The Observer, Sunday November 2 2008
The idea of intelligent fundamentalists, like the theory of intelligent design, does not stand up to 30 seconds’ scrutiny. I must, nevertheless, give credit to American evangelicals for showing belated glimmerings of sense. After decades of blindly endorsing evangelical politicians from the born-again Carter to the born-again Bush, they at last appear ready to look for more than religious dogma in a candidate.
Richard Cizik, the Washington representative of the National Association of Evangelicals, has all but backed Obama. ‘I’m a conservative, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to vote that way,’ he announced. ‘I could disagree with Obama, and do, on same-sex marriage and abortion, but that doesn’t mean I’ll vote against him.’
Cizik has been criticised by the American conservative press, but his abandonment of faith in the Republican party may be a sign of a wider disillusionment. Foreigners, who bought Michael Moore’s cartoon version of America as a land dominated by quasi-fascist bigots, may not understand why, but Christian conservatives have good reason to feel cheated.
The Republicans not only took their votes and left them with jobs that may vanish and homes the banks may repossess, but failed to deliver the conservative counter-revolution they promised. After eight years of Bush, abortion is still legal and the gay marriage movement is marching on. The congregations of Cizik’s and other churches have every right to shrug their shoulders and vote Obama or give up on politics and stay at home. Evelyn Waugh complained in 1951 that the British Conservative party had ‘never put the clock back by a single second’. We will have to wait until the votes are in, but American evangelicals could say the same about today’s Republicans.
The fate of the creationists shows why. Bush whipped up the futile passions of his supporters by encouraging schools to balance the teaching of the theory of evolution with the theory of ‘intelligent design’, which is nothing more than creationism dressed up in the language of pseudo-science to avoid America’s prohibition on religion in the classroom.
Creationists in Dover, Pennsylvania, took him at his word. With the shameful, but I suppose inevitable, support of an English academic postmodernist, one Steve Fuller of Warwick University, they argued that truth was relative. Teachers should not discriminate between evidence and superstition, but tell children that it was as reasonable to believe that a god-like intelligence designed life as to think that species evolved through undirected natural selection.
A Republican in the White House did them no good. In September 2005, Judge John E Jones ruled that they were trying to slip the Book of Genesis into science classes and came down against them. Three years on from their defeat, and with the Democrats certain to dominate Washington, the hopes of the intelligent design movement appear dead.
But ideas do not die, they spread and mutate. Creationism might be on the back foot in America, but it is blossoming elsewhere as Richard Dawkins discovered when Turkish readers told him they could no longer access his website. Dawkins’s offence was to satirise Harun Yahya, the pen name of Adnan Oktar, the front man for a wealthy Islamic publishing house. Its lavishly illustrated Atlas of Creation spends 500 pages comparing fossils with present-day species to argue that evolution never took place. Dawkins looked at a picture of an ancient fossilised eel and a picture of what Yahya claimed was a modern eel and pointed out that it was in fact a sea snake.
Yahya went on to represent the immutability of God’s creation by claiming that a fossilised insect had survived unchanged for millions of years. Unfortunately, the modern version of the caddis fly Yahya chose to illustrate his point was not a fly at all, but a steel fish-hook with a fake insect on top to lure fish on to the line.
Yahya is a joke, but few Turks are laughing. Index on Censorship reported last week that the Turkish courts and the Islamist government were banning Turks from accessing YouTube and the hosting sites Blogger and WordPress for various moral and political reasons as well as richarddawkins.net. When Bianet, a Turkish human rights group, published a critical piece, Yahya told its journalists: ‘This is an insulting article, take it off the internet or we will have you banned like Richard Dawkins.’
‘On the one hand, fundamentalists say all they want is a debate,’ said Padraig Reidy of Index. ‘But as soon as they get power, they close debate down.’
Westerners say that Yahya reminds them of American creationists. The link is more solid than they know. In Atlas of Creation, Yahya acknowledges his debt to Duane Gish from the Institute for Creation Research in Texas. Gish has spent years arguing that the fossil record contains no evidence of species evolving and blustering whenever a palaeontologist contradicted him. As a Muslim, Yahya did not need to accept the institute’s Protestant fundamentalist ‘young-Earth’ doctrine – the notion that God made the world in 4004BC or thereabouts. But he happily borrowed Gish’s equally idiotic delusion that today’s species cannot have evolved and must therefore be identical to their ancestors of tens or hundreds of millions of years ago.
Vast sums of probably Saudi money are fuelling the move of creationism across the Atlantic. In Turkey and the Middle East, poor schools are grateful for Yahya’s free books and scientists are becoming frightened of speaking out. Last year, the Council of Europe warned that Yahya was also targeting schools in France, Belgium, Spain and Switzerland. In Britain, academics talk of expelling mainly Muslim science students. They do not make a fuss about it in case post-modern relativists in the mould of Steve Fuller accuse them of religious discrimination, but say, very quietly, that if religion stops their students accepting evolution, there is no point in them staying at university.
Maybe in a generation’s time, Americans will patronise Europeans as quasi-fascist bigots. If we are to avoid their condescension, we must accept that creationism will not go down with the American conservative movement. It is evolving and its opponents must evolve, too, if they want to defeat it