Among the many fascinating things I learned in a recent report by Pew Research Center was that because the United States was on the verge of civil war when Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection was published in 1859, the groundbreaking book “went largely unnoticed” in America.
Indeed, the report notes that the fundamental truths underpinning biological evolution that the then-revolutionary book revealed for the first time are still viewed with dismissive contempt by a vast subgroup of Americans.
“In spite of the fact that evolutionary theory is accepted by all but a small number of scientists, it continues to be rejected by many Americans,” wrote Pew staff writer David Masci in an essay accompanying the report released this month. “In fact, about one-in-five U.S. adults reject the basic idea that life on Earth has evolved at all. And roughly half of the U.S. adult population accepts evolutionary theory, but only as an instrument of God’s will.”
In other words, some 66 million Americans reject the idea of natural evolution out of hand, and 164 million believe that, whatever may have occurred naturally, God unquestionably caused it to happen.
And these are the same folks who, in large part, gave America a president named Donald Trump.
These numbers should alarm all nonreligious people and those committed to facts and scientific demonstrability. What the Pew report indicates is that hundreds of millions of Americans’ views on reality continue to be based on spiritual fantasies 160 years after Darwin’s discovery should have flung such notions into the dust bin of history.
But supernatural religion is nothing if not insensible to contradictory fact.
What Pew has discovered over years of surveying people’s religious attitudes and assumptions is that the “theological implications of evolutionary thinking” not only unnerve religious believers — but often skew their answers when polled.
“For many religious people, the Darwinian view of life – a panorama of brutal struggle and constant change – conflicts with both the biblical creation story and the Judeo-Christian concept of an active, loving God who intervenes in human events,” Masci wrote.
So, Pew has developed survey questions which seek to mitigate religious bias and elicit answers more representative of respondents’ views and attitudes.
Conservative Christian antipathy to evolution has a long pedigree as a religious proxy war against science and modernity, which has increasingly and irrefutably debunked many core religious claims. From the 1890s to 1930s, American Protestantism cleaved into two divisions: modernist, which held a theologically liberal understanding of the faith; and conservative evangelical Protestantism, Pew reported.
“By the early 1920s, evolution had become perhaps the most important wedge issue in this Protestant divide,” Masci wrote in his essay, “in part because the debate had taken on a pedagogical dimension, with students throughout the nation now studying Darwin’s ideas in biology classes.”
The inherent problem for literal-Bible Protestantism in this debate was scripture’s expansive inconsistencies and factual errors. This issue was front and center during the infamous Scopes “monkey” trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925. The state’s prohibition of teaching anything in public schools that contradicted scripture, specifically evolution, was the trial’s focus. During the courtroom event, famed secular prosecuting attorney Clarence Darrow squared off against evangelical Christian populist and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in arguing the merits (or not) of the Bible.The disadvantage Bryan labored under became starkly evident under Darrow’s withering questioning.
“With Bryan on the stand, Darrow proceeded to ask a series of detailed questions about biblical events that could be seen as inconsistent, unreal or both,” Masci wrote. “For instance, Darrow asked, how could there be morning and evening during the first three days of biblical creation if the sun was not formed until the fourth?”
Although the defendant in the trial, Dayton science teacher John Scopes, was convicted of teaching anti-biblical evolution banned by state law and was directed to pay a symbolic $100 fine, the conviction was later dismissed on appeal on a technicality.
In the ensuing years, predominantly Southern and Midwestern states continued to promote anti-evolution laws, because the Constitution’s prohibition against government proselytizing only applied to federal, not state, actions. Nonetheless, court rulings still consistently rejected them as unconstitutional promotion of religious ideology in public schools. (For more information, read about Epperson v Arkansas and Edwards v. Aguillard.)
Also, in 1947, the Supreme Court ruled in Everson v. Board of Education that the constitutional prohibition on religious establishment applied to state as well as federal actions, although, ironically, the court also ruled in the case that public funds could be used to bus students to private, generally religious, schools. That was what the plaintiffs were specifically arguing against.
Since, fundamentalists have been busy trying to repackage their anti-evolution arguments — “creationism” and “Intelligent Design” — to allow biblical creation dogma to be taught side-by-side with evolution in U.S. science classes, as though it were also science, if “alternative.” The tactic was disingenuously proclaimed as “teaching the controversy,” although evolution by then was long established, noncontroversial science, the bedrock theory of biology.
Evangelicals simply refuse to yield these fantasies of a world created by an invisible being in six days.
That is why 66 million Americans still today refuse to accept that evolution is a real thing, and while 164 million concede that perhaps it is real — it was a personal, loving God that caused it, not godless nature.