One of the prominent ways that the anti-evolution movement, in all of its various forms, has attacked evolution for over a century is by framing the issue as science vs religion, or more often, atheism vs religion (with science assumed to be synonymous with atheism). From a PR standpoint, this is a smart move. The vast majority of Americans know very little about science, but they do have a deeply ingrained notion that religion is not only a good thing, but a vital component of any healthy society. As a result, they respond with a great deal of fear and emotion when religion is threatened. And PR campaigns are all about pushing emotional buttons.
Atheists are among the most reviled groups in this country, for reasons that have never been clear to me. There is not a shred of evidence that atheists behave any worse than the religious, yet the public is firmly convinced that to not believe in God is to be a horribly immoral person. Surveys show that atheists are the most distrusted minority group in America. A recent study at the University of Minnesota concluded:
From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.
Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public. “Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years,” says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the study’s lead researcher.
Edgell also argues that today’s atheists play the role that Catholics, Jews and communists have played in the past–they offer a symbolic moral boundary to membership in American society. “It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares a common ‘core’ of values that make them trustworthy–and in America, that ‘core’ has historically been religious,” says Edgell. Many of the study’s respondents associated atheism with an array of moral indiscretions ranging from criminal behavior to rampant materialism and cultural elitism.
There is particular irony in that last notion, that atheism is associated with cultural elitism. Virtually every cultural institution in the United States is dominated by the religious and it has been so forever. This is, quite simply, an irrational view that is astonishingly popular despite having no evidence at all to support it. It’s an irrational fear of Them, the same type of fear that has long been aimed at Jews, a small minority that is alleged to control virtually everything.
With such a powerful emotional response to atheism, the opportunities for demonization and demagoguery are virtually limitless. And the anti-evolution movement has, from the very beginning, exploited this fear to demonize their opponents. Evolution isn’t simply wrong, they argue, it’s evil. It leads to atheism and immorality and even Adolf Hitler. The ID movement, the latest label applied to the anti-evolution effort, is no different.
The Wedge Document, for example, laid out the goals and tactics of the ID movement and announced in no uncertain terms that the enemy was “materialism”, a fancy word for atheism. The very first paragraph begins by immediately pushing the emotional button of fear of atheism:
The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West’s greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences.
Yet a little over a century ago, this cardinal idea came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of modern science. Debunking the traditional conceptions of both God and man, thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment. This materialistic conception of reality eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art
The cultural consequences of this triumph of materialism were devastating. Materialists denied the existence of objective moral standards, claiming that environment dictates our behavior and beliefs. Such moral relativism was uncritically adopted by much of the social sciences, and it still undergirds much of modern economics, political science, psychology and sociology.
Materialists also undermined personal responsibility by asserting that human thoughts and behaviors are dictated by our biology and environment. The results can be seen in modern approaches to criminal justice, product liability, and welfare. In the materialist scheme of things, everyone is a victim and no one can be held accountable for his or her actions.
It’s a remarkably simple formula: Darwin —-> atheism —-> immorality and the collapse of everything good. And never mind that the story is ridiculously exaggerated and simplistic. But it’s an emotionally powerful frame, one that feeds on and exploits the deep seated fear that so many surveys have uncovered among Americans. And it echoes decades of similar pronouncements from creationists, who have always framed the issue in that manner.
The reality, of course, is not nearly so simple. Historically, it simply isn’t true that evolution is synonymous with atheism. From the earliest years after Darwin published Origin of Species, the idea has been embraced by a sizable number of adherents in every major religion. Among evolutionary biologists you will indeed find a much higher percentage of atheists than the general population, but you will also find deists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and virtually every other religion.
And as much as the anti-evolution crowd would like to portray all those who fight against their creationist agenda for public schools as atheists bent on destroying Christianity, the reality is quite the opposite. The plaintiff in Epperson v Arkansas, Susan Epperson, was a Presbyterian whose father taught at a Christian university (and the fact that she got deluged with hate mail and threats from the anti-evolution crowd suggests that the notion that rejection of evolution supports moral behavior is utter nonsense).
Likewise, the plaintiffs in McLean v Arkansas included the resident Arkansas Bishops of the United Methodist, Episcopal, Roman Catholic and African Methodist Episcopal Churches, the principal official of the Presbyterian Churches in Arkansas, and other United Methodist, Southern Baptist and Presbyterian clergy. Edwards v Aguillard likewise was brought by a number of Christian clergy. And the recent Dover case, Kitzmiller v DASD, was brought by a group of parents and teachers, most of whom are normal churchgoing folks. A couple of them even taught Sunday school every week.
Thus, it’s rather absurd to pretend that supporting the teaching of evolution in public schools, or opposing the introduction of creationist alternatives, is tantamount to supporting atheism. The fact is that these plaintiffs are not Richard Dawkins acolytes, they’re normal folks. They’re parents, teachers, ministers and ordinary citizens who don’t accept the idea that evolution is in eternal conflict with their religious views. Thus, the attempt to paint them as evil ‘Darwinists” out to destroy god and morality just does not stand up to reality.
But countering that frame should not stop here. We also need to attack the basis as well, the notion that atheism leads to some horrible collapse of morality. There is not a shred of evidence that atheists behave any worse than religious people. Indeed, there is substantial cross-national evidence that the more religious belief a nation has, the more they have a wide range of problems, from teen pregnancy to violent crime.
Gregory Paul of Creighton University published a comprehensive comparison of rates of religious belief with various measures of social problems among the developed democratic nations. Some of the findings of that study:
Despite a significant decline from a recent peak in the 1980s (Rosenfeld), the U.S. is the only prosperous democracy that retains high homicide rates, making it a strong outlier in this regard (Beeghley; Doyle, 2000). Similarly, theistic Portugal also has rates of homicides well above the secular developed democracy norm. Mass student murders in schools are rare, and have subsided somewhat since the 1990s, but the U.S. has experienced many more (National School Safety Center) than all the secular developed democracies combined. Other prosperous democracies do not significantly exceed the U.S. in rates of nonviolent and in non-lethal violent crime (Beeghley; Farrington and Langan; Neapoletan), and are often lower in this regard…
Although the late twentieth century STD epidemic has been curtailed in all prosperous democracies (Aral and Holmes; Panchaud et al.), rates of adolescent gonorrhea infection remain six to three hundred times higher in the U.S. than in less theistic, pro-evolution secular developed democracies (Figure 6). At all ages levels are higher in the U.S., albeit by less dramatic amounts. The U.S. also suffers from uniquely high adolescent and adult syphilis infection rates, which are starting to rise again as the microbe’s resistance increases (Figure 7). The two main curable STDs have been nearly eliminated in strongly secular Scandinavia. Increasing adolescent abortion rates show positive correlation with increasing belief and worship of a creator, and negative correlation with increasing non-theism and acceptance of evolution; again rates are uniquely high in the U.S. (Figure 8). Claims that secular cultures aggravate abortion rates (John Paul II) are therefore contradicted by the quantitative data. Early adolescent pregnancy and birth have dropped in the developed democracies (Abma et al.; Singh and Darroch), but rates are two to dozens of times higher in the U.S. where the decline has been more modest (Figure 9). Broad correlations between decreasing theism and increasing pregnancy and birth are present, with Austria and especially Ireland being partial exceptions. Darroch et al. found that age of first intercourse, number of sexual partners and similar issues among teens do not exhibit wide disparity or a consistent pattern among the prosperous democracies they sampled, including the U.S. A detailed comparison of sexual practices in France and the U.S. observed little difference except that the French tend – contrary to common impression – to be somewhat more conservative (Gagnon et al.)…
In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies (Figures 1-9). The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is exceptional, but not in the manner Franklin predicted. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly…
If the data showed that the U.S. enjoyed higher rates of societal health than the more secular, pro-evolution democracies, then the opinion that popular belief in a creator is strongly beneficial to national cultures would be supported. Although they are by no means utopias, the populations of secular democracies are clearly able to govern themselves and maintain societal cohesion. Indeed, the data examined in this study demonstrates that only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical “cultures of life” that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion. The least theistic secular developed democracies such as Japan, France, and Scandinavia have been most successful in these regards. The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted.
The same patterns can be found within the United States, where the so-called “red states” – those states where the population tends to hold strongly traditional Christian beliefs – tend to have much higher rates of teen pregnancy, abortion, divorce, violent crime and many other negative social effects than those states with lower rates. So again, the evidence simply does not support this simplistic notion that religion leads to moral behavior and acceptance of evolution leads to immoral behavior. If anything, the evidence points strongly in the other direction.