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May 13 2009

Skyhooks and cranes-9: The resurgence of natural selection and the resurgence of religion

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

I am going to conclude this series by arguing that it was more-or-less a coincidence that led to the deep-seated animosity towards evolutionary theory in America.

The early 20th century was the time when religious people in America became alarmed that they had perhaps gone too far in separating church and state in the public schools and decided to try and reverse the trend, and this movement coincided in time with the rise in acceptance of natural selection as the mechanism evolution. This theory, with its explicit rejection of a special divine plan for the human race, became seen as a potent symbol of an anti-religious way of thinking that had to be combated. Hence it was natural to use opposition to the teaching of the theory of evolution as a vanguard action that would lead to the restoration of religious instruction in schools.

It is plausible that this was a significant reason for the seemingly belated rise of religious opposition to the theory of evolution that culminated in the Tennessee legislation of 1925 seeking to ban the teaching of evolution and which led to the famous Scopes trial. And ever since then, these the two issues have become inextricably linked in everybody’s mind.

I suspect that if the attempts to restore religion in American schools had coincided with the rise of another materialistic theory that seemed to dethrone god (say Newtonian physics that introduced the idea of a mechanical universe), then religious people in America might have directed the same level of hostility to that theory that they now direct towards evolution. We might have seen battles to remove ‘godless Newtonianism’ from the school curriculum.

But because natural selection was the materialistic scientific theory that was gaining ground in the 1920s, religious people have invested a lot of emotional energy in fighting the theory of evolution and have even constructed an entire revisionist historical narrative to justify their opposition. This view is supported by the so-called ‘Wedge Strategy’, in the document put out by the Discovery Institute for getting religion (in the form of so-called ‘intelligent design’) back in the schools.

In a nutshell, the religious argument against Darwin put out by the intelligent design people is as follows:

1. The greatest achievements of Western civilization are largely due to the idea that human beings were created in God’s image.
2. Things were just peachy until a little over one hundred years ago.
3. Then Darwin, Marx, and Freud dethroned this idea and instead introduced materialist ideas that spread into all areas of science and culture.
4. Everything pretty much fell apart after that.
5. If things are to improve, materialism needs to be defeated and God has to be accepted as the creator of nature and human beings.

So the fight against Darwin is seen as the fight to restore morality.

When I ask supporters of intelligent design creationism why they focus their opposition on Darwin alone, the answer they give invokes the morality skyhook. Moral values are believed to come from god. If god has no role in the creation and lives of humans, then there is no reason to be moral. These religious people look around and see a country that they think has lost its moral compass and they blame the godless theory of evolution.

It becomes clear that the reason is that the word “morality” as used almost exclusively in relation to popular culture. Those who see us as currently living in a moral swamp use sex and nudity and profanity as the yardsticks for measurement. The do not see the abolition of slavery and Jim Crow laws and other forms of oppression and discrimination, improved protections for children, better working hours and safety measures, greater rights of women and gays, as signs that society is far more moral now than it has ever been.

But even taking their narrow view of morality, it is not clear that America is any less moral now than it was, say, fifty or more years ago. On the one hand, there is clearly a lot of public discussion now of sex-related issues and more nudity and sex in films and on television. But all that this might indicate is that things that were done and spoken in private in the past are now more in the open. In other words, we don’t have more sex. We simply have less secrecy and hypocrisy.

The curious ambivalence in the US towards sexuality can be seen in many ways. I don’t need to give the full list of all the politicians and religious figures who condemn sex and profanity while indulging in private in the very same things. One can see it in the way Fox News operates. It rails against sexuality while wallowing in gratuitous displays of it. Austin Cline has a good analysis of this phenomenon.

But even people who do not subscribe to this narrow view of morality worry that we need a god if people are to be persuaded to be moral. Some people think that if there were no god, there would be no reason for people to not commit murder, rape, and other heinous crimes. Sometimes I think that what religious people really want is not the god they say they pray to, but some kind of cosmic policeman and judge. It is not unlike the image of god that goes back to the ancient days of the Greek gods.

It seems like for some people there is a deep-seated psychological need for people to believe in a deus ex machina that is looking out for them.

POST SCRIPT: Avoiding the need to learn how to parallel park

In developing countries where cars are too valuable to junk, you find incredibly talented auto mechanics who can work seeming miracles. In addition to repairing cars, they can also make modifications that would never be considered here.

1 comment

  1. 1
    Latisse

    A great post! Thanks.

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