Atheism simply means “without god”, from the Greek “a-” (without) and “theos” (god). Calling oneself an atheist only tells others that you don’t believe in God. It doesn’t tell them anything about one’s values and principles. Richard Dawkins is indeed an atheist, but that’s not all he is, and it’s not all I am. By the way, we’re also a-ghostist, a-fairyist, and a-Father-Christmas-ist.

I’m a Humanist and a Rationalist. I think that we human beings are responsible for making the most of the life we have, and the planet we have, because no one else, neither God, nor Superman, will come and clear up any mess we might make and bequeath to our descendants. There’s no such thing as an “act of God”; we can’t influence natural phenomena, but how we respond is up to us. Altruism is a natural human tendency. “God” has no power to change anything; we do.

With best wishes,

Margaret Nelson

File Attachment: Ipswich Evening Star.pdf (1131 KB)

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