Should We Hold Belief in Creationism Against Candidates for Political Office?

Many argue that Sarah Palin's supposed belief in creationism is a major strike against her qualifications for the vice presidency. As co-blogger Jim Lindgren demonstrates here, Palin did not in fact advocate laws requiring the teaching of creationism in public schools; still less did she oppose teaching the theory of evolution (which she in fact endorsed). Nonetheless, given her religious background, it is certainly possible that Palin believes in creationism herself even if she doesn't want to use the power of the state to indoctrinate schoolchildren in that belief.

Assuming that she does believe in creationism (in the strong sense of rejecting the theory of evolution), should that be an important consideration against her candidacy? I believe not. I think that creationism is contradicted by overwhelming scientific evidence. And as an atheist, I don't believe that God exists in the first place and I certainly don't believe that he did any of the things that creationists attribute to him. Nonetheless, I don't see why belief in creationism should be a major strike against a candidate for public office any more than are a wide range of other common religious beliefs that are contradicted by modern science. Consider the following widespread religious beliefs:

1. Belief in the virgin birth of Christ.

2. Belief in the resurrection of the dead.

3. The belief that the Red Sea parted, enabling the Israelites to escape from Egypt.

4. The Bible's claim that God wiped out nearly all life on Earth in a great flood (with only the denizens of Noah's Ark surviving).

5. Belief in the existence of the Devil (a view held by 71% of Americans).

All of the above are contradicted by science, empirical evidence, or both. Yet few argue that endorsement of any of these beliefs should be a major strike against candidates for high political office, including the presidency. As an apparently believing Protestant, Barack Obama presumably adheres to at least 1 and 2 on the above list. Yet virtually no one claims that he is thereby unfit for the presidency. I don't see why believing the items on the list above is any less irrational and unscientific than believing in creationism. One could argue that people can legitimately embrace these beliefs "on faith" irrespective of evidence. Perhaps so. But belief in creationism can be justified in exactly the same way.

Maybe the conventional wisdom is wrong and we should hold all irrational and unscientific religious beliefs against candidates for high political office. Some of my more militant fellow atheists probably feel that way. However, I don't think they are right. Many people embrace irrational religious beliefs out of unthinking adherence to tradition or simply because they lack the incentive to reexamine those beliefs in an unbiased way. As I discuss in this article, the same is true for beliefs on a wide variety of subjects where people are "rationally ignorant" or "rationally irrational" because they have little incentive to seek out the truth. For most people, holding an inaccurate view on the origins of life on Earth isn't going to affect their lives in any significant way and won't prevent them from making good decisions on matters that are within their personal control. Thus, they have no more reason to become knowledgeable about evolution than they do about particle physics or many other fields of scientific research that aren't relevant to the decisions they must make in their own lives. Many people - including many political leaders - believe in the existence of the Devil or in the virgin birth, yet still make perfectly rational judgments in their decisions on matters within their areas of responsibility. I don't see why the same won't hold true for belief in creationism.

Perhaps the problem with creationism is not that it is unusually irrational in and of itself but that belief in in correlates with what many people consider to be objectionable beliefs on various public policy issues. I'm not entirely convinced that this is more true of creationism than of some of the other beliefs I listed above. But even if it is more true on average, it doesn't make much practical difference. Palin, like most other candidates for high office, has an extensive record of positions that she has taken on various issues. We don't need to use creationism as a proxy for a candidate's issue positions when we can simply look at the issue positions themselves.

Certainly, Palin has had a lot to say on the domestic policy issues with which belief in creationism might be correlated. So far, I don't see how any of her positions on these issues are any more objectionable than those of other mainstream conservatives, including those who (like John McCain) endorse the theory of evolution. Indeed, Palin is probably more libertarian than most of them, and thus less likely to use the power of government to promote her religious agenda. Ultimately, we should judge candidates for high office on their policy positions, not on religious views that are at most only tangentially related to policy.

Finally, some fear that creationist politicians might skew government funding away from scientific research based on the theory of evolution. That is indeed a legitimate concern. In Palin's case, however, there is little if any evidence that she intends to do any such thing. Moreover, any such danger has to be weighed against the possibility that a Democratic victory might skew science funding in favor of crackpot theories favored by some on the political left, such as the "junk science," which, as co-blogger David Bernstein has shown, was at the root of much costly tort litigation in recent years. Politicians in both parties promote dubious science when it is politically convenient to do so. Sometimes they do so for religious reasons; more often for entirely secular ones.

UPDATE: I should probably have mentioned that when I said that the five events I listed were contradicted by science or empirical evidence, I meant either that science has shown that they are impossible (e.g. - virgin birth, resurrection) or that the empirical evidence is against the claim that they occurred (e.g. - the worldwide flood, the parting of the Red Sea). The belief that the devil exists falls into the latter category. If the Devil (defined as a powerful supernatural being who actively promotes evil in our world) exists, we should expect to observe evils that he has caused - evils that don't have natural explanations. Yet we do not in fact observe any such evils. As far as we can tell, all the evil we see is the result of the operation of natural laws or of human action. Thus, the claim that the Devil exists is contradicted by empirical evidence. This argument against the existence of the Devil isn't original to me, and has been developed in much greater detail by philosophers such as Michael Martin. I briefly summarize it here in response to comments claiming that it is impossible to prove or disprove the Devil's existence.

Of course, it is always possible to argue that the Devil causes various evils and then somehow "disguises" them to make them seem natural. This kind of argument, however, can be used to "prove" that virtually anyone or anything caused the evils in question. For instance, I could argue that Bozo the Clown is the real cause of all the evil in the world and that he has "disguised" its true origins to make it look natural. We rightly reject this argument in the absence of additional evidence that Bozo really did cause all those evils. The same point applies to claims that various seemingly natural evils are attributable to the Devil.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Creationism and Ability to Evaluate Scientific Evidence - Or, How I Caught Myself in a Contradiction:
  2. Should We Hold Belief in Creationism Against Candidates for Political Office?
  3. Palin on Creationism.