I’ve been thinking on this question in the last few days, in light of reading and responding to some comments made by a handful of inordinately ignorant creationists made here and on other blogs. We were visited here recently by a clod named Jon, whose gaseous and incoherent anti-evolution ramblings were annihilated with glorious eloquence by regular commenter Lui. Shalini, over at Scientia Natura, has been ruthlessly trolled by a commenter simply calling himself “creationist” who appears to be quite literally psychopathic, and over at Larry Moran’s Sandwalk, a jaw-dropping fool calling himself “mats” has raised (lowered?) the human capacity for aggressive stupidity to the level of performance art. It’s a phenomenon just breathtaking to behold, and it’s a sobering realization that this kind of mental chaos is what science education in this country has to confront.
It would seem that, to a least a percentage of its followers, Christianity appeals because it provides them with a vehicle for intellectual poseurdom. Without anything in the way of scientific education or expertise behind them, creationists are unique among cranks in the perverse confidence with which they lash themselves to the mast of their stale and long-debunked claims. They’ll confidently and even condescendingly inform experts with Ph.D’s and 25 years of field work that there is no evidence at all to support what is probably the best-supported theory in all science. This goes beyond mere stupidity or even run-of-the-mill ideological denialism into a bold and deliberate repudiation of knowledge and even reality itself.
I’ve often thought that a large part of religion’s appeal is directed towards the less intelligent or less educated, who have come to mistrust those more educated than themselves and who actually equate good education and intellect with “elitism.” For them, Christianity provides the comforting illusion of intellectual superiority by selling the idea that knowledge is a thing received through revelation, and not something you actually have to work for, the results of which are always provisional and contingent upon such things as evidence. This rejection of learning is actually scripturally supported. Many Christians take to heart the wildly ranty final passages of Romans 1, in which anyone who pursues anything other than the “knowledge of God” is branded as “slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful…senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless” with a degree of overwrought hysteria calculated to make Ann Coulter’s G-spot explode. (Of course, the Bible, being the Big Book of Multiple Choice and all, can usually be counted on to provide an oasis of common sense at times as well. A passage I often love lobbing at creos is Proverbs 12:1.)
There really is a profound chasm between science and religion that seems so obvious to me, I often wonder at how much guys like Stephen Jay Gould, whose efforts to make nice with religion resulted in his widely-mocked notion of “non-overlapping magisteria,” are entertaining their own “god delusion.” If you were asked, “Why do you trust science? Why do you think evolution is true?” you’d have to give the questioner books, stacks of books. Ask a Christian what they get out of being Christian, and you get sound bites, quick Hallmark-card taglines that radiate emotional comfort. Having dealt with truly ardent fundamentalists, I can say pretty confidently that a huge appeal of their beliefs is not only this emotional comfort, but the idea that one now knows what it’s all about and doesn’t have to look for answers in a big lonely universe anymore. Knowledge is hard work, but belief is easy. Religion claims to provide the answers to the Big Questions ordinarily attained through lifetimes of hard work, to people who don’t particularly care if the answers are verifiable or even true as long as they provide the convincing illusion of both truth and purpose. The difference, I guess, between guys like me and the “Neville Chamberlain atheists” is that I’m not inclined to be sympathetic to the human weaknesses and emotional vulnerabilities that cause people to embrace the easy path to faux-knowledge over the often rocky and difficult path to intellectual honesty and integrity. Ironically, it’s another bit of scripture, the oft-quoted 1 Corinthians 13:11, that best reflects my own rejection of superstition and my disdain for the continued intellectual posturing and rejection of learning coming from the creationist camp.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
I imagine that when Isaac Asimov wrote, “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived,” he was thinking of passages like that. Religion’s great crime against humanity isn’t that it persuades grown adults who should know better to hold onto childish things. It’s that, in Dawkins’ words, it asks us to be satisfied with not knowing, and beyond that, to confuse belief with knowledge and allow believers to pretend to an unearned and false expertise concerning the facts of the world.