Wednesday, August 13, 2003

The wrong Christians, and the cowards who accommodate them

Via M. Yglesias: Brein Leiter reports on a Houston Chronicle article stating that Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, publisher of biology textbooks, is caving in to pressure from the Texas Board of Education to include information about "Creation Science" in its textbooks. Because of Texas's size, it has disproportionate clout in the composition of textbooks, which are made for national publication (it's too expensive to prepare different editions for different states).

Lest you should be taken in by idea that, "Hey, what's the harm of presenting the alternative view?", read the FAQ. "Creation Science" and its alias "Intelligent Design Theory" are not science. They're monstrous, tendentious loads of nonsense masquerading as science in order to leech off science's aura of authority. Teaching "Creation Science" in a science classroom is tantamount to teaching The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in a history class.

The maddening thing about modern society, as Iain Banks pointed out in one of his short stories, is that these medieval morons can live amongst all the cushy conveniences wrought by science, and yet reject (and indeed, actively work to undermine) all those pieces of science that conflict with their religious ideology. It honestly never occurs to them that, for example, the same atomic theory that governs radioactive dating also makes the electronics in their televisions work. News like this almost makes me think that believers in "Creation Science" should be exported to the Australian outback and subsequently forced to live the remainder of their lives without any access to the fruits of science, which they obviously hold in such rich contempt. While they work backbreaking hours on the farm squeezing a meager subsistence from the earth, dying from dysentery and plague, they can comfort themselves with the warm and fuzzy knowledge that evolution is non-scientific, and that the Biblical literalists were right all along.

Note that many members of my family, and at least one of my good friends, are Christian. There are plenty of Christians who are perfectly non-objectionable. However, I find it deeply disturbing that mainstream Christianity has failed to stand up to the "Christian Science" element within its midst. I can only read this as a deep failure of intellectual integrity; and a failure that's much more widespread than you might think. I would guess that most of the members of my parents' church, from when I was growing up, believed that evolution was bollocks. I spoke to at least one person who dismissed biology because "scientists say we came from monkeys", a proposition that was apparently self-evidently bogus to him. When I was in high school and still observant, I had a conversation about evolution with one of my youth pastors; as soon as I mentioned it, he began spewing the same old "Creation Science" claptrap that I'd read about on the Internet. I once overheard my mother listening to a religious talk radio show where the speaker, misrepresenting a recent discovery in cosmology that was leading scientists to revise the standard model of the Big Bang, claimed that "physicists are puzzled by this discovery, but I'm not --- I've always known the Big Bang was wrong, because the Bible says the Earth was created six thousand years ago." I had read about this discovery in the popular scientific press, and of course it did not contradict the Big Bang theory at all. My mother, an intelligent and educated person with a Master's degree, seemed to accept this monologue as hunky-dory. I told her it was a lie, and I'm still not sure that, in her gut, she really believed me instead of that charlatan on the radio.

Oh, and the kicker: the churches we attended when I was growing up were in New York State (Westchester County, no less), and the congregation consisted mostly of educated middle-class people with at least a college degree, and often with graduate degrees. I can only imagine what it's like in Texas.

It's only against this cultural background that one can really understand Daniel Dennett's op-ed on "The Brights" (note interesting thread on collaborative philosophy blog Crooked Timber). If Dennett evinces some condescension towards the religious, well, in my opinion, they've earned it.

(And anyway, where was this religious zeal for tolerance and respect when the Church was burning heretics and atheists at the stake? Christians who complain about Dennett's condescension remind me of Republicans who fought civil rights tooth and nail in the 60's but suddenly rediscovered the virtues of color-blindness in the affirmative-action 90's.)

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