In a typically eloquent post on trying to understand those whose beliefs we deem abhorrent, Ta-Nehisi Coates takes an unnecessary swipe at creationists: “Recognizing our world is filled with creationists, liars, charlatans and necromancers, we should not live for them.”
I’ve noticed his antipathy to creationists and intelligent design before (e.g. here, here and here). On one hand it’s quite strange. TNC’s writing is almost always clear and well-reasoned. But in this case I’m not at all sure what he’s trying to say. Is it that we should think of creationists as we do liars and charlatans? Or perhaps creationists are liars and charlatans? Given that creationism denotes a specific set of beliefs about Earth and human history, and liars and charlatans are simply bad people, I’m really not sure what the comparison is meant to show.
Sadly, TNC’s attitude is all too common. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the word creationist used as a general pejorative, as a substitute for the intellectually careless and morally corrupt. I also can’t count the number of times I’ve heard creationists compared to Holocaust deniers, which TNC also does here. But is that really a useful comparison?
Denying evolution means you deny a very complicated scientific theory whose findings span several hundred million years, has exactly zero practical impact on your daily life (quick: when’s the last time you actually used the theory of evolution?), and may directly contradict your deeply-held religious beliefs. Denying the Holocaust means you to believe it’s okay to kill Jews.
Branding creationists as Holocaust deniers allows us to avoid trying to understand some 40% of our fellow citizens. Many practicing scientists, after all, are creationists. Many, many more are skeptical of evolution. Are they all liars and charlatans? Evangelicals (most of whom are either creationists or intelligent-design proponents) are increasingly active in both environmental stewardship and social justice. Should we treat them as we do Holocaust deniers?
A conflict exists only if you wrongly assume that creationism is a window into someone’s intellectual and moral character. If you wrongly assume that rejecting evolution is akin to rejecting the Holocaust. But they are not at all the same.
What’s even more dispiriting about TNC’s attitude is that it contradicts so much of his other work. More than any other writer that I’ve read, TNC has wrestled with how we portray the dignity and humanity of individual black Americans: “I would have us depicted in all our rancid splendor–boastful and marvelous, rhythmic and self-interested, dumb, clear, hateful, and, on occasion, brave.” Shouldn’t we extend creationists the same courtesy? I’ve personally known many creationists, and I assure you they too can be marvelous, rhythmic and self-interested. And yet most of us (TNC is not special here) are content to paint in broad brush strokes. To assert that a belief in creationism makes one a creationist, thereby defining the sum total of their existence and obliterating everything else about them.
It might be more helpful to think of evolution as simply another discrete, technical subject where people use trust as a proxy for detailed investigation, something TNC himself does for health-care and cap-and-trade. There’s actually a lot of research on the importance of trust in scientific controversies, and I’ve very briefly touched on the theme in the past. Now I may be wrong, but I suspect that like me, TNC largely relies on trust when it comes to evolution. We both probably cannot explain the difference between punctuated equilibrium and gradualism, or the debate over the Cambrian explosion.
None of this means that creationists’ beliefs are correct. But since we all often substitute trust for reason and evidence, it does mean that they are not necessarily ignorant, stupid or evil.
There are ultimately many people out there who deserve our scorn. There are actual liars, charlatans and necromancers who should be criticized, publicly and harshly. But we must be careful at whom we direct such diatribes. Crude generalizations are not only unfair, they distract us from the important task of determining who really deserves our condemnation. There’s no evidence that creationists as a group should be included and we should try to avoid it.