If there’s one characteristic of faitheists and accommodationists when facing the issue of American creationism, it’s their refusal to see the palpable fact that religion is the source of that creationism. While this seems trivially obvious to those who have followed the creation/evolution controversy, people like Chris Mooney, Karl Giberson, Kenneth Miller and the like will blame almost everything but religion for the hold of creationism on American minds. Yes, they will indict those nasty Biblical fundamentalists, but the 46% of Americans who are young-earth creationists aren’t all fundamentalist Christians! Indeed, although the Catholic Church officially accepts evolution, fully 27% of American Catholics think that modern species were created instantaneously by God and have remained unchanged ever since, while 8% do not know or refuse to answer. Those Catholics certainly aren’t seen as “fundamentalist Christians.”
No, the problem is obviously far more than just a few pesky snake-handlers and Bible-thumpers. Evolution strikes at the heart of many religious people’s beliefs. As I note in my talks on this subject, people see evolution as inimical to religion in three important ways:
- It overturns scriptural views of human origins and our supposed “specialness” in God’s scheme.
- It takes the idea of purpose and meaning out of God’s hands and forces people to confect their own reasons for living.
- It sees morality as an evolved and/or cultural phenomenon rather than as a package of commands approved by God.
These make people uncomfortable, and explain, to me, why there are so many “liberal” religionists who still reject evolution. It also explains why faitheists and accommodationists waffle when trying to pinpoint the source of creationism. They simply can’t bring themselves to admit that it’s more than just fundamentalists who reject neo-Darwinism.
If one faced the problem honestly, one would have to say that the biggest source of antievolutionism in America—nay, the world—is religion in general. You can have religions without creationism, as in the ultra-liberal faiths, but you never have creationism without religion. Or, rather, you almost never have creationism without religion. I can count on the fingers of one hand the prominent opponents of evolution who aren’t religious: David Berlinski (though I think he’s really a secret believer) and the philosophers Thomas Nagel and Jerry Fodor.
The reason people give religion a pass as the cause of creationism is simple: if they indict religion for this, then they indict many religions, not just fundamentalism. Religious people are often self-protective, seeing an attack on one person’s faith as an attack on all faiths. (Granted, more enlightened believers don’t feel this way). In the end all religions are, at bottom, superstitions, and if a religious person criticizes one for being an “improper” faith, he’s implicitly casting doubt on his own faith. For there is no reason to think that one religion, or one set of religious tenets—is more “proper” than another. There’s no way to decide which religious beliefs, if any, are “true.”
This is also why believers are loath to blame religion for horrors like the Inquisition or the suicide bombings of Islamic terrorists. It’s all politics, they say, or Western oppression, or poverty—anything but religion. The Galileo affair? Nothing to do with religion, just an internecine dispute over power. These arguments make me ill. As George Orwell said, and I repeat endlessly, “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”
And so we get foolish articles like the one by Uncle Emeritus Karl Giberson in Wednesday’s HuffPo Science section, “Why Americans love creationism.” Giberson, an evangelical Christian, is distressed at the intransigence of antievolutionists in America, and was “sobered” when watching a half-hour HuffPo Live video with evolution activist Zack Kopplin, pastor Becky Fischer, a Pentecostalist from North Dakota, Michael Zimmerman, head of the Clergy Letter Project, Zach Carter, a HuffPo Political Economy reporter, and Bill Devlin, an evangelical pastor in New York. (Do watch the video, especially to LOL at the vigorous, mindless, and tedious arguments of Fischer against evolution, and her fulminations against “academians.”)
Giberson gives six reasons why antievolutionism is so entrenched in America. Several of these (including #2 and #3) are pretty much identical, and all are mentioned by Fischer and Devlin in the video.
1. Antievolutionism appeals to “America’s democratic impulse” by claiming that evolution is forced down schoolchildrens’ throats against their and their parents’ wills.
2. It violates the American qualities of fairness and tolerance by appearing to censor creationist views that should be aired in schools.
3. It prevents students from hearing both sides of a “scientific” controversy.
4. There are “big names” attacking evolution, like the famous list of 800 antievolution “scientists” mentioned in the video.
5. Scientists themselves censor new and revolutionary ideas like Intelligent Design by refusing to publish them—or even consider them for publication—in scientific journals
6. Academics who reject evolution feel humiliated by their intolerant colleagues.
Note that religion isn’t mentioned here. There’s not one word about America being not only the most religious First World country, but also the one whose citizens are most resistant to evolution.
The obvious solution, if you want evolution to be accepted in America, is to weaken the grasp of religion on our country—or at least those religions (and there are many) that lead 46% of Americans to young-earth creationism. Telling religious people that evolution is perfectly consistent with their religious beliefs—the strategy of Michael Zimmerman and of BioLogos, the organization once run largely by Giberson—hasn’t worked, because those three implications of evolution hang over religion like the sword over Damocles.
But Giberson can’t bring himself to indict religion. His sole mention of the issue is that the six points above were raised by “conservative Christians.” Since he can’t see the obvious solution to antievolutionism—i.e., active atheism or secularism on top of science education—he wrings his hands and can’t see a way around the six arguments above:
This rhetorical strategy contains great synergistic power; polls show that Americans are not coming around to accept evolution, even as its scientific credibility has grown to point of certainty. The conservative Christians in the video above have heard and embraced all of these arguments. In their view, they have a strong case and every right to press it.
Dismantling these arguments takes more time than assembling them. And the process often sounds like little more than special pleading and self-serving prejudice. Science, of course, is not a democratic process — and it shouldn’t be — but explaining why is a bit tricky to an audience that values democracy so highly. High school students are not capable of adjudicating the validity of anti-evolutionary arguments — they have enough challenges simply learning the material and taking time to put fringe ideas in their heads is not reasonable. Restricting education to well-established knowledge is certainly not intolerance, but you can’t tell that to someone who rejects well-established knowledge.
Science education in America is in trouble.
Well, if science education is in trouble, it’s because rationality is in trouble, for it’s constantly beleaguered by faith. Most state education standards are actually quite good about evolution, but biology teachers won’t implement them. As a 2011 paper by Berkman and Plutzer (reference below) shows, only 28% of science teachers consider themselves advocates of evolutionary biology when teaching the issue in the classroom, while 13% advocate for (i.e., teach) creationism, and fully 60% advocate neither evolution nor creationism, either waffling on the subject, teaching both, watering down the evolution, or teaching neither). And that’s because either the teachers themselves are religious, or they’re afraid of pushback from outraged parents. Here are Berkman and Plutzer’s figures, broken down by whether the 969 teachers surveyed teachers had a course in evolution:
I submit this to Dr. Giberson: the reason why creationism is so prevalent is because of people like you—people who believe in ludicrous things because it makes them comfortable. Yes, Karl, you’ve managed yourself to overcome your own religious bias with respect to evolution, and have even tried to turn your coreligionists toward Darwinism. But you’ve failed, and now you see no solution, although that the solution is right under your nose. It’s to weaken religious belief. Until the grip of faith on America is loosened, we’ll always be putting out these brushfires, fighting rearguard battles against creationist incursions into public education.
We would have none of these problems if America weren’t so full of observant Christians like yourself. Why can’t you see that, Karl? It’s not just the fundamentalists.
Berkman, M. B., and E. Plutzer. 2011. Defeating creationism in the courtroom, but not in the classroom. Science 331:404-405.