Creationism explained | Andrew Brown:
You can believe in a Creator without being a 'scientific creationist'. The distinction is important and needs preserving
It makes a pleasant change to be attacked as an apologist for atheism here. But I thought it would be worth a quick note on the uses of the term "creationism" since it serves all sides to blur some of its distinct meanings. When I use it, "Creationism" is shorthand for the belief that the Bible, or the Qu'ran is a reliable guide to the processes by which life emerged, and where scientific results seem to contradict that, so much the worse for them. This belief is false and should not be taught in schools.
But there are other uses to the word, obviously. In particular, "Creationism" is used in arguments over whether human beings, or the universe as a whole, have a purpose apparent to God. And within that large category of arguments there is a further subdivision, about whether the methods of science can discover or distinguish that purpose.
Now, in the first instance, the arguments are perfectly straightforward: is science or mythology a better way to discover the workings of the external world? And the answer seems obvious, and equally straightforward: science will tell us about the external world, mythology, at best, about the contents of our imaginations.
But the arguments about purpose are much more complicated. They look scientific, but this begs the question of whether science can detect conscious purpose at all. I think one lesson of Dennett's zombie thought experiments is that science cannot detect conscious purpose even when we know it's there.
Arguments about this second sort of "creationism" are connected to the ambiguity of the term "design", and indeed "plan", both of which can be used to imply both purpose and structure: the designs I have on you are different in kind to the design of your body, though they may be stimulated by it. Similarly, "I have a plan for this building" is very different from "I have a plan of this building".
The Paleyite argument, which is the obverse of Richard Dawkins's, says that by discovering the plan (blueprint) of the world, through scientific methods, we can infer the existence of a planner, and go some way to deducing his plan (purpose) for the world. Now this is an argument about two things, the world, and the hypothetical planner. The study of the one is science and the study of the other is theology. So Paleyite arguments are both scientific and theological. The two inquiries proceed by different rules.
The scientific half of the argument – that the observed complexity of the world couldn't have arisen naturally, and without help, has been completely defeated. ID, with its talk of "irreducible complexity", is its last, doomed stand.
But there is also the moral aspect of the argument, and that couldn't be decided scientifically, by reproducible experiment. Of course it can be attacked with reason, but that's not the same thing. Science is a subset of reasoning, not – as the New Atheists suppose – its quintessence, to which all other forms imperfectly approach.
This moral aspect is the "Devil's Chaplain" argument, which says, in effect, that the world as produced by natural selection could not be the product of a loving deity. This is a theological, and not a scientific argument in part because it would retain its force – in fact it would gain in force – even if the scientific account were entirely falsified, and we knew that God had in seven days produced a world full of parasites in which sweet fluffy kittens torture adorable mice.
Now, if you are an atheist who takes the Paleyite view – that the existence of God is a question to be settled by an enquiry which is simultaneously and inextricably scientific and moral – then anyone who disagrees with you will appear to be a "creationist" in a sense much wider than the first one.
But the mainstream, orthodox, Christian position is not in fact Paleyite. It doesn't claim that the purpose of life can be discovered or shown by scientific enquiry; only that this purpose, discovered or known by revelation, is perfectly compatible with the results of science.
This is also a position which can be described as "creationist", but I would never do so, because that muddles an enormously useful and important distinction. The orthodox Christian view cannot be refuted scientifically. It is therefore irrelevant to science classes, unlike the first sort of "creationism" which is actively hostile to science teaching.
(My own point of view is that the question of whether the universe has a purpose is not only one we can't answer, but one we can't even properly frame. How on earth could we emerge from a game whose rules were comprehensible to us?)