When I was a child growing up in Cambridge, England, our dining room contained a bookshelf. In it were numerous reference books, among them an Encyclopedia Britannica, the Oxford English dictionary, a Webster's dictionary, a Bible and a concordance, the complete works of Shakespeare and its concordance, a Dictionary of Place names, French, German, English, and Spanish dictionaries, a Dictionary of Dates, a Historical Atlas with explanatory texts, the Dictionary of National Biography, Whitaker's Almanac, and the Statesman's Yearbook.
Our family ate together every night. There was no TV, so we talked, and frequently argued, about politics (both familial and national), school, sport, religion, the monarchy, indeed about anything that could be argued about. We were all opinionated and often arguments became heated. My younger brother, who was the least confrontational, sometimes became so upset by the insults being thrown around that he would cry out, "Oh, please, let's just talk about the Olympics!" (At that time, the Olympic Games were entirely non-controversial.) My parents were intelligent and well-educated, but different in their approaches to life. My mother was compassionate, a partisan driven by emotion. My father, who had two degrees, one in history and one in physics, was, unsurprisingly, an empirical rationalist.
At a certain point in many of these arguments, someone would, in the heat of battle, make a dubious factual assertion. Like a dog who had just seen a stick thrown into the undergrowth, my father would leap from the table and head for the bookshelf.
After locating whatever passage in whichever book best addressed the subject -- and this sometimes took him several minutes and involved several books -- he returned to the disgruntled table to enlighten us. Sometimes he returned with two pieces of information that were in conflict with each other, and then there would follow an attempt to analyze which of the two sources was most likely to be correct.
It was simply not done to make a statement without reference to evidence. To do so was intellectually dishonest and lazy. Irritating as this was at the time (Must dad's pedantry douse passion every single night?), his insistence that known facts should be the criterion of truth now fills me with nostalgia.
In a May 31st Op-Ed in the New York Times, Senator Brownback attempted an explanation of why he (along with Mike Huckabee and Tom Tancredo) raised his hand when asked if he did not believe in evolution.
"The premise behind the question," wrote Brownback, "seems to be that if one does not unhesitatingly assert belief in evolution, then one must necessarily believe that God created the world and everything in it in six 24 hour days."
No, the premise behind the question was: Do you really not believe one of the most extensively proven theories in all of science? That he raised his hand to say that he did not, informed us only that he is scientifically ignorant. Had he not written this piece, one might have imagined that, like his fellow Kansans, the Arapaho, he believed the world was created by a personification of a certain kind of pipe they smoked during their ceremonies. Without facts, you may as well indulge whatever pipe dream suits your fancy.
"The truths of science and faith," Brownback continued with literally supreme confidence, "are complementary: they deal with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God."
How appalled my father would be by this extraordinary statement. "Created by the same God?" According to whom? Which God? On what evidence? By what method? How many gods are there? How many creation myths? And so on.
Brownback then went on to state what he believes scientifically. He is willing to concede to some evolution, "micro-evolution within a species," but if evolution "means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world, that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it."
Note how he deftly switches from science, based on evidence, to religion, based only on faith, seemingly in full expectation that, even though the latter contradicts the former, it will be judged by a more lenient standard. He dodges, or thinks he dodges, having to state what he "rejects," namely macro-evolution, the idea that all life, including man, has a common ancestor. He dodges the bookcase.
When my father wanted to investigate something, it required not just the expense of buying reference books, but also some effort. Now, any simpleton with a computer can hunt through the internet and in a matter of seconds find information such as this from the National Academy of Sciences:
"It is no longer possible to sustain the view that living things did not evolve from earlier forms or that human beings were not produced by the same evolutionary mechanisms that apply to the rest of the living world."
In other words, macro-evolution, the one that Brownback insists must be rejected, is overwhelmingly believed by those who actually study the subject. He could do more research, if he wanted to, and see how essentially simple and logical (and well supported) the idea of macro-evolution is. But no, he "rejects" it.
Here is someone wanting to become the most powerful man on earth who, when faced with the best evidence available, simply turns his back on it. Here is a man who puts religious conviction -- what he wants to believe -- before what is actually true.
"While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man's origins," Brownback genorously offers, "we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science."
First of all man is far from unique in the "created" order, as is obvious to anyone who has taken a close look at a chimp. Secondly, imagine if he was making the same statement about any other well-proven scientific theory. Imagine him saying, "If any aspects of the theory of gravity are not compatible with my concept of god, they must be rejected." Such delusions of grandeur, such fantastical rejections of reality, normally lead to medication if not confinement. In Brownback's case, it leads to publication. Who knows, it might even lead to election.
The two most pressing issues the next president of the United States will have to deal with are scientific and religious. He or she will have to deal with global warming caused by overpopulation (along with stem cell research and such classic aspects of evolution as AIDS and Avian Flu), and he or she will have to deal with radical Islamism.
One could argue that Brownback and his two fellow anti-evolution Republican candidates, are ideally suited to understand the latter, sharing as they do, that religion's disdain for rationality and modernity, but they do not seem willing to understand the former, which may in the long run prove to be the more pernicious of the two.
To quote entomologist, E.O. Wilson, human beings are "the first species in the history of life to become a geophysical force." We are now capable of destroying the habitat that sustains us. It is not impossible that it will be a combination of religion and technology that will lead to this destruction. This being so, what kind of person do we want as president? How do we want him or her to think, and what do we want him or her to know?
I have watched some of the presidential "debates" and not found them illuminating. As several of the candidates themselves complained, the questioning has been too superficial, too general. As this interminable process will continue for many more months, is it not our obligation to insist that the candidates find time to discuss a few things in depth?
As science and religion are so clearly important, I propose that at least one debate should be devoted solely to the conflict between the two, and that experts in both fields should get the opportunity to put the candidates on the rack and see what comes out of them.
At the very least, it would force whoever will eventually become the most powerful person on earth to take a brief trip to the bookcase to check out the facts. To expect less would be to concede to intellectual dishonesty and laziness.