email - June 2008

Is it Just Us?

The evolution/creation debate doesn’t seem to be world-wide. Why is that?

Don sent us copies of two long emails sent to him by his nephew, Tim. Here are the two most pertinent paragraphs.

Why is it that most of the people who have a problem with the theory of evolution seem to be Christians? The image I get is that the vast majority of people who should be well-informed on evolution don't disagree with it, but there is a subset of people who know about evolution who disagree with it, and the majority of them are Christian.

In Japan, for example, from what I can see there is no "evolution versus creation" debate. Evolution is accepted, and, perhaps not coincidentally, Japan is a very non-Christian nation. If, objectively speaking, the theory of evolution has the kinds of flaws in it that some people believe it does, why are scientists all over the world not arguing about it? Why doesn't the entire world question it? From what I can see, it's mainly Christians who do, and that of course leads to the suspicion that they are biased.

Tim’s premise is that the theory of evolution is rejected by a larger percentage of the population in Christian nations than non-Christian nations. So, there are two issues we need to address. First, is the premise true? Second, if it is true, why is it true?

Tim’s observation that people living in non-Christian nations accept evolution more often than people living in Christian nations is mostly correct. In a previous newsletter 1 we discussed a survey of the attitudes of 34 nations toward the theory of evolution. That survey showed that roughly 50% of the people in Turkey, and 40% of the people in the United States firmly reject the theory of evolution. Turkey is not a Christian nation—it’s an Islamic nation (as Tim acknowledges in another part of his very long email). But Moslems share the same belief about creation as Jews and Christians do, so let’s not quibble about that.

That same survey showed that only about 10% of the people in Iceland and Japan reject evolution. Tim (who apparently has just moved to Japan) has correctly observed that most of the people in Japan are not Christians. Iceland is officially a Lutheran nation, with 86% of the citizens calling themselves Lutherans 2; but I know from my visit there that church attendance is extremely low. Icelanders are justifiably proud of their long tradition of religious tolerance; but there is a fine line between tolerance and indifference. They clearly have stepped over that line. Most Icelanders are Lutherans in name only. It isn’t a strongly Christian nation, despite the 86% church membership.

So, Tim’s premise is correct. There is a correlation between religious beliefs and attitudes toward evolution. So, the question is, “Why?”

Unfortunately, we haven’t made much progress on our research project into Icelandic attitudes toward evolution. 3 We need some support from someone in Iceland, but we are running into a wall of indifference. Our few contacts there don’t care enough about the issue to help us. If there is anyone looking for an idea for a Ph.D. thesis, and would like to try to determine why evolution is so widely accepted in Iceland, please contact us and maybe we can work something out together.

Since we are unaware of any study that definitively answers Tim’s question, we will offer an opinion. It is my personal opinion that culture and religion are both involved. Let’s talk about culture first.

The Cultural Reason

Americans like to think for themselves. They are naturally skeptical, and don’t respond well to being told what to believe. Therefore they are willing, even eager, to argue with someone who makes outrageous claims about reptiles growing breasts without any evidence to back it up.

Japan has traditionally had a much more polite culture than America has. Teachers and parents are treated with greater respect and deference in Japan than in America. Japan certainly has talented scientists who have made great strides in technical fields (computers, audio equipment, etc.) because they can do that without disrespecting their elders. They don’t have to tell their elders that what they used to believe about the right way to build a computer or build a CD player is wrong because their elders never made computers or CD players. But a Japanese student is (historically) unlikely to tell a biology teacher that he is wrong about anything. A good Japanese son does not disagree with his father or teacher. Granted, American culture may be corrupting Japanese young people and undermining the respect that they have for their elders; but I think it is still more difficult for Japanese people to buck the established order than it is for Americans. That, I think, is the cultural part of the reason why evolution is not questioned more in Japan.

Icelandic culture is very tolerant about personal beliefs. They don’t care if you go to church on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, or not at all. They don’t care if you believe in trolls or Norse gods. Your belief is your belief, and it isn’t worth arguing about it. They care about science in practical matters, such as harnessing geothermal energy and smelting aluminum; but they don’t care much about the philosophical aspects of science. It is more important (to them) to figure out how to heat your house for free with geothermal energy than it is to figure out if man evolved from apes or not.

The Religious Reason

Since this a personal opinion not based on any solid scientific data, let me give you some personal context. I don’t spend ALL my time reading scientific literature that relates to the theory of evolution. But, since I love science, I sometimes watch science programs even if they have nothing to do with evolution. In particular, I recently watched 36 half-hour lectures on the history of science up to 1700. 4 Since Darwin’s Origin of Species wasn’t published until 1859, I didn’t expect the lectures to have any relevance to evolution. I was expecting the professor to present a progression of discovery to discovery with wrong ideas replacing correct ones. There was surprisingly little of that.

Instead, Dr. Principe talked at great length about how science was related to the worldview of the people at that time. He used the term “natural philosophy” interchangeably with “science,” and actually said “natural philosophy” much more often than he said “science.” He talked about the classical period, when Greeks such as Aristotle and Plato expressed their religious beliefs and philosophical speculation in scientific terms. It didn’t stop there. Science and religion were deeply intertwined through the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Scientific Revolution. Many of the scientific leaders throughout history were actually theologians.

There was a period of history when the most respected scientists were Arabs. “Algebra” and “alchemy” are anglicized Arabic words because the earliest papers about them were written in Arabic. Some European scientists even wrote their scientific papers as if they were translations from Arabic just to give them credibility. It should not come as a surprise that there is strong scientific resistance to the theory of evolution in Turkey.

Moslems have a rich heritage of scientific excellence that isn’t mentioned much in American public schools. Perhaps there is a historical reason for this. In the 19th century, when American public schools still reflected Christian thinking, the Christian understanding of the book of Daniel was that the good “King of the North” represented Christianity, and the bad “King of the South” represented Islam. Americans believed that there would be a great conflict between Christianity and Islam just before the coming of Christ. The fall of the Ottoman Empire was seen to have prophetic significance. So, American public schools in the 19th and 20th centuries didn’t have much good to say about Moslems. Therefore, the Arab contributions to science were overlooked, and still have not been restored to the American public school science curriculum. I spent much of my engineering career figuring out ways to defeat foreign technology on the battlefield. Because of that, I now have a greater appreciation for the technical skill of other cultures than I had when I graduated.

The notion that science has historically been nothing more than natural philosophy came as something of a shock to me because I was raised in the 1950’s and 1960’s, when science meant “things discovered using the scientific method.” When I was growing up, if you could not prove it experimentally, it wasn’t scientific. In recent years I have objected to modern scientists trying to change the definition of science to “whatever most scientists think.” But I now see that, historically, science has never been anything other than the opinion of philosophers and scientists.

When I was growing up, experimental proof was necessary. Apparently, that was just a short aberration in science in the 1950’s and 1960’s. It got us to the moon, but now proof isn’t really necessary. All that counts now is consensus.

Now there really is no difference between religion and science (that is, natural philosophy), and historically there never has been. Since the theory of evolution is a natural philosophy that is incompatible with Christianity and Islam, it should come as no surprise that there is controversy. Parents don’t want their tax money spent on public schools that teach a natural philosophy that is contradictory to their own religion to their own children. They really don’t want it taught as undeniable fact when the experimental and observational evidence is so strongly against evolution.

The Christian Bias

Tim is suspicious that Christianity biases people against evolution. That is true; but does that make evolution right? Christianity biases people against murder. Does that make murder right?

We should cut out all the cultural and religious bias and distractions, and take an objective view. The theory of evolution says all living things evolved from a common ancestor. All that really matters is if that theory is true or not. Creationists can calmly point to many experimental and observational evidences that the theory is not true. Evolutionists will no longer participate in public debates with creationists because they always lose a factual discussion. So, evolutionists get emotional and go to court to prevent both sides of the issue to be presented in public schools. Evolutionists pressure institutions to fire scientists who don’t agree with the theory of evolution.

Tim is right. There is a religious aspect of the creation/evolution controversy. We don’t fault him for suspecting bias on the part of Christians. He should also, however, suspect bias on the part of non-Christians. Then he should look at the facts. He should ponder our Seventy-five theses. 5 He should ask evolutionists why they believe evolution is true. He should demand something more than, “Everyone knows it is true,” and unsubstantiated statements like, “mammals evolved from reptiles.” When he does that, we hope he will come to the correct conclusion all by himself.

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Footnotes:

1 Disclosure, March 2007, “Evolution in Iceland
2 2007 World Almanac, page 781
3 Disclosure, March 2007, “Evolution in Iceland
4 Dr. Lawrence M. Principe, John Hopkins University, “History of Science: Antiquity to 1700”, The Teaching Company, www.teach12.com
5 Disclosure, March 2008, “Seventy-five Theses