People want to agree with Jesus, and this often means they see him as agreeing with themselves.
E. P. Sanders
While on the campaign trail recently Texas governor, GOP hopeful, and potential 2012 presidential candidate Rick Perry responded to a question from a small boy about the age of the earth by telling him that he didn’t know how old the earth was, but he was “sure it was pretty old.” Prompted by his mother to ask a follow up question about evolution, Perry then said that evolution was “just a theory that’s out there,” one with “some gaps in it,” before reassuring the boy (in that baby-kissin’ mode so beloved of populists) that in Texas they “teach evolution and creationism in the high schools.” For those as yet unacquainted with Perry’s style, try to imagine – are you sitting down? – a George Bush who can speak. Perry’s attempt to seek the Republican nomination has rightly been seen as something of a game-changer. Until now the mainstream GOP’s preferred candidate has been Mitt Romney, who has the unfortunate stigma of being both a Mormon and a bit of a stiff, and consequently harder to sell to the evangelical voting base of bible-belt conservatism. On the other hand, tea-party favourite Michelle Bachman is seen by many at the sensible end of the party to be too extreme and divisive a figure to be taken seriously for high office. Perry is seen by his supporters as a figure capable of uniting both sides of a party whose fissures began to badly tell during the 2008 presidential campaign. Unlike Bachman, Perry is experienced in office – he is the longest running governor in Texan history. Unlike Romney, he combines mainstream Christian evangelicalism with the populist touch in a way that seems to come naturally to the Texan tongue. Fiscally and socially conservative without appearing extreme, if the Democrats aren’t worried by Perry’s stepping into the race, they should be.
As should, it would seem, all who care about science, education, and the separation of church and state as enshrined in the American constitution. For what is most dispiriting about governor Perry’s ignorance of evolution is that it displays all the hallmarks of a fundamentally anti-scientific attitude that has lately seized the upper echelons of the Republican party. This mistrust of science is part of a wider anti-intellectualism latent in the populist style, whereby it is assumed that over-educated ‘pointy-headed’ types from the east and west coasts are knowingly conspiring to shift the USA in directions that are treacherously anti-American. You can hear this at its most fevered in what David Brooks, writing in the New York times, calls the “alternative-reality right” (i.e. “those who don’t believe in global warming, evolution or that Obama was born in the U.S”). You can hear it in Glenn Beck’s foaming conspiracy theories. You can hear it in Sarah Palin laughing off the efficacy of fruit fly research about which she is wholly ignorant. You can hear it in Michelle Bachman’s ludicrous assertion that there are “hundreds and hundreds of scientists” (“many with Nobel Prizes” no less) who “believe in intelligent design.” You could even see it in the 2007 GOP candidates’ debate, when Tom Tancredo, Sam Brownback, and Mike Huckabee could all, without hesitation or embarrassment, raise their hands in denial of the core idea in modern biology.
And we see it again in governor Perry’s willingness to bend over and lie into the face of a small child. A more resonant image of the extent to which science in general, and evolution in particular, has been dangerously politicised could hardly be wished for; as a signifier of the willingness of certain political figures to do violence both to science and to religion in order to surf widespread ignorance in search of votes, it is nigh-on perfect. I suppose one might be charitable, by accusing Perry of cynically pandering to the religious right – he was clearly telling the boy what he thought he wanted to hear – but I fear he might actually have meant it. After all, in a country where polling consistently shows between a fifth and half the population doubting evolution, it would hardly be an anomalous admission. The worms of creationist propaganda have dined long and happy on the compost of American religiosity, and their influence is beginning to reach into the highest corridors of power. The dangers to America’s standing as a leading science and technology nation are obvious. Governor Perry may think the answer to a “nation in crisis” is to hold a prayer meeting. I would suggest a more pragmatic solution lies, at least in part, in the USA’s ability to produce more science graduates than its rapidly gaining rivals.
The first thing to understand about this battle – the battle between evolution and its religiously-motivated enemies – is that it is not, despite appearances, a scientific dispute. Scientific disputes are settled in the lab. There is an easy way to get ‘intelligent design’ taught in the classroom, and that is to do good science. Once scientific ideas become established, they will, no matter how radical or strange, inevitably trickle down into the high school text books. The fact that repeated attempts are made to circumvent this process by bypassing the science part and going straight for the impressionable minds of children, is illustration enough that the well-funded and politically powerful ‘intelligent design’ propaganda machine knows this. They don’t have to bother with observation, experiment, and peer-review. If they can sew enough doubt in enough minds among the general populace, they have won.
One of the most effective ways to do this is to attach to evolution a political message it doesn’t contain. Evolution, goes the argument, is not only untrue, if believed in it leads to everything from homosexuality to abortion to genocide. Anyone who casts an eye over creationist literature will quickly observe the repeated use of ‘Darwinism’ and ‘Darwinist’ in place of ‘evolution’ or ‘natural selection’. Why? Because ‘isms’ are ideologies, and ideologies are evil. This use of Darwin’s name is anachronistic among the sciences: mechanical engineers are not known as ‘Newtonionists’, to practise geology is not called ‘Lyellism’. Darwin may be a highly revered figure, but I doubt a single biologist or zoologist would announce himself in this manner. What they do is evolutionary biology, not ‘Darwinism’. In science it is the ideas that matter, in other words, not the man. By failing to observe the distinction, creationists are able to draw a straight line between Darwin and Hitler, and ignore the point that even if it were the case that accepting evolution automatically led to genocide, that would say nothing, in itself, about whether the theory were true or not.
It is telling to note that the denial of evolution is often held in inverse proportion to the firmness of belief in scriptural inerrency; that is, the more rabidly one opposes evolution, the more likely one is to believe the Bible is the unalterable and perfect word of God. The irony has a pleasing symmetry to it. On the one hand, we have one of the most firmly established explanatory frameworks in all science, with 150 years of cumulative and mutually supportive lines of evidence to back it up; on the other we have an anthology of Hebrew and Greek literature from the ancient world that has been edited, revised, rewritten, and translated (in many cases mistranslated) over and over again, for thousands of years.
In the case of a figure like Jesus Christ, that entails believers having to accept the divinity of an itinerant (and probably illiterate) apocalyptic preacher from from an obscure part of the first century Roman empire, based upon contradictory accounts written decades after the events they seek to describe, by anonymous scribes who were neither eye-witnesses to those events nor speakers of the same language as the protagonists. By way of analogy, imagine trying to reconstruct the life of Harry Houdini based upon nothing but the excited reports of those who have heard, by word of mouth, of his spectacular magic. It is, in other words, Christianity that is ‘only a theory’ here, held aloft on the shifting sands of ‘faith’, and thus prey to all manner of doubts that must be assuaged by the constant reinforcements of incantation and ritual. If one were to be Freudian about the creationist conspiracy theory, one would accuse those opposed to evolution of projecting onto science the shaky foundations of their own belief.
It is clear from the closing words of 1984 that what terrified Orwell – and thus terrifies us as readers – was the thought that lies could completely replace the truth, that propaganda could fully replace historical reality. In this, he was being overly-pessimistic. The relatively short-lived time spans of the totalitarian empires would seem to indicate that truth cannot be contained, because truth exists independent of even the most powerful of state apparatus. In a comparatively open society like that of America, those who would like to see religious stories replace science lessons haven’t a hope of achieving their aims. They may have muddied the waters enough to turn half the country into misguided science deniers, but their project is intrinsically doomed to failure. Not only is it unconstitutional, it is, in a sense, impossible. Scientific discoveries cannot be ‘undiscovered’. Evolution is not going to go away, however distasteful or unconducive to the idea of a benign creator one may find its implications to be.
Lying to oneself may be merely foolish: lying to children is immoral. Governor Perry doubly lied to the boy on his campaign trail. They don’t, in fact, teach “evolution and creationism” in Texas high schools. They don’t because they can’t; they can’t because the Supreme Court explicitly ruled against it the 1987 Edwards vs. Aguillard verdict. They did the same again with the rebranded creationism of ‘intelligent design’ in the 2005 Kitzmiller vs. Dover trial. So far the guardians of establishment clause have done Jefferson proud, despite massive pressure from the population, and the ceaseless push from the proponents of pseudo-science. Let us pray – for the sake of the children – that it stays that way.