Sunday, April 15, 2007

Creationist Irrationality Fronts For A Psychological Need

The ultimate origins of the stubborn resistance to science and reason by creationists (and I'm including IDists in this) has always baffled me. It is certainly not that science has offered them justification for their viewpoint. Any appeal to "science" on the part of a creationist is simply an effort to find legitimacy on the world stage. This strategy itself seems odd as the only real defense of a creationist worldview is simply "I believe it" (I have always maintained that personal belief is not subject to critique, in the sense that if I believe something to be true without appeal to reason, logic or any other materialistic aspect of the world, then by definition it cannot be countered by appeals to reason, logic, etc. Pure belief for the individual; but by the same token, all belief is equivalent - if I don't believe in Hell, then for all practical purposes in my life, there is no Hell; the same applies to someone who believes Hell is an actual place where a God of eternal love will send good, moral people to a life of eternal damnation for nothing more than not attending church on Sunday...(ok, I broke the rule by appealing to a god who actually judges in the real world sense, but you get the picture). Of course whether a philosophy of pure belief is a good strategy for coping in the real world is another question entirely). When creationists appeal to "science" as providing evidence of their worldview, we all know that they must distort science, falsify data and ignore contradictory evidence in order to do so. But the appeal to appear "scientific" also undermines their concept of belief and sends the clear signal to the rest of the world that, deep down, they don't believe their position either. They want creationism to be true, but they cannot escape the need to anchor their belief in a real world that can be seen, touched, measured and explained. They want the details of a materialist world to confirm their religious worldview...but a religious worldview only works if you ignore the details.

So I have always wondered if there wasn't some deeper, psychological need simply expressing itself as a creationist worldview. And it turns out that maybe there is. Psychotherapist Peter Michaelson suggests there are psychological issues at work with creationists that may better explain their irrationality with regard to reason and logic:

The danger of creationism, Hedges writes [referring to author Chris Hedges], “is that, like the pseudo-science of Nazi eugenics, it allows facts to be accepted or discarded according to the dictates of a preordained ideology.”...The doctrine of eugenics was a self-defeating coping strategy that arose following the German people’s collapse into self-doubt, despair, and even self-hatred after their humbling defeat in World War I and their country’s subsequent hyper-inflation and economic depression.

I find the concept of creationism as a "self-defeating coping strategy" quite accurate; even more so the connection between creationist ideology and despair. Read creationist literature and arguments they present as "scientific" and their position comes across as born of a desperation to vindicate their own worldview and convince as many as possible of the "correctness" of their view. I have always had the impression that the real motivation behind proselytizing is to achieve a sense of "safety in numbers" - the more people who feel the way I do, the more correct my position is (which is why many Christians offer poll numbers as a kind of evidence their belief is the correct one).

Michaelson continues...

Creationism, which identifies humanity as a master species in God’s image, is also a coping strategy for a poor sense of self. The doctrine contends that human beings are special creations of God who have miraculously bypassed the evolutionary process that shapes all life forms. People embrace this belief as truth because doing so is emotionally satisfying: This belief elevates them in their own eyes. It’s really not about God at all. In a process that is mostly unconscious, these individuals are desperate to feel recognized and validated by something bigger and better than them. God just happens to do the trick. This desperation for recognition arises out of their underdeveloped sense of self. Even their great hunger for salvation is a craving for rescue from such an impoverished experience of self.

Again, a point that makes sense when you look at the extraordinary lengths creationists go through to paint anyone who differs from their beliefs as having a meaningless life. Creationists claim their views make life meaningful, but what that's only because they lack the self-esteem to find meaning and purpose in anything else. Of course, in the creationist psyche those of us who see evolution as valid must be living lives devoid of meaning - it can be no other way or what's the point of creationism? (Interestingly, when I raised the idea that without religion your life is meaningless with my kids, they looked at me like I had just lost all sense of reason - we evolutionist have no problem finding meaning, purposefulness and wonder without religion - and the creationists are afraid of that).

As if to emphasize my point:

People with a poor sense of self often compensate by convincing themselves that they are superior. This is the mechanism of narcissists, who also have an exceedingly weak sense of self. The doctrine of eugenics, too, was a statement of superiority, induced by self-doubt and self-loathing. Creationists are also eager for some means by which to feel superior. They can feel superior by believing they’re specially chosen by God. They can also convince themselves they are morally superior by condemning the beliefs and actions of humanists, secularists, and liberals....Yet they’re fighting not so much for a specific belief system but to avoid a kind of metaphysical meltdown. Without special standing in God’s eyes, it feels to them they’ll be nothing but pinpricks of consciousness lost in space—without a direction, or a home, or meaning, or substance.

The really unfortunate thing is that creationism has set up a facade of meaning that is inexorably crumbling at its edge and they will have no where to turn when it completely implodes:

As more people are enlisted into their belief system, the safer they feel. But the world is changing rapidly. Reality has no use for doctrine or ideology. Science and sophisticated knowledge, along with intelligent and articulate people, are pressing in from all sides. Creationists know at some instinctive level that time is running out. Hence, the more desperate they are—and the more irrational—as they cling to the old.

Ken Ham is the epitome of this irrationality. Anyone who clings to the very primitive belief that tyrannosaurs were once vegetarians because he believes an Iron Age text to be the word of god lacks a credible grip on reality. The fact that a lot of people will follow him down that road and eagerly accept Ham's fictitious view of the real world leads me to think Dawkins and Harris are collectively on to something: at a certain level faith is both delusional and dangerous.

And I don't think Michaelson is suggesting (a la Harris) that faith is inherently bad. It's more that creationists simply lack both an intellectual and emotional maturity that they really need to be weaned from:

Making the transition from faith in dogma to belief in the enduring value of one’s own self need not cause more grief than parting with a baby blanket. Mainly, we have to be prepared to examine our beliefs and not become identified with them. It helps to be on the lookout for important knowledge and to believe in our own capacity to figure out the essential things of life as well as anyone else.

Michaelson concludes:

Meanwhile, the debate with creationists needs to be expanded on our terms. Their emotionally held positions, developed out of inner weakness, can’t be taken at face value. As we see the roots of their delusion, our insightful responses will hasten, mercifully, their abandonment of that losing cause.

(Hat tip to Buckdog...)


leftdog said...

Understanding the roots of this is key to countering it effectively.
Logical dialogue has to be infused into the discussion wherever possible and without hesitation.

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