Creationism and Conspiracism

Katha Pollit has an interesting piece in The Nation about why it matters that so many Americans are creationists.

It isn’t that 46 percent of respondents are creationists (“God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last ten thousand years or so”). Or that 32 percent believe in “theistic evolution” (“Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process”). Or that only 15 percent said humans evolved and “God had no part in this process.” It isn’t even that the percentage of Americans with creationist views has barely budged since 1982, when it was 44 percent, with a small rise in the no-God vote (up from 9 percent) coming at the expense of the divine-help position (down from 38 percent). Or that 58 percent of Republicans are creationists, although that does explain a lot.

Beyond the failure in education, anti-intellectualism, and downright ignorance—the troika that allows the organized right to make such good use of climate change denial and Agenda 21 paranoia—it speaks to the default paranoia that lies behind so many Americans’ thinking:

Think what the world would have to be like for evolution to be false. Almost every scientist on earth would have to be engaged in a fraud so complex and extensive it involved every field from archaeology, paleontology, geology and genetics to biology, chemistry and physics. And yet this massive concatenation of lies and delusion is so full of obvious holes that a pastor with a Bible-college degree or a homeschooling parent with no degree at all can see right through it. A flute discovered in southern Germany is 43,000 years old? Not bloody likely. It’s probably some old bone left over from an ancient barbecue.

This is also what allows the right to use American Exceptionalism as a wedge issue—the fact that so many ignorant Americans have such unjustifiably high opinions of their own ability to know the truth and such contempt for everybody else’s. It’s where Evangelicalist absolutism and the populist strain in politics come together to do their worst.

But as annoying and dangerous as all this is, it’s not something that more stringent educational standards will cure. Evangelicalists don’t want to be Evolutionists—they want to be saved. And twist it as you might, you can’t reconcile a belief in Darwinian evolution with a personal God who reserves the gift of eternal life only for those who put their faith in His son. People whose patriotism is premised on Exceptionalism are going to be very protective of American Sovereignty—why shouldn’t they, if every other country is wrong? America’s Founders knew about this kind of thinking, which is why they had an abiding distrust of both direct democracy and established churches.

The one thing I think we should do is cut the 32 percent who believe that God “guides” evolution some slack. No, they can’t really have their cake and eat it too, but why rub their faces in it? At least they’re willing to acknowledge that God works in mysterious ways. Plus, if you look at the questions that Gallup actually asked their sample, you’ll see that there’s a lot of wiggle room. The critical phrase is “in their present form.” That leaves open the possibility that apes evolved into hominids and so on, but that they weren’t strictly human until they had an “aha” moment some 10,000 years ago (like the apes in 2001, except it was God that caused it, not an alien, or maybe aliens working through God).

And we 15 percenters should have a healthy respect for Kierkegaardian mystery too. We don’t know everything, after all.

Arthur Goldwag is the author of The Beliefnet Guide to Kabbalah (Doubleday, 2005), Isims & Ologies (Vintage, 2007), and Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies (Vintage, 2009). A contributing editor at Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine, he also writes for children.