photo-essay from yesterday: What prompted Tuesday’s visit to the Creation and Earth History Museum just down the road from where I live in San Diego’s East County was Robert Whitaker’s 2002 “Mad in America,” which I have inexcusably only just gotten around to reading. Part Two, “The Darkest Era,” includes a chapter, “Unfit to Breed.” Many others have related this shameful and outrageous story, but Whitaker pulls it together with the eloquence and authority of a Biblical prophet.
The early part of the nineteenth century ushered in the asylum movement, based on enlightened principles of “moral treatment,” namely if you regard those with mental illness as fellow human beings they tend to respond in kind. It’s amazing the outcomes you can produce when you don’t chain them to walls in freezing dungeons on starvation diets.
Fiscal constraints and other pressures squelched that one brief shining moment. The circulation of Darwin’s theory on evolution in the late nineteenth century only made matters worse. A whole new generation of “social Darwinists” came on the scene, eager to latch onto any excuse to justify their positions of power and privilege. Instead of “all men are created equal,” we were now hearing that “some men are created more equal than others.”
This gave rise to all manner of abuses across all of society. One outcome was the rise of the quack science of eugenics that encouraged weeding out from the gene pool those of degenerate stock. You guessed it, those with mental illness were at the top of the list. In the US, in the first decades of the twentieth century, some 30,000 individuals with mental illness were sterilized.
Hitler took eugenics to its tragically unforeseen but totally logical conclusion. The mentally ill were sterilized, then became the first population singled out for the gas chambers. We know the rest of the story all too well. In the aftermath, eugenics disappeared as a science, but Darwin was tainted forever. Those espousing creationism shamefully link Darwin to the Holocaust. I witnessed it yesterday in my museum visit.
Karen Armstrong in “The Case for God” notes that initially Darwin did not meet much resistance from organized religion. Yes, Darwin challenged Genesis, but hardly anyone at the time interpreted Genesis literally. Christianity, which grew up without printed Bibles in circulation, was constantly - excuse the term - evolving its teachings. Religion, she says, has never been about pat answers.
Throughout the ages, science and religion were more or less in accord. The Galileo controversy, Armstrong points out, is overstated and Galileo himself was largely to blame. Newton’s theories were seen as validating a creator God (without having to get into ridiculous arguments about whether it took God six days or six billion years to fashion the universe).
Literal interpretation of the Bible is a fairly new phenomenon, beginning with the Millennialist movement in the middle of the nineteenth century. This movement may have remained on the fringe had not other Christian groups felt threatened by the scientific revolution around them. This gave rise to fundamentalism, until recently on the outside of the mainstream.
Karen Armstrong makes the very strong point that what we think of Christianity today is not the Christianity our Founding Fathers practiced. Theirs was an Enlightenment-based belief, which (naively) assumed that the mysteries of God would be solved by rigorously applied science and reason. Thus my surprise when on my museum visit I came upon an exhibit asserting that not only the Founding Fathers, but the scientists and philosophers of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, all had creationist beliefs.
No, they didn’t. They simply had no reason to quibble with the Genesis story, that’s all. Jefferson rather than accepting the Bible word-for-word, actually decided to improve upon it (see image above).
Armstrong notes that social change triggers extreme reactions. She got that part right. In her book, she is equally critical of atheists (including proponents of evolution such as Richard Dawkins) as she is of religious fundamentalists. In Armstrong’s view, atheists are as stupid to God as fundamentalists are to science. Both sides are shouting way too loud, leaving no room for reasoned discourse.
And now we are suffering through another extreme reaction in the form of a certain movement with a beverage in the title, again co-opting our Founding Fathers (who have every reason to be spinning in their graves). According to a 2005 Pew Research Center Poll cited in Scientific American, 60 percent of Republicans are creationists and only 11 percent accept evolution. (Forty percent of Democrats accept evolution, which is not good either.)
Obviously, the creationists and their fellow travelers are very successful in getting their word out. Scary, isn’t it?