One of peculiarities of creationists I’ve been thinking about is their seeming dislike for the modern. For example, in a debate between Dinesh D’Souza and Dan Barker, D’Souza states his aim to ignore the “new” atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, etc.) and instead address the arguments of people like Russell, Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger. Why Marx doesn’t make the list I don’t know. He calls the modern atheists the “Lilliputian shadows of the great atheists of the 19th century and early 20th century” ( about 5 minutes in).
Ben Stein, in his movie “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” also complains about all the things Darwin didn’t know as if new facts undermined rather than strengthened Darwin’s central thesis of evolution by natural selection.
Admittedly, one shouldn’t draw a conclusion by only two data points, but the phenomenon is just so odd. Even if we were to grant that Russell was a better philosopher than Dennett. Dennett doesn’t stand in Russell’s shadow; Dennett stands on Russell’s shoulders. It takes a lot less work to take a good idea that you’ve come across than to come up with it yourself. Think about all the facts about the world we just know now, like the laws of thermodynamics, atomic theory, Maxwell’s equations, etc. Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s say I found myself on a deserted island at a young age (5-ish) in a land of abundance so I didn’t have to spend my life struggling for existence but rather could easily care for myself. But let’s also say, I was devoid of human contact and all social artifices. As such, with nothing else to do, I devoted the rest of my long life (100 years?) to just contemplate the universe and the world around me. I think it is safe to say, at the end of that life, I would be lucky to have the understanding I had at merely the age of 15 in my current life.
I am not alone in this assessment. In the Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing edited by Dawkins there is excerpt from Lancelot Hogben’s Mathematics for the Million that maybe puts it better:
In the course of the adventure upon which we are going to embark we shall constantly find that we have no difficulty in answering questions which tortured the minds of very clever mathematicians in ancient times. This is not because you and I are very clever people. It is because we inherit a social culture which has suffered the impact of material forces foreign to the intellectual life of the ancient world.
The difference between 19th century and the 21st maybe isn’t as drastic as the ancient and modern, but the 20th century was a time of great scientific progress and technological development. That is to say, no matter how sagacious we consider Russell, Nietzsche, or Freud to be, the arguments we should consider are their modern incarnations because no matter how brilliant or clever they were, they may have made some mistakes which modern thinkers can correct. This goes along with the added benefit that the modern thinkers are still alive, so they can respond directly to criticisms instead of leaving us conjecturing about how the dead might respond to a particular argument were they still alive.
The part that is nagging me is that maybe there is actually something deeper going on here. For example, it is a common canard of creationists to claim that mutations cannot add “information” to the genetic code (i.e. they ignore duplication and its subsequent modification). But, what if they actually believe progress is impossible. Let’s say, they really believe creations of every type can only devolve and decay from their original inception. Russell or Nietzsche were the geniuses who introduced atheism in its purest and strongest form and the “new” atheists can only muster cheap imitations, and knock-offs of these great atheists’ thoughts.
This point of view is absurd for the reasons I outlined above, but it is completely in keeping with ancestor worship; father always knew best, and so did his father, and on and on up the chain. I guess this isn’t so surprising if they also consider the bible the best book ever written. However, it is always these types of underlying assumptions that baffle me because the arguments that people like D’Souza present are like waves on top of this deeper idealogical ocean. I fully admit I might be jumping to conclusions, but there must be some explanation for this behavior. Although, it might be just a simple as they don’t want to bother reading anything new.