By Nicholas Power

Nicholas PowerUniversity of West Florida, Pensacola


Recently I volunteered to join a sociologist colleague in debating a pair of evangelical Christian ministers on the topic of creation science versus evolutionary theory on the campus of my university. The opposing side was led by a professor and pastor at an area Baptist College named Kent Hovind, who does this for a living; he markets his materials through major Christian outlets, appears regularly on televangelist stations, and maintains a well-trafficked website. Three-hundred fifty people attended the debate, most from area churches, and they were not an audience receptive to intellectual critiques of creationism. Our main points–the compatibility of modern evolutionary theory with some versions of theism, the absolute incompatibility of Genesis I with modern evolutionary theory, the latter’s universal acceptance among experts and its unmatched degree of confirmation across a broad range of disciplines– were no match for Hovind’s multimedia stream of cartoon Darwins, dire biblical quotations, and images of Hitler. From our perspective, their presentation was a laughable pastiche of the same old sophisms: the geological column is a hoax, speciation events have never been observed, vestigial organs are contradictory, and so on. To anyone versed in this debate, this defense of creationism would have appeared as anything but persuasive, and yet it effectively elicited the desired result from the audience. The local media loved the story, and an edited and editorialized videocassette version is now making the rounds of televangelist stations. 

The result of a public debate between a pair of intellectuals from a university and a wellknown pastor in a very religious community is massively over-determined. That much is obvious. What is less clear, however, are the reasons for the outcome. What social and psychological factors are implicated in the apparently vast gulf separating “us” from “them,” the committed religious believers of the audience? How can we make sense of their distorted assessment of the evidence, evidence which the scientific and educational and religious communities at large see as unassailable? In particular, what philosophical and logical categories and tools are useful in exploring this ideological fracture? I would like to examine the epistemic or doxastic position of the audience members from as neutral a point of view as possible, in order to better understand both what is being expected, by us, of them as believers and informationprocessors and their response to this expectation. Since that response illustrates one dimension of the sudden and global resurgence of religion in an age of increasing secularization, a phenomenon which has surprised social scientists, this perennial topic deserves study.

The lack of understanding which I brought to the debate is remarkable when one considers the broad appeal of at least parts of the opposing side’s point of view. Hovind represents an extremist position in a worldview that is so foreign, mysterious, and even alien to me, that I am put in mind of Garry Wills’ comment regarding the religious right in the U.S., that “it seems careless for scholars to keep misplacing such a large body of people.” 1

How can we best redress this carelessness? Recent epistemology has recognized that context matters; 2 that thinking, learning, and belief revision do not occur in isolated, static, fixed situations. “The cat is on the mat” epistemology has given some way to more realistic settings in which to test theories of justification and warrant. Although much of this “contextualist turn” has been used as a response to scepticism, I think it is crucial for us to locate properly the judgments of our audience. In light of this, I will proceed by attempting to isolate the context in which the audience rejected our approach. After discussing the broader social context in the next section, I will narrow down the axiological (or attitudinal) context and discuss the epistemic values the audience members have (or failed to have) which are germane to our issue. Next, I deal with some of the complex logic of the decision procedure faced by some Christians, and finally I will confront what I consider the most fundamental point of dislocation or fracture in our respective assessments of the theories of origins. I locate this fracture in a “phenomenological context” since it revolves around the subject’s appropriation of selected aspects of perceived reality. This layered, gradual approach to our subject is demanded by the fact that the creationist phenomenon is part and parcel of a mass movement (so psychological categories may fail to characterize fully its every dimension); also, in so far as they are fundamentalist Christians, creationists exhibit a particular way of thinking (which may escape a purely sociological or historical description).

The Social Context

I am trying to understand what happened that day charitably, for to dismiss the audience reaction as blindness or ignorance is too simplistic–and too radical. In a well-regarded 1991 nation-wide survey, only 9 percent of respondents agreed that “man evolved without God” while 47 percent held that “God created man in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” 3 Close to one-third of Americans believe that “the bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.” 4 It is hard to believe that each person who is disposed to accept the Genesis myth as the starting point in a scientific theory of the origins and diversity of life is unaware of the outlines of modern evolutionary theory or is intellectually blocked from weighing them both. As we will see, intellectual barriers aren’t the only barriers we need to recognize here. The American people’s religiosity is well documented. The current social movement roughly identified as “fundamentalism” must be understood in the context of the great movements of religious “awakening” in the United States. Their attitude toward science, equally relevant here, is similarly singular, and will be discussed in our final section. A. N. Wilson, however, after surveying the dynamic of faith and doubt in the Victorian age, concluded that “America’s Protestantism is even stronger than its dedication to the Enlightenment.” 5

A caveat is in order here: although I will characterize the audience of the debate as fundamentalist, I am using the word in a loose sense.6 Many among the audience, I trust, would disavow some parts of that view’s creed. (And of course many fundamentalists don’t push the inerrancy of scripture to the point that they are creationists.) 7 The difference this disavowal makes is important in one sense and negligible in another. It is important in that, from the point of view of this essay, “fundamentalism” is a pejorative category, connoting dogmatic and closedminded thinking strategies. “Scientific Creationist” cannot be considered such, lest I am to be accused of question begging. That is, I am trying to accommodate the idea that being a person of faith or having firmly held religious beliefs does not in and of itself bar one from properly assessing evidence for and against a modern scientific theory. Religious beliefs and attitudes are regarded of late as signs of mental health and are considered to be reliable coping strategies by many clinical psychologists. 8 However, I am attempting to isolate the fulcrum at which such beliefs deviate from the norm. In any case, the category of “fundamentalist” is vague and it is safe to assume there to be a continuum between this and that of merely “committed religious believer.” I should add that the audience’s loud approval of those aspects of Hovind’s talk directed against “secular humanism” leads me to believe that many would consider themselves “fundamentalist.”

Hovind’s creationist message certainly exhibits the fundamentalist worldview, as is evident from a quick look at a statement of the “Tenets of Biblical Creationism” supplied by Institute for Creation Research:

The Creator of the universe is a triune God-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit . . . . The Bible . . . is the divinely-inspired revelation of the Creator to man. Its unique, plenary, verbal inspiration guarantees that these writings, as originally and miraculously given, are infallible and completely authoritative on all matters with which they deal, free from error of any sort, scientific and historical as well as moral and theological. All things in the universe were created and made by God in the six literal days of the creation week described in Genesis 1:1-2:3, and confirmed in Exodus 20:8-11. The creation record is factual, historical, and perspicuous; thus alltheories of origins or development which involve evolution in any form are false . . . . The first human beings, Adam and Eve, were specially created by God, and all other men and women are their descendants . . . . The Biblical record of primeval earth history in Genesis I-II is fully historical and perspicuous, including the creation and fall of man, the curse on the creation and its subjection to the bondage of decay, the promised Redeemer, the worldwide cataclysmic deluge in the days of Noah, the post-diluvian renewal of man’s commission to subdue the earth . . . . 9

Hovind’s presentation certainly assumed these tenets. He explained that Satan was behind education in evolution, which in turn is responsible for what the ICR calls the “evil fruits” of evolution: atheism, humanism, materialism, pantheism, communism, nazism, racism and slavery, as well as abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, promiscuity, pornography and the drug culture. 10

Pensacola is at the epicenter of extremist religion in the U.S. and hence is the salient social vector impinging on the debate. We think of the fundamentalist teachings and following of the religious revival of Southern Baptists and Pentecostals and the siege mentality of an oppressed religious minority, one whose values, whose very autonomy and sense of self, is seen to be at stake here. Anthropologists11 have described the religious fundamentalists’ self-image as one of embattled guardians of right conduct opposing the moral anarchy they see everywhere around them. Sociologists and cultural critics12 observe the dramatic surge in “prosperity-gospel” groups, “occult economies” and millennial movements happening across the globe. Psychologists characterize fundamentalists in terms of engaging a self-defense or self-regulatory mechanism whereby they maintain a sense of stability and order in an otherwise stressful world.13 One also thinks of the general current of anti-intellectualism and resentment towards the academe in the deep South these days. Hovind crystallized some of these fears by intoning the fact–and it probably is a fact–that: “many Christians go to universities and slowly begin to disbelieve the Bible.” 14

I can’t speak adequately to these psycho-social forces; hence I will focus mainly on the logical and epistemological circumstances of those fundamentalists in attendance that day. Most of my contribution to the debate consisted in a sustained appeal to the critical thinking and the intellectual responsibilities of the audience. Hence I characterized the ideal non-expert observer as one who assesses the evidence and arguments put before them in a skeptical manner while being disposed to offer reasoned supports for his or her own beliefs. (Hovind pointed to what he called a “subtle connotation” in my approach and paraphrased it as: “like, if you believe that [i.e. Genesis I], you are dumb, scientists know . . . they know better.”) I charted, perhaps in too arched a fashion, the parallels between the virtues of highly confirmed scientific theories (simplicity, productivity, etc.) and the intellectual virtues (of self-scrutiny and the love of inquiry). In this essay, I further explain my line of argumentation during the debate to facilitate an understanding of the audience’s reaction to it.

In my first three-minute section, I ran through some of the unreliable grounds on which the audience members themselves might accept evolutionary theory. First, that it is demonstrably true or “provable”: secondly, that it is empirically adequate; thirdly, that it was simpler than the relevant alternatives; and last, it is important to note the testimony of authoritative sources in the field. To these I provided replies on behalf of the skeptic, in order to (logically speaking) accentuate the differences between the professional’s assessment of the theory and the layperson’s and to (rhetorically) appear to be fair-dealing. So I argued that a theory such as this was not amenable to “proof”; that other theories can be empirically adequate (including vacuous ones) and that this one may not yet be; that it is, in fact, much more complex than the one proffered by the Scientific Creationists; and, that an appeal to authority in this specific matter is likely to leave things as they stand. In subsequent sections, I offered what I took to be more salient grounds for the audience to believe in evolutionary theory: that it is capable of becoming adequate and that a complex domain like biology will operate over explanatory principles and models that we will never see as simple.

I talked, in essence, of epistemological norms and standards. Why? As philosophers, we are trained to believe and have come to expect that epistemological prescriptions are categorical, and hence transcend whatever psycho-social contextual contingencies are in play. This explains the high-minded approach I adopted, but it doesn’t justify it. In fact, it may not be justifiable. Let’s explore the applicability of “our” rules of reasoning to this topic for these reasoners.

Epistemic Oughts and Religious Believers

This part of the essay is a close look at the philosopher’s appeal to the audience’s “critical thinking faculties” and epistemic duties. For while I think such strategies constitute the main weapons at our disposal in encountering such fundamentalist thinking, I think that this appeal is flawed on several counts. First, it is unclear just what the demands and duties of even the best “critical thinkers” are. Furthermore, any such appeal ignores the real weight of the fundamentalists’ prior commitments, doxastic and otherwise.

However, pre-theoretically speaking, many observers of the debate would side with the philosopher in his urging the audience to think critically. Each of us accepts this “burden of reason” (to borrow Rawls’ term) as a precondition to any conversation on matters of substance. Going beyond this general prescription, however, what sort of epistemological normativity, what notion of “the ethics of belief,” ought I have invoked that day? Any such appeal, it seems to me, will be heavily dependent on internalist assumptions regarding warrant, justification, or entitlement. By “internalist” here I mean any assumption that we have access to our doxastic practices and can modify them to some degree. These are the guiding assumptions of western epistemology, especially since Locke. Externalists think that as long as your beliefs (or beliefforming processes) are suitably linked to the facts, they are fully justified, regardless of your reflective awareness of the processes used to access the facts. So Alston’s defense of mysticism as a reliable belief-forming practice is one application of this sort of theory to our area (an heroic application by my lights).15 Internalists hold that a proper grounding of one’s beliefs also requires a special first-person access to the justificatory status of one’s belief (or belief-forming process). So with the latter accounts, it isn’t sufficient that your belief that p counterfactually depends on p; one’s reflective knowledge of this relation is also necessary for justification. Must believers understand something of their epistemic condition with respect to the facts in order to know of them? I don’t have the space to go into this issue in depth, but for our purposes, externalist accounts can be put aside. After all, in a debate like this we are attempting to persuade the audience members to self-diagnose and correct their own cognitive practices and/or standards of warrantability, so our appeal is sure to have a heavy internalist emphasis.

Assuming enough has been said to allow us to focus on internalist accounts of justification, we can begin by looking at the deontic or duty-based versions of these. Many argue that each of us has a responsibility to actively seek evidence for our beliefs and to revise them in light of this inquiry. W. K. Clifford’s thesis that “It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence”16 is perhaps the most influential of such views. But this is uselessly vague. Take Bill, and consider the belief that p, for any proposition p. Do we mean that Bill ought to bring all of the evidence he currently has and that he considers relevant to p to bear on p before he believes that p? Such a minimal requirement may not improve matters, since Bill presumably is doing this already. Or do we mean that he ought to bring all of the evidence available to him through various and increasingly burdensome means to bear on p? This asymptotic requirement may not help either. Besides its similarities with the Frame Problem in artificial intelligence, the principle of “ought implies can” has force here. This may simply be an unreasonable demand upon Bill. That is, imperatives of an epistemic or moral sort cannot be such that they require the impossible of us. For instance, I can’t say that one has a moral obligation to harm no living thing if it is physically impossible for you to live without doing so. Likewise, saying that Bill is compelled to seek out all the information germane to p is going too far. So perhaps a defensible admonition to the fundamentalists will lie somewhere on a range between these minimal to maximal criteria–e.g., Bill ought to bring all the evidence which a reasonably informed thinker would to bear on p prior to believing p–but I wouldn’t want to bet against any such criterion being viciously circular. In addition, there are obvious limitations in enforcing any such standards. For unlike moral conventions which are action-guiding and hence behaviorally verifiable, epistemic conventions are harder to discern from a third-person point of view. How could we assess Bill’s probity or assure Bill that he has considered all of the evidence for and against p?

Even if we could devise a statement of our doxastic duties, any such epistemic responsibilities are easily defeasible. What if the only way to find sufficient evidence is through great personal cost? We are asking the fundamentalists in attendance that day to question the very set of beliefs which identify them as fundamentalists, with all of the turmoil that comes with that. Since for such a person to question the literal intent or inerrancy of the Bible is to risk what may be a major source of self-esteem, of solidarity, and status, duties of prudence might trump their epistemic duties here. Alternatively, what if this duty conflicts with other moral duties of ours, such as the ones we bear to family and to associations we value? Whether any sort of robust hierarchy of duties can even be formulated is an ongoing issue.17 We have to conclude that epistemic oughts, including ones involving critical thinking, can not bear too much weight.18

Most will remain unimpressed by my partial defense of the religious fundamentalist to this point. After all, we are only requiring the fundamentalists to retain the ability to revise their beliefs in light of contrary evidence, and surely that is not an unreasonable expectation. This, I think, gets to the heart of the critical thinking dimension of this debate. We do understand the situation of one who is raised in and educated into a certain world-view and we do realize the strength that it takes to even begin to challenge one’s formative and persistent beliefs, values, and “habits of the heart.” Yet for all this, we do take people to task for not displaying a degree of flexibility, fallibilism, and humility before the facts.

This practice surely expresses a key intellectual virtue and is reflective of definitive aspects of the self and of what it means to be a person. When applied to our context, it assumes an implausible degree of doxastic voluntarism.19 Doxastic voluntarism is the view that individual thinkers independently and freely adopt their beliefs and values about the world around them. Of course this principle has purchase in most epistemic settings, and its place in the liberal tradition attests to this. After all, why protect the freedom of thought if those thoughts are not freely adopted, but rather are coerced or indoctrinated; why tolerate people with views incompatible with our own if they do not control the views they have? Voluntarism has become platitudinous; to fail to think for yourself is to lose your humanity, to become robotic. If this notion is pushed too far, however, it becomes extremely individualistic and neglects the social forces operating upon us. I believe this individualism and voluntarism must be tempered by an acknowledgment of the powerful bonds that involuntary commitments make upon us and the lasting influence this formative construction has upon our thinking and being. Central to all such bonds of association are those of religion. The very word, “religion,” shares a root with “ligature” and etymologically implies being held back or restrained–restrained, that is, from purely personal concerns and projects, so that one is relegated to a role in a larger purpose. To think of religious beliefs as voluntarily adopted and summarily shorn, therefore, is to misunderstand the very nature of that belief. Voluntarism and the cognitive autonomy of the individual are limited, and I simply find it implausible on its face to say to these fundamentalists: suspend your faith, accept an empiricist cast of mind, moral anarchy is a tolerable risk.

In the context of our debate, the unadorned appeal to critical thinking is also at fault for assuming what I call an isomorphism between everyday and loaded reasoning (or between existential and practical reasoning, or, if you’d prefer less pompous language, between thick and thin, or deep and shallow reasoning). Loaded (existential) reasoning is that which we are forced to engage in when the information with which we are working is complicated by our other (often incongruent) value and belief systems, our attitudes, commitments and expectations. Though it is hard to neatly demarcate this domain from the everyday, or to specify a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for its employment, we can safely say that loaded thinking operates over mental states which: (i) are highly associative or evocative, (ii) have a tendency to become “overvalued” (to be vividly and regularly considered) (iii) have an inordinate influence on behavior (with high moral content), and finally (iv) have a high degree of conviction and commitment.20 Persinger sees elevated limbic activity, as in some forms of epilepsy, as coindicating religiosity and even theorizes that the “profound, personal meaningfulness of god experiences are generated by electrical transients within the amygdaloid-hippocampal regions of the temporal lobes.”21 His 1987 book summarizes his findings, which seem to remain largely uncorroborated. Jones compares the delusions of schizophrenics, the overvalued ideas of anorectics, and religious beliefs of churchgoers along seven distinct vectors and finds that, although each measures very differently along such vectors as “the extent to which imagination is used in the formation of the belief,” 22 some parallels are found among the latter two groups. I think it reasonable to suggest that we do not process and recall information in equivalent ways in contexts in which our deepest values and beliefs–that is, those beliefs of ours which order or prioritize so many others are at issue. In such a circumstance, the most salient, most expressive, and most revelatory aspects of ourselves are perceived to be at stake. If that is true, then we are perhaps being unfair in expecting to reach some shared level of reasonableness with those for whom a more loaded setting is unimaginable. As Hovind put it, “if evolution is true, you are nothing; you are nothing important” and “I wonder how many kids have doubted the Bible and died and went to hell because of this lie.” All in all, to assume that average thinkers bring their critical thinking faculties to such a debate is preposterous.

The Logical Context

Thus far I have argued that any epistemic duties we may have considered as pressing upon committed religious believers will have minimal motivational force. Adherence to a conventional epistemic standard requires both a rational and a motivational stability. The first of these is gained by the increased explanatory power or inferential economy it offers (the topic of this section), but the second, motivational appeal, is a necessary condition of the former and needs a pay-off in prudential or instrumental terms23. I believe that our discussion up to now points to the fact that we have little to offer the fundamentalists in this latter regard.

Fair enough, one may say, but even granting the problems with voluntarism, and of the criteria for a statement of our proper epistemic duties, we must hold on to some sort of notion of critical thinking for our considered judgments and reasonable doctrines to be, well, considered and reasonable! Since “being reasonable” is a normative expression, it entails that there be a (set of) criteria for its proper application to some claim, agent, or policy. Not just anything goes, right? The audience members are guilty of failing to reach this minimal standard of reasonableness. They lack, or have failed to engage, the proper and normal cognitive faculties, dispositions, or habits of thinking, a partial list of which would certainly include the ability to recognize contradictions and attempt to resolve them, to see the implications of our beliefs, to infer from some observed fact to its most plausible explanation, and so forth.

I think there are several problems with this accusation. I think it ignores the logical complexity of the cognitive situation facing the audience members, creationscientist/fundamentalist or not. Secondly, it falsely locates the real decision they face to be at the level of theory choice or first-order content, when, in point of fact, they must choose between two symbolic representations of competing authoritative sources of knowledge. My first point here concerns (a) the broad range of cognitive sub-routines required of the sort of task we are assigning the audience members; (b) the under-determined status of key aspects of evolutionary theory and of science in general; and finally, (c) the relatively easy rhetorical and logical task of the opposing side in the debate. Let me take these in turn.

Three major points need emphasis when we focus in on the logical task confronting our Francis, our representative audience member: First, Francis is being asked to engage in abductive reasoning. Abductive reasoning is the name given to the variety of cognitive tasks involved in forming a hypothesis about (or inferring to a satisfactory explanation of) some phenomenon, in this case, the presence of nature’s incredibly diverse biota. Abductive reasoning is one of the most complex and least understood modes of thinking. Let me explain why. To start, let me use one of Charles Peirce’s examples: suppose you find a stone that looks like a petrified shell or crustacean in the interior of a country. You wonder how it got there. You create several potential explanations: this place was at one time under the sea; some geological process moved this stone to this place; someone put the rock here to fool me. You then settle on the best explanation, typically by generating (deductively) a set of further implications of these rivals and testing (inductively, analogically) their veracity. Each of these steps: from asking “why this, rather than that?” to creating hypotheses, to assessing these explanations utilizes a broad amalgam of cognitive abilities which are surely a stretch of the abilities of anyone of normal intelligence and hence are intimidating.24

Secondly, they are merely trying to poke holes in the orthodox position and that is a position–a philosophical position, Hovind correctly points out–based on an empirical theory. This empirical status brings with it inherent uncertainty. Whether Francis has read David Hume or not, he can hardly ignore the qualified, stochastic, and unfinished tenor to much of the scientists’ views. After all, the conclusions and implications of evolutionary theory areto date unclear. Think of the confusion generated by Hovind’s acceptance of “micro-evolution” (i.e., evolution within lineages, that is, denying speciation), his (technically correct) characterization of the geological column as an idealization, or his quotes (sanscontext) from Gould, Raup and other experts finding flaws with strictly Darwinian evolution. Not only are biologists divided over sub-parts of the theory, but philosophers and biologists of a philosophical persuasion debate vociferously over its real meaning. Some see huge implications for sociology and psychology (even philosophy) in Darwinism. Daniel Dennett calls evolution via natural selection “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” and describes it as a “universal acid”25 with the potential to dissolve every one of our most cherished values and beliefs that it touches. (Dennett’s treatment plays right into Hovind’s hands when the latter says that “evolution is not science, but is metaphysics parading as science.”) Others, including most practicing biologists, don’t see such metaphysical and moral fallout from the guiding principle of their discipline. Such provisional conclusions are grist for Hovind’s mill and raise doubts in the minds of those not sufficiently versed in the theoretical framework within which these divisions can be oriented.

Thirdly, Hovind et aliiare arguing for a pluralist view of scientific inquiry and of science education, one which appears to be more tolerant, democratic, and politically benign than our “absolutist” and “exclusionary” one. This feature of their position appeals to many educators and administrators of both liberal and conservative-libertarian political persuasions. Can’t this debate at a public university be seen as an illustration of the state’s principle of neutrality on questions of value? Shouldn’t we, when in the public sphere or in the public’s schools, follow I. A. Snook when he says:

There is a sense in which all bodies of knowledge, even an empirical science, are sui generis. Ultimately, the test must be how well they accord with human experience. When the educator has made available the alternative schemes, the final judgment must be left to the student. 26

Shouldn’t we strive to avoid dogmatism in our science curriculum, so that evolution can survive and thrive in the free marketplace of ideas? Eger argues that science educators themselves would be better prepared to teach evolution had they been exposed to its logical alternatives. On the other side of this old debate we have the views succinctly expressed by noted philosopher of education Harvey Siegel: “Like the belief that the earth is flat, creationism deserves noacknowledgment in the science classroom.”27

One compromise position suggested by Siegel’s terms–that creationism and Genesis are to be covered somehow in non-science classrooms such as world literature–is not acceptable to some extremist fundamentalists. Their idea of a compromise–that evolution not be presented as established fact, but as one theory among several–is complicating the curriculum unnecessarily and is, quibbling aside, false. (The central and offending parts of evolution through natural selection are established fact–that is what I meant when I said during the debate that “something like evolution by natural selection” is beyond doubt.) This debate is beyond our scope here, though I think it should be noted that it is in public school classrooms where this debate casts its real pall. I have met many teachers who are genuinely conflicted over how to handle this issue.

The Phenomenological Context

I said that the charge that the audience members are guilty of failing to reach a minimal and agreed-upon standard of reasonableness is false for another, deeper reason. I have in mind the idea that we are misplacing the real logical task confronting the religious believer when he or she confronts science. Our debate is, of course, part of a much larger cultural debate. If this cultural debate was simply a matter of avoiding inconsistencies and ferreting out improbable implications, then it would have been settled by Clarence Darrow’s thorough scouring of William Jennings Bryan in the Scopes trial.28 But of course it isn’t, and unfortunately it wasn’t. The real decision procedure facing our audience on that day turned on an implicit measure of trust which the teams, like emissaries, brought from their respective profound and profane domains. Which sources of knowledge claims are trustworthy when it comes to such existential issues? With which side do I feel a degree of comfort such that I can hand over the authority to rule on questions regarding my origins, my spiritual makeup, and my destiny? This isn’t rightly called a decision procedure at all; no amount of knowledge will decide this issue. Instead, it turns on the confluence of two vectors: the respective cultural capital of science and religion and the individual cognizer’s experiences and degree of familiarity with these domains. By cultural capital I mean a measure of the influence, power, and trust which the dominant groups of a society place in an institution. One’s assessment of this will have an element of subjectivity, and will be partly a function of one’s background acquaintance with the institution in question.

The symbolic or semiotic dimensions of the debate are key, I believe, to any full account of our failure on that day, for they complicate our topic in crucial ways. They are multifaceted and hard to specify but allow me to conclude with the following passing observations. First of all, science has simply long foregone the plenary authority that ministers, politicians, even newscasters and celebrities enjoy. It has failed to prevent obesity and cancer, environmental degradation and misery, and these failures outweigh its successes because scientism and a characteristically American zealous faith in the progress of science is shaken by even one letdown. Secondly, science has become associated with the large, impersonal, forces which strip us of any measure of self-control and autonomy. Science is the source of modernity and the unraveling of the mythic structures of past eras. I conceded to the audience that I was no biologist, yet I assumed the guise of the scientist and in doing so became the inventor of cold fusion and HIV, who wants to fluoridate your water supply, farm your ovaries, and make you eat margarine.29

Lastly, and most importantly, we must realize that Hovind is drawing upon, and effectively expressing, an attitude towards science which is not only culturally ingrained, but philosophically principled. There is an entire tradition within post-modernist philosophy and science studies which takes a decidedly ambivalent attitude towards “enlightenment science.” This tradition runs from Vico and Herder to Heidegger and the Frankfurt School to Foucault. The central theme of all the multi-varied works of the latter is the false liberation provided us by the medical, legal, and political sciences. In his work, The Order of Things, Foucault writes:

We are inclined to believe that man has emancipated himself from himself since his discovery that he is not at the center of creation, nor in the middle of space, nor even, perhaps, the summit and culmination of life; but though man is no longer sovereign in the kingdom of the world, though he no longer reigns at the center of being, the human sciences are dangerous intermediaries. 30

“Dangerous” because they de-personalize us (in “bio-politics”) and overreach their charge, oftentimes cutting us off from alternative ways of seeing and being. As Heidegger puts this latter point, in his seminal “The Question Concerning Technology”:

The threat to man does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology. The actual threat has already affected man in his essence. [Technology] threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth. 31

In addition, Foucault does well to remind us that science and the sort of secular humanism which galls Hovind are not somehow removed from the ideological and cultural forces which help to solidify the barriers between alternative sources of human value. That is, we often claim for science an undisputed monopoly on objectivity, in methodological and axiological terms, and for humanism alone a commitment to free thought. However, as Foucault says, “At least since the seventeenth century, what is called humanism has always been obliged to lean on certain conceptions of man borrowed from religion, science, or politics.”32 So when we humanists “lean on” a Darwinian conception of man, and do so to the exclusion of all other conceptions, we do so with little more surety (to the outside observer’s lights) than we previously had leaning on an Aristotelian, a Biblical, or a Marxist one.

Perhaps, I am suggesting, Hovind and the creationist foot-soldiers and leadership of this mass religious movement have learned the lesson that knowledge (read: enlightenment science) and power form an ineluctable unity and that this power, within modernity, can threaten terror on a massive scale as well as promise gadgetry on a ever-smaller one. Perhaps, may I also suggest, the uniquely American nature of the “creationist problem” is in part due to the unbalanced and unrealistic views we hold of science as a mere instrument for our enhanced pleasures; Europeans–both the “plebes” and the philosophers–have long seen the deleterious capabilities of unchecked science. Whereas, for Americans, science has won wars, for much of Europe, it has helped maintain them. US academicians and intellectuals have a role to play here.

In addition, the ability to assess information sources as authoritative in a domain–as trustworthy or not–is, as an aspect of critical thinking, complicated when the subject is dealing with a representation of the knowledge base, and not that knowledge itself. Anyone can appreciate the advances of science while receiving a CAT Scan, or undergoing surgery, or while sending an e-mail message half-way around the world for pennies. But few of us recognize these as the fruits of scientific research. What we do recognize as science, because it explicitly claims to be science–the Hubble Telescope or Mars Rover or Stephen Hawking himself–is often not obviously beneficial or useful. Finally, though the ability to evaluate information sources is for all intents and purposes identifiable with the ability to think critically itself, it is no better understood, and any appeal to it has to confront the paradox that reason ultimately discounts authority. One fact that is becoming better understood, however, is that our attitudes towards scientific authority range across a broad spectrum, that they wax and wane through the history of science and across disciplines, and that they are deeply influenced by external cultural forces–

political and economic forces particularly. Cold War science made promises it never could deliver, while your preacher’s promise of a more comfortable death is either constantly validated or, at least, ever beyond the reach of invalidation.


Given this, part of any possible solution to the impasse between the sides of the evolutionary science/creationist debate will have to occur in science education. It is not enough to say that science education fails to equip our neighbors with the required body of knowledge and/or critical thinking skills needed to assess these competing perspectives in evolutionary theory; rather, it is more germane to say that it doesn’t intend to–it never was the aim of science education to train each of us to this degree of expertise. In fact, that would be exactly contrary to the ends of such an education.33 Therefore, we should not be surprised to see a multitude of attitudes toward science, including the “distorted” ones we have discussed above. The authority of science will be increased when we stop assuming that the secularization of our culture is inevitable and instead reinvigorate our efforts at making sense of the underlying aims, methods and values of scientific inquiry.

A charitable reading of the fundamentalist’s thinking about evolution theory is plausible and does illuminate their hostility towards its exponents. This conclusion would support a more tolerant, engaging relationship between religious fundamentalists and the secular camp, though, above all, it would encourage further research into their distinctive modes of thinking. Philosophers (and philosophical categories) have a role to play here, beyond where this small effort has left off. 34

Works Cited

Alston, W. P. Perceiving God. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991.

Carter, S. L. The Culture of Disbelief. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Cohen, S. “Knowledge, Context, and Social Standards.” Synthese 73 (1987): 3-26.

Comaroff, J., and J. L. Comaroff. “Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming.” Public Culture 12 (2000): 291-343.

Corbett, M., and J. M. Corbett. Religion and Politics in the US. New York: Garland Publishing, 1999.

Clifford, W. K. “The Ethics of Belief.” The Theory of Knowledge. 2nd ed. Ed. L. J. Pojman. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1999.

Dennett, D. C. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Eger, M. “Dissonance in the Theory and Practice of Rationality: Teaching Evolution and Teaching Morals.” History, Philosophy, and Science Teaching: Selected Readings. Ed. M. R. Matthews. Toronto: Teachers College Press, 1991.

Foucault, M. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Random House, 1973.

—, “What is Enlightenment?” The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon, 1984.

Gauthier, D. Morals by Agreement. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.

Hall, R. J. and Johnson, C. R. “The Epistemic Duty to Seek More Evidence.” American Philosophical Quarterly 35 (1998): 198-218.

Heidegger, M. The Question of Technology and Other Essays. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.

Institute for Creation Research. “Tenets of Biblical Creationism.” Internet:

Jones, E. The Phenomenology of Abnormal Belief: A Philosophical and Psychiatric Inquiry. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 6 (1999): 1-16.

Meiland, Jack W. “What Ought We to Believe? Or the Ethics of Belief Revisited.” American Philosophical Quarterly 17 (1980): 15-24.

Ostow, Mortimer. The Need to Believe: The Psychology of Religion. International Universities Press, 1969.

Pennock, R. T. Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

Persinger, M. A. Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs. New York: Praeger, 1987.

—. “‘I Would Kill in God’s Name’: Role of Sex, Weekly Church Attendance, Report of Religious Experience, and Limbic Liability.” Perceptual and Motor Skills 85 (1997): 128-130.

Sandel, M. Democracy’s Discontents. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1996.

Schumaker, J. F., ed. Religion and Mental Health. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.

Snook, I. A. Indoctrination and Education. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.

Strozier, C. B. Apocalypse: On the Psychology of Fundamentalism in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

Toumey, C. God’s Own Scientists. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1994. —. Conjuring Science: Scientific Symbols and Cultural Meanings in American Life. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1996.

Wills, Gary. Under God: Religion and American Politics. New York: Simon and Schuster,

Wilson, A. N. God’s Funeral: A Biography of Faith and Doubt in Western Civilization. New York: Ballantine, 2000.

Woods, J. “Peirce’s Abductive Enthusiasms.” ProtoSociology 13 (1999): 43-76.

Ziman, J. Teaching and Learning About Science and Society. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980.



  1. Gary Wills, Under God: Religion and American Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990) 15.
  2. See S. Cohen, “Knowledge, Context, and Social Standards,” Synthese 73 (1987): 3-26.
  3. S. L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief (New York: Doubleday, 1994) 303 n. 13.
  4. M. Corbett and J. M. Corbett, Religion and Politics in the U.S. (New York: Garland Publishing, 1999) 436.
  5. A. N. Wilson, God’s Funeral: A Biography of Faith and Doubt in Western Civilization (New York: Ballantine, 2000) xii.
  6. “Fundamentalism” was coined in 1920 by Curtis Lee Laws, a Baptist periodical editor, to refer to a conservative movement among protestant theologians. They stated their opposition to modern biblical criticism and liberal theology in a series of tracts entitled “The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth.” The central “fundamental of faith” was the infallibility of the Bible, while the remaining four–the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, Christ’s ability to atone sin, and the Second Coming–were derivative. The term, of course, came to designate a broader social movement after the First World War, when this conservative group began exerting considerable political clout, eventually culminating in Jerry Falwell’s close ties to Ronald Reagan.
  7. C. B. Strozier, Apocalypse: On the Psychology of Fundamentalism in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994) 92.
  8. J. F. Schumaker, ed., Religion and Mental Health (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992).
  9. Institute for Creation Research, “Tenets of Biblical Creationism,” Internet,
  10. R. T. Pennock, Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999) 315.
  11. C. Toumey, God’s Own Scientists (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1994).
  12. J. Comaroff and J.L. Comaroff, “Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming,” Public Culture 12 (2000) 291-343.
  13. Mortimer Ostow, The Need to Believe: The Psychology of Religion (International Universities Press, 1969).
  14. A partial transcript of the debate is available online at while the video can be ordered from Dr. Hovind’s web-site:
  15. W. P. Alston, Perceiving God (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991).
  16. W. K. Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” in L.J. Pojman, ed., The Theory of Knowledge, 2nd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1999).
  17. See R. J. Hall and C. R. Johnson, “The Epistemic Duty to Seek More Evidence,” American Philosophical Quarterly 35 (1998): 198-218.
  18. Jack W. Meiland, “What Ought We to Believe? Or the Ethics of Belief Revisited,” American Philosophical Quarterly 17 (1980): 22, contains an argument for an extreme version of the view stated here. He argues that “extra-factual” and “practical” considerations do and should “determine which factors should influence belief . . . and the selection of a particular belief from the alternative beliefs available.”
  19. Here I am drawing upon themes developed in M. Sandel, Democracy’s Discontents (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1996).
  20. Some of this terminology is borrowed from the field of psychopathology. Such a strategy may appear uncharitable in the extreme–as one anonymous reviewer for this journal puts it, “Does this admission by the author betray what religionists would view as a prejudiceagainst their world view, invoking the authority . . . of the social sciences to characterize fundamentalists as lunatics?”–but I think to ignore the element of abnormality in some ofthe thinking styles and strategies of some of the deeply religious is to go beyond charity to disingenuity.
  21. M. A. Persinger, “‘I Would Kill in God’s Name’: Role of Sex, Weekly Church Attendance, Report of Religious Experience, and Limbic Liability,” Perceptual and Motor Skills 85 (1997): 128.
  22. E. Jones, “The Phenomenology of Abnormal Belief: A Philosophical and Psychiatric Inquiry,” Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 6 (1999): 1-16.
  23. D. Gauthier, Morals by Agreement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986) analyzes moral conventions in these terms.
  24. J. Woods, “Peirce’s Abductive Enthusiasms,” ProtoSociology 13 (1999): 43-76.
  25. D. C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).
  26. I. A. Snook, Indoctrination and Education (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972) 83.
  27. Quoted in M. Eger, “Dissonance in the Theory and Practice of Rationality: Teaching Evolution and Teaching Morals,” in M. R. Matthews, ed., History, Philosophy, and Science Teaching: Selected Readings (Toronto: Teachers College Press, 1991) 68.
  28. A transcript of which is available online at
  29. C. Toumey, Conjuring Science: Scientific Symbols and Cultural Meanings in American Life (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1996).
  30. M. Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Random House, 1973) 348.
  31. M. Heidegger, The Question of Technology and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1977) 28.
  32. M. Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?” The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984) 44.
  33. J. Ziman, Teaching and Learning About Science and Society (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980).
  34. I would like to thank Sally Ferguson, respective audiences at the Florida and Alabama Philosophical Societies’ annual meetings for 2000, and (most especially) the anonymous reviewers of this journal for helpful comments on earlier versions of this.

Nicholas Power

Nicholas Power, Assistant Professor at the University of West Florida, received his PhD in Philosophy from Temple University in 1996 and joined the faculty of the University of West Florida thereafter. He has published in various areas within the philosophy of mind--on mental causation, self-consciousness, reflection--and in the philosophy of education. He is Co-Director of the Florida Center of Philosophy for Children.