The Fear of Evolution

Last year a middle school science teacher in my local school district proposed that the Intelligent Design Network’s Objective Origins Teaching Policy be adopted by the district. After some debate and politicking it was rejected by the Board of Education, as was a watered down version offered after the rejection of the initial proposal.

After thinking about it at length and talking with people in the community and elsewhere, what I am realizing is that this is not something that has anything to do with reason and science; it is about fear.

During public comments on the proposal at several meetings of the Board of Education, it was absolutely clear that the apparent underlying (well, not very far under!) reason for making for the proposal was religious. At the first of three BOE meetings devoted to it, speakers in favor of the proposal were repeatedly interrupted by “Amens!” from the audience, mostly composed of members of the teacher’s church. At the second meeting, the first speaker was the pastor of the teacher’s church, who warned “my fellow evangelicals” not to introduce religious reasons for their support of the policy. At that meeting they complied, but at the third meeting two speakers who didn’t get the pastor’s message urged the Board to adopt the proposal and “Teach God’s truth in our school.” Supporters of the proposal wore small blue ribbons twisted in the shape of a fish (think an AIDS ribbon on its side) made by a member of the teacher’s church.

This posting is not to rehearse that debate, but is to attempt to briefly describe the understanding of the motivation of proponents of such proposals that I’m slowly coming to.

I am beginning to understand that the core motivation driving the supporters of such proposals is fear. Not fear for themselves – they are too strong in their faith to be corrupted by evolutionary science. It is fear for their children and in particular, fear for their children’s souls. There is a genuine belief that accepting an evolutionary view of biological phenomena is a giant step on the road to atheism, and in learning evolutionary theory their children are in peril of losing salvation. Given the beliefs they hold, this is not a silly fear. From their perspective, atheism is a deadly threat, and evolution is a door through which that threat can enter to corrupt one’s child. No amount of scientific research, no citations of scientific studies, no detailed criticism of the Wellsian trash science offered in “teach the controversy” proposals, speaks to those fears. If one genuinely fears that learning evolution will corrupt one’s children and damn them for eternity, scientific reasoning is wholly irrelevant.

A few days ago I attended a reading by Ed Larson, author of Summer for the Gods, Evolution’s Workshop, and most recently (just out last week), Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory. During the Q&A Ed told of meeting a biologist at a conservative southern university (that I won’t name here) who said that when evolution is being taught in a biology course required for pre-meds, students of the fundamentalist Christian persuasion make a practice of staying in the back of the lecture hall and holding hands and praying. No amount of scientific reasoning is an antidote to the kind of cognitive blocking exemplified by that behavior.

I don’t doubt that this is obvious to some who have thought about it more than I have. I do doubt, however, that the implications of it have been addressed in any cogent way. At least I’ve not seen it addressed in any of the evolution/creationism battles that I’ve read about or participated in.

Recently I have begun meeting with members of the congregation of a mainstream Protestant church in an effort to see if there’s a way to address the fear without compromising good science. I’m not sure there is; there may be no good solution. But I’d sure like to find a less-bad solution than the community-ripping kinds of things that can happen when people feel their children’s souls are being put in peril by science. I’m encouraged by the response I’m getting from the church. While those I’ve spoken with are strongly in favor of teaching good science in the public schools, they resonated with, and reinforced, my conjectures about fear being a prime motivator, and they are concerned enough to help.

I’m becoming convinced that when the battle is fought at the local level, where many of them are fought, quietly or noisily, or are simply avoided by easing back on teaching evolution, some kind of community effort to understand and if possible directly address the fear will be necessary in order to preserve the fabric of the community. That preservation is an important value, too, in addition to the value of scientific integrity, and it’s one I’d not like to see lost.

In fact, I’ll go further: Basing the effort to defeat attempts to weaken the teaching of evolutionary theory solely on scientific arguments is both a tactical and a strategic mistake. It increases the fear and reinforces the resistance by making the threat appear stronger and therefore more menacing. A defense of teaching good biological science that does not take into account the fear of the parents who oppose evolution might win in the school board or in court, but it does not address the fundamental reason for the resistance to science. A defense of science that directly addresses the fear has a better chance of both winning the battle and preserving the community.