FreeThought Fort Wayne

        Be Reasonable

Ignorance is nonpartisan

Posted by neuralgourmet on June 28, 2008

Phil over at the Bad Astronomy Blog notes an interesting Gallup poll that asked participants whether they believed:

  1. that God created humans exactly as they are now sometime in the last ten centuries,
  2. or that humans developed over millions of years but with guidance from God,
  3. or that humans developed over millions of years and God had no part.

As you might expect, more Republicans said they believed in the first option than did Indepedents or Democrats. About 60% of Republicans answered that they believed in the first option, while only about 40% each of Independents and Democrats thought this way. To be sure, that’s a significant difference but I’m not cheered by the fact that only two out of every five of my party mates is a Creationist versus three out of every five Republicans.

It gets worse though. Another way of looking at the poll choices is:

  1. Creationism
  2. Intelligent Design
  3. Evolution

If we then add the Creationist and Intelligent Design responses together we get a very bleak picture. Some 92% (greater than nine out of ten) of Republicans and about 77% each (almost eight out of ten) of Democrats and Indpendents believe in either Creationism or Intelligent Design.

Have I depressed you yet? Well, there is something of a silver lining to this cloud, or at least there is if you choose to look at it this way. You see, Gallup has been asking this three-part question of Americans for a long time; since 1982 to be exact. Just as one expects to find more Republicans than Democrats who believe in Creationism, one might expect that after nearly thirty years of the country veering hard right that the numbers are actually much worse than they were in the early 1980s. That we’ve become more ignorant as a country.

That’s not the case though. The truth is these numbers have been fairly steady over the past twenty six years with no sharp fluctuations either way. As Phil says, you can’t blame Newt Gingrich and you can’t blame Bush. As a nation, we haven’t gotten any more ignorant, but then we haven’t gotten any more knowledgable either. Yeah, this silver lining isn’t a very shiny one.

What does it all mean? Phil speculates that party allegiance is very strong so people stick with their parties even when the stated goals and policies of those parties radically change over time. Similarly, religious views are also very strong and thus stay the same from year to year. That seems like a good enough explanation to me.

I think there’s something else to take away from this Gallup poll though. Religious belief is thoroughly entrenched in American society. It is weaved throughout our social fabric in a way that we can never hope to prize apart the threads of our cultural history that value rational thought and Enlightenment principles and those that value tradition and religious faith. While more strongly religious social conservatives might prefer the Republican Party of the past thirty or forty years, it hasn’t always been this way. Remember that at one time it was the Republicans that were the social progressives and the Democrats the social conservatives.

To phrase it as I did in the title to this post, ignorance is nonpartisan. It’s also highly impervious to change. When ignorance is coupled to religious belief, ignorance tends to get carved in stone. Can we wear down that stone?

Yeah, I think so. And I think there’s evidence that, at least on the science front, this is happening even today. One need look no further than that institution most impervious to change — the Catholic Church. Fifty years ago Pope Pius II implied that evolution “isn’t inimical to Christianity” and in 1992, Pope John Paul II said both that evolution was compatible with faith and that the Church was wrong to condemn Galileo. Later on, in 2005 Vatican Cardinal Paul Poupard said that Catholics should listen to what modern science has to offer.

That’s the God of the Gaps at work. As science provides us with greater and greater understanding of our world and our selves, the concept of god shrinks until it can only fill in the gaps left unexplained by science. That might be small comfort to those of us who’ve watched in horror as fundamentalists and the Republican Party wedded themselves together over the course of the past thirty years culminating in the Presidency of George W. Bush, but religiosity waxes and wanes at various points in our history and I have no reason to suspect that the sort of fervent religiosity we’ve seen in the past couple of decades isn’t already on its way out.

Where does that leave us? Well, obviously with the need to continue to promote and defend secular government because if theocracy comes to this land then surely it’s game over. Beyond that though there’s no easy answers. It’s all education, organizing, fundraising, and community involvement. If that sounds remarkably like politics, well, it is. That’s the same formula success used by politicians for as long as the U.S. has been around. That and a healthy dose of propaganda, but we’re the ones trying to encourage critical thinking so maybe we should skip that. Although it never hurts to relate science on an emotional level. Carl Sagan was a master of that.

With all that being said though, I’m with Phil. We’ve got a long, long way to go.

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3 Responses to “Ignorance is nonpartisan”

  1. […] Note: This post originally appeared on Freethought Fort Wayne. […]

  2. dystressed said

    Excellent analysis. I really do like your take on this data.

    I think that most IDers believe in the young earth theory, so I would tend to lump them with creationists.

    Many of the people who believe in evolution guided by god may not consider themselves IDers, because they believe in the 14 billion year universe. If asked “do you believe in evolution?” and limited the answer to yes or no, these people would probably say yes. These are the people who would be more likely to move beyond their ignorance if given the proper tools, like the modern science writers such as the four horseman, etc.

  3. Thanks. I agree there’s a broad range of belief that doesn’t fall neatly into the categories these three questions imply.

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