Evolution denial as the legacy of slavery

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During the symposium on Teaching Evolution, on which I reported recently, someone asked why evolution denial was limited largely to the United States. If you count the Muslim world, then the question is off target; nevertheless, the US is unique among the European nations and their cultural descendants in the strength of its biblical literalist movement. I submitted that the fact may well be traced to the legacy of slavery. That response did not go over well, and someone noted that Europe had its slaves too.

I looked up slavery in the 2003 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Yes, Europe had its slaves, but slavery in western Europe died out during the late Middle Ages. In Germany and Russia, it was replaced by serfdom, which some will consider only a modest improvement. Britain made the slave trade illegal in 1807, and as a direct result much of South America abandoned slavery somewhat afterward. The British abolished slavery in India in 1843 and later moved inland into the continent of Africa specifically to interdict the slave trade. As far as I could learn, no one besides the US fought a civil war over slavery.

In the US, the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 increased the demand for slaves. Slaves elsewhere and in other times were regularly freed after a fixed period, sometimes 6 years, in accordance with a stricture in the so-called Old Testament. In the US, in part because of racial differences, slaves were generally not freed but often were enslaved for generations.

People often point, correctly, to the Abolitionist movement of the 1800’s as a triumph of religious people over slavery. The Abolitionists, however, were primarily northerners. Southern ministers so strongly opposed the Abolitionists’ views on slavery that two of the largest Protestant denominations, the Methodist Church and the Baptist Church, split into northern and southern branches in 1845. Indeed, specifically to oppose the Abolitionists, the southern clergy advanced the argument that Black people were destined to be servants because of the Biblical passages (Genesis 9:21-27) in which Noah gets drunk and falls asleep, naked, in his tent. Noah’s son Ham (the presumed ancestor of the Hamites, or Blacks) sees Noah naked, whereas his other sons, Shem and Japheth, cover him. Noah wakes up, realizes what has happened, and pronounces a curse on Canaan, the son of Ham (Genesis 9:24-27):

And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

To my mind, Noah is at fault for getting drunk—not Ham, and certainly not Canaan. Indeed, it is not at all clear why Noah curses Canaan, who did not see Noah naked, rather than Ham, who did. Nevertheless, religious apologists for slavery and segregation have pointed to this passage as justification for their stands on these issues. Other passages in the Bible support enslaving people other than your own. Steve Allen (in the book Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion, and Morality) claims that not a single religion in the world condemned slavery until recently; this shift in attitude is very possibly the result of secular, Enlightenment thinking, not religious thinking. If religions have changed their positions on slavery, they have done so in part because of the influence of secular philosophy.

In 1845, the northern and southern churches formally split, as the southern churches became more and more literal in their interpretation of the Bible. It would be an exaggeration to say that the growing literalism was caused by the need to justify slavery alone, but the fact remains that what we call the Bible belt corresponds very closely with the slave-holding states of the antebellum South. Arguably, then, the US differs from Europe, Canada, and Australia because biblical literalism and hence evolution denial are the continuing legacy of slavery and racism.

I would be most interested in hearing substantive comments concerning this thesis.

Acknowledgement. I am indebted to Charles Silberman, in whose Crisis in Black and White I first read the argument about Genesis 9.

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98 Comments

You’re probably going to get more than you bargained for with this one by bringing up the civil war.

However, I think you’ve largely ignored the periods of religious revival in the US, also known as the Great Awakenings. Much of the literalism we see today is a twenty-century product, begun by the Seventh-Day Adventists, and later adopted by the fundamentalist movement. This is also connected to the Pentecostal movement, which is also a twenty-century product.

Your thesis would also not explain why literalism is popular with African-American churches or why it is popular in rural areas outside of the South. It seems to me that you are depending much on the sterotypes of popular culture reflecting the complexities of reality.

This is a not-too-terribly well-thought-out post conflating creationism with being ok with slavery. This is something that a creationist would do, but not a rational person. If there is a true conection, I have yet to see it. This is no better than a creationist conflating Darwin with eugenics and nazis.

I expect much more from thepandasthumb than this.

BTW, the US is not a European country.

Reed A. Cartwright Wrote:

Much of the literalism we see today is a twenty-century product, begun by the Seventh-Day Adventists

Agreed. Pretty much the entire creationist movement can be traced back to Adventist George McCready Price, who basically came up with the majority of major YEC geology arguments in the 20s to justify his religious beliefs. Most creationist testimonies you read involve them being religious but ok with evolution/geology until they read an older creationists book, which can be traced back to Price. I’m sure there’s an interesting discussion to be had on the psychology that makes them latch onto anything that allows them to more fully integrate their religion into their lives regardless of its factual accuracy.

An interesting question then is why creationism has taken off so much in Australia as well.

Brazil had slavery until 1888. I don’t see much creationism here at Brazil.

Jason Wrote:

BTW, the US is not a European country.

You should read the complete sentence:

…the US is unique among the European nations and their cultural descendants…

I think the view of evolution denial in the context of religious fundamentalism is right on target.

As far as the relationship between slavery and the Civil War to religious fundamentalism, however, I agree with other commenters that you are being far too glib. I was searching through google and amazon, it seems like George Marsden’s Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism might be a good place to start for fleshing out this idea. The second part of that book apparently tackles creation science.

Please, people, let’s not get into the endless debate and subsequent flamefest of what started the civil war. That is not the point of Matt’s post. I suggest that you take up the issue After the Bar Closes.

Arguing over the civil war will get posts dumped to the bathroom wall.

Our country has the dubious distinction of giving its name to the dual Genesis theory, the creationist notion that blacks were among the animals brought before Adam to be named in the Garden of Eden.

It’s called “The American School of Anthropology.”

(white) Southerners cannibalised their culture and even their religion to justify an economic institution that most weren’t wealthy enough to benefit from. Their descendents maintain the southern tradition of suffering for their betters’ prosperity by voting Republican.

No wonder they don’t believe in evolution.

Reed Cartwright: considering the geographic location of the roots of African-American Christianity, I don’t see how you could have missed the reason “why literalism is popular with African-American churches”. If Christianity weren’t so mobile a religion it would be lucky to still survive among the peoples of the Levant. .

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You don’t think the persistence of Creationism in the US is merely the result of the US being colonized by religious fanatics?

Reed A. Cartwright Wrote:

Arguing over the civil war will get posts dumped to the bathroom wall.

Whoops! Sorry about that.

Anyway, yeah, I think this initial post goes much too far. It would be extremely interesting to analyze the way that Christianity developed differently in the north and south, look into the question of how the Civil War and the things that caused it influenced that development, and trace whatever aftereffects from the Southern/Northern Baptist split still have in America’s political and religious landscape today. However claiming slavery lead to creationism is simply unreasonable because it ignores the complex and many-staged history of evangelical Christianity in the United States; excessively simplistic because it assumes the north v south rifts existed only becuase of slavery (ignoring, among many other things, the new and deep cultural rifts that Reconstruction caused); confusing because it ignores entirely the question of what happened to radical abolitionist Christianity; and unbecoming of a site which must sometimes defend against crazy creationist allegations that Darwin created the Nazis or whatever. The argument here is simply not very well thought out, and if it was a request for opinions rather than an argument it could have been more clearly stated as such.

The religious revival in the early 2oth century is certainly relevant. I do not know whether it would have happened if people had not been ready for it. I am not entirely defending the thesis but throwing it out for discussion.

Literalism is indeed found outside the old South and also among Black people. I do not see a contradiction.

I did not imply that creationists today are “OK with slavery.” I merely question whether the origin of biblical literalism is related to slavery in the US. If it is not, then why is it so prevalent here? That is a serious, not a rhetorical question.

Nor do I think that slavery necessarily causes literalism, but I think it may have helped to do so in the United States. It did not in Brazil.

The Civil War was technically fought over states’ rights and probably other issues as well. But would the question of states’ rights have arisen if not for the strains over slavery? Why did Lincoln credit Harriet Beecher Stowe with causing the Civil War if slavery was not the principal underlying question?

The phrase regarding the European nations and their cultural descendants was unchanged.

Judging by Mr. Cartwright’s comment 109054, I must have missed something. I want to thank all the commenters for their civility, even in disagreement.

You don’t think the persistence of Creationism in the US is merely the result of the US being colonized by religious fanatics?

The religious fanatics who colonized New England ultimately gave us some of our most liberal Protestant churches. If someone can explain that, I will be most grateful.

The religious fanatics who colonized New England ultimately gave us some of our most liberal Protestant churches.

Sure, but something like 200 years later.

If someone can explain that, I will be most grateful.

I daresay Creationism’s historical base in America over the last century has NOT been New England. Take the same religious fanaticism that the Puritans brought, transplant it to parts of the country much poorer and with much less of a tradition of education, and I can see Creationism as a logical outgrowth.

Matt, I dumped three comments because it looked like the thread was going to derail into an argument over the origin of the civil war. As someone who has participated in that argument several times, I feel that our forum is a better place for it than your thread.

But if you want the majority of your comments to be about the civil war and not about your thesis, I’ll back off.

…if it was a request for opinions rather than an argument it could have been more clearly stated as such.

A fair point, but in fact, here is how I concluded:

It would be an exaggeration to say that the growing literalism was caused by the need to justify slavery alone, but the fact remains that what we call the Bible belt corresponds very closely with the slave-holding states of the antebellum South. Arguably, then, the US differs from Europe, Canada, and Australia because biblical literalism and hence evolution denial are the continuing legacy of slavery and racism.

I would be most interested in hearing substantive comments concerning this thesis [italics added].

I think the strength of creationism in the US is directly related to the level of education; or, to put it another way, to the level of ignorance. I also think the strength of fundamentalist religion is directly related to the same thing. I doubt that slavery has much to do with it. Southerners used their religion to justify slavery, but religious people today use their religion to justify lots of different types of behavior.

I dumped three comments because it looked like the thread was going to derail into an argument over the origin of the civil war.

Thank you - I was vacuuming the house.

But if you want the majority of your comments to be about the civil war and not about your thesis, I’ll back off.

Good heavens, no!

This is a bit unfair:

Our country has the dubious distinction of giving its name to the dual Genesis theory, the creationist notion that blacks were among the animals brought before Adam to be named in the Garden of Eden.

It’s called “The American School of Anthropology.”

American Anthropology is best exemplified by its founder, the physical anthropologist Franz Boaz. This guy provided the antithesis to the fallacious Social Darwinism of his time. He was absolutely not a racist and was probably one of the first people to dispute the so-called empirical evidence of racial supremacy.

Also, the idea that non-whites are part of the fauna is pretty old, at least as old as the Valladolid debate of the 16th century where the Jesuit Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda claimed that Indians didn’t have any souls. I forget who won, but certainly Sepúlveda was pretty formal.

I looked up slavery in the 2003 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

As an aside, trust nothing in the Britannica which pertains to anthropology.

It’s written by the same people who invented Social Darwinism, which IMHO is a big problem for scientific neo-Darwinism. Social Darwinism would provide a very readily available strawman to any serious anti-evolutionist.

Sorry, Spotted a typo: The father of American anthropology was Franz Boas, not Boaz.

Encyclopaedia Britannica as a primary source?

Delta Pi Gamma (Scientia et Fermentum)

Certainly Southern fundies did use the Bible to justify slavery. But I think the whole Biblical racism thing really took off in the 20’s, when the Klan ( a self-avowedly “Christian organization”) virtually ran much of the South (and much of the North, too). And it appeared again in the 50’s with the Brown v Board of Ed decision (many private “Christian schools” in the South were founded in the immediate aftermath of the Brown decision, so that the “good white Christians” could evade integration), and expanded further in the 60’s during the civil rights movement.

If anyone is interested, I have a short history of Christian fundamentalism in America, at:

http://www.geocities.com/lflank/fundiehistory.htm

Lenny, there’s a thread at ATBC (‘Chameleonic snake’) awaiting your herpetological insights.

An interesting idea, at least, but I’d say frankly far too specific. There’s many kinds of religious fundamentalisms, many different ways things happen, and slavery really is only one aspect of this. In fact, targeting it specifically ignores much of the other issues going on at the times - and after, and before.

I think however, it would be interesting to study the reasons for religious fundamentalism in our country in more detail.

If you read Hofstadter’s book on “Social Darwinism in America,” he has extensive notes and peiod-era cartoons from the early 20th century showing evolution from ape to African American to white. There is certainly some truth in your analysis. The south as you recall, brought us such terms as quadroons (1/4 black) and octaroon (1/8 black), etc. Descent from common ancestors (particularly with the earliest ancestors found by Leakey et al. in Africa) strengthens the racism argument you are making.

Terry Ward:

Descent from common ancestors (particularly with the earliest ancestors found by Leakey et al. in Africa) strengthens the racism argument you are making.

Eh?

I followed the first part of your comment. But–though I’m reasonably sure you didn’t mean it the way it sounds–there seems to be a disconnect in the logic of the above statement.

I don’t know if I quite buy it. I don’t think the modern founders of creationism can be tied to any kind of pro-slavery feelings at all – it’s so indirect. If you wanted to argue that it was in part a residue of the resentment, isolation, racism, and poverty that were a legacy of the civil war, maybe. Perhaps the recovery from the conflict forced greater reliance on the church as a social institution, making religious dogma a more potent force in people’s lives…but that’s still all guesswork.

Regarding Mr. Myers’s comment: I am afraid it had not occurred to me that someone might think I was trying to tie modern creationism or biblical literalism to modern racism. I am not. Nor am I saying that biblical literalism must be bunk because it has roots (if it does) in slavery and racism. That would be the genetic fallacy, and I am willing to let evolution deniers have a corner on that market.

I want to explore the hypothesis, not original to me, that the defense of slavery (obviously among other factors) led to biblical literalism. That fact, if indeed a fact, would, however, have no bearing on the truth or falsity of literalist claims.

Jason: This is a not-too-terribly well-thought-out post conflating creationism with being ok with slavery. This is something that a creationist would do, but not a rational person. If there is a true conection, I have yet to see it. This is no better than a creationist conflating Darwin with eugenics and nazis.

If Matt were explicitly conflating creationism with being pro-slavery you would be correct, but I don’t think he intended to do so (Matt, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong on that).

However there are little historical tidbits like the fact that Louis Agassiz (a creationist) was one of the scientists most often cited in support of the concept of polygenism, the idea that the “races” were independently created, in the arguments over slavery leading up to the Civil War.

Then there are comments like this from more modern creationists:

“Yet the prophecy had an obverse side as well. The Hamites [which are according to Morris: Black Africans, Asians, Polynesians, Native Americans and Australians — T.B.] have usually been able to go only so far with their explorations and inventions, and no further. The Japhethites [Europeans — T.B.] and Semites [Jews & Arabs — T.B.] have, sooner or later, taken over their territories and their inventions, then developed and utilized them to their own advantage in accomplishing their own “service” to mankind. Sometimes the Hamites, especially the Negroes, have even become actual slaves to the others. Possessed of a genetic character concerned mainly with mundane, practical matters, they have often eventually been displaced by the intellectual and philosophical acumen of the Japhethites [Europeans] and the religious zeal of the Semites.” - Henry M. Morris The Genesis Record (1976), p.241 ](emphasis mine)

I have had creationists try and defend this statement saying that Morris was referring to “nations” not races, but nationality isn’t “genetic”. That said to be fair Morris explicitly denounced slavery elsewhere, but he still seemed to me to have had “race issues” despite his (and most YEC) claims that race is an “evolutionary concept”.

Regarding Matt’s thesis in general it is an interesting idea but I would say that at best it is only part of the cultural cocktail that seems to encourage the particular form of irrationality that is antievolutionism.

Bernarda, you probably have a point about southern whites who wouldn’t want to accept the fact that blacks are the same as they are.

djmullen, you chose the nuclear option. Perhaps it was the only option left. Nice.

Cue up Carol Clouser trolling along to inform us that she and Judah Landa are the only two people on earth who are qualified to tell us what the bible really says…

People who are utterly committed to the preservation and replication of ancient memes frequently have the problem that those ideas conflict with modern beliefs about cruelty, justice, politics, and human worth.

The simplest way to deal with the resulting dissonance is to redefine the plain text of the religious beliefs, preserving their content while altering what that content is understood to mean. This permits the memes to perpetuate without forcing their holders to acknowledge their faults.

This pattern recurs in the same general way regardless of what the ancient beliefs are about – or in some cases, new beliefs, if they conflict with overall cultural beliefs.

There is a distinct similiarity between Evolution deniers, Holocaust deniers, Biblical literalists (whether Christian or Jewish), and racial supremacists. All need to insulate their followers from noticing the quite serious conflicts between their doctrines and generally-accepted facts.

Caledonian;

You forgot:-

Global warming(meltdown) deniers. AIDS deniers. Imperial Oil hegemonists. Foreskin Collectors.

Nice post, djmullen. I think that pretty much puts the hammer down on the Bible and slavery.

Nit-picking about the slave/servant distinction is moot. A servant who’s your property is a called a slave.

Please no more comments on slavery in the Bible and no more wisecracks. Let us keep on task.

What happened to Kevin from NYC’s comments about Lenny? I thought they were accurate and insightfull.

Wisecracks and ad-hominem arguments are beginning, so maybe it is time to sum up and close comments.

That said, as a Sociologist, I get the shudders whenever people make these sorts of cultural arguments.

You are gonna hate this then: When someone proposes an outrageous proposition, the first response is to denigrate or belittle it. It took a couple of generations or so before heliocentric theory was accepted and perhaps 30 years for continental drift to be accepted. Here on Panda’s Thumb, we compress history. I scanned the first 100 comments and rated them as supportive, unsupportive, neutral, and not applicable. Here, in bins of 10, are the results; + means supportive, - means unsupportive, and 0 means related but neutral. I did not include not-applicable comments in the count, so the numbers do not add up to 100. If you do it, your count may differ slightly, but I think I’ve got the trend right.

First 10: - - - - - - - - - -

Second 10:

- - - - - + + + + 0

Third 10: - - - + + + 0 0 0 0

Remainder: + + 0

One commenter noted that slavery and literalism coevolved; that is the word I should have used in my concluding paragraph, and I thank him for it. I do not think that slavery caused biblical literalism and therefore evolution denial, but I argue that it may well have been a major factor (the major factor?) in promoting biblical literalism. Mr. Mullin makes that point more strongly that I did. Why do we see evolution denial outside the Bible belt? Disease spreads.

I am gratified to learn that the Mennonites opposed slavery before the Enlightenment. To my mind, that does not, however, falsify Steve Allen’s claim that no religion has ever come out in opposition to slavery, but it certainly softens it.

Well, Steve Allen is a pedestrian ignaramus [sic] who just doesn’t know what he is talking about. This is pure, unmitigated ignorance which I suspect you share, Matt.

If you will permit me, I will indulge in my moderator’s prerogative and pen a wholly irrelevant digression on Steve Allen. I rarely use the word “brilliant”except in regard to colors, but Steve Allen was a polymath and may deserve the appellation. He has written 40-odd books on a variety of subjects, invented the “Tonight” show format, developed “Meeting of Minds” on PBS, and composed thousands of songs. I saw him in performance once, and he was nothing short of remarkable. I do not think he ever wrote fiction, but I sort of think of him as Isaac Asimov with a piano.

I never met Allen, but I corresponded with his secretary, and he graciously contributed a jacket blurb for my book No Sense of Obligation: Science and Religion in an Impersonal Universe. I was greatly saddened when he died suddenly just before the book was published. Allen probably had more creativity in his little finger than certain of his critics have in their entire bodies.

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on June 28, 2006 3:39 PM.

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