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Does Einstein threaten religion, too?

by Donald Prothero, Sep 26 2012


Over the past 1.5 years of blogs, I’ve discussed all sorts of science deniers, from the Flat Earthers, to the geocentrists, to the various crackpots and fringe physicists, to the young-earth creationists, with their broad-based attack on most of biology, geology, anthropology, and cosmology. Nearly all of this attitude toward science comes from biblical literalism. But if you asked the average person, or even a physicist, whether Einstein and relativity were a threat to religion, you’d get a resounding “no.”  Relativity may be a difficult to explain in layman’s terms, and sometimes counter-intuitive way of understanding physics at the extremes of velocity and space, but it’s hard to imagine why it would trouble a fundamentalist. Perhaps its importance to modern cosmology might make it an anathema to them, but it’s not threatening in and of itself, is it?

There you would be wrong! Apparently to the mind of some conservatives and creationists, ANY thing in science can become a threat to their world view, and therefore requires one of their bizarre forms of attack and rebuttal. Take, for example, conservative activist Andrew Schlafly. He is the son of famous anti-feminist homophobic activist Phylis Schlafly, and the editor of Conservapedia, a strange attempt to mimic Wikipedia but with a strong conservative bias. Andrew Schlafly is not uneducated: he has an engineering degree from Princeton, a law degree from Harvard and worked for Intel and Bell Labs. However, he has no training in any of the sciences that might challenge his conservative ideology, and it plainly shows in how he writes about subjects beyond his expertise. He is a classic case of what has been called the “smart idiot,” educated enough to sound convincing but not educated in the right areas of expertise to realize he’s wrong—and with strong ideological denial filters, confirmation bias, and issues of cognitive dissonance that cause him to perform some incredibly weird thought processes.

Naturally, Conservapedia denies global climate change and evolution, denies much of astronomy (especially “Big-Bang” cosmology) and geology, trashes environmentalism, lionizes capitalism and even the “robber barons” and trashes labor unions, claims that homosexuality is a mental disorder, claims that abortion leads to breast cancer, and makes many other demonstrably false claims about science and reality. It even obliquely supports the idea that the earth is the center of the universe, and implies that Copernicus and Galileo and modern astronomy are wrong! One would expect Conservapedia to push the idea that the earth is flat, but apparently those ideas are too retro even for Conservapedia. (Instead, it asserts that the “Flat Earth myth” about the past was cooked up by evolutionists to slander creationists—even though the idea is found in the Bible in many places!)

Strangely, Conservapedia does go so far as to trash Einstein and relativity. At first, it’s hard to imagine why the century-old idea from physics is any threat to a conservative’s view of the world. Like so many other people who don’t understand relativity, Schlafly has confused the scientific theory with the philosophical idea of relativism, the notion that there are no absolute truths but only truths taken in relative context. This, he claims, has been used by liberal politicians to justify their agendas, and was cited as a metaphor by Barack Obama in a law review article. (Which proves what, exactly?). Then Schlafly labors through 6000 words and many equations trying to debunk one of the best-tested ideas in all of science, making ridiculous claims that “relativity has been met with much resistance in the scientific world”. This may have been true when it was first proposed in 1905 and 1915, but it was widely accepted by nearly all physicists by the 1920s, when numerous experiments confirmed it. Schlafly points to the true but irrelevant fact that no one has received a Nobel Prize for relativity. Technically, Einstein received his 1921 Nobel for his discovery of the photoelectric effect and “for his services to Theoretical Physics”, without mentioning relativity directly—but it is the major “service to Theoretical Physics” that the citation refers to. In addition, the 1993 Hulse-Taylor Nobel in Physics for gravity waves depends on the notion of relativity.

Even stranger is Schlafly’s bizarre and highly irrelevant claim that “Virtually no one who is taught and believes Relativity continues to read the Bible, a book that outsells New York Times bestsellers by a hundred-fold.” Finally, as proof that relativity is wrong, he cites examples of “action-at-a-distance by Jesus, described in John 4:46-54, Matthew 15:28, and Matthew 27:51”. Wow! That’s the best way to debunk real science—quote Bible verses!

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35 Responses to “Does Einstein threaten religion, too?”

  1. Other Paul says:

    Yes but does he have a newsletter to which the intrigued may subscribe?

  2. Max says:

    “Simply put, E=mc² is liberal claptrap.”
    http://www.conservapedia.com/E%3Dmc%C2%B2

    It’s content like this that makes Poe’s law possible. Conservapedia had a problem with vandals posting over-the-top parodies, which is why it has “a zero-tolerance policy toward parody.”
    http://www.conservapedia.com/Conservapedia:Parody

  3. Neil says:

    The article on the Sex Pistols is, however, short and 100% accurate. I’ve always known that they were a “balanced, wholesome band”.

  4. Justin says:

    Surely Mr. Schlafly does not own nor use heretical objects such as GPS-enabled cell phones, for their functionality is absolutely dependent on the blasphemous physicis of general relativity.

  5. Trimegistus says:

    Question for Mr. Prothero: is there anyone OTHER than Andrew Schlafley who argues against Relativity? Is this any kind of real movement or just a few cranks with Web pages?

    This is like reading some Louis Farrakhan speeches and concluding that “liberals” believe UFOs are spaceships sent to protect black people from evil Jews.

    There is an element of intellectual dishonesty in cherry-picking “crazy stuff that conservatives believe” as if it somehow represents the main stream of belief on the right.

    • Farin says:

      Yes, there is.

      Here in Germany we deal with a small but infamous group of Einstein-deniers who attack relativity with unbelievable hatred. I remember a simple physics blogpost on scienceblogs.de that had it’s comment section boarded by them (600+ comments….)

      The thing to keep in mind is that there are 3 groups of Einstein deniers. Dr.Prospero covered group one, the other two are your common crackpots and smart idiots, including a retired professor for electrical engeneering, andn most disturbing antisemtic authors who try to revive “german physics”, an antisemtic version of physics taught during the third Reich that tried to explain observations wthout “jewish” physics.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deutsche_Physik

    • gdave says:

      I rarely agree with Trismegistus – but he has a real point this time. Andrew Schlafly’s mother is a prominent conservative activist, and he made a bit of a media splash when he launched Conservapedia, mostly due to his last name, but I don’t think anyone (outside of a handful of editors at his site) takes either Andrew Schlafly or Conservapedia seriously.

      The Rationalwiki website had its origin as a reaction to Conservapedia, although it has since grown to a more general skeptical website. Even its editors, who have spent and continue to spend quite a bit of their time analyzing (and mocking) Conservapedia, don’t seem to think it has any significant influence or (serious)readership.

      Andrew Schlafly’s opposition to Relativity Theory is definitely loopy, but it seems to only reflect his own private loopiness, rather than any sort of widely shared opposition among creationists or conservatives.

    • Mal Adapted says:

      So, what is the main stream of belief on the right? How do you identify the main stream amongst all the side channels, eddies and backwaters?

      • Trimegistus says:

        Maybe venture outside the comforting bubble of liberal media and actually read some conservative opinions — unmediated? Spend an afternoon listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio, read some issues of National Review, have a look at Newsbusters, read some Thomas Sowell, check out some of the conservative blogs. There’s a whole diverse community of opinions out there, and they represent at least half the people in this country. How can you call yourself well-informed if you aren’t familiar with them?

      • Max says:

        And don’t forget Fox News. 93% wrong or dismissive of global warming.
        http://www.livescience.com/23448-fox-news-climate-coverage-wrong.html

      • tmac57 says:

        Rush Limbaugh is part of the mainstream right? Have you ever fact checked that guy? How about Glenn Beck,where is he on the ‘right’ spectrum?

      • Janet Camp says:

        Why, oh why, would I EVER want to listen to Rush Windbag in order to understand ANY kind of thought?

        And why do you assume that we liberals have not bothered to read any conservative literature? I was brought up in a very conservative household and force fed a diet of John Birch Society literaure! How’s that for conservative?

      • Trimegistus says:

        John Birch Society? In other words you are ENTIRELY ignorant of the modern conservative movement. That’s like someone claiming to be an authority on modern American progressives because they grew up reading back issues of The Nation from the Fifties.

        Go back and re-read what you wrote. You admit you are ignorant and yet somehow you don’t need to learn? How smugly self-satisfied can one get?

      • Beelzebud says:

        The John Birch Society was a co-sponsor of the CPAC convention in 2010. Or is CPAC not representative of “real” modern conservatives now?

      • Mal Adapted says:

        So, you regard yourself as well-informed. Tell us what the mainstream of belief on the left is, then.

    • igloo says:

      But the Conservapedia home page has had 13.9 million hits. Are they all sceptics looking for a good laugh?
      But what I really want to know is this: how can such a dumb person obtain degrees from Princeton and Harvard?
      I think an investigation is called for.

      (An alternative explanation is that Schlafley is the world’s greatest hoaxer, in which case he deserves respect.)

      • tmac57 says:

        How about the possibility that he is a cynical opportunist?

      • Daniel says:

        The conservapedia relativity post got a “relatively” (;)) large amount of press about a year or two ago from places like Slate. So my guess is that a lot of the traffic for that particular post came from Shafley’s opponents.

    • Max says:

      Conservapedia was supposed to be used for homeschooling, but I don’t know if anyone uses it that way.

  6. MadScientist says:

    Where can I get Sid Harris books? Is he still around?

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Most of them are still for sale on Amazon.com. They are all fun cartoons that he did for many years for “American Scientist” magazine, the official publication of Sigma Xi.

  7. d brown says:

    At the base of all regions are mysteries. Thinking about them is against gods will. If you think to much you may fall into sin. If you let other think too much you could be damming them.

  8. @blamer says:

    Religious leaders are undermining science by merely teaching that Genesis 1:1-3 is in fact a historical miracle.

    From that point, all of academia (liberalism) is quite literally their anti-christ. That is, institutions that’re as much in opposition to monotheism as the infidel and *gasp* the godless.

    • Trimegistus says:

      Which “religious leaders” do you mean?

      Seriously, in a country where a good three-quarters of the population consider themselves to be religious, talking about “religious leaders” as some group with any commonality of opinion reveals either profound ignorance or despicable dishonesty.

      • Mal Adapted says:

        But speaking of “the mainstream of belief on the right” makes you well-informed?

      • Reginald Selkirk says:

        Trimegistus: Which “religious leaders” do you mean?

        He means the religious leaders who are undermining science by teaching Genesis as history. Could he have been more plain?

  9. Janet Camp says:

    Young Andrew seems to have inherited his mother’s mental problems.

  10. d brown says:

    Rush Limbaugh said he was a entertainer. Not a reporter, so he could lie to entertain. And he does. ALL THE TIME. Most American made religions were based on the English King James bible, not the 10th century Latin one. It was kept in Latin because living languages change with time. The 16th century English was much changed by the 18th century, and the backwoods men were far from ministers who knew what the old English meant. One con man ,who also did not know, made up a book that’s is the base for most the American made religions. They so different from the old, accepted word of God, they are false Christian sects that mock Christianity. If you are a real old time Christian, you know the bible says that damns innocents to hell. They are guided by how much money they bring in from their believers and power. (too hard?)

    • tmac57 says:

      Well,if I can’t change a person’s mind about religion,then I guess that it is better for their religion to be evolving toward a more benign,gentler set of principles.Of course,it can always (and does) go the other way too.

    • Gustav says:

      “10th century Latin one”

      Are you saying that the Latin Bible of the 10th century is the ‘correct’ Bible?

      My grandfather, a minister in a North American ‘made’ religion, studied, and was fluent in, ancient Hebrew, ancient Greek, Latin and five other languages specifically so he could read the Bible in the original. This was something he recommended for anyone who wanted to ‘know’ the real Bible.

      The mistranslations, misinterpretations, and and edits over the centuries mean that the overwhelming majority so call “Christian” Biblical experts really don’t know what they are talking about when they say the Bible is the ‘unchangeable’ word of God.

  11. Henry Hawkins says:

    My heart goes out to Trimegistus’ attempt at truth.

    I joined CSICOP in 1977, a year after it formed. I hold a PhD in forensic psychology, and like people such as Michael Shermer, I focused on human perceptions and belief systems as they affected paranormal beliefs. In the late 1980s I went undercover in MUFON as a new Junior Investigator to surrepticiously learn more about that laughable org’s abysmal practices. I had a skeptical website for about ten years. I spoke at conventions and the usual circuit. A new resident, I joined a skeptic’s group in Winston-Salem, NC and was warmly welcomed, touted even, like some prize recruit. And then they found out I was a political conservative. I had never once spoken of my political beliefs and someone asked, so I told her. I was a registered in NC as unaffiliated, but I was a conservative. You learn to keep your conservative status to yourself in the world of skepticism, but I’d briefly let my guard down. Never have I been made to feel more unwelcome so quickly and for so little reason in all my life, lol.

    It never changed, never got better. I became ‘suspect’ in skeptical circles. Not for anything I said, and all of it had the believer features of vagueness, no specifics, and none of it addressed any work I had done or anything I had written. I was a conservative and that was enough.

    Knowing Shermer had studied this, and had cautioned about allowing political biases to create divisiveness in the skeptical arena, I corresponded with him briefly about it about 6-7 years ago, but I had had enough. After thirty years in the field, I left it. Oh, I still do some things, but on my own, an avocation.

    Good luck, Trimegistus. You’ll lose every battle though.

  12. Henry Hawkins says:

    PS: It didn’t help that I was also an atheist. In fact, many skeptics accused me of lying about that, because all conservatives are religious nuts, you see.

  13. Reginald Selkirk says:

    You may also be interested in Gerardus Bouw, who holds degrees in astronomy and astrophysics, and also promotes geocentricity. He is straightforward about the religious motivation for his beliefs.