Marx once said that religion was the "opium of the people." He saw that religion provided a necessary illusion to the misery and distress of people's lives and that religion provided that which the real world -- their world -- could not: hope and happiness. To some degree, this was very generous of Marx because religion, especially western religion, has indeed been used as both an opiate and a tool of repression and subjugation for much of its history. If the irrational state of the American body politic demonstrates one thing, it is this. Today, even as the vast majority of people in this country enjoy the tremendous fruits of the scientific endeavor, they publicly brook no scientific notion that fails to comport with the happy myths of their Christianity. For these people, one particular science distresses their comforting views of themselves and their place in the universe.
Evolution, of course, is that one scientific idea. Earthly, biological evolution, anyway. It is indeed a "theory," as the religious right is fond of pointing out, as though that has become some sort of opprobrium, while "faith" for them remains forever beyond reproach. It remains a bit of a mystery as to why cosmology or geology has not been called, at least directly, to the carpet of the castigation. Perhaps because it does not directly insult the sensitivities of Christians who like to think of themselves as "god's image." Nonetheless, America remains unique within the panoply of modern industrialized states wherein highly advanced science has been and remains the subject of pubic rebuke, coming as it does at the behest of fundamentalist religiosity and those politicians who will pander to adherents of religious dogma, a dogma that, since its inception, has comforted fools with self-satisfying tales of their very exceptional nature. But what is never mentioned in our current, sound-bite public discussions of this particular scientific field is that evolution and evolutionary biology is just one aspect of the larger domain of scientific endevour that seeks to understand the empirical nature of the universe and our own place within it.
It is that salient fact more than any other that demonstrates the true nature of the religious right's criticism of science. Though they will have no issue with science that brings them cable, cell phones, the internet, computers, flat screen televisions, antibiotics, microwave ovens and automobile GPS systems, evolution alone gets branded as "dogma" because it is fundamentally at odds with the Biblical literalism that informs benighted souls that the earth is 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs either a) never existed because the Devil planted fossils to test the faithful, or b) never existed because God planted fossils to test the faithful, or c) all died in the great flood or d) romped happily in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, were saved by Noah and then died. While fundamentalist ideas of how to explain dinosaurs and fossils twist in an idealogical wind like a gassy, fly-blown carcass, one thing remains constant: it is science that is wrong.
Evolution draws on inference from observed phenomena, just as all other science does, but it has now become a talking point in our time that evolution is simply a dogma unto itself, as though it has no better grounding in reality than the early myths manufactured by ignorant mortals determined to believe that some great intelligence -- far greater than themselves -- must
have been responsible for the creation of all things and, moreover, that mankind's very existence is critically tied to this grand being and that our form is the form of this God. Such a view is ultimately a narcissism, one that wishes to impart on the faithful that their existence is not only divinely ordained but distinct from and exceptional to all other things. Though science does not aspire to such narcissism and never attempts, in and of itself, to answer metaphysical questions about what was responsible for creation or why it happened, it has become de rigueur
amongst the religious right in the United States to claim that science and religion are at odds. For them, science and religion are non-intersecting domains, an either/or proposition. This attitude has not generally changed in this country since the Scopes trial of 1925.
While the American public has grown more accommodating of scientific idea of evolution since the Scopes trial, when the vast majorities of this country and others did not believe in evolution, the number of Americans accepting evolution has never much exceeded 50%. But until recent decades, neither science nor religion had ever really been a partisan political issue. That is to say, public piety had never been the sole domain and strength of one party and it certainly never revolved around questions of science. Times, as they say, have changed.
The graph above and the recent Gallup poll
clearly demonstrate the effects of the thirty-years Republican march to co-opt the religious right. Invariably these days, discussions within the punditocracy include wonderment as to how Democrats are going to woo the religious voter. But it is the nature of that wooing that has been framed, not by the general public, not by overriding concerns of personal character, but by the Republican party, which has embraced religious nutters and focused unbroken attention on small plate issues such as abortion, gay marriage, evolution and, more recently, stem cell research. These are things that affect almost none of those who claim moralistic concern about them. For the GOP, therein lay the beauty of them; they can rile up the base with little cost and much benefit to themselves.
If the graph above demonstrates anything, however, it is that the Democrats haven't lost all that much ground to the GOP as far as the evolution question is concerned. Fully 40% of Democratic voters "do not believe in evolution." Whether these numbers reflect swings of the faithful to the GOP or that more voters are now willing to admit this, like some badge of righteous legitimacy, is immaterial to the larger issue that the subject of religion and faith is now "on the table" and seen as a vital part of the political dialogue of everyone, not just in presidential races, but probably in most political races and at every level of government. It is important to note that these so-called discussions remain extremely limited in scope
; to those issues that the GOP and its co-opted religious right have already determined to be the pressing issues. Of course, actual behaviour within this limited scope is rarely called into question in such forums, which is vital for the extremely hypocritical actions of the Republican party and their pious acolytes.
To anyone who has been watching the mainstream coverage of the presidential debates, candidates are now routinely asked about their faith and even explicitly about their belief in evolution. This is a frightening development for the future of this country. Until recently, the United States once prided itself on its technological preeminence and scientific advances. In some small circles, that still may ring true, but not in our political realm and therein lies the danger. Because politics pandering to ignorance will be, among other deaths, the death of science here. This won't be swift, of course, but it is already happening, as scientists flocked elsewhere after the asinine stem cell research bill, one of George Bush's first carbuncle policies pandering to the religious right. Today, South Korea is now at the fore
and America's "culture of life" is directly responsible for the one of the largest humanitarian disaster on the globe while our pious leaders espouse a fondness for policies of torture, pointless and indefinite incarceration, secret prisons and more war. Torquemada would be proud.
A political orthodoxy has been developed, and purposefully so, within which these ridiculously irrelevant, personal positions have become crucial to candidates. That we had three GOP candidates, on a nationally televised debate, affirm that they did not believe in evolution indicates a deep and troubling rift with a rational world view, the one which founded this country. Sadly, as this recent poll indicates, these three candidates were actually in tune with the majority of their party's voters and that such a position would probably positively sway these voters, rather than positions on the war in Iraq, health care or the growing number of poor in the country. It is all deeply cynical. And, once again, the "people" will be placated, not by the hope of building a better world here, but by the opiate of religion, a religion that views existence on this earth as a mere way station to some imagined heaven. Is this the future of politics in this country? catering to the throngs who would rather be somewhere else?