Religion, evolution and stupidity

George Monbiot, in the Guardian last Tuesday, on the link between religious belief and the anti-intellectualisation of US politics:

Ignorant politicians are elected by ignorant people. US education, like the US health system, is notorious for its failures. In the most powerful nation on earth, one adult in five believes the sun revolves around the earth; only 26% accept that evolution takes place by means of natural selection; two-thirds of young adults are unable to find Iraq on a map; two-thirds of US voters cannot name the three branches of government; the maths skills of 15 year-olds in the US are ranked 24th out of the 29 countries of the OECD(3).

He notes that, in the early days of Darwinism, it was bound up in the USA with social Darwinism, in which the rich were supposed to be at the top of an evolutionary ladder. However, another reason was the religious involvement in slavery and subsequent racism. He assigns a large part of the blame to the Southern Baptist Convention:

The Southern Baptist Convention, now the biggest Protestant denomination in the US, was to slavery and segregation what the Dutch Reformed Church was to apartheid in South Africa. It has done more than any other force to keep the South stupid. In the 1960s it tried to stave off desegregation by establishing a system of private Christian schools and universities. A student can now progress from kindergarten to a higher degree without any exposure to secular teaching. Southern Baptist beliefs pass intact through the public school system as well. A survey by researchers at the University of Texas in 1998 found that one in four of the state’s public school biology teachers believed that humans and dinosaurs lived on earth at the same time.

However, I cannot allow his connection of not knowing where Iraq is on the map with not accepting “that evolution takes place by means of natural selection”. What, I suspect, he means is that these people do not accept is that mankind itself is descended from apes, which is merely a fashionable theory among scientists, not an observed fact. Many religious people, certainly Muslims if not Christians, who do not accept Darwin’s theory in its entirety believe in some form of natural selection and accept that the earth is more than 6,000 years old. It is only certain types of religion, even fundamentalist religion, “that makes you stupid”, but even then, it is only the stupid among them that are stupid and no doubt the clever ones (the ones who run companies, political parties, cities and states - although not countries) believe the same things.

Among the replies to this in the letters yesterday was this from Tom Brown in London:

So whose electorate falls for the cynically spun illusion of million-pound tax-free inheritance gains, served up by George Osborne at last year’s Tory conference? Which country clings to an outdated imperial system, and lionises luddites as “metric martyrs”? Which country’s political class dare not speak of anything European except in terms of the UK dictating and the rest leading? Which capital city elected a mayor who is plainly unfit to hold public office on a resentment vote of car-owning, white, bourgeois suburbs against multi-ethnic, non-car-owning, urban gay and single-parent-family inhabited inner-city areas?

Quite apart from the fact that the US still uses non-metric measurements even when we don’t (they still have gallons of fuel, we take ours in litres), and that it was only a few market traders who bothered to put up a fight over metric (rather than having dual scales, for example, or using non-round numbers which equate to round numbers of pounds or whatever, as you still find on milk bottles), Boris Johnson won the election in London largely because Ken Livingstone had gone too far with his tax-grabbing, anti-motorist schemes. The congestion charge extension, for example, took in substantial residential areas, where not everyone was rich or bourgeois, by any means, and a lot of them really could have done without having to pay an extra car tax (on top of controlled parking fees and road tax) because they had no driveways on which to park. He could have avoided most of this by stopping the charge at the old A40, but he was too arrogant to listen to anybody. I did not vote for Johnson, but it was Livingstone’s high-handedness that cost him the last election. After all, Livingstone won comfortably in 2000, even against an official Labour candidate, having promised the original congestion charge, so he must have got some suburban votes then as well.

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