How to argue with a Creationist

I have decided to create this post in response to a question asked me by Stuart on his blog here (http://pseudoastro.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/mistakes-in-science-apparently-means-creationism-is-true/).  Stuart’s blog is an excellent resource against pseudo astronomy and his associated podcast is equally recommended.

First, the caveats, there is no way that I can produce a cover all guide in a single blog post so no doubt there will be specific examples of cases where my advice and suggestions don’t apply or fall flat. Also, my guide is based on my personal experience of being a creationist for many years before abandoning my Christian faith. Other people may have had differing experiences and therefore offer different advice, I don’t claim to be an authority on arguing.

The point of this post is to give guidance and suggestions to those who wish to engage with creationists in a constructive manner. My standpoint is that creationism is incorrect and the ultimate aim of arguing with a creationist is to get them to understand and accept that.

Understanding the Creationist Stance

Before engaging a creationist, it is helpful to understand why they hold to the views they do and why your arguments often appear to fall on deaf ears.

There could be a variety of reasons why a creationist holds to their views and while it is true that the bottom line is that God did it; there could also be a variety of other reasons stacked on top of that.

For me, I was convinced by creationist books on the subject. They argued that science shows that the earth can not be millions (or even billions) of years old. Yes I was convinced by the falsified Carbon-14 argument, among others.

Its not just the science though. Believing in the inerrancy of the Bible is important and when a creationist takes that view and they decide that a literal creation is what the Bible actually says (which is arguably false, but a whole other discussion and not in the scope of this post) then the misunderstood science is secondary. The primary reason for the creationist belief is that God exists, the Bible is real and therefore the Genesis account of creation is accurate. The science that supports it is not the final proof or the major proof, its just a supporting cast member. The bad science is believed because it supports the premise. It doesn’t matter how many times you explain it, the science is not the major contributor and if you successfully explain the science but don’t challenge the bigger picture, the incorrect science will come back because it is supported by the belief.

The science does not dictate the worldview and so a correction will not necessarily lead to a change in understanding or in what is believed, or even in a change in the way science is viewed. In fact it could erode trust in the scientific method.

The creationist believes in the unchanging inerrancy of the Bible and the Word of God. This is a mind-set that holds that what is good and true has not changed. The scientific method causes a problem for that mind-set because scientific understanding changes over the years. It is seen as unreliable and malleable. The concept of self-correction over time is problematic and at worst is seen as dishonest. When explaining this to a creationist, do not expect them to get it the first time, or the second, or even the third. It could causes massive cognitive dissonance in the creationist mind and so explaining this to a creationist who does not seem to get it, should be done gently, politely, respectfully, as though to your own child.

Confront the Science

This may seem like a contradiction of some of the comments above, but the only real way to confront the creationist is to stick to the science. Science is evidence based and you are on good and solid ground explaining to them how the science works and why they are misunderstanding the evidence and the motives.

If you start entering the realm of the religious beliefs then you will have a harder time because there will be all sorts of religious experience backing up the concept of a personal God. To a Christian, God is real and to a Creationist this is packaged up in a far larger world view and attacking the core of that belief by trying to argue the nonexistence of God is pointless. You’ll only end up is a “yes he does”, “no he doesn’t” type discussion, which is counterproductive.

When a creationist makes their science claim, explain what is wrong about it and why, be specific and avoid being confrontational. If they act hurt and claim that you’ve insulted them, be quick to apologise and back up your scientific points in calm explanatory manner. The aim is to get them to trust you, its not just about getting them to understand the science, its also about getting them to trust that, despite the major ideological differences, you are not out to make them look foolish. Be interested in the discussion, don’t make it all one way, if they feel that you’re lecturing them and not paying attention to their points, then you will lose them.

Don’t let the conversation meander

One common complaint that I have seen aimed at creationists is that they keep changing the subject. I know I have been guilty of that in the past when arguing as a creationist and I know that its deeply frustrating. This is not a conscious tactic to throw the discussion off track. Its more a case of, the creationist has got frustrated with the current topic and doesn’t feel like they are getting anywhere and so uses another subject to try and make the point. Its not being intentionally devious, as I have seen many people suggest, its simply trying to explain their point.

When this happens, don’t ruin all the hard work by letting your frustration out, gently steer the conversation back to the topic on hand because it means that you have reached their level of knowledge on the subject so keep on it and reiterate in an non threateningly way as possible why the science you are promoting is correct, references count and it strengthens your argument and stops it being a mere internet opinion. You are at the point where real education of them can make progress, don’t squander it by insulting them, reassure them that the science is credible and give them reliable places to learn more about the subject in hand.

Being wrong hurts

Remember, that while you are trying to convince them of the reliability of science, they are trying to convince you of the reliability of the Bible. If you show them that they are wrong on a point and it is demonstrable, then it create a very real conflict in their mind. It hurts mentally and it generates all sorts of emotional issues. In some cases it leads to a questioning of the very reality of God. I’ve been there and I can testify that it really can be a very unsettling and even frightening place to be.

This is not the time to press an advantage. This is the time to reassure, it is more important that they trust you at this point because then you will have a chance at a conversation again. If you become yet another sceptical atheist who likes to drive home the point, you may lose the chance to discuss again.

The reason for this is that when confronted with challenging evidence that leads the creationist to genuinely doubt, they will seek solace in something that they do trust. This could be another piece of misunderstood science or the infallibility of the Bible. Let them have the break and collect their thoughts again. Encourage them question the evidence that has just been discussed. Trying to knock down as many dominoes as you can in a single discussion will only reinforce the protection they will seek from that which they trust and will reduce the trust in you.

Don’t Be a Dick

Seriously. Just don’t.

I’ve implied it in the comments above the importance of being polite and respectful. This is very important, especially if you want to convince someone of the error of their logic and beliefs. I’ve been on the receiving end of dickishness from friends (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/06/01/when-friends-are-unkind/) and I can testify that it is deeply unpleasant and does not help the person you are conversing with. In my case it caused me to entrench my creationist position and in all likelihood delayed my acceptance of evolution.

I understand the desire to belittle the person who holds to an untrue position through ignorance, however it helps no one. There may be a small pleasure derived from this, but ultimately what good does it actually serve? Surely the satisfaction of successfully demonstrating to someone why the scientific method works and why evolution is correct after all is much greater! Mocking people is easy, it takes effort on your part to be polite, accurate and respectable. If you want to be respected and listened to, then the least you can do offer the same courtesy to the other party.

What if I can’t help it?

If you really can’t stop yourself from insulting and belittling the person you are engaging then its probably best you exit from the conversation. If you can’t respect the person you are having a discussion with then you are no better than the common internet troll. They’ll think less of you as a result and, more seriously, you’ve probably made the job a lot harder for the next person who has a discussion with the YEC in question.

What if I know that this person will never be convinced?

How does that make it okay to be a dick?

Okay, I know it can be fun to let off steam and troll about on the internet a bit and see what dust storm you can make. I’ve done the same myself a couple of times, so I’m not exactly perfect either.

When discussing with someone who you are sure won’t be convinced first its important to make really sure of that. I was once sure that I’d never be anything other than a YEC, and now not only am I not a YEC but I’m not even a Christian either. So don’t write everyone off just because of what you think.

The people most likely to not be convinced are those who already have a vested interest in creationism. That will be those who have either got a blog and regularly post about creationism, or those who are published or those who are in positions of responsibility within a church. They have something very big to lose if they show any weakness in their YEC stance and so its even more important that you show yourself to be respectful in your discussions because every diskish thing you say will only be turned into a reason why atheists are wicked and evil. By being a dick, you are helping their argument.

Consider the audience.

Another reason to behave with this kind of person is that they will have an audience. What you say is not just being judged by the YEC you are engaging with, but also by those read your comments. Make your arguments well and be respectful and you will win respect from the audience, even if your discussion partner won’t. If doesn’t matter how good your points are, as soon as you sink to dickishness, that is all you’ll be remembered for.

The Unchanging Dogma

Another thing to consider is that much of Christian doctrine teaches about how God and his creation is unchanging. This dogma about nothing changing causes a problem when discussion science. Many creationists will have a hard time accepting basic science concepts because the idea of science and scientists changing their minds or getting things wrong is a major issue. I remember very well the issues I had trying to get my head round the changing world science and how evidence is sometimes overturned by fresh discoveries.

Another thing that creationists like to bring up is science fraud.

In both these cases, its important to point out that science self corrects. Scientists are typically honest people looking for answers in the world around us. Explain that being wrong is a good thing because it means more stuff to explore and explain. Point out that every fraud and incorrect belief in science has been found and corrected by scientists. The scientific method self corrects over time as the evidence pile mounts up. Discovering more stuff does not decrease our weight of evidence.

Change is good.

I’m out of my depth!

What if you are being having a discussion with a YEC and you find the conversation going all over the place or they are making comments about stuff that you are not sure about? I say stick with it. They might be far more experienced at this kind of discussion than you are. Use it as a learning experience and a pointer of what areas you could research more. Next time you’ll have a better answer.

Final thoughts.

This document is a quick ‘brain dump’ and is by no means intended as a complete guide. It is based on some of my experiences and no doubt some who can be bothered to read this far will be able to come up with other suggestions and ideas. If so, please make a comment.

To be, or not to be, a Dick

I thought I’d take a break from my autobiographical posts and put down some thoughts on the current big topic in the Atheistic and Sceptical arena. That is, how to behave towards those who believe in the unbelievable. That’s not just religion, though the topic does appear to centre mainly around those with religious beliefs, but any superstition and what sceptics love to call ‘woo’.

Reading some blog posts and opinion on the subject you’d be forgiven for thinking that there are only two choices; lambast anyone who dares to hold an unprovable belief with as much ridicule as possible or embrace anyone and everyone so long as you can find some common ground with them, no matter how tenuous.

Save us from the Accomodationists!

What I find most frustrating when reading various comments are the highly vocal people in the anti-accomodationist camp. These are the easiest to identify on the imaginary grey line I mentioned above, they would be clustered very close to the lambasting extreme.

To the anti-accomodationist there is nothing more pure than the utter sanctity of science proven conclusion. If you can’t back it up with the science method, then it does not belong and don’t you dare go mixing with those folks who believe without proof, or you’ll taint the purity of reason. Usually these are the same people using the label ‘Gnu Atheists’ as though they are some gnarly badge wearing, skateboard riding, baggy jeaned cool new kid. They probably have their own special handshake as well.

Accomodationist and Proud.

Yes I would be classed as an accomodationist. Yes I am proud of that. When I first saw the extremeophiles calling others accomodationists, it was as though they spat the word out, like it left a bad taste to even think the word, let along utter it. It was most definitely not meant as a compliment to the recipient.

The term ‘accomodationst’, seems to be drawn out and thrown at anyone who dares suggest anything other than utter contempt should be shown towards those who choose to believe in anything unscientific.

This is a sad thing to see and it seems that more effort is being channelled into creating a rift in the sceptical community than is being put into more productive use educating and evangelising the good news.

Ridicule never Changed Anyone’s Mind

Of course there are some people who will never abandon their belief. Even worse, there are some people who know they are wrong, but continue to promote it because it provides them with a considerable income. Of course I hope the latter are a minority.

With these people, reasoned debate will probably never be possible, but is publicly mocking really going to achieve anything other than self satisfied smugness?

But what about the casual observer?

I have seen it suggested on more than one occasion that the act of ridicule will help show a casual observer how much of a fool your target is.

This has to be the most pathetic cop out of an argument I have ever heard. Unless the casual observer is already of the same mind as you, the most likely reaction of the casual observer is to think that you are a dick and then respond accordingly.

If you want the world to share your conclusion that belief is silly and only science can lead someone to reason; then you had better prove it by acting like a reasonable person.

Be Passionate about Science

Instead of being a crabby insulting human, how about being a passionate scient advocate instead, enthuse people by being passionate about truth. Truth is tangible, truth can be handled and touched, truth is proven time and time again to be reliable. Truth is beautiful. When you talk about science speak with passion about how can you not be riveted and encouraged by the wonder of what is true and by knowing so utterly that it is true because it can be demonstrated to audiences.

This is what makes great ambassadors for scientific reasoning, don’t ruin it all by yelling at and insulting those who deny reality.

Look at how the Christians do it.

One final thought, Christians have known for many years that the most effective way of converting people to Christianity is to go to them and meet them on their terms. Find out what a person needs most and attend to that need. Christians convert other people by making the effort to get to know other people and letting them see that Christian are not some do-gooder perfect human, but they do care and they do want to try as hard as possible to make life better.

If sceptics really want to show that science leads to reason and truth and that truth has something genuine to offer, then they should show it by doing things other than ridiculing the ridiculous.

 


 

* My thoughts on this matter are still evolving, so its possible (probable even) that I will revisit this subject in the future. It will be interesting to see if my stance changes between now and then.