Evolution and Climate Change

If you were raised in a devoutly Christian household, what were you taught even before you finally chucked those diapers?  Among other things, you were undoubtedly immersed in the Biblical account of Creation, as given in the Book of Genesis.

It was probably quite a while before you even heard of Darwin and the Theory of Evolution.  And most likely, your first exposure to that was in exceedingly disparaging terms.  But if you took science classes in a public school, eventually you were taught about Natural Selection, and that Man’s origin was not by a magical stroke of divine creation, but by a long, incredibly slow process resulting in the gradually increasing complexity and diversity of life forms on the earth.

Initially, this must have caused some confusion, possibly even some doubt about the Biblical account.  But faith-based ideas introduced at an early age are difficult to dislodge, no matter how convincing the evidence.  How did you resolve this?  Two sets of authority figures…your parents and your teachers…gave you contradictory messages.  Who was right?

For most kids, their parents are the ultimate authority, at least until adolescence, and for many, much longer.  What happened when you asked your devout Christian parents about this?  Their answer was emphatic and certain.  You were told to ignore the teachings of science, and to hold to your faith-based beliefs.

And thus began your lifelong distrust of “pointy-headed” scientists.  You were probably told that most scientists are atheists, or even agents of Satan, bent on corrupting your beliefs.  Unless you happened to encounter a particularly charismatic teacher or influential friend who helped you to achieve some kind of epiphany, you will probably retain some vestiges of this animosity for the rest of your life, even in the unlikely event that you end up pursuing a scientific career.

Now fast forward to the current controversy over climate change.  If you were raised in the above environment, distrustful of science and scientists, wouldn’t you be predisposed to have doubts about their proclamations of imminent doom due to global warming?  Remember that scientists may be agents of Satan, so they are not just wrong.  They may have a hidden agenda to take control of government and even use it in some nefarious way to attack your faith.

You might even conclude that the overwhelming consensus view on climate change is based on fraud, lies and incompetence, and that the corrupt and evil scientific community systematically punishes dissenters and stifles their conflicting views through peer review rejection of their publications, etc. And finally, that all this is done to promote a “liberal agenda.”

If you did reach these conclusions, you would share a view held by a great many members of the Religious Right, who most likely were raised in similar circumstances to yours.

There is one more aspect that I have not mentioned, and that is the belief that we are in the “End Times” before Jesus returns to earth and whisks all the True Believers off to heaven, and to Hell with the rest of us (literally).  If you truly believe this, then who cares about global warming or pollution or depletion of the earth’s resources?  The End is coming any day now, so it won’t matter anyway.  Various studies have shown that skepticism about global warming is highest among evangelical Protestants, so much of your skepticism is probably influenced by eschatological beliefs.

Now a few disclaimers:  I am certainly not claiming that every single religious person is a science and scientist hater.  Indeed, many scientists are religious believers.  What I am suggesting is that there is a broad correlation between devout religious belief and distrust of scientists, and that this leads to skepticism and even denial of scientific evidence, often by people who have little or no scientific background.  Their doubts are based entirely on lifelong animosity toward the scientific community, and are fueled by talking heads like Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck who play on their fears and distrust.

So it is not surprising that public (as opposed to industry) opposition to climate change science comes mostly from the Religious Right.  It is simply an extension of the seemingly endless battle between science and religion that permeates our society.  Along with Richard Dawkins and others, I vehemently disagree with Steven Jay Gould, who famously claimed that religious belief and scientific knowledge are “Non-overlapping Magisteria.”   I think the dichotomy in this country over the global warming issue is a clear illustration of how wrong Gould was.

Given the power of religious elements in our society, the conflict between science and religion is sure to remain a major irritant, contributing much of the rancor associated with the “Culture Wars” promoted by the aforementioned TV personalities.  I don’t see it ending any time soon.

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