Friday, June 22, 2012

God, Politics, Education, & Evolution: Some recent articles

One Day On Earth.  Portland, Oregon.  11.11.11  A. F. Litt

It has been a while since I‘ve posted.  Life has been busy and the election is in it’s early summer slump.  Even the barbs Romney and Obama are throwing at each other feel weak and half-hearted…  But maybe that is just me.  Maybe I am just weak and half hearted about the election right now.  I am sure that I’ll get more fired up as we get further into the VP selection process and closer into the conventions.

Anyway, here’s a collection of recent articles on religion, politics and education from AlterNet…

As America Grows More Polarized, Conservatives Increasingly Reject Science and Rational Thought | Tea Party and the Right | AlterNet:

In the 30 years since Gallup started asking people whether they believe humans evolved, evolved under the guidance of God, or were created fully formed by God, the percentage of people adhering to the creationist view has actually gone up slightly over time, and now stands at 46 percent of the population. This is just the tip of the iceberg of a growing problem of public rejection of science. At the same time, there’s been a steady rise in people who believe that humanity evolved without any supernatural guidance, and now stands at 15 percent. What this seeming conflict suggests is that the issue is getting more polarized, as people feel they either have to pick Team Evolution or Team Creationism.

The Tea Party has only intensified social pressure on conservative-leaning Americans to shun anything perceived as irreligious or academic. Science has always had a political edge to it, but the culture wars ramped up by the Tea Party have taken the problem to a whole new level.

According to a study published in American Sociological Review, since 1974, conservative trust in science has been in a free-fall, declining 25 percent. In 1974, conservatives were the most pro-science group, higher than liberals and moderates. Now they’re the least pro-science group of all, with liberals showing the most trust in science.

Any liberal who focuses on economic issues should pay close attention, because in many ways, the war on science is a war on the most vulnerable among us.

The public’s resistance to evolution might not seem like a big deal at first, since the main result of conservative activism is that high school biology programs give up teaching evolution, while universities retain their evidence-based curriculum. In fact, Kevin Drum argued in Mother Jones that creationism in schools didn’t really matter because, “knowledge of evolution adds only slightly to a 10th-grade understanding of biology.”

The problem with that is that someone who doesn’t get proper education early tends to lag behind for the rest of their educational career, and the 10th-grader who doesn’t get real biology courses will often be too far behind her better-educated peers in college to even consider a career in science. How many potential doctors and scientists are being lost because they didn’t have the economic advantage of going to a private school that did provide a proper education, but instead went to a public school that dished out creationist propaganda?

As PZ Myers argued, the poor public education in science means that a shrinking portion of the American public is going into careers in science. Americans from working class backgrounds who go into these careers are far more likely to use their education and career contacts to return to their communities and improve the economic and health conditions back home. But with these declining numbers of American scientists, that possibility is being shut down.

The public’s rejection of global warming is even more dangerous for working class and poor people. It’s well-understood that poorer people bear the brunt of environmental destruction, since they can’t afford to move out of polluted areas that are linked to health issues like asthma and cancer.

What Is Wrong With Our Education System? Almost Half the Population Doesn't Accept Evolution | Belief | AlterNet:

My brilliant husband, a sociologist and political theorist, refuses to get upset about the poll. It’s quite annoying, actually. He thinks questions like these primarily elicit affirmations of identity, not literal convictions; declaring your belief in creationism is another way of saying you’re a good Christian. That does rather beg the question of what a good Christian is, and why so many think it means refusing to use the brains God gave you. And yes, as you may have suspected, according to the Pew Research Center, evangelicals are far more likely than those of other faiths to hold creationist views; just 24 percent of them believe in evolution. Mormons come in even lower, at 22 percent, although official church doctrine has no problem with evolution.

…rejecting evolution expresses more than an inability to think critically; it relies on a fundamentally paranoid worldview. Think what the world would have to be like for evolution to be false. Almost every scientist on earth would have to be engaged in a fraud so complex and extensive it involved every field from archaeology, paleontology, geology and genetics to biology, chemistry and physics. And yet this massive concatenation of lies and delusion is so full of obvious holes that a pastor with a Bible-college degree or a homeschooling parent with no degree at all can see right through it.

Kenneth Miller, a biology professor at Brown University and practicing Catholic who is a leading voice against creationism, agrees with Princehouse. “Science education has been remarkably ineffective,” he told me. “Those of us in the scientific community who are religious have a tremendous amount of work to do in the faith community.” Why bother? “There’s a potential for great harm when nearly half the population rejects the central organizing principle of the biological sciences. It’s useful for us as a species to understand that we are a recent appearance on this planet and that 99.9 percent of all species that have ever existed have gone extinct.” Evangelical parents may care less that their children learn science than that they avoid going to hell, but Miller points out that many of the major challenges facing the nation—and the world—are scientific in nature: climate change and energy policy, for instance. “To have a near majority essentially rejecting the scientific method is very troubling,” he says. And to have solidly grounded science waved away as political and theological propaganda could not come at a worse time. “Sea-level rise” is a “left-wing term,” said Virginia state legislator Chris Stolle, a Republican, successfully urging its replacement in a state-commissioned study by the expression “recurrent flooding.”

The Truth About Religion in America: The Founders Loathed Superstition and We Were Never a Christian Nation | Belief | AlterNet:

One counterfeit idea that circulates with frustrating stubbornness is the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation. It’s one of the Christian Right’s mantras and a favorite talking point for televangelists, religious bloggers, born-again authors and lobbyists, and pulpit preachers.

Unlike some of the wackier positions taken by evangelicals—think Rapture—the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation has gone relatively mainstream. This is the case largely because the media-savvy Christian Right is good at getting across its message. A 2007 First Amendment Center poll revealed that 65 percent of Americans believe the founders intended the United States “to be a Christian nation”; over half of us think that this intention is actually spelled out somewhere in the Constitution.

So the notion that America was founded as a Christian nation is widespread. In the currency of ideas, it’s the ubiquitous penny. But like an actual penny, it doesn’t have a lot of value. That so many people think it does is largely because they don’t stop to consider what “founded as a Christian nation” might signify. Presumably the intended meaning is something like this: Christian principles are the bedrock of both our political system and founding documents because our founders were themselves Christians. Although wordier, this reformulation is just as perplexing because it’s not clear what’s meant by the term founders. Just who are we talking about here?

Americans in the late colonial and early republic years were often caught in a worldview clash between Christianity on the one hand and the Enlightenment on the other. Some reacted by clinging to their Christian faith and blasting Enlightenment “infidelity” with jeremiads, while others, as Jonathan Edwards grumbled in 1773, “wholly cast off the Christian religion and are professed infidels.” College students at Yale, Princeton, Harvard, King’s (present day Columbia), William and Mary, and Dartmouth gleefully embraced, at least for a while, the Enlightenment’s anti-biblical religion of Deism. In the 1790s, thanks largely to the efforts of Deist crusader Elihu Palmer, militant Deism—which rejected miracles, revelation, the authority of Scripture, and the divinity of Jesus—enjoyed a spurt of rather astounding popularity. But many people who lived at the founding of the nation tried to steer a middle course that combined, even if awkwardly at times, elements from both Christian and Enlightenment worldviews. This made for any number of nuanced possibilities when it came to Christian commitment, all of them much more complex than the Christian Right would prefer to acknowledge.

The Founding Fathers weren’t all Christian. Some, of course, were: Patrick Henry (Episcopalian), John Hancock (Congregationalist), John Jay (Episcopalian), and Sam Adams (Congregationalist), for example, were all devout and pretty conventional Christians. But the big players in the founding of the United States—such men as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and probably Alexander Hamilton—weren’t. Each of them was much more comfortable with a deistic understanding of God than a Christian one. For them, the deity was an impersonal First Cause who created a rationally patterned natural order and who was best worshiped through the exercise of reason and virtue. Most of them may have admired the ethical teachings of Jesus (although Paine conspicuously did not), but all of them loathed and rejected the priestcraft and superstition they associated with Christianity.

Despite this, the Christian Right insists on adopting these men (aside from Paine) as Christian founders. The usual justification is that each of them (again, except Paine) belonged to an established Christian denomination. But as we’ve already seen, formal membership by itself wasn’t then (or now) a fail-safe measure of an individual’s religious beliefs.

None of the founders, for example, used conventional Christian language when writing or speaking about God. Instead, the terms they favored—Supreme Architect, Author of Nature, First Cause, Nature’s God, Superattending Power—were unmistakably deistic. (One of the Christian Right’s most telling blind spots is its failure to pick up on the founders’ obviously non-Christian nomenclature.) Another indicator of their lack of conventional Christian commitment is the fact that while all of them had been baptized as infants, an initiation that of course made them nominally Christian, none who were members of denominations that offered the sacrament of Confirmation sought it as adults. Moreover, they generally did not take Communion when it was offered, nor did they typically involve themselves in church activities. Even when they did, it was no clear signal that they were orthodox Christians. George Washington, for example, served on the vestry in several Episcopalian parishes. But he avoided Confirmation and Communion, never used give-away Christian terms such as Lord or Redeemer, and rarely even referred to Jesus by name. Finally, none of them gave the slightest hint in their personal letters or diaries that they considered themselves committed Christians.

The obvious conclusion is that it’s a stretch to call the leading founders “Christians,” particularly of the evangelical sort. Most of them may not have been contemptuously anti-Christian (although Paine certainly was, with Jefferson a close second), but neither did they have much use for Christianity. They had so little regard for its central tenets, in fact, that they couldn’t square it with their consciences to salt their public statements with even an occasional Christian phrase. In this way they displayed an integrity that few vote-hungry politicians in our day feel moved to emulate. Revealingly, only a handful of their contemporaries seemed particularly bothered by their obvious indifference to Christianity, and those who made a big deal of it generally did so more for political reasons—as when Federalists attacked the “infidel” Jefferson in the presidential elections of 1800 and 1804—than from any sense of outraged orthodoxy. Then as now, what pretended to be a religious battle was often a political one.

In the Constitution, no mention whatsoever of God is made except in the document’s date (“Done ... in the year of our Lord ...”), an inexplicable oversight if its framers intended it to lay the foundation for a Christian nation. The Declaration of Independence does use religious language, but the religion is obviously Deism rather than Christianity. God is referred to as “Nature’s God,” the “Creator” of the physical “Laws of Nature” in addition to the “unalienable [moral] Rights” to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To interpret the document as even suggestively Christian is sheer fantasy or worse. On the contrary, both it and the Constitution clearly serve as precedents for the famous passage in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli—one which the Christian Right loves to hate—which affirms that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” The treaty, which sealed a routine diplomatic agreement between the U.S. and the Muslim state of Tripolitania, was unanimously ratified by the Senate and publicly endorsed and signed by President John Adams. That it was passed without debate or dissent attests to the fact that neither the president nor senators found its denial of a Christian foundation to the nation objectionable.

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