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Does Fear Make Creationism or Intelligent Design Seem More Attractive?

A study was published recently that claimed to show a correlation between fear of mortality and susceptibility to Intelligent Design arguments. Michael Dunn at Modern School has explained the shortcomings of the experiment and problems of facile interpretations of the results, so I’ll let you read what he says rather than parroting it here.

The study focused specifically on evoking thoughts about mortality, which in itself is a pretty interesting idea. I doubt anyone consciously would recognize a connection between fear of their own death and specific views with regard to evolution, which of course says nothing about whether such a connection exists. Certainly based on personal conversations with Creationists, there is a definite undercurrent of…well, anxiety is probably the wrong word, but certainly an understandable reluctance to consider the implications of abandoning a fundamentalist view. To paraphrase the words of one man I talked with, if you begin to doubt the literal truth of a single word of the Bible, you open yourself up to doubting a lot more than that.

I’ve taught at two different religiously-affiliated liberal arts colleges, and attended a third. Although the student bodies in all three cases were too varied to lump together, there are a significant number of fundamentalist or at least very conservative evangelical students at each school. A lot of them actually seem to dislike their religion classes more than science classes—they know the science professors would be teaching them evolution and cosmology and other things not approved of, but they really dislike hearing what religious scholars had to say. It’s kind of frightening if you are taught to be 100% certain (even a tiny bit of doubt can be a problem!) and then find out that biblical scholarship isn’t very consistent with a fundamentalist viewpoint. After all, there are two distinct creation stories in Genesis: the “6 day” story, which starts in Genesis 1:1 with a grammatically-incomplete sentence in the original Hebrew, with humans being created on the 6th day (no mention of how many people or of men being created before women); and the “Garden of Eden” story starting in Genesis 2, where Adam is created before the animals, who are created before Eve. The stories are not only different in character, but they use different names for God and are linguistically dissimilar, showing different origins. And that’s just the first three chapters of the first book!

I don’t know whether fear of death in particular is a motivation for being a Creationist (whether young-Earth or Intelligent Design), but it does seem that a literalist approach could provide some buffer against existential fear in general. After all, scholarship leads to a realization that the world is a messy place; science reveals that our species is a late arrival on a tiny, ancient planet in an almost unbelievably old and vast cosmos. If humans and other living things were designed—and science can demonstrate that—then there’s no need to worry about some of the thornier questions raised by evolution. (Unfortunately for those who want that kind of comfort, Intelligent Design is not a true scientific theory.) Another interpretation, however, is that our universe is a vast and beautiful place, and its hostility to life is just a fact without any need to anthropomorphize it. We don’t need science to provide meaning—that’s not what it’s designed to do. Things can and do appear frightening at times, and those of us who write about or teach science can address that, partly as reassurance that the search for personal meaning isn’t fruitless (in my opinion at least!). Last but not least, there are plenty of religious people who are able to reconcile the scientific view of the universe with faith, or in the very least understand the essential tension and recognize that while the answers may not be easy, the solution isn’t to pretend they are just to calm the fear.

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