Palin on Creationism.

About nine days ago, shortly after Sarah Palin was announced as the VP candidate, I mentioned in passing what I termed Palin's "ridiculous and embarrassing approach to creationism." At the time, I had seen only left-wing attacks on her statement that both should be taught in public schools. Not surprisingly, I was immediately attacked in comments as being unfair to Palin.

While I consider Palin's initial statement on the issue to be "ridiculous and embarrassing," I admit that I was unfair to call that statement her "approach" to creationism for two reasons.

First, almost immediately after the debate, Palin backed off her initial statement, so the statement I had seen quoted by the anti-Palin folks did not represent her public views beyond the debate itself. In other words, she quickly reconsidered and changed her approach, so it was unfair of me to call it her approach.

Second, Palin promised not to push creationism into the schools or appoint people who would do so -- and she apparently kept that promise as Governor. So her actual public policy approach to creationism is not to add it to the curriculum.

So what remains of her personal or policy views? Unlike McCain, who says he believes in evolution, Palin has never clearly addressed the truth or falsity of evolution.

In 2006, Palin did say that, if a student brings up creationism, it should be discussed in class. I guess I warily agree that discussion — ie, free inquiry — should not be prohibited, so long as creationism is presented as a religious belief that is not supported by prevailing science. I would certainly hope for a clearer statement of support for evolution from Palin (or any other national candidate who was asked for an opinion).

Further, both evolution and the Big Bang Theory refer to how worlds or organisms changed over time and do not necessarily tell us how these worlds came into being in the first place. For example, it would be contrary to prevailing views of modern science to believe that evolution did not occur; it would not be contrary to modern science to believe that God started the Big Bang, though that belief would not usually be thought of as based on science.

A sort of middle ground would be occupied by the large numbers of Americans who believe that evolution occurred, but that God guided it.

John McCain's comments supporting evolution were followed by this ambiguous statement hinting that he believed that either God started it all or that God guided the process:

At a GOP presidential debate in May 2007 in Simi Valley, Calif., McCain said he believed in evolution.

"But," he added, "I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also."

In this AP story a few days ago, Palin's expressed views on teaching evolution in the schools were explored:

Palin has not pushed creation science as governor.

As a candidate for governor, Sarah Palin called for teaching creationism alongside evolution in public schools. But after Alaska voters elected her, Palin, now Republican John McCain's presidential running mate, kept her campaign pledge to not push the idea in the schools.

As for her personal views on evolution, Palin has said, "I believe we have a creator." But she has not made clear whether her belief also allowed her to accept the theory of evolution as fact.

"I'm not going to pretend I know how all this came to be," she has been quoted as saying. . . .

When asked during a televised debate in 2006 about evolution and creationism, Palin said, according to the Anchorage Daily News: "Teach both. You know, don't be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it's so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both."

In a subsequent interview with the Daily News, Palin said discussion of alternative views on the origins of life should be allowed in Alaska classrooms. "I don't think there should be a prohibition against debate if it comes up in class. It doesn't have to be part of the curriculum," she said.

"It's OK to let kids know that there are theories out there. They gain information just by being in a discussion." . . .

Palin said during her 2006 gubernatorial campaign that if she were elected, she would not push the state Board of Education to add creation-based alternatives to the state's required curriculum, or look for creationism advocates when she appointed board members. . . .

Palin's children attend public schools and Palin has made no push to have creationism taught in them.

Neither have Palin's socially conservative personal views on issues like abortion and gay marriage been translated into policies during her 20 months as Alaska's chief executive. It reflects a hands-off attitude toward mixing government and religion by most Alaskans.

"She has basically ignored social issues, period," said Gregg Erickson, an economist and columnist for the Alaska Budget Report.

Should We Hold Belief in Creationism Against Candidates for Political Office?

Many argue that Sarah Palin's supposed belief in creationism is a major strike against her qualifications for the vice presidency. As co-blogger Jim Lindgren demonstrates here, Palin did not in fact advocate laws requiring the teaching of creationism in public schools; still less did she oppose teaching the theory of evolution (which she in fact endorsed). Nonetheless, given her religious background, it is certainly possible that Palin believes in creationism herself even if she doesn't want to use the power of the state to indoctrinate schoolchildren in that belief.

Assuming that she does believe in creationism (in the strong sense of rejecting the theory of evolution), should that be an important consideration against her candidacy? I believe not. I think that creationism is contradicted by overwhelming scientific evidence. And as an atheist, I don't believe that God exists in the first place and I certainly don't believe that he did any of the things that creationists attribute to him. Nonetheless, I don't see why belief in creationism should be a major strike against a candidate for public office any more than are a wide range of other common religious beliefs that are contradicted by modern science. Consider the following widespread religious beliefs:

1. Belief in the virgin birth of Christ.

2. Belief in the resurrection of the dead.

3. The belief that the Red Sea parted, enabling the Israelites to escape from Egypt.

4. The Bible's claim that God wiped out nearly all life on Earth in a great flood (with only the denizens of Noah's Ark surviving).

5. Belief in the existence of the Devil (a view held by 71% of Americans).

All of the above are contradicted by science, empirical evidence, or both. Yet few argue that endorsement of any of these beliefs should be a major strike against candidates for high political office, including the presidency. As an apparently believing Protestant, Barack Obama presumably adheres to at least 1 and 2 on the above list. Yet virtually no one claims that he is thereby unfit for the presidency. I don't see why believing the items on the list above is any less irrational and unscientific than believing in creationism. One could argue that people can legitimately embrace these beliefs "on faith" irrespective of evidence. Perhaps so. But belief in creationism can be justified in exactly the same way.

Maybe the conventional wisdom is wrong and we should hold all irrational and unscientific religious beliefs against candidates for high political office. Some of my more militant fellow atheists probably feel that way. However, I don't think they are right. Many people embrace irrational religious beliefs out of unthinking adherence to tradition or simply because they lack the incentive to reexamine those beliefs in an unbiased way. As I discuss in this article, the same is true for beliefs on a wide variety of subjects where people are "rationally ignorant" or "rationally irrational" because they have little incentive to seek out the truth. For most people, holding an inaccurate view on the origins of life on Earth isn't going to affect their lives in any significant way and won't prevent them from making good decisions on matters that are within their personal control. Thus, they have no more reason to become knowledgeable about evolution than they do about particle physics or many other fields of scientific research that aren't relevant to the decisions they must make in their own lives. Many people - including many political leaders - believe in the existence of the Devil or in the virgin birth, yet still make perfectly rational judgments in their decisions on matters within their areas of responsibility. I don't see why the same won't hold true for belief in creationism.

Perhaps the problem with creationism is not that it is unusually irrational in and of itself but that belief in in correlates with what many people consider to be objectionable beliefs on various public policy issues. I'm not entirely convinced that this is more true of creationism than of some of the other beliefs I listed above. But even if it is more true on average, it doesn't make much practical difference. Palin, like most other candidates for high office, has an extensive record of positions that she has taken on various issues. We don't need to use creationism as a proxy for a candidate's issue positions when we can simply look at the issue positions themselves.

Certainly, Palin has had a lot to say on the domestic policy issues with which belief in creationism might be correlated. So far, I don't see how any of her positions on these issues are any more objectionable than those of other mainstream conservatives, including those who (like John McCain) endorse the theory of evolution. Indeed, Palin is probably more libertarian than most of them, and thus less likely to use the power of government to promote her religious agenda. Ultimately, we should judge candidates for high office on their policy positions, not on religious views that are at most only tangentially related to policy.

Finally, some fear that creationist politicians might skew government funding away from scientific research based on the theory of evolution. That is indeed a legitimate concern. In Palin's case, however, there is little if any evidence that she intends to do any such thing. Moreover, any such danger has to be weighed against the possibility that a Democratic victory might skew science funding in favor of crackpot theories favored by some on the political left, such as the "junk science," which, as co-blogger David Bernstein has shown, was at the root of much costly tort litigation in recent years. Politicians in both parties promote dubious science when it is politically convenient to do so. Sometimes they do so for religious reasons; more often for entirely secular ones.

UPDATE: I should probably have mentioned that when I said that the five events I listed were contradicted by science or empirical evidence, I meant either that science has shown that they are impossible (e.g. - virgin birth, resurrection) or that the empirical evidence is against the claim that they occurred (e.g. - the worldwide flood, the parting of the Red Sea). The belief that the devil exists falls into the latter category. If the Devil (defined as a powerful supernatural being who actively promotes evil in our world) exists, we should expect to observe evils that he has caused - evils that don't have natural explanations. Yet we do not in fact observe any such evils. As far as we can tell, all the evil we see is the result of the operation of natural laws or of human action. Thus, the claim that the Devil exists is contradicted by empirical evidence. This argument against the existence of the Devil isn't original to me, and has been developed in much greater detail by philosophers such as Michael Martin. I briefly summarize it here in response to comments claiming that it is impossible to prove or disprove the Devil's existence.

Of course, it is always possible to argue that the Devil causes various evils and then somehow "disguises" them to make them seem natural. This kind of argument, however, can be used to "prove" that virtually anyone or anything caused the evils in question. For instance, I could argue that Bozo the Clown is the real cause of all the evil in the world and that he has "disguised" its true origins to make it look natural. We rightly reject this argument in the absence of additional evidence that Bozo really did cause all those evils. The same point applies to claims that various seemingly natural evils are attributable to the Devil.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Creationism and Ability to Evaluate Scientific Evidence - Or, How I Caught Myself in a Contradiction:
  2. Should We Hold Belief in Creationism Against Candidates for Political Office?
  3. Palin on Creationism.
Creationism and Ability to Evaluate Scientific Evidence - Or, How I Caught Myself in a Contradiction:

Various commenters on my post arguing that belief in creationism shouldn't be held against candidates for political office note that belief in creationism might be dangerous because it reflects a flawed attitude to scientific evidence. After all, belief in creationism (at least in the more extreme versions thereof) requires one to reject a great deal of geological, biological, and other scientific data or argue that God deliberately placed it on Earth in order to deceive us or test our faith. Indeed, I myself partially endorsed this argument when I criticized Ron Paul's rejection of evolution earlier this year, and favorably cited this article by science writer Ron Bailey, who pointed out that:

A larger question is whether a candidate's belief about the validity of evolutionary biology has anything to say about his or her ability to evaluate evidence. A January 4, 2008, editorial by Science editor Donald Kennedy correctly argues, "The candidates should be asked hard questions about science policy, including questions about how those positions reflect belief. What is your view about stem cell research, and does it relate to a view of the time at which human life begins? Have you examined the scientific evidence regarding the age of Earth? Can the process of organic evolution lead to the production of new species, and how? Are you able to look at data on past climates in search of inferences about the future of climate change?" Kennedy concludes, "I don't need them to describe their faith; that's their business and not mine. But I do care about their scientific knowledge and how it will inform their leadership."

For what it's worth, I thought I should point out this potential contradiction between two of my own posts. Although I hate to admit it, it's possible that I was more willing to overlook Sarah Palin's possible belief in creationism than Ron Paul's because I have more sympathy with her other political views than I did with his. This is an example of the kind of biased evaluation of political information that I have written about in my scholarly work. Studies show that people are more likely to reject or minimize negative information about candidates they favor than those they oppose. Sadly, I can't say that I am entirely immune to this tendency. My only defense is that I detected the bias myself and have tried to correct it.

The question still remains: Which of my two posts is closer to the truth? After further reflection, I think that there is some merit to Bailey's argument quoted above. To that extent, the conclusion of my last post on creationism needs to be qualified. At the same time, I still think that the difference between creationism and other unscientific or irrational religious beliefs is more one of degree than kind. Belief in the Great Flood, the Devil, the virgin birth, or the resurrection of the dead also requires people to reject extensive empirical evidence and/or conclude that a scientifically impossible event occurred on the basis of extremely thin historical evidence that usually consists of testimony by biased commentators writing many years after the fact. Certainly, we would view with great skepticism a presidential candidate who professed his belief in "miracles" supposedly committed by pagan gods that are no less well-documented than the Jewish and Christian miracles discussed above. Ditto for one who believed in ghosts, witches, reincarnation, and astrology (all of which are endorsed by large minorities of the public).

In addition, I think that Bailey and others who make similar claims err in implicitly assuming that people who do a poor job of assessing evidence in one field will necessarily make similar mistakes with respect to others. For reasons I discussed at the end of the last post, I think that people are likely to be more rational in evaluating evidence in cases where they have a stronger incentive to get at the truth.

Nevertheless, I have to conclude that belief in creationism should be viewed as a negative in a candidate for high public office. It will often be outweighed by other considerations (especially in a case like Palin's, where it is not even clear whether she really does believe in creationism or not). But that doesn't mean we should ignore a candidate's commitment to creationism completely.

The bottom line: I was probably too complacent about creationism in my last post. On the other hand, I still think that creationism has more in common with a variety of other scientifically dubious religious beliefs than many of my critics are prepared to admit.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Creationism and Ability to Evaluate Scientific Evidence - Or, How I Caught Myself in a Contradiction:
  2. Should We Hold Belief in Creationism Against Candidates for Political Office?
  3. Palin on Creationism.