Yesterday I raised the question of why such a high percentage of Americans reject evolution and accept creationism despite the evidence. Here are some other suggestions on why that is from others. Timothy Burke, in an open letter to my Panda’s Thumb colleague PZ Myers, suggests several possible explanations. PZ replies to that letter, agreeing with much of it and adding some further analysis to those parts he doesn’t agree with. I think perhaps Burke nails it best with this statement:
One tentative hypothesis that requires thinking in rich and subtle ways about the history of the United States over the last century is this I’d offer is this: evolution and creation science have become over many decades symbolic compressions of much wider, more complex and more difficult to articulate social and cultural cleavages. They’re containers for a wide variety of resentments, conflicts, fears and misrecognitions. In this reading, you have to learn to look below the surface of the ocean for the rest of the iceberg.
I’d say he’s right. Clearly the objection to evolution among the populace has little to do with sober analysis of the evidence. I’d be surprised if even 5% of the American public knew anything about the fossil record, comparative anatomy, phylogenetic relationships, and so forth. Obviously, there is something else at work here, and I think it is the widespread identification of evolution with atheism that is the key to understanding it. In the public mind, evolution is virtually synonymous with atheism. Why is that? I’ll suggest several reasons.
1. Many prominent Christian leaders have made crusading against evolution a cottage industry in America. This is certainly true, and something quite alien even to non-American Christians. I have an old friend who is a Baptist minister in England. When told that so many Baptists in America reject evolution, his response was, “Good Lord, why?” It was inconceivable to him that a Christian should consider evolution any kind of threat to Christianity at all. But in America, with such a strong tradition of Protestant evangelicalism and its emphasis on scriptural inerrancy or supremacy, it’s a major issue. Christian apologetics in America is rife with attempts to disprove evolution as a means of establishing that the bible as literally interpreted is true and accurate, from Josh McDowell to Norm Geisler to Jerry Falwell and the whole ICR crew. The historian Ronald Numbers’ brilliant book The Creationists traces the development of creationism in America and shows how it took such strong root here in America. Because anti-evolutionism is such a huge part of Christian apologetics in America, those who attend even moderate mainline churches that officially accept evolution are often bombarded with pamphlets, books and videotapes from the ICR, Answers in Genesis and many other creationist organizations. And one hallmark of that material is the automatic equation of evolution with atheism. But they are not alone in making this connection, bringing us to:
2. Prominent scientists, ironically, often make the same arguments the creationists do in equating evolution with atheism. The most obvious example is Richard Dawkins, an outspoken and dogmatic atheist who rails loudly and often at religion. At the same time, he is one of the very best popular writers at explaining how evolution works and why we know it to be true. All too often, Dawkins has used the terms evolution and atheism almost interchangably, without bothering to point out the difference between the science of evolution and the philosophical or theological inferences he draws from it. It is quite common to hear those of us who are deeply involved in this dispute at the cultural and legal level say that as brilliant as Dawkins is as a writer and expositor of evolutionary biology for the lay reader, he may well do as much damage as he does good by tying his anti-religious beliefs too closely to his scientific work. And Dawkins is not alone in this. Daniel Dennett, a man I admire enormously, also is a prominent atheist and a popular defender of evolutionary theory. He tends to be a good deal more careful than Dawkins, however, in drawing distinctions between the two, probably owing to his background in philosophy rather than in science.
The irony, as noted above, is that these two extremes agree only on one thing, and that is that if evolution is true, Christianity must be false. But this is an oversimplification at the least. While evolution may conflict with a literal reading of certain biblical texts, Christianity contains a great many non-literal theological perspectives in addition to the more fundamentalist ones. Indeed, virtually every mainline Christian denomination has accepted evolution (see their statements here), and millions of Christians simply look at evolution as the means by which God created life on the planet. If you don’t take Genesis 1 literally, there’s no reason why this is not perfectly consistent, and there is a long tradition of Christian scholarship and theology going back at least to Augustine’s Commentary on Genesis which argues for a non-literal or allegorical interpretation.
The fact is that there are many Christians in science who are strong advocates for evolution and who have long ago reconciled their religious faith with evolutionary theory. Ken Miller of Brown University is someone I’ve mentioned often as the most eloquent spokesman there is for evolutionary theory and against creationism. In addition to his scientific work and his biology textbooks, he is also the author of Finding Darwin’s God, a book which explains both why we are so confident that evolutionary theory is true and why he does not view this as inconsistent with his faith as a Christian. Keith Miller (no relation), a geologist from Kansas who I met and have worked with in conjunction with the National Center for Science Education, has also written a book, Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, which contains essays from a variety of Christian scientists exploring the various ways they reconcile evolution with their faith. Other prominent voices from this perspective are Glenn Morton, a geophysicist and former young earth creationist I have known for many years; Howard Van Till, a retired physicist from Calvin College, a founding member of the International Society for Science and Religion, and advisory board member of the Templeton Foundation; and numerous members of the American Scientific Affiliation, an organization of Christian scientists who are primarily theistic evolutionists.
To that list, I’d like to add my friend Henry Neufeld, who I just introduced as a new contributor to the Panda’s Thumb. Henry is a biblical scholar specializing in the Hebrew language and he will be writing about the evolution/creationism dispute from a liberal Christian perspective. You can see his first post, a description of his background and general viewpoint, here. I’m looking forward to hearing his insights, and hope to have him comment here as well when he feels it is appropriate. I am also beginning work on an article for his webpage, and I think it will address this question of why most Americans don’t accept evolution. I’m curious to hear my readers’ thoughts as well.