Is Religion Responsible for How America Reacts to Evolution?

I’ve already linked to this post where Jerry Coyne talks about Dennis Sewell’s comments about what causes Americans to reject evolution. Coyne, of course, thinks that the answer is just simple and obvious: It’s religion.

So while Sewell is correct in claiming that Republicans see evolution as a hot potato, he’s simply wrong to blame that on American’s fear of eugenics and evolutionary psychology. It’s palpably obvious that Republicans are pandering to Americans’ religiosity (much stronger among fellow Republicans than among Democrats), and their knowledge that religious folks, particularly conservative ones, who form much of the Republican base, see evolution as damaging to their faith and therefore destructive of meaning, purpose and morality.

I’ll have more to say about the influence of religion on American evolution-denial in a future article, but the connection is so obvious that you have to have some other agenda to deny it. One such agenda is accommodationism: the idea that we can’t criticize religion if we’re to convert the faithful to evolution. I don’t know if that’s what is behind Sewell’s views, and I find it strange that a Brit, who lives in a country so much less religious than America, can’t descry the effect of our religion on our views about science.

But when you think about it, this answer is too simple, and when you examine it in the light of reason it doesn’t seem right. After all, American is not the only country that, in fact, has religions. There aren’t too many religions that America has that aren’t also in Europe or Canada, and I’d wager that the most popular religions are also equally well-represented in those other countries. And yet, in those other countries there doesn’t seem to be this sharp clash. Why is it that the religious — who, again, have pretty much the same religion as Americans — don’t see evolution as a threat to their religion as much as Americans do? Well, you can argue that Americans just are more religious that the people in those countries, but then you’d have to ask why that is, and you’d have to ask if it was always true. Since the conflict over evolution has been around for quite some time, why is it that the other countries didn’t have issues with it, or at least not as many issues as America has? Well, maybe religion has always been a bigger part of the identity of more Americans than it has elsewhere. But considering that England and Sweden, at least, have actual state religions, and that Canada is made up of a lot of people who do consider their religion part of their identity and even encourages people to retain that cultural identity — which America does not — that’s not all that credible either.

So, then, what is it that allows religious people in other parts of the world to accommodate evolution when America doesn’t? Perhaps … accommodation? Canada has always allowed for people to follow their own cultural mores as far as possible, including their religious ones. This includes tolerating and accommodating religious requirements. So it isn’t about a conflict between religion and secular values, or religion and science, but about one way being the default and the others being accommodated as appropriate, and not about merging or melting in but about both sides adapting to each other. There’s little reason on such cultures to demand that science teach religion; religion courses teach religion. But if it’s presented as a choice between science and religion, and that science itself will argue against religion without religion getting a word in edgewise, then that raises hackles, and sets up a confrontational atmosphere where both sides have to win outright. How can you accept, then, evolution when it would mean giving in and admitting you’ve lost?

So maybe, just maybe, accommodation is how other countries avoid this trap. Of course, this is something we can study and prove, and must prove. But the questions I raise are valid ones for Coyne’s proposal.

Now, I won’t accuse Coyne of having a hidden agenda for not seeing these questions. I will suggest that he’s a) not looking enough at history and b) not looking deeply enough to see the actual issues. When you look deeper, you’ll find that you have to ask what’s special about America, and religion does not seem to be it.


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