Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

How to Love God Excerpt: Evangelicals and Evolution, Part 1 of 2 (or maybe 3)

I've had a busy couple of days, and here is part of the fruit: another excerpt from How to Love God--part one of however long this chapter winds up being. Please read and comment! Thanks!

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CHAPTER 8: EVANGELICALS AND EVOLUTION

This chapter is the most frustrating one I’ve written, and I have to admit that here I open by admitting defeat. In the area of evolution, evangelical Christians are at their most stubborn, their most misinformed, their most perversely resistant to anything like sensible behavior. And what makes this most irritating is that they take the stance they do even though it doesn’t actually solve the problem they claim it solves, and even though a much more intellectually acceptable answer is only a short step away. In every other chapter, I think I have some hope of convincing the unconvinced or the wavering. This chapter is mainly concerned with triage. On the bright side, however, this is where the whys of evangelical religion become interestingly apparent, and it starts by looking at the difference between what evangelicals do believe, and what evangelicals could believe without much trouble.

What evangelicals do believe is this: Evolution is a flawed science, merely a theory, full of holes, and is only popular because of a conspiracy between godless scientists and sinful men who are determined to promulgate a creation story that denies the existence of God. Evangelicals believe that Creation story in Genesis is partially symbolic (the “days” of creation could be millions of years, and the serpent is actually Satan, not just the forefather of all snakes, and God probably wasn’t literally “walking” around in the Garden like it says), but partially real. (They usually don’t think about it much, but if pressed, most evangelicals will believe in a real Adam and Eve, an actual Garden of Eden in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, and a real Fall caused by an argument over fruit from an actual tree.)

What evangelicals could believe is this: Evolution is as true as scientists claim, and all of Genesis 1, not just parts of it, is essentially symbolic. But the Bible’s main message—that God created us in love, and it is best to obey him and take care of creation—remains as valid as ever, and would scarcely change a single evangelical sermon on Genesis in the last 100 years. And what’s more, scientists don’t know everything, because not only can they not answer the big moral questions of life, but there’s even proof that God exists: roughly 100,000 years ago, human beings simultaneously developed speech, art, and religion, and the world has never been the same since. Surely this is no mere coincidence, but the work of a guiding God who has steered evolution in such a way as to create us to have fellowship with him. I will be calling this the “big bang theory of human origins,” for reasons I will explain later. It’s also worth pointing out that this is, in fact, the way most mainstream and liberal religious people think about evolution: it’s true, but it’s not the whole truth, and evolved human beings need divine moral shepherding. It’s an eminently religious way of viewing this particular science.

But first, some clarification. Some evangelicals—in my experience, usually the more intellectual college types—do believe in evolution. (They quickly learn, however, not to mention this casually at evangelical gatherings; arguments are inevitable.) So my characterization above is broadly true, but won’t work for everyone. Moreover, most evangelicals will accept much of evolution: the adaptation of viruses, the fact that fossils are old and show certain kinds of development, etc. What most evangelicals are keen to cast doubt on is macroevolution, and most specifically the evolution of man. Dogs may have come from wolves—that’s microevolution, because dogs and wolves can still mate—but no way did we humans come from monkeys or fish or microbes! The point, obviously, is to preserve mankind’s dignity as a special creation of the Almighty, and (to a lesser extent) God as the maker of individual distinct species. Take care of that, and you scientist types can have all the different-colored moths and three-toed horses you want.

Second, it should also be made clear that my “big bang theory of human origins” has a few holes. Although you can argue that language, art, and religion appear simultaneously and uniquely in human history, this is not universally held. There are some signs that primitive forms of language and art, at least, appear among non-humans, and the time between language and religion gets staggered depending on who you read. But on the whole, the development of all three really did peak with us at practically the same time, and in any event the principle still holds that God might have stepped in to make us humans unique on the planet, and given us the gift of religion in order to commune with him. So the main point still stands no matter what we eventually learn later.

The reason this matters is because if you look at evangelical websites or books (or even Conservapedia, which is allegedly merely conservative but in practice is essentially evangelical), you find that the number one sin that evolution causes—the main thing evangelicals are determined to prevent—is moral decay. Specifically, evangelicals state over and over again that if human beings are mere animals, then we can have no morality, and the next step is communism, racism, drugs, sexual depravity…take your pick of possible dark futures. By knocking away God, evolution ushers in Babylon. Any evil is possible, and therefore evolution, which ushers in this evil like a gateway drug, must be fought at all costs.

This is precisely where evangelical reasoning becomes incoherent. If evangelicals are right that evolution leads to moral chaos, then the liberal “big bang” reading already solves the problem perfectly! But evangelicals fight instead for their own interpretation — fight like hell, tooth and nail, with tirelessness zealotry. And they do it for a reading which on paper doesn’t add any new moral assistance (since liberals and evangelicals are agreed that human beings are special in the eyes of God, and have special moral responsibility) — but which adds a host of terrible implausibilities, from “Where did the Garden of Eden go?” to “Where did Cain’s wife come from?” to “How come whales have hips?” to “How do you explain endogenous retroviruses?” (We’ll get to those later.) The liberal Christian can answer all of those questions calmly and save human beings from the potential moral damage of evolutionary thinking. The evangelical, by contrast, seems weirdly determined to make his job a million times harder than it needs to be — if protecting morality is the main point. What gives?

WHAT GIVES

The nice thing about irrationality is that it exposes what you’re really obsessed about. For example, in skeptical quarters, any time someone in Skeptic magazine or The Internet Infidels talks about astrology, they inevitably say at some point, “And what’s so terrible about astrology is all the money people waste on it!” As if astrology’s chief sin were how much money goes down its particular drain. This is an awfully weird thing to assert, because astrology is a pretty small corner of any major bookstore you look into, and most people who are into it either get them for free from the newspaper, or buy them—for what? $1.99?—at the local grocery store sales counter. As wastes of money go, this is pretty small potatoes, and if I had to put my own personal list of “terrible wastes of money,” astrology wouldn’t even crack the top 100, and it would be down far below even things like Beetle Bailey. (All that newspaper space, and all that reading time, devoted to a daily comic strip that hasn’t made a non-idiotic joke in decades! We should weep for the lost ad revenue.)

The mere fact that this untenable assertion is even made is a very handy red flag to point us to the fact that something else is being deliberately unsaid—something unseemly and unsayable. I think I know what it is. What skeptics really want to say is something like, “Astrology is idiotic, inconsistent, completely irrational, and…and it’s wrong to be irrational! Can’t you see that? Look at how awful irrationality is! Grr, wake up!” Unfortunately, that’s the best they have to offer, while astrology offers an illusion of insight into yourself and others, usually in mild and flattering terms. So the rationalist knows, on some level, that they can’t really compete with astrology, since a world with astrology is more fun for most people than a world without it. But for the rationalists to simply scream, “What’s wrong with you idiots, who by the way are mostly women?” would be unseemly. So they are forced to complain about money because expressing the real problem (people are happy being ignorant and uninformed!) would cut themselves off from civil debate.

It’s the same way with evangelicals and evolution. What they’re trying to preserve is not primarily public morality—at least, not the way they claim. What they’re trying to preserve is the trustworthiness of the Bible, because that, as we have seen, is the only reliable guide for all morality. But if they simply said, “Evolution is wrong because the Bible is more or less scientifically accurate!” no one outside the camp would listen for a second, for the obvious reason that this assertion is both unscientific and provably wrong.

I should pause here and note that many evangelicals, when asked what they think about evolution, will say, “I don’t care about it one way or the other.” On one hand, this is sort of true, since evangelicals don’t believe in evolution, and therefore it never figures in most of their day-to-day conversations. They can go for months without being forced to think about it at all. But in another very real sense, this statement is a lie. If you hear an evangelical claim this, don’t believe it. There are two ways, after all, to “not care” about something. The first is to say “I don’t really care what we should order on the pizza.” A person in this situation, since they don’t care and are surrounded by people who do, will simply shrug and defer to the people who actually give a damn. This is genuine not-caring, and if evangelicals did this we’d never have had a Monkey Trial in the first place.

The other kind of not-caring is the kind that happens after a breakup or a divorce, where someone at a party says, “Hey, Vashti! I saw your ex at the movies yesterday, and he was on a date.” And the woman responds, “I don’t care what that man does.” This is defensive not-caring, the kind that results from a severe excision, where the broken couple has had to divide up who gets which friends and which social circles, where someone avoids certain stores or takes a different route to work to avoid running into the other person. Because a chance meeting will result in an unwinnable conflict that’s bad for everyone. That’s the kind of not-caring that evangelicals practice in respect to evolution: it’s the choice any sane human being would make if the alternative was being in a constant state of siege and warfare. It is, if you like, a voluntary secession from the workings of a scientific community that never had a chance in hell of being sympathetic to them anyway.

“But wait!” you might say. “I know a lot of evangelicals, and they take a lot of things as symbolic. Why not Genesis?” This is perhaps as good a time as any to point out why the evangelical’s parsing of evolution mostly works for them, and in the process explain the process by which evangelicals “believe” the Bible, and what makes them believe some things literally and not others…

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10 Comments:

Blogger Joshua Kosman said...

Aaah! You stopped right at the good part. Can't wait to read more.

By the way, I don't know if this has a place in the book (probably not) but I certainly hope that sometime — maybe on the blog — you can get around to explaining to outsiders like me the ostensible justification for the "fundamentalist" reading of the O.T. that says, Homosexuality no no no (read Leviticus), but bacon cheeseburgers are totally fine! That's the one I've never understood.

1/20/2008 11:44 PM  
Anonymous molpal said...

I really like what you've written-- very insightful. Having grown up as a bona fide Tulsa, Oklahoma evangelical, I relate to a lot of what you're saying.
I have a quick grammar note for you (I teach freshman composition, so I can't help but notice these things!):
You often use "they" when you should use "he or she." When you say, "a person," you should match that singular subject with a singular pronoun, instead of a plural one.
Can't wait to read the whole book!
MS

1/21/2008 12:01 AM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

Joshua--you spoke exactly a moment early, since Leviticus IS what I'll be talking about next, because it's such an interesting anomaly: evangelicals essentially throw out ALL of Leviticus EXCEPT that one small quote about homosexuality. This is proof that they care more about having something to say about homosexuality (and other moral issues of the day) than they do about being consistent in their reading. I hope to have it posted by day's end.

Molpal: I use "they" quite deliberately because I think avoiding sexism is more important than maintaining a grammatical consistency that doesn't actually confuse anyone. In this practice, I am following Jane Austen, Shakespeare, and a host of others.

Thanks so much, by the way, for the note on swearing. You may have convinced me to put the kibosh on my intro. But I'm not quite ready to decide yet.

1/21/2008 8:24 AM  
Blogger Kris the Girl said...

This is a really random first comment, but here goes, with nary even a website for backup:
I think those "whale hips" are skeletal structures to support the muscles used to birth lil' baby whales. They appear in both genders much like nipples on men - they form before gender is decided.

1/21/2008 10:51 AM  
Blogger Sneb said...

Kris, I never heard that before. Do you have a link? I think the vestigial leg bone idea is pretty well accepted. Here's the link I found:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12492145?dopt=Abstract

That doesn't mean old structures can't take on new uses. Our ear bones developed form the jaw bones of fish for example.

1/22/2008 12:11 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

I liked the comparison between evangelical christianity and astrology, I think you could go even further. Evolutionists sometimes skew things too though, just to piss off the Evangelicals. Even if you're an evangelical who believes in evolution does that really make you less of a jerk?

1/22/2008 6:14 PM  
Blogger Kris the Girl said...

Well, the best I can do in 1 minute at work while I waste time is this:

http://whale.wheelock.edu/archives//ask01/0201.html

But I heard it first on some "looky, creation happened! Silly evolutionists" presentation. It had some other interesting points about the credibility of evolution, along with a whole bunch of garbage that made it clear the speaker didn't even have a casual relationship with geology...but I digress. For whatever reason, the whale hip thing stuck with me.

1/24/2008 2:39 PM  
Blogger Sneb said...

Thanks for the link Kris. (I noticed the person who posted the answer misspelled "vestigial" by the way. I only know that because Firefox yelled at me when I typed it that way too.)

Anyway, it so happens science blogger superstar PZ Myers commented about vestigial parts in a recent post:

"There were and are still vestigial organs, and nothing any creationist has ever said has refuted that. They constantly confuse "vestigial" with "non-functional" — the appendix, for instance, is a functional section of epithelium with many of the specialization we associate with other regions of gut epithelium, but it has lost the utility of acting as a fermentation chamber that we see in other mammals, and is greatly reduced in size…therefore, it is a vestigial cecum. The coccyx is a set of fused bones that still has muscles attaching to it, a blood supply, and sensory innervation, but it is a greatly diminished relic of the prominent post-anal tail of other vertebrates…therefore, it is vestigial. I really don't understand what's so hard to comprehend about all that; if you want to argue that your coccyx is not a vestigial tail, then please do show me how you can swat flies with it, or extend it caudally to assist in your balance, or attract mates in front of you with its display"

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2008/01/another_junk_dna_denialist_on.php

1/24/2008 9:55 PM  
Blogger Kris the Girl said...

Great quote - I've always wondered why vestigial organs are so opposed by creationists. But I'm also sure that most creationists aren't going to argue that the coccyx is not a vestigial tail - the argument is that it isn't a tail at all, vestigial or otherwise. :)

On a side, and probably only personally interesting, note, my dad had to have his coccyx realigned (dirty!) in his mid-thirties. His chiropractor looked at him like he was crazy when my dad told him what hurt and where, but they managed to get it back in place. the chiro said that there is some research suggesting that it's not as fused as has been thought for hundreds of years.
He did not say if he thought my dad was going to grow a tail, though.

1/25/2008 11:02 AM  
Blogger Chad E Burns said...

Dave,

Immensely enjoy reading your posts. Grew up southern Pentecostal--very evangelical and the family still is. I was a HUGE fundy--but thought I was a "thinking fundy" as I had to find some way to make a lot of that relevent stuff make sense. One thing I relied on while teaching sunday School, Children's Church, youth group, etc (all those FUN activities young thinking Fundy's sacrifice themselves to before giving up)was a Strong's Concordance, and I constantly strove to understand the original Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic meanings. While I am sure my trials were woefully sophomoric compared to REAL University religios reserach--I also know they were worlds above what most of my fellow fundys had heard in pulpits or lecterns. I had come to the conlclusion early on that evolution and Genesis had to coexist. In doing lessons on Genesis, I discovered 1> that the word used for "day" actually does and can mean "time period" but most importantly the part where G-d says "Let us make man in our image . . ." This passage when reviewed in Hebrew can convey "let us begin the process of helping man become a reflection of ourselves" This coupled with the phrase about G-d blowing the "breath of G-d" into man seems to convey a stronger, deeper, more intimate message anyway. That it was at that point G-d chose to single man out from among the beasts with a "soul". This could tie in easily to the emergence of language, religion, art, etc. AND to add a bit more evolution tie in: There was a series on the Discovery channel that talked about the evolution of h. sapiens; and WHY they made the difficult tranisition with success and many of their contemporaries and predecessors did not. The answer--as they say--came from the ability to sympathize/empathize with others--to "imagine" or understand what it feels like to be wothout water, anticipated the need to create something to "hold" water. The ability to know what it felt like to go without food, led to the creation of tools to aid in this process. All this coupled with the uncaddy ability to "remember" led to the success of h. sapiens or "thinking man". I think this is interesting in two ways. 1> it allows for scientific reasoning and logic to enter the creation/evolution/moral ground debate on solid footing and 2> it doesn't have to alienate atheists/Science-only people. Genesis becomes just an explanation of what happened in the natural world. Theists get to believe it was G-d inspired and atheists get to stand on principle that "nature and logic" prevailed.

I can't wait for more of your book and your comments to this.

1/30/2008 12:42 PM  

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