I’m Like a Creationist (and You Are Too)

SAGLRROILBYGTH know I’m no creationist. But this week I had an experience that I think is similar to what some thoughtful creationists go through. When it comes to questions of religion and public life, that is, sometimes the issue is not really the issue. I’m wondering this morning if everyone—creationist or non-creationist—has had similar experiences.

Here’s what I’m talking about: A new bill in Iowa’s state legislature would allow public schools to teach Bible classes. I’m all for public schools teaching about religions, including Christianity. It is clearly constitutional, as long as the teachers aren’t preaching any particular religion. And it is IMHO a vital part of a comprehensive education. How can we expect to teach US History, for example, without teaching about Puritan values? How can we teach literature without reading the Bible? Yet in spite of the fact that I support religious ed in public schools in theory, I oppose this bill and others like it.

Why?

My beef is not directly about Bibles. It’s really a question of trust. When it comes right down to it, I don’t trust the bill’s backers. I think they are hoping to sneak some old-fashioned Protestant devotion into their public schools. They SAY they want students to learn about the historical and literary impact of the Bible, but when they talk about their proposed classes, you can almost smell the revival-tent sweat.

According to the Des Moines Register, for example, one of the bill’s ardent supporters insists the Bible class would help students be better Christian Americans. As he put it,

foundational and historical American values did not spring from the cornucopia of ‘world religions,’ but specifically from the Judeo-Christian scriptures.

To my secular ears, that sounds a lot like a Wallbuilders-style evangelical power play.

Do I want more education about religion in public schools? Yes!

But this bill is not-so-secretly intended to preach a specific, conservative-evangelical religion. It is intended to have a religious impact on students, which public schools should never attempt.

How does this make me like a creationist? Simple. Many creationists have had similar experiences. Throughout the twentieth century and today, even the most radical young-earth creationists often want their children to learn about evolution. But they distrust the motives of public-school types who teach it. Many creationists worry less about evolutionary science than about the sneaky atheistic teachers who they think want to use evolutionary theory Dawkins style, to prove the ridiculousness of religious faith.

I found over and over again in the research for my new book about evangelical higher education that creationist schools promised to teach evolution, but to do it safely.

At Liberty University for example, in 1985 founder Jerry Falwell promised that all Liberty students would learn about evolution. As Falwell explained to potential enrollees,

You’ll learn all about evolution, but you’ll learn why you don’t believe it. . . . To our knowledge, we’ve never graduated an evolutionist.

Closer to home, right here at ILYBYGTH we’ve heard from creationists who are eager to teach their kids about evolution, if they can do it without cramming atheism down their throats.

Beyond these anecdotes, there seems to be solid sociological evidence that creationists like evolution, but worry about something else. In their study of religious people’s attitudes toward science, Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher Scheitle found that evangelicals tended to have more positive attitudes about science than the general population. But evangelicals also tended to think more often that scientists were out to get them. In other words, evangelicals—some of them, at least—like science itself, but they are suspicious of people who call themselves scientists.

So here’s my hunch: We’re all the same when it comes to these questions of religion and public life. Even when we support an idea in principle, we don’t support it in practice because we distrust its supporters.

For me, that means opposing Bibles in public schools, even though I ardently desire better religious education in those public schools.

For creationists, that means opposing the teaching of mainstream evolutionary theory alone in public-school science classes, even when they really want their children to learn evolution.

  • For all you creationists out there, am I off the mark?
  • And for my fellow non-creationists, have you had a similar experience?
  • Is the central issue not really Bibles or evolution…but TRUST?

Science and the Action Flick

It’s been said by enough smart people that we should start listening. Religion and science aren’t at war. This morning, a recent story about science and abortion suggests a new analogy for understanding the role science has always played in our hundred-years’ culture war. It has more to do with Jackie Chan and Bruce Willis than Galileo and John Scopes.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH won’t be surprised to hear it. Historians like Ronald Numbers and sociologists like Elaine Howard Ecklund have long since punctured the tired old myth that religion and science have always been on opposite sides of our culture-war trenches.

The old story is that religious conservatives fear and loathe science. They insist—the myth says—on anti-scientific ideas about a young earth because they don’t like science. They fight against scientific progress using stem cells because they prefer God to knowledge. They put their heads in the sand and bat science away with a swat of their annotated Bibles.

It’s just not accurate. As Professor Ecklund writes in her recent book, her surveys of evangelical Protestants found very different attitudes. They like science and they think science and religion can get along. For example, evangelicals are actually slightly less likely than the general population (13.9% of evangelicals compared to 14.9% of all respondents) to think that science does more harm than good. And, as Ecklund puts it, evangelicals

are actually significantly more likely than the general population and significantly more likely than any other religious group to see religion and science as having a collaborative relationship.

News from the abortion front shows how the religion/science dynamic actually works. As Emma Green reports in The Atlantic,

New technology makes it easier to apprehend the humanity of a growing child and imagine a fetus as a creature with moral status. Over the last several decades, pro-life leaders have increasingly recognized this and rallied the power of scientific evidence to promote their cause. They have built new institutions to produce, track, and distribute scientifically crafted information on abortion. They hungrily follow new research in embryology. They celebrate progress in neonatology as a means to save young lives.

Nor is this conservative religious fondness for science new. As I argued in my book about educational conservatism, in the 1920s anti-evolution leaders counted on mainstream science to disprove Darwin’s ideas about natural selection. At the Scopes Trial, for instance, proto-creationist William Jennings Bryan assumed he could put leading scientists on the stand to disprove the atheistic pretensions of false evolutionary science.

It was only when Bryan couldn’t find credentialed scientists (except for one impressive gynecologist) willing to take his side that he decided to fight against the use of expert scientific testimony.

Today’s pro-life activists are on the other side. They’re finding proof for their claims from mainstream science, and they’re thrilled. These conservative religious activists don’t fear science. They don’t loathe science. Rather, they desperately want to use science to prove themselves right. Science is only bad when it seems to go against them.

To our ILYBYGTH eyes, this situation suggests the need for a new way of thinking about the culture-war relationship between science and religion. They are not at war. We don’t see religious conservatives fighting against science. Rather, we see both sides eagerly glomming on to any science-y sounding proof of their position.

So here’s my humble suggestion for a better way of imagining the real relationship: Science is like the gun in the big fight at the end of action movies.

Hear me out: In any decent action flick, the final fight between the hero and the main villain takes a ridiculously long time. Each combatant will sustain enough blows to fell a charging rhino, yet they continue to battle. In a lot of the good fights, one or the other of the combatants will pull out a gun at some point. He or she smugly thinks the fight is over, but the gun will inevitably be batted away. As the fight progresses, both combatants desperately strive to reclaim the gun, to end the fight once and for all.

The way I see it, science is the gun. Both sides want it. Both sides recognize its power. Both sides hope that they can use it to end this too-long conflict by seizing it and using it against the other side. The gun is only bad when the other guy has it. From abortion to creation to sexuality, everyone wants to claim that science is on their side, no matter what that side is.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Well, it’s Christmas, but the ILYBYGTH elves never take a day off. Here are some stories you might have missed as you stuffed your face with candy canes and eggnog:

Why don’t evangelicals care about the latest scientific discoveries? A review of Elaine Howard Ecklund’s new research, at CT.

Why is it so hard to root out sexual abuse at schools? At NYT, a story of an investigation gone nowhere.Bart reading bible

Pinterest preaching: At R&P, Katelyn Beaty asks why white evangelical women leaders don’t talk about politics more.

How can we stop school segregation? The answer has been just a bus-ride away since the 1970s.

How can we solve our history culture wars? Rick Hess and Brendan Bell say stop fighting over which heroes to teach and teach about heroism itself.

When principals cheat: At EdWeek, an update from Atlanta’s cheating scandals.

What should learning mean? Conservative college leader calls for a return to the great values of the Western tradition.

What is Chicago doing right? Measuring urban schools—an interview with Stanford’s Sean Reardon.

Mississippi history classes still avoid civil rights, at The Atlantic.

Who Do You Talk To?

Birds of a feather and all that.  We tend to cluster around people like ourselves, don’t we?  This is more than just a social quirk, though. It seems to be a basic requirement of culture wars: All of us spend more time talking to people who tend to agree with us.  We are made more confident that all right-thinking folks agree.  When it comes to academics and intellectual life, this basic truism might have devastating consequences.  But is it true?  Do you ever/often/sometimes/always talk with people with whom you have fundamental culture-war disagreements?

I respect your right to disagree!

I respect your right to disagree!

Academics have a well-earned reputation for ivory-tower insularity. For the past century or so, as I found in the research for my new book, conservative critics have blasted academics time and time again not only for being biased, but for being unaware of life outside of their cloisters.

Renowned historian Gordon Wood, for instance, took to the pages of the conservative Weekly Standard recently to accuse his colleagues of a failure to communicate. The academic echo chamber had become stifling. As Wood put it,

College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.

Wood’s charges elicited a flurry of outraged responses, and, for the purposes of full disclosure, I should say that they struck me as a strangely curmudgeonly diatribe from such a prominent personage. Our personal politics aside, however, more scholarly inquiries have backed up Wood’s charge that too many academics are out of touch with reality.

In her study of elite academics, for example, Elaine Howard Ecklund found them to be jaw-droppingly ignorant of general trends in American religion. Many professors had no idea even of the vital religious practices going on at their own elite universities.

And, as Neil Gross argued in Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservative Care?, the professoriate tends to perpetuate its own leftist biases. Not by scheming cadres of devious commie professors, but simply by creating an atmosphere that tends to attract like-minded left-leaning people.

If it is true that elite social scientists are really skewed toward a particular political perspective, and if it is true that many academics are woefully ignorant about the very social realities they purport to study, it must shake our confidence in any “expert” testimony. And, when that’s the case, the reassuring bromides of our close culture-war allies can seem all the more convincing.

To my mind, the only remedy is for each of us to find out more about people different from us. To talk with people with whom we disagree.

Of course, for blog-readers, I guess this is preaching to the choir. Bloggers tend to consume all sorts of other blogs. Creationists might read the Sensuous Curmudgeon. Scientists might read the BioLogos Forum and Around the World with Ken Ham. Conservative Christians read Jerry Coyne, and Professor Coyne might read Agellius’s Blog.

Do any of us do this in real life, though? Does anyone have regular conversations about culture-war issues in which we share fundamental disagreements? We all have an uncle, mother, or neighbor who might differ from us on these issues, but we often politely avoid such impolite topics.

Or is that just me? Do YOU talk to lots of types of people with whom you disagree?

Religious Students, Secular Schools

HT: HH

Thanks to all those who came out Wednesday to participate in my talk at Binghamton University about fundamentalist colleges in the 1930s.  Not only was a good time had by all, but the conversation made clear that even at this, our most “secular” of colleges, religion is thriving.  Despite the ignorant nostrums of elite secular academics and fuming fundamentalists, conservative religious students and faculty seem to thrive at pluralist schools like ours.

Don't hate me  because I'm beautiful...

Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful…

For those who are just tuning in, this talk was part of our series in “Religion in the Modern University.”  I shared my current research into conservative evangelical colleges.  The conversation after the formal talk revealed that both students and faculty at our beloved public university come from all sorts of religious backgrounds, including conservative evangelical Protestantism.

Unlike the schools I’m studying, our “secular” college does not actively encourage any specific sort of religious belief.  Nevertheless, our school proves a congenial home for students and faculty who hold conservative evangelical beliefs.

This flies in the face of some common assumptions about secularism and higher education.  As sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund found in her study of elite secular academics, many of them have absolutely no idea of the high level of religious belief at their own non-religious elite universities.

Fundamentalists, too, have long assumed that “secular” colleges were hostile to their sort of religious belief.  As fundamentalist college founder Bob Jones Sr. was fond of saying in the 1920s, he would

just about as lief [sic] send a child to school in hell as to put him in one of those institutions.

At Bob Jones University, as at other fundamentalist universities, this notion that only a truly fundamentalist school can protect students’ faith remained central throughout the twentieth century, as this 1956 advertisement demonstrated.

Fundamentalist students, fundamentalist schools

Fundamentalist students, fundamentalist schools

More recently, too, creationist leader Ken Ham took me to task for questioning his insistence that creationist families must send their children to young-earth-friendly colleges.  As Ham concludes,

at the very minimum I do urge parents to ensure they do all they can to equip their children to be able to defend the Christian faith against the attacks of our day, and to stand uncompromisingly on the authority of the Word of God.

Does that mean that religious students need to go to schools that share their faith?  I don’t think so.

I certainly understand the many differences between a pluralist school like our beloved Binghamton University and schools with a unified religious message.  But we need to remember that so-called “secular” colleges like ours are often very friendly places to creationists and fundamentalists.

Kicking Christians Out of College

Does being an evangelical Christian automatically make one an anti-gay bigot? If so, can tolerant universities still allow such groups among their students? Those are the tricky questions highlighted in a recent New York Times article about evangelical culture and higher education. As the NYT story noted, this clash between pluralist campuses and “exclusivist” religious groups seems like a tough nut to crack.

But is it fair to assume that all evangelical students are bigots? That opposition to gay marriage pushes students beyond the bounds of polite society? To put it in the most provocative terms: Are evangelical student clubs being ousted because they are seen—sometimes unfairly—as being anti-gay?

The story opens with an update from Bowdoin College in Maine. At that elite liberal-arts school, the tiny evangelical student club has been cut off from official university support. Why? Because, like many evangelical student groups, the Bowdoin group insisted that leaders must be Christians themselves. This led to what the NYT article called a “collision between religious freedom and antidiscrimination policies.” At Bowdoin, as at many other schools, leadership at university-sponsored clubs must be open to all students, regardless of race, religion, or sexual identity.

The official question in the Bowdoin case is not about homosexuality or same-sex marriage. But it would be easy for a casual reader to miss that. The article mentions other schools in which evangelical students have gotten into trouble for anti-gay activity. At Vanderbilt, for instance, one Christian fraternity kicked out a gay member. Indeed, it was precisely that anti-gay activism that led Vanderbilt to force student groups to sign antidiscrimination pledges.

But Bowdoin’s student group does not seem particularly fervent about issues of homosexuality or same-sex marriage. At least according the article, the evangelical club at Bowdoin does not have a single party line about the morality of gay marriage. It’s hard to see a group as anti-same-sex marriage if some of its members support same-sex marriage.

Some studies have suggested that the faculty leaders at universities tilt decidedly against evangelical students. One 2007 study of university faculty concluded that evangelicals were “the only religious group about which a majority of non-Evangelical faculty have negative feelings.” And, as Rice sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund found, faculty at elite schools often have a very skewed notion of evangelical belief. It does not seem like a stretch to think that these faculty prejudices might tip university policy.

For their part, evangelical intellectuals have struggled long and hard to prove that their opposition to gay marriage and, in some cases, to homosexual sex does not make them bigots. Perhaps the most vocal pundit on the issue, Ryan T. Anderson, insisted that conservatives had legitimate reasons for opposing gay marriage. But too often the other side wouldn’t listen. “Marriage re-definers,” Anderson complained in 2013,

don’t tend to say what many opponents have said, that this is a difficult question on which reasonable people of goodwill can disagree. No, they’ve said anyone who disagrees with them is the equivalent of a racist. They’ve sent a clear message: If you stand up for marriage, we will, with the help of our friends in the media, demonize and marginalize you.

Don’t get me wrong: I am personally fervently in support of same sex marriage rights. I’m opposed to locking anyone out of access to influence because of their sexual identity, religion, race, or other causes. But it seems as if universities would do well to uncouple these issues of club leadership, religious belief, and homosexual rights.

Could a student club demand religious beliefs of its leaders, while still welcoming gay and lesbian students to become leaders? Is it fair for universities to assume that evangelical belief automatically implies anti-homosexual attitudes?

 

 

Americans Know that We Don’t Know about Evolution

Smoking will kill you. Americans are confident about that scientific fact. But we are far less confident in the scientific truths about evolution, the Big Bang, and creation. A new Associated Press/GfK poll of just over a thousand American adults reveals some fairly predictable results. It also raises important questions about the meanings of knowledge and ignorance. As this poll shows, most Americans are not entirely confident in either our incorrect knowledge or our correct knowledge. What the poll only hints at, though, is the way most mainstream American scientists are heartily ignorant about the thinking of the majority of Americans.

Most Americans now agree that smoking is unhealthy. Just over half think that life is too complex to have happened on its own. And only minorities of adults seem to have great confidence in evolution, an ancient earth, or the Big Bang.

There Are Known Unknowns...

There Are Known Unknowns…

These poll results can tell us more than just the raw numbers, though. Perhaps most interesting, this poll did not quiz respondents about their scientific knowledge. Rather, it asked people to rate their confidence in these scientific facts. Most Americans were very or extremely confident in their knowledge that smoking causes cancer. Only a minority, however, felt the same way about evolution.

As the Associated Press commented, these results struck mainstream scientists as particularly troubling, since these questions represented “settled scientific facts.” Mainstream scientists, in other words, are extremely confident in these ideas. Overwhelmingly confident.

Clearly, there is a more complicated dynamic going on here than simple non-knowledge of science. As historian Robert Proctor argued, tobacco companies spent a good deal of time and treasure to promote a certain sort of ignorance about the connection between smoking and cancer. This poll suggests that those efforts at manufactured ignorance have been foiled by mainstream science and public-health campaigning. Americans are now confident in their knowledge about the dangers of smoking.

But in the case of evolution and creation, skepticism about mainstream science still flourishes. A slim majority of Americans are “extremely” or “very” confident that life is so complex it must have been created by a “supreme being.” Most Americans are confident about this knowledge. And most Americans lack confidence in evolution.

When Americans lack confidence in the dangers of tobacco or the truth of evolution, they are doing something very different than simply being unaware of facts. They are expressing—some of them at least—confidence in a different set of facts, a different system of knowledge. There is a vast difference, after all, between the “knowledge” tobacco executives had in the 1960s about the health dangers of smoking and the “knowledge” most Americans in the 1920s had about the health dangers of smoking. The tobacco executives carefully built their non-knowledge in the 1960s. Most Americans in the 1920s, on the other hand, were simply unaware of the health dangers.

Similar complexity swirls around Americans’ current non-knowledge about evolution. Many of the people who are most furiously opposed to mainstream evolutionary science “know” a great deal about it. But they have very little confidence in the truth of those evolutionary ideas. That is a vastly different sort of non-knowledge than when someone is simply unaware of modern evolutionary thinking.

In short, it is not that Americans simply don’t know about evolution. We know that we don’t know.

Elite scientists, on the other hand, seem simply to not know things. Most elite scientists, it seems, don’t know much about what non-elite-scientists think. As sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund argued in her book Science vs. Religion, elite academics tend to be woefully unaware of mainstream religious ideas. The fact that so many Americans are so radically unconfident in ideas that mainstream scientists call “settled scientific facts” underlines this cultural divide once again.

If we want to talk about ignorance, we have to do it very carefully. Scientists are ignorant about Americans. Americans are ignorant about science. But scientists seem simply not to know about the ideas most Americans feel confident about. Most Americans, on the other hand, even when we know about scientific ideas, express very little confidence in them.

 

 

An Age of Denial—of History

Attention, fellow followers of the evolution/creationism controversies!  Want to read

  • Hysterical exaggerations?
  • Misleading claims?
  • Willful ignorance?

Then look no further than the pages of the New York Times.

These aren’t the ravings of a fringe Bible-thumping creationist, nor are they the feverish exhalations of a Dawkins wannabe.
Rather, the New York Times recently ran a sadly mistaken opinion piece by physicist Adam Frank of the University of Rochester.

Professor Frank and I are on the same side of these debates.  We both want better evolution education in America’s schools at every level.
But Professor Frank engaged in some terrible punditry that even his allies must protest.  Frank made the tortuous claim that

Narrowly defined, “creationism” was a minor current in American thinking for much of the 20th century. But in the years since I was a student, a well-funded effort has skillfully rebranded that ideology as “creation science” and pushed it into classrooms across the country. Though transparently unscientific, denying evolution has become a litmus test for some conservative politicians, even at the highest levels.

Creationism is not Professor Frank’s only concern.  He also blasted America’s growing—or at least durable—disdain for climate-change science and vaccination science.  For those notions, Frank may have a point.  But his claims about creationism don’t pass the smell test.

Even on his own terms, Professor Frank muddles things.  He opens by acknowledging the fairly flat lines of American creationism illustrated by Gallup polls.  Since the 1980s, about 42-44% of respondents have agreed that God created humanity in pretty much its present form at some point in the last 10,000 years.

How, then, does it make any sense for Frank to conclude that his “professors’ generation [in the 1980s] could respond to silliness like creationism with head-scratching bemusement”?  Creationism in the 1980s was a roaring lion, pushing “two-theory” laws onto the books in states such as Arkansas.  Indeed, President Reagan swept into the White House based, in part, on his ardent support for creationism.

Frank’s personal experience with self-satisfied academic scientists in the 1980s who looked at creationism with “head-scratching bemusement” demonstrates the surprising cultural isolation of academic scientists more than it does any weakness of creationism in the 1980s.  As sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund has argued, many scientists in elite academic settings these days show a surprising ignorance about conservative religion in America.  That may have been true of Frank’s teachers in the 1980s as well.  If they thought 1980s creationism posed no threat to mainstream science and science education, they certainly misunderstood the nature of American culture and politics.

More startling is Frank’s bizarre claim that creationism was a “minor current in American thinking for much of the 20th century.”  Such a statement reveals a breathtaking ignorance about the career of American creationism, indeed about American culture in general.

I don’t suggest that physicists such as Professor Frank need to take the time to read the excellent academic literature out there, such as Ron Numbers The Creationists, Michael Lienesch’s In the Beginning, or Jeffrey Moran’s American Genesis.  Though it wouldn’t hurt, especially if one is planning to spout off about the history of creationism in the pages of the New York Times.

But even if Frank only scanned through the Wikipedia entry on the Creation-Evolution Controversy, he would see that creationism has never been a “minor current.”  Creationism has always been embraced by leading figures; creationism has always had powerful political support.

So what could the good professor have been thinking?  How could an intelligent, informed commentator really believe that creationism has grown from inconsequential to insuperable between 1982 and today?

Perhaps Professor Frank believes that his claims are true if we look only at creationism “narrowly defined.”  That is, one could make the case that today’s sort of creationism did not exist for most of the 20th century.  This could hold some water.  After all, the sort of creationism we’re used to today is very different from that of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.  The 1961 publication of Morris and Whitcomb’s Genesis Flood heralded a new sort of creationist thought and belief.

If this is what Professor Frank meant, good for him.  But I don’t think it is.

After all, Frank does not claim that creationism has become powerful since the 1960s.  He seems to believe that creationism has escalated in political intensity since 1982.

Also, if he hopes to argue that creationism’s political power is stronger now than it has ever been, he can’t hide behind his faulty “narrow” definition of creationism.  In the first half of the 20th century, creationism—not the same creationism as today, but recognizably the same cultural and political impulse—ruled the ballot box in states across the country.  It did so far more powerfully than it has done since.

The claims of “early” creationism were far more strident than the claims of latter-day “creation scientists.”  Since the 1960s, most creationists have fought to include creationism alongside evolution in public-school science classes.  Earlier activists had much greater ambitions, hoping to ban evolution entirely.

So what can we make of Professor Frank’s anxious tut-tutting?

Frank’s misleading conclusions, I believe, result from a disturbing willingness to ignore the historical record and rely on flawed personal experience to make sweeping charges about the way America has changed over time.  The goal is to create a sense of hysteria, a sense that we are now approaching a crisis worse than any we have seen.

Such antics may make for good politics.  But they make for very bad policy-making.  Our thinking about creationism, education, and culture should be based on clear-heading thinking, not on false claims.

So, to set the record straight, let’s look at a few simple facts:

  • Is America in 2013 ferociously creationist?  Yes.
  • Do politicians truckle to creationists?  Yes.
  • Has America become more ferociously creationist since Professor Frank began his college career in 1982?  No.

It may be politically expedient to skew the history this way, but it doesn’t do justice to the facts.  In the end, this kind of misrepresentation hurts the cause of evolution education.  It depends on a false sense of crisis; it gives readers a misleading depiction of our current cultural situation.

America is not facing the strongest creationist surge in our history.  Education policy should not be based on hysterically misleading claims.  Rather, creationism today is powerful, just as it has been since before America landed on the moon, just as it has been since before America landed on Omaha Beach.

American creationism, in short, is not a sudden new challenge to mainstream science, but rather a durable tradition.  Science pundits such as Professor Frank must recognize this.

 

Scientists Are Dumb

What do elite scientists know about religion?

Not much, according to sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund.  Asking these out-of-touch elite scientists for advice about religion is akin to asking residents of a nudist colony for advice about fashion.

If anyone would know, it would be Ecklund.  In her study of scientists, between 2005 and 2008, she surveyed 1700 scientists from what she called “elite” schools (157-158).  She announced her goal in her 2010 book Science vs. Religion: to give voice to “the scientists whose voices have been thus far overlooked in the science-and-religion debates” (x).

To this reader, Ecklund seems to have made a strange decision to include social scientists—economists, political scientists—in her sample.  It seems a better fit to call her sample elite “academics” instead of elite “scientists.”  Other reviewers have pointed out different complaints.

But whatever the merits or faults of the study as a whole, it tells us something about the connection between some elite academics and the rest of America.  As Ecklund describes, the religious affiliation of her sample does not match that of Americans as a whole.  Among her sample, only two percent identified as “evangelical Protestant,” compared to twenty-eight percent among the general population.  Only two tenths percent as “Black Protestant,” compared to the general public’s eight percent.  Nine percent identified as Catholic, compared to twenty-seven percent of the public.  Sixteen percent were Jewish, compared to the general population’s two percent.  Perhaps most interesting, given recent attention to the rise of the “nones,” a full fifty-three percent of Ecklund’s sample claimed no religious affiliation, compared to sixteen percent of the rest of us. (15).

The same trend was true when it came to professing atheism or agnosticism.  In Ecklund’s sample, just over one-third called themselves atheists, compared to a mere two percent of the American population.  Thirty percent called themselves agnostic, compared to the general four percent.  And a relatively meager nine percent agreed with the statement “I have no doubts about God’s existence,” compared to a whopping sixty-three percent of the general public (16).

These elite academics, then, certainly do not match the rest of America in religious ideas or identity.  That really doesn’t come as much of a surprise.  But Ecklund argues more provocatively that this religious quirkiness among elite academics also creates a sort of self-perpetuating echo chamber.  It creates what Ecklund calls three “myths scientists believe” (152).

First, Ecklund charges, elite academics tend to think that if they ignore religion, it will go away.  Second, they too often equate all religion with an imagined bogeyman of “fundamentalism” (153).  And elite academics tend to think that “All evangelical Christians are against science” (155).

The utter lack of evidence for all these myths does not stop elite academics from feeling correct, even intellectually superior to those who question their blundering assumptions.  As Ecklund argues, non-religious academics often have little idea even about the working of religion on their own elite campuses, “much less about what drives a typical American worshipper” (8).

Ecklund depicts an environment on some elite college campuses that encourages, or at least allows, growths of strange ideological excess.  One physicist she interviewed—admittedly one extreme end of Ecklund’s sample—described religion as a “virus” to which he is “immune” (13).

Most of her interviewees did not express such virulent hostility, but many of the traditionally religious folk still expressed a felt need to live a “closeted faith” (43).  Even when they had some religious colleagues, these elite academics often felt surrounded by angry anti-religion.  One self-identified “Christian” academic told Ecklund about a conversation with a colleague about their students’ poor academic preparation.  The fault, this Christian was told, was with “stupid intelligent design.  It’s stupid Christianity” (45).  Her colleague had not meant to offend, but had simply assumed that such comments could not be considered offensive.

In this self-reinforcing world of arrogant ignorance, many of the academics in Ecklund’s study made strange and unwarranted assumptions.  One biologist, for example, assumed that “mature” students would not consider creationism.  Advanced students, this biologist explained, “are just not religious in the first place.”  But this biologist, Ecklund points out, really had no idea about the religious ideas or backgrounds of his students (78).

Even on their own campuses, most of Ecklund’s sample reported woeful ignorance of attempts to promote dialogue between science and religion.  “The reality of university life,” Ecklund argued, “does not match these scientists’ ideal” (98).

Yet this ignorance among elite academics did not create a questioning or humble attitude.  One social scientist, for instance, explained how she began her classes.  “You don’t have to distance yourself from religion,” she told her new students, “and think about it from an outside perspective, but you do if you want to succeed in this class.  And if you don’t want to do that, then you need to leave” (84).

How can such smart people say such dumb things?  How can elite academics profess such blinkered ideas without even recognizing their own biases?  As a product of two of the “elite” schools in Ecklund’s sample (Washington University in St. Louis and University of Wisconsin—Madison), I can attest to the fact that the environments in such places can lead to a perception of a single, right, “progressive” orthodoxy.  But even academics should be allowed their own opinions, right?  Even if they are grossly out of line with popular notions?

The real question, to my way of thinking, is this: How can people who have purportedly dedicated their professional lives to increasing their knowledge allow themselves such lamentable ignorance when it comes to religion?