Saturday, September 24, 2005


Irreconcilable Beliefs

Stories like this terrify me when they say things like this: "At least 31 states are taking steps to teach alternatives to evolution. A CBS poll last November found 65 percent of Americans favor teaching creationism as well as evolution while 37 percent want creationism taught instead of evolution."

A little digging, though, turns up a Gallup Poll published yesterday that breaks things down with a little less ambiguity, and is both better and worse, when one digs into it.

There's lots of interesting bits of polling data buried in here. Things like the correlations between church attendance, education, and belief in creationism or evolution. Those who attend church "seldom/never" and are college graduates overwhelming state that evolution is "Definitely/Probably True," with postgraduates ranking even higher. However, while the reverse is true of church attendance and creationism (with the majority of weekly attendees falling in the "Definitely/Probably True" category), the correlation between creationism and education gets a bit murkier, with a majority of respondents in all categories, "High School or less" through "College Grad" averring that they believe in creationism (with post graduates being pretty evenly split on the question).

Most of the respondents claim not to be familiar with Intelligent Design, which is the sexy new "scientific" drag in which creationism has been strutting around since the early nineties. Most, however, claim to be familiar with both evolution and creationism. And yet, somehow, a significant percentage of respondents claim to believe in both.

I think there's some ambiguity in the questions here, clearly, but the Gallup write up itself points out that there is some cognitive dissonance here.

In principle, the possibility exists that one could believe in both evolution and intelligent design. While many evolutionists suggest that random mutations are at the heart of evolutionary change, many other people who accept evolution nevertheless believe that at some removed point in time, God set the evolutionary process in motion.

However, the conflicts between creationism and evolution appear irreconcilable. Evolution posits millions of years of change, and the emergence of the human species from apes. Creationism accepts the literal creation story in the Bible, which essentially says that about 6,000 years ago God created all living things, including humans, as they currently exist.

The poll shows, however, that many Americans apparently do not recognize the irreconcilableness of creationism and evolution. Twenty-nine percent say that both explanations are either definitely or probably true, while 57% accept only one or the other of the explanations -- 26% say creationism is probably true, but evolution is not; and 21% say that evolution is probably true, and creationism is not. Another 4% say both explanations are probably false, and 20% have no opinion.

What's going on here? Fully one third of Americans, if this poll is correct, believe that the universe was created billions of years ago and six thousand years ago, and that species developed through gradual change over thousands of generations and that a supernatural god created them all in their present forms to populate the Garden of Eden.

Belief in a god or creator is not irreconcilable with accepting the findings of science, however much the Intelligent Design folks might try to frame the debate otherwise. But accepting science does preclude belief in the literal truth of ancient religious texts. A six-day creation is incompatible with every bit of evidence we have about the origin of species, of the Earth, of the universe itself. (Unless, of course, what I've been taught in school, films and magazines is all phony.)

There's clearly an uncertainty here about the origins of life (and of the universe itself), and its one that the ID movement is exploiting. Science has never--from ivory tower researchers to high school biology teachers--insisted that science be taught in houses of worship. That a few well-funded religious activists masquerading as scientists are agitating for religion to be taught in science classes is pretty damned odious.

My favorite bit of data from this poll, though, is this: "Another 4% say both explanations are probably false, and 20% have no opinion." The 20% I can just about understand; they got a job to do and kids to feed, and don't have time to worry about whether we first crawled from the primordial soup or were shaped from clay by supernatural hands. But that 4%? They clearly have an opinion, but don't believe in either science or the literal creation story of any religion. What's up with them?

The other 4%? Definitely believers in "Super Intelligent Space Monkeys Depositing Genetic Material on Primordial Earth"

An intergalactic (I hate that word... but I'm no writer, so there it is) explorer vessel crewed by super-intelligent apes stops by a previously unnoticed planetoid three stones back from a sun (yay Hendrix). After setting down, one of the slower crew (probably the janitor) hops off, notices a quiet nook in a rock formation, and hops on over for a, er, private moment. He gets a little on the rock, and some in the liquid pooling around the rock - and presto! change-o! we have the creation of man! Or at least the creation of the "primordial soup" that will eventually give rise to man?
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