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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Problem of Evolution in America

Once again, Jerry Coyne gets it right.1 He is about to publish an article in the journal Evolution on Science, Religion, and Society: The Problem of Evolution in America. There's a link from his blog [My paper on religious and social factors affecting American acceptance of evolution] where he notes that the manuscript isn't quite ready for publication and most of you can't see it because it's behind a paywall.

Here's the abstract ...
American resistance to accepting evolution is uniquely high among First World countries. This is due largely to the extreme religiosity of the U.S., which is much higher than that of comparably advanced nations, and to the resistance of many religious people to the facts and implications of evolution. The prevalence of religious belief in the U.S. suggests that outreach by scientists alone will not have a huge effect in increasing the acceptance of evolution, nor will the strategy of trying to convince the faithful that evolution is compatible with their religion. Since creationism is a symptom of religion, another strategy to promote evolution involves loosening the grip of faith on America. This is easier said than done, for recent sociological surveys show that religion is highly correlated with the dysfunctionality of a society, and various measures of societal health show that the U.S. is one of the most socially dysfunctional First World countries. Widespread acceptance of evolution in America, then, may have to await profound social change.
Sandwalk readers will be familiar with Coyne's attack on accommodationism because he's absolutely correct. You will also understand that the problem is not evolution vs creationism but science vs religion. You can't ever solve the problem of creationism without dealing directly with the false doctrines of religion.

But Coyne goes one step further. How do you make America into a more secular society like those in other Western industrialized nations? Coyne argues that the popularity of religion in America is due to the fact that America is a dysfunctional society and religion may represent the only hope most people have in such a society. Therefore ...

Creationism in America, then, may be a symptom of religion, but religion in the modern world may itself be a symptom of unhealthy societies. Ultimately, the best strategy to make Americans more receptive to evolution might require loosening the grip of religion on our country. This may sound not only invidious but untenable, yet data from other countries suggest that such secularism is possible and, indeed, is occurring in the United States right now. But weakening religion may itself require other, more profound changes: creating a society that is more just, more caring, more egalitarian. Regardless of how you feel about religion, that is surely a goal most of us can endorse.
I think he's right about this. You can remove the need for religion by creating a more just society. But I don't think it will be easy. Looking at it from the outside, it appears to me that there are millions of Americans who don't accept the just society2 as a desirable goal. They call themselves "Republicans" and they vote for people like Rick Santorum.

I think it's also going to be very difficult to convince most Americans that their society is less than perfect. In other words, most of the rest of American society accepts the concept of a just society but firmly believes that America is the only country that has achieved it.

1. That doesn't mean that he's right all the time. It just means that his batting average is way above average for an evolution defender.

2. Canadians will be familiar with the term since the just society was the goal of Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau who named his son, and political heir, "Justin."


  1. Re: your last paragraph: Please do not mistake the noise and bombinations of a minority of Americans for the opinion of the majority. I'm an ordinary person, and no one I know personally believes the USA is superior in any way JUST because it's the USA. Most ordinary people are painfully aware that our health care system stinks, that there is little justice in our justice system, and that the vast majority of us are in reality taxed without real representation. We're trying to fix it but it's very hard when you also have to try to keep a roof over your head and food on the table in these difficult times.

    I stop by your blog every day, and enjoy it very much. Thanks for all your work!

  2. Rather interesting that Mr. Nick Matzke is one of the most vociferous critics of Prof. Coyne over at the Panda's Thumb site. Mr. Matzke is a defender of the Templeton Foundation and of scientists who take money from the organization. Here's a post from Abbie Smith's blog about the associations of the chairman of the Templeton Foundation, John Templeton, with the American National Organization for Marriage, a despicable gay bashing organization. Mr. Templeton has contributed over $400,000 to that outfit and his wife has contributed over $100,000. Scientists who take filthy lucre from the Templeton Foundation are lending their prestige to it and its despicable chairman.

  3. I think many posts like yours and Coyne's take insufficient notice of the role of science itself, and the fascination with it on the part of many, in weakening the hold of religion.

    In this connection, I wonder if the fact that scientists in the US are less religious than the public at large comes from science showing them religious myths are no longer tenable, or from a tendency among them to be less religious in the first place and therefore more amenable to science. I think it may well be the former. If that is so, perhaps one of the best ways (though certainly not at all the only way) to weaken the hold of religion is by promoting the natural fascination with science.

  4. You've probably have seen this study about the relationship between dysfunctional societies and religiosity: