Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Ah, life in Medieval–er, I mean, Middle America. Though raised in a red state, I was shocked recently when my brother, who still lives in one, complained that “they” were trying to keep creationism out of the public schools his children attended. I would have used the word, “we,” and was unpleasantly surprised he hadn’t. A math nerd, he’s been studying computer science at night school. I figured he saw evolution at work every day.

Adaptation and selection are very obviously integral to who we are, and human history is unintelligible without them. The basic principles of evolution are at play in every aspect of our daily lives, not only in agriculture and animal husbandry, but in the progressive development of medical technology, and devises like cell-phones, ipods, and personal computers. Our penchant for selection clearly mimics Nature’s.

But I’m not as concerned about my brother as I am about his four kids, who range in age from 5 to 14. They are already having difficulties in school, and their parents’ growing involvement in a charismatic megachurch seems to be making matters worse. The church all but forbids inquiry, because questions open the door to doubt, and doubt leads to debate and dissent. And dissent is chief among sins. These churches constitute an aggressive “shadow theocracy” seeking to undermine modern democracy. No joke.

My brother’s kids are being taught to stifle their innate curiosity about the world, the physical laws governing it, and the other people inhabiting it. Since they are not to believe the evidence of their senses, or to ask nettlesome questions about the way things really work, they’re learning not to dialogue with others, but to disengage. Anyone with different ideas is automatically the enemy. The curiosity of others is a threat. Because they have no recourse to reason even benign questions are felt to be hostile.

Creationism in our schools encourages this mentality, discouraging the open inquiry necessary for participation in a global market. The hostility to debate that accompanies it is antithetical to democracy. Creationism is neither credible as an explanation of the origins of the species, nor are the teachings that often accompany it in any way beneficial to democratic socialization. Reason enough to keep it out of classrooms. Sensitivity to diversity should not blind us to the damaging effects of equating science with fiction.

Creationism is not a religious necessity, but for some it serves a psychological need, addressing feelings of disorientation in a rapidly changing world. Evolution represents dynamism, creation stasis. Feelings of helplessness in a world always in transition are real and valid, but creationism does nothing to allay them. Ignorance may be bliss, but knowledge is power.

In 1633 the astronomer Galileo was forced by the church to renounce “the heresy of the motion of the earth,” not because it was not demonstrably true, but because it challenged the self-serving “truths” of the church, threatening to undermine her hold on power. Today as ever, truth is heresy.

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