This past year of electoral politics has been eye-opening in the United States, with GOP presidential candidates (especially Santorum, Perry, and Bachmann) openly advocating a Christian theocracy in this country, and many Republicans showing their scorn for the separation of Church and State (or rewriting history to diminish its importance). Only one (Jon Huntsman) of the original nine GOP candidates accepted evolution, and several were devout creationists (Bachmann got her start fighting for creationism in her local Minnesota school board). We’ve seen the Texas School Board not only pushing creationism, but dropping Thomas Jefferson from the list of “great Americans” because of his secularist views and low regard for established religion. Although the right wing in this country has always had a strong connection to evangelicals and fundamentalism, now they form one of the largest and most dedicated blocs in the GOP, so they dictate a national political stance that openly yearns for a Christian theocracy. Years ago, Barry Goldwater warned about them:
Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them. The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom…. I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C,’ and ‘D.’ Just who do they think they are?… I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of “conservatism.”
For the devil’s bargain that the GOP made back in the 1980s with Jerry Falwell and Oral Roberts and the rest of the evangelical megachurches and their preachers, now their pigeons have come home to roost. Barry would scarcely recognize today’s GOP.
For me, it has been even more discouraging, since the battle over pushing creationism and other forms of anti-science into public school science classes just gets more virulent and hard to stop as they try any strategy to sneak religious ideas past the Constitution. I’ve been fighting this battle since I first broke away from my Presbyterian upbringing over 40 years ago, and began to read and explore religious topics in college. I learned to read Hebrew and Greek so I could read scriptures for myself (and discovered how misguided a notion the “literal” interpretation of the Bible is). My personal religious and intellectual quest gave me a good background for my frequent battles with the creationists (and informed my 2007 book on evolution), but 99% of the country has never been exposed to this kind of information, and cling to whatever they were taught as children.
This is a struggle that started in 1859 and shows no sign of easing after 153 years, especially when 40% or more of people in this country believe in creationism. Each time I give a lecture about evolution, someone in the audience invariably asks what can be done about these religious zealots, and whether there is any hope that we will be able to stop them—or are we condemned to be forever fighting a rear-guard action to prevent further inroads into public education. (Never mind trying to make evolution more widely accepted).
But there are signs of hope. There are many places around the world where religion has shrunken in importance, where only a few percent to a few tens of a percent of the population is religious. There are places where religious zealots have no power over the government and only good science is taught in science classes. Where is this Utopia, you ask? Actually, this description applies to many of the industrialized nations of the world, almost all of which have very low levels of religiosity, and no issue with creationism intruding on public education. Nearly all the northern and western European nations fit this description (especially in Scandinavia, where religion is almost non-existent). It’s true just north of the border, where Canadians have no intrusion of religion in their science classes, no significant problem with creationism, and only their habit of splitting the predominantly liberal vote between two parties allows conservatives victory at all.
Take a look at Quebec, for example. Before the 1960s, it was heavily dominated by the Catholic Church, and one of the most devout provinces in Canada. It was also one of the most economically backward and least educated. Then came the “Quiet Revolution” in the 1960s, when the government set out to modernize and secularize their educational institutions, including compulsory free public education through high school. They also provided many other social services (health care, retirement, unemployment benefits, etc.) that were already established elsewhere in Canada. What followed was an explosion in economic activity, a rapid rise in the standard of living—and today only 22% of Quebecois consider themselves “religious,” fewer than any other Canadian province, making it one of the most secular societies in North America.
That’s a theme that a number of authors, from Phil Zuckerman to Greg Paul, have pointed out again and again: societies which provide good social services (child care, health care, unemployment benefits, free public education through college, retirement benefits, generous vacations, etc.) remove the need for people to be fearful for their lives, and they soon no longer need to pray to a god to protect them. Zuckerman’s book, in particular, is based on over 14 months of research in Scandinavia. (I’ve spent a lot of time in Germany and Scandinavia, and found Zuckerman’s description of these places is very accurate). He provides a huge amount of detail about various measurements of “happiness”, and shows how strong the influence on good social services is on the “happiness index” of a society. The less they pray, believe in god, and fear death or worry about the afterlife, the happier they were. The Bible-thumpers are constantly preaching that lack of religion leads to fear and immorality and unhappiness, when the exact opposite is the case.
We hear right-wingers in this country scream “socialism” as if it’s a terrible blight or a version of the Soviet gulags, yet these European countries are effectively socialist in most of their policies, and they are among the happiest people in the world. Does that fact ever penetrate the American media bubble? Even Democrats try to shy away from the “socialist” label because it is so misunderstood and used as a calumny by the right wing. Among sitting politicians, only Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont bills himself as a Socialist and not a Democrat, but it doesn’t seem to hurt his popularity at home at all.
So if providing people with comfort and security is so evil, why are they so happy? Is our form of capitalism so superior? In economic terms, that’s also debatable. The strongest economies in Europe are in Germany and the Scandinavian countries, which have managed to outdo the United States in many areas (especially their educational systems, and their investments in green technology and reduced dependence on foreign oil). Germany, Sweden and Denmark are currently among the four most economically competitive nations in the world, and the rest of the list includes other northern European countries. These nations also have some of the best ratios of wealth or GDP per capita, and the lowest rates of income inequality between the rich and the poor. The latest fad is looking at the educational system in Finland, which leads the world in its effectiveness—and does not have the local control of boards of education that would allow travesties like our Texas Board of Education. Even now when the European Union is weakened by its poorest members (Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal, which are also among the most religious countries in Europe), Germany and Scandinavia continue to be pillars of strength.
They also have many other positives: some of the lowest crime rates in the world (with almost no police force, lax court systems, and very humane prison systems); low suicide rates; unwavering support for the arts, with thriving orchestras and art museums and theaters in many cities, and no issue of arts budgets being slashed by a fanatical right-wing zealots who regard art as “immoral” or “liberal” or a superfluous luxury; very high rates of gender equality and acceptance of homosexuality; low rates of political corruption; and high rates of economic support to other nations. I’ve been to many of the cities in this region, and they are clean, safe, well-run, with excellent public transit systems and bike paths and other signs of a rational society.
Of course, not everything is equal. Many of the northern European countries are ethnically homogeneous and speak only one language (besides English, as many do), so they are not plagued with the racial and language and immigration issues that affect poverty in the U.S. Germany and some other countries are just now beginning to deal with significant Muslim immigrant minorities, and there are problems, as well have all heard. These countries don’t spend absurd amounts on their defense budget, either, but they didn’t do so even when the old Soviet Union was a threat.
Nonetheless, every time I visit my friends in Germany and Scandinavia, or correspond with them, I’m reminded of how much better they have it than we do. When this topic comes up, they are either incredulous that religion is such a powerful force, or that we are still fighting battles over health care in the U.S. Remember, the Scandinavian countries were economic backwaters until they changed their political systems, and now they are economic powerhouses. But, you might say, the U.S. has a long religious tradition that is deeply entrenched and powerful! So did Quebec before the 1960s. The example of Quebec shows that in just a generation, a society can go from backward and religious to modern and secular. So maybe there is hope for the U.S. after all, and maybe I’ll live to see the day when creationism is no longer a problem. As John Lennon said, imagine no religion…