Bad Science

03.02.14

How Liberty University Creates Creationists

A course questionnaire for one of the evangelical school's required science courses shows how the decked is stacked against the facts.

As a Christian professor who has tangled with evangelical institutions over evolution, I am often invited to don the mantle of “heretic.” The invitation typically comes in the form of an interview in which I am asked to respond to questions that will identify me as a liberal-throw-the-bible-under-the-bus lost soul who has no business calling himself a Christian. 

I recently received two such requests in a week. One email came from a sophomore at Liberty University, as part of an assignment for the course “Creation Studies 290: History of Life.” Founded by Jerry Fallwell in 1971, Liberty is the largest evangelical university in the world if you include its large population of online students, and America’s largest nonprofit university. “Creation Studies 209” is required of all of Liberty’s 100,000-plus students and claims to provide a “thorough understanding of the creation-evolution controversy,” and “draws upon knowledge from religion, science, philosophy and history.”

Creation Studies is taught in Liberty’s Center for Creation Studies, described on their website as “a dynamic, teaching-based academic center.” The center’s purpose is to “research, promote, and communicate a robust young-Earth creationist view of Earth history,” with the goal of equipping “students to defend their faith in the creation account in Genesis using science, reason and the Scriptures.” Students in the Creation Studies class are assigned a “scientist contrast interview, where we are required to interview several scientists on both sides of the origins debate.”

The course is taught by the well-qualified creationist biologist Dr. David A. Dewitt. DeWitt has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Case Western Reserve University and has co-authored many research articles in thoroughly legitimate scientific journals like Cellular Molecular Bioengineering and the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. He has also worked with the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis. Like the scientists Ken Ham introduced in his debate with Bill Nye, DeWitt demonstrates that being a young earth creationist is not incompatible with being a productive member of the scientific community. (DeWitt did not respond to my request for comment on this article.)

Programs like those at Liberty—and a handful of other colleges and universities with similar commitments to creationism—do an excellent job of creating committed creationists because they train them to see the world in a certain way that makes their creationism—despite its profound incompatibility with science—almost immune to criticism.

I agreed to don the heretic mantle and answer the questions from the Liberty student, which I have reproduced below along with my answers and additional notes (labeled “gloss”) that say more about the carefully contrived structure of the questions.

1. What do you see as the one or two strongest pieces of evidence for your position on the origins of the universe and life? 

The Big Bang theory is a near universally accepted explanation for the origins of our universe. It is supported by multiple lines of evidence, including red shifts, stellar evolution, the universal background radiation, and the convergence of several dating methods on an age of around 14 billion years. The Big Bang, of course, presupposes some kind of pre-existing structure out of which it emerged, and scientists are working to figure out what that might have been. In contrast, science does not have a widely accepted explanation for the origins of life. There are several independent research programs but the origin of life does not have a satisfactory explanation at present. The fact that all life-forms use essentially the same genetic code suggests that life originated just once and evolved from there, but how that happened is not clear.

Gloss: Note that this question asks a scientist to take a “position” on the “origins of the universe.” Accepting the Big Bang is thus comparable to holding one of several views on, say, politics. We acknowledge that people can hold different “positions” on immigration or the minimum wage, with the preferred choice being driven by subjective factors, not by questions of evidence. In the same manner students are being told that the Big Bang is a “position” that some people hold.

2. Do you believe creationism/intelligent design stands on equal footing with the theory of evolution as a model for the origins of life? Why or why not?

The theory of evolution is strongly supported by multiple independent lines of evidence, which all have literally thousands of significant observations supporting them. Intelligent design (ID) and creationism lack this broad-based evidentiary support. ID is supported by little more than a collection of puzzles that have not yet been solved by the theory of evolution.  Close to 100 percent of ID’s claims are of the form “Here is something with more design than natural selection can account for. Therefore we posit a designer.” The arguments are all arguments from ignorance. Creationism is often referred to as “Biblical creationism,” making clear that it comes first from the Bible, not the observation of the natural world, and contrary observations are either rejected or “explained away” to make things fit the Biblical interpretation. It is significant that neither creationism nor ID have contributed anything to our knowledge of the natural world, in contrast to evolution.

Gloss: Once again we see the discussion being set up as one with “positions.”  I suspect  that the “positions” in the discussion at Liberty are young-earth creationism, intelligent design, and theistic evolution, with the former being presented as the only one appropriate for Christians. (The student did not respond to my request to tell me who else he was contacting.)

3. Did you watch the recent debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye on evolution versus creationism? If so, what were your impressions?

I watched this with great interest and have published responses to it. While the debate was entertaining, it was not helpful to the conversation, since it suggested that there was a “Christian” view and a “scientific” view, and these were mutually exclusive options. Many trained biblical scholars with strong Christian commitments completely reject the approach to the Bible taken by Ken Ham and his Answers in Genesis organization. Ham’s hyperliteralism is not the way Christians have approached Genesis over the centuries and everyone from Augustine in the 5th century to B. B. Warfield (one of the founders of fundamentalism) in the 19th century have pointed out that a literalist reading is not a required or even a defensible approach to Genesis. There is no problem believing that God is the creator and that natural processes are his chosen mode of creation.

Gloss: The Ham-Nye debate plays into the rhetorical strategy that has proven so effective for the creationists—associating evolution with atheism. By cleverly locating evolution within an atheist worldview, many Christians end up believing that they can only accept evolution if they reject Christianity. (I analyze this strategy further in my book Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution.)

4. Some have argued that the debate over origins is a battle of conflicting presuppositions, which when brought to bear on the existing evidence, lead to different conclusions. What is your opinion of this view? 

There is certainly some truth to this, but not in the way usually assumed by creationists. There is little evidence to support the notion that evolution is the result of an assumption of atheism. Darwin was a Christian believer through much of his career and came to evolution by wrestling with observations, not looking for a theory of origins with no God. The same is true for 18th century geologists—almost all of them Christians—who discovered that the earth was old and that Noah’s Flood could not have been worldwide. The key presupposition of the scientist is not “There is no God” but rather “The world speaks truthfully of its nature.” I would contrast this with the view of, say Ken Ham, who starts with a large number of far more questionable presuppositions, including the following: the Bible is inerrant in all details; the Bible must be read literally; the creation story in Genesis—rather than Job or the Psalms— is the only one that matters; the evidence that Genesis 1 was written as a “hymn” does not mean we can read it poetically; and so on. If one presupposes all these things—which most Christians do not—then young-earth creationism has to follow. But this then leads to the conclusion that “The world that God created does not speak truthfully of its nature,” since that world is clearly very old and contains evidence that life evolved.

Gloss: The rhetorical structure employed by the creationists here is quite clever.  They claim, correctly, that observations don’t interpret themselves. Aristotle and Galileo looked up at the same lights in the night sky. Aristotle saw a universe with a stationary earth at the center and Galileo saw a universe with the earth in motion about the sun. In the 17th century the evidence was inadequate to resolve the dispute and each viewpoint had credible defenders.  Applied to evolution, this strategy translates into the following widely-used argument: consider the simple observation that humans have five fingers on each hand, cats have five toes on each foot, and bats have five elongated bones inside each wing. Evolutionists interpret this shared feature as evidence for a common ancestor; creationists interpret it as evidence for a common designer, who applied sensible patterns in different contexts.

Finding the flaw in arguments like this is a challenging exercise in the philosophy of science and, as my physics texts would often say, will be left as an exercise for the reader.

5. What would you describe as the two or three broader impacts of your theory for origins? In other words, what does it imply? 

If I place my scientific ideas in the larger context of my own worldview, which includes the belief that God is the creator, I would say my position implies that God works through the laws of nature, and not in contradiction of them. I would say that God is clearly interested in more than the activities of my own species. And I would say that God did not provide any information in the Bible about how things originated.

Gloss: The issue of the “impact” of a theory is significant for Christians, who often interpret the world in terms of spiritual warfare—God versus Satan. When something goes terribly wrong, Satan is implicated as a cause. This argument is alive and well in the anti-evolutionary literature where we find claims that evolution is responsible for abortion, pornography, the break-up of the family, gay marriage, racism and a host of other social catastrophes. Entire books have been written by reputable historians blaming Darwin for the Holocaust.

Students graduating from Liberty receive a carefully constructed and effective presentation of America’s origins controversy, one that provides tools to defend their beliefs against many of the challenges with which science will confront them. Headlines announcing new fossil finds supporting evolution can be dismissed as “interpretations of data based on questionable presuppositions.” Perceived social problems will be interpreted as the consequence of marginalizing belief in God as creator. Ongoing opposition to evolution will support the notion that there are viable alternatives—“positions” that one can choose on origins. 

And America’s public schools will remain a battlefield.