Whom the Gods would destroy

"For those whom God to ruin has design’d, He fits for fate, and first destroys their mind."

~ John Dryden (1631-1700) English poet, dramatist & critic from The Hind and the Panther

According to a CBS poll, most Americans do not accept the theory of evolution. Just over half, 51 percent of Americans, say that God created humans in their present form, and another 30 percent say that while humans evolved, God guided the process. Just 15 percent of Americans in the poll say humans evolved, and that God was not involved.

Published by Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and

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15 Comments

  1. Owen, I’ve been reading some interesting material by Brian McLaren, who has an eloquent (although paradoxical) theory that the current anti-scientific religious worldview expressed in this poll is actually a product of the scientific world. Let me paraphrase:

    A post-Enlightenment “modernism” encourages a mechanistic, deterministic view of the world. Cause and effect must be understood, all questions must have a rational answer. This makes it more difficult to cope with poetry, mystery and unanswerable questions. Therefore religious texts, although written in an age with a non-rational worldview, must be interpreted literally. Where there is a disconnect between the text and observable fact, the text must be right, or the whole of the faith is wrong. This view may be the norm in the US.

    I am a geologist. I understand that the fossil record supports evolution. I am a Christian. I believe that a higher power (let’s call it God) created the universe. I can’t pretend to know how the two mesh together perfectly – but I don’t have an intellectual problem either. Some things remain a deep mystery that I don’t understand, but my experience in many other areas doesn’t lead me to abandon faith. Maybe that’s what McLaren terms a “postmodern” Christian?

  2. Can I add that it’s easy to associate religiousness with anti-scientism, but religion is growing in the US and is consistant with high levels of education and high status within scientific disciplines.

  3. Having just been to the Osteopath again, I really believe in evolution, because otherwise I have to say that our backs are a very unintelligent design.

  4. Religion may be coincident with high levels of education, but that doesn’t validate the irrational: it shows a willing detachment from rationality – the idea that fact/science is a “dead end” and that you should fill your spiritual shopping basket with whatever you believe “works for you”. So the traditional approach of appealing to science and reason can hardly work here, with people who will insert “deep mysteries” where there are none. Well that’s faith for you.

  5. John – that’s not post-modern Christianity, it’s post-Victorian! (Post-Gosse, you could say.) But, oddly enough, the mostly-American “give me the Good Book and don’t confuse me with science” attitude is itself a nineteenth-century phenomenon – the Bible-literalism of ‘fundamentalist’ Christianity goes back to a hugely popular book called, precisely, Fundamentals, which I believe was a product of the Great Revival. Which, in turn, wouldn’t have been as influential but for the strength of an odd populist ideal of cultural democracy (everyone’s opinion as good as everyone else’s) – which in turn was reinforced by the myth of the New World, of Americans as Americans having unmediated access to truth in a way that authority- and hierarchy-bound Europeans never could.

    Capsule summary in the style of Obelix: “These Americans are crazy!”

  6. I am with Phil on this. You can make whatever excuses you like, but belief in God & creationism is, to me, just as crazy as moonies, Millerites, astrology, the believe that the earth is carried on the back of a turtle, and other widespread superstitions.

    The fact that religion is growing, even among educated people, does not make it valid or rational.

    These people are, indeed, crazy.

  7. Oh well, maybe I’m crazy then. (Owen, the diversity training had a lasting effect on you!)

    I disagree that it is irrational or invalid to recognise a spiritual dimension that can’t be subjected to the same observational scrutiny as the material world. I don’t perceive a conflict between science and spirituality, but that’s maybe because I am not a fundamentalist or biblical literalist (definitely post-Gosse!). Christianity is a “broad church” (sic), and there is a wide spectrum of belief, politics and opinion. Don’t lump us all in with the extreme (highly visible and voluble) crazies!

    Phil, I agree with your description of the anti-science fundamentalism as a reaction against nineteenth-century scientific progress (and there’s plenty more to debate on the provenance of some of those ideas – but maybe not on Owen’s bandwidth).

  8. John

    I hope you aren’t going to take offence! I use the term crazy pretty liberally (for example, I would happily apply it to people who eat meat, read horoscopes, play golf, have children, ski, watch 5-day cricket matches, train-spot, sky-dive etc).

    I don’t think it is inconsistent with a strong belief in and support for diversity to say that I do not have any more reason to believe in God than I have for believing that Libra should not marry Virgo, or that I will be reborn as a porcupine – I think all of these views are crazy, and all as crazy as each other.

    Where I do agree with you is that there is no necessary conflict between science and (your word) spiritual. They are different discourses: like science and poetry. At least, they are as long as the “spiritual” does not make any claims about the world, and sticks to describing emotions. The problem comes when people’s “spiritual” feelings leak out, for example when they become the basis for making claims about how the world is, why it is as it is, or what other people should or should not do. Once the spiritual crosses the boundary into trying to describe the world, then it is in direct competition with science, and it must expect to be scrutinized as such.

    Owen

  9. No offence intended, none taken(cue an appropriate emoticon).

    And I think we’re converging on the opinion that where the “spiritual” makes claims about the material or behavioural world, that it should be subject to challenge and criticism, particularly from observational science. That is, after all, a holistic approach.

    But, after 23 years in Scotland, I still don’t get golf.

  10. Good piece about this in today’s Guardian here. (Or here: if I got the buttons wrong: http://www.guardian.co.uk/usa/story/0,12271,1651333,00.html)

    Steven Jay Gould (author, Prof of zoology and geology at Harvard) suggested that Science and Religion occupy ‘none overlapping magisteria’, a lumsy phrase and wrong when fundamentalists are trying to prevent children being properly taught. Dont forget that Tony Blair refused to condemn the teaching of creationism when challenged at prime minister’s question, and that he is in favour of more schools of the kind that give creationism airtime.

    We need to be on our guard that this dangrous trend doesn’t grow: as a start we can make a big noise about Darwin’s 200th anniversary in 2009. If he was French , Spanish or German there’s be a bust of him in every science lab; institutes town squares and boulevards named after him, donkeys hurled off church roofs and a day named in his honour. His birthday, 12 Feb seems a good start. Each country in Britain has a piece of Darwin: born in Shropshire, university in Edinburgh then Cambridge, lived in London then Kent, wrote much of the Origin on the Isle of Wight, posted the first copies from Yorkshire, visited Wales with his family.

    If anyone should be driven mad in the next three years, it’s creationists and intelligent designers, to whom I would just say ‘scrotums’.

  11. have any of you actually looked at all the evidence? I WAS a convinced evolutionist.  I too study anthropology and microbiology.  You after reading and examining the evidence honestly say that we are an accident of random molecular movements.  You evolutionists are truely crazy.  I challenge all of you, to research FULLY what intellegent design community has to say and check out there evidence.  Its scientific facts.  In fact you can read it on most evolutionary and scientific websites to vailidate the ID claims.  If we look at history SCIENCE was wrong every time and went against Biblical teachings and common accepted beliefs.  For example, Science said in as early as 1978 that the universe was infinate without a beginning. It was not until then that science accepted the truth and saw that there is in fact a begining.  I can give you a list like science saying the world was flat and claiming it to be a fact the the Bible clearly says "The circle of the Earth" and I’ll spare you a list.  Just if you really are looking for what is fact and theory I STRONGLY suggest you check out the evidence.  People like Mark Eastman or Dr Livingston are good examples of credable sources.

  12. And I challenge you to use a spell-checker, learn how to write complete sentences, make sure that you have your dates correct and can back up generalisations like ‘science saying the world was flat’.

    I came here in following John’s comment about being called crazy. I want to see how a deeply religious person can reconcile belief in the supernatural with a belief in the natural. It looks like it’s done by drawing some careful boundaries. But it still seems that a belief in God is just too convenient, and that one would be tempted to answer every mystery with reference to a higher power. How was the universe created? Well, I don’t know, so let’s just say God did it.

    I’d be a lot more comfortable with the idea of God as a motivating force of a natural kind, in which God was just a name for every mysterious thing and potentially unanswerable question. It would mean that it has agency without being conscious, that it has direction without determinism, that it is a commitment to the unknown and unknowable in the face of our own relative insignificance. That’s in direct contrast with the personification of and doctrinal assertions about this mysterious force, practices that strikes me as inept, primitive, mean-spirited, and delusional.

    But that’s just me, and I’m only one small part of God’s mysterious ‘plan’.

  13. Subsequent to that last comment, the telepathic folks over at Crooked Timber performed a small miracle and pointed this at me:here’s a very interesting speech on science and religion by Father Gregory (sic) Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory. Read the whole thing, as they say, but here’s one salient quote.

    How
    are we to interpret the scientific picture of life’s origins in terms
    of religious belief. Do we need God to explain this? Very succinctly my
    answer is no. In fact, to need God would be a very denial of God. God
    is not the response to a need. One gets the impression from certain
    religious believers that they fondly hope for the durability of certain
    gaps in our scientific knowledge of evolution, so that they can fill
    them with God. This is the exact opposite of what human intelligence is
    all about. We should be seeking for the fullness of God in creation. We
    should not need God; we should accept her/him when he comes to us.

     I can sympathise with this dude. Seems like he’s got the best of both worlds.

  14. David, thanks for mentioning the reference to Fr Coyne (I’ve not come across him before, must follow your ref and read more). The extract you quote fairly well sums up my view. I am not looking in science either for God to "fill the gaps", nor am I looking for an objective scientific proof of the existence of God. The whole evolution/creation/ID debate is intellectually interesting, but is, to be honest, a bit of a sideshow to real life. Instead, my faith is based on experience and relationship (with God and other people). It may be possible to conduct RCTs on certain aspects of faith (such as studies on the effect of prayer on healing), but I think that would miss the point entirely and wouldn’t do much to help those who believe or those who are sceptical.

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