Sunday, 7 September 2008

Sarah Palin: Creationist?

The idea seems to have got about the Sarah Palin is an out-and-out Darwin-denying, Genesis-affirming, "young earth" creationist. Perhaps she looks like one: there's a touch of the Tammy Faye about her, she appeals explicitly to small-town anti-intellectualism, she belongs to a church which has been linked to "gay-cure" programmes, she has spoken of American troops being on a "mission from God". So obviously she must believe that the world was made in six days, starting with light and finishing with Eve being moulded from Adam's rib. Stands to reason.

Certainly that seems to be the view in Britain. The very first thing I heard about Sarah Palin - from the BBC's Justin Webb, as it happens - was that she was a creationist. Webb repeated the claim on his blog. "Her creationist views are bound to become an issue," he commented. "Can you really have a president who denies basic truths about the world?"

I don't know. Is George W Bush a creationist? There's at least as much evidence that Bush is a creationist as that Palin is. Possibly more so. But that hasn't stopped Webb mentioning the "c" word every time Palin's name crops up. Nick Cohen in the Observer this morning, in an otherwise excellent article discussing the Left's counterproductive smearing of the vice-presidential nominee, couldn't help suggesting that they might have "gently mocked her idiotic creationism" rather than run with the baby-swapping rumours. Rory Bremner brought it up too, this morning, in his comedy spot on the Andrew Marr show.

So just what is the evidence that Palin is a creationist?

Palin is undoubtedly and unapologetically religious. In an interview she gave to Time Magazine a few weeks ago - when the odds on her nomination were still very long - she described herself as a "Bible-believing Christian", a phrase that often implies some sort of fundamentalism. When asked about her career, she claimed merely to be "seeking the right path that God would have laid out for me." Her views on abortion, too, are crystal clear. The Anchorage Daily News describes her as "about as anti-abortion as a politician can be." She chose to carry a Down's syndrome child, may have brought pressure to bear on her own pregnant daughter to keep her baby - choices she would deny to other women and other families. She is on record as opposing abortion in all circumstances except where the life of the mother is in imminent danger. On the other hand, she doesn't seem to have done much since becoming governor of Alaska to advance her pro-life agenda.

On creationism, however, the picture is far less clear-cut. During a debate in 2006 among candidates for governor, she distinguished herself from her opponents, who both stated that Darwinian evolution should be taught exclusively in schools. Palin took the position that "both sides" in the "evolution debate" should be presented in the classroom:


Teach both. You know, don't be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it's so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both."


This immediately raised suspicions of creationism by the back door, because the "teach the debate" argument is a favourite ploy of anti-Darwinists. It sounds fair and balanced; it puts defenders of evolution on the defensive, making them appear afraid of honest argument. "Teaching the debate" only makes sense, however, if there is a debate to teach; otherwise it is simply a way of smuggling religous dogma into the classroom.

Creationism and Darwinian evolution aren't competing theories, any more than flat-earthism and round-earthism are competing theories. The only reason that the "debate" exists is that there is a creationist movement. Well-funded, persistent, motivated slowly by religious dogma, they raise endless specious and misleading debating-points and then claim that this amounts to doubts about evolution. If there were sufficient people, with sufficient money, who believed with religious certainty that the world is a flat disc and that the sun moved across the roof of heaven every day (and that is the incontrovertible meaning of several passages in Genesis) then there would be a "debate" about that, too, and the flat-earthers would be demanding that that "debate" were taught in schools.

That point is, however, often lost on politicians, who know that there is a constituency of the ill-educated or the willfully ignorant who consider creationism to be a part of their "faith". The position is further complicated by the modern pseudo-science of "intelligent design", which puts itself forward as a scientific theory. To those who know little of science, it can seem superficially scientific. It is thus possible to be in favour of "teaching the debate" without actually being oneself a creationist.

Sarah Palin was questioned more closely about her views on creationism a couple of days after the debate. She then seemed to deny that she did want to introduce creationism into the school curriculum. Rather, she said that she didn't "think there should be a prohibition against debate if it comes up in class," but that it "doesn't have to be part of the curriculum". Religion was not "a litmus test", she added. She was more interested in gas pipelines. In her answers to personal questions, a degree of ambiguity persisted. She did believe in a creator, but "I'm not going to pretend I know how all this came to be". Her father had been a science teacher; they had had discussions when she was a child about "his theories" of evolution: "He would show us fossils and say, 'How old do you think these are?' "

The most that can be gleaned from this exchange is that Sarah Palin might believe in some version of intelligent design as a possibility, but that she doesn't know for sure. Call this unforgiveable scientific ignorance if you like; blame her father, perhaps, for not being as persuasive as Richard Dawkins when it came to putting forth the incontrovertible proof of natural selection before his daughter's eyes. But a true creationist would have no such doubts. A true creationist would know "how all this came to be"; because it explains it all so clearly in the Book of Genesis.

Incidentally, the creationist website Answers in Genesis, which might be expected to be positively ecstatic at the prospect of a creationist on the Republican ticket, is rather cautious about Palin's stance on the issue. AiG acknowledges that Wasilla Bible Church, which Palin attends, "seems to have a theologically conservative statement of faith", although it "is not precise about how it stands regarding taking the creation account of Genesis literally". AiG also interprets Palin's remarks as showing "a willingness to express her doubts about the scientific validity of evolution" - which I think is pushing it too far. However, they go on, "caution needs to be exercised ... before confidently declaring her to be a biblical young-earth creationist." AiG wasn't even satisfied with Governor Mick Huckabee, who publicly stated that he does not believe in evolution, yet afterwards "made it clear that he did not necessarily want to be identified with young-earth creationism". Palin hasn't gone nearly so far.

Answers in Genesis concludes that it will "continue to seek out additional comments from Gov. Palin regarding her beliefs on creation/evolution." Such comments are, however, most unlikely to be forthcoming, especially now that Palin has gone into pre-election purdah. So we're left with her past remarks. Given her childhood fossil-hunting trips with her dad, I would be amazed if she actually were a full-blown creationist. Her view is likely to be closer to the fudge beloved of many religious believers, that God gave evolution an occasional nudge in the right direction.

Even if Palin did turn out to be a creationist, it wouldn't in itself affect her day-to-day ability to make decisions. It's perfectly possible to be under the influence of an absurd delusion and yet function adequately in day-to-day life. In any case, she has proved herself a breathtakingly effective political operator. Given the astonishing amount of evidence that has been unearthed about her family, her utterances and her actions in the past week or so, however, it's likely that if she had made an unambiguous statement of creationism it would have come out by now. And she's so outspoken on other issues that such a statement might be expected to exist.

Apart from anything else, belief in creationism implies either profound ignorance or remarkable self-deception. I prefer to be give Sarah Palin - and anyone else for that matter - the benefit of the doubt.

3 comments:

valdemar said...

Sarah Palin: Politician? Yes, and therefore she will hint, or fudge on creationism. She will say enough to get the god 'n' guns votes in. I'd hazard a guess that she doesn't care much about scientific theories either way.

The Heresiarch said...

My thoughts exactly. But the constant description of Palin as a creationist seems a particular feature of the liberal British media. Jackie Ashley trotted it out again this morning in the Guardian. I suspect that being able to dismiss her as a creationist plays to their prejudice about redneck American idiots.

valdemar squelch said...

I suspect you're right. It's probably trivial compared to a lot of the other stuff. I eagerly await the revelation that she has had extra-marital naughties, or tried to have at least one of her daughters' boyfriends run over by a snowplough. I note there are already rumblings about funding of her gubernatorial campaign.