You know that long-running Gallup poll about evolution and creationism, the one that has consistently shown that support for creationism has been in the mid forties for the last thirty years or so? Well, the latest numbers are out, and they are not good news. The creationism number, which was at an all-time low of 40% two years ago, is now all the way up to 46%. Theistic evolution is down from 38% to 32%, while atheism went from 16% to 15%. That six percentage point jump for creationism and corresponding drop for theistic evolution could well be a blip in the data, but it is significant enough to promote some chatter in the blogosphere.
The dumbest entry comes from the hapless Robert Wright, who breathlessly suggests — surprise! — that this is all the fault of those darn New Atheists:
My theory is highly conjectural, but here goes:
A few decades ago, Darwinians and creationists had a de facto nonaggression pact: Creationists would let Darwinians reign in biology class, and otherwise Darwinians would leave creationists alone. The deal worked. I went to a public high school in a pretty religious part of the country–south-central Texas–and I don’t remember anyone complaining about sophomores being taught natural selection. It just wasn’t an issue.
A few years ago, such biologists as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers started violating the nonaggression pact. [Which isn't to say the violation was wholly unprovoked; see my update below.] I don’t just mean they professed atheism–many Darwinians had long done that; I mean they started proselytizing, ridiculing the faithful, and talking as if religion was an inherently pernicious thing. They not only highlighted the previously subdued tension between Darwinism and creationism but depicted Darwinism as the enemy of religion more broadly.
If you know anything about the history of creationism in America then I’m sure you face-palmed when you came to the line about the nonagression pact. Wright just invented that out of whole cloth. There has never been a time when creationists were inclined to let evolution go unchallenged in public school curricula. Not for one single second. Creationists have spent the last forty years relentlessly pursuing one legal strategy after another for getting evolution out of, or creationism into, science classes. Their general lack of success in this area is solely the result of the courts standing in their way. It certainly is not the result of some imagined comity agreement between the two sides.
Of course, we expect this sort of thing from Wright. As Jerry Coyne points out, Wright’s been making a good living in recent years explaining why various global problems that are obviously all about religion are somehow really about other things.
Perhaps, though, we can find some sympathy for poor Michael Ruse. He knows the history of creationism as well as anyone, and therefore knows that Wright is just making things up. But Wright is also bashing the New Atheists, which means Ruse is contractually obligated to praise him. We can see this tension played out in this blog post. Ruse writes:
Actually, I am inclined to agree with Jerry Coyne that there was not much of a non-aggression pact. I have spent a lot of my life fighting Creationist attempts to get a bible-based account of origins into the state-supported classrooms. In 1981, I was (together with people like Stephen Jay Gould and Francisco Ayala) an expert witness for the ACLU when successfully we fought back an attempt in Arkansas to get Genesis into the biology curriculum. This was all well before the New Atheists appeared on the scene.
Indeed. But having now completely cut the legs out from under Wright’s argument, Ruse goes on to write:
Having said that, I do think that Wright has something of a point. I too worry that polarizing things does lead to a religion-or-science-and-take-no-hostages kind of thinking. And whatever the Constitution may say and whatever previous interpretations may have been, I fear that the present Supreme Court might take this as an excuse – if indeed they even look for excuses – to allow some form of biblical literalism into biology classes.
Considering that in the past Ruse has said that the New Atheists are a disaster for America on a par with the Tea Party, it seems pretty tame to say merely that Wright has “something” of a point. But Ruse’s musings about what right-wing judges would do is truly bizarre. Why on Earth would they need to base a pro-creationism decision on the fact that a handful of authors write disparagingly of religion? Surely they would just parrot instead the usual talking points about how anti-evolutionism is strictly about science, and about how local school districts should have control over their own curricula. Scalia and Rehnquist, in the famous 1987 Supreme Court decision, did not think that laws mandating equal time for evolution and young-Earth creationism were Constitutionally problematic. They certainly did not need someone like Richard Dawkins to serve as a foil.
I’m not really sure why these latest poll numbers are provoking so much hand-wringing. The 46% figure is far more consistent with the history of the poll than was the low 40% figure of two years ago. Probably the low figure was just an outlier, and the polling data has just reverted to what it has typically been.
But if we are looking for an explanation, I’m surprised that neither Wright nor Ruse mention a really obvious candidate. It’s hardly news that religious and political extremism tends to flourish in bad economic times with high-levels of uncertainty. In fact, when I consider the sheer level of political dysfunction in this country right now, to the point where I think we can discuss seriously the idea that we are no longer a functioning democracy, I almost hope Wright and Ruse are right. Far better that people be influenced by a handful of atheist writers than by the well-funded and malevolent right-wing forces eager to take advantage of our current economic distress.