The Facts of Life: Why Evolution And Christianity Won’t Play Nice
The latest contender in the Republican presidential race–Rick Perry–questions the validity of evolution, much like some of his Republican counterparts (Bachmann, Palin, former president Bush, and many others). In a recent question posed by the Washington Post, various heavy-hitters in the secular world weighed in on the governor’s opinion on the subject of evolution. Here is the question they were asked to write about:
Q. Texas governor and GOP candidate Rick Perry, at a campaign event this week, told a boy that evolution is ”just a theory” with “gaps” and that in Texas they teach “both creationism and evolution.” Perry later added “God is how we got here.” According to a 2009 Gallup study , only 38 percent of Americans say they believe in evolution. If a majority of Americans are skeptical or unsure about evolution, should schools teach it as a mere “theory”? Why is evolution so threatening to religion?
I won’t pretend that I can answer this as eloquently as Richard Dawkins or Paula Kirby (two writers and thinkers I greatly respect), but I want to briefly outline my own thoughts on the issue. As a disclaimer, I’ll note that I am not a biologist, I have no formal training beyond basic college science, and this is purely my opinion on the issue. Now, to business.
Thirty-eight percent of Americans. Thirty-eight. To put that in perspective, more Americans believe in ghosts than evolution, according to a 2005 CBS survey, with over 45% of those surveyed claiming to believe in supernatural spirits. Thirty-eight percent. This number distresses me greatly, because clearly people do not understand evolution, and their ignorance of it may well be causing a gradual loss of the US edge in the global marketplace of ideas. Teaching creationism in schools? Next we’ll be expected to “teach both sides” of everything, as this cartoon illustrates. Okay, maybe the sketch is a bit over-the-top, but I don’t see it as an entirely far-fetched idea. I’ll touch on that again in a moment.
First, I want to clear something up right now: Evolution is not a “theory” in the colloquial sense of the word “theory”. When we use the word “theory” in everyday speech, we mean something that’s unsubstantiated, unclear, or loosely defined. But in scientific speech, “theory” is basically the opposite: it’s something that’s been tested and proven extensively, and has mountains of evidence to support it. We talk about other theories in science all the time (theory of gravity, theory of relativity), yet no one seems to question those ”theories”. Why? As the prompt above ponders, what is it about evolution that’s so threatening to religion?
Christianity–in particular, fundamentalist Christianity–has major beef with evolution for three basic reasons: first, evolution (by this I mean the fact that human beings arose from other species, as did every living thing on Earth) conflicts with the teachings of the Bible; second, evolution severely diminishes the role of God in the formation of humankind; and third, evolution denies humans a share of God-imparted meaning in their lives. The first critique is easy to support: nowhere in the Bible does it explain evolution or even postulate at it. The Genesis creation story very clearly outlines how God made the Universe. If one takes a hardline approach and interprets Genesis literally, there’s zero room for evolution. Even if one takes a more apologetic approach and posits Genesis as a metaphor, it’s still rather difficult to explain why said chapter of the Bible is brimming with things that evolution disproves. Furthermore, many Christian doctrines rely on the notion that humans are special, unique, and hold a higher status than other creatures on the planet, all due to their direct connection via creation to God: for example, Catholic teaching regarding the dignity of persons relies on the notion that humans are made in the “image and likeness of God”, and thus deserve to be treated well by merit of that fact alone. If evolution is true, humans weren’t made in any particular image or likeness: they just are. This ties nicely into my next points.
My second and third reasons are harder to substantiate, so allow me a paragraph to do so. Evolution undermines God’s role in the creation of living things because it requires a massive amount of time in which to work. Evolution does not happen quickly. Millions upon millions of years are needed for the system to do its job. Ignoring the timelines presented in the Bible for a moment, we can just examine the raw logic of the thing: why would God create this strange little rock in space, drop a few unique proteins onto it, and then kick back for, oh, 3.5 billion years or so, just waiting? It’s as though God placed a couple seeds in a pot of soil and then sat there staring at it, watching them grow. But wait… He’s, um, God. Why not just snap those omnipotent fingers and create humans out of nothing? What reason would God have for not doing this, especially if He desired companionship, something to love, an intelligent creature to share His universe with, or any of the other numerous reasons given for why humans exist? Which brings me to my third point: with evolution, believers must face the possibility that humans do not exist for any specific reason whatsoever. We could have just as easily been borne of a canine race, or a bovine or reptilian one. We could have just as easily come into existence with radically different body or mental systems than the ones we have. We do not exist because someone carefully drew up a blueprint for the human being (and if someone did, they’re kind of a pitiful architect. Blind spot in the eye? Wisdom teeth? Male nipples? Come on). We exist because raw, unthinking forces of nature shaped us out of particles and dust. There is no “higher” reason with evolution. Many believers don’t like this idea; they remain convinced that God made humans on purpose, specifically, and that there must be a bigger meaning to everything.
So, in summation of the above: evolution scares some believers because it implies three world-shattering things: that part of the Bible is not literally true (pretty bad for a fundamentalist, not as bad for a more liberal person), that God didn’t play as big a role in humanity’s existence as one might wish (for why would God let evolution run its course, if he had a very exacting idea of what He wanted as the end result?), and that humans may not exist for any specific reason (in direct contradiction to the majority of Christian doctrine). Evolution and Christianity won’t play nice because they hold radically different views. This is why many Christian politicians, especially hardline ones like Rick Perry, are so hell-bent on teaching creationism in schools: they can’t stomach the idea that they might be wrong about what they believe.
And thus we come to the problem of trying to “teach both sides” I mentioned before, and why it’s only the first step on a slippery slope. I’m not really fond of slippery slope arguments most of the time, but given the trends I’ve observed in our nation these past ten years or so, I’m not ruling anything out anymore. It is clear now that the aim of many Christian politicians (especially on the right) is to make the United States an increasingly Christian nation. Teaching creationism as a valid scientific notion is both an insult to science and a strong means of undermining secularism (not to mention a powerful reminder of Christian privilege in the US, but that’s a topic for another post). It’s only step one. Beyond this, it’s not hard to imagine Christian lawmakers mandating that other disciplines in the school (English, History, Social Studies, etc.) include Christian topics in their coursework, as a means of “teaching both sides”. You may read some Shakespeare, students, but you’ll also need to sample excerpts from Deuteronomy and 1st Corinthians (gotta see both sides, right?). Sure, we can learn about Middle Eastern history, but only if we present a positive version of the Crusades as well (keep it fair! Teach both sides!). As students become more and more inundated with Christian teaching, they’ll have a harder and harder time doing two very important things: thinking critically, and separating truth from fantasy. This will (we’ve already seen it happening) cause a downshift in US power around the world; other developed nations aren’t teaching their kids this creationist tripe, and those kids are turning into smarter adults.
There are so many reasons why teaching creationism in schools is a bad idea. There are so many reasons why evolution isn’t accepted by many Christians. What I’ve touched on above is just a small fraction of the full picture. I’ll leave you with this, as a form of fully addressing the initial question: Rick Perry and other Republican candidates who have problems with evolution make me very scared for the future of our nation. These people are vying for the position of president. I’ve always thought our leaders should be the best, brightest, and most capable among us, but clearly others do not share my vision, not when people who can dismiss years of scientific data and instead turn their eyes skyward are under serious consideration for the role. It is a sad thing indeed that this is how deeply entrenched our nation is in superstition and dogmatic adherence to outdated custom. Enough is enough: evolution is true, creationism is false, and we need to stop validating those who think otherwise. If we do nothing and allow this trend to continue–and believe me, it will, unless something dramatic happens–I fear my future children will live in a Christian nation instead of a free one… and that thought terrifies me more than any image of Hell a preacher could ever paint.