One can always count on Robert Wright, a nonbeliever, to defend religion and exculpate it from any evils in the world. Suicide bombers? Mere politics and dispossession. Major Nidal Hassan’s murder spree in Texas? An unfortunate byproduct of America’s own war on terrorism (see Christopher Hitchens’s take on that piece). As Hitchens said, Wright “is now emerging as the leading liberal apologist for the faith-based.”
He does it again in this week’s Atlantic, this time about America’s non-acceptance of evolution. In his piece, “Creationists vs. evolutonists: an American story,” Wright bemoans our failure to embrace Darwin and blames—guess who? Not the religious people who reject the theory of evolution because it violates their beliefs, their scripture, or simply roils their gut. No, he blame (as the Brits say, “wait for it”)—the New Atheists.
Here are the data confronting Wright, from a Gallup poll I’ve written about before:
What we see is pretty much stasis for young-earth creationism (YEC; top line) and theistic evolution (God-guided change; middle line), with a 6% increase in YEC in the last year matched by a 6% decrease in theistic evolutionists. There appears, however, to be a slow, long-term increase in the acceptance of naturalistic evolution (bottom line; see my post on this here), though it’s been very slow. But Wright concentrates on that 6% increase in YEC, and proffers a theory:
My theory is highly conjectural, but here goes:
A few decades ago, Darwinians and creationists had a de facto nonaggression pact: Creationists would let Darwinians reign in biology class, and otherwise Darwinians would leave creationists alone. The deal worked. I went to a public high school in a pretty religious part of the country–south-central Texas–and I don’t remember anyone complaining about sophomores being taught natural selection. It just wasn’t an issue.
A few years ago, such biologists as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers started violating the nonaggression pact. [Which isn't to say the violation was wholly unprovoked; see my update below.] I don’t just mean they professed atheism–many Darwinians had long done that; I mean they started proselytizing, ridiculing the faithful, and talking as if religion was an inherently pernicious thing. They not only highlighted the previously subdued tension between Darwinism and creationism but depicted Darwinism as the enemy of religion more broadly.
If the only thing this Darwinian assault did was amp up resistance to teaching evolution in public schools, the damage, though regrettable, would be limited. My fear is that the damage is broader–that fundamentalist Christians, upon being maligned by know-it-all Darwinians, are starting to see secular scientists more broadly as the enemy; Darwinians, climate scientists, and stem cell researchers start to seem like a single, menacing blur.
I’m not saying that the new, militant Darwinian atheists are the only cause of what is called (with perhaps some hyperbole) “science denialism.” But I do think that if somebody wants to convince a fundamentalist Christian that climate scientists aren’t to be trusted, the Christian’s prior association of scientists like Dawkins with evil makes that job easier. . .
. . . Meanwhile, some data to keep your eye on: Check out the extreme right of the graph above. Over the past two years, the portion of respondents who don’t believe in evolution has grown by six percentage points. Where did those people come from? The graph suggests they’re people who had previously believed in an evolution guided by God–a group whose size dropped by a corresponding six percentage points. It’s as if people who had previously seen evolution and religion as compatible were told by the new militant Darwinians, “No, you must choose: Which is it, evolution or religion?”–and pretty much all of them chose religion.
This is madness. First of all, the data on YEC and theistic evolutionism have fluctuated over the years: although its adherents were 46% this year and 40% last year, they were 47% in 1993 and 2000. There is no evidence that an uptick like this is sociologically meaningful, and I’m not even sure whether it differs significantly (in a statistical sense) from the previous survey’s 40%. And acceptance of straight naturalistic evolution has risen 6% since 2000. Why does Wright pay attention to a single year’s results and not address the long-term pattern, which is stasis with a slight increase in the good stuff?
What is more maddening is Wright’s blaming this uptick on the New Atheists. If that were true we’d see an upturn in YEC, and a downturn in theistic evolution, beginning well before this year. P. Z. has been writing Pharyngula for almost a decade (according to Wikipedia, its inception was on June 19, 2002). And both Sam Harris and Hitchens have supported evolution against creationism in their own books; Dawkins isn’t the only one who should be blamed. But when were their “big” books published? 2004, 2007, and 2006 respectively. Why, then, did the uptick occur only this year? Was there such a delayed reaction in the faithful getting the message?
And the dumbest thing of all is Wright’s statement that “A few decades ago, Darwinians and creationists had a de facto nonaggression pact: Creationists would let Darwinians reign in biology class, and otherwise Darwinians would leave creationists alone.” Is Wright unaware of the many court cases in which creationists didn’t let Darwinians reign in biology class? The National Center for Science Education lists ten major court cases in which creationists tried to insinuate their filthy camel noses into the public-school tent. All of those took place between 1968 and 2005. And there was a major revision of textbooks in the 1960s (the BSCS series; see Joseph McInerney’s comment on this below), which was motivated in part by the disappearance of material on evolution from public school texts. I barely learned about it in high school, and that was in the late 60s. Some truce!
As always on this topic, Wright is talking out of his nether parts. Every bit of evidence we have suggests that the flatlining of evolution-acceptance in the U.S. is due to the entrenchment of religion in our country. And I’ll point out again that there is not a bit of convincing evidence that atheist biologists have turned Americans away from evolution and toward creationism. In contrast to the many people who have claimed that Dawkins, for instance, has actually turned them on to evolution as well as helping them purge their religious belief (see his Converts’ Corner), we have almost no people saying that they once accepted evolution but reverted to straight creationism because they couldn’t stomach Dawkins’s atheism. And there’s the palpable failure of the BioLogos Foundation to get evangelical Christians to accept evolution by trying to show that it comports with their faith.
The reason people choose religion over evolution is not because New Atheists tell them they have to make that choice. It’s because their faith tells them they have to make that choice.