I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another doozy of a week. Here are some ILYBYGTH-themed news stories you might have missed:

Pro-lifers love the new science, by Emma Green at The Atlantic.

What happened to Crusade University? David Swartz tells the tale of the evangelical flop at Anxious Bench.Bart reading bible

Ohio teacher suspended for telling an African American student he would be “lynched,” at NYT.

How can universities promote intellectual diversity? Some presidents are hanging out with campus conservatives, at IHE.

UK report: Evolution acceptance lower among less-talented students. HT: VW.

What does Queen Betsy think went wrong? Politico describes her latest address.

The danger of homeschooling: LA finds “emaciated children chained to furniture,” at NYT.

Cultural bridge or soft censorship? UMass Boston protests against Confucius Institute, at Boston Globe.

Continuing crisis at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute:

A new Bible bill for Iowa public schools, at Des Moines Register. HT: MC

Who can still love Trump?


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.

Asking the Right Questions about Creationism

Is America a “creation nation?” Or have polls tended to inflate the numbers of creationists out there? In an effort to give a more nuanced answer to these questions, BioLogos has published Jonathan Hill’s survey results. Hill offers some powerful insights into central questions:

  • How many Americans really believe in creationism, evolution, or some mix?
  • Who cares the most about it?
  • Who cares at all?
  • And, most important, what factors go into making someone a creationist or an evolution supporter?

You may have seen this report referred to in Emma Green’s recent Atlantic article. Until now, however, you wouldn’t have been able to read the report for yourself. Green’s article had the provocative title “You Can’t Educate People into Believing in Evolution.” True enough, but that’s not news to readers and contributors to ILYBYGTH. Those who take time to read what’s out there about creationism know that creationism is not simply a lack of knowledge about evolution. Rather, creationism is better understood as part of a religious identity.

Professor Hill was funded by a BioLogos grant to conduct a large representative survey in the USA. He found that the typical Gallup polls seem to distort the numbers. In those repeated Gallup polls, respondents have three options: (1) humans evolved guided by God, (2) humans evolved on their own, and (3) humans were created within about 10,000 years. In those polls, since the 1980s about 40-45% of respondents have chosen the “young-earth creationist” answer (3). Somewhere between 9-19% have selected the “atheistic evolution” answer (2), and the rest chose number one, the theistic evolution model.

Gallup Questions and Answers

Gallup Questions and Answers

As even the Gallup folks would likely agree, these positions are not very subtle. They don’t allow respondents to explain or describe their own beliefs. Rather, they push people to pick one of three limited options. Professor Hill’s survey allowed people to say they were unsure. It also asked respondents to address different aspects of these beliefs separately. Finally, Hill asked Americans to say how certain they were about their beliefs.

Not surprisingly, those questions yielded very different results. When people can respond to different aspects of creationism differently, they tend to be more nuanced in their responses. For example, in Professor Hill’s survey, only eight percent of people affirmed their belief in both six literal days of creation and the recent creation of humanity.

When taken together, Hill found that 37% of respondents were “creationists,” 16% were “theistic evolutionists,” and 9% were “atheistic evolutionists.” The rest held mixed beliefs or were unsure. When you limit these numbers to those who said they were “very” or “absolutely certain” of their views, then only 29% of respondents were creationists, 8% were theistic evolutionists, and only 6% were atheistic evolutionists.

Also intriguing, only those who hold creationist or atheistic evolutionist beliefs tend to be sure they are correct. They also tend to think it matters to be correct. About three-quarters of creationists said they were sure about their beliefs, and about two-thirds of them said that it mattered a great deal. Among atheistic evolutionists, about 70% were sure of their beliefs, and about half thought it mattered a good deal. In contrast, among those who were unsure about humanity’s origins, only about one quarter thought it mattered a great deal.

In our continuing sniping at one another over the issues of creation and evolution, these numbers themselves matter a great deal. Since large numbers of Americans don’t know about these issues and don’t really care, the debates quickly become dominated by those on either end who feel confident about their own beliefs and who feel sure that it is important to be correct on these questions. We might see a debate between Science Guy Bill Nye and creationist impresario Ken Ham, but we won’t be as likely to see a round-table discussion between people in the middle.

Professor Hill’s survey also buttresses another conclusion popular here at ILYBYGTH: creationism and evolution are not mainly about what you know. Rather, they are questions about who you are. People do not simply pick creationism or evolution out of a neutral grab-bag of ideas. Creationists do not tend to abandon creationism in large numbers when they learn the ideas of evolution. Rather, creationism and atheistic evolution both seem most prevalent among people with recognizable clusters of identity markers. As Professor Hill concluded,

The most important takeaway here is that individual theological beliefs, practices, and identities are important, but they only become a reliable pathway to creationism or atheistic evolutionism when paired with certain contexts or certain other social identities. These positions are not free-floating ideas that individuals snatch from the air after considering all the alternatives; rather, they are found in certain social locations, and they become most plausible when shared with others (especially for creationists).

Read the results for yourself. There’s far more in the report than we can discuss here. For example, the survey raises a host of questions that we want to know more about:

  • Why are atheistic evolutionists so white?
  • Is certainty more important than knowledge?
  • How can we motivate those who don’t really care about creationism to get more involved in public policy debates?