Creationism as a thinking disorder
Richard Bradshaw (Rev)
Mental Health Chaplain, Teesside, England. September 2007
Creationism is a curious phenomenon which calls for an explanation. Some would say that applies to all religious belief and maybe so, but there can be few philosophies in the modern West that display such intense irrationality; that require devotees to set their faces against such a vast body of modern knowledge – cosmological, biological, geological, anthropological. I was warned early on in my attempts to understand creationists that any attempt at debating with them is futile, and my experience confirms this, although I have had some perfectly civilised exchanges, verbal and written.
It is rather like dealing with anorexics; thin people who are convinced they need to lose weight, to the point of putting themselves at risk. Plonk them on scales and the scales are wrong. Show them their emaciated reflection in a mirror and they will still see a plump person. Reason with them and you are part of the conspiracy to make them obese. While anorexia is normally referred to as an eating disorder it is also, clearly, a form of mental illness, whose victims can be sectioned and force-fed to keep them alive – which they will interpret as cruelty. Anorexia is something that happens to other people; they are perfectly normal.
The parallels with creationism are as obvious to anyone who has engaged with it as they will seem outrageous to creationists themselves; which proves my point. Anorexics, victims of an eating disorder, cannot always be helped because the very condition leads to denial of what's wrong with them; creationism we might say is a thinking disorder which also generates denial about its own irrationality. In their own eyes, creationists are sane and impartial, the competent scientists, the faithful interpreters of scripture, the true Christians. To everyone else their science is worthless and their religion deviant; and they can't see it, so they're crazy. They have a religious disability. You can do the equivalent of holding a mirror up to the anorexic, which is to quote the immense body of scientific and theological expertise proving their errors; but to the creationist, this simply proves that you are part of a Satanic conspiracy to undermine the true faith.
Pursuing the parallel further, I think it follows that certain approaches to creationism should be avoided. You do not arrange debates between anorexics and people with a properly adjusted body image; you call sickness by its name and attempt to treat it. They are mentally ill, so they're not fully aware of what's wrong with them; you make allowances for this. Humour them, up to a point. So with creationists: their thinking is disordered, they're in denial about it, they're convinced you're out to get them, so to debate with them is not only futile, it's actually inappropriate, because it treats them as equal partners in a search for truth and insight – which they are not. It will not help their recovery. Books and pamphlets that put both sides of the case, as though there are arguments for and against creationism worthy of equal consideration, are similarly misguided. This would be like publishing the anorexic's argument for starving herself to death and weighing it respectfully against her consultant's view that she's a very ill person.
You do not, you cannot, respect an anorexic's beliefs; you respect her as a person, which of course is quite different. Ditto with creationists; ridiculous though their beliefs are, it's important to respect them as people. This will not be reciprocated. You may treat the creationist as a Christian, but he will not so regard you, unless you buy into his world-view, which you can't. (If you don't profess to be a Christian anyway you don't have the same problem.) And you do not put the anorexic in charge of the food counter at Wal-Mart, because she doesn't understand what a normal diet is: likewise, you don't let creationists anywhere near a school curriculum because they don't understand what education is, certainly not what science is. You don't discuss this with them, because they think your intentions are sinister, can't grasp that they might be honourable. That's what having a disorder implies. The anorexic really is an overweight blob. Evolution really is an atheistic fantasy with no evidence to support it. Sure. Time for your medication.
There are really two issues worth discussing here and I think that those who are trying to cure the creationist disorder should concentrate on them, rather than on sterile debates about radiometric dating and imaginary subjects like "flood geology". The first has to do with protection. Anorexics need protection from themselves; schools need protection from creationists. The debate was over long ago. The question to be asked is not whether creationism can be taught but simply how we can ensure that it isn't taught. Anywhere, ever.
The second really interests me. Anorexia is a condition with causes, typically in the patient's dysfunctional family circumstances. Understanding these can help towards a cure of existing victims and preventing the illness from flaring up in others. What are the conditions that give rise to the disorder of creationism? It's not just the decadence and insularity of American fundamentalism, with its focus on Biblical inerrancy; although this doesn't help, not all inerrantists are YE creationists. I think it's a combination of fundamentalist culture, a particular personality profile, the politicisation of American religion and the polarisation of its popular culture. These streams feed the swamp in which the malarial mosquitoes of creationism breed. How can we drain it?
For God's sake, for humanity's sake if you don't believe in God, isn't it obvious? Liberals of the world, unite! The open, pluralist society which guarantees everyone's freedom – including that of creationists themselves - is under threat here. What does liberalism mean if not shouting from the roof tops: beware absolutes! Beware those who know they're right! Beware those who can't cope with shades of grey and who insist that everything is either black or white! Beware those who would send you to hell if you don't believe in their God! There is more than one point of view on any subject and it's a pretty boring subject on which there are only two!
Fundamentalists, creationists, sectarians in general, can be perfectly charming people: but their underlying position is unavoidably arrogant, and that's the great danger. They know they're right. Liberalism is, or should be, about humility; but it doesn't preclude conviction. It doesn't have to be woolly. I know what I think, you know what you think, but we could both be wrong, or only partly right: let's talk about it and by discussing what divides us arrive at a truth greater than either of us understood before. I believe in one God, you believe in another God, and she doesn't believe in God at all. Isn't that interesting? Let's discuss it and see where we get. It might be that we all finish up believing in something none of us do just at the moment: such as (and how many creationists dare play with this thought) whether or not there is a God, whether God can sensibly be said either to exist or not to exist, may not be the issue. Perhaps the question really is: how does "God" language work for me, and how does her "no God" language work for her? Do we perhaps have more values in common than we realise?
Liberalism is a precondition of cultural health. Liberalism provides for the flourishing of science. Absolutist positions, whether rooted in religious or secular ideology, lead to totalitarianism. Call it the Taliban, call it Stalinism, call it creationism, call it the Spanish Inquisition, any mindset that believes it alone has the truth and damns all opposition to hell, is the enemy of the free society. As someone once said, we need seekers after the truth, but protection from anyone who is dead certain he's found it.
For the evil of creationism to triumph, it is only necessary that all the good liberals do nothing. And perhaps, with Ken Ham's new museum drawing crowds not all of whom can have paid their entrance fee just to have a laugh, now is the hour for liberals to gird their loins.
Though I could, of course, be quite wrong about that.