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Teaching creationism

Red State Rabble makes a good point – few people actually want intelligent design taught, what they want is old-style creationism. Hume makes that very clear in Monkey Girl, for example – the early discussions of the Dover school board were about getting creationism into the syllabus. It was only later on that they turned to intelligent design, which they believed was an “acceptable” form of creationism. And there’s the appeal of ID – it’s a wedge issue, it’s something that people can use in their attempt to get creationism back into the classroom.

At its heart, this rejection of evolution is a rejection of the Enlightenment and modernity. The faster globalisation proceeds, the more people feel left out, left behind by this racing tide. Old, familiar ideas are comforting, but no one really wants to be a Luddite. What they want is a modern traditionalism – something that looks modern but which doesn’t challenge their perception of the world too much. Fundamentalist religion does this nicely. Although it claims a long lineage, Christian fundamentalism is actually a very modern phenomenon which explicitly rejected the Enlightenment.

At the heart of Christian fundamentalism is a “literal” interpretation of the bible. Biblical literalism is difficult – it requires people who are either ignorant of modernity, or who explicitly reject it. I am not talking about modernity in a literal sense, not cars, computers and electricity (although many fundamentalists seem stuck in the fashions of either the 1950s or the 1970s) – rather, it requires a rejection of modern science and modern biblical scholarship.

Ignorance of the bible is an important element of fundamentalism. Sure, many read the bible, sometimes constantly, but it needs to be read through a specific prism of beliefs. When you start from the assumption that the bible is the word of God you edit out the inconsistencies. When you have been taught one reading, you will always see that one reading. The idea of the Rapture was a nineteenth-century idea, but it’s something that has been so deeply imprinted on our consciousness that the idea jumps out when I read the (handful of) passages upon which the idea is built. As Spong said, the only way to understand what the authors meant is to get some sense of the world in which they lived, of the milieu of ideas and imagery that they knew.

Ignorance of science is also important. Evolution is solid science, and that’s obvious to anyone who approaches it with an open mind. Science and religion are not mutually incompatible, but literalism is. The only way to be a literalist is to reject science. And the only way to ensure that people reject science is to stack the deck. As Bloom and Wesinberg pointed out (also here):

[B]oth adults and children resist acquiring scientific information that clashes with common-sense intuitions about the physical and psychological domains. Additionally, when learning information from other people, both adults and children are sensitive to the trustworthiness of the source of that information. Resistance to science, then, is particularly exaggerated in societies where nonscientific ideologies have the advantages of being both grounded in common sense and transmitted by trustworthy sources.

It’s difficult to hold on to a creationist view. It requires that you reject so much of what is around you. Ideally, you would want to have that position reinforced at school. There are problems, of course, with teaching religion as science in the US.

There’s a basic sense of “fairness” in society in which people expect both sides to be entitled to their side of an argument. People who have been taught that evolution are just two opinions (the two opinions, in many people’s world view) have a hard time understanding why “Darwinist ideologues” refuse to allow anything other than their idea to be taught in schools (and are puzzled why the government and the courts side with one side). What they really want is to have “their side” of the argument taught alongside the “atheist’s side”. It’s only when they are faced with the fact that this is illegal that they go with ID as the next best thing, since at least it sows doubt about evolution.

While the hardcore literalists reject anything that conflicts with their reading of Genesis, most people simply don’t understand science, so they don’t understand why only “one side” can be taught.


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