I Have Told a Lie

In my old job, I was director of a small planetarium at a college located in the middle of the Bible Belt. I mostly enjoyed the job, since I love to talk about science (too much, say some of you), especially my main area of cosmology. Cosmology is the study of the structure, contents, and evolution of the universe as a whole, so it overlaps significantly with astronomy and many other areas of physics. As part of my “duties” in the planetarium, I would end most shows with a question-and-answer session, which often would range over the breadth of astronomy, from “Why isn’t Pluto a planet?” to “What is dark matter?”

One evening, a woman came in with three young kids to watch the show on black holes, my personal favorite of our programs. During the segment on supermassive black holes (the black holes at the centers of galaxies, whose masses are millions or billions of times the mass of our Sun) the program described the most widely-accepted theory for the origin of these objects: that their progenitors formed early in the universe, a billion years or so after the Big Bang. It’s pretty standard stuff: if you talk about astronomy, you can’t really avoid mentioning the vast age and distances involved in our large universe.

The woman, however, was visibly upset by this information, and during the question-and-answer session after the show wanted me to tell her children that the Big Bang is “just a theory”, not something that can be trusted to be correct. She informed me that she homeschooled her kids (a practice I can’t always blame people for doing, given the poor educational opportunities in that area), but it was obvious that part of her reason for doing so was to prevent them from hearing about scientific theories such as the Big Bang and evolution. I attempted to assure her (clumsily, no doubt) that science and religion are not inherently in conflict, that one can be a believer and yet not reject scientific knowledge.

Of course, that’s a tricky thing. First of all, scientific knowledge isn’t a concept that’s understood by many people. It’s often seen as a personal belief, similar to a religious belief: very personal and individual, however many people it may be shared among. (I think this is especially true in the South.) Arguably, religious faith doesn’t work this way either, but I’m not a theologian so I won’t get into that here; certainly science is not a matter of individual belief. However, it’s commonly perceived that way among non-scientists in the United States.

A larger point, though, is the lie that I and many others tell frequently: that there is no conflict between science and religion. Obviously there is conflict in this case and others. It’s not one that can easily be glossed over: this woman’s particular religious view, young-Earth Creationism, is frankly incompatible with the scientific evidence. For her, belief in a literal Genesis Chapter 1 reading isn’t an optional part of faith, something that can be discarded easily. I had a telling conversation with a man when I was in college who argued that fundamentalism is the only Christianity, that if you doubt the literal meaning of any part of the Bible, you would have to doubt the whole thing.  In my experience, most people aren’t so candid, but I would guess that view underlies a lot of Creationist thinking.

It’s not easy to know exactly what to say under these circumstances. Attacking someone’s deeply-held beliefs won’t accomplish anything except making the attacker into a big jerk; conceding that there are “two sides” to the issue with equal weight is simply wrong. Most Creationists are not Duane Gish or William Dembski who make a living by promoting Creationism; they vary in sophistication in their beliefs over a wide range. Given that there are many deeply religious people who aren’t Creationists and have no trouble with evolution, a synthesis (or at least a détente) seems to be possible for some. But to say there is no conflict is false, and as we see with continuing efforts to damage science education in the US, the confrontation between particular religious views and general scientific theories will only continue to use up valuable resources of time and money that could be better spent doing positive science.


6 responses to “I Have Told a Lie”

  1. […] Science Vs. Pseudoscience A Blog of Science and What Lies Beneath « I Have Told a Lie […]

  2. As a former YEC if I may make a couple of humble suggestions.

    Say that religion and science do not *have* to be in conflict (that much is true). Acknowledge that there are some areas of religion which do conflict, (like creationism) but also point out that not all Christians accept creationism.

    With regards to correcting the error of creationism, this takes a long time and is not achieved in a single conversation. For me it took several years.

    People in your position have an opportunity to be able to help people make that transition, but it takes patience and time.

    My feelings are that the best way to correct the lady in your example is to not make her feel marginalised. Actively encourage her to return by making the science interesting to the point that she (and her kids) want more. Maybe a personal invitation back for a discussion on specific topics would help with that.

    Home schooling is not a popular pastime here in the UK, but I do wonder if places like the employer you mention could offer resources targetted at home schoolers could help in getting people like that lady into places of science so that like creationism are constructively challenged.

    1. I definitely agree that religion and science do not have to be in conflict, which is why I raised the example of the many people who manage to reconcile the two. However, to the frustration of the YEC crowd, in case of confrontation, it’s religion that has to give way. That isn’t always a bad thing, of course: when Benjamin Franklin discovered that lightning was electrical it became possible to protect church spires from lightning strikes—and thereby eliminating the need to explain lightning as God’s punishment for something or other.

      And I also agree that it’s important to not make people feel marginalized. She isn’t one of the “bad guys”, the ones who are actively trying to prevent anyone from teaching evolution. Unfortunately, the particular opportunity with her has passed, as the planetarium is closed and I no longer work at that college. There do exist outreach programs to people who homeschool, but I think those programs are voluntary; this particular woman, with her bias against evolution, would be unlikely to attend one. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try harder to reach people like her, though.

  3. […] who are able to reconcile the scientific view of the universe with faith, or in the very least understand the essential tension and recognize that while the answers may not be easy, the solution isn’t to pretend they are […]

  4. […] own flawed understanding of science; to a Creationist, the ultimate authority is the particular interpretation of scripture. A crackpot will happily reject established results in science for the sake of revealing that their […]

  5. […] Not every Creationist is a Ken Ham or William Dembski; in fact, I would guess that most people who espouse Creationism have never really learned that much about evolution or cosmology beyond caricatures. I hope that with better education (for kids) and outreach (for adults), we can turn the situation around. This isn’t an “us vs. them” situation: it’s a “we’re all in this together” situation. As much as many would like to dismiss the rubes and get on with life, the real damage is widespread — and the people who should be angriest are the ones who have been lied to, the ones who have been told all their lives that science is evil or that science itself supports the idea of a young Earth. […]

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