Sunday, May 22, 2005


Burt Humberg has a long and detailed analysis of Creationist Fears, Creationist Behaviors at the Panda's Thumb:
Creationists Are in Fear

To understand why creationists fear evolution, it is necessary to consider three things. First, many creationists believe that the Bible must be taken literally, though this literalism is typically ad hoc. (They interpret literally when literalism serves their purposes and they interpret metaphorically or symbolically when it does not.) Second, one must consider the concept of salvation, specifically Christian salvation. (No other religious belief will do.) According to the fundamentalism that gives rise to creationism, all morals, values, ethics, and behaviors in which Christians should engage are derived from these two beliefs.

The final key to understanding creationist fear is to know that they engage in absolutism. In other words, to not believe in the account of the creation in the Bible is to not believe in talking snakes, to not believe in worldwide floods, to not believe in the geocentric model of the solar system, to not believe that rabbits chew their cud, etc. (Note that this is not to imply all modern creationists hold all these beliefs as absolutes; for example, creationists today have found ways to overlook the geocentrism that a truly literalist approach would necessitate.) By way of their absolutism, if they can’t trust the Bible with regards to (insert issue of concern here), then there is no reason or justification for their religious values whatsoever.

Naturally, these arguments sound absurd to anyone who recognizes the parallels between the arguments supporting Middle-age geocentrism and the arguments supporting intelligent design, especially anyone who recognizes that Christianity did not end with Galileo’s research. Nevertheless, this absolutism leads to fear and this fear leads to irrationality and unconventional behaviors.

Or, as reporters were asking KCFS members by the second day of testimony, “Why are these creationists saying the things they do? I thought they were Christians.”

ID Avoids Tough Questions

Yet more needs to be elucidated about creationist fears before the implications of this model can be discussed. Consider the following true story. A few months ago, I attended a Sunday-school course on creationist responses to evolutionary statements, which was being put on by the Creation Science Association of Mid-America. (This is the group that wrote the now infamous standards from the 1999 fiasco, for which Steve Abrams told Steve Case he was the sole author.)

One thing that was interesting about the creationist’s arguments was the certainty with which he held his YEC positions. As anyone who has read Robert Pennock’s book Tower of Babel knows, there is a great diversity of creationist thought in the US. So, I asked the obvious question:

“Sir, there are forms of creationism other than YEC, such as OEC and ID creationism. How can you be so certain about the age of the earth when it appears to be a legitimate controversy within the creationist community?”

His answer was, “All those other forms of creationism allow for the possibility of an old earth. If death entered the world before the fall, then there is no need for Christian salvation. That is why YEC is true.”

While religiously arrogant, this creationist was also refreshingly direct about his motivations. He was explaining that the threat he perceived to his beliefs was not just from evolution, but also from any of the sciences that require (or even accommodate) an old earth. And although this creationist was rebelling against the fact of the 4.5 billion-year-old earth, his argument prototypes many of the claims made by those whose beliefs contradict the findings of verified science: creationism is an obvious area of conflict, but there have been others. Galileo’s heliocentrism and whether rabbits chewed their cud were both, in their day, equally controversial due to contemporary Biblical literalists. Regardless of the controversy, efforts to suppress scientific investigations at best delay the inevitable enlightenment. Eventually, believers have to rethink their theology in the light of new scientific understanding.

What does it mean to be made in God’s own image if humans evolved from ape-like ancestors? If organisms, species, and indeed entire phyla died and went extinct before humans appeared, what need have we for a salvation based on the idea that human sin gave rise to death? Why can some Christians decide what women should do with their own bodies when the God of the Bible chooses to let people make their own decisions? Why are abortion and stem-cell research, but not in-vitro fertilization, forms of murder? And if common sense and research both demonstrate that no one – no one – chooses their own sexuality, what are we to make of religiously-fueled homophobia?

I quote that at length (and there's much more there, and you must read it) because of the importance of fear in modern politics. I hadn't thought about it until I watched Bowling for Columbine by Michael Moore. It's a great movie, and one which raises serious questions without stooping to find the cheap shots. It argues that gun violence isn't the fault of guns, but of a culture of fear.

What struck me most about Fahrenheit 9/11 was the way that fear was used and abused by politicians to sell a course of action. In Bowling for Columbine, Moore showed that fear sells, and violence is an unintended consequence of that fear. In Fahrenheit 9/11, fear is intended to result in violence. I think the same observation can be made about the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, or Franco. If fascism is, as David Neiwert has argued, a disorder of democracy (I can't find the exact quote), it is a disorder brought on through fear.

Neiwert cites Robert Paxton's criteria for identifying fascism:

  1. The primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether universal or individual.
  2. The belief that one's group is a victim, a sentiment which justifies any action against the group's enemies, internal as well as external.
  3. Dread of the group's decadence under the corrosive effect of individualistic and cosmopolitan liberalism.
  4. Closer integration of the community within a brotherhood (fascio) whose unity and purity are forged by common conviction, if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary.
  5. An enhanced sense of identity and belonging, in which the grandeur of the group reinforces individual self-esteem.
  6. Authority of natural leaders (always male) throughout society, culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group's destiny.
  7. The beauty of violence and of will, when they are devoted to the group's success in a Darwinian struggle.

Note again the importance of fear. Paxton doesn't mention religion, but other scholars have cited religious unity as an eighth factor.

If you haven't read Rush, Newspeak, and Fascism and The Rise of Pseudo-Fascism, you should. They document the ways that fascist tendencies and patterns play out in modern American politics. The importance of fear, and the way it is promoted are one element of the story, but Neiwert gives us a perspective on where these tendencies will lead.

Here's his message on how to avert tragedy (written on the eve of the election):

[I]t is clear that the forces which the conservative movement has put in motion are going to have harmful consequences in the long term, particularly when it comes to attacks on democratic institutions like voting and privacy rights. Even more egregious is the larger harm to the health of the body politic; the divisiveness sown by conservative ideologues is not going away any time soon, regardless of how thoroughly they may be repudiated. If they are not, then it will worsen.

On the meta level, preventing fascism means averting a crisis of democracy, and dismantling the fascist architecture of the conservative movement by repudiating its tenets. … [T]hat will entail resisting the urge to give in to violence and anger. It will be understandable, of course, but progressives have to understand that it will only fuel a fascist nightmare by giving movement ideologues the pretext to unleash the dogs.

… Democrats can no longer afford to presume that their political opponents are willing to play fair by normative rules. A unified, firm and clear response … has to become the standard of operation instead of an afterthought.

If there is going to be any healing, it will have to begin after the attack style of politics – in which the smearing an opponent substitutes for the lack of any substance or accomplishment – has been relegated to the ashheap of history. And that will probably never disappear until the nation's mass media are effectively reformed and the trivialization of the national discourse ceases.

But there is also the personal level at which we have to deal with this as well. As I've discussed previously, the influence of this movement has pervaded our personal lives and relationships as well. Families, longtime friends, and communities are being torn apart by the divisive politics of resentment and accusation that have become the core of the conservative movement's appeal.

One of the realities about coming to terms with fascism is that it is not an immediately demonizing force -- that is, instead, one of its long-term effects. Conservative-movement adherents are still human beings, and seeing them in terms of participating in a kind of fascism should not render them into mere discardable objects. It's much clearer if we understand that many of them are simply responding naturally to the psychological manipulation inherent in the movement's appeal.

That advice – converse with people across the political divide to diminish the fear and hatred – is not so far from Burt's advice on winning the battle against creationists:

Real evolution advocacy happens in day-to-day life. It happens when doctors explain to their patients that since the 1930s, animal research has been required to bring drugs to the market and that such research makes no sense without evolution. It happens in political discussions, as citizens learn the actual science that underpins the contentious issues being debated or supports sound policies. It happens when theologians remind creationists that God calls them to take responsibility for their beliefs and that well-meaning believers have had to reexamine their theology in the light of verified science many times throughout history. It happens when those who understand evolution advocate for it daily without embarrassment, recognizing it for the non-controversial component of essential biology education that it is.

The way to defeat fear is through education. Some people won't want to get to know their "enemy" and will refuse an opportunity to converse. But the worst thing to do is for us to be antagonistic toward the rank and file, or the leaders they respect. They will appreciate the criticisms of the leaders only when they see that the leaders have been lying to them.

Address their fears head-on, not what they say their fears are. My mom tells a story of a dinner party. Two strangers are sitting next to each other, and one asks where the other is from. The response is about a book the person just read. The question went unanswered, but the real question wasn't about the birthplace, the real question was "What do we have in common?" When creationists say that evolution is in crisis, say that evolution doesn't undermine morality. When a right-winger starts complaining about the filibuster and activist judges, don't bother pointing out that the filibuster is being used to block activist judges, point out that Democrats don't want to repress Republican views, so Republicans should repress Democratic views. It's not where the conversation is, but it's the fear behind the question. Alleviate the fear, find common ground, and we can rebuild America.