My first published piece of writing on evolution and creationism was a review of Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God for Skeptic magazine, published in 2000. In light of my recent posts at this blog, you might find it hard to believe that I actually wrote the following:
Like Miller, I deplore the rhetorical excesses of people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett who would blur the line between methodological and philosophical naturalism. Though I would quibble with a few of his specific examples, the chapter Miller devotes to these excesses is one of the best in the book.
Needless to say, I no longer believe this. So what changed?
Well, let’s see. As a little Jewish kid my parents insisted on sending me to Hebrew school. For them it was not about me getting right with God, but rather with learning a bit about my heritage and about what it meant to be Jewish. I fought them tooth and nail on this every week, partly because even as a kid all of the ceremonies, rituals, Torah readings and God talk struck me as rather silly, and partly because Hebrew school meant getting up early on Sunday morning. This all culminated with my Bar Mitzvah, which in retrospect I must begrudgingly admit was a good idea.
So my feelings towards religion have never been kind, but I never felt any particular urgency on the matter until recently. Virtually all of the religiously people I knew were of the entirely sane variety. Religious fundamentalism and extremism was something I heard about from time to time, but it was not something I ever encountered personally.
This state of affairs persisted through my graduate school years in the mid to late nineties. Somewhat unusually for an academic setting, my atheism put me decidedly in the minority of religious opinion among my fellow graduate students. Most of them took their Christianity very seriously indeed. Yet not a one of them (well, maybe Larry, on the off chance that he reads my blog) had any theocratic tendencies, and most of them were quite critical of fundamentalists.
A quick anecdote should give you the idea. At one point the famed, and decidedly crazy, evangelist Luis Palao arrived at Dartmouth to lead a good old fashoned revival in one of the large gymnasiums on campus. Never having been to a revival and being generally interested in religion, I wanted to attend. But I did not want to go alone. So I prevailed upon one of my best friends, a fellow who collected books on religion the same way I collected books on chess, to go with me. I though he would be happy to go. He wasn’t, though I eventually talked him into it anyway. He told me he was a not a big fan of Palao’s style of agressive evangelism and generally seemed a bit glum through the whole thing. (Alas, he now lives on the other side of the country in Seattle, just in case he reads my blog.)
So right up through the end of graduate school I found myself mystified by and uncomfortable with organized religion. I likewise could find nothing appealing in any sort of vaguely defined “spirituality.” But I never found such things menacing or worrisome. That all changed in 2000.
Two things happened that year to make me change the way I looked at this. First, I accepted a job at Kansas State University. And second, George W. Bush was (sort of) elected President.
Moving to Kansas was my introduction to the brain-dead sort of Christianity. I often browsed in the local evangelical bookstore (one time getting recognized by one of my students, who I’m sure was delighted to find that one of her professors was “of the body” and don’t you know that that little misunderstanding led to an interesting conversation that I won’t try to relate here) generally sticking to the apologetics and evolution sections. The books shelved there were wall-to-wall stupidity. They were in written in large print, were frequently ungrammatical, and showed not a hint of shame in peddling the most jaw-dropping sort of flapdoodle.
Needless to say, I couldn’t find the Christian bookstore that was promoting the moderate view of things.
Visit the local WaldenBooks and you found on the main table, the place where you are supposed to find books by Stephen King and John Grisham, books by James Dobson and Tim LaHaye. Turn on the local Christian radio station and you were treated to sermon after hectoring sermon delivering not only some of the most fatuous and ignorant arguments ever made in human history, but also to the most vicious invective you’ve ever encountered hurled towards atheists, Mormons, Catholics and other undesirables. I attended a home schooler’s convention at the Wichita Convention Center devoted to the promotion of Young Earth Creationism. Three guesses what those charming folks were teaching their kids. While there I looked at the list of forthcoming conferences to be hosted at the Center. All of them were religious in nature.
In short, idiotic, theocratic Christianity was everywhere, and there were enough such folks to have an immediately obvious and negative effect on the culture. Whole swathes of the country seemed in thrall to this nonsense. My sense of urgency increased.
Then George W. Bush got elected, largely through the support of the religious right. Leaving aside the shenanigans of the 2000 elections, how is it possible that fully half the country could compare Bush, an empty-headed, unaccomplished nonentity who never did anything in his life that wasn’t bought and paid for with his family’s wealth and connections, to Gore, a man of impeccable credentials and accomplishments, who was on the cutting edge of all the major issues of the day, and decide that Bush was the man they wanted? Religion was plainly a big part of the answer.
Mind you, it was not religious faith per se that people found appealing in Bush. After all, Gore’s religious faith was heartfelt and unimpeachable. But his was not the sort of simplistic, thoguhtless evangelical faith that Bush prattled about. It was that sort of faith people seemed to like.
Yes, yes, I know there were a lot of issues in the 2000 elections. But for me things were best summed up by Republican congressman turned TV pundit Joe Scarborough, who once remarked that while Gore plainly had the better resume and was clearly a more thoughtful and knowledgable candidate, a lot of people looked at Bush and said, “I trust this guy. He talks to me the way my pastor talks to me.”
So it stopped seeming plausible to me to say that it was the moderate folks who represented the mainstream of American religious thought. There were other things as well. Around this time I started following the evolution issue more closely. I would hear, for example, that Pope John Paul II had accepted evolution. Then I would go read what he actually said and find that it was nothing like the unambiguous endorsement people presented it as. I would hear that the “overwhelming majority” of Christian denominations had long ago made their peace with evolution. Then I would see polls saying that fully half the country accepted young-Earth creationism, and something like three fourths wanted some sort of creationism taught in schools. I would find that even many moderate religious folks of my acquiantance, people who had little use for fundamentalism, were nonetheless very sympathetic to the anti-science view on a great many issues.
In light of this, it struck me then and still strikes me today that it is the height of foolishness to think that Richard Dawkins is any significant part of the problem. Even more foolish is the idea that these sorts of religious beliefs are things to be pandered to, respected, and tiptoed around. Surely an essential part of any solution to the problem is loud and frequent public criticism of religious ideas that, let’s be honest, can not be defended on any rational basis.
The only thing I don’t understand is why that isn’t obvious to everyone.
Okay, enough. That’s my last post on this issue, regardless of the provocation. At least for a little while anyway. In the interest of moving on to other things I probably won’t respond in depth to comments here. Which shouldn’t be interpreted to mean I am uninterested in what people have to say. (Even people like J.J. Ramsey, who seems to have raising my blood pressure as his personal mission in life 🙂