Fact and Belief
A bumper sticker depicts a fish symbol imprinted with the name Darwin being consumed by a larger fish that reads “truth.” The person that proudly displays this artwork on the back of his vehicle for all to see has a fervent belief that the theory of evolution espoused by Charles Darwin in his landmark book The Origin of Species and now embraced as fact by the vast majority of the scientific community, is a falsehood. The bumper sticker sporting fundamentalist believes instead that the two-thousand plus year old biblical rendition of creation as expressed in Genesis is irrefutable, literal truth.
Scientific expertise has come a long way since Darwin first published his idea in 1859 that species change genetically over time in response to environmental variables. We now have carbon dating, genetic testing, genome mapping and a slew of other technological advances that allow us to actually track the genetic evolution that Darwin could only imagine during his time. A lowly tree snail, Cerion spp., actually evolves so quickly that scientists can observe its genetic progression over a period of a few years giving researchers unprecedented insights into the mechanisms of evolution(1). The fossil record displays a physical testimony of the extraordinary array of permutations of organisms that roamed the earth and were the predecessors to today’s species. Numerous other scientific observations have confirmed what Darwin suspected long ago. Life forms are not immovable static entities doomed to extinction in a changing world but are instead ephemeral miracles that morph and change with their environment in an endless dance of evolution and adaptation.
Given the preponderance of proof available to support Darwin’s ideas, why do more than 40% of Americans believe the theory of evolution is an outright falsehood? Richard Dawkins in his recent book The Greatest Show on Earth – The Evidence for Evolution believes a large portion of the issue may be one of semantics(2). Frequently lacking an adequate scientific education, many fundamentalists are unaware of the meaning of the word “theory” in scientific jargon. Dawkins cites the Oxford Dictionary’s multiple definitions for the word. In science, the word theory is defined as follows:
“[a theory] has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment, and is propounded or accepted as accounting for the known facts; [it is] a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed(3).”
Those who embrace the notion that the theory of evolution is a falsehood adhere to another interpretation of the word “theory,” defined as, “A hypothesis proposed as an explanation; hence, a mere hypothesis, speculation, conjecture; an idea or set of ideas about something; an individual view or notion(3).”
Clearly, the above two definitions are distinctly at odds with one another. According to the first interpretation, a theory is accepted as a factual explanation of phenomena as confirmed by all available methodologies. The second definition categorizes a theory as mere speculation at best. When scientists refer to the “theory of evolution,” they are invariably evoking the first definition. Since it is scientists that have developed, described and defined the theory, it should stand to reason that we adhere to their intentions when deciphering the meaning of their words. To do otherwise is a grave logical fallacy. Yet this is where we find ourselves as a society. Rather than absorb facts and adjust one’s beliefs to a higher level of understanding, some in our society think it is perfectly acceptable to adjust facts to fit with their beliefs.
Having duly readjusted untidy facts, the steadfast belief in the literal translation of the Judeo-Christian Bible as truth is able to persist in the American culture regardless of numerous irrefutable data that more than adequately clarify the factual inaccuracies of the Bible. More significantly, in the democratic United States, where every adult has the ability to influence public policy, fundamentalist ideals have become pervasive in the political realm on issues like population control, global warming, Middle Eastern foreign policy and resource exploitation with significant implications for the future of the planet. People’s religious beliefs would not be problematic if they were not so potentially dangerous.
Recent research studied for the first time the effect of religious belief on the brain (4). By comparing the functional MRI scans of 15 self-professed Christians and 15 non-believers, scientists were able to witness the brain’s activity when evaluating statements of basic observable facts, such as “grass is a plant,” as compared with statements of religious belief such as “Jesus was born to a virgin named Mary.” The surprising findings were that fervent religious beliefs activate the brain exactly the same as observable facts. The Christian fundamentalist that believes Jesus walked on water, does so with the same conviction that he believes he has ten fingers and ten toes.
Given the religious zealot’s certainty, it is no small wonder that any evidence that contradicts his absolute belief is disregarded as false. In this context, it is understandable, if not perplexing, that numerous far right advocates maintain the beliefs that Saddam Hussein is responsible for the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and that President Obama is a Muslim and non-citizen regardless of definitive evidence that proves without exception that these beliefs are in fact, completely untrue.
These findings have considerable repercussions for the future of our society, and the seemingly oxymoronic sentiments echoed by the fundamentalist bumper sticker echo a frightening insight beyond their intended meaning. The “truth” embraced by the adherents to Christian fundamentalist belief includes the sanctioned subjugation, rape and enslavement of women, genocide against entire cultures of people and a dictate to subdue all the life forms on the planet.
How do we proceed in a world where a large proportion of citizens are adherents to religious orthodoxy and cannot be persuaded by bona fide facts to part with their beliefs? Our current global environmental and economic cataclysm will not be thwarted by prayer alone, and our future is not predestined by a divine father dictating our fates from his heavenly throne.
Carolyn Merchant writes, “We live our lives as characters in the grand narrative into which we have been socialized as children and conform as adults. That narrative is the story told to itself by the dominant society of which we are a part. We internalize narrative as ideology. Ideology is a story told by people in power…By rewriting the story, we can challenge the structures of power. All stories can and should be challenged (5).”
Just as organisms must evolve and adapt to their environment in order to avoid extinction, the human psyche must also be flexible, expanding with and embracing new knowledge as it supersedes ignorant superstition. As Homo sapiens allowed his beliefs to expand according to newly discovered truth, he developed language, art and science and left his cave to explore the outer reaches of the universe. We must evolve or we will perish.
1- Bell, Michael, August 2002. Wonderful Life. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Volume 17, Issue 8, Page 396.
2- Dawkins, Richard, 2009. The Greatest Show on Earth – The Evidence for Evolution. Free Press Publishers, New York.
3- The Oxford English Dictionary.
4- Harris, S., Kapplan, J. et al., 2009. The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief. On the World Wide Web at http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0007272
5- Merchant, Carolyn, 1996. Earthcare – Women and the Environment. Routledge Publishers, New York. Page 54.