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Fundamentalist Christians, Science, and the Democracy

Part One – Special Interest Democracy

Democracy has a very positive connotation for most modern peoples.  It suggests that the individual citizens are important and that their opinions will be paid attention to by those they elect to political office. In a modified fashion, this is true.  Take, for instance, democracy in the United States.  The U.S. is not exactly a democracy of individuals whose numbers run to over 300 million.  It is instead, a democracy competing interest groups.  These interest groups are made up of subsets of the population–that is individuals who have come together based on shared interests and outlooks.  They pool their voting numbers and financial capabilities and approach the elected government bodies as collectives.  In that way they manage to exert (in the form of lobbies) much more influence than an individual voter ever could.

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There are numerous examples of such special interests.  Are you a retired or older American concerned about maintaining social security and medicare?  Then join the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).  This organization has a membership of approximately 40 million citizens.  When it speaks, the politicians in the U.S. government tend to listen.  Are you a gun afficionado who fears losing your alleged Second Amendment right to go around the neighborhood with an automatic weapon?  Then join the National Rifle Association (NRA).  This organization has approximately 4.5 million members and has successfully prevented meaningful gun control laws from being enacted.  Similar special interest groups exist on the foreign policy side of the U.S. political scene and have proved influential enough to control American policy toward individual countries such as Cuba and Israel as well as entire regions such as the Middle East.

This is how democracy works in the United States and much of the rest of the democratic world as well.  Is it a good system?  Winston Churchill had an answer to that question when he mused, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Churchill was a British politician old enough to remember a time when traditional elites were quite skeptical about what we now call representative democracy.

Why was that the case?  As recently as the 19th century political and cultural elites considered the “masses” as little more than a mob.  And, to a certain extent, this fear was warranted. The “masses” were largely un- or under educated, uninformed and, so it was thought, given to episodes of hysteria that could be exploited by charismatic leaders and charlatans.  A branch of psychology, known as crowd psychology, grew up in the 19th century to investigate the negative potential of mass action, and another branch known variously as public opinion/public relations/advertising grew up to investigate the possibility of controlling the behavior of the masses for profit and/or political advantage.

As our modern version of representative democracy evolved, the masses, now referred to as the voters or the citizenry, became better educated but not necessarily better informed.  They sought solace and identity in special interest associations to compensate for existence in a largely atomized mass society.  And, as we have seen, they also found the secret to political influence in such a society through those same special interest groups.

 

Part Two – Fundamentalist Christians as Lobbyist

The number of special interest sub-groups that have grown up in the representative democracy of the United States are myriad.  The examples given above are but the tip of the iceberg. At first one would not think that this arrangement would have much impact on the status of science in society.  After all, the United States is the arch-typically science and technology based society.  Its economy is almost completely dependent on such knowledge bases. More generally, given the number of people now on the planet, we could not produce enough food, generate enough energy, maintain sufficient health to carry on without science.  Nonetheless, there are increasingly powerful special interest groups within American society which are very suspicious of aspects of science.  And, to the extent that they can influence government policy, their use of democracy actually becomes a threat to important components of scientific progress.

What interest group would want to undermine one of the mainstays of modern society?  Well, it would be one representing the devotees of (from their perspective) a competing pillar of society.  That competitor is religion, or at least certain fundamentalist forms of religion that see in science an unacceptable interpretation of who human beings are, where they come from, and what is allowable in terms of human self-realization.  These fundamentalist manifestations of religion in the United States have, like the secular AARP and NRA, formed themselves into an array of powerful special interests with a real potential to influence government policies in relation to on-going scientific education and research.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has published an updated study entitled Lobbying for the Faithful: Religious Advocacy Groups in Washington, D.C.  According to the study, as of May 2012. there are some 200 organizations engaged in “religious lobbying” and they address about 300 different issues and causes. 18% of them are described as “evangelical Christian” which have a particular interest in “bioethics and life issues.” These include stem cell research and the teaching of evolution.

It is difficult to know the exact numbers these special interests collectively represent.  We do know that some 22% of Americans identify themselves as fundamentalist Christians.[1] In terms of a media presence, Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, a fundamentalist Christian media effort which started in 1961 and is still broadcasting, is the longest running program on TV and has millions of viewers worldwide.[2]  There can be no doubt that when well organized and directed, this constituency represents a politically powerful force.  Here are two examples of how they use their influence.

 

Part Three – Issues and Arguments

I. Stem Cell Research

Stem cells are what may be called the body’s foundational generic cells. Their job is to produce new cells for whatever specific organ or body part they belong.  As such, medical researchers see them as potential cellular factories for the replacement of damaged or diseased tissues.  For instance, as a mechanism to repair spinal injuries or correct Parkinson’s disease.  If they are correct, the benefits for mankind will be far-reaching.

There are two types of stem cells.  The first is referred to as adult stem cells and these are the most common and readily abundant.  All animals possess these cells throughout their bodies.  However, it was long thought that adult stem cells were organ specific in their reproductive capacity (the scientific term is “multipotent”).  If you have a bone marrow stem cell it was thought that its reproductive range was limited to blood cells.

Again, it was long believed that if you wanted to find stem cells with greater reproductive range you had to look for them at the animal’s embryonic stage. Thus the term embryonic stem cells.  Such cells are, if you will, young enough to be able to produce almost any type of cells that make up the body (the scientific term is “pluripotent”). Most embryonic stem cells used in research came from “leftover” embryos in frozen storage at fertility clinics.  When such clinics help couples produce embryos for eventual implantation in the mother’s womb they usually create enough to cover the possibility that the initial implantation will fail and have to be repeated.  Over time “leftovers” accumulate.  One estimate that there are now about 100,000 such embryos in storage in the U.S.[3]  The eventual fate of these embryos depends on the wishes of the donors within legal parameters.  The desire of the research community is that these embryos be used as a source of embryonic stem cells and, in the past, some of them have been used to create a limited number of self-reproducing lines of stem cells for just such research purposes.  In the U.S. these lines were created and are maintained in private research laboratories. However, the problem is that to “harvest” such cells and establish the self-reproducing lines, researchers have to destroy the embryo from which the original cells come.

The destructive process when applied to human embryos gave rise to the controversy that led fundamentalist Christians, working through special interest lobbies such as the Family Research Council and the Alliance Defense Fund to press for legislation eliminating the use of federal funds to support embryonic stem cell research.  Here is how the Los Angeles Times (August 12, 2001) put the issue, “The issue of stem cells struck a national nerve….It introduced, in embryonic form, what may turn out to be the new bloody crossroads of U.S. politics: where giant leaps forward in medical science meet deeply entrenched differences about what makes life sacred, and where the American gospel of progress meets the biblical admonition against human pride.”

In other words, fundamentalist Christians (as well as some secular bio-ethicists) see human embryos as living human beings, albeit at their earliest stage, and therefore consider the destruction of such embryos as murder.

The LA Times had been moved to its florid description of the issue by the actions of President George W Bush. 2001 was the first year of Bush’s presidency, and being a fundamentalist Christian he had instituted prayer sessions and bible study in the White House.  Therefore, it came as no surprise that one of Bush’s first major actions was to try to devise a policy toward federal funding of embryonic stem cell research that would meet most of the objections of his Christian compatriots while not totally alienating the medical research community.  His compromise was to allow funding on self-reproducing embryonic stem cell lines that the research community had already brought into existence.  That is lines of cells created from embryos already destroyed or, as Bush put it, where “the life and death decision has already been made.” There would be no federal funding for research on any new embryonic stem cell lines.

In 2005, Congress (more liberal then than it is today) tried to broadened Bush’s executive order and passed a Stem Cell Enhancement Act permitting federal funding to support stem cell research using embryos bound for disposal by fertility clinics with the written consent of the donor.  However, the fundamentalist Christian interest groups objected and President Bush vetoed the bill the day after it was passed.  Congress tried again in 2007 and passed the same legislation adding instructions to the National Institute of Health (NIH) to investigate alternative forms of stem cell sourcing.  Again President Bush vetoed the bill.  This standoff lasted until 2009 when a newly elected President Barak Obama issued his own executive order lifting restrictions on the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research and the number self-reproducing stem cell lines available to researches quickly grew.

What this story tells us is that there exists in the United States significant numbers of fundamentalist Christians for whom certain lines of scientific inquiry, including stem cell research, are ideologically anathema.  As Dr. Ray Bohlin, author of The Natural Limits of Biological Change, has put it, the embryos from which stem cells are harvested are “of infinite value to God. We are not going to redeem them by killing them for research.”[4]  Such Christians are politically well organized and thus, under certain circumstances, able to shape government policy to fit their outlook.

There is a postscript to the stem cell story.  A new category of adult stem cells with the reproductive range of embryonic stem cells has become available. Researchers have been able to “reprogram” adult stem cells, particularly those responsible for producing new skin cells, to behave like embryonic stem cells. Over time this development should end the confrontation described above because embryos will no longer be needed as a source of pluripotent stem cells.  However, stem cell research is not the only area of science that disturbs politically influential fundamentalist Christian special interests.

II. Teaching Evolution

The United States is home to the most potent fundamentalist Christian movement since the Protestant Reformation.  The population of the U.S. as of 2012 was approximately 314 million people.  If, as noted above, 22% of them are self-described fundamentalist Christians, that puts their number at over 69 million people. Some Gallup polls suggest that the number of such fundamentalists runs to 40% of the American population. What do these people believe?  Among other things the believe that the bible is “inerrant.”  That is, it is the revealed word of God and therefore is to be taken as literal truth. When such Christians read the book of Genesis they are led to the belief that God created the world in less than 7 days and did so approximately 6,000 years ago. What of modern science and its wealth of evidence for the evolutionary process and an approximate age for the earth of 4.5 billion years?  Fundamentalist Christians dismiss such evidence as either faulty or the result of God making things appear that way as a test of faith.

In a democracy like the United States people can believe what they wish as long as their beliefs do not lead to criminal behavior.  And, it is within that environment of democratic freedom that fundamentalist Christians have chosen to organize themselves for an effort to forbade the teaching of scientifically based evolution in the public school system, or alternatively, to require the teaching of their bible based version of creation as a valid alternative alongside evolution.

This effort has been on-going since the end of World War I.  At that time the scientific theory of evolution was incorrectly thought to have been one of the motivators of the German monarchy’s decision to go to war.  This, along with their fundamentalist reading of the bible, led some famous and influential American Christian leaders, such as Williams Jennings Bryan, to crusade against evolution.  The result was that, in the 1920s, several states passed laws making it illegal to teach the fact of human evolution.  This in turn led to the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925.  Scopes was a biology teacher who was prosecuted under such a law in a trial that became a national media event.  Paralleling the legislative effort against teaching evolution in the classroom was public pressure that led the major textbook publishers to leave evolution out of their texts until the 1960s.

The major organizations presently involved in this anti-evolution effort are the non-profit Discovery Institute based in Seattle which budgets about $1 million a year to push the notion of intelligent design; the Creation Studies Institute in Florida; Answers in Genesis in Kentucky; and Liberty University in Virginia. A stereotypical motivation for all of this was given by the Southern Baptist Minister Terry Fox who, referring to the effort of the Kansas State Board of Education to allow the teaching of alternatives to evolution, declared that “most people in Kansas don’t think we came from monkeys” (a notion that evolution does not put forth).  Fox is correct in that a large majority of Americans believe that God created human beings.  Of course, the fact that a majority of people believe something (for instance, that the sun revolves around the earth which itself stands motionless in the heavens) does not mean that it is true.

The laws against teaching evolution in the public schools eventually ran afoul of court decisions which labeled them violations of the separation of church and state. This turn of events has motivated fundamentalist Christians to create the notion of “scientific creationism” and later “intelligent design.” Claiming that these concepts are not derived from religious belief, they have campaigned for them to be taught in the schools as equally valid ideas alongside evolution. All such efforts have been found unconstitutional by the courts and therefore blocked. This has led to resentment and an increased enrollment in Christian schools.  As one fundamentalist mother who pulled her children out of public school rather curiously put it, “if students only have one thing to consider, one option, that’s really more brainwashing.”[5]

More importantly, prior to (and also following) all the court decisions against the Christian position, fundamentalists were successful in passing their demands into law in a large number of state legislatures. Indeed, as of 2012, twenty six states have on-going legislative challenges to the teaching of evolution.

The attack on the teaching of evolution has led to an attack on the veracity of science itself. For instance, Stephen C. Meyer of the Discovery Institute has said that “What we would like is to foment a civil discussion about science.  That falls right down the middle of the fairway of American pluralism. We are interested in seeing that spread state by state across the country.”  He is backed up by former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, a devout fundamentalist, who says that “my reading of the science is there’s a legitimate debate.  My feeling is let the debate be had.” Another activist in this campaign, John H. Calvert calls the origins of life “the most fundamental issue facing the culture” and proclaims that “we are really in a revolution of scientific thought.”

Of course, the “thought” of these opponents of evolution is not “scientific” at all.  It is religious and equates their faith in biblical stories with evidence derived through the practice of the scientific method.  But no matter, each year the advocates of the “intelligent design” hold an conference for “interested legislators and activists.”  Very much by design it is called the Darwin, Design and Democracy Conference.

 

Part Four – Conclusion: Democracy and Science

Science is not a product of popular choice and it is not a matter of faith. It is the product of a system of inquiry governed by rules of evidence.  It is also a system that self-adjusts to new substantiated factual information.  The term “theory,” as used in science (for instance, the theory of evolution), is simply an indicator of the open ended nature of scientific positions to new factual evidence.

The theory of evolution is a product of this investigatory process.  The substantiated factual evidence gathered by researches over more than 100 years have supported the scientific understanding of evolution, as well as the notion of natural selection, without fail.  To deny evolution because you have complete faith in a bible story is, of course, the individual prerogative of any person.  To assert that your bible story is true in the same way as a scientifically established position is true, as does fundamentalists like Rick Santorum, is at the very least to confuse apples and oranges.

In much of the United States, if the question of evolution and its presentation in the public school system was to be left to the democratic process, the special interest lobbies hostile to evolution would probably succeed in having it banned from both the classroom and the textbooks.  The best that could be expected is that evolution would be presented as a “theory” somewhat less worthy of belief than rival positions of religious nature–all of which would be taught to public school children.

The only thing that stands between the continued teaching of evolution and its democratically induced subversion is the courts.  And the courts do not make their rulings based on the simple awareness that evolution is a provable fact and its competitors are popular stories with no demonstrable factual basis. They make their decisions based on the prevalent interpretation of that part of the constitutional that sanctions a separation of church and state.

The unfortunate conclusion one is drawn to is that, in the United States, democracy is no friend of science.  It is a friend of religion and only held at bay by the country’s constitution.  Change the constitution, or for that matter the makeup of the Supreme Court which is the final interpreter of the Constitution, and the flood gates of biblical fantasy could wash evolution from the classroom and the textbooks. An important part of science would then, as the story goes, go the way of Pharaoh’s ill-fated army engulfed in the waves of the Red Sea.

 

Notes 

[1]  http://www.gallup.com/poll/16519/us-evangelicals-how-many-walk-walk.aspx

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_700_Club

[3] http://www.probe.org/site/c.fdKEIMNsEoG/b.4218211/k.1B8F/The_Controversy_Over_Stem_Cell_Research.htm

[4] http://www.probe.org/site/c.fdKEIMNsEoG/b.4218211/k.1B8F/The_Controversy_Over_Stem_Cell_Research.htm

[5] http://msl1.mit.edu/furdlog/docs/washpost/2005-03-15_washpost_know_nothings.pdf

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