Are Creationists Worthy of Moral Condemnation?

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 27, 2009 in Ethics,Guest Post

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The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moral theory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist.

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Luke Muehlhauser has asked me to make regular contributions to Common Sense Atheism in which I am to discuss the practical applications of Desire Utilitarianism (a.k.a. Desirism) to specific issues.

I am more than happy to do so.

He even suggested the initial topic. A reader of his has criticized a position that I presented on my blog, and Luke defended, stating that young earth creationists are guilty of a moral failing that makes them worthy of moral condemnation.

That criticism can be found at The Warfare Is Mental.

I am going to broaden the topic a little and discuss the general concepts of incompetence and negligence. Because, as it turns out, the response given to my original position, if valid, would be arguments for abandoning the concepts of incompetence and negligence, or at last rendering them inapplicable in the real world.

My position is that, if these concepts have any real-world applicability at all, they would apply to young earth creationists who not only display incompetence on issues relevant to a wide range of public policy but negligently insist that they contribute to shaping that policy.

First, I need to specify (as I did in my original post) that my remarks refer specifically to young earth creationists – those who believe that the Earth itself is approximately 6000 years old. My remarks do not apply to old-earth creationists. They are also completely inapplicable to deists who hold that a God created a universe 13.5 billion years ago within which the Earth formed after 9 billion years and intelligent life evolved 4.5 billion years after that.

Now, let us assume that the citizens of a town have decided to commission the building of a dam upstream of their community to control flooding. They collect the money, and they set out to hire an engineer. One of the applicants says that he can build a dam out of paper mâché. Other engineers scoff, saying that there is no way that paper mâché can hold up to the force of water that would be put on the dam.

However, the paper mâché engineer insists that paper mâché has one million times the strength that the other engineers say it does. As such, even a very thin (and inexpensive) paper mâché dam will block the river and provide the town with the flood control it desires.

Here is where the concept of incompetence comes in. It is perfectly sensible for the members of the engineering community to claim that the paper mâché engineer is incompetent. The town folks would be idiots not to follow the recommendation of the vast body of engineering experts who insist that the dam must be made of concrete and steel, as opposed to paper mâché, if it is to hold back the river in spring time.

Now, let us assume that our paper mâché engineer gets a defender. That defender says it is inappropriate to scoff at the paper mâché engineers’ plans. After all, the paper mâché engineer merely drew a different set of conclusions from the same data. We are told that rejecting the views of the paper mâché engineer is merely prejudice and is wrong in the same way that rejecting the views of the concrete engineers is wrong. We must assume, instead, that both views have equal merit.

We see here that society has very good reason to want to preserve the concepts of competence and moral responsibility – with one of its components, immoral recklessness. Incompetence and recklessness maim and kill people when they are put into practice. The very reasons we have for avoiding those harms ourselves, and protecting those we love from those harms, are the reasons we have to praise and reward competence and moral responsibility, and to morally condemn incompetence and recklessness.

Young earth creationism, like the views of the engineer proposing the paper mâché dam, when put into practice, are examples of incompetence and recklessness.

If we were to look at the magnitude of error on the part of young earth creationists, it is the same as that of a pilot who insists that his plane is a mere half an inch from the ground, when in fact he was flying at an altitude of 37,500 feet.

It is the same difference as one in which an engineer insists that 1 cup of coolant was enough to safely run the nuclear reactor, when in fact 45,000 gallons was needed.

It is the same ratio as a case in which an engineer builds a dam capable of withstanding 1 pound of force per square foot when it needs to support 22.5 tons of force per square foot.

Worse yet would be those pilots, nuclear engineers, and civil engineers who insist that the right to freedom of speech entitles them to teach this nonsense in schools – that freedom of speech requires that they be entitled to “teach the controversy” over whether paper mâché is good dam-building material in engineering classes across the country.

Before the question gets asked, the answer is, “Yes, the evidence for the Earth being 4.5 billion years old rather than 6000 years old is as solid as the evidence that a plane is flying at an altitude of 37,500 feet instead of half an inch, or that a dam will experience significantly more than 1 pound per square foot of force.”

At this point, we can consider the claims of the person defending this pilot claiming, “How dare you accuse this engineer of incompetence merely because he disagrees with you on how much force is going to be put on this dam!”

We can immediately see the absurdity of this defense. It is not a judgment based “merely upon the fact that they disagree with our conclusion.” Rather, they disagree with a huge body of collected evidence governing the facts with respect to water pressure, material sciences, and structural engineering. These things have been tested over and over again and they work.

The defender might also claim that I am condemning the paper mâché dam builder for his beliefs.

I morally condemn the young earth creationist – not for their beliefs, but because they are so reckless and incompetent with respect to whole realms of public policy where they still insist on making decisions. These include policies on matters affecting the environment, climate, medicine, energy, agriculture, and natural disasters. Their absurd beliefs are the very measure of incompetence in these fields.

Yes, it is possible to be an incompetent dam builder and to do no harm. I am an incompetent dam builder – and I do no harm. This is because I leave the business of building dams to those who are competent. I admit that my lack of knowledge does not qualify me to pass judgment as to which design is best.

The young earth creationist who admits to his incompetence in matters of science and leaves those judgments to experts will do no harm. People generally have as little reason to be concerned about his incompetence in science as they have to be concerned about my incompetence as a dam builder.

However, a person who admits to incompetence in matters of science is not a young earth creationist. The young earth creationist claims that he knows what the right answer is – and this is not something that a person who admits his own incompetence will do.

The proper analogy is not between the young earth creationist and me – the incompetent dam builder who knows he is incompetent and thus refuses to build dams. The proper analogy is as I have drawn it above – between the young earth creationist and the incompetent dam builder who holds himself to be competent in the face of dangerously absurd beliefs and insists that he should be permitted to act on those beliefs on matters of dam building – and who insists that he has a right to teach those beliefs to others as they represented a legitimate engineering alternative.

A person cannot understand the science of energy resource management unless he understands the science that says that the sun has existed for billions of years, and that current oil reserves are the naturally processed remains of plants that died out tens to hundreds of millions of years ago.

A person cannot understand the problem of nuclear waste disposal (or nuclear war) unless he understands the process of radioactive decay – the very same process that provides an important portion of the evidence of an ancient earth.

A person cannot understand gene therapy, or the risk of superbugs, or the risk of pandemic unless he has a working understanding of mutation and the process of natural selection – the same processes that show that the life on Earth evolved over billions of years.

A person cannot understand climate change unless he can understand the evidence that has been gathered that shows the interaction between the earth and its environment that has been locked in the ice caps going back hundreds of thousands of years – and in the rocks going back billions of years.

Failure to competently make policies in these and relevant areas will get people maimed and killed. Young earth creationists will continue to get people maimed and killed as long as they continue their incompetent contribution to policies in these areas.

There is simply no defense for this behavior that would not end up abolishing the concepts of competence and moral negligence entirely – allowing all sorts of evils that come from incompetence and negligence.

Most important of all, knowing what has happened to the Earth itself in the past – knowing the Earth’s history – is vitally important to knowing its future. That is a subject that all of humanity has a vested interest in getting right. That is the area in which the incompetent and morally irresponsible young earth creationist is capable of doing the most harm.

- Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

ayer October 27, 2009 at 6:20 am

Fyfe: “A person cannot understand …”

I agree with your rejection of YEC, but the weak point in your argument is your claim that YEC results in widespread incompetence in applied science. I would doubt that there are many YEC advocates who even enter science as a profession; and among those who do, is there evidence that they perform a different form of applied science than their non-YEC colleagues? You need to flesh out, with specific examples and news reports, the deadly harm that these YEC scientists are doing.

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Reginald Selkirk October 27, 2009 at 6:24 am

In your fable, you have granted the Young Earth Creationist a sincerity which is often lacking in real world examples of that ilk. For example, it is not at all uncommon for a YEC proponent (e.g. Duane Gish) to repeat an argument which he has formerly agreed to be discredited.

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Evan October 27, 2009 at 6:26 am

Papier Mache?

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Reginald Selkirk October 27, 2009 at 6:36 am

ayer: I would doubt that there are many YEC advocates who even enter science as a profession; and among those who do, is there evidence that they perform a different form of applied science than their non-YEC colleagues?

There is data on this, and it’s going to depend on your definition of “science” as a profession. See the Salem Conjecture (aka Salem Hypothesis:

My position is not that most creationists are engineers or even that engineering predisposes one to Creationism. In fact, most engineers are not Creationists and more well-educated people are less predisposed to Creationism, the points the statistics in the study bear out. My position was that of those Creationists who presented themselves with professional credentials, or with training that they wished to represent as giving them competence to be critics of Evolution while offering Creationism as the alternative, a significant number turned out to be engineers.

So then, does engineering qualify as the ‘profession of science’?

John Lynch did a breakdown of the Discovery Institute’s Dissent from Darwinism list, but remember that is in support of Intelligent Design Creationism, not YEC.

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Reginald Selkirk October 27, 2009 at 6:40 am

An Examination of the DI’s Dissent from Darwinism List
a 10 minute Youtube video

Once again, this is for Intelligent Design Creationism, not YEC. (Although it has been noticed that IDC is a “big tent” political movement, not a scientific position, that many IDC proponents actually are YEC (e.g. Paul Nelson, Dean Kenyon), and that the IDC movement mysteriously refuses to take a position on such basic scientific issues as the age of the Earth.)

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ayer October 27, 2009 at 8:06 am

Selkirk: “So then, does engineering qualify as the ‘profession of science’?”

I guess it qualifies as “applied science”, but wouldn’t engineering be a good example of YEC’ers doing the exact same kind of applied science as non-YEC’ers, with no awful consequences on their engineering from the YEC beliefs?

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Reginald Selkirk October 27, 2009 at 8:22 am

Yes, so long as it’s not bio-engineering.

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Thomas Reid October 27, 2009 at 9:49 am

I don’t see the correlation between being a YEC and incompetence in the areas you cite. Furthermore, accusations of maiming and death demand some stronger evidence. It is a perfectly coherent position to maintain a belief in young age and be competent in any area of applied science. Studying how long ago God created the earth is entirely distinct from studying the laws He established for its operation.

There is no recorded human history older than about 3000BC. So there are no eyewitness accounts available to corrobate either the YEC’s claim, or the claim of the cosmologist who believes the universe began billions of years ago. Theories are not facts. From where do you derive your sense of certainty in your theory that you are willing to make accusations of killing instead of perhaps acknowledging that your theory may not be correct?

It would be very easy to verify the claim of the man who presents himself as a competent dam builder – much easier than verifying the claim of the man who fashions himself knowledgable of events that occurred thousands, millions, or billions of years ago. We should recognize the amount of guesswork and assumptions in our theories and tolerate other views proportionately, including creating public policy.

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Penneyworth October 27, 2009 at 10:53 am

Thomas Reid seems to be correct. I’d like to see an example of a person’s belief in a young earth being the cause of his reckless decision making. It may be the case that someone supports the invasion of Iraq because “they hate our freedom” and also is a YEC, but this stance stems from a lack of understanding of international politics, not from a belief in creationism.

Also, how is this an application of desirism? It is already the consensus that incompetence and negligence are bad and punishable. We don’t need desirism to tell us not to be negligent any more than we need the bible to teach us the golden rule.

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lukeprog October 27, 2009 at 11:26 am

Penneyworth,

I’ll answer Thomas when I can, but for now let me say that YES many moral systems argue for condemnation of negligence. Alonzo and I never claimed otherwise.

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Reginald Selkirk October 27, 2009 at 11:44 am

It is a perfectly coherent position to maintain a belief in young age and be competent in any area of applied science.

Are you including medicine as an “area of applied science”? Would it be morally acceptable for a doctor to give a patient a 40 year old antibiotic based on the claim that bacteria could not evolve resistance to older antibiotics?

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Reginald Selkirk October 27, 2009 at 11:49 am

Thomas Reid: There is no recorded human history older than about 3000BC. So there are no eyewitness accounts available to corrobate either the YEC’s claim, or the claim of the cosmologist who believes the universe began billions of years ago. Theories are not facts. From where do you derive your sense of certainty in your theory that you are willing to make accusations of killing instead of perhaps acknowledging that your theory may not be correct?

Eyewitness testimony is not all that reliable. Which would you trust more, an eyewitness who claims that X was not the murderer, or a forensics report which found X’s DNA and fingerprints all over the murder weapon?

The sense of certainty arises from probability tests assigned through repeated observation. Are you going to deny mathematics along with large swaths of biology, chemistry, physics, and astronomy?

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Thomas Reid October 27, 2009 at 1:21 pm

Are you including medicine as an “area of applied science”? Would it be morally acceptable for a doctor to give a patient a 40 year old antibiotic based on the claim that bacteria could not evolve resistance to older antibiotics?

Yes, I am including medicine. No, it doesn’t sound like the doctor would be making a good decision in your hypothetical.

The question of whether or not bacteria (or anything else) can evolve is not relevant to the question of when the earth came into existence. What would be relevant is something like the following: “If evolution is the only process by which differentiation / advancement of life can occur, then the pace at which modern-day bacteria evolve aids our understanding of the time required to advance from primordial soup to what we see today.” Is anyone aware of succesfful attempts to answer a question like this in favor of the atheist postion that evolution is the only game in town? I am not.

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rushmore October 27, 2009 at 4:42 pm

YE Christians who work in applied sciences – like medicine – don’t disagree with using modern antibiotics of course, so your analogy doesn’t really approximate reality. Both the vast majority of Christian and the vast majority of atheist doctors would offer the current best treatment available (you can find extremist wonks who wouldn’t on either side but why play that game?). The only difference between them would be that the atheist could dispense his vaccine confident in his conviction that he was dispensing the end result of a creator-less evolved world. The YE Christian could do so firm in his conviction that God made the world and formed man to discover its rules and behaviors. Both would be fully convinced of diametrically opposed worldviews but in both cases the patient would recover.

Just so in any example you can name of applied sciences. In fact many of the great discoveries of science were made by men who (foolishly perhaps) believed God made a predictable ordered world that could be discovered by minds He also made. You have yet to demonstrate any realistic theoretical setting (never mind an actual reported event) in which YE Christian views caused an otherwise predictable damage of any kind.

At worst you can regard YE’ers as kooks. I think you’re in for an uphill battle to declare that they’re actually detrimental to the general populace. But have at it…

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drj October 27, 2009 at 5:35 pm

The greatest crime of the YEC’ers would be the way in which they brainwash their kids to have an irrational distrust of the institution of science. They cultivate a culture of anti-science, that goes waaaaay beyond a healthy skepticism… and they do it by raping the minds of their own kids. Its no genital mutilation… but its not far off (I’m not kidding).

They share partial responsibility for the fostering of a culture that believes scientific ideas can just be dismissed at the whims of personal preference. This bleeds over into other disciplines… the most notable example today would be climate science. We actually have fools in congress waving Bibles around, saying that “God chooses when the world ends, so we don’t even need to think about global warming.”

YEC and climate denialism go hand in hand. What future science will be victimized?

We also have YEC’s claiming that the studying the evolution of viruses and bacteria that develop resistence, or could potentially evolve into deadlier forms is a futile waste of time. They would divert resources into studying their half-baked theories of “genome deterioration” and other such stupidity, at the expense of serious ideas.

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cl October 27, 2009 at 6:03 pm

I agree with Thomas Reid, Penneyworth and rushmore. I don’t see what Fyfe’s re-assertions accomplish. We already know his opinion of YEC’s; but the logic isn’t any tighter in this post than his last.

Luke,
I was actually more interested in hearing your response to my criticism, and remain interested in hearing you justify your original claims.

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lukeprog October 28, 2009 at 1:50 am

cl,

That’s fine. It’s on my to-do list.

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Fortuna October 28, 2009 at 10:27 am

rushmore;

YE Christians who work in applied sciences – like medicine – don’t disagree with using modern antibiotics of course, so your analogy doesn’t really approximate reality.

The question is how are they “using” modern antibiotics. Taking an inappropriately high dose of antibiotics, or taking antibiotics at the wrong time, can force the evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains.

If YEC doctors acknowledge this during their instructions to their patients, they are contradicting their beliefs.

If they don’t, they are endangering the well-being of their patients and the general population.

Either way, the YEC beliefs themselves are not compatible with responsible medical practice.

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ayer October 28, 2009 at 10:58 am

I’m not an expert on the YEC view of antibiotics, but this piece from Answers in Genesis asserts their belief that resistant strains are the result of “mutation and natural selection.” So it would seem YEC beliefs, in this instance, are consistent with responsible medical practice:

http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/am/v2/n3/antibiotic-resistance-of-bacteria

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Fortuna October 28, 2009 at 3:21 pm

Wow, talk about about scoring in your own goal. They admit that bacterial evolution occurs, but insist that it’s, like, totally not evolution because JESUS.

The first prong of my dilemma is the one they’ve chosen. They claim that evolution doesn’t occur, but are forced to acknowledge it when it does.

YEC beliefs; still not consistent with medical reality.

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ayer October 28, 2009 at 4:46 pm

Fortuna: “The first prong of my dilemma is the one they’ve chosen. They claim that evolution doesn’t occur, but are forced to acknowledge it when it does.”

Perhaps so, but that undermines Fyfe’s case regarding the awful consequences for applied science of YEC.

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Fortuna October 28, 2009 at 5:20 pm

For YEC’ers who choose that prong, absolutely. I suspect that’s what actual YEC doctors do, since I’d guess that YEC’ers dislike malpractice suits more than they dislike hon’ring their beliefs more in the breach than the observance*.

Still, I find it somewhat odd that the counterargument being developed here to Alonzo’s case basically amounts to noting that YEC’ers aren’t actually stupid enough to behave as if they believe what they say they do. The consequences of behaving in a fashion that is true to the belief that organisms don’t evolve are so severe and so obvious that even people who affirm that belief will drop it like a hot potato when confronted.

Doesn’t that kind of make Alonzo’s point, that YEC would have bad consequences if anyone actually had the stones to apply it when it matters?

*Yes, I know I’m not using that phrase as it was originally meant to be used.

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Fortuna October 28, 2009 at 5:50 pm

Hmm, now that I remember the post, that should really be “even people who affirm that belief will drop it like a hot potato when confronted most of the time.”

http://scienceblogs.com/goodmath/2008/12/once_again_egnor_and_tautologi.php

The postscript to this blog post relates an anecdote of a Christian doctor who apparently behaved as if bacterial evolution doesn’t occur.

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ayer October 28, 2009 at 6:04 pm

Again, I’m not an expert on YEC beliefs, but I was under the impression that they did not deny “microevolution” (variation within a species), and isn’t that what the sort of bacterial evolution you are describing consists of? In that case, they are not refusing to apply YEC. See:

http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Microevolution

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rushmore October 28, 2009 at 7:34 pm

Fortuna said:

Still, I find it somewhat odd that the counterargument being developed here to Alonzo’s case basically amounts to noting that YEC’ers aren’t actually stupid enough to behave as if they believe what they say they do.

***

Speaking for myself I am merely pointing out that the original premise of the article is to prove the notion that YEC’ers are worthy of moral condemnation from the rest of the enlightened world; NOT that YEC’ers are guilty of silliness or folly. If you would like to write an article that makes the case for YEC stupidity effectively, please do so and we can discuss that. But the original article opens with a clearly specious analogy and draws risible conclusions from it. You should put away the pom poms – it’s a very poorly constructed piece of work that does not begin to accurately reflect YEC reality.

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Fortuna October 28, 2009 at 8:28 pm

YEC’ers who define their beliefs as inclusive of evolution below the species level can reasonably be said to be applying their beliefs, sure.

I don’t think YEC’ers as a whole really have their scripts straight on that one yet, though. The link you provided to AiG doesn’t describe the emergence of bacterial resistance as microevolution, and indeed struggles mightily not to refer to evolution at all except to claim that it doesn’t happen.

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Fortuna October 28, 2009 at 9:21 pm

rushmore;

Fair enough.

I would point out, though, that the latter part of my comment addressed to you is relevant to the premise of the original article; YEC’er’s who practice medicine without acknowledging the realities of bacterial evolution endanger their patients, as in the case of the doctor who improperly treated Mark Chu-Carroll’s father, and are worthy of moral condemnation.

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statweasel October 29, 2009 at 6:01 am

Fortuna:

I think there are any number of whacko YEC’s who take their worldview and apply it too liberally. But I think they are in the tiny, tiny minority of YEC’ers.

In the same way your article references, we could find emotionally charged tales of atheist / materialists who rigorously applied their world view to medicine and produced a horrific result; Josef Mengele comes to mind for example. Just to be clear, I don’t think Mengele is fairly a representative of real-world athiest conduct and I’m not implying you think as he did. I don’t think most or even many atheists would behave badly but the point is simply that you can find whackos on the fringes of either side who take their world views to the logical extreme and produce horror. At the end of the day, there are nuts who are YEC’ers and there are nuts who are atheists. I’m not sure it’s helpful to point out one side’s idiots without regard to the idiots residing in our own camps. The extremes of either side do not reflect the reality of the cores.

In the case of applied sciences, there is in every profession I can think of, major regulatory bodies who exist to enforce and codify professional behavior. As an engineer you could never, ever get peer or regulatory approval to build a papier-mache damn; it’s a silly example and I trust it was hyperbolic. In the case of medicine you should have the involvement of the AMA or the judicial system where a worldview brought about oddball diagnosis such as the sad case you point out above – where is the lawsuit or the AMA?

The fact is there are YEC’ers in every major applied science profession who perform their jobs professionally and legally despite and even perhaps because of their worldview.

I’m not saying there isn’t an argument to be made against YEC thinking. I am saying that given what this article or the offered examples set out to prove, the case hasn’t been made here. The only conclusion I can fairly draw is that a few fringe whackos on both sides of the worldview argument are deserving of moral (and professional and perhaps legal) condemnation. But the majority of atheists and YEC’ers are living their lives as responsible, productive and professionally ethical members of society.

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cl October 29, 2009 at 1:33 pm

I am saying that given what this article or the offered examples set out to prove, the case hasn’t been made here.

I’ve been following along since the argument’s inception, and I agree.

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