I'm behind in updating my thoughts on the visit to the Creation "Museum" from Friday, but I want to get a specific experience down in a blog post. I was fortunate enough to engage two Christians in conversation, one a decided creationist and the other an on-the-fence Christian unsure of what to believe about evolution. This conversation is described briefly at the end of the Devin Powell article on Inside Science
which was picked up by ABC News. Here is how Devin described the encounter:
But at least one conversation between religious believers and members of the group found common ground. Beneath a poster that presented the creationist interpretation of fossils, two students from North Carolina and a man who became religious after being diagnosed with cancer engaged in a polite dialogue about helping others and tolerating differences that drew a crowd.
photo courtesy Devin Powell and Inside Science - from left to right are Richard, myself, and Jon
"Regardless of religion, we both live our lives for the same reasons," said one of the students. "The big thing we have a problem with here is the faulty science."
That's my quote at the end. Well, sorta. Those aren't the exact words I spoke at any point, but that's the gist of part of the conversation. Richard, the on-the-fence Christian, was very engaging and willing to talk about the things he saw in the "museum", his own experiences, and his struggle to understand and accept the ideas of evolution and creationism.
Here's how this all started. I was touring the "museum" and had just entered one of the rooms dedicated to convincing the visitors that the creationists had a different interpretation of the same facts offered in the fossil record. Overhearing a couple of people discussing some of this (one of which was Richard), I listened as the creationist explained that the fossil record was all the evidence available for evolution and that all the rest of the evidence was spotty at best. He claimed that almost all mutations were destructive and that evolution cannot provide reasons why complex changes came about without killing off the creatures involved. Here was my chance.
So I chimed in (very politely) that the evidence for evolution was not just contained in the fossil record, but in dozens of scientific disciplines and millions of bits of data. I added that mutations happen constantly and while some are indeed dangerous, there are countless examples (including in our own DNA) which show mutations are often neutral and have no clear effect. As I quickly explained, scientists are absolutely unified that evolution had occurred and that humans share common ancestry with other creatures (as I pointed and chuckled at my shirt).
The creationist (I did not get his name) quickly jumped on blood clotting (the general argument is that the complexity seen in the way human blood clots, and the dozens of proteins and steps needed to make it happen, show that evolution cannot account for this process and therefore must have been designed). Now, I'm not one to go on a mission behind enemy lines without arming myself, and as you can see from the list of books I've read recently on the right, I was prepared. I'd read books by Jerry Coyne, Sean Carroll, Neil Shubin in the last few months, as well as picking up a copy of the Counter-Creationist Handbook by Mark Isaak, so I had a good grasp on many of these arguments.
As I pointed out, there are many studies which look at how blood clots and while we still don't have all the answers, we have found solid proof that other animals have a similar but slightly different set of processes and proteins involved but are still able to have clotting blood. The creationist asserted that this doesn't prove that human clotting had evolved since evolution still "required" that this process come about through millions of mutations all working in the same direction. Here I countered with the knowledge that evolutionary changes aren't reliant on millions of mutations occurring all at once, but that evolution operates much more as a tinkerer, utilizing existing processes and proteins, making small changes to existing structures. He was taken aback momentarily, but recovered, admitting that was a good argument he had not heard before, and then quickly scuttled on to the next displays.
This whole time, probably not more than a couple minutes, Richard had been listening in, as had a few others in the vicinity (most of whom were not among the SSA trippers). He thanked me for talking about these issues and asked if we could continue to talk. We moved a bit over to the center of the room to allow others to shuffle on by, and continued the discussion.
Richard started out by saying (paraphrasing) "Isn't it amazing that we all came from nothing? Doesn't that seem like an extremely unlikely thing? Can evolution really offer an answer to this?" He was very polite and clearly interested in my answer, so I gave him one. "Yes," I agreed that it was indeed amazing how we had come from what was effectively nothing, but I wanted to make clear that evolutionary theory did not make any strong statements about origins. While there are many theories dealing with biogenesis and how pre-organic materials could give rise to biological life, evolution dealt with the ways in which the diversity of life itself came to be. Richard had clearly never heard this stated before and I explained it a bit more in a different way.
I brought out an analogy I like to use with creationists. I asked Richard how he knew his relatives were real. He thought a moment, and asked me to clarify. "How do you personally know that your relatives exist? If you think now about how you know they exist, what can you tell me about that proof?". He replied that he remembers times they spent together, gifts given, photos, etc. I asked if he is absolutely certain they exist? He agreed that he did. Would he agree as well that he was not present for the vast majority of the time those relatives existed, had only experienced a bare few of the moments in any of their lives, and that his own "proof" of their existence was a tiny amount compared to all the proof available? He again agreed. Was he absolutely certain, then, that these relatives did in fact exist? Again, yes, he agreed.
So I offered that this was directly analogous to how we are absolutely certain that evolution happened. We don't have all the evidence available, and what we do have is just a drop in the ocean of all the evidence that might be out there. We can't yet explain every single bit of data and don't yet have knowledge of every single step in every process (just as Richard does not have knowledge of every action taken by his relatives), but the confidence of scientists in the fact of evolution is nontheless just as solid as Richard's own certainty that his relatives exist.
By this time, a small crowd had circled us, including fellow SSA tripper Jon Reams and reporter Devin Powell, who was taking photos and jotting notes. I noticed that PZ Myers had walked by as well, and had paused a moment to listen in before moving on. I explained to Richard why we (the SSA trippers) had come to the Creation "Museum", namely that we sought out the arguments being made on behalf of creationism, and I expressed my disappointment and frustration that there was no science. (Offering the example of the display of the sapphire in the previous room, I made it clear that the display only asked questions such as 'how did the sapphire form?', a question which any decent mineral expert could answer.)
Jon and I each expressed our thoughts to Richard on why we atheists held our lack of belief. We wanted to see the evidence and all we had seen in the "museum" was a lot of questions and the a priori
explanation that God caused all things.
Personal experience, as I explained, was often used by Christians (and others of faith) as proof that things happened the way the Bible (or other documents) proclaim. However, we wanted evidence which could be verified and shared, and while we respect things such as personal experience, there was no way to share this sort of evidence and use it for our own investigation of the nature of truth and reality. Science offered overwhelming evidence that the claims made by the "museum" (or more accurately, the lack of any claim other than "God's Word") directly contradicted all of the evidence.
At this point, Richard really opened up and shared his own experiences with cancer. He told us that prior to his cancer, he was fairly carefree and never thought much about things (implying religion/creationism/evolution, but he wasn't clear on just what he meant here). Since he never expected to get cancer ("that only happened to other people, not me"), his experience had led him to seriously question things and appears to have brought him closer to Christianity than he had been previously.
Jon and I each offered that we respected Richard's experience and admitted we cannot offer anything which would address that experience's effects on Richard's beliefs. Again, we offered our thoughts on the inability to share personal experience, and instead confirmed that we atheists have a view of the world which we believed fit very nicely with Richard's. "Atheists live life expecting that this is all we have, that there is no chance later to do things, so we must make a difference now. Love people here and now, bring comfort to those who need it, offer our compassion on Earth with no expectation of a reward in another life" (paraphrasing my words here). We also made it clear that we welcomed any real evidence for God(s) but so far we had seen zero (and worse, seen utter distortions of scientific evidence there in the "museum").
Jon brought up the Richard Dawkins point that if it turned out that there was real proof of God, we would all be right in line, all we ask for is that evidence. I then explained that one of the serious problems we atheists have with Christianity is that it allows someone to do an infinite amount of harm here on Earth, but so long as that someone honestly repents and accepts the divinity and atonement of Jesus Christ, that someone is then promised eternal joy. Where is the incentive, I asked, to be good always in this life if there is an easy shortcut available which absolves you of all responsibility?
Richard agreed to this point and offered his views on that (which I have unfortunately not remembered well enough to describe here, but I recall him generally talking about goodness and how to be kind to others, and I mirrored Richard's sentiments, probably the point at which reporter Devin got the first half of the "quote" of mine used in the article). Richard reiterated his desire to learn a lot more about evolution, so I immediately pointed him toward Jerry Coyne's book Why Evolution is True
and explained some of what Coyne offers therein. He thanked me (and Jon), I took his picture, and Richard walked away a more informed and curious Christian than he was fifteen minutes prior. Powell then asked each of us a few questions, which were somewhat accurately reported in the article (Jon was not from NC, for example).
Some of the people who had listened in chuckled softely and offered a small apology for eavesdropping on the conversation, but I countered that it had been great to have an audience and I hoped that Jon and I had explained our positions well. The listeners agreed, and I noticed that as I walked through the next few rooms, one specific group of the listeners (high school to (possibly) college aged girls) were decidedly critical of the displays and clearly felt emboldened in challenging the things they were seeing -- I cannot say for sure whether they were vocally critical prior to this point.)
So a few lessons. I was prepared for this conversation
, and I think that was really the key. Not only had I read pro-evolution books prior to the trip, I read the other side. I read every single word of Ken Ham's The Lie: Evolution
, and had spent many hours tearing through various online creationist apologetic articles. I knew some of the common arguments and was prepared with easy-to-digest responses. It is vitally important when discussing things with people such as the creationist described above to be very specific. He clearly understood the difficulties in blood clotting, but he was wholely ignorant of the fact that evolution offered predictions and evidence for how blood clotting might come about. His quick exit from the conversation was solid proof that I'd hit him on a point he was not prepared to address.
However, when discussing these same issues with Richard, it is vital to be less scientifically specific. I don't mean that the science should be watered down, but Richard's personal knowledge of the science was not strong enough to make the blood-clotting argument stick. He needed to hear a different set of arguments, and for him, simply explaining why evolutionists (and atheists) are highly critical of creationism (and the "museum") was important and effective.
This was the highlight of the trip for me, and as I said above, I tried to prepare for just this sort of experience. Being able to articulate these points in a way which can be understood by someone who is not-so convinced was crucial, and I learned a lot about how to do this (as well as how not to do this, at one point when describing Coyne's book, I brought out Hox and other tool kit genes, but immediately recognized that Richard likely did not have a background which could utilize this information, so I quickly changed to more applicable parts of the evidence).
I seriously doubt the Creation "Museum" converted any of the SSA trippers, but there is a strong possibility that we converted one on-the-fence creationist as well as perhaps a half dozen other listeners who are now critical of the creationist arguments. I don't claim to be anyone important to this movement in the way that PZ Myers and the SSA leadership are, but I hope this is proof that simply arming oneself with the evidence for evolution is a way to strongly contribute to the discussion.
(posted on my blog: davenichols.net
-- as a side note, this post refers to the visit by Secular Student Alliance members and guests, as well as author and FFRF co-President Dan Barker and infamous militant atheist and biologist PZ Myers to the Creation "Museum" in Kentucky on August 7, 2009 prior to the 2009 SSA Conference)