Sunday, June 03, 2012

Half crazy

Sometimes I see things in the news that so astound me that at first I can’t say anything about it. Today I saw something that made me wonder if America is half crazy.

A Gallup poll released yesterday found that 46% of Americans—nearly half—believe that human being beings were created in their present form by a god less than 10,000 years ago. I think this poll explains a lot about Americans, and why their politics are so bizarre.

The optimist might note that a slight plurality of Americans—48%—acknowledge the reality of evolution, but that’s not half—and barely more than those who believe in recent divine creation. Among that 48% on evolution’s side, 32% believe that humans evolved with their god guiding the process, and 15%—half as many—said no god was behind the process.

There are plenty of religious people, including scientists, who have no trouble reconciling their religion and science. In fact, some credit their god with science itself and the natural processes that over billions of years led to humans.

The people who are most likely to believe in recent divine creation are those who attend church services weekly (or, at least, no less than monthly), which is no surprise. However, contrary to what some may suppose, there’s little difference in belief between those with “some college” and those who have a university degree. Even among those with postgraduate education, a plurality believes in divinely guided evolution, though this group is least likely to believe in recent divine creation.

We expect Republicans to believe in recent divine creation, and a clear majority do. But pluralities of Democrats and Independents also believe in divine creation within the last 10,000 years, and nearly as many again believe in a god-driven evolutionary process.

That tells us pretty much all we need to know about US politics: Most Americans believe in things that are improvable and must be accepted as a matter of faith. I’d argue that this makes it much easier for them to accept political dictates from their religious leaders, even when they defy reason.

Take gay and lesbian equality for example. Their religious leaders tell them that gay people aren’t part of their god’s creation, that they’ve chosen to be wicked, so it’s then easy to vote against gay people and to advocate a lesser class of citizenship for them.

This is backed when polls of people’s attitudes toward gay people are compared with their belief in recent divine creation: The level of support for gay and lesbian equality precisely tracks belief in recent divine creation: Those who are most likely to believe in a recent divine special creation are also least likely to support gay and lesbian equality.

Personal experience affects this, of course. Support for equality grows as people get to know actual gay and lesbian people, and not the bizarre, even monstrous, cartoons promoted by religious leaders. The same isn’t true for evolution because it’s impossible to have personal experience of it. However, I think realising that the anti-gay ravings of preachers aren’t true will lead inevitably to questioning other dubious claims.

Gallup observes: “Most Americans are not scientists, of course, and cannot be expected to understand all of the latest evidence and competing viewpoints on the development of the human species.” That’s true, but calls into question the efficacy of science education in American schools if people can’t understand even the basic facts of science and evolution, or are so willing to reject them because some preacher told them to.

Of course I don’t actually think that half of Americans are crazy, but their beliefs can lead them to do crazy things. The problem isn’t that a clear majority of Americans think a god was involved in the development of the universe we know today—that’s a matter of belief to which they’re entitled. The problem is that nearly half of Americans reject scientific fact in favour of what amounts to superstition. If they’re so keen to reject factual evidence in this one area, they’re clearly far more likely to reject it in other areas, too.

And that is crazy.


Roger Owen Green said...

As I may have mentioned a few times, it was the literal 6 days of creation that helped propel me out out the church when I was in college, and it is the notion that 6 "days" were more like eons that helped me find my way back. Overly simplistic here, but I think you get my point.

Arthur Schenck said...

Yes, you have, and I find that fascinating.

Although I didn't go into in the post, when I was a Christian I had no trouble reconciling that and evolution or science generally. But, then, I wasn't a fundamentalist and didn't even know any when I was growing up, so maybe it was easier.

So, in my case, it wasn't the anti-intellectualism of some Christians that drove me away, but it certainly didn't make me want to go back.

Roger Owen Green said...

BTW, you haven't lived here in a while: half of American ARE crazy.