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Laugh to Keep from Crying

Patrick Inniss

The study of religion from a skeptical perspective can be an interesting and entertaining hobby. While the results of these studies are often chilling in what they reveal about the darker side of human history and psychology (and perhaps even their implication for the future of humanity) it's still hard to resist the urge to laugh when a particularly absurd notion is devoutly proffered. And there are no more absurd notions than those that emerge from the fertile imaginations of creationists.

Creationists contend that evolution never happened. They are much like intellectual Amish, stuck in some horse-and-buggy era when the Bible was assumed by most to represent a more or less accurate portrayal of the development of the earth and the life that inhabits it. Their most honored tradition is an ongoing struggle against science.

Creationists pretty much had their way until Darwin. In the early days, refuting Darwin was a lot easier, of course. At that time, Darwin was the revolutionary and the creationists represented the establishment. But that didn't last long. In just a few years Darwin's conception of evolution by means of natural selection was widely accepted and it became the creationists who were viewed as loonies.

If you need a laugh, just dig up some creationist literature. Of course, this stuff isn't put together by scientists or even particularly talented amateurs. If you keep in mind that the people who developed the creationist worldview are interested in science only as a means to bolster their faith, then you will have insight into how such cockeyed concepts are misconceived.

Some of the most amusing creationist ideas concern not humans, but dinosaurs. How about this creationist gem: There were originally no meat-eating dinosaurs! Yes friends, as God created it, only peace-loving vegetarians inhabited the Garden of Eden. Every Tyrannosaurus, every Allosaurus, even lions and tigers (remember, this is a biblical scenario-these creatures all lived at the same time, along with man) subsisted on a bland diet of plants. They only started to eat each other after "the fall of man" and his expulsion from the Garden.

Of course, without evolution, every creature we now see is as God originally created it at the beginning of all life, so the characteristics that we now identify with carnivorous animals must have been present from Day One. Why, you ask, did T-Rex and his relatives have such long, sharp teeth and such a fast, powerful build? Why do many carnivorous animals get sick and die without meat in their diets? And why did animals such as Stegosaurus and Triceratops have such obvious defensive armor? Lord only knows. 

While these "terrible lizards" may have eschewed killing and eating their fellow creatures, don't think that they were just big pussycats. At least one creationist speculates that some dinosaurs breathed fire! The inspiration for this particular flight of fancy is, of course, the Bible, specifically Job 41:18; "His snorting throws out flashes of light; his eyes are like the rays of dawn. Firebrands stream from his mouth; sparks of fire shoot out. Smoke pours from his nostrils. . . ." With that as a guide, creationists have speculated on the possibility that the large quantity of volatile gases no doubt produced by such a massive creature could have somehow been directed to produce the natural equivalent of a flame thrower. Why a harmless herbivore should need such a formidable weapon remains unexplained. Perhaps it was used to produce roasted nuts or cooked potatoes to satisfy the deprived palates of these overgrown quiche eaters.

Of course, the existence of dinosaurs is but one of many aspects of science that the creationists somehow have to explain away. One feature of the universe which one might expect would completely blow away the young earth creationists (who should be called the "really young earth creationists," since they reduce the age of the earth by a factor of about one million) is the fact that we can see light from stars millions of light years away. If the earth is so young, how in Sam Hill did the light from the stars get here already?
But this would be underestimating the resourcefulness of creationists. They have not one, not two, but at least three explanations at the ready. The least fun dodge states that our tiny speck of the universe is almost brand spanking new, but the other 99.999 . . .% (not enough space on the page for all the 9s) of the universe is billions of years old, just like the scientists (real ones, that is) say.

If you don't like that one (OK, wacky, but perhaps not quite wacky enough), try this one on for size: God just created the universe this way, with light already well on its way to earth from distant stars! Pretty slick, huh? Of course, the only question in my mind is, if God is planting all this deceptive evidence about the age of the universe, how the heck can we trust that it's 6,000 years old? How do we know it's not, say, six minutes old, and he just created our brains with the memories from last Tuesday already in place? Hey, maybe I didn't really get that speeding ticket!

My favorite creationist dodge for the conundrum presented by our ability to view distant stars is that light is traveling more slowly now than it used to. This explanation is, like all good canards, beautiful in its simplicity. It can even be—kind of, sort of—backed up by evidence.

Just find a few early measurements of the speed of light that reflected a speed higher than what is reported now, ignore possible inaccuracies and other results that undercut your argument, extrapolate the dubious results back over time, and pretty soon you can predict that at the time of the universe's creation, just those few short millennia ago, light was moving around so fast that it makes current light speed seem about as slow as Aunt Bea's old Rambler. 

According to creationists, the speed of light isn't the only thing that's slowing down. Things that also have to be retarded to fit their model are the rate of coral growth, the speed at which volcanoes are formed, the speed at which molten rock cools, and even continental drift.

Regarding continental drift, most creationists graciously admit it happens, but contend that the continents used to scoot along at one half mile per hour to reach their current locations in the allotted time. Of course, if you think that it would be too hard for the people and animals to reach the various continents after they hopped off the Ark, you just stipulate that the continents didn't drift apart until after the Flood. Then you peg the initial rate of continental drift at up to one mile per hour. They've got a need for speed!

Somewhat less exciting but equally absurd are creationists' explanations for geological strata. Since creationists believe that all such deposits were made by the Great Flood, you get some pretty weird interpretations of the same information. A geologist, for instance, will look at rocks he believes to be millions of years old and identify up to 27 different and distinct layers documenting the history of successive prehistoric forests.

A creationist looks at the same rocks and determines that these layers all depict a single forest that was buried at the time of the Flood, which lasted for about one year (long for a flood, but pretty short for the formation of hundreds of feet of carbonaceous deposits).
Paleontologists only find dinosaurs in certain deposits, and not in the company of earlier creatures. Fortunately for the purposes of this article, the creationists have a ready explanation: it's because the dinosaurs all fled to higher ground during the initial stages of the Flood and were only washed away after many of the smaller animals had already been buried under the silt. Since they were pretty heavy, dinosaurs sank deeper than other animals that sought higher ground, explaining why there are fossils of smaller creatures overlaying them.

Of course, laughing at this stuff is a little like whistling as you walk past the cemetery. There is really something to fear here, considering the poor state of scientific education in our country. From time to time we read to our horror of the number of people who still believe that God created Adam and Eve.

Then we even hear about the creationists swaying legislators, such as last year in Kansas. At that point, it's no longer a laughing matter. The Flintstones aren't funny either when they turn up in science class.

Patrick Inniss is a columnist with The Secular Humanist Press, the newsletter of the Humanists of Washington. The following is reprinted from the winter 1999-2000 issue of the newsletter, with special permission of the author.


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