Ken Ham: making a new generation of Atheists

Bill Nye vs Ken Ham, Feb 4, 2014In just a few days, Bill Nye will go head-to-head with creationist Ken Ham in a debate that has generated a lot of controversy in the online skeptical community. Many are concerned that this debate will attract attention and confer an appearance of legitimacy on Ken Ham’s organization, Answers in Genesis, and its fundamentalist ideas. But I want people to pay more attention, to think harder about this debate, so that they can realize the degree to which biblical creationism is a despicable fraud.

Although there has been a lot of anxiety over the growing influence of “New Atheists” in the last decade, I think the most energetic Atheist activists could never do as much harm to religion as the fundamentalist creationists. Once upon a time, when I was barely a teenager, I attended a “Back to Genesis” seminar promoted by my church. I listened to lectures from Ken Ham, Duane Gish and other luminaries of the creationist gang. I ate it up. I read all their books. I studied it furiously — so much that it quickly became impossible to ignore the cracks. Eventually the dam burst and washed away my illusions in a big way.

I’ve met or read about many other Atheists who acquired their skepticism in a similar way. For me, there was no better lesson in intellectual caution. This experience gave me a deep and permanent sense of embarrassment over having been duped by people who must know that their theories are completely anti-factual, and who clearly do not care. I think every young person deserves this experience.

So I am happy to see this debate come about. I am happy to see young peoples’ eyes drawn to the creationist agenda. A few of them will join up, but over time the creationists’ numbers will dwindle, and creationism’s defectors will become its most outspoken critics.

My theory is that those who join up will quickly rotate out, and eventually the creationists will run out of susceptible converts. Bob Altemeyer studied this process and wrote about it briefly in his book on right wing authoritarian followers. His results are consistent with the trends typically reported in the popular media:

I have inquired about the current religious affiliations of parents of students at my university for many years. I now have answers from over 6,000 moms and dads. These parents were 48 years old on the average when they served in my studies, and since I also ask what religion they were raised in, we can see if they turned out the way their parents (the grandparents) intended.

…about a third of them had disconnected themselves from their home religion. Some had converted to another, but most of them had become Nones, (e.g., raised a Lutheran, now not anything), which was the category that grew the most–almost 300%!–in my studies from where it had started.

The only other group besides the Nones that ended up in the black, with more members than it started out with, were the Protestant fundamentalists (Baptists, Pentecostals, etcetera), and they only gained 18%. Furthermore, they did it through conversions, because almost half of the parents who had been raised in these denominations had left them by the time they reached middle age. (It was one of the poorer “retention” records among the various religions.)

The “departed” departed in all directions, but mostly they went to more liberal denominations, or (especially) they too ended up Nones. The fundamentalists who remained had to proselytize to avoid the fate of all the other denominations: i.e., an appreciable net loss. If they had not won lots of converts, they too would have shrunk, because they had a lot of trouble holding onto their own sons and daughters.

One of the things I love about Altemeyer’s account is his explanation for why the fundamentalists have so much attrition. It turns out that my own experience is utterly conventional. Toward the end of chapter 4, Altemeyer writes:

But when Bruce Hunsberger and I interviewed university students who had very religious up-bringings but then left the family religion, and asked them why they did so, they almost never mentioned these things. Instead they mainly said they left because they just couldn’t make themselves believe their church’s teachings any more.

Believing the Word. Christian fundamentalism has three great enemies in the struggle to retain its children, judging by the stories its apostates tell: weaknesses in its own teachings, science, and hypocrisy. As for the first, many a fallen-away fundamentalist told us that the Bible simply proved unbelievable on its own merits. …

Secondly, science made too much sense and had pushed traditional beliefs into a tight corner. When their church insisted that its version of creation, the story of Adam and Eve, the sundry miracles and so on had to be taken on faith, the fledgling apostates eventually found that preposterous. Faith for them was not a virtue, although they could see why their religion taught people it was. It meant surrendering rationality. From its earliest days fundamentalism has drawn a line in the sand over scripture versus science, and some of its young people eventually felt they had to step over the line, and then they kept right on going.

Their church had told them it was God’s true religion. That’s what made it so right, so much better than all the others. It had the truth, it spoke the truth, it was The Truth. But that emphasis can create in some people a tremendous valuing of truth per se, especially among highly intelligent youth who have been rewarded all their lives for getting “the right answer.” So if the religion itself begins making less and less sense, it fails by the very criterion that it set up to show its superiority.

Similarly, pretending to believe the unbelievable violated the integrity that had brought praise to the amazing apostates as children. Their consciences, thoroughly developed by their upbringing, made it hard for them to bear false witness. So again they were essentially trapped by their religious training. It had worked too well for them to stay in the home religion, given the problems they saw with it.

There you have it. There are so many potential skeptics sitting in those pews. Let’s get them engaged with creationism. The more they study it, the faster they’ll find the cracks. Those with the most zealous faith will get the most valuable lesson when the curtain falls.

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