Background to global creationism

5 minute read

The Economist had a recent story about the global reach of creationism. I found the first few paragraphs to be the most informative. First, the article describes the efforts of Adnan Oktar, a Turkish "preacher" who disseminates creationist literature in many countries under the name Harun Yahya.

In his native Turkey there are many people, including devout Muslims, who feel uncomfortable about the 51-year-old Mr Oktar's strong appeal to young women and his political sympathies for the nationalist right. But across the Muslim world he seems to be riding high. Many of the most popular Islamic websites refer readers to his vast canon.

The spread of counterscientific information of various kinds through the Muslim world is a story that receives too little attention, and this story gives some needed attention to a small aspect of this campaign.

The story also includes a brief mention of recent protests by evangelical Bishop Boniface Adoyo at the National Museums of Kenya, and the efforts by Richard Leakey to resist his demands.

The insight to draw away is that there are many different political motivations for rejecting science, and these have united a surprising group of people. Later in the article, we are shown the Discovery Institute's tendrils bringing these disparate groups together:

In February several luminaries of the anti-evolution movement in the United States went to Istanbul for a grand conference where Darwin's ideas were roundly denounced. The organiser of the gathering was a Turkish Muslim author and columnist, Mustafa Akyol, who forged strong American connections during a fellowship at the Discovery Institute.
To the dismay of some Americans and the delight of others, Mr Akyol was invited to give evidence (against Darwin's ideas) at hearings held by the Kansas school board in 2005 on how science should be taught. Mr Akyol, an advocate of reconciliation between Muslims and the West who is much in demand at conferences on the future of Islam, is careful to distinguish his position from that of the extravagant publishing venture in his home city. "They make some valid criticisms of Darwinism, but I disagree with most of their other views," insists the young author, whose other favourite cause is the compatibility between Islam and Western liberal ideals, including human rights and capitalism. But a multi-layered anti-Darwin movement has certainly brought about a climate in Turkey and other Muslim countries that makes sure challenges to evolution theory, be they sophisticated or crude, are often well received.

From Istanbul to Kansas. Yes, the conservatives on the Kansas Board of Education consulted with Turkish creationists on how to teach biology to Kansas kids. has the transcript, which is good background for the current article:

AKYOL: And I could say in recent years, I can claim to be an expert on Islamic radicalism. That's what I write especially in the United States in the media, in Turkey. We know that view that we have is a problem, Islamic radicalism. Why is there hatred of America and the west in general in the Islamic world? And it's because of many reasons, sociological reasons it has about Muslim failure of Muslim world in the 20th Century.
But one reason of the widespread resentment is that Muslims think the west and, of course, the United States is completely a materialistic civilization. They think that when they watch western films, when they read western media, and when the kids take western education, they think that they will be poisoned by an ideology, materialism. That's why they just don't like it. They just want to get away from it. And at the very extreme, it creates what we have, anti-American sentiment among those populations. And I remember that, for example.
But it also has a philosophical side, and that philosophy, as we all know, is also called naturalism, the idea that nature is all there is. And when that idea, when that philosophy, which has no scientific justification at all, becomes the dominant force in science education in the United States, what you have is that you will have alienated people. You will-- for example, Muslims. They will feel alienated. They will think that there's a school system which imposes on them, on their kids, a philosophy which they don't believe, and which they find to be poisonous, and which doesn't have any scientific evidence at all. That's the important point.

Now, is the alienation due to science? Is it spread by MTV and Hollywood (that is Akyol's point in the ellipsis)? Or is it generated by the deniers of science, these people spreading counterinformation that says that science alienates, equating it with immorality, meaninglessness, and attacks on religious belief?

I think the article misfires a bit by bringing in the recent discussions of evolution and intelligent design by Pope Benedict XVI. Not that it isn't relevant, just that the complexities (and the Pope's prominent defense of rationalism) make it harder to link this with the spread of global creationism.

While avoiding the cruder arguments that have been used to challenge Darwin's theories, the pope asserts that evolution cannot be conclusively proved; and that the manner in which life developed was indicative of a "divine reason" which could not be discerned by scientific methods alone.
Both in his previous role as the chief enforcer of Catholic doctrine and since his enthronement, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has made clear his profound belief that man has a unique, God-given role in the animal kingdom; and that a divine creator has an ongoing role in sustaining the universe, something far more than just "lighting the blue touch paper" for the Big Bang, the event that scientists think set the universe in motion.

Reading that, I didn't think that really captured the substance of the Pope's position. After all, Catholic doctrine posits the existence of supernatural entities in the world, such as souls, that evolution cannot explain. Likewise, it posits a role for human uniqueness and purpose beyond that compatible with undirected evolutionary processes. So what else is the Pope supposed to say?

I guess the Pope probably gave the story its hook, since he happens to have published a book a couple of weeks ago discussing evolution and creation. The book's in German, and should be translated into other languages eventually. In the meantime, it got a lot of press when it came out a couple of weeks ago, but I didn't take notes on any of the stories at the time, so I went looking through Google News looking for a decent review.

You can certainly tell that something is confusing (or politically loaded) when the first two headlines are like this:

Pope Benedict XVI Backs Darwin's Insights
Pope Benedict Casts Doubt on Darwin

I suppose the third headline is the most neutral:

Pope stokes debate on Darwin and evolution

Anyway, this issue will be worth revisiting when a good English translation of the full book becomes available.