The fight over Darwin

The fight over Darwin
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First Published: Tue, Sep 15 2009. 09 19 PM IST
Updated: Tue, Sep 15 2009. 09 19 PM IST
In 2009, while the world is celebrating Charles Darwin’s 200th birth anniversary, US scientists have a unique challenge: to convince 60% of their countrymen that God did not create man. It might seem odd that a country, which has won the maximum number of Nobel prizes, sent a man to the moon, and has the best universities in the world, takes the antediluvian creation myth in the book of Genesis literally.
A 2009 Gallup poll revealed that only 39% of Americans believed in evolution. There were two reasons for this: education and religion. Among the high school educated, only 21% believed in evolution and 52% had no opinion; among those with a college degree, 29% did not believe and 30% had no opinion. For the religious, Darwin contradicts the word of God and those who attended church regularly were found to not believe in evolution.
To analyse the role of religion in this debate, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life asked major religious groups in the US what they thought about evolution.
The study found that at the bottom of the chart were Jehovah’s Witnesses: Only 8% of their members believed in evolution. Slightly better were Mormons (22%), Evangelical Protestants (24%), historically black Protestants (38%) and Muslims (45%). Among the Catholics and Protestants, more than 50% believed in evolution.
A major problem facing the US is that religious groups, which deny evolution are out to impose their views as science on everyone by modifying science textbooks. In 2004, 150 years after Darwin published his seminal work, the Cobb County Board of Education in Atlanta affixed a sticker on thousands of public school textbooks, which stated that evolution is a theory, not a fact. In Dover, Pennsylvania, the school board decided to teach that an “intelligent agent” created various species.
The same Pew Research poll, which found that only 8% of Jehovah’s Witnesses believed in evolution also found that 81% of Buddhists believed in evolution along with 80% of Hindus. Like the story of creation in the Book of Genesis, Hindus too have creation myths, but in India, where most American-Hindus are from, these creation myths stay in religious books, not in school textbooks. Also, there are no Hindu or Buddhist groups questioning a fact, which has been debated, analysed and tested for 150 years.
While various American Christian groups are vehemently anti-evolution, it cannot be generalized that it is a common behaviour of all Abrahamic religions; since Jews as a group stand third in ranking—after Buddhists and Hindus—with 77% believing in evolution.
The Pew religious survey found one thing in common between American Hindus, Buddhists and Jews: Members of these religions lead the religious groups in terms of education and were most likely to have a postgraduate degree. This ties with the Gallup poll, which found that 74% of Americans who had a postgraduate degree believed in evolution.
This also explains the frenetic effort among religious groups to subvert the education system. There is one more difference. In India, the syllabus is decided by the government—both state and Central— whereas in the US, local school boards have the authority to decide tests, texts and teaching materials. Thus, depending on the religious beliefs of the school board members, insane ideas can be taught and science can be redefined. To prevent this, parents have to file lawsuits or vote the school board out—both disruptive activities.
Courts in the US have found that teaching “intelligent design”, a euphemism for creationism, violates the US constitution. The creationists now are fighting for academic rights, so that educators can teach “a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions”. Fortunately, this is a fight we don’t have in India.
Jayakrishnan Nair writes about history and religion atvarnam.org/blog. Comment at otherviews@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Sep 15 2009. 09 19 PM IST