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Religion and Science in America

Louisiana Republican Governor Bobby Jindal advocates teaching creationism in public schools.
Photo by Pool/Getty Images

A large percentage of Americans continue to interpret the Bible literally.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 42 percent of Americans believe God created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years. That’s right, more than one in four Americans don’t believe in evolution.

The survey, conducted May 8-11, found that 31 percent believe in evolution — under the guiding hand of God — while 19 percent accept the idea that human beings developed over millions of years from other, less advanced forms of life without the presence of God guiding the evolutionary process.

Most Americans claim familiarity with evolution. In the survey, 79 percent said they are very or somewhat familiar with evolution as an explanation for the origin and development of life on Earth. Interestingly, one-third of those who say they are very familiar with the theory of evolution still believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.

Gallup didn’t plumb further into what familiarity meant to respondents. Do those people fully understand the science of evolution? Or do they understand enough to know how evolution conflicts with creationist concepts?

The views of Americans on evolution are one indication of the intensity of the nation’s religiosity. Gallup found in 2010 that the answer to the question of whether religion is important to the people of a nation is inversely proportional to that nation’s per-capita income. In the world’s poorest nations, 95 percent say religion is important in daily life, but in nations with per-capita income over $25,000 annually the number falls to 47 percent.

That’s true for many nations in Europe, such as Sweden, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and France. But the United States, according to Gallup, is the one rich country “that bucks the trend. About two-thirds of Americans — 65% — say religion is important in their daily lives. Among high-income countries, only Italians, Greeks, Singaporeans, and residents of the oil-rich Persian Gulf states are more likely to say religion is important.”

No one wants to deny any American the right to believe as he or she chooses. Traditionally, religion has played an important role in society, and it will continue to do so. But, at the same time, religion ought to be a private affair, between an individual and his or her God (or gods).

What is troublesome is the intrusion of religion in the public square, as when believers deny scientifically proven facts and try to impose their beliefs on the larger society. This happens frequently in parts of the United States. Creationists from time to time try to force the teaching of their scientifically unsupportable theories in public schools. Even without formal action by school boards, surveys have found that as many as 13 percent of high-school biology teachers advocate creationism in their classrooms.

The denial of fact in one area — the theory of evolution, for example — often translates into denial of facts in other areas — such as climate change and human responsibility for it. Again, 42 percent of Americans (that figure again!) told Gallup in a recent poll that the seriousness of global warming is exaggerated.

The theory of evolution and concerns about climate change both rest on a broad scientific consensus. Unfortunately, the more the experts agree on something, the more it plays into the anti-intellectualism so pervasive in American history. Often anti-intellectualism translates into hostility to science.

Right-wing politicians are not shy about pandering to this anti-intellectualism. Here’s Florida Senator Marco Rubio recently on climate change: “Our climate is changing. I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it.” And on creation: “I'm not a scientist, man… Whether the Earth was created in seven days, or seven actual eras, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that. It's one of the great mysteries.”

Or Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal on teaching intelligent design, the point at which religious belief conflicts with scientific truth in the public arena: “I’ve got no problem if a school board, a local school board, says we want to teach our kids about creationism, that some people have these beliefs as well. Let’s teach them about intelligent design. I think teach them the best science. Let them, give them the tools where they can make up their own mind, not only in science but as they learn and teach about other controversial issues, whether it’s global warming or whether it’s… climate change or these other issues.”

The governor of Louisiana may not have a problem with it, but many Americans do because we do not teach error as science in our high school biology courses. Scientific explanations can be tested and validated, and those tests can be repeated time and again. Teaching creationism as science suggests that something lacking any scientific credibility somehow fulfills the definition of science.

We do not teach our students error; we teach them science.

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