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Retroactive Soapbox Entry- Fed Up with U.S. Public & Religious Fundamentalism

Note: This is a post of an essay that first appeared on my website August 15th, 2005. The original essay can be found here. This is part of an ongoing effort to put all of my soapbox entries onto this blog, to give a space for user feedback. A "new" retroactive post will be made every Monday.

15 August 2005

It seems like religious fundamentalism, specifically Fundamentalist Christianity, is on the rise in this country. I don't know if that's actually the case, whether regligious fundamentalists are just becoming more vocal, or whether it's because I moved from the northeast down to Texas, so I've noticed it more. Even though I'm a Christian, to me, religious fundamentalism seems like a bad thing. It takes a mindset that ignores scientific evidence and fosters ignorance, keeps scientifically knowledgeable non-Christians from accepting the religion, causes scientifically knowledgeable Christians (like myself) to question their faith, and in general makes Christianity seem like a religion for ignorant people. Worse, even though so many people claim to be Christians, I see a huge amount of hypocrisy in this country.

So, I'm writing this Soapbox entry. This is probably one of the least organized and least constructive essays I've ever put on my site. It's mainly just a chance for me to vent about things I see going on around me. Several of my friends fit into some of the things I'm complaining about, so don't take this too seriously. Yes, these things bother me, but my wording's probably a little bit stronger than I actually feel about it. They certainly haven't come in the way of any of my friendships.

One of the main reasons I'm writing this is because of evolution. As I wrote in another soapbox entry (2004-12-14), it just astounds me that so many people reject evolution. I got a lot of it off my chest when I wrote that essay, but every now and then I'll start reading sites like Talk Origins or The Panda's Thumb, and even Pharyngula (though his anti-Christian statements do get on my nerves at times), and it gets me all worked up again. Back in that essay, I referenced a Gallup poll that stated that a full 44% of Americans agreed with the statement that, "God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years." As if that wasn't bad enough, it's gotten worse. In a new poll conducted by Harris Interactive in June of this year, 54% of people polled agreed with the statement that, "No, I do not think human beings developed from earlier species." Granted, that's a slightly different wording, and a handful of the people agreeing with this statment might agree with it for different reasons than believing that we were created directly by God within the last 10,000 years, but I think this does show that more people are rejecting evolution.

A good statistic that I included in my other essay, which came from a Newsweek article referenced on ReligiousTolerance.org, "support for creation science among those branches of science who deal with the earth and its life forms [is] at about 0.14%." How can there be such a huge difference between the public and the scientific mainstream? What type of arrogance does it take for a person to say, "I know you've gone to a university and spent at least 4 years studying to earn a degree, and probably a few more years studying to earn an advanced degree, and since then you've devoted your whole career to the life sciences and used evolution as one of the central tenants of your work, while I've only had high-school biology plus what I've read in the popular press, but I'm still going to say that your life's work is rubbish," and then to repeat that roughly half a million times to all of the scientists in the life sciences field? I find it just unimaginable. And yet, here we are, with half the population saying basically just that. That's not to say that people should accept evolution solely because most scientists do. If they were smart enough and scientifically knowledgeable enough, they could go and look at the evidence for themselves (and there are mountains of evidence for evolution from several diverse fields). But most people aren't experts in all fields, so we usually accept the experts' opinions. Why is it so different in this area?

And evolution is only one of the reasons that I'm writing this. What really triggered it to begin with was that I was listening to the radio, and I heard some report about a recent execution here in Texas. And the hypocracy just slapped me in the face. On one hand, they're preaching and fighting over unborn babies' rights, trying to get practically every form of abortion outlawed and even stopping stem cell research because of the ethical implications, and then on the other hand they're turning and taking away human life simply for vengeance. Whatever happened to not throwing the first stone, or to forgiveness? And that's what really got me to thinking about the hypocrisy going on in our country.

I wonder how many people in this country have actually read the Bible. I've read it once. That's not bragging - the Bible's a massive book that will take several readings to begin to have a full understanding, but at least reading it through once is a start. But I'll bet that most people in our country don't even do that. I'm convinced that most people just listen to their preachers, or what they read on the Internet, or hear on TV, and accept it. How else do you explain so many people quoting passages from the Bible that call for the death penalty for murder, or say how detestable homosexuality is, but forget to mention that the Bible also calls for the death penalty for adultery, having sex before you're married, using the Lord's name in vain, or even for working on the Sabbath. I'm sure that most people are guilty of these sins (especially the working on the Sabbath, and to a lesser extent, using the Lord's name in vain), but there's no public outcry over them. If people read their Bibles, surely they'd see that God didn't want us doing these things, either, and just how serious of a sin it was to be punishable by death. But, people in the U.S. are happy to just kind of ignore those issues, while they make sure that people can be executed for murder and gay people can't enter into a legal marriage.

And did you know that there are still people that believe the Earth is only 6000 years old? I would have never believed it until a couple years ago, when one of my co-workers said that that was what he believed. He told me to go Google "Young Earth," and that I'd find plenty of information about it. Well, I did, and I was shocked to discover just how many people still believe that. I don't think it's half of the population like the amount of people that reject evolution, but I bet it's probably still a lot more sizeable than I would have ever imagined before, and probably growing. I mean, this is something with even more evidence than evolution, and people still reject it. Do they think God deliberately made the Earth appear old to test us. A sort of, either believe your own eyes or have faith in me? I can't imagine that God would have done that, and I can't believe how many people actually buy into it.

As long as I'm on the topic of evolution, the Kansas school board is at it again, and it seems to be stirring up controversy throughout the whole country. In that recent Harris Interactive poll that I referenced above, 55% of Americans want creationism and intelligent design taught alongside evolution in science classes. That just boggles the mind. 99.9% of scientists think evolution explains the diversity of life on this planet, and there aren't any other theories that challenge it (note I said diversity and not origin. Although that's kind of a moot point, since most people that accept evolution also accept abiogenesis). Yet people want religion and some thinly veiled religious theory taught alongside evolution. How would a history teacher feel if I said that I wanted him to teach that the Holocaust didn't really occur, because my personal belief was that it didn't (not in reality, just hypothetically). How would that be taken? I know I've heard of people that believe that, so I'm sure I could find some website out there with "evidence" to support that view. Is that really what we want our education system to be, to teach all viewpoints on a certain subject, even when some of the viewpoints are ludicrous?

I was watching T.V. in bed the other night. My wife had the remote and was looking for something good to watch. Just as I was about to fall asleep, she found a religious channel, and purposely left it there to get me riled up. It was some guy giving a presentation on how teaching "creation science" (quotes because it isn't science) isn't unconstitutional. He had all types of newspaper clippings backing up his claim (it struck me that he was using newspaper clippings, and not court reports, but never mind that). I suppose he was just trying to counter one of the arguments from the evolutionist camp, one of the ones that I never really felt that strongly about because it misses the whole point of what I think is the debate: Creationism is not science. Plain and simple. No matter what propagandists try to make you believe - there's no way to test it or make predictions off of it. Any evidence you find, like fossil evidence, geologic evidence, genetic evidence, etc. that point towards an ancient Earth or evolution, a creationist can always account for by saying that it's that way because God made it that way. (Actually, I'd say it's worse than that. Since all of the evidence indicates the Earth and its life weren't created like in the 6 day Genesis story, accepting a literal creationism is to say that we can't trust scientific evidence, so what good is science at all? Okay, that's a little extreme, but you see where I'm going.) Creationism is based entirely on faith. Even "Intelligent Design," which purports to be science, would still have to be considered fringe science, since it has so little support among mainstream scientists. Put aside my own personal feelings on how people can be so arrogant/ignorant as to reject evolution, how can people with no expertise in a certain field try to dictate the curricula in that field? Especially when virtually the entire field is in agreement on the mainstream theory? It just boggles the mind.

Here's another example. How many people understand the probability cloud to predict the location of an electron in an atom, and how many people still think of it in terms of the more simplistic Bohr model, kind of like a mini solar system? I'd wager that the majority still thinks in terms of the Bohr model, but should we let the masses dictate scientific teaching in this area as well? Of course not. So why the debate on evolution? (Actually, this brings up another irritating point of the fundamentalists. I did a Google search for "electron probability cloud," expecting to find something scientific about electrons, but the first page that came up was a creationist page!)

So, to wrap up with my ranting about evolution and education. People ought to look at the evidence and just accept it. If they're not knowledgeable enough to understand the evidence, they ought to accept based on the fact that scientists know what they're talking about. And if they're unwilling to accept evolution at all, they should at least have the sense to let scientists decide what should be taught in science classes. Leave creationism and Intelligent Design for philosophy or religion classes.

Oh, hell, this is a rant, so even though I'm done with the evolution in education part, I'm going to keep on going with the general evolution rant. I came across this page, likening comparing humans to chimps with comparing a battleship to a fork. The author was trying to make it seem ludicrous, but I think he chose a pretty poor example, never mind the fact that I think humans and chimps show much more similarity than a fork and a battleship. The author had the battleship saying that the two were related because they had so many traits in common, malleability, rusting, shininess, etc, while the fork maintained that they were obviously different. He carried the evolution analogy even further, having the battleship deduce that they must have had a common ancestry. Okay, inanimate objects don't procreate, so that's a poor analogy to begin with. But, the evolution of the technologies needed to create each did have a common ancestry. Before people were around, neither one existed, so both are products of human technology. (A better analogy to prove the author's point might have been a battle ship and a shiny rock...) Further, they are both metals, so neither one could have existed in the stone age. Both are results of technologies involving the purification and working of metal. So, in a sense, the fork and the battle ship do share a common ancestry. To compare it to evolution, it might be someting on the order of humans to worms, and the similarities between humans and chimps might have been more like comparing the battleship to a cruiser or an aircraft carrier. But still, I think the whole thing's a poor example to begin with and trying to draw these parallels is kind of difficult. I just happened to come across the page, and in my ranting mood decided to type up a response. [Update 2006-01-24: When I first wrote this rant, I just stumbled across the above "fable." I really had no idea who the author was, but my impression from the quality of his comparison was that it was just a typical religious nut typing away from his home computer. I wasn't terribly impressed by his story, and really only wrote up a response, like I said, because I was in a cantakerous mood. I just now followed the link and took another look at the story, and now that I've been looking into this topic a little more, I recognized the author, John Woodmorappe. He's actually a big name when it comes to trying to back up the Bible with science. And it strikes me how one of the "big names" can come up with such an inane story. I haven't read much of his work, but if this fork and battleship story is any indication of the quality of his writings, wow...]

Aside from the bad analogy above, and even ignoring the evidence from paleontology and genetics, it just seems to make sense that common appearance denotes common ancestry. Look at human families. It's usually pretty easy to tell relatives from non relatives because they look similar. Take a look at this picture, and tell me that this doesn't look like a person.

Cover Picture to My Family Album with Face Removed
Cover from Book, My Family Album
(But it on Amazon)

Yes, I removed the face, but not to try to be misleading, just to emphasize the similarities in our bodies. Take a look at a house cat and a lion. Their heads appear very different, probably about on the same scale as humans and chimps (though this is subjective), but everyone still sees the similarities between the two animals and considers both of them to be cats. I don't see how people can look at humans and chimps (and the other apes, for that matter), and not consider them to be closely related.

A few years ago, when I first realized just how many people in this country doubted evolution, it got me to thinking that, well, maybe I was wrong. Maybe I had been naively accepting what I'd heard on T.V. and read in magazines. So, that's when I really started to research it. Most of this I mention in my 2004-12-14 Soapbox Entry. And when I did that research, I did read a lot of creationist pages. And, to be a little less than polite, but still not putting it as strongly as I'd really like to, most of what I read on the creationist sites was just pure dribble. Misunderstandings of science, misapplications of scientific principles (like entropy, for one - if creationist's entropy interpretation were true, there'd be know way for adult forms of life to grow from eggs and seeds), out of context quotes from scientists, implications that large numbers of scientists are starting to question evolution, and on and on. I don't think I've read a single thing on a creationist or intelligent design website that's made me question evolution (though I can see how some of the arguments would be convincing to people that didn't understand science). So, I hardly ever read creationist sites, anymore, because there's nothing useful on them. I'm sure these people will come up with new "theories" and "evidence" in the future, but they've so destroyed their credibility with what I see on their websites now, that I probably won't ever read most of those theories. And this leads into one of the more frustrating points - no matter how many times somebody comes up with evidence contradicting creationist claims, or filling in some of the gaps in our understanding of evolution, the creationists just come up with more erroneous arguments. The only way to counter ignorance is through education. But creationists are worse than people ignorant in other fields, because they're actively trying to promote their ignorance and resist knowledge, and they're trying to force their ignorance onto other people, as well. How long are people going to have to keep countering creationist arguments until the mainstream finally accepts evolution? I've only been following the debate for a couple years - I can't imagine making similar arguments forty years from now. Hopefully there will continue to be organizations like the National Center for Science Education and Talk.Origins. Actually, check out the Index to Creationist Claims on Talk.Origins. It does a good job of keeping up to date with the common creationist claims and showing what's wrong with them.

I'll just go on about evolution a little bit longer, I promise. Just look at the evidence from living animals. Comparative anatomy and genetics are both very strong evidence for evolution. Common ancestry does such a good job of explaining why more closely related animals share the traits that they do. For example, why flightless ground-dwelling birds still have wings structurally similar to flying birds, even though they can't fly. And for that matter, why there are even flightless birds at all. And why humans and chimpanzees share so much genetic information, right down to non-functional regions of our DNA that have no effect on our development. Common ancestry also does a fantastic job of explaining why more closely related species tend to be geographically closer, like Australia having so many marsupials when there are hardly any others in different parts of the world. And why the new world has no great apes other than humans. But still, this can all be explained from the creationist argument that God created animals to be similar on purpose, right down to the DNA. And the geographic distribution can be explained by saying that God created distinct regions on purpose, putting similar animals close together (this ignores a literal interpretation of the Noah flood, and how the animals would have gotten back to those locations after the flood). But then, we also have evidence from the fossil record. There are several well documented transitions from one species to another (like humans and horses, to name only a couple). The two most obvious explanations that I see for this are either to say that God created multiple species, so closely related to each other that it would be impossible to distinguish between individual species (which seems very unlikely), or that species have evolved from one type to another. To be honest, I think even most well educated creationists (well educated certainly doesn't mean most Americans) now accept that "microevolution" has happened, that there can be small changes like those necessary for a proto-horse to evolve into a horse. But their theories usually involve saying that microevolution won't allow an animal to evolve into on of another "kind." Actually, "microevolution" is necessary for the theories of some of them concerning history after the supposed great flood (explaining how we could have the huge diversity of life now, but that Noah wouldn't have had to have taken all of these animals on the ark). But, if you're willing to accept "microevolution," what's the huge leap to just accept evolution in general? I just don't understand why these people can't make the jump. I mean, enough small changes taken cummulatively can eventually lead to big changes. If they're not creationists of the young earth type, there was certainly plenty of time for this to happen. Why the huge objection to this happening? And if they are creationists of the young earth type, well, what hope is there for them to accept any scientific evidence? And this still leaves the problem of how to define "kind." Some of the well defined lineages show pretty large differences between animals that are clearly related by common descent.

One more note on this, there's also the fossil evidence from ancient deposits, such as pre-Cambrian deposits, to name an example that's popular right now. Many of the modern "types" are absent from deposits of that age, and there doesn't seem to be any indication that we're going to find them. How does the "microevolution" theory account for this? And, to quote a response from someone going by JM on Pharyngula, "but if one insists upon a creator, one presumably has to explain why he/she/his noodly eminence apparently tinkered with precursor designs first, before finally 'getting it right'."

I guess part of my outrage with the evolution/creationism debate comes from how intrigued I've been by evolution and paleontology my whole life, but it goes deeper than that. Ignorance and stupidity are bad enough by themselves - nothing good ever comes out of it. People in classical times were pretty well educated, free thought was expanding (even if science wasn't in its modern form), and for the most part, people were better off for it than they had been in the past. Then, the Roman Empire fell, and Europe plunged into the Dark Ages, when everything was driven by religion, and look how bad off the peasants had it. Later, the Arab world was the center of intellectualism for a while, and they were pretty well off, but look at the Middle East now that they're all religious zealots. So, abandoning science and reason for religous zealotry can have bad consequences for society as a whole, and I don't want that to happen.

That above example's probably a little extreme, but I still don't like the way this is going. Fringe scientists and politicians trying to force scientific curricula. Children are very impressionable, and I don't want my daughter growing up in a world of ignorance. It's already hard enough to keep her open to the idea of evolution with all the religion she gets in day care and her environment (this is Texas, remember). I don't want to have to fight her science class, as well, to keep her out of that ignorance.

And our xenophobic anti-science culture is already starting to have consequences. Our K-12 schools are already lagging behind other nations in science and math education. And our universities, which for so long have attracted students from other nations, are no longer bringing in the same number of foreign students. While xenophobes might not be too upset by having less foreigners, they should be upset at the reason they're not coming - our universities aren't as good (comparatively to foreign universities) as they used to be.

I suppose one main reason that the creationism vs. evolution/ancient universe debate gets me so worked up is not just because of the ignorance, but, like I mentioned above, because they're people actively trying to promote their ignorance and resist knowledge, and they're trying to force their ignorance onto other people, as well. I mean, there are other areas where the general population is ignorant. Take for example, how planes fly (if it was solely the shape of the wing, how do stunt planes fly upside down?). Being an aerospace engineer myself, that one bothers me. But, it's only being perpetuated by ignorance. Usually, once people here the correct explanation, they accept it. That's why it bothers me so much that creationists are trying to discredit science.

Well, with this type of rant, I could go on and on. Every day, I read or hear something that gets me upset about it. So, I'll just write on this one more topic before wrapping it up. On the way in to work this morning, I heard a quote by Rick Santorum, a senator from Pennsylvania. I can't remember the exact wording, and I wish I could find it somewhere on the web, but the basic gist was something to the effect that I've heard before - creationism says that we were created by God with a purpose and morals. Evolution says that we just came about by chance, so where do we get our morality standards from? This argument seems to be comprised of two basic ideas - evolution implies that we're not as special as we'd like to believe, and evolution takes away our moral accountability. On the first part, I have two responses. First, it seems that this is rejecting evolution based simply on the fact that one doesn't want to believe it. It goes against something that a person wants to believe, so they reject it. That's not the way the world works. Things aren't true or false because we want them to be- they're true or false just because that's the way the are. I mean, I'd really like for the Loch Ness monster and other such creatures to exist, but I don't honestly believe that they do. Secondly, this isn't the first time that science has shown us that we're not as special as we thought. Like I've written elsewhere, no matter how you interpret the Bible now, geocentricism was what practically everybody believed for thousands of years. It made us appear special, that the Earth was the only planet, made by God just for us. The heliocentric view came along and changed all that, and now, we know that the Earth is only one of countless planets, in one arm of the Milky Way, one of countless galaxies. How special does that make you feel? To the second part of Santorum's statement, the part about the morals, that just seems like a bunch of hogwash, too. Like many atheists point out, who would you trust more, an atheist who does good things because he wants to, or a "Christian" who does things simply because a book tells him to. There have even been quotes from "Christians" who have said that the only reason they don't go out and kill people is because of the Bible. Is that someone that you'd really trust? I think I read in The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis, (so obviously, this is his opinion, and not Christian dogma), that God wants us to be good people not because the Bible says so, but because we truly want to be good people. I think that's the case. God doesn't want us to strictly follow rules. He wants the goodness to be in our hearts. Plus, there are plenty of other religions besides Christianity, and plenty of othe societies where those are the majority religions. While they may do things that some would consider sinful, I don't think that their societies are lawless chaos. It seems that most people have an innate sense of goodness no matter what religion (or lack thereof) that they follow. And besides, we're living in the U.S., where laws aren't supposed to be based on religion. I think the best measure of fairness for a free society is to look at how people's actions affect others, and base our sense of fairness on that.

Well, in the process of writing this soapbox entry, it got me to do a lot of thinking about how to interpret the Bible. So, I ended up writing a more constructive essay, How to Interpret the Bible, that I've actually included in the main writing section and not my soapbox. There's a lot of good information in there relevant to these topics, including a section on why I have so much confidence in science.

Further Reading

  • Re-Discovery Institude Mendeleev's periodicity of elements (the periodic table) is a theory in crisis. Teach the controversy. (In case you miss it, this site is a joke.)

  • Onion Article - Intelligent Falling Gravity can't be fully explained by science. Intelligent Falling fills in the gaps. (This link is a joke, too.)

  • Flying Spaghetti Monster If we want students to be taught all sides of the evolution/cretionism debate so that they can make an informed decision, we must teach them ALL of the sides, including the Flying Spaghetti Monster theory.(another joke)

  • Terrapin Tables Evolution Thread

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