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Science and Religion in American Politics

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Few topics cause more controversy than the discussion about science vs religion. Here Thomas Dixon of Queen Mary, University of London examines the way the debate has been played out in the American political sphere in recent times.

Thomas Dixon is the author of Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction, which publishes here in the UK next month.

During a televised debate last year between the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, the host asked if any of them did not believe in evolution. First one, then a second, then a third raised his hand. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee later elaborated on his opposition to evolution, mocking those who ‘believe they are the descendants of a primate’ rather than ‘ the unique creations of a God who knows us and loves us, and who created us for his own purpose.’

Although to most educated people – especially anyone unfamiliar with the historic strength and depth of creationist beliefs in the United States – these remarks may seem to reveal a shocking level of scientific ignorance, Huckabee knew what he was doing. He is just the latest in a long line of populist American politicians keen to tap into grass-roots religious beliefs. Huckabee, in short, was seeking the approval of that fifty percent of the American population who opinion polls consistently find believe in creationism and not evolution.

The most famous moment in the history of American anti-Darwinism came in 1925 in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee. A local school teacher there, John Scopes, was prosecuted for violating a recent law banning the teaching of evolution. The Scopes ‘monkey trial’ became the focus for a circus of pro- and anti-Darwinism in Dayton that summer, avidly reported by the world’s press. The prosecution case was led by the Democrat politician William Jennings Bryan. Bryan spoke up for the ordinary Christian folk of America against the perceived arrogance and infidelity of the intellectual elite. ‘Does it not seem a little unfair,’ Bryan asked, ‘not to distinguish between man and lower forms of life? What shall we say of the intelligence, not to say religion, of those who are so particular to distinguish between fishes and reptiles and birds, but put a man with an immortal soul in the same circle with the wolf, the hyena and the skunk? What must be the impression made upon children by such a degradation of man?’

Although William Jennings Bryan was a Democrat and Mike Huckabee a Republican, they are from the same political stock, and both aspired to become President. Bryan was the (unsuccessful) Democratic candidate for the presidency on three occasions. Known as the ‘Great Commoner’ because of his belief in the absolute sovereignty of the people, Bryan predicted that local school board elections would become more important than national elections, because parents would care more about the education and morals of their children than about foreign policy or economics. Huckabee’s anti-evolution stance appeals to just the same kinds of populism and localism. Like Bryan eighty years before him, he suggests that the only proper policy is for taxpayers and parents to decide what their children are taught in public schools. What could be more democratic, or more reasonable, than that?

And here is the heart of the liberal dilemma about evolution and creationism. Those who would identify themselves as progressive, enlightened, and liberal, usually consent to the proposition that school curricula should be set in a way that is open to the democratic process rather than being handed down by an autocratic intellectual elite. It seems right that the voters should have a say. But, what when those voters are creationists? Does the liberal instinct in favour of democracy then give way to some more powerful desires – to preserve the division between church and state enshrined in the First Amendment, for instance, or to give due weight to scientific expertise?

Finally it is worth noting that something else that Mike Huckabee has in common with William Jennings Bryan is that, despite his popularity, he is not going to be President. And neither of the men who might in fact be the next President of the United States is likely to provide the kind of encouragement to creationists and proponents of ‘Intelligent Design’ that Huckabee would have offered.

John McCain, during the same debate in which Huckabee indicated his support for creationism, was asked for a yes or no answer to the question ‘Do you believe in evolution?’ McCain looked momentarily uncomfortable, no doubt thinking of that hefty fifty percent of the electorate who would answer ‘No’, before giving a pretty confident ‘Yes’ to evolution. McCain has given some indications that he is happy for ‘Intelligent Design’ to be taught alongside evolution, but it is clearly not a cause for which he has any enthusiasm. Barack Obama has generally avoided the topic too but, when pushed in a recent interview, stated that religious instruction should be provided by parents and that it is ‘a mistake to try to cloud the teaching of science with theories that frankly don’t hold up to scientific inquiry’, by which one can assume he meant creationism and ‘Intelligent Design’.

So, although the next incumbent of the White House is certain to be someone who, unlike Bryan or Huckabee, believes in evolution (as well as God), the fact that the question is still asked of presidential hopefuls speaks volumes about the historical role of Christian fundamentalism in shaping American political culture.

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19 Responses to “Science and Religion in American Politics”
  1. Michael says:

    While I am a Huckabee supporter I disagree with him on this issue, because it is clear that we must have been descendants of primates. How else would we explain the animal like behavior we display when we molest kids or when we murder, sound like our animal to me.

  2. Ken says:

    I am an American who supported Mike Huckabee in the primary.

    The point about over half of Americans believing in creation by God is accurate and while it could be a political calculation to appeal to those who hold those views, in the case of Mike Huckabee he genuinely believes the God of the Bible created the universe. It was not a political calculation but a matter of standing up for what he believes even though it would potentially open him up for criticism.

    The truth is that the percentage of people for whom the issue of creation is important to them regarding a presidential candidate is fairly small. Most Americans want a president that they trust and agree with on most of the fundamental issues.

    “Although to most educated people – especially anyone unfamiliar with the historic strength and depth of creationist beliefs in the United States – these remarks may seem to reveal a shocking level of scientific ignorance”

    Some are scientifically ignorant but there is more to the creationist belief in the US than being uneducated. Many of us actually know the science and yet still reject evolution and accept creationism.

    The issue is often framed as religion against science but the truth is that it is belief system vs belief system. Biblical Christianity vs. philosophical naturalism.

    The Christian faith is not at odds with operational science which is observable, testable, and repeatable. Gravity, computer chip technology, etc… are not at odds with Christianity.

    The conflict comes solely with origins, or historical, science which deals with what happened in the past and the evolutionary story of the past is founded on the presupposition of naturalism which is unproven and unprovable.

    Additionally evolution cannot even begin to explain how life began, how DNA came to be, let alone the stunning lack of transitional forms in the fossil record (there should be thousands if not millions of transitional forms when in fact there are only a dozen or so highly disputed examples). How is it that there are substantial amounts of C14 in diamonds that are supposed to be a billion years old? How is it that dinosaurs alleged to be 68 millions years old still have soft tissue and red blood cells?

    Regarding Michael’s comment:
    “How else would we explain the animal like behavior we display when we molest kids or when we murder, sound like our animal to me.”

    What better evidence that the Bible is right when it talks about our sin nature!

  3. abb3w says:

    Ken, your claimed distinction between operational and historical science does not have any philosophical justification apparent, and I’m afraid you fail to grasp the nature of “proof” in science.

    From the assumptions of the validity of Propositional Logic for Inference, the self-consistency of the ZF axioms to build mathematics, and that Evidence is finitely related to Reality, it may be shown that the of the comprehensive generative descriptions of the data (“hypotheses”), the most concise is most probably correct. See the paper “Minimum Description Length Induction, Bayesianism and Kolmogorov Complexity” by Paul Vitanyi and Ming Li for details and proof.

    Under this criterion, Evolution is the best explanation.

  4. Otto says:

    As a Deist I do believe in the Creator and find atheists are in blatent denial about the perfection of the design of the laws of nature. But I aint silly enough to buy the ridiculous idea that the Earth and universe are a few thousand years old or that the global flood of Genesis actually happened. Enough is already known in the fields of astronomy and geology to totally dismiss taking Genesis literally.

  5. Linda says:

    I am a Huckabee supporter and I can say that I have never been prouder of my candidate than I was when Huckabee gave his strong, clear, and really brave answer to the question! He DID say he didn’t know how long it took, he wasn’t there, but that he knows we were creations of a GOD who loves us! Whether you believe like he does or not, it was the strength and conviction with which he gave his answer that tells the story of the character of the man who spoke it.

  6. Dave says:

    I also am a Huckabee supporter. Check out http://www.icr.org Creationists look at the sameness of a Creator rather than the sameness of creation. Another site I would refer you to is http://www.truthsthattransform.org. The late D. James Kennedy spoke of the penultimate evolutionist Sir Julian Huxley defending his allegiance to evolution. He said his belief was not born out of rationality but license to live as he wished. Check also the foundations of your sciences and you’ll find they were all founded by Christians (I refer you again to both http://www.icr.org and http://www.ttt.org). The first hundred or so institutions of higher learning (yes, Harvard, Yale, etc.) and again these were started to educate ministers to preach Christ. Our public schooling (I a product) fail to teach the above nor do they tell avid students the dying words of such atheists as Voltaire (whose home houses a Bible Society), Darwin, and lesser known mortals who went “screaming into that dark night”. an aside, log onto Institute for Creation Research’s Jonathan Park.org to hear about Creationists explanation of the effects of the world wide flood. Eye opening especially for a public schooler (versus many Christian and home schoolers – this might be why California is looking to ban home schooling).
    Dave.

  7. Dave says:

    I couldn’t resist this as a “rebellious colonist”… Look into your own history for such people as William Tyndale, John Wycliffe, William Wilberforce and such documents as the Magna Carta. You might also mine the treasure of The Victorian Age when one book ruled Britannia – the Bible. Where did I get this information? From my daughter’s books from a Christian school (www.aBeka.org)
    Dave.

  8. Melvin_H_Fox says:

    I agree with Ken and to state that Huckabee claims disbelief in evolution because he is trying to get votes shows more about your heart than it does about Huckabee’s.

    Evolution is certainly not the most probable explanation of our present reality. It is based on the assumption that the physical universe is a closed system. This assumption flies in the face of every observation man has ever made where systems are concerned. That being; we have never observed a closed system. Why then would anyone assume the universe to be a closed system?

    In the love of Christ,
    -Mel

  9. John Doole says:

    Let’s cut to the chase here. Huckabee is an idiot, as is anyone who believes that there is any kind of ‘intelligence’ behind the origins of the universe.

    There is an overwhelming amount of mutually self-supporting evidence for evolution and natural selection and every time it has been tested it has worked. EVERY time.

    There is not one single shred of evidence for there being a ‘creator’ and to try to dress this unfounded idea up as ‘intelligent design’ and claim that it has any basis in science is shoddy hucksterism of the lowest kind and will be discredited, as those proponents of teaching ID in schools in the Kitzmiller vs. Dover School Area case found out.

    The whole notion of a creator comes from a time when our species was in its infancy and we didn’t know any better. Now we do know better and we are continuing to find out more and more as time goes on and the more we find out the fewer places any religious belief has to hide.

    Anyone who hangs on to these primitive, dangerous, divisive, downright stupid notions is guilty of willful ignorance, self-delusion and intellectual and moral sabotage. To believe such nonsense is an affront to everything humanity has done to gain understanding of its own origins and that of the universe.

    No, science can’t explain everything and it may never be able to, but religion explains nothing. In fact it’s worse than that, it actively discourages explanation or the questing after knowledge seeking instead to satisfy the ‘faithful’ with bronze age myths of all-powerful, all-knowing, invisible sky fairies.

    Only once humanity discards its need for such nonsense will we begin to draw ourelves to our full height.

  10. Ken says:

    “There is an overwhelming amount of mutually self-supporting evidence for evolution and natural selection and every time it has been tested it has worked.”

    Actually, creationists believe in natural selection. In fact, Edward Blythe wrote about the concept of natural selection 30 years before Darwin wrote the Origin of the Species. Blythe was also British like Darwin, but he was a creationist. Creationists today believe in natural selection.

    Natural selection explains variation but not the creation of new kinds of living things.

    “In fact it’s worse than that, it actively discourages explanation or the questing after knowledge seeking instead to satisfy the ‘faithful’ with bronze age myths of all-powerful, all-knowing, invisible sky fairies.”

    If that were true, how is that Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, Louis Pasteur, and many other creationists were able to make such significant contributions to science.

  11. Thomas Dixon says:

    Ken is right, of course, that plenty of successful scientists, past and present, have believed in a divine Creator. However, it is somewhat misleading and anachronistic to call them ‘creationists’. That term refers to modern fundamentalist anti-Darwinists of a kind who came into existence in the early years of the twentieth century. I should also add that I did not mean to imply that Mike Huckabee was insincere in rejecting evolution, merely that he would have known that he could count on the sympathy and support of about half the American people in doing so.

  12. Melvin_H_Fox says:

    John Doole wrote:

    “The whole notion of a creator comes from a time when our species was in its infancy and we didn’t know any better. Now we do know better and we are continuing to find out more and more as time goes on and the more we find out the fewer places any religious belief has to hide.”

    Yes, the notion of a creator came from a time when our species was in its infancy. During this time Adam witnessed it firsthand. Now, trusting in our own understanding, we think we know better. John is just one of the many scoffers foretold in 2 Peter chapter 3. There the Bible claims that it is John Doole who is “willingly ignorant” of three facts: the Creation, the Flood, and the Judgment to come. So obvious are these three that a five year old child can figure them out.

    Not even the most sapient of the supposed result of millions of years of perfecting evolution – that would be Homo Sapiens Sapiens – can figure out how life came to be apart from design. So, I ask you, what is more reasonable; what is manifest by God’s works (special Creation) or what is incalculable by all human effort (abiogenesis)? It seems that Romans 1 is coming true: “While claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man …”

    In the love of Christ,
    -Mel

  13. John Doole says:

    Thanks for that Thomas. It’s no surprise that the people Ken mentioned believed in God; at the time most people did. Darwin himself was no atheist. As time has gone on and science and knowledge have moved forward, it became increasingly clear that there is absolutely no evidence for there being a creator or ‘intelligent agency’ as the ID con artists would have it.

    And what do you mean, Ken, that evolution can’t explain ‘the creation of new kinds of living things’? New species don’t just spontaneously appear, you know! They evolve over time form other species.

    Mel, where’s your evidence that Adam saw it first hand? Where, for that matter, is your evidence that Adam even existed at all or that the Flood actually happened? There is none. The stories in some ancient, extrmely contradictory book that was written by men who lived centuries after the supposed events is no evidence at all.

    Only the religious claim that homo sapiens is what evolution has been leading to for all these millions of years. This is an entirely mistaken viewpoint. We are nothing more or less than just another species, albeit with a more developed brain. This, however, makes us no better or more special than any other species on the planet.

    You ask me what is more reasonable? That question and your answer to it is indicative of the arrogance and stupidity of people of ‘faith’. No, we haven’t figured out yet how life originated, but when and if we do, ‘creation’ or ‘design’ is hugely unlikely to have anything to do with it. Yours is a classic argument from personal incredulity; ‘I can’t see how it could have happened other than design or creation by a magic sky-fairy, so that must be how it happened’. This is just willful ignorance.

  14. Melvin_H_Fox says:

    John,

    In order to know anything one must have faith in something. Your faith lies in the abilities of man to figure out, from a set of extremely contradictory observations, what “Is” and where it came from. My faith is vested in the living God and His willingness to reveal what “Is”.

    That God wrote the Bible has stood up to every test I have leveled against it (I have leveled many) and every test I have witnessed leveled against it by others. Until it is shown to be in error I will continue to follow its precepts. Mans collective ability to reason has failed time and again. So, pardon me for being unimpressed.

    Evolutionists claim that life must have evolved from non-living material in a closed system. They have no evidence that this happened. I claim that life was created by a directed outside force. I have at least as much evidence as they do. My open system assumption is the more likely. This makes my claim superior to theirs. What say you?

    -Mel

  15. John Doole says:

    I say, Mel, that I believe you are talking complete, unadulterated nonsense and that you are deluded.

    In order to know or believe something one must have evidence. ‘Faith’ is utterly irrelevant, unless you count the kind of ‘faith’ that day follows night because it has done so for billions of years, or that your friends won’t let you down because they haven’t done so before. Even that ‘faith’ is based on evidence.

    Yes I have ‘faith’ or, to use a better word, confidence in humankind to figure things out because we have figured many things out, and continue to do so by looking at evidence, comparing notes, collaborating, constantly testing and somtimes finding new evidence to disprove previously held beliefs.

    What do you mean by ‘the living God’? Where’s your evidence for his/her/its/their existence? There is not one shred. It explains nothing. All it does is beg more questions. If there is a god, where did he/she/it/they come from? You may ‘feel’ very strongly that there is some supernatural sky-bully which is responsible for the existence of everything, but feeling very strongly about something does not make it true.

    And just what do you mean by ‘His willingness to reveal what “Is”‘? This is nonsense. It might sound all deep and meaningful and mystical, but it’s utterly meaningless.

    So you’ve tested it have you? What were these tests? What were the results? Just stating something is not evidence. Provide evidence or I (and anyone else) will just assume you are raving. The Bible, just like all the ‘holy’ books and the ridiculous religions that grew around them, is man-made. It was written centuries after the events that it reports, is hugely contradictory and is frequently downright nasty. It’s hardly the kind of book anyone should base their life on unless you’re into disrespecting women, slavery, mass murder, genocide, human sacrifice, animal sacrifice, and being ruled by a petulant, jealous bully. What makes you think your special magic book is right and all the others from all over the world are wrong?

    Yes, humankind has sometimes failed to figure things out and find answers but we keep trying and find out more and more as time goes on. You should be deeply ashamed of yourself for being unimpressed.

    What do you mean by ‘closed system’ and ‘open system’? Evolutionists ‘claim’ no such thing. They believe life evolved from non-living material because that’s what the evidence suggests. Pick apart any living thing and you will have non-living material. Life and consciousness are emergent properties; in other words we are more than the sum of our parts. No, we don’t know how life srarted or how consciousness evolved and we may never know, but the chances are God willhave had nothing to do with it. Where’s the evidence for your arrogant, dogmatic claim that life was created by an outside force? There is none. Your ‘claim’ is groundless and the product of delusion.

  16. Melvin_H_Fox says:

    John,

    My evidence for God is personal but it has been repeated millions of times. I was about my mere business of life when I got myself in a huge amount of trouble. I sinned. I sinned against man. I sinned against God. How do I know? Well you can ask the people I sinned against; they will tell you. Or, you could read the Bible and it will tell you of many others who have done the things I did. It will tell you of the troubles they brought upon themselves. It will tell you of God’s warnings not to do such things. It is not that He does not want you to enjoy yourself. It is that He wants good things for you not bad. He knows the consequences of your sins will be bad for you and others.

    Once surrounded by troubles and woes I realized, through efforts of my own and others, that; neither all the king’s horses nor all the king’s men could get me out of the mess I had made. I remembered how many of the “deluded” people I had encounter in my life would tell me about this Jesus and how He would save you from your sins if you would only ask.

    Long story short; I asked. With all the sincerity of my heart, I got down on my knees and asked the King of Glory to forgive and restore me. He did. I have evidence. All that I had ever had and lost He restored and more. My wife was restored to me. My kids were restored to me. My family and friends were restored to me. My wealth was restored to me. All these I had squandered, pushed away, abandoned, or alienated. Now I have more family, friends, money, and status then I had ever had living life by my own designs. This “experiment” has been repeated countless times by countless lost souls. You reject this evidence because of your pride. You reject it because of your selfishness. You John have a hardened heart.

    Your God is statistics. You have faith in chance. One book, the Bible, can tell you more about yourself, your kind, the world, and the One who made it than can all the science books that have ever or will ever be written. Modern science, as the dogma of its elite demands, can only study the material universe. Modern science therefore assumes a closed material system and to modern science nothing outside that realm exists. What a foolish self centered stance to take.

    You say evolutionists believe life evolved from non-living material because that is what the evidence suggests. What evidence? How many times have they observed this to have happened? It is fantasy; pure fantasy. Their closed system assumption removes all other possibilities so despite the fact that it has never been observed; evolutionists claim that life must have evolved from some sort of chemical soup. You can’t think that that is science.

    We agree that life is more than the sum of its physical parts. That more is the spirit of a man. You will have your spirit a lot longer than you will have your physical parts. Where will you spend eternity John?

    In the love of Christ,
    -Mel

  17. John Doole says:

    Mel,

    As this life is the only one I will ever have and as I will spend eternity in oblivion (the same oblivion I spent billions of years in before I was born without the slightest inconvenience) I will spend no more of it debating with someone as deeply deluded as yourself.

  18. [...] from Thomas Dixon’s previous very popular post for OUPblog, he has very kindly agreed to write another article for us. Here he reflects on the [...]

  19. Billigflüge says:

    @michael, I wouldn´t generalize it. You can´t draw conclusions from ill people that apply to the entire human kind. So maybe this is your answer: Those people are ill. I am not, are you?

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