Creationists Make Up 46% of America, and That's a Scary Thought


Earlier this week, Gallup published the results of a poll that revealed some bitterly disheartening, utterly predictable news: an astounding 46% of Americans believe that human beings were created by God and slapped down on this planet sometime in the last 10,000 years.

Radioactive isotopes? Never heard of 'em. Dinosaurs? Made up by grant-grubbing scientists. Descended from apes? Don't be vulgar. Evolution? Phonier than Obama's birth certificate.

Nearly 150 million Americans are spitting on every shred of scientific evidence ever assembled, and their blind theism has utterly captured the United States. It's one thing to tolerate faiths not your own; it's another thing entirely to shrug your shoulders at the subjugation of science. But why should I decry the constitutionally-protected choices of my countrymen? How do the creeds of Creationists living in large states with linear borders affect me, sittin' pretty on the secular seaboard? Where to begin?

There is the fact that the overwhelming majority of American children lack scientific proficiency, and that this ignorance jeopardizes our place in the technological vanguard. There is the hubris that comes with considering yourself the apogee of creation, and the related conviction that God has supplied us with unlimited natural resources for our personal disposal –– if he didn't want us to burn that coal, he wouldn't have put it in the mountains! There is the rather troubling matter of the disastrous war that was justified, at least in part, by the crusading proclivities of our last president. 

And there is the brutal backlash against the 15% of people who admit to being godless evolutionists. Religious fundamentalism has made it virtually impossible for an atheist to hold higher office in this country –– there has been exactly one open atheist in congressional history (compared to, for example, two Muslim and six gay congressmen). Maybe it's just me, but it seems like a country that cared about both freedom of religion and technological progress wouldn't want to systemically preclude some of its brightest minds from holding elected positions simply because they don't think a bearded guy on a cloud is judging their every move. And prejudice against atheists is far from limited to public officials: earlier this year, Slate ran a horrifying piece about the cruelty that non-believers experience all over America, every day of their lives. 

So Creationism's chokehold on society is almost certainly deleterious. The natural follow-up: what can people who care about the state of science education, the conservation of natural resources, and personal freedoms do to remedy this noxious state of affairs? 

The answer, in this case, is: probably nothing. Over the last 30 years, brilliant scientists and writers, from polemicists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens to thoughtful educators like E.O. Wilson and Daniel Dennett, have banged their head against the brick wall that is creationism. And for what? In 1982, 44% of Americans believed that we'd been plopped down on Earth within the last few milennia; today, it's 46%. Things are getting worse! Hitchens would be drinking himself into a stupor in the afterlife right now, if there was one. 

So go be a high school teacher, right? Arm children with knowledge! When I interviewed Carl Zimmer, one of the country's finest science writers, for an article this spring, he was adamant that improved education was the solution. "If you’re going to write about evolution or climate change, you have to bear in mind that most people are approaching these issues with a really inferior high school education," Zimmer said at the time. And that's true: teacherly cowardice certainly holds back evolution in schools. On the other hand, with the exception of some notable backsliding in Tennessee, evolution is taught better, and more widely, than it was a few decades ago. Hey, it's not like we're South Korea –– at least not yet. But we're still spinning our wheels in the primordial soup.

So are we doomed to remain forever stuck in this religious rut? Well, maybe. But a new study on science communication, conducted by a team of researchers at Yale, offers a faint glimmer of hope.  Although the study, published in Nature, focuses on climate change, it is but a small leap to extrapolate its lessons to evolutionary education. 

According to the surprising findings of Dan Kahan and his colleagues, improvements in scientific literacy don't actually correlate with increased belief in climate change. Instead, people choose to ally themselves with "values characteristic of groups with which they identify." As Grist's David Roberts summarizes, "Getting smarter... only makes us better at justifying our own world views." People use critical reasoning not to get at the truth, but to more deeply entrench themselves in positions that they and their cohort already hold. 

By that logic, communicators like Dawkins and Wilson, who are writing from deep within the scientific establishment, have absolutely no hope of reaching hard-core Creationists; in fact, every word they write only serves to fortify the devout. School, which entails a untrustworthy authoritarian figure hurling information at skeptical teenagers who were probably forewarned against the wiles of evolutionists by their parents, is hardly a more effective medium for the message. 

Rather, Kahan advocates the use of "culturally diverse communicators" and an atmosphere in which "accepting the best available science does not threaten any group's values." Trusted community members espousing a version of evolution that does not preclude the existence of God: if secularists want to influence the hearts and minds of Creationists, that's the model they need to follow.

Surely these people exist: the high school basketball coach in Missouri, the Rotary Club member in Texas, the unusually open-minded pastor in Nevada. People who don't reject God, but don't think he sculpted the human race out of Play-Doh 10,000 years ago, either. People who believe that a divine hand dropped a few organic compounds into a primeval bog, set the wheels in motion, and then stayed out of the way while the fish grew limbs and the lizards sprouted feathers. People willing to share that crazy theory with a few trusted confidants, who share it with a few friends of their own, and before you know it, they're erecting a statue of Charles Darwin alongside Buddy Holly in Lubbock. If Americans' stance on evolution is itself to evolve, that's how it'll happen: from within, not from without.