Monday, April 28, 2008

Creationism, and intellectual black holes

Incidentally, has anyone got any information regarding Young Earth Creationists who have ceased being Young Earth Creationists (or even become atheists)?

And have any once confirmed atheists ever ended up YECs?

While lots of religious have become atheists, and vice verse, I am guessing there are very few examples of either of these categories.

I suspect (though it's speculation, I admit), that Young Earth Creationism is an intellectual black hole - that the psychological and other forces that make religion so seductive become so concentrated in the U.S. version of YEC that they reach a critical mass: so that, once you're in, there's no way out again (certainly, not by means of reason).

But I would like to be proved wrong....


The Barefoot Bum said...

I know a few former YECs, now atheists or science-compatible Christians. I'll post something on my blog and see if they want to contribute.

The only atheist turned YEC that I know about (other than Alister McGrath) was my former boss. Unfortunately, the constraints of a professional workplace were not conducive to exploring our philosophical differences in any depth.

In general, I don't think we should qualify the population as "confirmed" atheists. I think it's better to simply say "atheist", and try to look for correlations within the population between whether they switch and other characteristics, such as philosophical depth.

The Barefoot Bum said...

Sorry... I had a lapse of reading comprehension: McGrath is not, to my knowledge, a YEC, just a former atheist turned Christian.

Paul said...

Hi Stephen

I may be wrong but if you look at the approach used by the likes of the Alpha course what they do is 'allow' people to change their mind - i.e., go from agnosticism, apathy or atheism towards a christian faith. They appear to encourage questioning and certainly don't berate atheists for not seeing the light!(although I don't trust them and to be honest I think they probably incorporate techniques and trickery such as the creation of ambivalence etc.). This non-berating attitude is of course a new development since the days of Hume's Edinburgh, for example!

I guess what I'm saying is; there's something about the way some popular atheists* approach the issue which probably adds fuel to the fundamentalist fire and prevents them from properly considering the evidence - and thus contributes to people being trapped in their Faith by their own emotions.

As I mentioned before, I work psychologically with people with delusions (e.g., they are being plotted against by MI5 etc). Myself and my colleagues don't want to change our patient's beliefs as such, rather we want to help them develop their skills at using reason and evidence as they proceed in the world. Of course this itself means their beliefs often change, but sometimes this doesn't happen. What's important is that we (in a similar way to the Alpha course) try to allow people to actually use their reason and actually consider the evidence, rather than encouraging them to dig their heels in. The difference I suspect with the Alpha course is that they use this as a technique and a means to some further end, while we work this way because it is ethically appropriate and an end in itself.

Anyway, I suppose I'm suggesting the hypothesis that some atheists in their approach to theists contribute to the intellectual black hole people struggle to climb out of.

It's an old criticism I know, but the thing which atheists don't really offer is a grand purpose or meaning. A lack of this goes against the grain of goal-driven creatures. Most people, excluding analytical philosophers, do believe things because of utility rather than truth and having a God to pray to and live for does seem to remove any horrible uncertainty about one's purpose... submitting to authority can do that (good example here being Winston at the end of 1984 - submitting to the government).

You mention the problem of evil which is obviously an inescapable and lived problem for many people in this world. But the only way many of these people survive is by hoping desperately there is some purpose to the pain - that all will become clear in time.

Are you not asking too much for someone to give up this hope, and to accept the loss and pain they encounter as largely meaningless?

In Camus's book The Plague, Dr Rieux refuses to ascribe meaning to the suffering of a child as I think he feels it would be immoral. He is affronted by Father Paneloux trying to argue it's part of God's will etc. I don't agree with Paneloux but I also have difficulties with Rieux in that he never asks the child what he believes, while one might argue he (or those who are suffering) has greater authority here than either the atheists or the theists.

Most of us would find difficulty forcing someone who is suffering to confront the pointlessness of it all wouldn't we?

So my second highly unoriginal hypothesis is that if atheists can provide a decent 'meaning of life' and help theists deal with their existensial terror, then they will help them extract themselves from their black hole!


*Not you of course Stephen!

Micah Cowan said...

Hi Stephen,

I'm a former YEC who is now firmly atheist (you can thank Barefoot for sending me your way). It may not be quite as hard to find us as you may think: a lot of the time, all it takes is a severe education deficit that is suddenly filled (maybe why fundies fear College for their kids so much?). Of course, there are tougher cases, and I definitely fall into that category.

I think your suspicions wrt an "intellectual black hole" are largely accurate. It's not impossible to reason your way out, but it's exceedingly difficult, and often requires a "trigger" of some sort to prompt your reconsideration of things that had previously been set in stone. I've posted about some of the things that helped trigger my "re-calc".

Aside from the psychological and emotional forces that work together to keep one locked in YEC/biblical literalism, there's also the deceptive rhetorical devices imployed by YECs, including factual fabrication, ignorance of current knowledge, and especially, "strawman" arguments. That YECs misrepresent the actual opposing arguments is of course no excuse for failing to check out the opposing view for one's self; but being duped into thinking you've already heard the other side can make for small motivation to do so.

As to finding atheists-turned-YEC, I'm not sure it'd be all that difficult to find. As Barefoot (and probably others) has said, often an atheist is “simply someone with one fewer stupid idea than a theist”. There are a good number of ignorant/idiot atheists, who just happen to be atheists. I've certainly met a few. I don't think it's particularly unreasonable to expect that an atheist who had never examined much of anything on either evolution or YEC, could become convinced of YEC's validity if the first major series of arguments they encounter support YEC. :)

anticant said...

Why does life, suffering, etc. have to have a 'meaning' apart from the one we each of us individually discover through living it?

Does suffering become any more bearable or acceptable if we ascribe some larger 'meaning' to it?

I very much doubt whether most concentration camp inmates during the Holocaust were much comforted by this notion.

Paul said...

"Does suffering become any more bearable or acceptable if we ascribe some larger 'meaning' to it?"

Not for me and not for you presumably - but definitely for many theists, as many of the parables and stories in the Bible attest to (the footprints in the sand story etc.)

"I very much doubt whether most concentration camp inmates during the Holocaust were much comforted by this notion."

Actually I think they were... I'm thinking here of many stories in Victor Frankl's 'Man's Search for Meaning' (the psychiatrist who survived the concentration camps). He observed that those whose meaning collapsed, either through loss or through their faith crumbling, died fairly quickly afterwards.

Furthermore, is the strong prevalence of faith in developing countries a coincidence, a lack of education, or is it meeting a fundamental function - helping people to survive and make sense of their world?

Personally I find more comfort in meaninglessness these days, but I couldn't attack someone's faith if they were surviving because of it - could you?

Created Rationalist said...

Speaking as a former young earth creationist (now theistic evolutionist). There are many young earth creationists wh style themselves as intellectuals, and there are some very intelligent people who believe in young earth creationism. In fact you could probably make a pretty productive scientific career being a young earth creationist (as long as you weren't a paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, geologist, physical comsologist, astrophysicist, or anthropologist). The part where it is a blackhole is that intellectual resources are wasted on defending young earth creationism theologically and scientifically, young earth creationists operate off presuppositions which cannot be breached, what really dominates young earth belief is not evidence or the lack of it, what really matters is belief itself. When I was a young earth creationist I had no problem with force-fitting all of science into my worldview. That is what young earth creationism demands, because there is no evidence that earth is young you have to say that "interpretation is everything." I as a young earth creationist did not find this view satisfying and took a strictly evidentialist approach to creationism. That was my ticket out of young earth creationism, it led my right to the conclusion that earth was not only 6-10,000 years old.

jeremy said...

There's an interesting article by a journalist who "infiltrated" a Christian revivalist camp, here. It's concluding two paragraphs are particularly telling, and of relevance:

By the end of the weekend I realized how quaint was the mere suggestion that Christians of this type should learn to "be rational" or "set aside your religion" about such things as the Iraq War or other policy matters. Once you've made a journey like this — once you've gone this far — you are beyond suggestible. It's not merely the informational indoctrination, the constant belittling of homosexuals and atheists and Muslims and pacifists, etc., that's the issue. It's that once you've gotten to this place, you've left behind the mental process that a person would need to form an independent opinion about such things. You make this journey precisely to experience the ecstasy of beating to the same big gristly heart with a roomful of like-minded folks. Once you reach that place with them, you're thinking with muscles, not neurons.

By the end of that weekend, Phil Fortenberry could have told us that John Kerry was a demon with clawed feet, and not one person would have so much as blinked. Because none of that politics stuff matters anyway, once you've gotten this far. All that matters is being full of the Lord and empty of demons. And since everything that is not of God is demonic, asking these people to be objective about anything else is just absurd. There is no "anything else." All alternative points of view are nonstarters. There is this "our thing," a sort of Cosa Nostra of the soul, and then there are the fires of Hell. And that's all.

anticant said...

"I couldn't attack someone's faith if they were surviving because of it - could you?"

Frankl was a believing Jew, wasn't he? Despite his testimony, I still doubt whether "most" concentration camp inmates survived longer because of their faith.

If you've noticed my comments to Kyle p. on another thread, you will know that I don't advocate attacking other people's faith - however misguided - if it benignly helps them to cope better with their lives. But I would vehemently attack the kind of delusionary faith described by the journalist quoted by Jeremy, which is based upon the "We're OK - anyone who disagrees with us is not OK" fascist principle.

I agree with Andre Gide, who said: "The deeper the soul plunges into religious devotion, the more it loses all sense of reality, all need, all desire, all love for reality...The dazzling light of their faith blinds them to the surrounding world and to their own selves. As for me, who cares for nothing so much as to see the world and myself clearly, I am amazed at the coils of falsehood in which devout persons take delight."

Anonymous said...

I am embarrassed to admit that, as a teenager, I read all the young earth creationist books (Gish etc), and was a young earth creationist (and fundamentalist Christian believer). I am now a college English instructor, and an agnostic. By the time I'd reached college I started to read Steven Gould. Gould's first essay in "Ever Since Darwin" was a turning point for me. I couldn't sustain, intellectually, the position, and abandoned it. I ended up devouring evolution books, and science books generally, in my twenties.

In retrospect, the creationist material, I feel, stimulated my interest in science. I'm not terribly uptight about teaching readers creationism because most intelligent students, if they read voraciously, will think their way through creationisms flawed arguments and will have learned good lessons about evidence and logic. What I worry about is the non-reading, non-intellectually inclined person who dips into just enough creationism to confirm his or her prejudices, and never considers evolution with any seriousness again. Unfortunately, I know some people like that, too.
Santi Tafarella

Paul said...

"But I would vehemently attack the kind of delusionary faith described by the journalist quoted by Jeremy, which is based upon the "We're OK - anyone who disagrees with us is not OK" fascist principle."

Yes, there seems to be a world of difference between an individual finding hope through a personal belief and an organised group attempting to pervert the minds of the vulnerable and suggestible.

However I suspect that in some circumstances (although far from all) the former may lead to the latter. Unfortunately.

Interesting Gide quote - thanks.

Stephen Law said...

Thanks Barefoot Bum for putting these former YECs in touch, and thanks for them to getting in touch. It's kind of reassuring to find that some do escape - though obviously for different reasons and with different triggers. Very much injoyed your post Micah. Created rationalists point about his/her unease at the way evidence is force-fitted into creationism is really the main focus of my earlier paper (scroll down to my post "Darwin, creationism and evidence")

If any of you have any suggestions as to how it might be improved or made more effective for the YEC audience, I'd be grateful.

In answer to Paul - well no I wouldn't attack someone's deluded belief if they were only surviving because of it. Actually, I think the atheist viewpoint can be (but needn't be) morally and spiritually superior, and also more fulfilling, compared to the religious. But that's another story for another time...

Stephen Law said...

Thanks for the link Jeremy - had me laughing out loud on the bus....

Sceptic Anonymous said...

I am not sure if this is on topic but there is one question I want to ask all the atheists of the group. I grew up as an Orthodox Christian but my parents were very relaxed about it and after meddling a bit with philosophy and history I have reached the conclusion that I am agnostic. However there are times when I catch myself thinking that I would like to believe but I can't bring myself to accept that some text written 2000 years ago is the word of god.

I am also thinking so long I am young and healthy is easy to dismiss talk of god and so on. But what will happen when the time of death comes close? I find that thought quite scary. Is death just the end? And if so doesn't this scare you sometimes especially if you think how fragile human existence is? I guess the question is not about the meaning of life per se, I think I have found ways to infuse meaning to my life in the absence of god, but more about what happens afterwards. Compared to the universe humans have fleeting lives and sooner or later we all perish.
Is that all?

Is this some residue of my Christian upbringing, you know the drill this life is merely a test for the eternal life and so on. Or is it simple human instinct or just fear of the unknown. How do atheists deal with the only certainty of life, that is death?

In Umberto Eco's novel The Island of the Day Before, there is a very interesting dialogue between the hero and a French witty swordsman who insults a priest with his crass atheism. At some point the atheist said that we should just enjoy our life and accept death with the cold stoicism of the pagan philosophers. I really liked that attitude, but at the same time I suspect when it comes to the time I will not be so cool about it.

Any thoughts of that? Or should I ask our dear host to write a post about death at some point and how believers and atheist relate to it?

anticant said...

Dear Sceptic Anonymous,

I am now 80, and have a terminal illness. The prospect of being dead quite soon doesn’t worry me; the manner of my death does, and I have taken what steps I can to ensure that when the time comes it will be as pain-free as possible and with the best medical care.

Why doesn’t the prospect of being dead worry me? Well, I’ve never really been able to believe all these tales religious people tell about the life to come – which they oddly believe [without a shred of evidence] is going to be so much more perfect than this one. I simply don’t know whether there is another life to come, and I won’t find out until I get there. If there is, I shall look God in the eye and say “Oh, God, how COULD you?” Because I think he has a lot of explaining to do. If there isn’t, I simply won’t know, and neither will you or anyone else [including the countless millions who have died through the centuries believing there is an after-life if in fact there isn’t]. It will simply be a dreamless sleep – which I find quite a comforting prospect.

Unless you are simply content – as I am – to wait and see, I suppose the safest bet is Pascal’s Wager. But, as has often been discussed on this blog and elsewhere, that is not a very morally creditable position to adopt and won’t score you many brownie points when you arrive in heaven or its opposite!

Why do you WORRY whether there is another life or not? So far as we know for certain, this one is the only one we have got – so let’s live it as creatively as we can from day to day and meet death with a clear conscience.

Micah Cowan said...

It's kind of reassuring to find that some do escape

Yes, but Stephen, it really scares the shit out of me when I think about the fact that I spent the first 28 years of my life believing that shit, having been out of it now for only about two years. And I was the "voracious reader" anonymous talks about: Biology and Geology just happened to not be the things my readings focused on (which were mainly computers, and software development), and of course, not being up on the foundational reasons for an Old Earth and macroevolution, my eyes would glaze over and I'd mentally translate figures of millions of years, whenever I'd happen across them. I sometimes think my anguish over my siblings' perpetuated ignorance (I have 7 younger siblings, ages 12-27, at least 6 of whom are YECs) is almost as deep as my family's anguish over the impending and eternal damnation of my immortal soul. But probably not.

BTW: jeremy, I too thoroughly enjoyed that link, thanks very much!

To sceptic anonymous: I think different people deal with it in different ways. I think that, regardless of what one's beliefs are, most people want something of them to persist beyond their own lifetime, to know that they "made a difference". I think this is why ancient emperors were encouraged to hear that their empires would be everlasting. For some, it's their work (see the end of Ecclesiastes, whose author clearly did not positively believe in an afterlife [boy does that book create issues for Christians]), for others, it's their children. I definitely feel the draw of both of those: I want to do the best I can with my children so they can carry on some sort of legacy, and I want to work on Free Software projects that make a difference to me, and may make a difference for others.

Jackie said...

Actually, it might be harder in some cases to deconvert a new age woo believer like my mother. There's little to know structure in their belief system so it's hard to pin them down on anything. Compare this to Ex-Catholics like my father, my ex-boyfirend and my husband. When someone sets out exactly what it is you're supposed to believe, it's much easier to see how life goes against it.

Jackie said...

typo: "litte-to-no" instead of "little to know"

David B. Ellis said...

I suspect (though it's speculation, I admit), that Young Earth Creationism is an intellectual black hole - that the psychological and other forces that make religion so seductive become so concentrated in the U.S. version of YEC that they reach a critical mass: so that, once you're in, there's no way out again (certainly, not by means of reason).

But I would like to be proved wrong....

Consider yourself proven wrong.

I'm a former YEC turned atheist.

The psychological forces you refer to are very real though. The experience of beginning to question my religious beliefs at 15 when they came into conflict with what I was learning about the age of the universe and evolution (I was and am strongly interested in science) was one of the most emotionally painful experiences of my life.

Given the two year trial I went through as my studies and reading on science, religion, psychology, history and philosophy caused my religious belief to gradually erode to complete skepticism on religious claims its not surprising to me that its so rare.

Anonymous said...

Heres an alternative hypothesis:

It is actually more likely that an adherent of an extreme form of belief like YEC will turn into an atheist,
a) because their position is so inflexible it will not allow some of the evasion that the more mystical theists employ.
b) They tend to draw more attention to themselves and so end up as the focus of debates such as this one, where they are challenged.

We will need some sort of a census I suppose to test this.

Butch said...

Former born-again evangelical fundie (Southern Baptist) who was a firm Biblical literalist, now a free-thinking atheist here.

The overwhelming evidence for evolution and the abhorrent dishonesty of the YEC crowd is what got me doubting in the first place. I blame the fundamentalism for killing my faith. I actually bought into the “it’s all right or it’s all wrong” line the fundies throw out, but I was honest enough to give the alternative a fair chance.

Tony Lloyd said...

It’s interesting that there are so many who adopt atheism after learning about evolution!

I suspect that that is the main fear of the Creationists, who then put the cart before the horse when asking:

"6) Is evolution based in part on the unproven assumption that there is no intervening God who has created the species through miraculous intervention?"
(Author in comment on )

For evolution to be "based" on the unproven assumption that there is no intervening God ("¬G") that assumption would form part of the PREMISES to evolution ("E"):

1. If ¬G then E,
2. ¬G
3. Therefore E

Where "There is no God" is part of the starting point.

But, in fact, ¬G is a CONCLUSION of E. As the testimony shows the internal argument (in part) was:

1*. If E then ¬G,
2*. E
3*. Therefore ¬G

Creationists start from the not only unproven but false premise:

1'. If E then ¬G
add faith:
2'. G
and conclude
3'. Therefore ¬E

Valid, but with a false premise.

Paul C said...

I don't have anything substantial to add - I just wanted to say thanks to the former YEC believers for writing about their experiences. It must have taken tremendous strength of character to swim against such a strong tide.

Billy said...

I meet a lot of YECs online that claim to have once been evolution believing atheists. However, you soon discover that most of them have not got the first clue about evolution and just give you standard AIG dogma.

James Van Alstine said...

I am an atheist and a former YEC. I originally started having skeptical thoughts about christianity in grade school, and I finally broke free of that mindset last year (sophomore year at a university). I was home "schooled" until 17 years of age, and about a fifth of the biology book I had in 6th grade was devoted to "debunking" evolution. Even though I am now an atheist and a student of physics and mathematics, it still feels weird accepting evolutionary theory. This is probably due to fundamentalist christianity being pounded into my head for my entire childhood.