Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Creationism is the Official Religion of Oklahoma

Let’s not pretend that Oklahoma is actually a part of the United States. In Oklahoma, Christianity is the official religion. And not just general Christianity, but Southern Baptist Creationism. The Constitution of the United States prohibits Congress from establishing a religion. But it does not prohibit states from doing so. However, any state that does so may have to forfeit federal funds. A couple of years ago, Texas governor Rick Perry reminded America that Texas had the right to secede from the United States. Is Oklahoma ready to declare its independence from the United States? If it came to a choice between having Southern Baptist Creationism established as the official, state-supported religion of Oklahoma, and remaining a part of the United States, I would not be surprised if the Oklahoma House and Senate voted for secession.

In Oklahoma, there is a tradition of having an Oklahoma pastor open sessions of the House with an invocation. In March, 2012, pastor Bill Ledbetter of Fairview Baptist Church in Durant, Oklahoma, the city in which I work (the home of Southeastern Oklahoma State University), was supposed to give an invocation for the Oklahoma House. But he preceded it with a long sermon in which he claimed that God was passing judgment on the United States because evolution is taught in colleges and universities and because homosexuality is not forbidden by law. He told the House that God required them to pass laws that were in accordance with the Southern Baptist interpretation of the Bible. He claimed that Thomas Jefferson had intended the United States to be a Christian nation. He received applause for his speech. Here is a link to a YouTube video of his entire presentation.

You will notice that the pastor has never studied what he denounces. He claims that evolution is the belief that humans evolved from baboons, which no scientist has ever said. But, why should he bother to get it right? God has already made his brain infallible, and made him personally inerrant. This sounds like blasphemy to me, but it is blasphemy that got applause from the leaders of Oklahoma. Even back when I was a fundamentalist myself, I would have been aghast that a man could present himself as personally inerrant.

This is the same pastor who has put up church signs that declare that anyone who disagrees with him about evolution is calling God a liar. This pastor has equated himself with God. And it is not hard for me to imagine that I was the one he had in mind when he posted his anti-evolution statements on the first week of classes in Fall 2011 (see this YouTube video).

What the pastor insisted on was his Republican interpretation of the Bible. He would not permit the United States or Oklahoma to establish an economic system based upon what Jesus said about the responsibility of the rich and powerful to help the poor and weak. He would certainly reject the Old Testament practices of the Sabbath of the Fields, in which God commanded the Israelites to let their fields lie fallow every seventh year, and of Jubilee, in which all land was to revert to the original owners, and all debts forgiven, every fifty years. Biblical government would be more radically socialistic than anything that has ever been tried in the world. Of course, the pastor would not tolerate this. He does not want the Bible, but his own views, to be established as the official religion of Oklahoma.

Right after this speech, the Oklahoma House passed a bill declaring that students in Oklahoma must be required to consider alternatives to evolution and global warming in the classroom.

The legislators of Oklahoma appear ready to lead us into a Dark Age in which they suppress science and attempt to establish a religion-based government. They will fail, but may damage the Oklahoma economy in the attempt.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Appealing to the Basest Instincts

What is human nature? This is one of the most basic evolutionary questions. The liberal idea of previous decades, that the human mind is a blank slate upon which human nature is written by childhood experiences, has been largely discarded even by liberals. It is clear to about half of the people in America that human nature is the product of evolution. The other half of the people think it is the product of a joint venture between God and Satan: God created the good part, and for some inexplicable reason allowed Satan to create the bad part. And that bad part will get us sent to hell unless we assent to certain doctrinal beliefs.

What kind of human nature has evolution left us with? It is a complex mixture. A lot of human nature is altruistic—we have a deep emotional urge to help others, even sacrificially. And a lot of human nature is hateful—a desire to defeat, even to kill, those whom we view as a threat. The mixture is not so hard to understand. We feel altruism toward members of our group, and to hate members outside of our group. Although human nature has not changed during history, we have learned to gradually move the dividing line outward, so as to include and love more and more people in our group. The Christian ideal is to include all of humankind in the group that we love; and some parts of the Bible imply that we should love all of the living world.

But however much we have extended our boundaries of altruism, hatred remains a basic, and base, instinct. It is always going to be stronger than altruism. Here is why. Hatred is a quick and pervasive way of arousing the human body to respond to deadly conflict. If you perceive a danger, rage will allow you to respond to it quickly; if you wait and think, you might be dead. The consequences of attacking something or someone that or who turns out to not be a threat (Type II error, in statistical terminology) are far less than the consequences of failing to respond to a real threat (Type I error). This is why, throughout the animal kingdom, rage circumvents conscious thought, while altruism incorporates it. It is quite normal, though horrible, for people to respond to hatred more than to love.

Any public figure who appeals to the base instinct of hatred is going to get more unquestioning support than someone who appeals to love and reason. The altruist may get more reasoned support, but cannot win the battle for unquestioning support. And today in America, it is the conservatives who appeal to the base instinct of hatred. Probably the best example is Rush Limbaugh, who became infamous recently for his statements about a female college student (Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke). He called her a slut, and said, first, that she had so much sex that it was surprising that she could walk, and second, that Americans should have access to videos of her sexual encounters so that we could see what we were getting for our money. These statements were so outrageous that advertisers began pulling their support from Limbaugh’s radio show; and Limbaugh later issued a perfunctory apology, which was clearly not repentance.

But what response did the Republican presidential candidates have? As of this writing, Mitt Romney has avoided any criticism of Rush Limbaugh. And Rick Santorum has even praised Rush Limbaugh. On a March 10 visit to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Limbaugh’s hometown, Santorum said, “It’s good to be in the hometown of Rush Limbaugh, which some people see as a trip to Mecca.” He was careful to say “some people,” but he was clearly including himself in that statement. He considers himself a Christian, yet (according to his own words) reveres Limbaugh with the same intensity that Muslims revere Mohammed.

Some politicians appeal to reason. This includes many Democrats, and a few Republicans (my favorite reasonable Republican is Mickey Edwards). Other politicians appeal to anger. This appears to include most Republicans, and some liberals. The angry liberals may be just as outrageous as Rush Limbaugh, but clearly their audience is much smaller than his. (My favorite example of an unreasonable liberal was Lynn Samuels, who died last December. Whenever I ran across her on liberal talk radio, my skin would crawl.) This is the generalization that emerges: Republicans use propaganda to appeal to the base instinct of hatred, while Democrats use reasoning to appeal to the higher instinct of altruism. This is strange, since most Republicans do not accept evolution, and believe that hatred was created by Satan.

This essay will soon appear on my website. Please post comments in the comment box.

Friday, March 2, 2012

How to Deal with Fundamentalists: Two Insights from Edward O. Wilson

E. O. Wilson is perhaps the leading environmental and evolutionary scientist of modern times. Not only is he the leading defender of biodiversity, but he invented the term. He also invented the science of sociobiology. He is the world’s leading expert on ants and ant societies. He is a retired professor at Harvard, but continues very active in writing at age 82. His autobiography, Naturalist, describes a truly blessed life of significant contributions to the world, despite some severe attacks that have been made upon his views. He is a prominent scientist but is not too proud to get down on his knees to look at an ant.
When I met Wilson in 2004, he shared his view of religion with me. He considered Christianity to be merely the surviving remnant of an ancient tribal religion whose function was to give some tribes a justification for exterminating the others. In this, he was consistent with the views he expressed in his book Consilience, in which he unites all fields of knowledge into a coherent whole and in which religion plays no part.

I was therefore surprised when, just two years later, he published The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. He wrote it in the form of a letter to a fundamentalist minister, and he emphasized the numerous reasons that scientists and religious conservatives have for joining together to save the Creation. If God made all of the species, whether miraculously or through evolution, should not God’s followers want to save them from extinction?

I was surprised again when in 2010 Wilson published his novel Anthill, about an Alabama boy who grows up to be an environmentalist and a lawyer who successfully saves a biodiversity hotspot by working within, not against, the legal and economic system. At some points in the novel, Wilson reaffirms the common ground that scientists and religious conservatives have. But at the end of the novel, it is three religious conservatives who chase down and try to kill the environmental lawyer. They spew invectives that show just how much they hate God’s Creation.

So I have gotten two partly-contradictory insights from Wilson about the possibility, or not, of environmentalists finding common ground with religious conservatives. I regret to say that I agree more with Wilson’s 2010 ideas than his 2006 ideas. I have come to believe that religious conservatives really do want to destroy as much of God’s Creation (as they consider it to be) as possible. And I believe that some of them, just like the ones in Wilson’s novel, are ready to use violence to do so.

This comes partly from my own experiences with Oklahoma rednecks. Most of them look like they have been injecting steroids, look as if they are ready to beat to a pulp anyone who disagrees with them, and they boast about their guns. While they may pose no current threat, they could become very dangerous the moment we have societal collapse and chaos, a situation that is not hard to imagine. Although most Oklahomans are not like this, I have met people in Oklahoma who are just like the ones in Wilson’s novel.

I am glad that there are some religious conservatives who love God’s Creation, but I believe that most religious conservatives will ignore them or consider them to be hateful apostates to the true religion of destroying the natural world. I think that Christian environmentalism has no hope of success, because their opponents within Christianity have two weapons that Christian environmentalists do not: hatred and guns. And what else could you expect them to believe, if they are convinced that God is going to destroy the world anyway, and soon, possibly this year?

I enjoyed Wilson’s novel, because I enjoy all of his insights. I have to admit, however, that it is not a well-written novel. He passes up many opportunities for interesting developments of plot and character. It gets exciting in the last few pages, but most readers other than devoted Wilson fans like myself will have given up by then. There are nice parts, especially the story of the wars between ant colonies, told from the ants’ viewpoint. If you love nature, and are willing to overlook structural defects of a novel, I recommend Anthill. It may leave you very disturbed about the danger posed by religious conservatism in the United States.

Don't forget to check out my website and YouTube channel--I will post a new video soon.