Can creationism cause cultural harm?

Sep 25, 2012

Is Bill Nye, a mechanical engineer and star of the popular 1990s TV show "Bill Nye The Science Guy," correct that we run the risk of killing the American spirit of innovation if as many as 46 percent of us continue to believe that the world was made by God some 10,000 years ago?

In a recent online video Nye urged parents "not to pass their religious-based doubts about evolution on to their children," the Associated Press reported.

Is there a place for this belief in contemporary culture? If we really respect freedom of conscience, then shouldn't this view also be respected? Why or why not?

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How the world came into existence, it's genesis so to speak, remains an issue about which Americans are more divided than manypeople  know, or can believe when they find out.  46% of us believe that the world was created by God some 10,000 years ago.    What do you think?


 Does the fact that so mnay of us believe in creationism, mean that such ideas should be taught in school?  Is Creationism inherently dangerous for kids as was recently suggested by children's television science educator, Bill Nye?


Does creationism kill creativity and stiffle innovation?  What say you?


Let's go?

Creationism should not be taught in public schools for the same reason astronomy classes don't case horoscopes -- the basis behind the practice is not derived from the scientific method (hypothesis testing). However, we shouldn't come away with the idea that only religion limits our scientific thinking. Idealistic beliefs about gender and race being social constructs and homosexuality being a birth condition, have limited legitimate inquiry into differences, because the "diversity coalition" values political correctness over the factual kind.

You sagely do what so few do, especially when it comes to this particular debate.  You idnetify the larger intellectual challenge of well-meaning but dogmatic thinking, which can be found in many segments of our culture.  That said, the idea that issues of identity, sexuality, and pretty much everything else, are a blend of social and biological influences should not be desparaged, as you seem to.  In fact, your own objections point to MY conclusion! 


You are upset by the notion that gender and race are social (presumambly because you think they are biological), but refuse to acknowlewdge anything biologically determined about homosexuality (presumably because you think it is social).  So, you actually admit that both forces are at work, you just don't like how some people weight the influences.  Well and good, but don't pretend that even you see them as being both real and active.


In terms of teaching Creationism is school, I favor it, AS LONG AS IT IS TAUGHT IN SOCIAL STUDIES, HISTORY OF RELIGION OR CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN CIVILIZATION.  It is a real belief and actually is an approach which raises valuable issues, BUT IT"S NOT SCIENCE.

My mom said she couldn't believe we descende from monkeys- as a biology major in college I blithely ignored her. Comparative anatomy showed me we had the same bone structure and muscles as all mammals and even similar to reptiles. God would have to be pretty stupid to give something that walks upright the same bone/muscle structure as something that walks on all fours- hence our back problems. Why should we respect ignorance and stupidity? Should we respect a parent who doesn't believe in the laws of motion and thus doesn't put their child in a car seat?

Anyone who believes in the creationism theory of the Universe also must believe in Santa Claus (as a real person who comes down all the chimneys), the Eastern Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, etc. There is no science to support the claim the Earth is about 6,000 years old. Why would anyone give any space in a major newspaper to this silly, bogus stuff?

Because, when you come off your high horse, you might see that almost half of Americans believe this "bogus stuff", and the debate around it continues to shape our culture and many major issues of public policy.  You can curse the darkness, as you seem to enjoy, or light a candle, as we are trying to do here.


Also, have you had much success helping people to more deeply appreciate the value and necessity of science and evolution by desparaging those very people's beliefs?  I don't mean to be rough on you, but as a believer in both God and the Bible, who also rejects the notion of a 6,000 year old world, I have a ring-side seat at this ongoing battle and it just hurts when people as intelligent and rational as you must be, allow themselves to get so unhelpfully bent out of shape.

I think the bigger topic is 'Can religion and science coexist?" and to me the answer is yes. I believe people think that if you believe in one you cannot believe in the other, but I feel that isn't true. Realizing that Genesis isn't exactly what happened doesn't necessarily mean that you have to discard God entirely- if you think about it nothingness ->big bang -> matter coming together -> stars forming -> planet shaping/evolving -> plant life, animal life, evolution of man, naming of animals, etc. could be in line with what Genesis says. Maybe if we allow ourselves to understand scripture as parable and not as immutable fact it works out better.

We agree about the possibility of science and religion co-exisitng.  In fact, both are necessary to our culture, if not to our individual lives.  Well, science actually is necessary for all of our lives, but religion is not.  Though to be clear, it does add things of value that no other system can.


Where we disagree is imagining that your offered solution to integrating the science and religion will work.  Don't get me wrong, I find it both beautiful and sophisitcated, but for many believers it undermines their most deeply help beliefs.


I think we do owe biblical literalists respect, but only to the extent that they respect the difference between faith and fact in the public domain.

The only people who believe in young-earth creationism (as opposed to divinely-guided evolution) are Biblical literalists. Everyone who sees that our scripture is a human document, sees the mytho-poetic language in which the Genesis story is written. The world's most important religious challenge of current generation, is to de-mystify the origin of the Quran, which is obviously not divinely written, but the belief that it is has been the basis of more than a reasonable share of the world's atrocities and continues today.

You are certainly correct that all people who see scripture -- any scripture -- as a product of human minds, will have no problems with reading sacred text non-literally.  And to be clear, thousands of years of Jews and Catholics, who still believed in the Bible as a revealed text, also maintained a tradition of commentary which could lift the text out of a purely literal reading.  The issue is less one of human text vs revealed text, than it is one of assuming a finite text with limited meaning, and an infinite text with endless meaning.


And while you are right about much of the current religion-inspired violence in the world today being sourced in one particular tradtion, it would take Islam 1,000 years to catch up with the body count for which Christianity was the inspiration.  Not to mention that religious fanaticism is present all monotheistic faiths at least, and all still have their killers thumping their respective holy books.

Imagine a class of sophomores in Catholic high school taught by a nun explaining creation and science. I vaguely recall the class was anthropology. She explained that man decided what a day was sunup and sunset, 24 hours equals a day. 365 days = a year. God did not define 7 days as 24 hours times 7 (week), man did. No one knows God's definition of 7 days. She further explained that God 7 days maybe our human 7 million years, who knows. God's time cannot be defined by man.

You had a wise teacher.  That answer has roots going back to the 7th century at least, in Jewish thought, and I don't know how far back in Catholic teaching.  But your point, and your teacher's is a good one.  It is also not helpful for those who don't share those tradtions.


At the end of the day, we have to decide that science has value even when it cannot be squared with whatever faith we hold.  I am not suggesting that it must always trump our faith, but if it cannot at least be protected from those who would use faith to destroy science, we are all going to suffer what me be called problems of biblical proportions.

Science is such a large field that kids who show an interest in it as a career path have hundreds of options. There are more paths today than ever before. Some may have ethical issues (such as cloning humans) but so many more do not, like space travel or more fuel efficient technologies. I don't see any push to slow down our curiosity or process of discovery.

I think you are right.  Science and technology are pushing ahead, as they should.  I do worry though about the wall of isolation between many of those who think about the ethical and human challenges created by science and technology, from our most brilliant and creative scientists and technologists.


For the first time in human history, the challenge is less how to get the technology we need to survive, and more how to use what we have, in wise and ethical ways.  In many ways, this is an age in which science and religion/ethics need each other more than ever, so we need people on each side who can learn from the other, not simply try to vanquish each other.

The problem is those children at home that are told that God created the heavens and the Earth 10000 years ago are taught to not question it and it's a matter of faith. Religion in and of itself does provide some good to society; however, to rule out science on "faith" is where the problem arises.

Nicely put.  The fight about facticity actually undermines the claim that something is a faith!  But I know, even as I write those words, that they will do nothing to convince the absolute literalists.  So, what to do?


We need to agree that people should teach whatever faith (or faithlessness) they want to their kids, and also agree that w/o a robust committment to science, we are all going to suffer.  Given that, no matter what one believes about the origins of the world, let's be honest about what is and is not science, respect it for what it is, and offer some respect to those ideas which are not -- even if we don't like them -- as long as they don't pretend to be science.

I guess it would depend on whether they are teaching it as science or as social culture. Treating it as science is a problem, because how does one teach creationism without relying on either a very specific bible or else a very specific god (science can't be based on such things; science must stand true even if you don't believe in a bible or a god)? There are plenty of other religion based theories out there about how the world was created - I remember doing a whole lesson on Greek mythology which has its own explanations for how things came to pass. There are Buddist stories as well about their many gods etc. I guess I would treat Creationism the same way. I don't mean to be flip, but in reading what I just wrote, I don't see beliving in Creationism as any different than beliving in Greek Mythology - who's to say there isn't a Mount Olympus really out there?

You are not wrong at all -- but yes, it does sound a bit flip.  That's because Greek cults are not the living faith and practice of any significant number of contemporary Americans.  We need to find a way to do exactly what you suggested: teach these deeply-held, but non-scientific ideas in classes where they belong, and do so with the respect that they deserve.  Respect which is not a function of how accurate the beliefs are, but because the accurately relfect the lived lives of almost half of American citizens.

I am a little confused. Isn't one the main aspects of parenthood teaching your children what you beleive? To creationists creationism is truth and if they tell thier children something other than what they beleive, isn't that lying? I think?

You raise a valuable and important question.  Parenting is very much about passing on your beliefs to your kids.  The only difference on this score is that typically, conservatives celebrate that part of parenting whereas liberals decry it.  Either way, if they are involved parents, they are doing it!  But that is a different discussion.


What I think creationis parents can do, is take full responsibility for what they are teaching.  They need to accept the cost of teaching that doctrine must always win over evidence and experience.  They must admit that they and their children are the beneficiaries of many people who only accomplished what they did because they were scientists, not creationists.  In other words, if people want to teach the most absolute and literalist forms of creationsm to their kids, fine.  But at least do so with eyes wide open, a measure of humility, and genuine appreciation for those whose views they do not share.

If God created the world 10,000 years ago, why did he also create deadly viruses and bacteria that used to kill millions of babies and children (and still do in some places)? Why did he let all of those people die, but then let man come up with the scientific method to develop ways to control some of these diseases only in the last 100 years? Is this against God’s will? What about genetic variations that cause horrible diseases? Why did God create us so that we develop or inherit horrible genetic defects? I ask this in all seriousness, because the only satisfying explanation I can find is through the tenants of evolution (e.g., sickle cell evolved to help defend against Malaria, microroganisms merely evolved to self perpetuate themselves etc.). The evidence supporting evolution is growing day-by-day, year-by-year. To deny evolution is to reject science and the whole process of science. I also think that many people misunderstand how science works. Scientists don’t prove things—they form hypotheses and test them. They gather evidence, which either supports or refutes their hypotheses. Sometimes hypotheses change or get modified during the process, but ultimately, hypotheses that hold water are supported by overwhelming evidence accumulated over time. The scientific process that was used to come up with the theory of evolution is the same one used to come up with development of life saving vaccines, cancer treatments, antibiotics, jet engines, computer chips—basically all of health and technology. To believe in the idea that there was a God that created the world 10,000 years ago comes pretty close to rejecting science and the scientific method (i.e., how much evidence is there that refutes evolution? BTW, people often refer to “gaps” in our understanding of evolution but again, what overwhelming evidence is there against evolution besides just stating that one doesn’t think there is enough evidence?). I’m not sure how one can operate in the modern world as a creationist and accept technology, health care etc. unless one accepts science unevenly (yes for some things, but no for others). An inability to accept science can definitely hurt our ability to deal with important issues of our time. Global warming. Vaccines. Obesity. Mental illness. Maybe the difficulty rests with scientists not effectively communicating their findings and the lack of understanding for how science works? At what point should lay people accept a particular scientific finding? How does one decide whether or not the evidence is sufficient that global warming is being fostered by human activities? Finally, I would point out that I’m not saying that faith isn’t important in one’s life or that you shouldn’t believe that God created the world (although it should be able to take into account evolution, yes?) I really enjoy your discussions because I always come away with other perspectives that challenge my own views. I look forward to having the same thing happen today!

You are asking huge and hugely important questions.  All of whcih is to say that we cannot address them here, at least not with the depth which they deserve.


What I can say is that any faith which has easy answers to the questions you raise, and the human suffering which lies behind them, is not a faith to be trusted.  And any ideology which seeks to denigrate faith by raising such questions, is not an ideology to be respected.  Each is looking to avoid the reality of our own finitude and the ongoing human search for purpose, meaning, and love.


Show me any system which aids in our pursuit of those three -- and does so with enough humility to admit that no one answer or understranding can do it alone, and I will show you a system deserving of both our attention and our respect.

Yes, denying that science exists and works is causing cultural harm. Creationism and intelligent design deny science, they deny human intelligence, they deny how things actually work; to state otherwise is to be ludicrous.

You almost had me there.  So much of what you wrote is true and helpful.  But to assume that we know how things "actually work" -- that we possess a full understanding of all of the forces and dynamics at work in our universe , that's where you lost me, and probably everyone else who knows that that isn't possible.  Not to mention that there has been no force greater than contemporary science, in helping us to appreciate that the purely mechanistic model you suggest is almost certainly wrong.


Also, as our time for this week is nearing an end, I should point out that your lumping all Creationsists into one big basket is actually not helpful.  And to be clear, I say that as a non-literal creationist.  That means that I believe in a God who shaped the universe as we know it, and it means that I am at least as certain that it didn't happen in 7 days a bit less than6,000 years ago!  It means that I apprecaite the difference between claims based on faith and those based on physical evidence, and cannot imagine my life without them both.


To be clear, that does NOT mean that I call intelligent design science.  Science delights in being wrong, it grows from such discoveries and ambraces them as a necessary part of the path to progress.  I think that religion should do the same, and for many people it does, but for the ID crowd it does not.  That's why they have no place in a science classroom, but I am moved by parts of what they say about the limits of scientific knowing.  Of course, those parts are equally embraced by the most sophisiticated secular scientists as well, so make of it what you will.

Well, that's it for this week!  Thanks, as always, for so many wonderful comments and intelligent questions.


Don't forget that we can continue this conversation if you find me on facebook and follow me on twitter @bradhirschfield.


'Ti next week,


In This Chat
Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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