Sep 25, 2009

Evolutionary Politics, again: The Growing Pains of Ray Comfort, Kirk Cameron, and Charles Darwin

Here we go again, and again, and just one more time. This year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, which has generated controversy from the day it was released. There has been a longstanding battle in the United States between Creationists and scientists over Evolutionary theory. This epic and continuing confrontation includes the Scopes Monkey Trial, Epperson vs. Arkansas in 1968, Daniel vs. Waters in 1975, McLean vs. Arkansas in 1982, Edwards vs. Aguillard in the 1980s, the subsequent shift from "creationism" to "intelligent design," the Kansas Evolution hearings in 2005, and the more recent trial in Dover, Pennsylvania. It has been a long and contentious history, indeed.

Here is the NOVA documentary that was made about the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Trial:

The Dover trial became a forum in which ideas about science, evolution, religion, and politics were placed under intense scrutiny. The end result, however, was a decisive ruling against the Intelligent Design movement, which has clear links with earlier "creationist" movements.

One of the newest salvos in this broad campaign comes from former teen sitcom star Kirk Cameron and his colleague Ray Comfort:

For Comfort and Cameron, this issue is about "the culture of our nation" and how the nations youth is being "brainwashed by atheistic evolution." As Cameron states, the only way to "change the sinful heart of the individual" is through the "power of the gospel." Clearly, for Comfort and Cameron, this is a moral and ethical battle that they face. Here is a conversation between Ray Comfort and televangelist Pat Robertson in which Comfort makes his ambitions and concerns quite clear:

This leaves me wondering exactly what it is that Comfort and Cameron are looking for, and what they are really trying to accomplish. Is this really about evolution and science, or is there something else going on here? First of all, I think it is not only quite fascinating how Comfort frames his introduction of Charles Darwin as a bitter, frustrated man who never knew God. This is anything but a balanced way of leading into a discussion about the "basics" of evolution, and serves as a rhetorical means of discrediting Darwin before any discussion of his ideas even begins. It's tactical, of course, and directly at the audience he is speaking with.

So it's certainly apparent that Comfort has his issues with Darwin. In his view, Evolution is little more than a "fairy tale for grown-ups" that is a form of idolatry in which man has created a God in his own image (side note: this is, then, a reversal of the Judeo-Christian system in which man is created in God's image). This "god," according to Comfort, is one that does not "require moral accountability," which is why so many people have latched onto the idea. So there, I think, we reach the crux of the matter not only for Comfort and many others. This is about morality, it is about faith, and it's about politics.

Still, I am not completely sure why Darwin and the theory of evolution have become the lightning rod for Comfort, Cameron, and other creationists today. I do not see why evolution, let alone Darwin's ideas, are such a threat. When Kirk Cameron says that he is concerned about college kids being "brainwashed," I can't help but think of the incredible irony, since Comfort's 50 page "introduction" to Darwin's book is little more than a butchery of history, science, and evolutionary theory. It is absolute propaganda dressed up as a "fair and balanced" presentation of the argument. It is anything but. Comfort clearly has his mind made up from the start, and is simply scrambling for a way to discredit what he feels is his god-given enemy. And I think, ultimately, that the whole argument is absolutely irrelevant.

Maybe I have read way too much Stephen Jay Gould, but I really think that this head-on collision between science and religion need not exist. And in many cases, when speaking about Catholicism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, there is no major clash. Why is that? Why is one specific sect of Christianity so concerned with Darwin, science, and the theory of evolution? Interestingly, the former chief astronomer of the Vatican once stated that,

Intelligent design isn't science even though it pretends to be. If you want to teach it in schools, intelligent design should be taught when religion or cultural history is taught, not science.

One of my absolute favorite aspects of my field is the anthropological study of religion. Creation stories--from the Dogon to the Kumeyaay to the Maya--are ways in which different human groups have organized, categorized, rationalized, and explained the world around them. Creation stories are found throughout the world, take a variety of forms, and serve different culturally and historically-specific purposes. The creation stories that Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron adhere to, based upon Judeo-Christian ideologies, represent just a fraction of the ways in which humans have given meaning and form to the world they live in. The Biblical account of creation is indeed a fascinating narrative. For some people Genesis provides the explanatory framework that provides unquestionable meaning in their lives--just as other people place incredible value in their own faith-based ideas.

Testing creation stories with empirical reality is, from my point of view, rather beside the point. Religion is a system based upon belief and acceptance of certain ascribed realities, and for that reason it exists outside of the scope of scientific exploration. As Clifford Geertz wrote about the difficulties of actually trying to grasp religious meanings as they are understood by the faithful, "So far as we are concerned with religion as a perspective, with the meaningful interpretation it gives to experience, we necessarily see it through a pretty dark glass" (in Islam Observed, pg 109). Anthropologists can interpret religious beliefs, but in many ways they will always remain completely outside of what they really mean to those who believe. Science, and this includes anthropology, can only operate with the experienced realities that are readily observable, or that participants can relate. Beyond that, the core of religious belief remains wholly outside of the scope of scientific validation or scrutiny. How can faith be tested scientifically? It can't.

The reverse can be argued as well. Science cannot be tested by faith-based realities, which cover completely different (non-empirical) territory. In religion, the answers to questions are already known, so there is no use for any kind of empirical testing. It is beside the point. And I think that many creationists are missing the larger point of their own religious beliefs while they bash their heads on the mantle of Darwinian evolution.

In the end, this whole ordeal seems to be more about politics than anything else. Comfort, Cameron, and their fellow creationists feel that they have the answers to life, and they want to push their way into scientific discourse to argue their case. The only problem? They don't belong anywhere near science, and their arguments make that abundantly clear. "Intelligent design" is little more than a VERY thinly veiled version of the "scientific creationism" of the 1980s. The NOVA documentary made that point quite well.

These creationists, while attempting to frame their arguments in scientific terms, are little more than rhetorical hitchhikers who are trying to make political inroads against what they feel is a threat to their worldview. My argument? Maybe it's time for creationists like Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron to rethink their game plan. If they are trying to share their "good news" with the rest of the world, I am not sure if dressing up their beliefs in a cheap scientific costume is the best way to go. If they want to enter the stage and participate in the national discourse about the direction of our society, why not do so with honesty and openness, instead of deceit and outright slander? Instead of continually re-creating conflict where none need exist, they might actually be able to find a way to encourage dialog and communication about these often contentious subjects.



  1. Nice post, Ryan, a very interesting analysis.

    As a side note, I spent the better part of my life in Kansas and was just finishing High School there when the evolution debate started to arise. I am not a creationist, and I find the claims in these videos outrageous (undeniable connection between Hitler and Darwin? As if they were old drinking buddies talking theory over a few brews?) and I don't take kindly to people trying to impose their view of the world on me and everyone else (though, I suspect that would be the creationist claim against evolution as well).
    However, when Kansas becomes the butt of jokes all over the US for debating the issue, and when I see things like this: (guess which side ends up being the "dodos")
    I get a little annoyed. It reminds me of how I feel whenever I watch Penn & Teller's show Bullsh*t - I just think "You guys are Jerks!" Nobody likes being ridiculed for their beliefs, so, to me, it's no surprise that they feel as if they're being attacked and need to take some proactive steps to counter those attacks.
    I'm not sure what the solution is, but I'm definitely tired of all of it.

  2. I agree that there are issues with how BOTH sides behave. Trust me. I think that many scientists and supporters of evolution go way overboard to the point of being ridiculously obnoxious. There is no need to start calling anyone stupid for what they believe. I do not see the sense in it. So maybe it would be a good idea to write something that looks at this from another angle entirely.

    The solution to me seems to be the idea that different people can agree to disagree, basically. Everyone wants to be RIGHT, but few people can accept the possibility that there might be some different (and contradictory) "right" answers to the same questions. Who knows...but I agree with you that this kind of thing gets old.

  3. While I do agree that the methods of Creationists show a tenuous grasp of science and result in propaganda, I do not believe that is just political. The reason Catholicism does not clash with science as much as the Creationist sect of Christianity is due to a fundamental difference in theology. Catholicism does not treat the Bible as a literal history, whereas Creationism does. Therefore, while Catholicism can reconcile God with evolution, the existence of evolution contradicts major tenets of the Creationist theory. Not only that the Earth was created in 6 days by God, but also the existence of Original Sin, and therefore, the necessity for a savior. So when confronted with theories that contradict their beliefs, the response is to try to fight science with science. Like you said, though, creation cannot be tested empirically. So Creationists will continue to fight against science until they can find some way to resolve evolution and their beliefs.

  4. Hi Megan.

    I think you make a great point about some fundamental differences in theology between Catholicism and these particular sects of Christianity. Biblical literalism is certainly a major factor, although I am not always clear as to which Protestant sects hold that up as an all important factor. Sometimes it's difficult to figure out which points are crucial to whom.

    At the same time, it seems to me that some of these primary tenets get lost in the shuffle when the beliefs are hidden behind the screen of ID science. That's why I was wondering what the real point is. And if this is a case of faith in a certain narrative exposition about the creation of the world vs. scientific explanation, well, where can the two even begin to have a discussion? I definitely do not think that ID belongs anywhere near the science classroom, since any and all empirical aspects do not apply.

    I understand the theory behind the tactic of fighting "science with science," but for the creationists the answers are already known up front. No matter how they dress it up, they are subscribing to matters that require faith. So the whole idea of ID is an oxymoron. For all of the faults of science, one solid aspect of it is the idea that knowledge is not about absolutes. Religion is very different in that regard.

    Christian creationists have their viewpoints, and I can respect that. I find it difficult, however, when they assume that anyone who does not believe as they do is automatically immoral, lacking in direction, and some kind of sinner. Sometimes there seems to be an absolute lack of acceptance of different ways of thinking by some of these folks--they certainly are not rising up to defend equal time in the classroom for ALL creation-based ideologies. Just theirs. So in that sense the whole thing about equal time falls pretty short and looks pretty hollow.

    So maybe the fundamental theological principles behind the conflict are less political and more spiritually-based, but the actions of folks like Cameron and Comfort certainly look quite politically-motivated to me.

    Unfortunately, I think these polemic onslaughts leave a lot of people in the middle wondering what to think about all of this...

  5. "If you want to teach it in schools, intelligent design should be taught when religion or cultural history is taught, not science."

    Maybe part of the problem is that K-12 schools don't really teach religion or cultural history classes.

    Some of the comments in the first film suggest to me that the evolution debate is just one part of a broader feeling that schools are turning children against religion.

    Of course, religion is portrayed through other subjects - the Inquisition, Puritans, the Enlightenment - but many of these are far from positive portrayals of religion.

    As an agnostic, I wouldn't want my kid brainwashed into religion, but learning about religions wouldn't hurt.

    Here's a Washington Post article on Teaching Religions (Plural) in Public Education.

  6. Hey Stacie,

    I completely agree with you about how religion is being taught (or not taught) in schools. I like the idea of teaching a world religions course in High Schools, but I wonder how that would go over. I think it would be cool, since that was one of my favorite classes in early college.

    But...I also think that anthropology should be taught in High Schools, especially CULTURAL. I'm completely biases there though.

    Still, adding these types of course might actually balance out some of these issues. But then people would have to be okay with their kids learning about the histories of Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism alongside Christianity. Make sense to me, but it might not to others.

    But your point about how religion is not exactly treated in the most positive way in a lot of public education is right on the mark. I really think this is a BIG part of this problem. Hmmm. Thanks for bringing that up.


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