Creationist Polemicists: Disavowing Their Own Principles as Too Extreme

11/14/2011 12:02 pm ET | Updated Jan 14, 2012

It's funny how upset some people get when they read their own words.

My most recent Huffington Post piece seems to have struck quite a nerve with significant players in the creationist movement. That essay discussed the fact that peace is increasingly the norm between religion and science. Despite many examples of peaceful coexistence, understanding and respect, I mentioned that not everyone is on board with this program. I noted that some religious leaders as well as some scientists are opposed.

As you can see below, I mentioned Ken Ham, the head of Answers in Genesis, by name and I mentioned the Discovery Institute. Both were upset by what I had to say. Let's start with what I wrote:

Yes, there are religious leaders who proclaim that their religious teachings dictate their scientific beliefs. Fundamentalists who adhere dogmatically to a specific interpretation of ancient texts and demand that those bizarre interpretations be taught in science classes fall into this category. Fundamentalists like Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis who unilaterally break science into "operational" science and "historical" science fall into this category. And fundamentalists like those at the Discovery Institute who promote a redefinition of science to include the supernatural also fall into this category. But these people and organizations, as loud and as well funded as they are, do not represent the vast majority of religious individuals. When we conflate these two dramatically different groups and assume they have the same motives and intellectual underpinnings, we're making a huge mistake and missing an opportunity for enhanced understanding.

Ken Ham took to Twitter to complain. In what I can only describe as an utterly incomprehensible tweet, Ham wrote: "Now here is a shock for you. An atheist mocks at what I and Answers in Genesis teach about Genesis! Who would..." Please note that the ellipsis is Ham's and not mine.

The paragraph I wrote is grammatically very clear. The first sentence, the topic sentence, says that "there are some religious leaders who proclaim that their religious teachings dictate their scientific beliefs." That sentence is neither controversial nor mocking in tone. It simply makes a factual claim. The next three sentences provide specific examples of the sorts of religious leaders I alluded to in the first sentence. Ken Ham is addressed only in the second of those three sentences and all I said about him is that he and his organization "unilaterally break science into 'operational' science and 'historical' science."

While I'll be the first to admit that the dichotomy Ham promotes is both meaningless and not supported by the scientific community, I'd argue that simply articulating Ham's perspective is in no way disrespectful. Did I mischaracterize Ham's conceptualization of science? You be the judge. Go to the Answers in Genesis web page and search for "operational science." You'll find 221 results.

As an aside, how about readers offering suggestions for ways to complete the hanging sentence in Ham's tweet? I bet we could all have great fun with that.

David Klinghoffer of the Discovery Institute was also upset by what I had to say. He wrote a response on the Discovery Institute's web page entitled "Clueless at the Clergy Letter Project." Pointing to the same paragraph I quoted above, Klinghoffer complains, "Now that is a passage of prose rich in grotesque errors and misconceptions. There's nothing in intelligent design that redefines science -- it merely asks that the definition not be reformulated to arbitrarily exclude precisely those explanations of natural phenomena that best fit the data."

Wow! Klinghoffer is apparently arguing that science has been "reformulated" and all the Discovery Institute wants is a return to the good old definition of science. How recently did this "reformulation" take place? I guess the answer depends on your perspective. Very recently in evolutionary terms -- indeed, over virtually all of the 4.5 billion years the Earth has been here, science as we know it today did not exist.

But, in human terms, the time span is very different. The "reformulation" Klinghoffer complains about took place in the 16th and 17th centuries led by such scientific greats as Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton. Bacon and Newton and others like them moved us away from superstition and ushered in the modern scientific world. They created the scientific method which depends upon the concept of falsifiability and they recognized that that method cannot address the supernatural. Science, for over 400 years, has limited its reach to material explanations for natural phenomena.

The Discovery Institute clearly doesn't like this new-fangled idea called science. Take a look at some of the text of "The Wedge" document produced by the Discovery Institute.

Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies. Bringing together leading scholars from the natural science and those from the humanities and social sciences, the Center explores how new developments in biology, physics and cognitive science raise serious doubts about scientific materialism and have re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature.

If this isn't exactly the sort of "redefinition of science" I mentioned, I'll stand corrected. In reality, though, both the Discovery Institute and Answers in Genesis have staked out extreme positions, positions completely at odds with the world's scientific community.

The only thing I can conclude from all of this is that creationist beliefs are even too extreme for the creationists. Those beliefs make for good copy when preaching to the faithful and when raising funds, but when those very same beliefs are presented in a broader context, they are quickly disavowed. Creationists, after all, ultimately have to be able to appeal to an audience far broader than their base if they're going to be successful.

Over many years, I have found that the most successful way to move an audience away from creationism is to use the creationist's own words and simply ask: "Is this really what you believe?" Apparently the creationists have finally recognized exactly the same thing.