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September 26, 2022

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America’s religious constriction

I am both shocked and fascinated by Americans’ religious literalism.

One Gallup report issued recently found that 42 percent of Americans believe “God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago.”

Even among people who said that they were “very familiar” with the theory of evolution, a third still believed that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago.

It’s not clear what the respondents meant by being “very familiar” — did they fully understand the science upon which evolution is based, or was their understanding something short of that, as in, very familiar with it as being antithetical to creationist concepts?

Whatever the case, on this issue as well as many others in America, the truth is not the light.

That is in part because, compared with other developed countries, America stands out for the level and intensity of its religiosity. People are generally more likely to say that religion is an important part of their daily lives in relatively poor countries, but as Gallup pointed out in a 2010 report:

“The United States is one of the rich countries that bucks the trend. About two-thirds of Americans — 65 percent — say religion is important in their daily lives. Among high-income countries, only Italians, Greeks, Singaporeans and residents of the oil-rich Persian Gulf states are more likely to say religion is important. Most high-income countries are further down the religiosity spectrum.”

And, in America, when people say they are religious, they overwhelmingly mean Christian. In fact, nearly eight in 10 Americans identify as Christians.

It’s not only that Americans are more religious — Christian, in particular — but that for many, their beliefs in their religious text — the Bible, in particular — are literal.

As Gallup pointed out in a report issued last week, nearly a third of Americans continue to believe that the Bible “is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.”

Furthermore, nearly half believe that it is “the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally.”

(I am curious which parts would get a pass from most of these respondents and which wouldn’t. Would the origins of the world fall into the literal camp? What about the rules — all or some — in books like Deuteronomy?) About a fifth of Americans said they believe the Bible is “an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man.”

Now, I don’t seek to deny anyone the right to believe as he or she chooses. I have at points in my own life been quite religious, and my own children have complicated views about religion. As my oldest son once told me, “I’d hate to live in a world where a God couldn’t exist.”

That is his choice, as it is every individual’s choice, and I respect it.

What worries me is that some Americans seem to live in a world where facts can’t exist.

Facts such as the idea that the world is ancient, and that all living things evolved and some — like dinosaurs — became extinct. Facts like the warming of the world. Facts like the very real possibility that such warming could cause a catastrophic sea-level rise.

How does America remain a world leader in an increasingly technological, science-based world, when so many of our citizens — and even our leaders, including Republicans who might run for president — deny basic science?

Marco Rubio told GQ in 2012: “Whether the Earth was created in seven days, or seven actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.”

During a debate in 2007, Mike Huckabee made clear that he believed that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” but didn’t know when it was done or how long it took.

Bobby Jindal has voiced his support of creationism being taught in public schools alongside intelligent design and “the best science” and allowing students to “make up their own minds.”

Americans, particularly political leaders, who choose religious piety must also create an intellectual framework in which things of faith that exist without proof can make space for truths for which there is proof.

Religious fundamentalism at the expense of basic scientific facts threatens to obscure America’s beacon of light with a bank of fog.

Charles Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.

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