Saturday, February 21, 2009

Spread the Truth from Within

Back during the McCarthy era of the 1950s, the overreaction to anything communist and the public fear that we would be taken over by communist sympathizers working for the Soviet Union grew out of a concern that the communist philosophy was to infiltrate from within, by indoctrinating young people into the communist way of life.

It’s true that one strategy employed by the Soviets was to plant young communist sympathizers in the U.S. in hopes that it would spread from within. But it was not their main strategy and it didn’t work very well anyway.

But the idea is a good one if you belong to a group that wants to spread your word to the unwitting masses. And sometimes it does work ever so well.

The evangelical movement, since the 1980s, has been using just such a strategy to promote their view of biology. They believe that God created the earth and everything on it in six literal days about 6,000 years ago. It used to be called creationism, but the U.S. Supreme Court nixed any effort to include the creationist agenda into science classrooms. The term du jour is Intelligent Design. Its philosophy is that life is too complex to have evolved, so there must have been a creator of some kind. It doesn’t specifically identify God as the creator, but everybody knows that God is who the ID crowd has in mind as their creator of choice.

It hasn’t gone all the way to the Supreme Court, but a federal judge in Pennsylvania a couple of years ago ruled with no uncertainty that ID is not science and must be kept out of the Dover, Pa science classes.

But that ruling was only a speed bump in the road for the relentless evangelicals. They write books, preach to their congregations, and open pseudoscientific museums espousing their views on creation. It has been, and continues to be, a massive public education campaign railing against evolution and Charles Darwin. And it has worked.

Polls continue to show that no more than half of all Americans accept evolution as the best explanation for the diversity of life on earth, even though far more than 99 percent of scientists don’t question it. That’s because the theory has withstood 150 years of scientific scrutiny.

Officially, most Christian denominations have no problem with evolution at all. And only about 20 percent or so of Americans call themselves evangelical Christians. So, logically, there should only be about 20 or 25 percent belief in biblical creation with most of the remainder opting for an acceptance of the standard scientific theory of evolution.

So why do twice as many people reject evolution as one would think based on the percentage of evangelicals? It’s the old infiltrate-and-conquer strategy that may have been used by the Communist Party in the 1950s, but this time it is working.

A few years ago, back when I attended church on a regular basis, I went to the First Christian Church Disciples of Christ. Their semi-official stance on evolution is acceptance. And when I wrote a column for a local paper back then quoting the head of the Indiana Disciples of Christ who said the church has no problem with evolution, it prompted at least two long-standing members of the church’s congregation to leave. They had no idea that their church accepted evolution. They were horrified and so they left the church.

The problem is that many members of congregations whose churches have no problem with evolution do not accept evolution themselves. Why not? It’s because they have gotten their ideas about evolution from the evangelical propaganda that is pervasive throughout society, regardless of which church one belongs to. And the churches who do officially accept evolution do not have a public relations campaign promoting that view on evolution.

At least they didn’t until fairly recently. In 2004 Michael Zimmerman of Butler University began The Clergy Letter Project. He enlisted members of the clergy to sign a letter in support of the scientific view of evolution. Since then, the project has grown into Evolution Weekend, the weekend closest to Darwin’s birthday, February 12. This year, Evolution Weekend got a boost because it was the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth and the sesquicentennial of the publication of his book, On the Origin of Species.

In 2006, 467 congregations participated in Evolution Weekend. This year, nearly 1,000 congregations announced their plans to participate, with others participating unofficially.

During Evolution Weekend, pastors of local congregations make an effort to educate their flocks about evolution and how an acceptance of the theory does not preclude a belief in God.

A thousand congregations may seem like a trivial number, considering the number of congregations that exist in this country, but the movement is only four years old. It will, hopefully, grow. And it represents a paradigm shift in the effort to educate Americans through their churches about a much-maligned theory of science. It’s an effort to nix the divisive view of the evangelicals that tends to undermine recent efforts toward ecumenical cooperation.

The Evolution Weekend project may be a tide-turning effort to infiltrate congregations with an idea based on truth and science, and to evict the archaic notion of special creation from the psyche of churchgoers nationwide once and for all.

There is a long road ahead if the effort is to succeed. It won’t be easy, because the evangelicals have had a long advantage in spreading propaganda. But it’s an effort that probably stands a better chance than just taking creationism to court. That doesn’t change any minds. Spreading the truth from within, using the leaders of the church, might just work.

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