The definitive book on the history of the creationism movement is The Creationists(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) by Ron Numbers (and I have to remember to get a copy of the new expanded edition). Numbers has an interview in Salon which starts off well, but as it goes on, my respect for the guy starts sinking, sinking, sinking. He’s another hamster on the exercise wheel, spinning around the same old ineffective arguments that get us nowhere, and he can’t even follow through on his own chain of logic.
Here’s that reasonable beginning.
Given the overwhelming scientific support for evolution, how do you explain the curious fact that so many Americans don’t believe it?
I don’t think there’s a single explanation. To many Americans, it just seems so improbable that single-celled animals could have evolved into humans. Even monkeys evolving into humans seems highly unlikely. For many people, it also conflicts with the Bible, which they take to be God’s revealed word, and there’s no wiggling room for them. And you have particular religious leaders who’ve condemned it. I think there’s something else that I hate to mention but probably is a serious contributing factor. I don’t think evolution has been taught well in the United States. Most students do not learn about the overwhelming evidence for evolution.
At the university level or the high school level?
Grade school, high school and university. There are very few general education courses on evolution for the nonspecialist. It’s almost assumed that people will believe in evolution if they’ve made it that far. So I think we’ve done a very poor job of bringing together the evidence and presenting it to our students.
I agree with that, although I think he’s failing to pull his story together. There is a general degree of ignorance about evolution and basic biology; there are large numbers of people actively opposing evolution in the schools for religious reasons; evolution is taught poorly in the schools.
Now, why is it taught poorly? He’s already answered that (isn’t it obvious?), but he’s going to dance evasively around it throughout the interview.
First, though, he’s going to make another valid point.
There’s a stereotype that creationists just aren’t that smart. I mean, how can you ignore the steady accumulation of scientific evidence for evolution? Is this a question of intelligence or education?
Not fundamentally. There is a slight skewing of anti-evolutionists toward lower levels of education. But it’s not huge. One recent poll showed that a quarter of college graduates in America reject evolution. So it’s not education itself that’s doing this. There are really dumb creationists and there are really dumb evolutionists. Of the 10 founders of the Creation Research Society, five of them earned doctorates in the biological sciences from major universities. Another had a Ph.D. from Berkeley in biochemistry. Another had a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. These were not dumb, uneducated people. They rejected evolution for religious and, they would say, scientific reasons.
Correct — creationists are not necessarily stupid people, so we can rule out simplistic explanations that involve all of them being at the bottom of the scale of intelligence. Some of them are entirely capable of working their way to the highest levels of academic accomplishment.
So he has ruled out diminished capacity as an explanation. What could the reason be that so many people get the science wrong? Here’s where he starts going off the rails, and the interviewer, Steve Paulson, is going to start actively promoting the usual dogma with him.
My guess is that the most persuasive arguments for evolution are not going to come through scientific reasoning. They’re going to come from scientists, and from theologians and other people of faith, who say you can believe in God and still accept evolution, that there’s nothing incompatible about the two. Do you agree?
To a large extent, I do. But I think the influence of those middle-ground people is limited. Conservatives don’t trust them. They think they’ve already sold out to modernism and liberalism. And a lot of the more radical scientists spurn them as well. Richard Dawkins, for example, would argue that evolution is inherently atheistic. That’s exactly what the fundamentalists are saying. They agree on that. So you have these people in the middle saying, “No, no. It’s not atheistic for me. I believe in God and maybe in Jesus Christ. And in evolution.” Having these loud voices on either side of them really tends to restrict the influence that they might otherwise have.
So much wrongness…the source of the problem of creationism that Numbers and Paulson are apparently too blinkered to see is religion: major religions in this country actively fight against good science, pressure schools into dumbing down their science curricula, lash out against teachers who try to teach that ‘controversial’ idea in their classes, and just in general promote ignorance, dependency on emotional blather, and this meaningless twaddle called “faith”.
Those “people in the middle” are ineffective because they are trying to peddle two inconsistent views—they try to encourage science on one hand, and then on the other they promote an unscientific position. They cancel themselves out, and are basically forces for the status quo…a status quo which is currently unacceptable.
There is nothing radical about rejecting religion. It’s a sensible, ordinary, quite simple process; Numbers is simply damning atheists with his labels. And it gets worse.
My sense is that you don’t much like the stridency of certain atheists. The most obvious examples would be Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.
Right. I don’t know what the figures are right now, but I bet half of the scientists in America believe in some type of God. So I think Dawkins and Dennett are in a minority of evolutionists in saying that evolution is atheistic. I also think it does a terrible disservice to public policy in the United States.
So even if they believe that, you’re saying, politically, it’s a real mistake for them to link atheism to evolution?
Yes. Because in the United States, our public schools are supposed to be religiously neutral. If evolution is in fact inherently atheistic, we probably shouldn’t be teaching it in the schools. And that makes it very difficult when you have some prominent people like Dawkins, who’s a well-credentialed biologist, saying, “It really is atheistic.” He could undercut — not because he wants to — but he could undercut the ability of American schools to teach evolution.
Evolution and science and math and history and spelling and the whole of the public school curriculum are inherently atheistic, in the sense that they do not endorse any gods. Atheism is not a religion; it is an absence of gods, and of course the only way to maintain religious neutrality is to teach without the promotion of any gods at all. I don’t understand why some people find this so difficult to grasp. Teaching science without god in it does not mean that kids are assigned homework to skip church and blaspheme against the holy spirit — it just means that they are told that evidence is important, that we test hypotheses against the natural world, that it is not enough to say that we want the answer to be X, we need to critically evaluate X.
Now the only way that could undercut the ability of schools to teach evolution is if we have these well-meaning but religiously biased people simultaneously declaring that that business of critical thinking and evaluating natural hypotheses is “radical” and defying religious neutrality by promoting a specific religion. The problem is not the atheists, it’s damned shortsighted apologists for religion who criticize people for teaching science without gods. That’s all it means to teach good science.
Now Dawkins and Dennett and others are finally stepping outside the classroom and promoting a deeper, wider acceptance of atheism in the social realm; they are saying you ought to skip church and feel free to blaspheme against the holy spirit and maybe you should critically evaluate Lutheranism or Catholicism or Islam or whatever tradition you’ve been brought up in. That’s different than merely insisting that geology should be taught without Jesus and entirely on the evidence; it’s also a good and necessary move to break the de facto lock religious thinking obviously has on way too many people’s heads.
I am really exasperated with those who complain that the people who say “Evolution is supported by the evidence, teach it without your religious biases” are the problem, a greater problem than the multitudes who say “Evolution is false because Jesus or Mohammed say so”. Numbers is being absurd, and he ought to know better; creationism didn’t take off because myriad scientists were attacking religion, quite the contrary. Science has been attacked by the religious because good scientists refuse to defer to religion, as is the only way they should act.
The problem is not a handful of prominent scientists with the courage to speak out against religion as an avocation, it’s the millions of religious authorities around this country who are paid to speak out against science every week, who are supported by tax breaks from the government, and whose damaging influence is rationalized away by unthinking apologists, many of whom are a self-defeating force within the anti-creationism movement.
But if the only way for scientists to break this superstitious stranglehold, this default assumption that faith is equal in power to evidence, is for them to get out of the classroom and begin fighting back, I say more power to them. I am not going to make excuses for a religion that is encouraging ignorance and scientific illiteracy, as Numbers is—I’m going to point out repeatedly that the only religious neutrality we’re going to have is no religion at all.