The atheist and the creationist: Can't they just get along?

My friend is considering teaching "young earth" creationism in his school, and I think I'm going to vomit.

Published May 15, 2008 10:10AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have a good friend of 15 years. I'm an atheist; he's a devout Christian who has expressed his doubts about God to me many, many times over the years. We used to engage in long and ultimately friendly debates about organized religion and the existence of God. Despite his dissatisfaction with what he sees as obvious contradictions between the Bible, the church's interpretation of the Bible and the facts of mankind's life on earth, he still ultimately believes in God's existence -- because of what he interprets as personal contact with him. He's an intelligent, hardworking man with a deep sense of right and wrong and unwavering loyalty to his friends, myself included.

Now he has been asked by his church's school (where he is an active participant) to teach "young earth" creationism. Moreover, they want him to teach this in science class as the predominant theory of life on earth. He's actively considering it, and reading as many texts as he can on the topics of intelligent design, creationism, and Darwinian evolution so that he can attempt to arrive at a decision as to whether to accept the school's request.

As my wife put it, we consider teaching young earth creationism (in any sense other than as a theology, if it must be taught at all) to be a form of child abuse. It seems bad enough that he has raised his two children with a belief system that he himself has acknowledged has serious holes in it, but it seems far worse that he is now thinking seriously about helping other children drink the Kool-Aid.

He repeatedly asks for my help in "weighing the evidence" and asks me not to judge him. The problem is that I am so blinded by anger and disappointment that he would even consider teaching, as science, such a blatantly anti-scientific concept, I can hardly bring myself to talk to him rationally. He is well educated in some areas of science, but somehow he has a blind spot here.

He currently lives over 2,000 miles away, so all our contact is through e-mail and Instant Messenger (and occasional phone calls). He seems to really want my input on this, but I'm having a very difficult time quelling my revulsion and nausea that this has even come up as a topic in our friendship.

Crazy for Reason

Dear Crazy for Reason,

As I walked around Stern Grove in San Francisco this morning, I thought of my own early exposure to the science of single-cell organisms, atomic theory and geology. I was given a solid foundation in how the earth was formed, how elements are structured and how life processes occur. What I cherish most about that early exposure to science is that it gave me a coherent story of creation. It started with simple things and proceeded in an orderly and gradual way toward the more complex, revealing, in the end, literally everything under the sun.

What I loved about science was the story it told. It provided a creation myth.

I do not mean to say that science rests on belief, that it is not factual. What I mean to say is that our attachment to science, and our deep need for what it gives us, can cause us to act unscientifically in its defense.

So what would a true scientist do when confronted with this situation? Let's say a true scientist is visiting us from another planet, trying to observe and record significant phenomena so he can better understand what is going on in the universe.

Would a true scientist experience revulsion and nausea at the scenes of our culture that you describe? Would a true scientist observe the teaching of mythology to children and label it child abuse? Would a true scientist refuse friendship with another person because that person engaged in the teaching of these strange and wondrous mythologies to children?

If a true scientist came upon a pre-modern culture living right in Manhattan, would he be revolted and nauseated? Would he claim that in transmitting its mythology to its children this pre-modern culture was committing child abuse?

Why is it that colorful beliefs and mythologies are fascinating in other cultures, but considered pernicious in our own?

Science is based on careful and dispassionate observation. So why wouldn't the atheist, as a scientist, confine his observations to the observable surface and ask, What survival value does this ritual have? How do these adherents cluster, and what is their food supply? How do their myths connect to other areas of their lives, and how do they support their organic survival? What possible emotional phenomena could these stories be used to deal with? And what is the great attraction and benefit of this cultural practice?

And, he might also ask of himself, why am I feeling what I am feeling? What are my own feelings related to? What is threatened? Am I feeling the loss of friendship? Am I feeling ... what?

As I walked around Stern Grove, grappling with these questions that are admittedly beyond my pay grade, I tried to find a way of seeing this as part of the great, magical, enthralling world that we are briefly visiting. I tried to take the long view. So I asked myself, What is more important in a country, freedom of expression or the dissemination of correct views?

I believe freedom of expression is more important than the wide dissemination of correct views. I arrived at this conclusion by considering that in a democracy state power will inevitably be used to bolster, promote and enforce ideas and ideals that germinate in personal and family life. So I say in our private lives we ought to tolerate and embrace what we consider to be nutty, in the hope that this is the private behavior that will eventually filter upward into state power. For if what we value in our private lives is the dissemination of correct views, that is the value that is likely to take root in government. And that is the view that leads to tyranny, in my humble opinion.

And take the long view. And let a hundred flowers bloom.

And, speaking of which, what if we were to view human variety as benevolently as we view plant variety? Why do we privilege certain kinds of difference over others? Why do we say, for instance, that belief is different from skin color? Privileging science over belief is good practical behavior, but does it allow for the largest and most tolerant view of humanity as a whole? Does it not place those in possession of technical and scientific power above other cultures, and is that superiority not the starting point for imperialism? Do we really believe that all people have equal rights and equal value, in as broad a way as possible? Are we willing to stake our lives on this idea of radical freedom?

This is the question that intrigues me: How far are we willing to stretch our inclusion, our embrace of difference? Do we allow only certain categories of difference, or are we willing to go all the way, to embrace our ideological opposites? I turn again and again to William Blake and his idea of spiritual warfare waged against giant systems of thought -- spiritual warfare waged in a spirit of engagement and love.

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