What Is It With These (Which) People?

August 14, 2006 | By | 3 Replies More

I’d like to do another riff on the science and religion thing, so bear with me.  I largely don’t bother going on about this issue anymore, except in those instances where there may be an audience of undecideds. 

One of the things about Americans in small groups is that by and large we will listen and we will weigh what we hear before making up our minds.  It comes down to the slickness of the rhetoric or the overwhelming honesty of an argument.  That’s on us, we who bother to make such arguments.  It helps to remember that we do this for those who haven’t made up their minds yet. 

Evolution vs Creation Science.  The arguments are settled, the science is in, there’s no real dispute except on the Culture War Front.  Evangelicals simply don’t like the program.  When the truth destroys a cherished myth, print the myth.  An old newspaper adage from the 19th Century. 

We’ve been having this crap now for a couple of decades at least, in Kansas back in the 90s, and the issue is well-enough known and the stakes thoroughly understood by enough folks on both sides that anyone moving to circumvent the Supreme Court decision (Edwards vs Aguillard, 1987) is doing so with the knowledge that they are being duplicitous.  They have decided that, as they cannot win their case on the basis of fact and reason, and since they believe they are right and everyone who disagrees with them is wrong, any tactic by which they may advance their cause is just fine.

Science, meanwhile, is hamstrung by its in-built integrity–not that scientists themselves are not often duplicitous or even insidious, but they work with a process that, sooner or later, ousts the B.S.  This is a point the Creationists seem to miss about science.  Or maybe they don’t, but they just don’t care.  (Or, a third possibility, that they have a definition of Truth which simply rejects revision or the possibility of being in error–that if something is True, it must always be true, no matter what may seem to refute it–which makes any possibility of admitting to changes in fact remote.)  Scientists, in other words, end up having to play by the rules, because the rules are well-defined and function well enough that fraud is inevitably discovered and error corrected.  Bad science doesn’t stand because of that process.

While it is true that there have been scientists whose work has been vilified by fellow scientists, this proves nothing.  Eventually, if their work is sound, they are vindicated by the very process that will then discredit that bad or incomplete science blocking their work.  This has happened time and time again.

Likewise, it proves nothing to hold science up as some sort of religion with its own dogma, barring the radical and guarding the gates of orthodoxy like Cerberus, because in time the watchdogs are put down and good work has its day.  Consider the rather shameful episode of Immanuel Velikovsky, whose book Worlds In Collision suffered censure and open censorship when it was published. The scientific community reacted so negatively to the book that it went through its own period of HUAC stupidity in its treatment of Velikovsky.  Carl Sagan, in an exercise of integrity, righted this by having a forum of scientists give Velikovsky and his work serious consideration.  The result was the book Velikovsky Reconsidered , which is a collection of papers done on Velikovsky’s ideas. Velikovsky was shown to be in error.  But some good science came out of the forum, most especially with regard to Venus.

Point being, science changed its mind.  Not about the validity of Velikovsky’s work, but about the egregious manner in which it treated him–and thereby went on to discover some things it didn’t know before because it took a second, third, and fourth look.

Religion can’t really do that.  At least, the religiously dogmatic can’t, not without throwing over their dogma and admitting what they believed was in error.  And that’s why it doesn’t mix with science.

On the opposite side of the Dover issue, Kansas once more entered the field by reinserting Intelligent Design in their curriculum and changing the description of science as it is to be taught in the schools along the way.  (This has subsequently been undone, but doubtless will have to be done again, because that’s the way this seems to work.)

It prompts one to ask: What Is It With These People?

Now you must ask, then, which people am I talking about?     There are two elements involved in this specific issue that can’t get around each other.  The specific issue I refer to is the place of religion in public education.

One element–those who are pushing the Intelligent Design aka Creationism inclusion–believe that part of our problem today is a lack of religious instruction.  We have, they say, banned god from the classroom.  This has led to immorality and decay, degeneracy and national weakness.

The other element comprises those who adamantly refuse to allow religion into public schools at any level, anywhere.  They fuel the fires of the debate–the barred will clamor for inclusion till the gates break down.  This is Americanism at its core, we can’t deny it or avoid it and we try to maintain an exclusionary posture at our peril.  Because if we can’t hold those gates shut–and we can’t–when they do finally give way, we’ll have no control whatsoever on what comes through it.

I take issue with the false syllogism of the religious advocates that we are in the grip of immorality because of the ban on teaching religion in public schools.  I take issue with it because I can’t think of a single period in our history when we haven’t been in the grip of degeneracy and decay.  We know this because there isn’t a single period in our history when the critics of society haven’t loudly pointed this fact out to us.  We have always lived in a stew of sin and corruption.  Even when we did teach religion in the schools.  The presence of school prayer, catechism, evangelism, and god in the public schools has made no difference in the level of so-called immorality in our society.  None.  You can find tracts written at each decade of our nation’s history attesting to the fact that we are Sodom, we are Babylon, we are doomed.  Taking religion out of the public schools has had no real impact at all.

Now, it can be argued that the kinds of immorality have probably changed.  We didn’t have drug peddlers pushing Ecstacy to grade schoolers in 1890.

But wait a minute–a lot of that is simply opportunism.  But when you look at the culture at large, you can see that the roster of national sins has changed a bit.  Not much.  I’d argue that for a lot of people, things have improved, and perhaps we have a level of common morality more in evidence on the individual level today than ever before.  Just check the donations to charity, the kinds of charity being donated to, and the range of civil tolerance we experience today that was impossible to expect in, say, 1954.So that argument, to anyone with any smattering of historical perspective, is patently false.

But there’s another argument that can be made to support a contention that religion ought to be included in school curriculum.  We pride ourselves on tolerance, and it is true, we can’t get around it, that the basic principles of tolerance in the West are fundamentally Christian principles.  Not church principles, but the ideas that came from Yeshua–Jesus, for those who don’t know who I mean.  In fact, the codification of tolerance has its earliest manifestation in religion–everywhere.  The idea that we should respect others, that we should regard our fellow creatures as no better or worse than ourselves, is a religious idea.

The irony, of course, is that secularists have in recent times been the best practitioners of it, at least in a public forum, and this is lost on most religious ideologues.  Pat Robertson and the rest of his ilk wouldn’t be half so irked at Dover, PA, if they weren’t well aware of this seeming contradiction.  Consider this quote from the “illustrious pastor” on the occasion of the Dover decision:“I’d like to say to the good citizens of Dover, if there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God. You just rejected him from your city, and don’t wonder why he hasn’t helped you when problems begin, if they begin, and I’m not saying they will. But if they do, just remember you just voted God out of your city. And if that’s the case, then don’t ask for his help, because he might not be there.”

Wonderful.

But I do have a problem with banning religion from public education and it is that we live in a world of religion, and to ignore it is to invite the abuses of ignorance.  You could argue, I suppose, that it is desirable to “protect” children from strong ideologies until they are of an age and a sophistication not to be overwhelmed by them–but we certainly don’t do that with regards to other aspects of the world.  We underestimate both children’s’ capacity to handle complexity and our own ability to present a subject in such a way as to open a child’s mind to possibility and choice along with reason.

So I would put religion in school curriculum–as part of history (I don’t know how you teach about the Crusades and avoid deep religious discussions) and as a part of some form of civics.

This is unacceptable to the Creationist advocates.  They don’t want religion taught as a Subject, they want it taught as Truth.  They want it to have dominance over all other subjects.  To do this, though, would require a distortion of those other subjects, especially science.

Which brings the other element in as counter.  Those who would blindly bar religion in toto .  Seeing the intent of the first group, the latter, in an argument we have seen time and again in politics, claims that to let a little in is to eventually yield the field.  This is sometimes called the problem of the camel’s nose.  You can’t let the camel poke his nose into your tent, because before you know it the whole camel is in and you’re sleeping in the open desert.

So they sue and countersue and the country must stand by and watch as the issues mangle the subjects.

Now, I won’t be coy about where I stand.  Religion is not compatible with science.  Sorry, it just isn’t.  Faith is subverted by a process demanding proof, and science is nothing without that very process.  I think religion is both inevitable and unfortunate in this regard.  People seem to require it.  If we managed to stamp it out in one generation, the next would rediscover it.  It’s my opinion that religion is a kind of emergent property of communities.  There is not one culture on the planet ever found that lacked a religion.  In all the wild variety human creativity offers, they multiply, and appear as if out of nowhere.  The binding commonality of our humanity is indicated by the concerns all these religions share–where did we come from?  What is truth?  What shall we do?  What shall we not do?  Is there an afterlife?  Who are the gods and why do they have anything to do with us?

More than that, though, a religion is the strongest form of group identity.  Everyone believing the same thing, worshiping the same thing, claiming descent from ancestors who also believed and worshiped the same thing–when politics and economics change and even language is suspect one generation to the next, this is a powerful bond.

Of course, it’s based on faith as much as any other element of a religion–how do we know we believe the same way our great great grandparents did?–but the nature of faith being that which cannot be analyzed, proven, or disproved, the bond is potent and all but unassailable.

But, to continue the argument (and exposing the flaw), it doesn’t stop at belief.  It spills over into everything else.  Not only do we believe like our distant forebears, so the reasoning goes, we’re no different from them in any way!  There is a continuity of conscience and values and even physicality implicit in the religious view.  From Abraham to Jesus, The People did not change, outwardly or inwardly, except for the waxing and waning of their faith.  But they were in all things essentially the same people.  No discovery, no insight, no invention altered them qualitatively in any way.

And there seems to be some comfort in that.  Certainly a kind of validation. With science, that’s gone.

Enter the Industrial Revolution.  From the 18th Century till today, the one thing for certain is that we are never the same one generation to the next. At least, that’s what it looks like.

Here’s where the core assault on Evolution enters.

First we realized that humans are just one more species on the fecund body of the Earth, biologically no better or worse than any other.  An opportunistic organism hell bent (he chooses his words carefully) on dominance of the biome through any means available, the first line of assault being reproduction (which nothing must be allowed to threaten).  We secured a position through a particularly large neocortex overlaid on a big brain, and after building cities and colonizing the entire globe, thought of ourselves in our fevered imagination as the ultimate pinnacle of creation–an idea we invented as well to explain the hierarchy we assumed to be “natural”, which idea itself is perverted by the notion of special creation, with human beings at the crest of it.  Our ideology itself was employed in the battle to dominate–our hubris is probably an evolutionary benefit, since it obliterates the kind of humility and sensibility that would check our nature-driven surge for dominance, a dominance not only over the so-called Animal Kingdoms, but over arbitrarily-designated “lesser” human breeds.

Right nasty piece of work.  When we understood that we were just part of nature and not the divinely-appointed landlords, it didn’t take long for some among us to start looking closely at the long trail of human history and trying to figure out alternative answers to the thorny questions.  Many were wrong.

But just questioning that continuity was a chancy practice and got a lot of individuals killed along the way.

Something was awry, though, because the animal kingdoms we thought we understood turned out to be a lot more…unique…than we suspected, and begged more questions than we’d been offering.

When Darwin came along with his little notion of natural selection, well, the whole thing revealed itself to those with clear eyes.  There was no “special creation”–the whole thing was a continuum, an ongoing round of cede and supercede, new species displacing old, whole genomes transforming, disappearing, transmuting.  The animal kingdoms we knew were johnny-come-latelys, emerged in the space left behind by far older kingdoms that had never know Humans at all–because we didn’t exist when they held sway.  Which meant that we were only another phase in an age-old process of change and replace and recombine and…evolving.

Which destroyed the cozy sense of eternal continuity we assumed for millennia.    Which has driven certain people crazy.

It amazes me that we still hear the rejection we heard in the 19th century and even in Dayton, TN–”I am not descended from an ape!”

The man in the 20th Century who came to exemplify the fundamentalist response to evolution, William Jennings Bryan, said in his famous Menace of Darwinism speech: “…our chief concern is in protecting man from the demoralization involved in accepting a brute ancestry…evolution in plant and animal life up to the highest form of animal might, if there were proof of it, be admitted without raising a presumption that would compel us to give a brute origin to man.”

As it has transpired in the course of the 20th Century, science has pretty well established that evolution occurs.  All the arguments mustered against it, from gaps in the fossil record to the intricacy of the eye and its impossibility of emerging by evolutionary process, have been answered.  We have ample evidence in the fossil record and are finding more all the time.  That is simply not an issue anymore.  The eye has been explained (though perhaps not the “I”).  More than that, in the laboratory evolution has been witnessed on the single cell level for decades.  The only way to make sense of viral and bacterial mutation is through an evolutionary model.  Humans themselves have been instrumental in evolutionary process through selective breeding of cattle, pets, and the manner in which we change environments and displace species. Plus, we keep finding new species.  They are emerging all the time.

But the bone of contention (if you will allow me the pun) is with the descent of Man. Up to the present day, beginning with Bryan, people have made a link between special creation and morality–as if without the hand of god having made us in a separate manner from all the rest of creation, we could not possibly evince a single moral principle.  Based on a historical reading of our conduct as a species, there isn’t a shred of evidence to support the contention that more religion equates to more morality.

But that isn’t where this rabid assault on science and evolution is coming from, I think.  I think that’s a dodge. The issue is obsolescence.

The view that religion gives us is that Man (humankind) was the last living thing created, and that it was an act of special creation, different from all the rest of the living world, and furthermore the model used was the Creator Himself.  The inescapable implication of this is that we–human beings— are the pinnacle.  We’re It.  The Best.  The supreme, end result of six heady days of creative exuberance performed by a Being of Infinite power and knowledge and imagination. Better could not be done.

Well.  If true, then Evolution is the democratic revolt dethroning us from that position.  Because evolution states that we’re just one more species among millions and we have as much chance of surviving to the end of time as the dinosaurs–which is, none to speak of.  We aren’t special.  We can be replaced, and, by the logic of evolution, will be. The king has no throne.

Whether people consciously react to this or not is beside the point.  Unconsciously, I’m certain they do. And some reject this process of replacement utterly.

We will not be made obsolete.  We will not be shoved off the top of the hill.  We will not be replaced.

Our provenance, as descended from a long, long line of other primates, must therefore be rejected, because to accept it is to accept the possibility of our being just a stop along the way to something else.  Not even, if we read Darwin correctly, something superior–just something else.  We can’t even look forward to a more human human.

The passion of rejection exhibited here suggests no less than a personal stake on the part of those who would see evolution denied. In my humble opinion, this is pathetic.

There are always people who take credit for their ancestors’ accomplishments, people who rely on family name and honor to supply them with the dignity they otherwise haven’t earned.  For such people who get by on the stories of greatness achieved by grandparents or great grandparents, people like me–who really could care less what the family did a century ago–must appear odd.  To me, they appear ridiculous.  Likewise those who plead social incapacitation based on transgression done to forebears, as if the transgression had been done to them.  I am by descent German.  That does not make me heir to the crimes of the Nazis or the absurdities of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Reich.  Nor does it suggest anything about my work ethic, my sense of humor, or my tendencies toward dress, decorum, or music.  Yet I have heard this kind of thing throughout my life.  “Oh, that’s the German in you!”

How?  I am an American by birth.  Characteristics that have to do with socialization do not transfer genetically–that’s Lamarckianism and it’s demonstrably false–yet there are people who assume they do.

All this is part and parcel of a process of borrowing self-worth–or special pleading–from lineage.  If that lineage is long and immutable, well…

But it’s not.  To pretend it is is an idea born of centuries of human habit, passed from one generation to the next not by genetic processes but by the stories and customs we carry with us, handed down through families, towns, nations.

Yet there are American born Irish who will pick fights about slights done by the British against the Irish a hundred years ago.  Examples abound.  This is false self-importance, indulgence in claptrap. And the granddaddy of such claptrap is Special Creation.

Ultimately, if it’s not true, then we’re responsible–utterly and alone–for our own situation.

I suppose that really frightens some people.

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Category: American Culture, Cultural Evolution, Culture, Current Events, Education, Evolution, History, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (3)

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  1. Jennifer says:

    "Or, a third possibility, that they have a definition of Truth which simply rejects revision or the possibility of being in error–that if something is True, it must always be true, no matter what may seem to refute it–which makes any possibility of admitting to changes in fact remote."

    I think you have hit the nail on the head here. I don't think most people in the Creationist camp are being duplicitous, at least not intentionally. They truly believe what they are spouting to be truth, and truth must always be true, and can never be changed.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    I really like the idea of teaching about religions in public schools in a history class (or a comparative religions class). It should also be addressed frankly as a social phenomena in basic psychology classes. That people claim as true things for which they have no evidence is a fascinating topic of study.

    There’s a big difference between religion and science that I’d like to show with a thought experiment.

    Imagine that you are one of many people attending a science lecture in a big lecture hall. Assume that, as the lecture is proceeding, you have a question and you thus raise your hand. The speaker and the audience will look to you to ask your question or make your point. After all, what you have to say might advance the understanding of an aspect of the world we inhabit.

    Now imagine that you’re at a church attending a service. Let’s assume that the minister starts talking about original sin and virgin birth. Imagine further that you raise your hand in the middle of the service. Flabbergasted, the minister points to you. You stand up and state that you don’t understand the notion of original sin and that you don’t understand how a virgin can get pregnant. The minister expresses that you shouldn’t interrupt the service to ask questions, but you persist. You ask, “I don’t get how someone could ever get pregnant without having sex.” Several people around you grumble. Several people point at you and start laughing. One older woman faints when she realizes that you actually said the word “sex.” The minister will make it clear that the gathering is not a proper time for you to be asking questions. "It’s a time for you to listen, no matter how confused you are by the things that occur during the service."

    This about sums it up for me.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    I find it very curious, and very unfortunate, that no one ever interrupts a church service with questions, much less challenges, no matter how absurd the preacher's words might be. I imagine this tradition dates back centuries, to when questioning the church could get a person condemned as a heretic, with potentially horrific and fatal consequences. To see it happen in a modern church service — especially in a Fundamentalist Protestant evangelical service, where every word of the Bible is declared to be literally true and where absurd assertions are therefore made on a regular basis — is disturbing. Some of these preachers are obviously full of themselves and convinced of their own infallibility, so there appears to be almost no limit to what they will say. (See, for example, Pat Robertson calling for the U.S. to assassinate the President of Venezuela: http://www.cnn.com/2005/US/08/23/robertson.chavez… Indeed, I wonder to what extent the failure of people to publicly question their preachers has encouraged so many of them to spout the nonsense that they do. This could be the reason why we see so many different and mutually-contradictory versions of Christianity. If preachers could be publicly questioned, then perhaps Christianity, like science, would have a more consistent message as well as a better reputation for intellectual honesty. The point here being that Christianity might greatly benefit from encouraging a more spirited debate in church — indeed, ANY debate — instead of the rote, puppetlike behavior that is so universal. If people knew they were welcome to stand up in church and challenge what the preacher was saying, I wonder if attendance would increase or decrease. If any progressive preachers are reading this blog, perhaps you could try it and let us know.

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