Tuesday, September 30, 2008


A few years before Charles Darwin's birth, a theologian named Bishop William Paley advanced what was then seen as an ingenious argument for the existence of God, now familiar as the "argument from design". Just as an intricately designed watch that you may stumble upon signifies the existence of an 'intelligent designer', so does the magnificent diversity of life and the workings of the human body signify the existence of an intelligent and all-encompassing God. Darwin faced this argument squarely and demolished it by showing precisely how complex systems can arise spontaneously, guided by the laws of physics, chemistry, and natural competition. In one fell swoop Darwin did away with Paley's argument, and it lay buried in its grave when it was resurrected and dusted off a hundred and fifty years later essentially in just one country, suprisingly the most developed country in the world. No other developed country has so forcefully advocated this regressive argument known by the (oxy)moronic name of "intelligent design". Only in the United States have people sought to go back in time and so ardently embrace ignorant and outdated ideas about the existence of God. Why the United States? Why this glaring discrepancy involving the citizens of the most technologically advanced nation believing in the most backward-looking ideas?

New York Times columnist Charles Blow has a discussion on his blog where he wonders why the US is the only country where religion is so rampant in spite of great wealth and technological development. He points to a graph that denotes religious fundamentalism to be roughly inversely proportional to technological development, with one exception- the United States. Why is that so?

It's definitely a very interesting phenomenon to muse about, and three main reasons have always come to my mind:

1. The Argument from Great Resources:

One might argue that as much as fundamentalism seems to be widespread in today's America, it has been a strain endemic in American culture and belief ever since this country was founded. The reason why its effects were not felt so much earlier is because Americans largely managed to separate church and state partly because of great natural resources and access to technology that could keep the engine of scientific and economic progress running while keeping the engine of religious fundamentalism independently humming.

2. The Argument from Fear of Technology and Love of Money:

Ironically, the same technology that makes the US the most developed country in the world may be partly responsible for people's gravitating towards religion. These days much of technology seems incomprehensible and we must remember the well-known adage that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".

For many common Americans, space exploration, the Internet, modern medicine and genetically engineered crops are black boxes whose fruits they enjoy while not completely understanding their inner workings. Religion tosses them some similar tidbits; to them creationism seems no more fantastic than evolution and so they don't have any problem believing in Biblical accounts of events. Since many technological advances seem like miracles to them anyway, they might as well believe in miracles in the Bible. The fault here lies not in technology of course but in the educational system and media of this country which frequently obfuscate the features of science and technology, either reducing them to oversimplified metaphors (comparing atoms to watermelons for example), or rooting them in a mass of complicated, confused jargon. Many surveys indicate that a disproportionate number of Americans don't understand evolution. If science education and the media do a better job of educating the public, they will start to see the difference between phenomena based on evidence and phenomena which were divined by prophets through personal faith.

The same kind of argument rings true with money. Money buys you comforts and technology whose origins- and limitations- you don't understand. The current morass on Wall Street is just another indication of Americans' love affair with green. Money also created a false sense of hubris and the belief that all this acquisition of wealth was somewhat related to the Christian ethic (or a perverted version thereof). Forgotten were the equally important Christian ethical notions of charity, moderation and stewardship of nature. Islamic fundamentalism brought a whole new aspect to such beliefs. The oil wars are also seen by some as the ultimate conflict between superior Christians who deserve only the best of wealth and technology, and backward populations, either godless or belonging to inferior make-believe religions, who deserve to be denied such technology and resources. The destruction of the environment that accompanies such an explosion of technology and wealth are seen by some fundamentalists as leading to the second coming of Christ. They would gleefully revel in excesses before they are catapulted to the wonders of the promised land. This is a good example of how technology, wealth, resources and religion feed off each other's products and ideas.

3. Argument from Clever Reaganite Proselytizing:

More than any other modern President, Ronald Reagan was responsible for bringing about the current inextricable meld of politics and religion, a paradigm taken to unprecedented heights by his less intelligent and more pernicious ideological descendent George W Bush. His appeasement of religious fundamentalists made even hardened Republicans like Barry Goldwater cower in revulsion. Reagan realized that he could shape the entire social and political structure of this country by making religion an essential part of political discourse and mobility. In doing this he violated a fundamental tenet of the constitution laid out by the Founding Fathers, who must have died a second time in their grave hearing him speak. Reagan's legacy is malignant and long-lasting, and it was furthered with conviction by his neo-conservative acolytes. Its effects are extremely far-reaching because it set in motion a vicious cycle; conservatives would woo religious fundamentalists and fundamentalists would vote for conservatives and infiltrate the While House and other public agencies. It is hard to see how this vicious cycle could be broken, especially after Bush honed its strong points to such a degree that religious fundamentalists could seriously swing elections. Unless conservatives and Republicans get out of appeasing religion, religion is marked to shape much of the political discourse and thus alter the fundamental legal and social landscape of this country. The end cannot be anything but disastrous.

The question at the end, one that is always the most difficult to answer, is what can be done? For one thing, moderate Republicans must take the lead and break this essential connection that has been formed between the Republican party and right-wing religion. John McCain with Sarah Palin is certainly not going to do that. As noted above, public education also has a very important role to play in convincing people that science and technology are not magic, and that religion undermines the basic process that brought them all those comforts that they enjoy so much and take for granted. And as for resources, we don't have to worry; they will run out by themselves and will force people to choose between a lifestyle of moderation and prudence and an eternity of desperation, civil strife, and longer lines at the gas station.

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Blogger Kunal said...

Umm, it was Carter who brought religion into modern Presidential politics, not Reagan. On of the major reasons Carter won in 1976 (apart from the fact that his opponent's main accomplishment was pardoning Nixon) was his use of religion as a political plank.

But yes, it would be nice to have a Republican Party not completely in thrall to fundies.

Also, the nation that is now the US was founded by (relatively) fundamentalist Christians emigrating to escape persecution by mainline and (relatively) liberal Christians on the Continent, so perhaps it is not so surprising that fundies are so much more in evidence here.

9:53 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Even though Carter did use religion as a crutch and thought of himself as a born-again Christian, his use of religion was much more opportunistic and temporary. But Reagan made religion an integral part of politics and his own worldview. He saw much of the world in religious shades. He famously pitched the battle with the Soviets as a fundamental battle between Christian faith and non-faith. And he thought of himself as a prophet destined to lead American into a future governed by Christian ethics. There is a really good description of Reagan's religious conviction and how it fundamentally affected his politics in Richard Rhodes's "Arsenals of Folly".

Actually it's good that you brought up that last point. Religious persecution can either repel people from religion or make them more devout. A strange combination seems to have materialized in the early United States.

10:01 AM  
Blogger artharaja said...

How about the argument from unequal distribution of wealth? - That the US is peculiar amongst the rich countries in having very significant differences in income levels of its poor and rich citizens. It would be interesting to how religious belief correlates with long term average annual income.

7:49 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

That's indeed an interesting argument. Do you know anyone who has advanced it anywhere? I would be interested in taking a look

10:01 AM  
Blogger artharaja said...

Unfortunately, I have not come across a book that elaborates that argument. I recollect vaguely seeing some data that inferred religion correlates negatively to higher education, which in turn correlates positively to wealth. Not surprising - we would associate higher education with critical thinking skills and knowledge based (and hence high paying) professions.

Trouble is, such a thesis would need an anthropologist-economist to formulate, articulate and evidence with data. Unfortunately, economists, unlike atheists, seem disinclined to examine religion as part of their analysis methodology.

7:57 AM  

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