Karl Giberson is an evangelical, a biologist, and an intellectual. And he’s fighting the “good fight” against that (larger) cultic part of evangelical subculture that is epistemically closed to secular scholarship. By calling the mass of evangelicalism cultic, I mean that it has created a parallel universe populated by its own pseudo-intellectual apologists promoting factoids as facts. A factoid is a thing treated by a group as factual when there is little or no reason for doing so. Examples include young earth creationism, Moses’s authorship of the Pentateuch, and Christianity—not the Enlightenment—being the primary intellectual impetus for the American Revolution. For this latter factoid, Giberson writes at HuffPo the following:
The May 4, New York Times introduced readers to David Barton, an amateur historian whose ideas about America being a “Christian Nation” founded by evangelicals are quite foreign to the readers of that publication. Described in the article as a “quirky history buff” and “self-taught historian,” Barton has long been a powerful and influential figure with America’s vast evangelical subculture. For many years he was co-chair of the Texas Republican party and his multimillion dollar media empire — Wallbuilders — churns out a steady supply of materials supporting his key message that America was founded as a Christian nation and needs to return to its roots to recover the favor it once received from God. Barton, who Glenn Beck describes as “an expert in historical and constitutional issues,” is also a “professor” on Beck’s new online university. Barton’s formal education consists of a degree in religious education from Oral Roberts University.
And of Barton’s meaning for evangelicalism, Giberson writes this:
Barton is a powerful symbol of an invigorated anti-intellectualism that has long flourished within American evangelicalism and has now taken over the Republican party.
In other words, the cultic rot is spreading. At his blog, Julian Sanchez calls this “epistemic closure”:
One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile. Think of the complete panic China’s rulers feel about any breaks in their Internet firewall: The more successfully external sources of information have been excluded to date, the more unpredictable the effects of a breach become. Internal criticism is then especially problematic, because it threatens the hermetic seal.
Put differently, the Republican Party has learned from populist religion how to become a large, disciplined, and energetic cult. Here’s Giberson again (this time on creationism):
Many evangelicals get their ideas about origins from Ken Ham, architect of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, which features stunning dioramas of Adam and Eve interacting with dinosaurs. The result is that most evangelicals think the earth is a few thousand years old and that evolution is a conspiracy. When Republican presidential hopefuls are asked if they believe in evolution, they dare not answer yes, for fear of offending their antievolutionary base. Unfortunately, most of them don’t even want to answer yes. And this, despite the highly visible presence of Francis Collins at the helm of the NIH. Collins is thoroughly evangelical and, as he and I have argued in our recent book, The Language of Science and Faith, there is simply no reason why evangelicals need to reject evolution in favor of the fanciful tales told by Ken Ham and other creationists.
This is a dangerous time for the United States. We are at a historic decade where an existential decision is going to be made: will we be a nation that deals with reality honestly—or ignores it? Large numbers of people, unfortunately, are quite blatantly voting for the latter, choosing to flamboyantly blow off reality for fantasy and propaganda. They’ll make their own reality, thank you very much.
But think about what it means to embrace propaganda and expose yourself to it exclusively. At TruthDig, Chris Hedges compares contemporary American civilization to Easter Island’s (when its civilization went into permanent decline):
The desperate islanders developed a belief system that posited that the erected stone gods, the moai, would come to life and save them from disaster. This last retreat into magic characterizes all societies that fall into terminal decline. It is a frantic response to loss of control as well as despair and powerlessness. This desperate retreat into magic led to the Cherokee ghost dance, the doomed Taki Onqoy revolt against the Spanish invaders in Peru, and the Aztec prophecies of the 1530s. Civilizations in the last moments embrace a total severance from reality, a reality that becomes too bleak to be absorbed.
The modern belief by evangelical Christians in the rapture, which does not exist in biblical literature, is no less fantastic, one that at once allows for the denial of global warming and of evolution and the absurd idea that the righteous will all be saved—floating naked into heaven at the end of time.
And, in 1921, with the gloomy emergence of cultic Nazism on the horizon, William Butler Yeats wrote, in his poem “The Second Coming”, the following lines:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Unfortunately, this is our cultural moment. This is what America has come to. The antidote to this infantilism is to get off the sidelines, marshal adult courage, and push back in the public square, affirming the virtues of doubt and critical thinking.