Monday, May 07, 2007


The New Iconoclasts

Numbered among those who accept evolution as true are a group of people who don’t worry about attacks from the religious right. There’s no reason to get excited about creationist attacks on Darwin, they say, because evolution is a fact, and it will remain a fact no matter what anyone says or believes. Creationist attacks on Darwin and evolution amount to nothing more, as Shakespeare had it, than a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

In one respect this is quite true. The earth orbited the sun before Copernicus, and species evolved from a common ancestor long before Darwin and Wallace uncovered the workings of natural selection. Descent with modification would still operate in the natural world even if no big-brained ape ever evolved to unlock its mysteries. It will still be a fact long after the human race has vanished from the face of the earth.

The problem with this particular response to fundamentalist attacks on evolution is that it fails to grasp the fact that creationism is just one facet of a larger movement. The Discovery Institute, which presents itself to the public as an intelligent design advocacy group, is just one of the black pieces on the fundamentalist chess board -- science and scientists but opposing pawns.

The broad fundamentalist movement of which Discovery is a part is financed by Christian Reconstructionist Howard Ahmanson. The network of far right politicians, think tanks, and advocacy groups Ahmanson finances, work actively, if mostly under the radar, to replace America’s secular democracy with a Christian theocracy. It’s a movement former New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges calls American fascism.

In many respects, Ahmanson’s Christian fundamentalism is a mirror image of the Islamic fundamentalism we saw at work in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Islamic fundamentalists fight to impose Sharia law. Their Christian fundamentalist counterparts demand imposition of Mosaic Law. Both dream of exacting the cruel justice of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

The horror of this barbarism was on full display under the Taliban. Women and gays were stoned. Thieves had their hands cut off in soccer stadiums. Blasphemers were beheaded in the public square.

While the aims of Christian Reconstructionists may seem fantastic, they are nevertheless firmly held by adherents who work diligently to achieve them. Ahmanson has invested many millions from his large personal fortune to put these ideas into action.

One of those aims is the destruction of the religious neutrality required by diverse, secular, democratic societies like those found in the United States and Western Europe. Scientists, whether or not they’re conscious of it, are utterly dependent on this framework of religious neutrality to do their work. Serious science is inconceivable under fundamentalism in either of its Islamic or Christian incarnations.

There is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government, says Gary North the son-in-law of Ahmanson’s friend and mentor the Dominionist theologian Rousas Rushdoony.

Once a cadre of Christian Reconstructionists has been trained and put into positions of authority says North, “they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God."

And, as Discovery and its Wedge Document have made clear again and again, Western science and scientists are among the chief enemies of God.

It’s difficult to gage Christian Reconstructionism’s prospects for success. Most of us, no doubt, would like to believe it can’t happen here, even so we must confess that it’s already achieved more success than any of us might have dreamed.

According to Hedges:

Christian fundamentalists now hold a majority of seats in 36 percent of all Republican Party state committees, or 18 of 50 states, along with large minorities in 81 percent of the rest of the states. Forty-five Senators and 186 members of the House of Representatives earned between an 80 to 100 percent approval ratings from the three most influential Christian Right advocacy groups - The Christian Coalition, Eagle Forum, and Family Resource Council. Tom Coburn, the new senator from Oklahoma, has included in his campaign to end abortion: a call to impose the death penalty on doctors that carry out abortions once the ban goes into place. Another new senator, John Thune, believes in Creationism. Jim DeMint, the new senator elected from South Carolina, wants to ban single mothers from teaching in schools.
Not yet having achieved their goal of overthrowing the Constitution and imposing a theocracy on the rest of us, creationists and intelligent design activists must pretend that the mountain of evidence that supports evolutionary theory do not exist. They do this by placing their children in Christian academies, or home schooling them, before sending them off to bible colleges were they will never be confronted with the troubling evidence for common descent.

They also lock themselves away in their own churches; listen only to Christian radio and television, although many now make an exception for Rupert Murdoch’s FOX News Network. A whole publishing industry has sprung up to enforce their isolation. Even on the web, they find Wikipedia too biased, i.e. too reality based, and so have created Conservapedia. YouTube, where anyone can post a video, apparently, is way, way too reality based. QubeTV, “designed to showcase the entire American conservative movement,” has been created to fill the void.

In such cases where absolute hermetic isolation can’t be maintained, as in their criticisms of Darwin and evolution, a creationist cottage industry has sprung up to distort and misrepresent the arguments and evidence for common descent. Entire websites are now devoted to exposing the quote mines where creationists toil night and day.

When America was first settled by the colonists it was said that a tree squirrel could travel from the Atlantic shore to the Mississippi River without once dropping to the ground. Today it is possible for a Christian fundamentalist to live his entire life without ever confronting an idea that hasn’t first passed through the explanatory filter of his church.

Coming out of this splendid isolation to enforce biblical law on a restive population familiar with other cultures and ideas, unwilling to play follow the leader, and used to the rough and tumble of free and open debate will be a challenge.

How will they do it?

Making predictions about the future is a risky proposition. Events rarely play out in the real world as they do in our minds. Even so, by consulting past history, we can get a rough idea of what may lie in store if Christian fundamentalists have their way.

Bishop Boniface Adoyo, the head of Kenya's 35 evangelical denominations, which claims 10 million followers, is demanding that Nairobi's National Museum of Kenya hide the world's most important collection of human fossils from public view. The fossils include Turkana Boy, the nearly complete skeleton of a young hominid who died 1.5 million years ago,

Why? Because the National Museum’s fossils, “are killing our faith” says the good bishop.

Unfortunately, in the long run, merely hiding the evidence, especially widely known evidence, may not be good enough.

Not long ago, when the Taliban was faced with the inconvenient history of a Buddhist past in their Muslim country they used rockets to obliterate that evidence: two monumental Buddhas carved into a cliff in central Afghanistan during the 6th century.

In the 5th century when the Parthenon was converted to a Christian church, much of the pagan cultural heritage of classical Greece was destroyed by zealous churchmen who smashed the metopes on the exterior of the building and the statuary within.

Just as the Italian Renaissance blossomed in the 15th century the Dominican friar, Girolamo Savonarola was dispatched to Florence. Like today’s Christian fundamentalists, Savonarola was obsessed with apocalyptic visions.

In 1497, in an orgy of destruction that somehow manages to presage the present day concerns of both Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, he and his followers went door to door seizing articles,

… associated with moral laxity: mirrors, cosmetics, lewd pictures, pagan books, sculptures, gaming tables, chess pieces, lutes and other musical instruments, fine dresses, women's hats, and the works of immoral poets, and burnt them all in a large pile in the Piazza della Signoria of Florence.
Likewise, during the Reformation, when the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell came to power, iconoclasts took hammers to the stained glass, frescoes, and statuary throughout England. The same annihilation of culture took place all over Europe, as well.

As I write this, I have open beside me an album of photos I took ten years ago of the appalling destruction done by the iconoclasts in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral, north of London. Once you’ve seen it, you never forget.

When the Nazis came to power in Germany, they had their own bonfires of the vanities. Lots of them. Ominously, books by and about Darwin and evolution were fuel for their fires.

Of course, in all this, I’ve focused almost exclusively on the destruction of art, science, culture, and history. It goes without saying that in every age the cost in human lives was always much higher.

While I’ve been writing this post, from time to time I’ve taken occasional breaks to refresh my mind by re-reading the Dover testimony of paleontologist Kevin Padian. The National Center for Science Education recently updated the transcript of his testimony with the slides he presented there.

The damning point by point refutation of creationist claims – on the Cambrian explosion, on supposed gaps in the fossil record – contained in Padian’s expert testimony and now reinforced by the photographic documentation contained in the slides, I fear, will prove just too subversive for fundamentalists with power to bear.

And just as the iconoclasts and their ilk tried to obliterate history, today's fundamentalists, the new iconoclasts, if given the chance, will be compelled to obliterate the evidence for evolution.

I am aware that many of those who read these words will doubt that our good, old garden-variety American fundamentalists have the political will to follow the logic of their theology through to the end. I urge those who harbor such doubts to read Max Blumenthal’s Salon piece, “Avenging Angel of the Religious Right.”

Blumenthal reports that Bruce Chapman, the president of the Discovery Institute, and his financial benefactor Howard Ahmanson “cranked up a smear campaign” against the first openly gay Episcopalian bishop, the Rt. Rev. Eugene Robinson, “falsely accusing him of sexual harassment and administering a bisexual pornography Web site.”

Their cynical use of character assassination to achieve political and religious goals shows clearly, I think, that these men will stop at nothing.

Even more chilling is the case of Kansas University social scientist Dennis Dailey. Many of the same Christian fundamentalist forces that fought to write creationism into the curriculum, including state Sen. Susan Wagle, a Republican from Wichita, falsely accused Dailey of showing child pornography in his KU human sexuality course.

These sensational charges were aired nationally on the FOX News Network’s "O’Reilly Factor" creating an uproar that might have destroyed Dailey’s reputation, career, and family. The accusations were quickly followed by right-wing efforts in the state legislature to cut KU’s budget.

A subsequent investigation by KU's chancellor found the charges utterly without merit.

These are the methods now employed by Christian supremacists in and around the Discovery Institute. How far they will go in the future is any body's guess, but the chilling history of religious fanaticism suggests it would be prudent never to give them the chance.


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