Many immigrants like me find it hard to believe that America, home to some of the world’s greatest scientists like Albert Einstein and Linus Pauling, has once again been questioning the science of evolution.
Like most Indian children of the post-independence generation, I grew up believing that science, not God, was to be my savior from the tradition, poverty, and ignorance that had plagued the lives of my ancestors.
So I studied physics and dreamt of a career at NASA. My friends became doctors and biologists. Our Prime Minister Nehru spoke of science and technology transforming a superstitious India into a secular state driven by the green revolution, a technically savvy workforce, and multitude of research institutions.
Hindu ritual and mythology surrounded us, of course, but the separation of religion and science was driven in modern India as much by necessity as political philosophy.
The same happened in many Asian countries like China and Japan.
Creationism therefore first dawned on the consciousness of millions of non-Christians like me in the 1980s, when American fundamentalists began to wage political crusades in the courts. Most people of my generation internationally were not aware of the Scopes trial of 1925 in Tennessee about the teaching of evolution in schools. I myself would never have learned of it, had it not been for my son’s eighth-grade curriculum, which, two years ago, included the play, Inherit the Wind, based on the trial.
Several silly questions plagued me as I pondered creationism. How did you explain the creation of Hindus and Muslims? Why did the Christian God not send the messiah down earlier than 2,000 years ago so that all of the world would have been enlightened at the same time?
Most importantly, if I didn’t believe in Genesis, did I exist?
What of other theories of creation, I wondered. The Vedas allege, for example, that there was first the primordial sea, which made a golden egg from which sprang Prajapati, a divine Brahmin, whose voice created the earth, the sky, and the seasons.
The Quran states that the world was created in six days, not seven.
American creationists did not worry about such matters, because, thanks to their parochialism, they were scarcely aware of the existence of the rest of the world, let alone a faith called Hinduism.
The Christian right coined the theory of intelligent design in the wake of its defeat in 1987 at the hands of the Supreme Court in Edwards v. Arkansas, which prohibited the teaching of creationism in American schools.
Not coincidentally, attempts to connect science and religion gathered a frenzied pace worldwide. Vedic scientists began to allege that ancient Hindu scriptures had predicted nuclear reactions, quantum mechanics, and the theory of relativity. Muslim pseudo-scientists attempted to demonstrate that the Big Bang and the Quranic theory of creation were one and the same thing.
Today, as a global villager, I worry that, if we are still arguing religion versus science in the courts well into the 21st century, can we be far away from a day when we will be pitting one religion against another?
In the post-9/11 era, the world is watching us. Americans can no longer pursue their parochialism as single- mindedly as before. Any sign of religious fanaticism in this technological nation may be seen around the world today as an invitation for further extremism on the parts of other faiths.
If Americans, who rely on microwaves, television, and computers in their daily lives, allege that the bacterial flagellum, which has a propeller, a motor, and a drive shaft, was made by some Intelligent Designer (read God), as Dr. Behe claimed during the intelligent design trial, what is to prevent a Hindu fundamentalist from alleging that the origin of the beautiful peacock in India proves beyond reasonable doubt that the Intelligent Designer was a Hindu?
Alas, most American Christians view their own religious beliefs as rational while considering many Muslims and Hindus as fanatics.
I welcomed therefore the recent decision of Judge John E. Jones in a Pennsylvania court rejecting the Dover School District’s policy to teach intelligent design as the explanation for life on earth in its science classes.
If America is to be a moral leader in educating the world in enlightened notions such as equality, freedom, and democracy, as George Bush claims, these enlightened ideas must also extend to the separation of religion and science as well as religion and politics.
Americans must not follow a double standard when it comes to religious fanaticism.
Or else we must tolerate the risk that a parent might sue a school district tomorrow over its failure to include an alternative history track teaching that the Vedic society was much older than Mesopotamia and therefore the cradle of civilization, as some Hindu scientists allege.
We must tolerate the risk that some Muslim extremists might insist on the inclusion of an alternative interpretation of Islam in textbooks on comparative religion teaching that jihad, exemplified in suicide bombings, ensures the perpetrator’s entry into heaven.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. A collection of her writings can be found at www.saritasarvate.com.