Karl Giberson has now written two HuffPo articles on the Marco Rubio “controversy” (here and here). In an interview with GQ Rubio (a junior Senator from Florida) was asked about the age of the earth, and instead of giving a straightforward answer to the question, ended up by saying that it was one of life’s great mysteries. Later, he retracted that statement, and suggested that it all depends which community you ask. If you ask scientists, they will tell you that the age of the earth is 4.54 billion years old, but if you ask many creationists, they will say that the earth is somewhere around 10,000 or less years old. The scientific view, he said, must be taught in schools, but parents have the right to teach their children lies. Of course, he didn’t use the word ’lies,’ but that’s what it amounted to, and that is pretty shocking coming from a possible presidential contender next time around.
Giberson, however, faced with this almost unbelievable expression of ignorance by a leading light of the Grand Old Party, even if it was done for political reasons, suggests that there’s no point in facing this problem head on. That will just make creationists more determined than ever to stick to their guns. After all, he says, they really believe in spiritual warfare between Good (them) and Evil (those who speak the truth). Yes, I know, that’s not the way he puts it, but it’s really the way it sorts itself out. In his first article he ends with the words, “Give Rubio a break.” Then in the second article he raises the spectre of American survival. It seems that Giberson himself is confused and unsure of himself, even though he suggests that he knows the way forward, and it does not lie with people like Coyne, Dawkins, Dennett and Stenger. For what, he asks, do people see when they consult these experts? Passionate anti-religious polemic. And how are the creationists to find a different point of view if people do not write about it?
Even a diligent search [Giberson writes] would turn up but a few books explaining how contemporary scientific ideas can be understood within the framework of traditional Christianity.
In place of the deniers of religion, Giberson offers us Chris Mooney and Michael Ruse instead, for they — well, what do they do? — go easy on religion? play accommodationist games? allow religious ignorance a place to wallow? What do they do that Coyne, Dawkins, Dennett and Stenger don’t? Basically, I think, they pull in their fangs, and pretend that science is no threat at all to the creationists’ worst fears.
Instead of attacking ignorance straight on, says Giberson, we must raise the right sort of alarm:
These and other books from people like Chris Mooney and Michael Ruse (both atheists) are our attempts to raise the right sort of alarm about broad cultural currents in American society. Assaulting public figures who express these cultural currents turns them into heroes.
He speaks of his involvement in American evangelicalism and about naïve optimism:
I have spent decades deep inside American evangelicalism. When I first engaged the origins controversy I thought the solution to the problem of anti-evolution was simple: provide evidence and people will change their minds. False things should be easily trumped by true things. And today I find many of my younger colleagues wading into this controversy with the same naïve optimism.
And then he tells us, as if it were news, that this is not a scientific controversy (who knew?!) but a culture war. Of course it’s not a scientific controversy, and suggesting that that is the way educated people regard it is a hopeless way of dealing with the problem. And were Karl’s decades inside American evangelicalism all spent trying to get evangelicals to see reason? Or did he not himself dance to their fiddle for a while? He writes about the books that he has published on the subject, but the most distant was published only a decade ago, so it seems he was slow to recognise the dimensions of the problem.
That it is a problem certainly needs to be recognised, but the dimensions of the problem need also to be recognised. I don’t think Karl really recognised the problem until Jerry Coyne pointed this out to him in response to his first HuffPo piece. It is unclear whether he now recognises it, as Jerry Coyne points out in his response to Giberson’s second kick at the can. Indeed, raising the spectre of America’s decline is scarcely the point. Karl’s problem is that he thinks it is possible to be intelligent and educated and still believe in young earth creationism. In other words, you can be intelligent, educated and ignorant! This is clearly a confusion at the heart of Giberson’s own thinking. He doesn’t want to say, of the people with whom he has been deeply engaged over several decades, that they are ignorant, but they are, and he needs to acknowledge this to see where the problem lies. If, indeed, young earth creationists are going to read books that show that science is not a threat to young earth creationism — and how could it not be? — then young creationists must write them, for neither Michael Ruse nor Chris Mooney will be able to write such books, however accommodationist they may seem to be. This is something that, I think, Jerry Coyne does not fully recognise. He responds, with considerable justice, to Giberson’s attack on himself, Dennett and Stenger, by pointing out that
[f]or every book by someone like Stenger claiming an incompatibility between science and faith, there are at least two dozen showing how faith and science are compatible. Here are some of their authors: John Polkinghorne, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Ian Barbour, John Haught, Ken Miller, Francisco Ayala, Francis Collins, Nicholas Humphrey, and so on and so on and so on.
So the problem is not a problem of accessible information. However, the real problem lies far deeper than that. The problem is one of a deliberate determination to remain in ignorance; and in the face of wilful ignorance of this kind there simply is no solution. It is simply not possible for anyone to write convincingly that science is not a threat to young earth creationism. No such book will ever appear. But this means that there is no right sort of alarm to the problem posed by young earth creationism. Religion is the problem here, and nothing but the destruction of this sort of religion will solve it.
This is something that the religious, even the fairly liberal religious, seem not to recognise. One of the problems with liberal religion, as I have said repeatedly, is that it serves as a cover for perverse religious beliefs. People speak about moderate and liberal Islam, and yet there is very little evidence for it. Liberal Islam, just like liberal Christianity, is a form of “religious secularism.” If that sounds like a contradiction, it probably is, but it is what those who want to hold onto religious beliefs, despite all their doubts and questions, are really affirming. They are accepting religious belief and religious practice as a thoroughly modern way of thinking and living. The supernatural is wholly assimilated to a naturalistic point of view, but one that leaves room for a kind of mythical or poetic exaltation, which is often spoken of in terms of the transcendent. Yet such religion, for all that it retains the forms of the old religion based on supernatural beliefs, miracles, and direct interventions by God in lives of individuals and societies, dispenses with the supernatural trappings in favour of living in a storied universe as if it were true. Of course, there is always an underlying suggestiveness about such religion, that makes it appear as though those who are religious in this way retain the essence of the tradition. This may lull them into the assumption that their “faith” is not in tension with the tradition, but in this they are wrong.
That is one reason why the pope is important, because he continues to remind people that this way of understanding religion, attractive as it might be to those who cannot accept religious belief at face value, is not religious at all. And when he does this it becomes even clearer why religion can no longer succeed in the modern world. The only way that religion can succeed is to suppress the evidence that religion must overlook if it is to retain the main currents of tradition. Of course, this is much clearer in the case of young earth creationists. They have to deny so much that it is simply impossible for a reasonable, educated person to accomplish it. There has to be a bedrock of wilful ignorance to deny so much. In order to maintain their integrity, those who accept the findings of science, but still wish to live within their religious myths, must distinguish themselves from their benighted brethren. It should be impossible to call oneself a Christian when so many Christians believe the unbelievable. And by pretending to speak authoritatively about things that can no longer reasonably be believed the pope shows how completely out of touch he really is. He shows that the Catholic Church is no longer a place fit for respectable people.
Karl Giberson is faced with a dilemma. He dare not leave the Christian fellowship, yet it seems, at the same time, that he cannot belong to it. He still has a tender conscience when it comes to his brothers and sisters in Christ, yet he cannot share their deliberate ignorance and obfuscation. So he must offer them at least qualified defence. How are they to separate the true from the false if those who stand for science stand against faith? Yet the simple truth is that, in order for believers to do this, they must make an effort to square their beliefs with the facts, which are accessible to everyone who wishes to know them. It is simply false that everyone who writes about science is anti-religious, as Jerry Coyne points out. The real problem is, I suspect, that believers who write about science do not make a compelling case for those for whom large swaths of science must simply be denied. For all Templeton’s money, people are justly suspicious of those who think that science and religion can be made to live amicably together. You simply have to skate over too much thin ice for this to be a practical possibility for many believers, for they keep encountering, in the scriptures, beliefs which go directly contrary to the discoveries of science, and when they do they are faced with a forced option. It should not be surprising that they should then hold on for dear life to their trusty beliefs, for fear that they should lose them and be lost themselves.
The problem is much more deep-seated than Giberson seems to think. It has to do with the deliberate suppression of evidence, as Paul Krugman, over at the New York Times, points out in his article “Grand Old Planet.” Religious believers of the strict fundamentalist variety are unable to acknowledge many scientific facts as facts, a process of deliberate intellectual deformation which becomes a habit of thought — which explains why fundamentalism is so destructive. It is impossible to insulate it from other beliefs about the world. Pointing out the way in which Republican pundits continued to deny the results of state-by-state polling during the recent election, Krugman goes right to the heart of the problem:
On economics, as in hard science, modern conservatives don’t want to hear anything challenging their preconceptions — and they don’t want anyone else to hear about it, either.
There you see the fix that Giberson has got himself into. He thinks there must be a rational way out of the maze, but the maze has been constructed carefully and deliberately over several generations for the purpose of protecting believers from the world, and now those who are in it can find no way out without simply leaving the maze itself, something that even Giberson seems reluctant to do.
The figures indicate the seriousness of the problem. In his New York Times article “Dinosaurs and Denial,” Charles Blow spells the problem out in numbers. Here are a few facts.
… only 6 percent of scientists identified as Republican and 9 percent identified as conservative.
… just 11 percent of college professors identified as Republican and 15 percent identified as conservative.
Only 16 percent of Republicans said that they worried a great deal about [global warming], while 42 percent of Democrats and 31 percent of independents did.
This means that there is a sharp cultural division within American society that will only steepen as time passes. Consider this. Blow points out that, according to The Scotsman,
Pupils attending privately run Christian schools in the southern state of Louisiana will learn from textbooks next year, which claim Scotland’s most famous mythological beast [the Loch Ness Monster] is a living creature.
The Scotsman goes on to point out that (though, fortunately, as Blow points out, the law in question has been declared unconstitutional), according to a measure signed into law by the Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal,
[t]housands of children are to receive publicly funded vouchers enabling them to attend the schools — which follow a strict fundamentalist curriculum. The Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) programme teaches controversial religious beliefs, aimed at disproving evolution and proving creationism. Youngsters will be told that if it can be proved that dinosaurs walked the Earth at the same time as man, then Darwinism is fatally flawed.
It simply will not do to say we need to raise the right sort of alarm. In the face of a deliberate denial of the truth on this scale, the problem is more acute than Giberson’s song and dance over the proper way to combat it suggests. In the world’s most powerful nation this kind of deliberate ignorance is not a small problem, and it is not only an American one.
Is there a solution to the problem? It is not clear that there is one, but it certainly does not lie in Giberson’s continuing defence of evangelical Christians. It is simply not true that the facts are not accessible to them. I am inclined to take Jerry’s line and wonder why Giberson remains an evangelical Christian. The problem is deeply rooted in religion, and until this is acknowledged it is not going to be solved. Giberson may have been right in thinking that attacks on figures such as Rubio simply make them heroes and martyrs for the cause, but this would have been true only if Rubio had not corrected himself and acknowledged that the age of the earth is 4.5 billion years old, and that this claim is consistent with his own faith as a Roman Catholic. This will not endear him to his Republican constituency. Rubio goes considerably further than Giberson himself seems prepared to go, for Giberson continues to make excuses for creationists, whereas Rubio only acknowledged their right to be wrong, and to teach their children falsehoods. This is bad enough, but Giberson seems to think that only accommodation will work, even though there is no way for science to accommodate young earth creationism. Given Giberson’s premises, the problem is insoluble. He needs to find a bit more courage.