What the Heck is ‘Evolutionary Creationism’?
At the beginning of the documentary Losing Our Religion, philosopher Daniel Dennett says “Religion Is going through a profound revolutionary period and we’re right in the middle of it”. I agree, and I think this is happening on many fronts and in many religions. Just recently, I had a front row seat to view a small part of this revolution. I attended a lecture titled Beyond the ‘Evolution vs Creation’ Debate, hosted by the Canadian Scientific & Christian Affiliation, at the U of M.
The speaker was Dr. Denis O. Lamoureux, who holds three doctoral degrees (in dentistry, theology, and biology). No one who attended could forget that, as he brought the point up several times in his lecture. He’s a self-admitted Bible-believing, born-again, Evangelical Christian. He is also an evolutionary creationist, which, as he stated during his talk, “sounds like an oxymoron” (probably because it is). Evolutionary creationism is defined by Dr. Lamoureux as the claim that “the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit created the universe and life through an ordained, sustained, and design-reflecting evolutionary process”.
Dr. Lamoureux explained that the lecture he was presenting that evening is one he gives to his first-year university (theology?) students. It is specifically designed to help Christians who struggle with the concept of evolution. That point that would become blatantly obvious during the course of the evening. We were given handouts to follow along.
A Few Definitions
Before we go much further, we need to review some of the definitions included in Dr. Lamoureux’s handout. Curiously, I found some of them just accurate enough to support his argument.
|Dichotomy||Division of an issue into two simple positions
Caused by ‘black-and-white’ & ‘either/or’ thinking
|Secular Humanism||Belief that humans alone determine morals|
|Conflation||Sloppy blending of distinct ideas into one simple idea|
|Teleology||Belief the world has plan & purpose|
|Dysteleology||Belief the world has NO plan & purpose|
|Evolution||Scientific theory that natural processes over billions of years produced all living organisms, including humans|
|Creation||Belief that the world is the product of the Creator|
A False Dichotomy?
Lamoureux began with the problem of conflict between science and religion that he believes many people become stuck in, and he spent the bulk of the lecture attempting to explain how this is a false dichotomy. He didn’t clearly define either religion or science, other than to state that one tells the how, the other tells us the who. Nor did he define another popular word used throughout the lecture – faith. This would have been a helpful clarification; instead, this oversight allowed him conflate all three into one sloppy mess. If one were to believe the ideas put forward in this lecture, every idea is faith-based to varying degrees – religion, science, even atheism – thus validating his assertion that the religion vs. science debate is a false dichotomy.
But science vs. religion is NOT a false dichotomy. Science is a process used by humans to give them an accurate picture of the universe. Data (evidence) from this process contributes to the body of knowledge that we also call science. With that knowledge, we can build a better mousetrap, or a better, more moral society. Religion, on the other hand, is a belief system based on assertions, moral proclamations, and faith. Faith, as defined in the Bible, is belief without evidence.
Science in the Bible
I think Dr. Lamoureux understands that religion and science are very different things. To his credit, he stated several times during the course of the lecture that the Bible is not a book of science. But then he confused the issue by claiming that the Biblical model of a three-tier universe (with waters below, a flat circular earth, and more water above, held in the sky by the firmament) can be considered “ancient science”, when in fact it’s not science at all but ignorance. The writers of the Bible knew nothing of hydrology, geology, or the laws of planetary motion. For them, the earth was a flat circle, because that’s what it looked like. The ocean was blue and so was the sky. Water fell from the sky so there must be an ocean up there. Such beliefs were considered common sense at the time, but they were not based on science. The authors of those passages didn’t test their observations or engage the scientific method. Opinion and navel gazing are not science.
I can see why Dr. Lamoureux developed this lecture for Christians struggling with evolution, because when you believe you have the one true religion, you’re stuck in a simple either/or position. Many Christians find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to choose either reality or superstition. Dr. Lamoureux tries to remedy this cognitive dissonance by blending reality and superstition – often with absurd results.
Does this look like it was well-designed?
One of the possible solutions Lamoureux offers is that evolution is teleological (with a plan and purpose). He gives no evidence for this, of course. I believe that evolution is dysteleological (without plan or purpose), as this seems to be where the evidence leads. One just has to look at the laryngeal nerve in a giraffe, and see how it makes a 15 foot round trip from the brain, down the neck into the chest cavity, and back up to the larynx. From a design point of view, this makes absolutely no sense whatsoever – but it makes perfect sense when one understands evolutionary biology. There are thousands of other examples which demonstrate that if there is any divine design, plan, or purpose to biological evolution, the designer is confused (or just an idiot).
Are Scientists Still ‘Keeping the Faith?’
Lamoureux frequently made statements like “This scientist believes in God and he’s a Christian” or “That theologian believes in evolution”. I suppose that was for the benefit of the crowd of Christian attendees, but really, science doesn’t care what you believe. I wasn’t surprised at Lamoureux’s Christian bias; he made it clear that he’s a Christian and that the lecture was intended to help Christians. However, I was surprised at the lack of effort spent on attempting to understand science vs. the time devoted to explaining theology. He did finally get to some science… kinda. He cited a study which he claims shows that 40% of leading American scientists believe in a personal God. The study (Larson and Witham, 1997) was published in the journal Nature. I was unable to read the original article as it is stuck behind a $200 pay wall. However, I was able to garner information from one secular source and the many, many Christian sources that reference this study, and they generally concur.
The study was titled “Scientists are still keeping the faith”. Larson sent out 1,000 surveys to randomly chosen scientists listed in the index of “American Men and Women of Science”, a database of more than 120,000 leading scientists in the USA and Canada. The report of the study indicates that “more than 600” of the surveys were returned; since we don’t know the exact number, we’ll go halfway between 600 and 700 and say that 650 were returned, for a response rate of approximately 0.54% of the 120,000 scientists the study defines as leading. So Dr. Lamoureux is basing his claim that 40% of leading American scientists believe in a personal god, on a 20 year old study with a less than 1% sample of said scientists.
Personally, I would feel less than honest, extrapolating to that extent using an old study with such a small sample, and without knowing more about the methodology (perhaps religious scientists were more likely to respond?). But I can see where faith would help one to believe it.
Does any of this even matter?
During the talk, I found myself wondering “What’s the point of bringing up so many scientists?” The theme of the lecture was science vs. religion, not scientists vs. religion. Science is the best process for discovering what is true about the natural world, and it is a self-correcting method that consistently gives us accurate, reliable results. This is in contrast to religion, a faith-based process that relies on the unfalsifiable to assert a ‘truth’ that could mean anything. What people believe on faith has little or nothing to do with testing what we can know though reason, evidence and experimentation. If this lecture taught us anything, it is that human beings are quite adept at compartmentalization and carrying two or more contradictory beliefs with little discomfort.
Another sizable part of the evening was spent listening to Dr. Lamoureux speak about his personal journey. This was also where the presentation started to take on the feel of a standard Christian apologetics conference. Like many apologists, throughout his lecture he used Richard Dawkins as a yardstick to measure all atheists by, and to represent what they believe. Which I suppose might not be so bad, except that he often got what Richard Dawkins believes, wrong.
We heard how young Dr. Lamoureux left Christianity and became an atheist, just like Richard Dawkins. In his own words, “by 1977, I was Richard Dawkins“. His journey to atheism started in his early university at dental school. He relayed the story of how he treated women badly (“If anyone was to treat my sister the way I treated women, I would phone up my three brothers and go see this guy”). Then there were the drugs and parties that left him feeling his life was vacuous, empty, and unclean. He found Jesus while in the army, and apparently sealed the deal by reading the Book of John. He later discovered young earth creationism, but in 1994 settled on his present theological position as an evolutionary creationist.
Nothing New Here
Lamoureux’s story is remarkably similar to other apologists who relate stories of when they were atheists – all their stories carry the same account of immorality and emptiness. This is not to doubt his own account of his life, but his testimony is so common that one could turn its major points into a checklist (and some of us do!). It would be my suggestion that Lamoureux’s ill-treatment of women and feelings of emptiness were not due to his atheism, but possibly that he was simply a misogynistic asshole in his younger years.
The Q & A
A good Q & A can add greatly to the substance of the presentation. Through unscripted answers, one can get a feel for who the presenter is and the quality of their argument. Points that I like to consider in a Q & A are
- are the questions answered directly?
- Is a question sidestepped or given a long rambling answer?
- are concepts explained clearly, or are they obfuscated?
A Historical Adam and Eve?
The first question asked was about Dr. Lamoureux’s stance on Adam and Eve, since we know from genetics, geology, anthropology and other sciences that we did not all come from a single man and woman. (The geologic record shows that there were millions of animal species long before the first humans showed up. If Adam and Eve had been on the planet at the time of creation, human bones should be discovered alongside stegosaurus and trilobites.) Dr. Lamoureux never did answer the question, but he offered several possibilities, none of which he actually committed to endorsing. It’s worth noting that, as a scientist, he still even mentions some of these possibilities, since science has already demonstrated that the Biblical Adam and Eve never existed.
1 Adam and Eve have no connection to evolution.
2 God picks two pre-humans (Australopithecines? Homo habilis?) and instills spiritual characteristics, moral culpability and the Spirit of God
3 Many Adams and many Eves evolved, whole populations of them!
4 The Genesis 2 story is an allegory containing “spiritual truths”, and didn’t actually happen.
It is noteworthy that the only one of these possibilities for which there is evidence either way is the first one. He does suggest a book called Four Views on the Historical Adam to further explain this conundrum, if readers feel so inclined.
Is anyone here a physics major?
We also we heard the standard question “how could the eye evolve” and other similar topics, which I felt that someone with a PhD in biology could have answered quite a bit better. Then we had the still-popular Second Law of Thermodynamics question, asked by an Evangelical high school teacher (for Pete’s sake!). I was saddened to find that Lamoureux, with all his experience and education, was unable to give any answer beyond asserting that evolution doesn’t violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Since this this such a common creationist argument, I will offer an explanation.
Creationist argument: The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that entropy (disorder) increases over time. The development of complex plant and animal life from inanimate chemicals requires an increase in order, which violates this law. Therefore, a complex system of life requires a Creator or designer. **Insert chosen god here**
Scientific response: This law only applies to an isolated system, where no energy or matter leaves or enters. The earth is not an isolated system – it is an open system. It receives outside heat and light from sun, allowing life to arise and fueling simple organisms so that they can become more complex. Maybe the ancient Egyptians were right – it’s not the son that is God but the sun is God?
There’s a simple, short explanation of this argument and response in the following video clip.
Misrepresenting an entire Community
Probably the most disappointing part of Dr. Lamoureux’s lecture was his misrepresentation of the atheist / Humanist / secular community – our community. This is where when he went full Christian apologist, and distorted what most of us believe. The misrepresentation starts very early on in the lecture; if you look under the last column (dysteleological evolution) on his handout, he makes some blatantly false assumptions. I’m sure if we searched hard enough we could find an atheist or Humanist who fits Lamoureux’s description, but it would be near impossible. I don’t claim to be a spokesperson for all Humanists, but I can provide a better explanation of our beliefs than the what’s in the pigeonhole that Lamoureux, with his kindergarten-level understanding of atheism, puts us in.
Here are some of Dr. Lamoureux’s assumptions about what atheists believe. I won’t touch on all of his points, just the more problematic ones.
1 There is no plan or purpose to the universe. He’s quite correct on this point – basic elements, noble gases, and rocks have no minds so they cannot form purpose. However, when those elements and noble gases come together to form life, those life forms (such as animals), can form a plan and purpose.
2 Design is a delusion. Nope, we see the appearance of design in many things. We just don’t believe it requires an intelligent designer.
3 The universe and life developed through natural processes and blind chance. Despite Lamoureux’s conflation of Big Bang cosmology and abiogenesis, he’s wrong on both counts. Random chance may play a part, but we simply don’t know how it all started.
We know that abiogenesis (the beginning of life) must have started with simple chemicals. Elements bond together, so it may be that given the right conditions, the development of life is the inevitable consequence of chemistry. If that’s the case, then life will develop wherever those conditions exist in the universe, making this a natural process – not blind chance. There could be thousands of planets with life of some sort; we just haven’t discovered them yet.
Throughout the lecture, Lamoureux referred to atheism as a world view. I pressed him on this point during the Q & A, as atheism is not, and has never has been, a worldview. According to Lamoureux, he tells his students that atheism is a claim that there is no God, and that it’s a claim based on faith. He asserts that atheism is a metaphysical claim, the same as his Christian faith. This is an incorrect accusation, based on what is known as ‘strawman apologetics’. In an attempt to shift the burden of proof, he completes this misrepresentation by asserting that Richard Dawkins holds this view. I pointed out that Dawkins does not state decisively that god does not exist, and that Dawkins lays out his views quite clearly in his book The God Delusion (page 50).
Lamoureux then went on to explain to me – an atheist – what the word ‘atheist’ means. “’a’ meaning ‘no’, and ‘theist’ meaning ‘God’”, he said; in other words, he defines atheism as the assertion that there is no god. His definition is just correct enough to support his claim. However, the prefix ‘a’ can mean ‘without’ as well as ‘no’, so the word ‘atheism’ only refers to lack of belief in god(s), not necessarily a declaration that there aren’t any. Matt Dillahunty does an excellent job of explaining this on the Atheist Experience TV show.
Other definitions that might be helpful
Atheism: godless, without a god; from the ancient Greek ἄθεος (átheos). Derived from the prefix ‘a’ (without), and ‘theos’ (god). This is the definition HAAM uses in our outreach.
Theism: belief in the existence of a god or gods. Merriam Webster (MW)
Atheism: lack of belief or a strong disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods (MW)
Atheist: A person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods. (Oxford English Dictionary, dictionary.com, and others)
When we see the way that the Greek prefix ‘a’ used in other words, the fallaciousness of Dr. Lamoureux’s argument becomes apparent. The word asymmetrical (not symmetrical) does not imply that symmetry does not exist, nor does the word atypical (not typical) mean that typicality does not exist. I would ask Dr. Lamoureux – does apolitical (not political) mean there is no such thing as politics?
Taking the High Road
Unfortunately, even after explaining that one can’t make a world view out of a singular disbelief; after demonstrating (and having him agree) that atheists can have fundamentally opposing worldviews; and after demonstrating that Richard Dawkins, the poster child he uses for atheism, doesn’t hold the beliefs the beliefs that Lamoureux claims he does – Lamoureux continues to use his own definition of an atheist.
Despite this obvious dishonesty, we as Humanists will continue to do our best to take the high road and engage with religious people based on what they do believe, rather than what someone may assert that they do (or don’t) believe. Who knows, maybe Dr. Lamoureux will invite me to his church and we can dance and “take up snakes” together – oh wait…
The March of Progress
Dr. Lamoureux opened his lecture with a lengthy quote from Thomas Henry Huxley, known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’. The quotation was used to demonstrate that Huxley was stuck in a false dichotomy between science vs. faith, when he was really just describing the real dichotomy between science and superstition. A portion of the quote really resonated with me – “…history records that whenever science and orthodoxy have been fairly opposed, the latter has been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed if not annihilated; scotched, if not slain.”
One just has to look at the various arguments put forward by holy men over the last thousand years. As science has progressed, one by one they have all had to bow to the nature of reality. As scientific discoveries stack up, it has always been religion that has eventually had to adjust to new knowledge; never in human history has it been the other way.
Religion loses every time
Religion, especially conservative Christianity, is losing the battle on every front, and has been for a long time – consider interracial marriage (1950’s/60’s) women’s rights and contraception (60’s/70’s) abortion (70’s), gay rights (80’s), marriage equality (2000’s), or the right to an assisted death (2010’s.) Religion’s loss of the power it once had means that it can no longer dictate what is right, what is true, and what is moral. Religious leaders spend much of their time trying to reconcile their supernatural beliefs with scientific reality.
In this lecture I heard a self-proclaimed Evangelical, conservative, born-again Christian state that Genesis is probably allegory, Adam and Eve may not have existed, and the concept of original sin may be a just ‘spiritual truth’. Talk about being “forced to retire”! Some of the basic tenets of Christianity, which people were tortured and killed over for millennia, are now just fluffy ‘spiritual truths’, to be interpreted freely. Indeed, this religion is going through some profound changes.
Many religious people, especially in conservative and Evangelical Christianity communities, have come to understand that to remain relevant in the modern world, their unfalsifiable supernatural beliefs need to adapt to what can be empirically demonstrated. For me, this was the take-home point of the evening. Despite the shortcomings of this lecture, I really hope that Christians will continue the conversation. I will share the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation’s work with the many young earth creationists we encounter during our outreach efforts. If they can reason a few more folks out of believing in a literal Bible; if they can get believers to dump science denial and accept the realities of the natural world; if they can help to render Christianity less harmful – then they will accomplish a great deal in making it a better world for all of us.
Honest dialogue is needed
Finally, a few words of warning to those who engage in spreading misinformation and disinformation about non-believers. Atheist and Humanist organizations are filled with former Christians as well as apostates from other religions. Many of those people join partly because they investigate atheism and Humanism on their own, and find out they have been lied to about our community. Atheist, Humanist, and similar organizations are growing. If we want to ever be able to have an honest dialogue and an open exchange of ideas, religious organizations, apologists, and folks like Dr. Lamoureux need to stop misrepresenting who we are and what we believe. Until they’re able to do that, they will simply perpetuate the stereotype of Christians who engage in lying for Jesus.
– Pat Morrow