Creationism can be invalidated in the eyes of more people by exposing its emotional roots. It's pointless to debate creationists on the specific tenets of their doctrine. Such an approach plays into their defensive strategy and overlooks the source in the psyche of their irrationality.
A Newsweek poll reports this week that 48 percent of the American public rejects the scientific theory of evolution. That’s nearly half the voting public that can’t tell fact from fiction or reality from ideology. In order to save democracy, we’ve got to help these people to evolve.
We can begin by discrediting the pseudo-science known as creationism. This doctrine can be invalidated in the eyes of more people by exposing its emotional roots. It’s pointless to debate creationists on the specific tenets of their doctrine. Such an approach plays into their defensive strategy and overlooks the source in the psyche of their irrationality.
The Christian right is using pseudo-science and mass-marketing techniques as a Trojan horse against reason, journalist and author Chris Hedges argued last week. Obviously, he’s right to be alarmed. And we can go deeper into the issue by asking why the Christian right is so determined to undermine reason.
The danger of creationism, Hedges writes, “is that, like the pseudo-science of Nazi eugenics, it allows facts to be accepted or discarded according to the dictates of a preordained ideology.” Nazi eugenics refers to the doctrine that racial engineering and sterilization can help to create a master race. The doctrine of eugenics was a self-defeating coping strategy that arose following the German people’s collapse into self-doubt, despair, and even self-hatred after their humbling defeat in World War I and their country’s subsequent hyper-inflation and economic depression.
Creationism, which identifies humanity as a master species in God’s image, is also a coping strategy for a poor sense of self. The doctrine contends that human beings are special creations of God who have miraculously bypassed the evolutionary process that shapes all life forms. People embrace this belief as truth because doing so is emotionally satisfying: This belief elevates them in their own eyes. It’s really not about God at all. In a process that is mostly unconscious, these individuals are desperate to feel recognized and validated by something bigger and better than them. God just happens to do the trick. This desperation for recognition arises out of their underdeveloped sense of self. Even their great hunger for salvation is a craving for rescue from such an impoverished experience of self.
Like eugenics, creationism is also self-defeating. Because it is used to cover up psychological issues, it’s a blockage in the path of its adherents’ self-development. If they refuse to believe in the possibility of evolution, they reject knowledge of who and what they are. This obviously limits their potential for growth. They sacrifice their well-being for an ideology: Their self-imposed stagnation becomes their evidence for the falsity of human evolution.
People with a poor sense of self often compensate by convincing themselves that they are superior. This is the mechanism of narcissists, who also have an exceedingly weak sense of self. The doctrine of eugenics, too, was a statement of superiority, induced by self-doubt and self-loathing. Creationists are also eager for some means by which to feel superior. They can feel superior by believing they’re specially chosen by God. They can also convince themselves they are morally superior by condemning the beliefs and actions of humanists, secularists, and liberals. Their “superiority” extends, of course, to all creatures as well as the laws of nature.
Creationists are not usually aware of their unconscious compulsion to doubt and belittle themselves and of the consequences of doing so. Many of them are rural people who experience much of life on the basis of who is superior and who is inferior (a basis for racism, patriarchy, the Rapture, and authoritarianism). They also experience life through judgment of what is good, bad, permissible, and forbidden (a feature of fundamentalism). They believe (resentfully so) that “elitist” liberals consider themselves to be superior. These liberals, so the thinking goes, regard them as inferior. In a tit-for-tat exchange, creationists retaliate by seeing liberals as morally inferior.
In a process known as transference, people are inclined to perceive an attitude or judgment coming from someone else that corresponds with what they’re prepared secretly to feel about themselves. Creationists make of liberals a mirror, and in that mirror they imagine that liberals are looking back at them with the scorn that, deep down, these creationists are secretly feeling about themselves. (On an inner level, the inner critic is very scornful of us when, through self-doubt, we believe we deserve self-criticism for allegedly not having measured up in our expectations, i.e. for success and happiness.)
Creationists writhe like Holly Rollers at the suggestion their belief system is formed by these inner issues. Yet they’re fighting not so much for a specific belief system but to avoid a kind of metaphysical meltdown. Without special standing in God’s eyes, it feels to them they’ll be nothing but pinpricks of consciousness lost in space—without a direction, or a home, or meaning, or substance.
At a level that is barely conscious, these evolutionary stragglers live in terror of losing their myths and doctrines. They have no idea who or what they will be without these support systems that provide focus and hope for their existence. Consequently, reason, the debunker of illusion, is like a terrorist on the prowl.
Developmentally, these stragglers in the march of progress are like children. They’re in terror of being abandoned by God, the way that children can imagine being abandoned by parents. As reason reveals humanity’s need to evolve on our own or to die, they experience a loss of identity. They can’t imagine how to separate from old forms or paradigms without being terrorized by the process.
As more people are enlisted into their belief system, the safer they feel. But the world is changing rapidly. Reality has no use for doctrine or ideology. Science and sophisticated knowledge, along with intelligent and articulate people, are pressing in from all sides. Creationists know at some instinctive level that time is running out. Hence, the more desperate they are—and the more irrational—as they cling to the old.
Making the transition from faith in dogma to belief in the enduring value of one’s own self need not cause more grief than parting with a baby blanket. Mainly, we have to be prepared to examine our beliefs and not become identified with them. It helps to be on the lookout for important knowledge and to believe in our own capacity to figure out the essential things of life as well as anyone else.
An underdeveloped self can be a problem for secularists too, of course. Problems with anger, passivity, addictions, and relationships are consequences of it. The self is the inner richness we accumulate and consolidate as we invest in personal development. To develop the self, we need to be friends with truth, reality, and reason. We need to question and challenge our perceptions and those of others. The self is our inner peacemaker and, by extension, our peacemaker to the world. Without this inner resource and the strength it inspires, options such as violence and military force are more appealing.
Meanwhile, the debate with creationists needs to be expanded on our terms. Their emotionally held positions, developed out of inner weakness, can’t be taken at face value. As we see the roots of their delusion, our insightful responses will hasten, mercifully, their abandonment of that losing cause.
Peter Michaelson is an author, blogger, and psychotherapist in Plymouth, MI. He believes that better understanding of depth psychology reduces the fear, passivity, and denial of citizens, making us more capable of maintaining and growing our democracy while flourishing in our personal life.