How Far Should the Creationist Purge Go?

Is a creationist historian worse than a socialist one? That’s the question science pundit Jerry Coyne is not asking. But he should be.

The 1941 report from the Guardians of American Education. Does Prof. Coyne really want to join this team?

The 1941 report from the Guardians of American Education. Does Prof. Coyne really want to join this team?

Like a lot of people, I’m a fan of Jerry Coyne. His tenacious attacks on all things religious are witty and smart. But in this case, his historical short-sightedness has caused him to blunder into dangerous terrain.

Here’s the story: In his continuing campaign against creationism, Coyne and his allies have singled out the creationist activism of Professor Emerson T. McMullen. McMullen teaches history classes at Georgia Southern University. Based on Coyne’s evidence, it does seem as if McMullen injects a good deal of proselytization into his classes.

McMullen teaches classes about the history of science and evolution. And, as one student noted in her evaluation, he gives extra credit if students attend religious films. As she warned, “most of it is trying to convert you, but hey, free points!”

Coyne and his allies in the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote to the administration of Georgia Southern. They urged GSU to “investigate” McMullen’s teaching. They did not object to teaching about religious views, especially in a history class, but they did object to McMullen’s practice of pushing those views on students.

This presents us with a difficult question: How far do we want to go in purging creationists from college faculties? We agree that McMullen’s teaching seems to cross over into preaching. But there are a couple of ominous historical parallels that Professor Coyne seems to dismiss too breezily.

So, first, as Coyne and Co. acknowledge, there is no constitutional ban on teaching religion in publicly funded schools. As Justice Tom Clark made clear in his landmark 1963 opinion in the Schempp case,

Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.

As Justice Clark specified, and as Professor Coyne acknowledged, the issue is not the teaching of religion, but the preaching of religion. As subsequent SCOTUS rulings have specified, public schools must not lend their imprimatur to religious preaching by either students or teachers. McMullen seems to be doing more than teaching about creationism. He appears to be using his authority as a teacher—dispensing grades and extra credit—to encourage students to repeat creationist-friendly ideas.

Does this mean we should actively “investigate” all such teaching? That universities have a constitutional duty to get rid of any professors or classes that move from teaching about religious ideas to preaching the ideas themselves? I think not, for two reasons.

First, university teaching is fundamentally different from K-12 teaching. The SCOTUS decisions about teaching and preaching have mostly dealt with younger students at public schools. Though Georgia Southern is a school that receives tax funding, its status as a university makes it a substantially different case from a high school, middle school, or elementary. The main issue in the Schempp verdict was that school prayer was something students could not evade. Such students were coerced, in effect, into listening to preaching. If, like the young Schempp himself, they have a pass to leave the classroom during prayers, they are still singled out by that action.  In contrast, students in college have enormous freedom to select classes. The faculties, in most cases, are much broader and more diverse. In most public high schools, students are assigned to a teacher without much input. In college, on the other hand, students put together their own schedules.

More important, Coyne doesn’t seem to grasp the tradition he would be joining if his McMullen campaign were successful, though Coyne nods to the importance of academic freedom. As I detail in my upcoming book, conservatives have conducted similar campaigns against leftist professors for decades. I doubt Professor Coyne wants to open up universities to allegations and investigations of ideologically suspicious professors.

In 1941, for example, a group of conservative leaders from the American Legion and the Advertising Federation of America teamed up to encourage Coyne-like investigations of college professors. Their main target was Professor Harold Rugg of Teachers College, Columbia University.

Should we guard the gate?

Should we guard the gate?

As the Guardians of American Education, they investigated Rugg’s teaching. They polled students and obtained copies of syllabi and course descriptions. One of Rugg’s courses, they alleged, featured what they called the “denial of certain natural and inalienable rights of man.” They gave specific examples of the way Rugg used his position as a professor to proselytize. On page 59 of Rugg’s syllabus for a course in Educational Foundations, for instance, Rugg pushed students to “admit the far too rottenness in our social, political, and financial life.”

Is this the sort of club Professor Coyne wants to join? In his earlier campaign against Eric Hedin at Ball State, Coyne alienated allies such as PZ Myers and Larry Moran. Both Moran and Myers thought that Coyne had gone too far in ignoring the sometimes-uncomfortable need to respect academic freedom. And that case was stronger than this one, since Hedin was teaching intelligent design as if it were mainstream science.

So, back to our main question: How far do we want to go to punish professors for their views? What should we do?

The purge is not the right approach. Instead, we should follow the model of Portland parents. When secular parents found out about preaching in an after-school club, they did not shut the club down. They couldn’t. The “Good News Club” had every constitutional right to do what it was doing. But the Portland parents realized that free speech and academic freedom cut both ways. They conducted a campaign to warn their fellow parents about the activities of the Good News Clubs.

That should be our model here. We do not want to slide into witch hunts and creationist-baiting. We do not want to encourage universities to investigate and purge faculty for their beliefs. Instead, we can let students at Georgia Southern know what goes on in McMullen’s classes. The publicity campaign should not be targeted at the administration of Georgia Southern, but rather at its students.

How far do we want to go in purging professors? In this case, Coyne goes too far.

Creationism Comes to College Campus

Quick: what university would you think most likely to host a big creationism conference? Bob Jones? Liberty? Cedarville? How about Michigan State?

Viviane Callier of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science Insider reports that, yes, Michigan State will be hosting a big creationist conference this weekend. The Origin Summit will host four speakers about such issues as the Evolution-Hitler connection and the weakness of the Big Bang Theory. The organizers have invited MSU philosopher Robert Pennock to debate and targeted MSU’s Richard Lenski. So far, Lenski and Pennock have ignored them.

Powered by the Gish Gallop?

Powered by the Gish Gallop?

Pennock, also known as “Darwin’s Border Collie” (get it?), has been a leading anti-creationist voice in the academy. Most famously, his expert testimony in the Dover Intelligent-Design case tore apart the scientific pretensions of ID theorists. And Lenski has attracted attention for his long-term evolution study using E. Coli bacteria.

It seems that the organizers of the Origin Summit targeted Michigan State as the home of such prominent anti-creationists. After all, one of the four morning workshops promises to explain specifically how Lenski’s research will bear no fruit.

But that’s not what the organizers will tell you. At least, it’s not what they told Viviane Callier. Mike Smith, the group’s executive director, said they planned to host similar meetings at pluralistic campuses nationwide. The target, Smith explained, is the student body. Many of them may never have heard the message of creationism. “Once students realize they’re created beings,” Smith told Callier, “and not the product of natural selection, they’re much more open to the Gospel, to the message of God’s love & forgiveness.”

This is what Smith’s group describes as their “backdoor strategy.” Too many students, the group warns, have been “brainwashed with the Darwinian dogma while the state refuses any mention of Creation whatsoever.” Their plan is to let students hear the creation gospel, hoping that “many, for the first time ever, [will discover] that the Bible is true.”

The question everyone’s asking is this: How will Michigan State scientists respond? Should they inform students of the scientific baselessness of creationist claims? Or should they use humor to deflate the conference? So far, the MSU community has decided that the best response is no response.

Lenski hopes the “summit” will turn out to be nothing more than “another forgettable blip in the long history of antiscience, antievolution screeds.” And best of all, the university itself has welcomed the meeting. As one official put it,

Free speech is at the heart of academic freedom and is something we take very seriously. Any group, regardless of viewpoint, has the right to assemble in public areas of campus or petition for space to host an event so long as it does not engage in disorderly conduct or violate rules. While MSU is not a sponsor of the creation summit, MSU is a marketplace of free ideas.

Hear, hear! There is nothing violent or threatening about this meeting. There is no reason any pluralist university should not welcome such dissenting ideas into their communities.

Only Religious Colleges Can Still Do It

Higher-ed types have a deskful of crises to pick from.  There’s the sexual-assault crisis, the student-debt crisis, the MOOC crisis.  One of the biggest of these crises doesn’t seem to attract its share of attention, though it threatens a bigger transformation of higher education than any of the rest.  And when it comes to this crisis, Christopher Noble of Asuza Pacific University suggests that only religious college might have the solution.

The crisis we’re talking about is the crisis in the humanities.  As Noble notes in the Chronicle of Higher Education, fewer and fewer students are signing up as English majors, or philosophy majors, or history majors.  The reasons aren’t too hard to find.  These days, a college degree is an increasingly expensive document.  And young people want to make sure that their work will turn into a well-paid job.  That’s not a guarantee with an English degree, the way it might be with a chemistry degree or engineering degree.

But Noble offers a ray of hope.  Many secular students these days are fully literate in a verbal culture, not a print culture.  For such students, Noble reflects, the humanities might rightly seem “obsolete.”  But this is not true of conservative religious students.  Those students, Noble argues, are hard-wired to embrace the humanities.  As Noble puts it,

Suppose . . . that there existed a large group of middle-class and upper-middle-class prospective customers in the educational marketplace who shared an intense prior commitment, consciously or not, to the obsolete textual worldview. That group of customers already believes, before ever setting foot in a classroom, that a ragamuffin set of ancient texts, a collection of dissonant poetic voices in unfamiliar languages, holds the key to human meaning.

Suppose further that those customers come to learn how much humanistic study will improve their facility with ancient texts. Envision consumers for whom hermeneutical skill and ancient wisdom, rather than technical expertise, constitute the nonnegotiables of a college education. Imagine a “people of the book” in the era of the book’s demise. Such is the condition of observant Muslims, Jews, and Christians in developed countries today.

Could it be true?  Could conservative religious colleges provide not only a religious haven, but a haven for the humanities?  If so, as Professor Mark Bauerlein of Emory University has pointed out, we’ll have to recognize the painful historical irony.  Bauerlein concludes with some satisfaction that many secular humanities professors are in fact

aggressively secular,  hostile to any expression of faith outside church and home. . . . If the humanities spring from a religious impulse, or at least need it to thrive, then the irreligious, irreverent postures of humanities professors are suicidal.

Certainly, following this logic, it seems that secularizing scholars might have eaten their own tails.  But is that really the case?  Aren’t there plenty of wholly secular reasons why some students will continue to embrace the humanities?

In my case, my interest in vigorously secular thinkers led me backwards.  Because I wanted to understand Sartre, I had to read Heidegger.  And because I wanted to understand Heidegger, I went back to Hegel.  And Hegel didn’t make much sense until I had spent time with Kant, Descartes, and Spinoza.

In my case, at least, none of my appetite for studying the humanities came from a religious impulse.  Not consciously, at least.  Am I the odd duck?  Or are Bauerlein and Noble simply hoping against hope for some ratification of their love for conservative religious colleges?

Rubio’s College Fix: Make Students Profitable

Vouchers. Charters. Conservatives these days like to offer “market” solutions to school problems. In the pre-run-up to the 2016 presidential contest, Florida Senator Marco Rubio is offering a market fix for college students: Sell shares in yourself.

Of course, not every conservative is a free-marketeer. “Traditionalist” conservatives (for good examples, check out the Imaginative Conservative or the American Conservative) decry the dehumanizing effect of ruthless commodification. But there has been a long tradition in these United States of tying traditional values to an apotheosis of the free market.

In education, the most influential voice for marketization has been the late Milton Friedman. As he remembered in the 1980s, when he started advocating vouchers, it was “far out of the mainstream.” But by the twenty-first century, such market ideas had become dominant. Parents should all have the right to choose the right school for their children, Friedman insisted. The only reason they could not, he wrote, was because self-interested teachers’ unions had seized control of education and forced an “excess of conformity.”

Rubio’s plan expands on this principle. In a recent talk organized by the National Journal, Rubio worried that the “American dream” of college education has become unaffordable for many. The danger, Rubio warns, is an increasing opportunity gap between those who have advanced education and those who do not. His plan will help narrow that gap by making it possible for everyone to go to college. Our “new economy,” he says, is still working with a higher-ed system built for the “old economy.”

Sell yourselves, students...

Sell yourselves, students…

Tuition costs have shot up far faster than the rest of the economy. Students from less-affluent backgrounds have been forced out of college, or saddled with impossibly huge debt burdens. Colleges are getting fat on these hefty tuition bills, largely financed by federal student loans. And, according to Senator Rubio, many “high-skilled, high-paying industries suffer from a shortage of labor.”

His solution? Among other ideas, Rubio wants students to sell shares in themselves. Instead of borrowing a fixed amount, students could promise investors, say, four percent of their earnings for ten years after graduation. Students might end up paying far more than they borrowed. Or they might pay less. But that is all part of the promise and peril of the market.

As Rubio notes, this will pusher higher education in “practical” directions. It will push students to pursue “the right degree, geared toward the right industry.” Not a lot of investors will jump at the chance to invest in a philosophy major. But students in “engineering, health services and education,” Rubio thinks, will be a good bet.

There are plenty of conservatives, I think, who would be aghast at this marketization plan. The purpose of education, many conservatives insist, is to humanize.

Rubio’s brand of conservatism is different. He wants to let the market work its magic.

Christianity Kicked Out of Public Universities

Ball State University doesn’t want any more attention. It has been the subject of a nationwide campaign by pundits who were shocked—shocked!—to hear that one professor spoke kindly of intelligent design. But my current work in the archives at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College shows me just how dramatically things have changed in the past fifty years.

You may remember the intelligent-design case. In mid-2013, Eric Hedin was accused of larding his class with religious content. The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation complained, and eventually Ball State’s president announced that religious ideas must not be taught as part of science classes.

Hedin’s use of religious themes became objectionable for two reasons. Mainly, observers complained that he was presenting religious ideas as if they were scientific. But Ball State University was also criticized as a public school using taxpayer dollars to favor one religious group.

According to Jerry Coyne, when Ball State President Jo Ann M. Gora made her announcement that religious ideas should not be taught as science, she emphasized both of these notions. Intelligent design should not be taught as science, Gora told the Ball State community, since

Intelligent design is overwhelmingly deemed by the scientific community as a religious belief and not a scientific theory. Therefore, intelligent design is not appropriate content for science courses.

But Gora specified that even if such religious ideas were taught as part of humanities courses, they must only be taught as ideas, not as dogma. That is, even non-science classes could not teach religious ideas as true, but only as history or literature. As Gora put it,

Discussions of intelligent design and creation science can have their place at Ball State in humanities or social science courses. However, even in such contexts, faculty must avoid endorsing one point of view over others. . . . As a public university, we have a constitutional obligation to maintain a clear separation between church and state. It is imperative that even when religious ideas are appropriately taught in humanities and social science courses, they must be discussed in comparison to each other, with no endorsement of one perspective over another.

Things have changed. As I’ve dug through the archives here at the Billy Graham Center, I’ve come across an intriguing historical coda to the Eric Hedin story. These days, professors at Ball State may not teach religious ideas as science. They may not even teach any single religious idea as history or literature.

But as late as 1957, Ball State University—like many other public universities—taught evangelical Protestantism explicitly and purposefully. Many public colleges, especially teachers’ colleges, had entire programs devoted to what was usually called “Christian Education.” In these courses, public-school students could learn the basics of evangelical proselytization, usually under the heading of learning to be “Sunday School” teachers. Most typically, students were women who hoped to begin or enhance their careers as part-time religious educators.

The current logo hints at this heavenly history...

The current logo hints at this heavenly history…

In some cases, today’s public colleges used to be religious or denominational schools. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Ball State. It claims to have always been part of the government system.

Not only did universities such as Ball State teach courses in spreading the evangelical Gospel to children, but they also accepted transfer credits from unapologetically fundamentalist seminaries. In my archival work, I’ve found several examples of students using their credits from the Winona Lake School of Theology to advance their degrees at public universities like Ball State and the University of Georgia. Even the state of California apparently accepted Winona Lake credits toward public-school teaching certificates.

At the time, Winona Lake School of Theology was a firmly fundamentalist summer school. It was going through an ugly separation from the Fuller Theological Seminary over Fuller’s alleged drift away from Biblical inerrancy. Now defunct, the Winona Lake school refused to go along as Fuller Seminary moved into a more ecumenical attitude.

And in 1957, teachers could use their credits from this religious school to complete their religious program in Christian Education at Ball State University. Though there is too much heated rhetoric about God being “kicked out” of American public education, this example shows us how things really have changed over the past decades.

In 2013, the president of Ball State had no problem announcing that her university must not favor one religion over another; as a public school it must not teach religion, though it can and should teach about religion. But as late as 1957, Ball State and other public universities found it unexceptional to teach entire programs in Christian evangelism. Ball State had no problem taking credits from a fundamentalist seminary, since both programs taught similar course content.

More evidence that we are not just replaying every old culture-war script. Things really have changed.

From the Archives: I Miss Letterhead

How old are you? Do you remember stationery with big, fancy letterheads? In my research this week at the Billy Graham Center Archives at Wheaton College, I’m digging through thick files of letters from the 1920s through the 1980s.

And so many of the letters come on pages with enormous, elaborate letterhead designs. Just for fun, I’ll share some of the best images from today’s work. These are mainly from a network of conservative evangelical institutions, dating from the 1940s through the 1970s.

c. 1955

c. 1955

letterhead from BGC 1letterhead from BGC 2letterhead from BGC 3letterhead from BGC 4letterhead from BGC 5letterhead from BGC 6letterhead from BGC 7

Hello, Wheaton!

Rolled into sunny Wheaton, Illinois last night to start my research at the fabled Billy Graham Center Archives. Located on the campus of Wheaton College, this archive is like nerd Disneyland. The collections are beautifully organized and intimidatingly expansive.

I'll be here all week...

I’ll be here all week…

What am I doing here? It’s the natural first stop for anyone interested in the history of conservative evangelical colleges. The collections offer two great things. First, Wheaton College itself has been a leading fundamentalist/ evangelical college since the 1920s. It enjoys a unique and uniquely influential history as a leader in the network of conservative colleges. As leading historian Joel Carpenter put it, in the 1920s

There was only one college of thoroughly fundamentalist pedigree . . . that was neither just half-evolved from Bible school origins nor still waiting for the ink to dry on its charter.

That school, of course, was Wheaton. For my current research, I’ll need to dive deep into the history of Wheaton itself. What was life like for students in different decades? For faculty? I also have some specific questions about interesting episodes. For instance, why did Wheaton kick out its fundamentalist president in 1939? Why did the board of trustees add in 1961 a line to the statement of faith that Adam and Eve were real, historical people? What did Wheaton’s version of the “free-speech” movement look like in 1964?

But these archives offer more than just a look at the history of Wheaton itself. Since the school was such an influential leader in the field of evangelical higher ed, its leaders kept in constant contact with other school leaders. In their correspondence, I’ll be digging to discover the issues that motivated school leaders across the entire network of conservative evangelical colleges. This will include prosaic issues such as admissions and accreditation, but also uniquely evangelical issues such as determining which schools remained orthodox and which threatened to slide into liberalism and modernism.

Best of all, decades of work by the archivists at the Billy Graham Center has created an invaluable collection of oral history interviews. Some of these are available online and I’ve been reading them during the past weeks. But many more are only here at Wheaton. In these interviews, alumni of Wheaton and the rest of the conservative evangelical college network remember what life was like at these schools in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and more recently. Why did they decide to go to Wheaton? Or the Moody Bible Institute? Or John Brown College? Or a ‘secular’ public university? Many of these interview subjects offer unique perspectives on what college life was like.

With such a vast collection, I need to pace myself. There’s no way to take it all in during one short visit. Instead, I’ll see what I can discover and make plans to come back soon.


Is This the Creationist Conspiracy?

Anti-creationists have warned about it for generations: Creationists are joining forces to sweep away reason and science. A growing conspiracy of dunces threatens to upend centuries of progress. But a recent tiff between leading American creationists demonstrates just how fractured and divided creationists really are.  And it demonstrates the ways hysterical anti-creationism may do more harm than good.

The threats of a creationist conspiracy go back to the roots of America’s evolution/creation culture wars. In his 1927 book, The War on Modern Science, Maynard Shipley warned that the fundamentalist “forces of obscurantism” threatened to overthrow real learning. As Shipley put it,

The armies of ignorance are being organized, literally by the millions, for a combined political assault on modern science.

Ever since, science writers have warned of this impending threat. Isaac Asimov, for instance, warned in 1981 of the “threat of creationism.” Such unified anti-scientists, Asimov believed, had made great strides toward setting up “the full groundwork . . . for legally enforced ignorance and totalitarian thought control.” Like Shipley, Asimov noted that not all religious people are creationists, but also like Shipley, Asimov failed to notice the differences between creationists. The only religious people one could trust, Asimov wrote, were those “who think of the Bible as a source of spiritual truth and accept much of it as symbolically rather than literally true.”

What Asimov missed was the crucial fact that many creationists DO endorse real science; many folks who think of the Bible as more than just symbolic also accept the ideas of an ancient earth and human evolution.

This is more than just a quibble. When leading scientists and science pundits lump together all creationists as “armies of ignorance,” they needlessly abandon and heedlessly insult potential allies in creation/evolution debates. When science writers such as Jerry Coyne attack all religious discussion as “accommodationism,” they unnecessarily alienate creationists who want to teach more and better evolution.

A recent interchange between leading creationists demonstrates the way international creationism really works. Creationism in practice is not a horde of Bible-believing fanatics, relentlessly unified on the age of the earth and the origins of humanity. In practice, rather, creationism is a splintered and fractious impulse, fighting internal foes more viciously than external ones.

The “evolutionary creationist” Deborah Haarsma, leader of BioLogos, recently reached out to young-earth creationist leader Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis. Haarsma was “troubled” by Ham’s angry polemic about a third creationist, Hugh Ross of the old-earth Reasons to Believe.

We all have our differences, Dr. Haarsma said. But why can’t we come together over our shared Biblical faith? About our shared concern that young people are leaving the church? Why can’t we at least sit down together for a cordial dinner and talk over our differences?

Ken Ham publicly rebuffed Haarsma’s efforts. Ham agreed that his animus toward Ross was not at all personal. As Ham explained, “I don’t consider Dr. Ross a personal enemy . . . he is actually a pleasant person.” But Ross was also an “enemy of biblical authority.” And Haarsma was no better. “People like Dr. Haarsma,” Ham wrote,

make it sound like they have such a high view of the Bible, whereas in reality, she has a low view of Scripture and a high view of man’s fallible beliefs about origins!

There will be no dinner. There will be no grand alliance of creationists. Instead, we see the ways some creationists will tend to isolate themselves into smaller and smaller like-minded communities.

This story spreads beyond the borders of the United States. As historian Ronald Numbers described in The Creationists, in the mid-1980s the minister of education in Turkey wrote to the San-Diego based Institute for Creation Research. Turkey’s schools, the minister wrote, needed to “eliminate the secular-based, evolution-only teaching dominant in their schools and replace it with a curriculum teaching the two models, evolution and creation, fairly” (pg. 421). And Islamic creationism, much of it based in Turkey, has thrived. However, Numbers concluded, “the partnership between the equally uncompromising Christian and Muslim fundamentalists remained understandably unstable” (425). Numbers cited the rhetoric of American creationist leader Henry Morris: “Mohammed is dead and Jesus is alive!” As Numbers noted acerbically, such talk was “hardly calculated to win Muslim friends” (425).

There will be predictable tensions between different types of creationists. Though some conservative religious voices will work to spread evolutionary theory among evangelicals, others will focus on what Ken Ham called “rebuilding a wall” (Nehemiah 6:1-3).

Folks like me who want to see more and better evolution education will be wise to reach out to those conservative religious folks who also believe in evolution. Instead of copying the tactics of Ken Ham, as Jerry Coyne is prone to do, science promoters should embrace allies and make friends. Instead of shrieking about the “armies of ignorance,” science promoters will do well to look closer at the creationist population. There are plenty of friends there.

“The Talk:” Evolution Edition

What do young people need to know about evolution?  A recent commentary from University of Washington professor David Barash has sparked a new round of debate.  For us at ILYBYGTH, it sparks a different question: When and how should ‘resistant’ students learn about evolution?

We all know that some religious students get uncomfortable when the subject of evolution comes up.  “Until recently,” Barash wrote, “I had pretty much ignored such discomfort, assuming that it was their problem, not mine.”  They should be uncomfortable, Barash concluded.  There were foundational ideas in many religious traditions that science simply made untenable.

For example, students who really understood evolutionary science would have a hard time maintaining a belief in a fundamentally good and all-powerful deity.  As Barash put it,

The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.

Also, students who hope to maintain a belief in the special nature of humanity will be in for a rude awakening.  Humans, evolutionary scientists have demonstrated conclusively, are “perfectly good animals,” but not anything specially created.

Finally, the old watchmaker argument just doesn’t hold water.  Though life might seem irreducibly complex, modern evolutionary science has demonstrated that, as Barash put it,

an entirely natural and undirected process, namely random variation plus natural selection, contains all that is needed to generate extraordinary levels of non-randomness.

Not surprisingly, creationists have reacted with outrage.  Stephen Meyer of the intelligent-design bastion Discovery Institute blasted Barash as “willfully ignorant” of recent scientific developments.  Other creationists have called Barash “intellectually dishonest.”  Even Catholic writers berated Barash.  As one Franciscan blogger put it, “His laboratory pontification exceeds his areas of competence.”

Such reactions, it seems to this writer, accomplish Barash’s goals perfectly.  With his insouciant attitude toward religious perspectives and his history of anti-religious polemics, it’s hard not to conclude that Barash and the editors at the New York Times hoped for exactly this sort of outraged response.

Here at ILYBYGTH, we want to ask different questions.  For instance, we want to know if students from anti-evolution homes can be taught about evolution without simply rejecting it.  We want to know if our deep culture-war trenches over evolution education can be bridged by a different approach.

As we’ve learned from scholars such as Dan Kahan, what people say they know about evolution tells us about their identity, not their knowledge base.  As Kahan puts it, it tells us about who they are, not what they know.  There is not a significant difference between evolution-supporters and evolution-deniers when it comes to knowledge about evolution.  That is, people who say they believe in evolution or agree with evolutionary theory don’t actually know more about it than people who say they don’t.

And, as ethnologist and science-education guru David Long has demonstrated, “evolution” is tied to a bundle of non-scientific meanings for many resistant students.  Knowledge of evolutionary theory was not a problem for the creationist students Long studied.  Instead, acceptance of the idea of evolution presented identity challenges to these students.

Perhaps more shocking to culture warriors like Barash, creationists WANT their children to know about evolutionary theory.  But they want their children to be protected from attitudes like his; creationists want their children to learn about evolution from people who understand and respect their religious qualms.

How do we know this?  Because many conservative religious schools INSIST that all students take a course on evolutionary science.  Liberty University, for example, has made an evolution/creation course a requirement for graduation.  And here at ILYBYGTH, I have been educated by creationist parents who earnestly hope to teach their children about evolution.

Learning about evolution, Liberty style

Learning about evolution, Liberty style

In an upcoming book, philosopher Harvey Siegel and I argue that the way forward in evolution education is to promote an “understanding-not-belief” approach.  Public schools must teach students the best available science.  And right now, that includes the modern evolutionary synthesis.  But public schools must also refrain from imposing religious (or anti-religious) ideas on students.

It’s a tall order, and many smart commentators have pointed out the difficulties with our prescription.  As David Long has suggested, our book might just be a “red herring” in these discussions.

But imagine how very different our version of “the talk” would be from David Barash’s.  Like Barash, we want teachers to tell all students that evolution is the best current science.  It is.  But that doesn’t mean that people can’t and don’t have good reasons for speaking out against it.  Students should be allowed, no, encouraged, to separate their personal identities from their knowledge about evolution.  Knowing evolution makes them educated, not evil.

Perhaps most important, a teacher’s attitude can make all the difference.  If a teacher hopes to make students “shift uncomfortably in their seats,” then Barash’s approach will work.  But a good teacher recognizes the world of difference between a healthy, growthful intellectual discomfort and an antagonistic, coercive one.  Barash hopes to jolt creationist students out of their intellectual blinkers.  But his approach will only weld those blinkers on more securely.

A better “talk” will be one that helps students understand that evolution is an idea, not an identity.

Who’s the HERO in Houston?

Turn ‘em over. That’s the order from Houston’s mayor to the city’s conservative pastors. According to Fox News, Houston Mayor Annise Parker has subpoenaed sermons from pastors. She wants to see if those folks are bashing homosexuality. Though she has backtracked recently, Mayor Parker accuses conservatives of bigotry and anti-gay hate speech. Most important, legally, she accuses them of using their pulpits for political agitation. Not surprisingly, conservatives have reacted with furious indignation.

Parker puts political pressure on pastors.

Parker puts political pressure on pastors.

At issue here is a new anti-discrimination ordinance in Houston, the Houston Equal-Rights Ordinance (HERO). Back in August, conservatives submitted a petition challenging the new rule. Among other things, conservatives worried, the rule would have forced Houstonians to allow women in men’s bathrooms, and vice versa. The city threw out the petition, claiming a lack of legitimate signatures. In response, conservatives sued.

The city ordered conservative pastors to turn over their sermons as part of the lawsuit. According to World Magazine, Mayor Parker tweeted her reasons for ordering the subpoena: “If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game. Were instructions given on filling out anti-HERO petition?”

Conservatives suspect more cynical motives. The activist group Alliance Defending Freedom jumped in to defend the pastors. The ADF accuses the mayor of quashing any political dissent. In a brief filed to fight the subpoenas, the ADF claimed,

The message is clear: oppose the decisions of city government, and drown in unwarranted, burdensome discovery requests. . . . These requests, if allowed, will have a chilling effect on future citizens who might consider circulating referendum petitions because they are dissatisfied with ordinances passed by the City Council.

Writing in Forbes Magazine, conservative intellectual David Davenport agreed. Davenport, former president of Pepperdine University, called Mayor Parker’s action “outrageous. . . . legal intimidation.”

Even the mayor herself might agree. According to World Magazine, the mayor’s office has backed off its initial subpoena claims. A city spokeswoman said the mayor now planned to “narrow the scope” of the subpoenas.

Writing from the sidelines, I can’t help but wonder if conservatives have this one right. I personally support rules such as HERO, and I think more and more Americans are with me on this one. To the chagrin of conservatives, religious opposition to equal rights for homosexuals is increasingly seen as bigotry and hatred. But that does not mean that Americans will stand by as religious speakers are hounded by aggressive and unconstitutional demands from a city government.

Whatever the legal merits of the case, headlines about subpoenaing sermons make the mayor look bad. It changes the culture-war discussion. Instead of framing Mayor Parker as the brave defender of equal rights for all, this kind of move makes her look like an anti-religion crusader. No matter how much Americans might be shifting towards acceptance of homosexuality, we still love our churches, and we love our freedom.


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