Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Fundamentalism in America: It's socially constructed

I’ve long wondered why the teaching of evolution has been such a controversial matter in America. Yes, I know, the fundamentalists. But why have they decided to dig in their heels on this particular issue? After all, a wide range of religions have had no problem accommodating modern biology. Such accommodations are easy to finagle.

At some point I got the hunch that perhaps fundamentalist intransigence on this point was, at least in part, a form of resistance to stereotyping of them as ignorant troglodytes. Thus I was pleased last year when William Eggington posted an excerpt from his In Defense of Religious Moderation at Arcade. That excerpt contained this passage:
Likewise, we tend to view the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial,” which was eternalized in the 1955 play and 1960 film Inherit the Wind, as having revealed the depths of belief in creation science already present in fundamentalist communities. But as [Karen] Armstrong has argued, before the Scopes trial few fundamentalists actually believed in creation science or thought it particularly important to do so. Creation science became a hot-button item for the fundamentalist movement only after William Jennings Bryan’s defeat in court by Clarence Darrow was ridiculed by the journalist and essayist H. L Mencken, who wrote in an obituary for Bryan that he “lived too long, and descended too deeply into the mud, to be taken seriously hereafter by fully literate men, even of the kind who write school-books.” In the face of such humiliating condescension, groups tend to close ranks around tenets and practices that define them as different from the outside world.
I’ve not looked at Armstrong’s argument so I’ve pretty much got to take Eggington’s statement of it at face value, which I’m willing to do for the moment.

Now Robert Wright is following the same trail. Blogging over there at The Atlantic, Wright opens a post on creationism by observing that “about half of Americans--46 percent, in the latest Gallup Poll--believe human beings weren't created by evolution.” He then offers his speculation:
A few decades ago, Darwinians and creationists had a de facto nonaggression pact: Creationists would let Darwinians reign in biology class, and otherwise Darwinians would leave creationists alone. The deal worked. I went to a public high school in a pretty religious part of the country--south-central Texas--and I don't remember anyone complaining about sophomores being taught natural selection. It just wasn't an issue.

A few years ago, such biologists as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers started violating the nonaggression pact. I don't just mean they professed atheism--many Darwinians had long done that; I mean they started proselytizing, ridiculing the faithful, and talking as if religion was an inherently pernicious thing. They not only highlighted the previously subdued tension between Darwinism and creationism but depicted Darwinism as the enemy of religion more broadly.

If the only thing this Darwinian assault did was amp up resistance to teaching evolution in public schools, the damage, though regrettable, would be limited. My fear is that the damage is broader--that fundamentalist Christians, upon being maligned by know-it-all Darwinians, are starting to see secular scientists more broadly as the enemy; Darwinians, climate scientists, and stem cell researchers start to seem like a single, menacing blur.
Welcome to the club, Bob.

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