Not all that long ago, outright, young earth creationists (YEC) outnumbered those of us who rejected supernatural views of our history by five to one here in American. Today I thankful that, for the first time in American history, the YEC position is not the top answer to the question of human origins! This historic point was crossed just this May, and is not the only such moment from 2017.
If you had asked me decades ago if I’d live to see this day, I wouldn’t have seen it as a likely possibility. And before that, for nearly all of American history and for many centuries before that in Western countries, to even suggest that a sane person could doubt the literal reading of the creation story that this or that Bible would get you shocked looks at best (if not physical harm). And yet, here we are!
Like so many other similar areas, the pace of change in the past century, and especially in the past couple decades, has been unbelievable.
Next Year, and the year after that
One could look at the direction this has gone over the past three decades and predict that it will continue. In other words, this is nothing new – the graph at the top of this post shows that accepting evolution with no supernatural involvement has more than doubled since 1982. But an even better basis for thinking that this trend will continue is looking at the demographics shown in the same poll. Specifically, the highest level of creationism is found in those above the age of 65, and among those under 30, only 27% are YEC. These data can be seen in the graph below. Note that the age specific data is from a different poll (by Pew), which gives a lower overall YEC result – likely due to polling differences like the proportion of land lines vs. cell phones, etc.
Looking at the Gallup graph, I can’t help but wonder how people most often free themselves of the shackles of YEC.
For instance, I’m sure that some of them jump right from YEC to rejection of all supernatural in the our origins in one step, when they find the many outright lies and subtle deceptions which make up YEC. Some undoubtedly shift over many years, gradually going from YEC, to accepting some kind of theistic evolution, then slowly dropping their creationist belief alltogether. But how many of each type? For those millions of Americans in the “naturalistic” category, which story is more common? I think that with these data, it could be mostly either way, or an even share of each. I’ll let you know if I find anything that provides that information- and please let me know if you come across some first.
Traditional religion, of course, brings both good and bad aspects to the lives of it’s adherents. Many of those good things, such as community, shared spiritual experience, rites of passage, and more, are completely independent of superstitious and supernatural belief. As so many people, of all ages and in all areas of the country, flee a literal Bible and YECism, they will still have many of these very human needs. How many of them will work to build naturalistic religions of various kinds? Some will stay in Christianity, being silently Naturalistic Christians, or theistic evolution supporters, who see evolution and common descent as facts that tell us how their god made humans and the world. Others will strike out in other areas, maybe becoming Naturalistic Buddhists, or anything else (we are talking about millions of people, after all). Some will be the Naturalistic Pagans who will read these posts here and on other Naturalistic Pagan blog sites (such as NaturalPagans.com), and feel a little less alone. As Naturalistic Paganism and other naturalistic approaches to religion grow, I hope that they find fulfilling spiritualities that enhance their lives and build a better world for all.
Starstuff, Contemplating by Jon Cleland Host
We are assemblages of ancient atoms forged in stars – atoms organized by history to the point of consciousness, now able to contemplate this sacred Universe of which we are a tiny, but wondrous, part.
Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.
See Starstuff, Contemplating posts.
As a Naturalistic Pagan married to a Liberal Christian, I am having more and more trouble seeing why Naturalism is so important. Don’t get me wrong; I understand why it is the closest thing to truth we can find but why is it so important? Also don’t get me wrong; I can see why YEC is dangerous; it distorts all truth; it distorts the truth about our place in the universe; it distorts the truth about our relationship with the rest of Life on Earth; it is usually associated with distortions of the truth about climate change.
What I am talking about is the person who wants to believe that there are(is) god(s) and that they intervene in the detailed workings of the universe. As paleontologists often say, behaviour doesn’t usually fossilize. If gods intervened in subtle ways then there would be no evidence. Yes this makes the question of gods’ existence untestable. Yes believing in untestable things is not scientific and likely to lead to believing in falsehoods. I am not going to make excuses for it. It is wrong. But is being right so important on most questions.
Sure I would prefer if the people who were leading us were more clear headed and didn’t believe in any falsehoods. But the fact is that there are some falsehoods that are more harmful than others. My wife believes that the universe is old. She doesn’t care whether it is a billion or a trillion years old. When it comes to the age of the universe, she says, what ever scientists agree on is probably true. She believes that Life evolved on Earth. She says she doesn’t know if God planned it that way by setting up the conditions at the begining or intervened along the way. She doesn’t care. Maybe God didn’t even determine how things turned out. She doesn’t care about that. My wife believes that we have a responsiblity to care for the Earth and that our current behaviour is causing climate change and that we should act to mitigate it and reduce its severity. She thinks God wants us to. She isn’t clear on whether God’s desire for us to act responsibily is the reason we should act responsibly or whether morality comes from somewhere else. She doesn’t care.
What she is passionate about is acting in ways that are compassionate to each other and to all living things. She considers it unfair to try to convert me to her beliefs and so she refrains from it. She considers it unfair to animals to eat meat so she is trying to eat vegetarian. She considers it wrong to use drive to work when there is a climate crisis on, so she walks or bikes or takes the bus (we don’t even own a car even though we could easily afford one.).
I would rather live with her than an atheist who believed that the second law of thermodynamics meant that there was no point in trying. That all effort was in vain. That eventually everything would run down and that we might as well just party to the end. I have met atheists like that. I love being a naturalist. It feels right to be living in the real universe and not one that I made up. But I would rather be outnumbered on that front than be outnumbered on the giving a crap front.
I am glad that YEC is in decline but I am also happy that the middle ground is growing.
Yes, good points. First of all, I fully agree that there are plenty of things that are much worse than small deviations from a naturalistic view, and that there are often things that are more important than being right. The classic example is the deathbed discussion with the dying, fervently theist, grandmother. Obviously that’s not a time to promote naturalism, and little if any harm is done by outwardly agreeing with her that she’s going to a supernatural “heaven”.
I also fully agree that the “giving a crap” front is often more important than a view like your wife’s. The same goes for Atheists (or anyone) who is selfish, hurtful, racist, predatory, etc. I see those as things to address first – as necessary conditions to be met before the naturalism question is relevant, and as reasons why I’m glad to have the help of people of many different worldviews as we all work for a better future world.
Yes, there are fantasy based beliefs that nearly harmless. However, even these enable and help fantasy beliefs that can, sooner or later, do real harm. Much of this is due to taking a long view – looking at the very long term results of a supernatural belief. For instance, I’ve seen, quite close to me, children raised in the type of tradition you describe, where there is a loving, Christian god, who gave us the good Bible, and encourages us to be good people just as you describe. Some of these children grow up, and are challenged by harmful fundamentalists who point out that their scripture literally says to ignore evidence, to convert everyone to Christianity, that all non-Christians are going to be tortured eternally, etc. They’ve been taught their whole lives that this god exists, is good, and gave them their bible. I’ve watched as some of them have, as an expectable result, become fervent fundamentalists, doing significant harm to themselves, others in society, their kids, and future generations. One need only to look at the long list of damage being done by the current US government (in power largely due to Christian belief) to see this.
And of course it’s not just a right wing thing. As soon as we tell people it’s OK to fervently believe things with no evidence or contrary to the evidence, we see the same types of harms. Some examples include (https://atheopaganism.wordpress.com/2017/09/27/why-naturalism-because-this/) and the many kids who die every year due to “alternative” medicine” (https://humanisticpaganism.com/2017/11/03/save-herbalists-from-alternative-medicine-by-rua-lupa/), among, sadly, many more types of harm.
I’ve recently finished (on audio) this book, which makes the interconnection and mutual support of different fantasies, and the real harm they eventually do, easier to see (https://www.amazon.com/Fantasyland-America-Haywire-500-Year-History-ebook/dp/B004J4WNJE).
I agree that it can be a tricky balance – to support, appreciate, respect, and join with those people who have mild fantasies among an otherwise very healthy and helpful worldview, while standing against those who manifest harmful behavior, which is often but not always based on supernatural belief. The fact that most people fall somewhere between those extremes (and vary by subject in the same person!) makes these decisions and this balance harder still – all the while striving to respect all people, even if their beliefs are harmful or otherwise don’t deserve respect. In all cases, my guide (similar to yours, I think) is to ask “what can I do here which will best help us build a just, heathy and sustainable future world for everyone?”.
Thanks for bringing up this important point. -Jon Cleland Host
P.S. I was going to go to Pantheacon this time, and hope to see you and others, but I’ve been laid off my job, and so can’t afford it this year.
I’m a Naturalistic Pagan married to a liberal Christian (who belongs to a conservative Christian denomination) as well. And I am increasingly ambivalent about the naturalism distinction. Maybe it’s because I take it for granted. It’s a great place to start. I just don’t think it’s a very interesting place to end up.
I also agree that some beliefs are more harmful than others. Or maybe it’s not specific beliefs, but ways people believe. Some people believe in God/gods in a way that seems harmful to them and even to people around them. Others believe in God/gods in ways that seem benign at least, or even salutary. And the same is true of some atheists as well.
I agree with you that the Bible is a seriously dangerous text; as you said, “Some of these children grow up, and are challenged by harmful fundamentalists who point out that their scripture literally says to ignore evidence”. If my wife believed or encouraged the belief that God gave the Bible to us, I would have a real problem. But she is adamant, “The Bible was written by people.” She doesn’t even believe they were people inspired by God. Of 1 Samuel 15 she said that the person, who wrote it, was obviously distorting history .
Speaking of 1 Samuel 15, I recently wrote this about it, http://wiki.solseed.org/Gaia_and_Saul. I have a real problem with that passage. Anyone who wrote a story like that today, making it clear, as the passage does, that the reader is to sympathize with Samuel not the infants murdered by Saul, would be severely criticized. In Canada, they would be accused of being a hate criminal. Yet that story is nestled among all the others in a book left in the pews of even the most liberal churches for any visitor to read. If I was a public relations officer for such a denomination, I would want a disclaimer added to every Bible in everyone on that denomination’s churches in order to distance the church from such hate speech.
I am not very confident that anything like that could happen but I think it might be an outside possibility in Canada (0.1% < p < 5%?). The spectrum of Christian in Canada is quite a bit different than in the USA. It isn’t that both countries don’t have YECs and atheists-who-go-to-church-to-see-friends and everything in between but the prevalence of YEC’s in Canada is much lower. For example, Gallup found, in 2005 (http://news.gallup.com/poll/14512/us-vs-canada-different-reads-good-book.aspx), that twice the fraction of Canadians (29%) believe that “the Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man.” than in the USA (15%) while twice the fraction of Americans (34%) believe that “the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word” as Canadians (17%). My gut feeling is that, in the last 12 years, those numbers have shiften in both countries but that Canada is still a lot less literal.
My point is that I am starting to see supernaturalism and naturalism not as different in kind but different in degree. I believe that a massive amount of low entropy energy just appeared out of nothing 14 billion years ago. By believe, I mean, that is the model I am carrying around in my head. But there are a lot of problems with that model. Physicists argue about how to alter the model so that they can get rid of those problems. Some of them add things to the model that are just plain fantastical and then start believing their new model. Multiverses, tachyon emission, worm holes, Boltzman brains are just a few. You hear it said that ‘God has many names.’ but my experience is that many different things are called God. Tiny changes in the model of the begining of the universe or the functioning of the universe on the smallest scales, can be made and then more such tiny changes made and the same with the concept of God and eventually the concept of God becomes physics or physics becomes God and it is impossible to say with any authority which of the tiny changes took us over the line between naturalism and supernaturalism or vice versa.
It is a lesson that Paul Krafel taught me 5 years ago when I read his book, “Seeing Nature”; everything is gradient, nothing is truly a sharp edge.
PS-I won’t be going to Panthecon either. I refuse to use my privilege to cross into the USA while my fellow world citizens of different heritages cannot due to your President’s distrust of persons with those heritages. Please elect someone else next time so that I can go see my friends again. (That’s the most important reason for electing someone else: my convenience. 😉 )