Saturday, September 10, 2011

A letter from the past: The little bits and pieces, or, Cognitive dissonance

I found the following in my drafts folder, and I thought it might be of interest. It was written probably two or three years ago. I never posted it because I never quite figured out what I wanted to say exactly, and I didn't want to offend people. I was a christian at the time, but am not now. Surprisingly, I still agree with most of it, except for a few sentences at the end which I crossed out.

A couple posts ago I said something about the little bits and pieces which my view consisted of changing in importance. I think it's worth talking about what those were, before they changed in importance, and after.

At first I believed the universe was young (young here and below means 6,000-10,000 years old), but I like astronomy, and after years of slightly more than casual reading, it seems the creationists can only maintain that belief if the speed of light were much higher in the past. The longer I thought this, the more it seemed like grasping at straws, and eventually I was forced to conclude that the universe is certainly very old, and the 'Big Bang' theory is indeed the current best interpretation of the observable evidence. (And, as it happens, in the last few years evidence has become available from several sources (natural uranium reactors in Africa and some astronomical measurements of alpha, a related constant) that C has not varied by detectable amounts. Really, arguing that the universe is young is nearly as hard as arguing that the Earth is flat.)

Then I believed that the universe was old, but the earth was young, having been a recent creation. Fossils could have been laid down by the flood. The moon and the saltiness of the oceans couldn't be explained by old-earth theories. Radiocarbon dating couldn't be trusted. I persisted in this state for quite some time. But it turns out radiocarbon dating can be calibrated by lake sediment and tree rings, making it accurate up to about 30,000 years ago (IIRC). Argon and potassium have similar dating mechanisms: they corroborate carbon dating, and have longer half-lives, making them accurate to much greater ages. Fossils that extend through several strata are easily explained. Then I found out about the moon (as in a prior post) and the scales of "things old-earthers can't explain" vs. "things young-earthers can't explain" suddenly tipped.

Here, we must pause one story, and interject another, if the ending is to make any sense.

At that point, I was disgusted and stopped caring about the issue for a long time. I stopped trying to reconcile Genesis with reality. Humans, myself included, have a remarkable ability to believe contradictory things, so this wasn't as hard or bad as it might sound. Since I still thought evolution to be pretty unlikely, the contradictions really weren't that severe. Genesis doesn't really specify exactly *when* things started out, anyway. I suppose what I really dropped was my respect for things like AiG and Ken Ham (a well-known Creationist magazine and Creationist, respectively).

Christians in the AiG/Ken Ham school of thought have a very bad tendency, namely vilifying other Christians that disagree with their interpretation of Genesis. Pages and pages of AiG were spent decrying "theistic evolutionists" as people who were not true evolutionists, yet who recklessly twisted "God's Inerrant Words" to try and accommodate them to the whims of ever-changing and unsure Science. Theistic Evolution was presented as a logically untenable position, inferior even to that of the secular evolutionists--which is really saying something, coming from them.

Their (and mine, before all this) most loved point in this score was the interpretation of the six days of Genesis: grammatically, in the passages in question, the word "day" ("yom") can't really be taken to mean anything but real 24-hour days. On this score, the AiG folks are mostly right; whatever your interpretation of Genesis, claiming that the "days" equal some long period of time, that you could say the first day = 200,000 years or some such, makes little sense grammatically and even less if you're trying to make sense out of the story as a whole (how one does make sense of the story is a topic for a future post). But constantly harping on "theistic evolutionists" by refuting one rather odd reading of genesis strays dangerously far into straw-man territory. As a result of my limited exposure, I was left with the impression that the choice was either young-earth, 6 24-hour day creationism, or straight-up atheistic evolution for the intellectually honest.

Thus, up until this point, I had considered the choice between being a creationist or evolutionist as being equivalent to the choice between being a Christian or Atheist. But as creationism seemed more and more likely to be less than factual, I grew very unhappy with this. Would I ignore my senses and stubbornly cling to what I had always believed? Would I abandon what I believed in favor of what my senses told me? The one is intentional ignorance, and the other amounts to something of a betrayal, both unconscionable crimes (though had I perceived my belief system to be on the whole inferior, wrong, cruel, or harmful, the latter would not bother me so much--it is not a crime to betray evil beliefs--but such was not the case).

Eventually, a solution presented itself that let me both remain a Christian and follow the science, too. I will talk about that in some future post, but for now, allow me to register a complaint against a system that sets up its adherents to make such a difficult choice. People my age have left the faith in droves, and though I have not done research on this, my impression is that a not-insignificant amount of this is due to the perception that the Christians have said, "If you don't believe creationism, you aren't really a Christian," and many people my age have found that they cannot believe creationism. The Christian community must stop implying this immediately.

But back to the little things.

When I found the solution to reconciling Genesis, I cannot say how much strain it took off of me. Finally, I could think that micro- and macro- evolution were the same; that speciation really happens, that mutations can both increase and decrease information. DNA, genetics, and the like no longer were any problem for my faith, no matter how many new viruses (H5N1, anybody?) evolved. I still think it's possible that humans were specially created, though it would not bother me if we were not (why is a topic for another post). Scientists have also not yet quite explained how the first cell came about. It could have been created, but I would not be surprised if they came up with a mechanism (edit: I'm now aware of several plausible mechanisms), nor would it bother me. I still believe there is a God, more specifically, I am still a Christian.

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