Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Real Reason All Those American Christian Fundamentalists Oppose Teaching Evolution

Unearthed accidentally by a footnote from Paul Graham:

[Evolution] was harder for Darwin's contemporaries to grasp ... than we can easily imagine. The story of creation in the Bible is not just a Judeo-Christian concept; it's roughly what everyone must have believed since before people were people. The hard part of grasping evolution was to realize that species weren't, as they seem to be, unchanging, but had instead evolved from different, simpler organisms over unimaginably long periods of time.

Now we don't have to make that leap. No one in an industrialized country encounters the idea of evolution for the first time as an adult. Everyone's taught about it as a child, either as truth or heresy.

If you teach children that everything around them was some other thing in the past, and only became the things they are over the passage of time, you teach them that everything they know will change.

Many religions are essentially authoritarian societies, built on the premise of infallible knowledge. Maintaining belief in the specific allegedly infallible knowledge of the various American Christian religions opposed to evolution is impossible if you know that everything in the world around you used to be something different and will one day change again. If you merely imagine that maybe everything in the world around you used to be something different and will one day change again, maintaining belief in the specific infallible knowledge of American primitive Christianity might not be impossible, but it certainly becomes remarkably difficult.

They could in theory work around it by changing the content of their infallible doctrine, except you can't change infallible doctrine without making it fallible.

In fact, any allegation of infallible knowledge loses credibility in this context, since it also requires an infallible perpetual updating and aggregating system. Even if God exists, and even if God knows everything, for that information to percolate out to religious authority figures, you would not only need prophets who were incredibly good at listening to the word of God, you would also need God to be updating Twitter every nanosecond. (Not because the change is fast - it isn't - but because the knowledge becomes fallible if it's out of date.) Allowing the alleged infallibility of God to transfer to His representatives becomes absolutely ludicrous in this context, which means that whether God exists or not, the idea which holds up the entire power structure of American fundamentalist Christianity falls apart, and the power structure collapses. But this doesn't just mean the structure of their religious organizations; it also means the structure of their families.

This is why they aren't satisfied by getting evolution in school and creationism in Sunday school; the damage to the fundamental premise of their entire society's power structure has already been done. What they really object to is this threat to their power structure. Religions perform important social roles, and without the fundamental assumption of infallible knowledge to give their authoritarian religion the credibility to perform those roles, their sub-society faces serious and significant upheaval.

When Christian fundamentalists in America say that teaching evolution threatens the very fabric of their society, what they say is true. I don't want to get into the politics of it all, but that's what's going on. If you hear about them fighting against teaching evolution in schools, and you wonder how anyone could be so stupid, that's how.


  1. "When Christian fundamentalists in America say that teaching evolution threatens the very fabric of their society, what they say is true."

    Similarly, if social mores change -- e.g. abortion is OK, gays can marry -- then not only do we acknowledge a break from past beliefs, but anyone can deduce that today's moral standards are also temporary and not eternal.

  2. Yeah, exactly. If everything changes, making a big deal about social change is just silly. "Things change. Everyone knows that." Authoritarian societies lose their power when children can laugh at their leaders.

  3. Are other communities, like those of academics or programmers, free of nonsensical hierarchies that draw power from supporting a current orthodoxy? I'm not sure the characteristics you identify are unique to religion.
    One might argue that other disciplines contain the tools to shift their dogma, whereas religion is utterly dependent on its infallibilty. Relatively recently, slavery was widely accepted in the US church. It was both defended and derided with scripture. That was 150 years ago. In the last 50 years, the church has completely changed its attitude about divorce.
    There are some formal mechanisms that one could point to in describing how these changes get made, but honestly it seems to reflect more of a rough consensus than any kind of Word-from-on-high transformation.
    All this to say that both you and our ultra-religious sisters are being too optimistic about the state of education in the US if you believe social cueing and tribal membership will be outdone by what gets taught in science class.

  4. @austin - first your question - no, plenty of other systems exist with similar properties.

    now the final sentence --

    All this to say that both you and our ultra-religious sisters are being too optimistic about the state of education in the US if you believe social cueing and tribal membership will be outdone by what gets taught in science class.

    Here's my attempt at translation. You're saying that Giles Bowkett and some other people are overestimating the power of scientific ideas to overcome peer pressure and traditional belief among fundamentalist Christians.

    If I'm understanding you correctly, my thought that the idea of evolution being taught in science class could topple Christian fundamentalist "society" (sub-society really) is the one idea I share with fundamentalist Christians! (Which is probably what you meant by "our ultra-religious sisters," except I don't get why they're female.)

    I think it's very valuable to think of big-picture ideas in tiny chunk. I also think you're blurring chunks together. I'm not saying that "social cueing and tribal membership" will disappear overnight. I'm saying that tribes can change their rules, and social cues communicate those changes when they occur. If the rules of Christian fundamentalist "tribes" change, those "tribes" may stick together, but they could be doing very different things after the rules change. Groups of people can exhibit all kinds of different patterns of behavior without disbanding or even fully self-destructing. American society didn't fall apart as a result of the social upheaval of the 60s, but it did suddenly get very very different. I think that's what the Christians are afraid will happen to them. I think they're right, it will happen to them. I just think they're basically a bunch of pussies - everybody else in the country already dealt with it 40 years ago.

  5. I really liked Neil deGrasse Tyson's explanation of why ID should not be allowed in science classrooms. He said that there is a strain of belief in science that somehow God has a hand in explaining things science can't, which leads people to believe that a phenomenon is not worth exploring, because "God creates it". This idea is proved wrong by later scientists. Even some great scientists have fallen into this mode of thinking.

    What Tyson said was science is a philosophy of discovery. Anything that says, "We can't explore here, because we already know what the answer is" has no place in the scientific discipline, because it effectively stifles scientific discovery. I'm not sure exactly what he was talking about here, but I suspect he may have been commenting on group think that can develop in the scientific community, and that it's best to not foster an atmosphere of close-mindedness within it.

    What I also liked was he defined science as a philosophy. I'd add that it's one that just so happens to produce reliable, reproduceable results when done right. What I like about this definition though is it implies that science does not have a monopoly on the truth.

    Personally, I believe in what science can prove, but I can have metaphysical thoughts about what it has not proven yet. This doesn't mean that I'm going to firmly hold to those thoughts. It's just "gap filler" unless a better explanation comes along.

  6. Just for the hell of it, there's a fascinating bit in "The Wisdom of Crowds" where he argues that science isn't a philosophy or even a methodology, but a market. Very interesting take.

    I would actually be absolutely fine with the creationists teaching creationism in schools alongside actual reality if it weren't for the fact that American culture is unpredictably diverse, so that you can't just say "this community is all fundamentalist Christian so there's no harm in it" as that community could become not all fundamentalist Christian at any given moment -- and also if it weren't for the fact that public-funded religious teaching is ultimately just religious organizations using government money for religious purposes. I think it would make the transition easier for the Christian loonies, if they had both taught in school, even though one is moronically false, but there's no way to do it without making homogenous communities hostile to other religions, and the legal precedent, in terms of the finances, would be a nightmare.

    But if it weren't for all that, I really would be fine with it, because the situation is, their religion is essentially threatened by reality itself. They're guaranteed to face some problems because of that, and there's no point making it any harder on them. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. I think it's wise to look at the 60s as a painful instance of social upheaval, and to say there might be further upheaval, and to plan for ways to make social upheaval less destructive and divisive.

    After all, if you read Howard Zinn, a lot of what we teach kids in history class is false anyway. If we were teaching them creationism and evolution, they'd be forced to decide for themselves, and that kind of challenge doesn't happen often enough in our schools. In a different situation, I'd be an apologist for the creationism in schools crowd. (Although "Intelligent Design" is so despicable and dishonest that I could never compromise as far as that.)

  7. Hmm. Never heard of science being a "market". Maybe that's the practical reality since most scientific research is funded by the government, which is by its nature a political organ. So what we end up getting at best is science tainted by a political bias. Even if you leave out government, research is funded by corporations, which have particular goals in mind as well. I'm sure there are some real R&D labs around where scientific researchers are free to explore whatever strikes their fancy, free from interference, but they're rare mainly because most people don't understand how real research works.

    Believe who you want, but I'd take Zinn with a large grain of salt. He not only eschews objectivity, he doesn't even find it desirable. So he's basically like, "Fuck it. I'm going to tell it like I want to tell it." Gee, how post-modern. I know that in any history, one can question the objectivity of the historians that made it, but those who do the job well try to take in information from multiple sources, and information that's vague or controversial into account. I find that good historians make an effort to present a complete picture. Even if they don't succeed, at least the effort was honest.

  8. No no no, science is a market but not a money market. Too exhausted to remember the details but it's really very interesting. Essentially the process of experimentation, citation, and peer review functions with a market dynamic.


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