I’m in the Washington Post’s book review blog today, offering my take on a chapter from conservative pundit S.E. Cupp’s forthcoming book. I haven’t seen anything but the 4th chapter (“Thou Shalt Evolve”), but the book as a whole seems like an odd project. Not least that a book titled Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media’s Attack on Christianity would be penned by a self-described atheist. In other words, when the title calls it “our religion,” she isn’t including herself.
I first learned of Cupp’s existence in January, from a Salon.com profile which presented her as a possible bright light among the otherwise dim bulbs of conservative punditry. Kate Harding called Cupp:
one of the latest young, white conservative women to make a career of saying inflammatory things while looking really pretty. … [M]y own investigation … suggests she is indeed smarter and more interesting than your average conservative pundit. …
For one thing, she can write, and she’s genuinely funny.… She seems to be a fan of my favorite novelist, Nick Hornby, and he’s publicly called her “charming.” …
She’s smart. She’s funny. She’s charming. She’s honest enough at least to admit she doesn’t believe in a god and (in the second video below) to give George Bush, of whom she’s “a fan,” only a C grade on fiscal responsibility and cutting taxes. But then she gives him a B+ on limited government, which … what? What?
So I was intrigued to see her book. I assumed it’d be funny, smart, and charming. I expected it to be honest and open to the concerns of non-theists even as she bizarrely defends Christianity from them.
Post editor Steven Levingston quotes Cupp:
The thrust of Cupp’s argument is summed up in her introduction in which she says the American media, “with careful, covert nudges from the Obama administration,” are leading a revolution. “This revolution, already in full throttle around the country,” she writes, “is being waged against you and me and every other American, and its goal is simple: to overthrow God, and silence Christian America for good.”
Again, Cupp is an atheist. A war waged against “Christian America” is not waged against her (“me” in that last quotation), nor would it harm her or any atheist should this revolution successfully “overthrow God.” This contradiction runs throughout what I’ve seen of her book and indeed her other writings. In an interview with CSPAN where she explains her views, she says that she’s an atheist who wants to be a theist, and maunders about how awesome it would be to have religious faith. I have no words for the ways this makes no sense. It’s one thing to be an atheist who finds value in the social context of a church, and quite a few nontheists go to church for exactly that reason. But there’s no barrier keeping her from believing if she things belief is superior to nonbelief. Just do it! She lives in Manhattan. There are lots of churches to test drive there.
In the same video, she states that she’s pro-evolution, that she thinks the science is solid and she has no quarrels there.
You wouldn’t know it from reading her book, though.
She opens the chapter on evolution by citing polls in which Americans reject evolution. That a mere 40% accept evolution is, she insists “not exactly a ringing endorsement of Charles Darwin’s chef d’oeuvre, On the Origin of Species.” More precisely, it’s irrelevant to the scientific merits of evolution. First, because public opinion doesn’t make science true or false; second, because American public opinion doesn’t make science true or false. Lots of countries, including lots of religious countries, accept evolution by wide margins. But she just goes on, obsessing over how many Americans reject evolution, as if that mattered to what deserves to be in science classes. (At one points, she awkwardly insists that the 44% of people who reject evolution are “not a minority”) Regardless, America is divided over whether lasers work by focusing sound waves, and whether electrons are smaller than atoms. That doesn’t undermine the places of atomic theory and optical theory in the science curriculum. Cupp says that creationism is a “counter-argument,” but never says what it argues, nor does she evaluate the scientific argument being countered. It’s embarrassingly ham-fisted. Not even anti-intellectual, her approach is simply unintelligible.
My piece at the Post lays out my major objections, but there were a few things which didn’t make it into that review which may interest more obsessive observers of the creationism wars. For instance, she expends much angst over reporters’ decision not to call Disco. ‘Tute executive Stephen Meyer a “scientist.” But he isn’t. His doctorate is in history and philosophy of science, and while she notes that he was a professor when the article she criticizes came out, he was not a professor in any scientific field. He is not and was not a scientist. That reporters don’t call him one is not evidence of bias. The only problem would be if they did call him a scientist.
It’s hard to decide which section is strangest, but her treatment of the Kitzmiller trial may take the cake. She put more effort into it than any other, even interviewing two of the creationist school board members. She allows that the trial itself was fair, and seems untroubled by its result, but insists that media coverage displayed a liberal bias. She objects to reporting on creationist comments about America being a “Christian nation,” as if they were merely observations on the nation’s demographics. In fact, the speakers were rejecting the existence of what Cupp describes as “the rightly imposed division of church and state.” School board member Bill Buckingham endorsed the creationist policy by asserting, “This country was founded on Christianity and our students should be taught as such,” later adding, “Nowhere in the Constitution does it call for a separation of church and state.” He also explained his motivation by observing, “someone died on a cross 2,000 years ago, and it’s time someone stood up for him.” These would be some of the “rash religious statements that don’t hold up in court,” a reporter’s description which causes Cupp unexplained umbrage.
Cupp insists that Buckingham “was forced to move [from Dover, PA] due to the hostile reaction to his position, which was simply that evolution should be balanced with something else in school, like intelligent design or creationism.” As the quote above shows, that wasn’t quite his position. Buckingham spawned the crisis in Dover by blocking the necessary purchase of new textbooks unless a religious – and therefore unconstitutional – policy was adopted. His insistence on this unconstitutional path and his hostility to other board members drove them to resign in protest, and his lies under oath (in the words of the court) both prolonged the trial and increased its cost to the township. If that weren’t enough to chill his relationship with his neighbors, he publicly explained that his move was driven in part by his struggles with drug addiction.
Cupp also talks with Heather Geesey, who insists “I still don’t think people understand everything that really happened.” Geesey, you’ll recall, was the witness who had this charming interaction with the judge over her ever-shifting story:
THE COURT: I have a question before you step down, Mrs. Geesey, because I’m confused.
THE WITNESS: So am I.
THE COURT: Well, it’s more important that I’m not confused than you’re not confused.
These were two of the least credible witnesses in the Dover trial, two witnesses who were referred to the US Attorney for perjury charges because of their testimony. And remember, Cupp doesn’t actually think they are right, either in their religious views, in their quest to push religion using government policy, nor in their rejection of evolution! Yet she cannot manage even to mention that one of them appears constitutionally clueless (identifying her profession, during testimony in federal court, as “full-time mommy”) and the other blamed his memory lapses on Oxycontin addiction. Could Cupp have feared bringing that up might get her on Rush Limbaugh’s bad side?
Cupp dismisses discussion of evolution’s scientific merits in the press because “suggesting evolution is complicated, but has the unwavering imprimatur of the scientific community, is another way of saying faith and science are incompatible and believers are on the losing side of the argument.” Again, try to remember that Cupp herself thinks evolution is just fine, and that elsewhere she criticizes the media for failing to acknowledge pro-evolution theists like Francis Collins. So there’s simply no way she actually believes that sentence. She knows that evolution is good science. And she knows that saying so need not require a rejection of Christianity. If the quibbles Cupp hammers throughout the book count as “anti-Christian,” what are we to make of whoppers like this, which ignores the 12,000 signers of the Clergy Letter Project and the support for evolution from ecclesiastical bodies of Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Unitarian, and Congregationalist denominations? Would it be fair to hoist her by her own petard and call this misrepresentation anti-Christian? Yes, but barely.
In any event, Cupp is ultimately smart enough to see that her unprincipled support for letting any and all views into classrooms (without any evaluation of the merits of those views) could just as easily be used to bring in Holocaust denial or other nonsense. So to explain why she thinks nonsense like creationism belongs in science classes but nonsense like Holocaust denial does not, she explains creationism is “not a conspiracy theory,” and “half the American population believes it.” The latter is, again, irrelevant. The first is also irrelevant, but it isn’t even true. Cupp’s own defense of creationism consists of 20 pages seeking (unsuccessfully) to document a conspiracy by left-leaning journalists bent on suppressing religion. The notion that their ideas are being suppressed by a secretive cabal of scientists, atheists, and liberal journalists is a staple of creationist writings, just as secret cabals of Jews are a staple of what Cupp acknowledges to be “conspiracy theories.” It is only because of this conspiracy – creationists insist – that evidence for a global flood, a 6,000 year old earth, the recent origin of all life, the explanation for radioisotope datings, etc., is not widely known and accepted. How does this shadowy conspiracy work? By firing people from jobs they never lost or never had, by demanding actual data to support comforting notions, by refusing to allow “then a miracle happened” as a scientific explanation, etc. If a theory rooted in conspiracy can’t be called “conspiracy theory,” what can?
The argument she makes which most nearly grapples with reality is that American rejection of evolution occurs despite “evolution ha[ving] been taught exclusively in biology classes for thirty years.” It’s a serious issue and one worth discussing. As someone who herself thinks evolution is good science, she should find it troubling. But there are, of course problems in her assumption that, over the last 30 years at least, Americans have carefully considered the evidence and rejected it on its merits. Regardless of the court rulings (which she cites) against laws requiring “equal time” for creationism and evolution, there is no guarantee that teachers will cover evolution, and many teachers are unaware of the unconstitutionality of teaching creationism or simply choose to ignore the nation’s highest law. Some polls are worth citing: a survey in 2008 found that one high school science teacher in eight spends at least an hour presenting creationism as good science. Even when evolution is covered, teachers spend too little time on it. A third of teachers spend less than 5 hours on evolution, and fewer than half spend more than 10 hours on it. This is far too little time to cover a concept without which, to quote the great evolutionary biology (and devout Christian) Theodosius Dobzhansky, “nothing in biology makes sense.” A 2005 study by the National Science Teachers Association found that 30% of teachers face pressure to teach creationism, and an equal number report pressure simply to skip lessons on evolution. In that context, and given the massive PR campaign by creationists which undermines these teachers’ efforts, it is simply absurd to claim that students are receiving the sort of thorough presentation of evolution which would allow them to make an informed assessment of the field. But I bet that lots of prospective calculus students wish this standard for removing something from the curriculum were more widely accepted.
The real question, though, is why Cupp even bothered writing the chapter. She supports evolution and is not religious. She has no reason to weigh in on the theological dispute between Christian denominations about whether Christianity opposes evolution, nor does her majoritarian stance require her to follow this course. Public polling shows that most non-fundamentalist Christians support evolution, and there’s no need for her to side with the fundamentalists. Nor is it necessary for her advancement as a conservative pundit. David Brooks, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and John Derbyshire are a few of the prominent conservatives who have backed evolution and called out creationism. However small that group, it’s not bad company. And positioning herself there would have the advantages of allowing her to be more honest about her views, and leaving fewer competitors in her rise through the ranks of conservative punditry.
She could’ve done a real service there, too. There are plenty of atheist conservatives out there, and plenty of theist conservatives who could do with a bit of education about the value of separation of church and state, not to mention education about how to be sensitive to community members who don’t believe in any god (or who just have a different god they prefer). Her’s is a smart young conservative voice, and it’s a voice that comes from the sort of body people tend to pay attention to. Which means she could help people like herself, normalize atheism in the broader culture and shift conservatism in a healthier direction.
Instead, she gives every evidence of selling out her own beliefs, and all the conservative atheists who might’ve hoped someone out there would speak for them.