Written By: Stella Frangleton
(Note: The following critique does not apply to one organization alone, I am simply using an example from personal experience.)
Recently, I have been talking to a couple of Jehovah's Witnesses in an attempt get a basic knowledge of the Bible and, more importantly, understand how people reach and maintain beliefs so different from my own (atheist and skeptic). They have been patient and informative and we have disagreed; but what's wrong with that? In my experience, social disagreement has been taken as a negative in almost every instance I have seen it arise, but I don't see why it need be so reprehensible. In academia, disagreement is treated more like motivation - spurring on further and more in depth study in order to resolve the issue. I don't see why this use of disagreement cannot be applied outside of the classroom.
While I do not share their beliefs, I have been interested to see where in the Bible their ideas come from and consider how much influence interpretation has on their faith. However, there has been one aspect of our talks which I have found consistently troubling and it is, of course, that most provocative of combinations: Science in Religion. My frustration surrounding this subject did not go un-noticed and I was kindly lent one of their personal books, The Bible: God's Word or Man's, which they had said really helped clarify this hotly debated issue for them. The chapter they directed me to was entitled "Science: Has it Proved the Bible Wrong" (chapter 8 if anyone cares to look it up). The title was alarmingly promising but I am sorry to say the optimism did not last long (though possibly not for the reasons you might imagine).
The Bible quotations I was ready for - I knew I wouldn't find them compelling but I was interested to read them all the same - but it was quotations that were purportedly from experts and scientists that really caught my attention. My initial impression was that they may have been taken out of context or were heavily biased but even I was surprised by what I discovered after running a quick name check (emphasis on the "quick", this really is not difficult information to find). The first person quoted was Francis Hitching who is described as "an authority" - keep that in mind - and he stated that "living cells duplicate themselves with near total fidelity". Now, this set my GCSE Biology alarm bells ringing as I recalled studying genetic mutation and meiosis (a process wherein cells reproduce with a different genetic combination than the parent cells). Despite my conflict I thought I'd research him further as he, presumably, was much better qualified than me to speak on the subject. Wrong. Hitching is a television scriptwriter/producer and author. The book from which creationists so often quote him, "The Neck of the Giraffe", stated that Hitching was a member of the Royal Archaeological Institute; needless to say he is not. Hitching also claimed to have had help from palaeontologist Stephen Gould and that the book was endorsed by Richard Dawkins. Not only did both of these people deny Hitching's claims and any knowledge of Hitching, but Dawkins also gave the fairly damning statement "his book … is one of the silliest and most ignorant I have read for years". During my research I was sad to discover that Hitching has been cited as an evolutionary scientist in other Jehovah's Witnesses publications. To add insult to injury Hitching's other books focus on dowsing and psychic phenomena, these being the only subjects on which he may be called "an authority". Sciency.
I was shocked at the flagrant flimsiness of this so called evidence, but I continued none the less. The other key source of non-Biblical quotations came from Michael Denton who I was interested to learn actually does have scientific qualifications (Phd in Biochemistry). Almost immediately I discovered he does NOT support creationism. He believes in natural selection and common descent however he does advocate intelligent design. On further inspection it would seem that it is the passages concerning intelligent design which, out of context, lend themselves to a creationist interpretation. Despite this, I still found quotations from his book, "Evolution: A Theory in Crisis", shaky evidence at best; for example "evolution deals with unique events, the origin of life … unique events are unrepeatable and cannot be subjected to any sort of experimental investigation". This is true, but, circumstances can be replicated and irrespective of that, this statement doesn't really prove or disprove anything. Moreover, I discovered that Michael Denton's views since writing that book have shifted somewhat and in his most recent publication he defends evolution more strongly. And by the way, by "recent" publication I mean 1998. His original book was published in 1985. Hitching's quotations came from his 1982 book and the book in which they are quoted was published in 1989. Science teachers wouldn't dare use textbooks that were over twenty years old to teach students - I've even read an article wherein a high school teacher bemoaned newly issued textbooks for having taken four years to be written, deeming them not adequately relevant enough to teach from. Even if the quotations had been scientifically viable at the time, they would still need to have been updated. I was shocked at the thorough misrepresentation I had encountered.
What made me most unhappy about the whole revelation was the thought of believers who read this book, and others like it, in good faith. It is cleverly written (ish) and contains apparently positive reinforcement for beliefs that those reading it will already have. We have all, at one time or another, needed some form of evidence or reassurance for an aspect of our lives - when we find that much needed assurance who can honestly say their first thought would be to subjectively pick it apart and potentially destroy the comfort we had just found; not many of us. Those being deceived are not stupid and they are not to be laughed at. I in no way hold the people who gave me this book responsible for any of its content. Do I think they should have applied more criticism to its content when they read it: yes, but people cannot be expected to pull a desire for critical thinking out of thin air. I believe them to be good people; they spend their personal time trying to enlighten people about what they believe to be the truth, on the scale of nice, is pretty damn nice. Just because I do not believe it to be the truth does not devalue the intention of the act and I cannot hold them culpable for the fact that the tools they have been sent out to do it with are faulty. It is my belief that people will continue to write misleading material, such as this, in relative safety because they know that the mentality people are in while reading them is not one of skepticism. It does not matter that their sources can be debunked from - quite literally - the first Google entry about them; they are banking on the readers not checking and sadly it would seem this tactic has paid off. Will my discoveries have any effect on the owners of this book? I don't know, however I sincerely believe that if you cannot prove your point through honest and reliable means, it is better to leave it disproven than undermine it with a poor imitation of truth.
But don't take my word for it.
By Stella Frangleton