Thursday, June 21, 2018


Political Mayhem Thursday: Belief and Politics

I was doing some research for an upcoming presentation when I came across the slide above, which was produced as part of the Pew Foundation's Religious Landscape Study (you can see the whole thing here).

Let's just reflect on something here: About half the people in West Virginia don't believe in evolution.

How did our country get to the point where this is possible? How have we let public education become hostage to religious interests?

And here something interesting, if you are thinking that only Evangelicals would deny evolution: Evangelicals only make up about 39% of West Virginia's population.

And it's not just West Virginia; Mississippi is even worse:

This is not just a political problem (in that we aren't educating our children), but it is the problem with our politics. Truths are not winning out, and this is rooted in a broader, deeper, systemic failure.

The first time I ran into this issue was at a playgroup, talking to other moms. One mom announced,"I don't believe in evolution, because I know we didn't come from chimps." Several moms nodded along. I knew right then that I needed to find a new playgroup. That, and I needed to find a way to explain evolution to folks who have no idea what the theory states.

I teach about evolution every semester to several classes. I often have students who don't "believe" in evolution. I like to confront the topic head-on -- it changes some students' minds, but not all of them. I usually say that we're going to talk about evolution (and evolution only, no religion) in this class and that it's the theory upon which biology and environmental science are based. Then I tell them that I'm a person of faith and active in my faith community. I see no conflict between my faith and science based on evolution. I invite them to discuss the topic with me outside of class, and I have a few books that I recommend to help them as they research the topic -- they've got to do the research, not just take my word for it.

I've had several students chat with me and tell me that they come from conservative backgrounds, but they've found it very interesting to look at the topic from another perspective. They also appreciate that they don't have to jettison their religious faith in order to pursue a career as a scientist. Sometimes students have animated conversations about the topic in lab (I once overheard a student saying to another, "what? she said she's a Christian? How's that possible?" Ah, the opening I was waiting for!)

Unfortunately, we have to correct a lot of misinformation, but it's doable. As I try to correct this error in our educational system, I remember the words of that sage, Gerry Garcia, "Somebody has to do something. It's just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us."
Wow, yes, Desiree.

As I read what you and Desiree have written--and looked at the chart--it seems that a big part of the issue is education and not necessarily religion. It seems that believing that humans have always existed in their current state could signal several things: Either they don't know about what evolution is and simply need to learn in order to have a belief; or they've heard of it and don't want to believe we evolved from apes (because they find that belief distasteful for reasons other than religion, which also signals a need for unbiased education); or they've heard of evolution/learned about it and for religious reasons don't want to believe in it.

Whichever it is, the result is still the same, I realize, but I'm thinking that the interference of religious convictions in that 40+ percent's or 59 percent's lack of belief may not be as great as one would think.
Uh, SillyAmerican is Amy Garrou, a regular here. Too many email accounts to disentangle . . .
While I have no doubt that education plays a role here, attributing the problem to education alone is an oversimplification. As Desiree mentions above, even with her impressive approach to teaching the subject, students' preconceptions influence their view of the curriculum. These preconceptions are no doubt reflective of broader communities in places like West Virginia and Mississippi (and elsewhere), which will tend to play a countervailing force against even well-taught ideas. Schools can only do so much.
I am an aetheist, but my father was very religious; we both are geologists. He had a rather simple way of rectifying scripture and science, noting that God's law is called physics. Once you accept that (and that the Bible is allegorical), everything simply follows God's law.

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