An Atlantic Monthly article by David A. Graham titled "Why Has Republican Belief in Evolution Declined So Much?" made the rounds last week, citing a Pew Research Center study that shows the percentage of self-identifying Republican voters in the United States of America who believe in evolution dropping from 54% to 43% since 2009.
Is this a worrying trend? Many of my fellow liberal progressives on Facebook and Twitter seem to think it is. I think the more dangerous trend is that these friends of mine are snapping at the bait. I've said it before and I'll say it again: as enticing as the Darwin vs. creationism debate may look to eager liberals, we should never swallow it. It's a poison pill.
Darwinism is rock-solid science, but anybody who thinks scientific proof has more power to compel personal belief than traditional religion needs to freshen up on William James, the brilliant philosopher who wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience and The Will to Believe. In the latter essay, James listed the necessary conditions for typical belief in any possible truth, and showed that personal inclination tends to play a stronger role than preponderance of evidence in most belief situations. Most importantly, James showed that willful belief is a universal human pattern at all levels of intellect and education, and that the selective mechanisms which construct our beliefs do tend to provide enough of the sturdy fabric of truth and understanding required to inform and guide our lives.
In other words, there are many ways a person can stand on solid ground as a creationist, if they wish to do so. So why do more Republicans believe in creationism today than in 2009? Apparently because they wish to do so, and this is their right. This probably has something to do with the general increase in cultural/political polarization in the Obama era. More directly, it's probably because creationists from Sarah Palin to Mike Huckabee to the folks at the Creation Museum have been much more vocal than they used to be. So what? If you are a progressive liberal like me, I strongly suggest that you avoid trying to ever persuade a creationist that they are wrong. It's a losing argument, and a pointless one. Worse, it's an argument that can slide quickly into bigotry and disrespect.
It's hard to discuss evolution vs. creationism without discussing religion, and a hot debate about Darwin will often turn into a hot debate about religion itself. (Sure, it's possible to be devoutly religious and also believe in Darwin, and this is the calm ground upon which many people stand today -- however, this doesn't mean that the conflict between religion and science is erased.) I have observed and sometimes been drawn into these debates, and I have noticed that the pro-Darwin position tends to morph into an anti-religion position, sometimes explicitly and sometimes unwittingly. Once this happens, the cause becomes corrupted and the debate becomes a mess.
It's an interesting coincidence that the recent article about Republican creationism ran in the Atlantic Monthly, a venerable publication that used to publish the great William James himself. I'm quite sure that James would not have found the recent David A. Graham article about voter trends satisfying or edifying, and I wonder if any of the Atlantic editors noted the juxtaposition.
William James was a roaring liberal of his era -- he spoke out proudly for social justice and humane civil policies, and was especially outspoken against the obscene war crimes committed by the American military in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. (As a groundbreaking medical researcher James was also, of course, an enthusiastic Darwinian.)
But William James wrote constantly and respectfully about religion, and this is an example those of us who carry on James's enthusiasm for liberal and progressive causes should follow today. There are so many important movements in action right now in the United States of America. We finally have a sane health insurance marketplace available to all Americans (the free market couldn't get this job done, so the government had to step in). Individual states are leading the way on gay marriage and legal marijuana. There is a growing public dislike of militarism, and a growing appreciation for environmental sensitivity as we face the hazards of climate change.
Of all these current debates, it's the last one that reveals the greatest danger of overreach and false linkage on the activist side. David A. Graham's Atlantic Monthly article links attitudes about evolution with attitudes about climate change, referring (as so many other commentators do) to the idea of a "war on science". This is an unnecessary and dangerous connection to make. We need fast action on environmental problems right now -- in the USA and all over the world -- and we do not want to wait until everybody stops believing in creationism before we can pass legislation that can help. We can't wait forever, and forever is exactly how long it will take for creationism to go away.
Instead of getting drawn into a "war on science" that links the important cause of ecological awareness with a different cause that's not even worth fighting at all, I plead with my fellow liberal progressives to remember the importance of always fully respecting the religious beliefs of others, and always respecting these beliefs upon the others' terms (which may include an acceptance of the idea of creationism) rather than upon our own.
After all, religious awareness provides pretty strong ground for ecological awareness. A war on science is not worth taking sides over, but a mission to protect our god-given planet is something we can all hopefully agree about. Most of us, anyway. I know William James is in.