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We got the expected outpouring of creationist response to our lead story for yesterday, Skull Fossil From Chad Forces Rethinking Of Human Origins. There are a lot of easy explanations for the prevalence of creationism -- unthinking belief, misunderstanding of science (the big bang is not evolution), seeing a false conflict between religion and science (yes, there are evolutionary biologists who believe in God), or reading political implications into archaeology (does being descended from apes really degrade our human dignity?). But there was a common thread that illustrated what I see as one of the key differences between science and religion.

Religion lays a claim to absolute truth. The word of the Bible, or the Avesta, or the oral tradition of the Pitjantjatjara people, is the final word on every subject it addresses. These truths are revealed from an ultimate source -- God, or someone similar -- that necessarily knows the full truth. Science, on the other hand, can lay no claim to absoluteness. Science is the best explanation we can think of for the data we have. More data, or more insightful syntheses of the current data, will lead to different explanations of the world. Ideally, this would lead to a closer and closer approximation of the truth, though there are huge cultural factors affecting which data we use and what kind of explanations we think of.

But creationists seem to treat science as a religion. In part this probably springs from the apparent conflict of evolution with their religious belief, leading them to relativist arguments about "telling both sides" and thus equivalence between the two systems. But it also comes from not seeing how a scientific approach to the truth differs from a religious one.

A scientist would cite the adaptability of scientific explanation -- the willingness of the scientific community to adapt its theories win the face of contradictory evidence -- as a strength. Science thrives on finding increasingly better explanations. But creationists cite it as a weakness. They dismiss evolution as "just a theory," when scientific explanations are always just theories, no matter how well supported (and to a naturalistic or Kantian perspective, theories are all we can ever have about anything). They view each scientific theory as a religious truth, an absolute and final answer, which will bring down its whole intellectual edifice if it is undermined (much as they see their belief in God being challenged by revision of the Genesis story).

Most of the creationist letters told us simply "read the Bible, the answers are in there." There is a revealed truth, they say, which is final and absolute and has been available all along. Provisional explanations, things we believe "to the best of our knowledge," have no place when you believe there is an absolute truth accessible.


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