Are We Too Polite to Tell Our Children the Truth?

It’s not a secret. The roots of Memorial Day lie twisted with America’s toughest problems of race and region. But my hunch is that very few Memorial Day speeches mentioned such things. In addition to the vexing problems of knowledge and politics that cause our continuing educational culture wars, I think we need to add one surprisingly boring cause.

Historian David Blight has argued convincingly that the first Memorial Day (Decoration Day back then) was part of a furious effort by African American Southerners to defend the memory of Union soldiers buried in the South. On May 1, 1865, the first Memorial Day celebration took place on Washington Race Course in Charleston, South Carolina.

That first Memorial Day did not bring Americans together. It celebrated the victory of the Union. It celebrated the end of slavery. It used a display of African American military force to make the point to white Southerners that the old days were gone forever.

A dozen years later, of course, many of those white former Confederates had regained political power in the South. African American freedoms had been wrested away by vengeful white elites North and South. By the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Professor Blight tells us in Race & Reunion, North and South had come together to celebrate the heroics of white soldiers on both sides. Memorial Day had come to be a celebration of white unity, at the cost of African American rights.

What would YOU tell them?

What would YOU tell them?

Why don’t we tell any of that to our children? I think there are two obvious culprits and one surprisingly banal one.

Around these parts, local historians like to remind us that the official first Memorial Day took place in Waterloo, New York. In 1966, then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson decreed that Waterloo was the birthplace of the tradition. That’s a comforting story everyone can get behind. And it points out the many reasons why we don’t tell ourselves the story of the Charleston Race Track.

First, lots of us just don’t know. We might not have read Professor Blight’s book. In all fairness, we might assume that the history we get in our newspapers and from our parents is the truth.

Second, there has been significant political activism to make sure we don’t know. As Professor Blight detailed, organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy worked hard to obscure the race-conscious history of Memorial Day. In textbooks and historical markers, in schools and in Memorial-Day speeches, activists such as Mildred Rutherford insisted that the memory of the Confederacy must be honored.

What not to know and how not to know it...

What not to know and how not to know it…

But above and beyond ignorance and activism, there is a far more basic reason why we don’t talk much about the still-festering racial issues at the real root of Memorial Day. For those of us interested in educational culture wars, we can see the same operation at work in questions about evolution and sex education in public schools as well.

As I argue in my new book about conservative school activism in the twentieth century, conservatives have often had a very easy time vetoing ideas or methods in public-school classrooms or textbooks. Why? Because they didn’t have to disprove the ideas, they only had to insist that such ideas were controversial.

Public schools are surprisingly similar to polite dinner parties. Not because everyone’s manners are at their best, but because any topic that is perceived as controversial is taboo. Teachers will avoid it; administrators will recoil from it.

We’ve seen this over and over throughout the twentieth century, in subject after subject.

Here in scenic Binghamton, New York, for example, in 1940, school Superintendent Daniel Kelly yanked a set of history textbooks from the district’s classrooms. Why? Not because he disliked them. He told a reporter, “Personally, it’s the kind of book I want my children to have. To say it is subversive is absurd.” However, he was willing to get rid of them in order to “stop the controversy” about them.

A few years later, in 1942, an enterprising group of academics tried to determine why so few teachers taught evolution. They mailed a survey to a representative group of teachers nationwide. Overall, they found that fewer than half of America’s biology teachers taught anything close to recognizable evolutionary science. Why not? In the words of one of their respondents, “Controversial subjects are dynamite to teachers.”

When it comes to Memorial Day, this polite impulse to avoid controversy must be part of our loud silence about the roots of the holiday. Who wants to be the boor at the cookout who turns a sentimental get-together into a racial confrontation? Who is willing to tell the gathered Boy Scouts and VFW members that their parade is a charade, since it has its roots in the reinstitution of American racial slavery? Who is willing to tell kids in class that their long weekend is really a reminder of America’s long and continuing race war?

Such things are simply not done.

In addition to the obvious culture-war culprits of knowledge and politics, we need to remember this obvious fact: Teaching the truth is rude.

Dissenters, Not Ignoramuses

[Editor’s Note: As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’ve just completed work on a new book about creationism and evolution education in the United States.  Based on that effort, the education editor of Anthropology Now invited me to contribute some thoughts about the implications of the creation/evolution controversy.  Below I’m reprinting that essay in its entirety, with the permission of Anthropology Now.  You can also find the essay in its original form in the April 2015 edition of that magazine. Thanks to Zoe Burkholder and Maria Vesperi of AN.]

Physical anthropologists have long been on the front lines of debates over evolution. In the Texas textbook tumult over the past decade, for example, Ronald Wetherington of Southern Methodist University has gone head-to-head with creationists over the content of science textbooks. There is no debate over the science, Wetherington has argued. There is simply no way humanity’s origins can be traced to two bashful ancestors in an idyllic garden, 6,000 years ago.[1]

Image courtesy of Scott Thurman, The Revisionaries

Wetherington thinking it over. Image courtesy of Scott Thurman, The Revisionaries

Yet the fight goes on. Creationists insist on including their religious beliefs in public-school science classes. Mainstream scientists protest. All too often, the debate has forced folks such as Wetherington to attack the scientific pretensions of creationism. How would it be possible, mainstream scientists insist, for the earth to only have a short history? For humanity to trace its lineage from the Garden of Eden? The genetics just don’t line up. The fossils don’t line up. Nothing fits.

This sort of back-and-forth about the possibilities of science goes nowhere. More false debates pitting mainstream scientists against creationist scientists in a choreographed and predictable non-dialogue about the proper nature of science are not needed. One side calls the other a bunch of ignoramuses. Creationists retort that they are the only real scientists in the room.

Creationists may or may not be ignorant about evolutionary theory, but there is a better way to understand creationism, as primarily a form of religious dissent. Of course, notions of religion and religious dissent have always played a part in creation/evolution debates. Court decisions, especially, have tended to reject creationists’ claims on the basis that they represent a religious viewpoint, not a scientific one. Even those decisions, however, have pushed creationists to insist on their status as scientific dissenters above all. For everyone’s sake, including that of creationists themselves, creationism should be viewed first and foremost within the tradition of religious dissent in the United States.

This approach offers hope for moving the long debates over creation and evolution in a more productive direction. In the end, centering the debate on religious dissent rather than on scientific truth could offer two promising new policy goals. First, it would require both sides to agree on different goals for evolution education. Public schools would be tasked with clarifying their expectations and demands. While students from every background must be helped to understand evolution, their beliefs about that knowledge are their own business. As religious dissenters, creationists have the right to preserve their religious beliefs. Second, for public-school teachers to teach dissenting students, teachers themselves must be taught some basic principles about cultural difference and inclusion. Here is where anthropologists can get involved. Teachers should study not only biology and geology, but also ethnography and principles of cultural anthropology. Science teachers must understand the cultural beliefs of religious dissenters in order to welcome those dissenters into science classes. And teachers should be trained to understand their own cultural perspectives, to see the dissent of their students as a cultural strength, not a deficit to be corrected or an ignorance to be attacked.

Anthropologists can be helped by historians. As every historian is well aware, the US educational system has a long, spotty record of handling religious dissent. All too often, public schools have crammed hegemonic notions of proper culture and theology down the throats of minority students and families. In the 19th century, as historian Carl Kaestle has argued, Protestant school leaders often pooh-poohed the objections of Catholic dissenters. In the 1830s, Protestant school leaders in cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia dismissed Catholic complaints about textbooks that ridiculed the Pope and described Catholics as inquisitors and anti-Christians.[2] Even into the 20th century, as David Wallace Adams has shown, minority groups felt the heavy hand of the dominant culture. At Native American Indian boarding schools, Adams found, non-native teachers made it their mission to squash the religion of their native charges. School founder Richard Henry Pratt wanted to “kill the Indian and save the man.”[3]

As the 20th century progressed, religious dissenters scored some successes in major court cases. Perhaps most influential, the US Supreme Court ruled in Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) that students had the right to dissent from religious practices in public-school classrooms. Even if families were allowed to opt out of prayers and Bible readings, the Court decided, such religious practices involved the government too closely in private religious beliefs.[4] Other federal courts have underlined the rights of religious dissenters in public schools. One Tennessee district court ruling in 1979 spelled it out: “if that which is taught seeks either to disparage or to encourage a commitment to a set of religious beliefs, it is constitutionally impermissible in a public school setting.”[5] It is not enough anymore for public schools to allow minorities to attend. It is not enough to permit dissenters to share in parts of the public-school culture. Public schools, rather, must welcome dissenters and minorities as equal members.

That new consensus can be applied to the status of creationist dissenters. Their beliefs should not be mocked or dismissed out of hand. But while dissenting religious beliefs must be respected, religion should never inform the public-school curriculum. Students of all backgrounds, dissenting or not, must be exposed to the very best knowledge on offer. They should be helped to understand that knowledge, even if it contradicts their home religions. At the same time, they must not be forced to believe anything that they find theologically repugnant.

Although creationists and mainstream scientists have disagreed bitterly for generations, they have often agreed on one fundamental—but mistaken—notion. Both sides have repeatedly defined the struggle as a scientific one, rather than a religious one. Many creationists insist that their religiously motivated understanding of the origins of humanity represents a scientific vision. And many mainstream scientists engage on just this issue: Which model represents the better scientific explanation? These debates—fascinating but ultimately pointless and unproductive—roiled in the 20th century and continue into the 21st.

Monkeys and Modernity

The first generation of evolution/creation debates in the 1920s set the tone for those that followed. One of the leading anti-evolution voices of that generation, William Jennings Bryan, insisted that evolution was first and foremost bad science. Bryan proudly and pointedly maintained his membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In the pages of the New York Times in 1922, Bryan insisted that his anti-evolution position represented a deep love of true science. “We do not ask,” Bryan told readers, “for the exclusion of any scientific truth, but we do protest against an atheist teacher being allowed to blow his guesses in the face of the student.”[6] Those who insisted on forcing such false ideas on America’s students, Bryan mocked, were nothing but irresponsible “pseudo-scientists.”[7]

"Are you know or have you ever been...an ignoramus?"

“Are you know or have you ever been…an ignoramus?”

Mainstream scientists met Bryan on the field of science. They often insisted that his was not real science, yet allowed the discussion to focus too often on such definitions. One of Bryan’s primary public antagonists in the 1920s was Princeton biologist Edwin Conklin. Conklin called Bryan a “non-scientific person,” someone utterly unqualified to assert the boundaries of scientific knowledge.[8] Conklin poured out a good deal of time, sweat and ink in his attempt to prove that creationism did not count as real science. Real science, he wrote, was the “freedom to seek and to find truth. . . . confident that even unwelcome truth is better than cherished error.”[9] Real scientists never shied away from uncomfortable conclusions, while Bryan’s sort—scientific usurpers—began with false conclusion and worked backwards.

Perhaps the defining moment of these battles over evolution and creationism came in the summer of 1925. The Scopes Trial in July of that year focused the world’s attention on the question of evolution and creationism, religion and science. Bryan battled famous atheist Clarence Darrow in the sweltering heat of Dayton, Tennessee. The trial brought public attention to the question, but did not do much to resolve the issues. Too often, debates still focused on questions of science.

For example, in the months following the trial, the first celebrity creation scientist from the United States debated the issue with journalist Joseph McCabe. In this debate, held in London in September 1925, leading creationist George McCready Price pilloried evolution as a scientific travesty. The theory made sense, Price told the assembled crowd, “for the times of comparative ignorance of the real facts of heredity and variation and of the facts of geology which prevailed during the latter part of the nineteenth century.” To real scientists, though, Price insisted that evolution could not hold water. Any believer in evolution, Price concluded, would “wake up some fine morning and find that he needs an introduction to the modern scientific world.”[10]

Price never mentioned the need to protect the rights of religious minorities. He did not argue in 1925 that evolutionary theory might outrage the religious sensibilities of dissenters such as himself. Yet it is without doubt that Price’s scientific vision emerged from his religious faith. Price was a member of the Seventh-day Adventist church, a denomination founded in the aftermath of William Miller’s failed 1844 apocalyptic visions. The prophetess of the denomination, Ellen G. White, founded the group largely on her visions of the beginning and end of time. In the beginning, White attested, God created the universe in six literal days. For orthodox Seventh-day Adventists such as Price, faith demanded a young Earth, a worldwide flood and a six-day special creation by God.[11]

Such debates at the start of the modern culture-war controversies over the teaching of evolution defined the issue mainly as one of science and science education. Not that activists did not also discuss the religious aspect of these debates—Conklin, for example, accused Bryan of pushing for “medieval theology” in place of real science—but too often the debates implied that the central questions were scientific ones.[12]

The More Things Change…

Contemporary debates feature similar definitions and boundaries. In February, 2014, for instance, today’s leading young-Earth creationist Ken Ham debated the prominent science-educator Bill Nye, “The Science Guy.” In that debate, Ham insisted that mainstream science had lost its way. Creationists such as himself, Ham told the crowd, had a better grasp of the impossibility of “historic” science. Real science, Ham informed Nye and the world, did not make leaps of illogic about past events. Mainstream scientists made a fundamental error when they limited themselves to the echo-chamber of flawed evolutionary reasoning.

Bill Nye played along. The simplest facts of real science, Nye insisted, proved the utter baselessness of young-Earth creationism. Nye referred to the local Kentucky limestone as just one example of the many that made the case. “We are standing,” Nye said, “on millions of layers of ancient life. How could those animals have lived their entire lives in just four thousand years?” The briefest introduction to the principles of geology or biology proved the power of evolutionary theory beyond any reasonable doubt.[13]

Even in the 21st century, creationists insist that their religious beliefs are better science  and mainstream scientists (and “Science Guys”) agree to define the fight as one about the proper boundaries of science. For their part, creationists these days are in a strategic pickle. Courts have ruled against teaching religious views in science classes. Most significantly, the US Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in the case of Edwards v. Aguillard specified that creationism could not be taught in public schools. Such beliefs, the court ruled in a 7-2 decision, represented religion, not science. However, the majority decision stipulated that dissenting visions of science could be taught if they represented better science instead of simply better religion.[14] Thus creationists can hope to include creationism in public-school science classes only if they can demonstrate that their science is better than mainstream teachings. Mainstream scientists, too, still hesitate to dispute creationism on religious grounds. After all, it is easier to attack the scientific pretensions of what philosopher Philip Kitcher has called “dead science” than it is to critique an opponent’s religious beliefs.[15]

While courts have repeatedly concluded that creationism is primarily a religious belief, both creationists and mainstream scientists have continued their endless rounds of debate. But embracing the definition of creationism as a form of religious dissent instead can reveal new approaches to the controversies. Dissenters in public schools have a contentious but clearly defined tradition of rights and responsibilities. They must be treated respectfully and knowledgeably, but their beliefs do not grant them the right to dictate curriculum for the entire school. Dissenters must be allowed to specify why they find curricular material offensive, but simply calling something offensive does not automatically guarantee that it should be excluded from public education.

Two general rules of thumb will help public schools walk this fine line, teaching evolution to everyone, yet respecting the beliefs of those who dissent for religious reasons. First, teachers should make their goals clear. When it comes to evolution education—or any other form of public education, for that matter—the goal should be for students to understand the material, not to adopt any sort of belief about it. In the case of evolution, all students from all backgrounds would be expected to learn the outlines of evolutionary theory. But teachers would be required to avoid implying that students should believe anything in particular about human origins or the age of the universe. And again, teachers would need to know more about the home cultures of dissenting students. Educating teachers about creationism in its cultural context would help smooth away unnecessary conflict between evolution educators and dissenting creationist students.

Creationists Get On the Bus

Along with their arguments about the superiority of their science, some creationists have long argued for their rights as religious dissenters. Most famously, in 1978, creationist scholar Wendell Bird argued for the rights of creationists as a minority in the pages of the Yale Law Review. “Exclusive public school instruction in the general theory of evolution,” Bird insisted, “abridges free exercise of religion.”[16] Other creationist activists and writers have similarly insisted on their rights as beleaguered minorities. In the mid-1980s, for instance, creationist Jerry Bergman complained that he had been denied tenure at Bowling Green State University due to his creationist beliefs. “A similar case might be,” Bergman claimed, “if a black were fired on the suspicion that he had ‘talked to students about being black,’ or a woman being fired for having ‘talked to students about women’s issues.’”[17] Speaking in the mid-1990s, creationist activist Duane Gish took a similar stance. When he learned he was one of only two creationists invited to a scientific dialogue, Gish erupted, “I will proceed to take one of the two seats on the back of the bus reserved for the creationists in this meeting.”[18] No one believed more strongly in the definition of creationists as put-upon minorities than these creationists themselves. If the benefits of that position can be made clear, perhaps other creationists would embrace a definition as religious dissenters.

Even if they do, however, it remains a question whether it be possible for creationist students to learn about evolution without embracing it as a belief. Can students be asked to understand something if they are not asked to believe it? Some scattered evidence suggests this is already happening. Anthropologist David Long, for example, studied a small group of about 30 undergraduate biology students at a large public university. Many of them came from creationist backgrounds. Those students reported no trouble in learning and understanding evolution without changing their religious beliefs. One student told Long:

I take those really big classes, because it’s really easy to excel in those huge classes. I mean, I got like a hundred on every test. You have to be an idiot pretty much not to. If you just sit, and you listen to what they’re saying, and you know how to take tests, it’s very easy to do well in those classes.[19]

Of the students from creationist backgrounds in Long’s sample, only one abandoned her creationist beliefs while studying biology at a public university. And that student had already begun to abandon her faith before she left high school.[20] Learning evolutionary science, Long found, did not lead to religious conversions.

Similar results occur in high schools. One study of roughly one hundred public-school biology students found that a three-week unit on evolution did not force creationist students to abandon their beliefs. Indeed, though students in this study learned a good deal about evolution, many of them became more firmly convinced of their creationism by learning about evolution. After the unit on evolution, for instance, students improved their performance on a test about basic evolutionary principles. More of these same students, however, agreed or agreed strongly—after studying evolution—with the statement, “Genesis is the best account of how the Earth was created and populated with life.”[21]

Americans in general already seem to separate knowledge from belief when it comes to evolution. In 2012, the National Science Board (NSB), which is part of the National Science Foundation, experimented with the wording of its questions about general science knowledge. Only 48 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” But when the NSB prefaced that statement with the phrase, “According to scientists,” 72 percent of respondents agreed.[22] In short, significant numbers of Americans know what the science says about evolution. They simply choose not to agree that it is true.

Finally, students learn better when they feel some connection to their teachers. Teachers who can connect culturally with their students will have an easier time teaching anything, from evolution to arithmetic. As education scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings has argued, “Teachers who practice culturally relevant methods. . . . see themselves as part of the community and they see teaching as giving back to the community. They help students make connections between their local, national, racial, cultural, and global identities.”[23]

For teachers who come from non-creationist backgrounds, the effect of a short course in cultural anthropology could be profound. For one thing, it would introduce teachers to the idea that the world of creationism includes a vast kaleidoscopic array of beliefs and cultures. It would be useful to know how a Baptist creationist student might differ from a Seventh-day Adventist or from a Gulenist. More important, an introduction to the foundational principles of cultural anthropology can help science teachers understand that difference is not deficit. Simply because creationist students do not accept evolution, they are not necessarily naively ignorant about evolution. Indeed, as David Long has noted, many students from creationist backgrounds perceive any discussion of evolution as “troublesome or even dangerous.”[24] Good teachers want to help students, not terrify them. A primer on the principles of cultural anthropology can help teachers connect with creationist students more productively.

None of this will make creation/evolution controversies go away. There is no magic wand here. But by placing the educational discussion more squarely on the rights and responsibilities of religious dissent, we may drain some of the venom from our achingly repetitive school battles.  

Notes

[1] See Scott Thurman’s documentary, The Revisionaries (2012).

[2] Carl F. Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860 (New York: Macmillan, 1983).

[3] David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995), 52.

[4] Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963).  (accessed January 11, 2015).

[5] Wiley v. Franklin 474 F. Supp. 525 [E.D. Tenn. 1979] at 531.(accessed January 11, 2015).

[6] William Jennings Bryan, “God and Evolution,” New York Times, February 26, 1922, 11.

[7] William Jennings Bryan, In His Image (New York: Fleming Revell, 1922), 69.

[8] Edwin Grant Conklin, “Bryan and Evolution,” New York Times, March 5, 1922, 1.

[9] Edwin Grant Conklin, The Direction of Human Evolution (New York: Scribner’s, 1921), v–vi.

[10] George McCready Price, “Is Evolution True?” in Ronald L. Numbers, ed., Creation-Evolution Debates (New York: Garland Publishing, 1995), 160.

[11] See Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, expanded edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 91-93.

[12] Conklin, “Bryan and Evolution,” 1.

[13] Video of the debate from February 4, 2014 is still available at http://debatelive.org/ . See the author’s commentary and discussion at “Time for Ham on Nye!” I Love You but You’re Going to Hell, February 4, 2014,  (accessed June 2, 2014).

[14] Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 US 578 (1987)  (accessed April 14, 2014).

[15] Philip Kitcher, Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 8.

[16] Wendell R. Bird, “Freedom of Religion and Science Instruction in Public Schools,” The Yale Law Journal 87 (January, 1978): 518.

[17] Jerry Bergman, The Criterion: Religious Discrimination in America (Richfield, MN: Onesimus Press, 1984), 43.

[18] Duane T. Gish, “The Scientific Case for Creation,” in Frank Awbrey and William Thwaites, eds., Evolutionists Confront Creationists: Proceedings of the 63rd Annual Meeting of the Pacific Division, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Vol. I, Part 3 (San Francisco: Pacific Division, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1984), 26.

[19] David E. Long, Evolution and Religion in American Education: An Ethnography (New York: Springer, 2011), 36.

[20] Ibid., 75.

[21] Anton E. Lawson and William A. Worsnop, “Learning about Evolution and Rejecting a Belief in Special Creation: Effects of Reflective Reasoning Skill, Prior Knowledge, Prior Belief and Religious Commitment,” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 29:2 (February 1992): 143-166.

[22] National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, “Chapter 7: Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding,” National Science Foundation, February 2014  (accessed January 11, 2015). See also “Evolution in Science and Engineering Indicators 2014,” National Center for Science Education Blog, February 18, 2014  (accessed January 11, 2015).

[23] Gloria Ladson-Billings, The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children (New York: Wiley, 1997), 25.

[24] Long, Evolution and Religion in American Education, 15.

From the Archives: A Creationist Mother’s Day Puzzler

What’s a Presbyterian to do? Especially at the staunchly conservative Princeton Seminary at the end of the nineteenth century, Presbyterian intellectuals wrestled with the questions posed by their creationist theology. One problem remained particularly stubborn and particularly relevant to Mother’s Day.

B.B. Warfield was no liberal. He was largely responsible for the “Princeton Theology” that bequeathed to American fundamentalism a vital notion. Along with his colleague A.A. Hodge, Warfield argued that we must read the Bible as inerrant in its original autographs. That is, later translators may have messed things up here and there, and we may certainly err in our understanding of the Bible, but real orthodoxy requires us to believe that the inspired writers of the Bible did not make mistakes.

All about Eve...

All about Eve…

Among the many gems in Bradley Gundlach’s book about Princeton and the “evolution question,” we find Warfield’s notes about Eve and evolution.

In the late 1800s, Warfield and the other lions of orthodoxy at Princeton wondered what evolutionary ideas meant for orthodox belief. Could an evolutionary theory fit in with a universe that had been planned for eternity by an all-knowing God? If evolution could be separated from its materialistic assumptions, could it be used as a way to understand God’s plan for humanity?

As Professor Gundlach argues, time and again Princeton’s conservative thinkers said yes. They objected to the assumptions that some people wrongly associated with evolution—that it was random, directionless, and atheistic, for instance. But they embraced the notion that God had developed all life from earlier forms. Just as a tree rests within the potentiality of a seed, so all life may have developed from simpler forms, the Princetonians insisted.

In short, most Old Princetonians embraced what has been called “theistic evolution,” a notion similar to what some folks today call “evolutionary creationism.”

There was one tough sticking point, however. As Professor Gundlach describes, in Warfield’s lectures on anthropology from the late 1800s, he struggled with the theological implications of evolution. Warfield asked himself and his students if a God-guided evolution was

consistent with the Biblical account of the origin of things in general & of man in particular.

According to Gundlach, Warfield answered with a qualified yes. The only problem Warfield saw was at the root of Mother’s Day. As Warfield explained in his anthropology class,

I am free to say, for myself, that I do not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either as given in Gen I & II or elsewhere alluded to, that need be opposed to evolution. The sole passage which appears to bar the way is the very detailed account of the creation of Eve.

The rest of the Genesis account of creation, Warfield believed, could be read without doing violence to its original meaning as a poetic description of evolution. But Eve was different. The Mother of Humanity was made by a special divine act, in language starkly different from that of the rest of Genesis.

For Warfield, at least, evolution need pose no problem for Christians. Only the question of Eve needed to be resolved.

Climate-Change Party Crashers

I love the analogy, but I don’t know if the story sounds realistic.

Over at the National Center for Science Education blog, Executive Director Ann Reid tells a story about converting skeptics into climate-change believers. Dr. Reid tells a two-part tale of her encounter at a dinner party with someone who does not accept the scientific consensus on climate change. She explains how she made her case.

Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of the NCSE. Unlike some of my fellow evolution mavens, I appreciate the NCSE’s accommodating attitude toward life in a pluralistic society. I’ve personally seen the ways leaders at the NCSE speak respectfully and productively with creationists. Instead of labeling conservatives “the enemy,” the thoughtful activists at the NCSE try to understand creationist thinking, try to see things from a creationist perspective.

Will she be invited back?

Will she be invited back?

But Director Reid’s story still sounds a little outlandish to me, on two counts.

Before I describe my objections, let’s hear the story. Dr. Reid tells a two-part tale (one and two) in which she chats amiably at a dinner party with a scientist who believes that today’s climate changes are just part of naturally occurring cycles. What to do?

Dr. Reid listens to the skeptic’s reasons, then lays out her best case. One doesn’t need to know everything about everything, Dr. Reid says, to see the overwhelming evidence. Consider just a couple of studies that show the drastic warming of the North American landmass. Species are moving north. And planting zones are shifting, too.

What did her interlocutor say?

Well, I’d never heard that before. That’s very interesting.

The savvy Dr. Reid knows that she won’t convince every skeptic this way. She’s not even sure she convinced this one guy.   But, she concludes,

I certainly made him think a little bit. I didn’t get into a debate, and I gave the rest of the table some conversational fuel for the next time they are seated next to a skeptic. Not bad for one dinner party. Give it a try! And let us know how it turns out.

Can it work? Like Dr. Reid’s dinner-party companion, I’m skeptical. Here’s why:

First, I agree that a Thanksgiving dinner is an excellent analogy for our continuing culture wars over climate change and other educational issues. But the analogy really points in a different direction.

As I argue in my new book, conservative activists have usually been able to exercise a veto over new ideas in America’s public schools. And they do so in a dinner-party way. That is, in America’s public schools—like at America’s dinner-party tables—controversial issues are anathema. It is not acceptable at dinner parties (except, of course, at really good dinner parties) to lambaste one’s fellows with offensive phrases or ideas.

Across the twentieth century, conservative activists have used this sort of dinner-party mentality to restrict significantly the advance of progressive ideas in America’s schools. Should we teach evolution? Not if it’s controversial! Should we teach kids how to have safer sex? Not if it’s controversial! Should we teach kids that boys can like pink toys? …that good books sometimes include bad words? …that every idea should be questioned, even religious ideas? …that every country has its flaws, even the USA? …and so on?

When an idea can be labeled “controversial,” public schools will flee from it in terror, as timid as a dinner-party host who has invited the boss over.

In generation after generation, conservatives have been able to maintain fairly traditional classrooms—though the vision of “tradition” has changed over time—by exercising this sort of dinner-party veto. Conservatives do not need to prove their case against progressive textbooks, or science, or literature. All they need to do is prove that those things are considered offensive by some, and the dinner-party rule kicks in.

Of course, that’s not the only reason to be skeptical about Dr. Reid’s optimistic story. In real life, most encounters like hers will go very differently, for a fundamental culture-war reason.

The way she tells the tale, her two mind-blowing pieces of evidence got everyone thinking. They exposed the skeptic to a new way of thinking about climate change. And her story ended there.

In real life, educated and informed culture-war partisans are not simply ignorant of the other side. Creationists know a lot about evolution. Wallbuilders know a lot about academic history. Abstinence-only educators know a lot about sexually transmitted diseases.

Dr. Reid’s dinner-party companion would likely know a lot about climate change. At the very least, he would have some of his own party-pleasing evidence ready to share. Instead of receiving Dr. Reid’s examples in humble silence, he would likely have countered with his own show-stopping studies. The rest of the dinner table would be left in the same position as it was when the party started: Confronted with two competing and seemingly convincing arguments, from two authoritative-seeming sources.

How should they pick?

Like most of our educational culture-war issues, this climate-change dinner party would likely come to a more obvious conclusion. Instead of fighting vehemently for one side or the other, instead of splitting the dinner table into hostile camps, most dinner parties come to a different conclusion. Like public schools, dinner parties choose to avoid any controversial subject, rather than get into a down-and-dirty debate.

Of course, I don’t get invited to many dinner parties, so I don’t really know what I’m talking about. Does my dinner-party analogy seem too cynical? Too negative?

Creationism and Job Security

Creationism is more than just an idea, more than just a choice. In the United States, creationism represents a complete set of dissenting institutions: Schools, churches, publishing houses, summer camps, etc. These institutions do more than create an intellectual subculture. As we are reminded this morning, they also provide the nuts-and-bolts support creationists need in order to thrive.

For some of us outsiders, it can be difficult to understand how a creationist can remain so firmly entrenched in her beliefs when the claims of mainstream science seem so compelling. Recently, for example, Professor Dan Kahan drew attention to the ways creationist students can do well in mainstream science classes. He described the case of “Krista,” a high-school senior who excelled in her biology class while holding on to her creationist beliefs.

Krista wants to be a veterinarian. And, as Kahan points out, she might not be able to maintain her “cognitive dualism.” If she doesn’t, though, Kahan insists it will not be due to some sort of “logical or psychological contradiction.” To the contrary, Kahan concludes, Krista’s eventual “upsetting incompatibility” will be the result of

an imperfection in the constitution of an aspiring Liberal Republic of Science that hasn’t yet acquired the knowledge, created the institutions, and cultivated the public mores necessary to quiet the forms of cultural status competition that force diverse citizens to choose between using their reason to know what is known by science and using it to express their defining moral commitments (Elsdon-Baker 2015; Hameed 2015; Kahan 2015; Kahan in press).

In other words, if future Krista is forced to choose between the mainstream science she uses in her day job and the dissenting science she uses in her faith life, it will be because the United States has several competing scientific authorities. Our society, Kahan argues, has not yet figured out a way to decide between the scientific claims of creationism and the scientific claims of mainstream evolutionary science.  People like Krista (and the rest of us) are forced to rely on authorities to tell them which science is appropriate for them.

In her day-to-day life, though, Krista will likely be able to get by without straddling the boundaries between these competing scientific realms. More likely, Krista will continue her science career without ever needing to wrestle with its apparent contradictions. Her potential success will be due at least in part to the fact that creationists have successfully created institutions and cultivated creationist mores that allow creationists to use mainstream science without giving up their theological reservations. Perhaps even more important on the day-to-day level, Krista may succeed as a creationist veterinarian because her job might depend on it.

In academic realms, at least, creationism can be a big career boost. It has always been thus. As Bradley Gundlach has described in his great book Process & Providence, creationist colleges have often guaranteed steady work for creationists. In 1878, back when Princeton University and Princeton Seminary remained dedicated to a religious interpretation of emerging evolutionary science, school leaders worked hard to woo top creationists. The school took unprecedented measures to lure John William Dawson away from McGill University in Montreal. At that time, Dawson was one of a dwindling band of scientists with mainstream credentials who still disputed the transmutation of species.

Take this job and love it...

Take this job and love it…

Dawson didn’t come. But Princeton’s herculean efforts to get him demonstrate the possible career upside of creationism. If a geologist, or a veterinarian, or a science teacher can represent a dissenting creationist idea, then he or she will be uniquely attractive to the many institutions that insist on creationism.

Don’t believe it? Check out this morning’s job post on Ken Ham’s blog. As Ham explains, he doesn’t usually post such things, but he recently met with a school administrator from Kansas City. That school principal needed a science teacher, and he only wanted one who signed on to Ham’s brand of young-earth creationism. The school required a teacher who knew creation science and was “trained in apologetics.”

For students like Krista, as Professor Kahan argues, belief in a young-earth need not lead to any sort of intellectual discomfort at all. And, as this job posting reminds us, Krista might feel significant practical incentives to ignore any discomfort she might feel.

Commitment to a young earth and a special divine creation might, after all, offer increased job security in the nationwide network of dissenting creationist institutions.

Creationists against Racism

Do they really mean it?

These days, leading creationists claim to be anti-racist. But fundamentalist Protestantism has a sour history of racism. Do today’s creationists have a fair claim to be authentically anti-racist? Short answer: Yes. Though it might muddy our progressive assumptions, we need to recognize that dissent from mainstream science has also often included dissent from mainstream racism.

Today’s conservative pundits usually don’t like to talk about it. But historically, as I argue in my new book, in the United States conservatism has been tied pretty closely to racism. And as we’ve seen in these pages, white racism has enjoyed strong support within fundamentalist circles.

Let me be clear: Unlike some progressive pundits, I’m not insisting that white conservatives these days are *really* all a bunch of racists. And unlike some progressive historians, I don’t believe that the *real* explanation for the politicization of conservative evangelicals in the 1970s was white racism. But the historical record is pretty clear: Throughout most of the twentieth century, white conservatism was bound up with traditional notions of white dominance.

There is, however, one glaring and important exception to this rule. Among white conservative creationists, there has been a long record of anti-racism. This has usually not been motivated by a civil-rights style of social activism, but rather from creationism itself. If Adam and Eve were the literal historic parents of all humanity, then there can’t be real differences between the races.

Today’s leading young-earth creationist ministry, Answers In Genesis, has long trumpeted its anti-racist creationism. As AIG likes to explain, racism can’t survive if we really believe in Adam, Eve, and Noah’s Ark.

AIG’s position is nothing new among dedicated creationists. As Bradley Gundlach argues in his terrific new(ish) book, Process & Providence, at the dawn of our modern evolution/creation battles, creationists defined themselves as opposed to racist mainstream science. In 1859, Professor Gundlach writes, the main evolutionary question at conservative Princeton Seminary was not Darwin’s new book. Rather, the creationists at Princeton in 1859 were outraged by the new scientific fad of “polygenism.” Leading contemporary scientists embraced the notion that human races were actually different species. Creationists at Princeton said no.

As the creation/evolution battles heated up in the 1920s, too, the anti-evolution crusade had the better claim to anti-racism. White mainstream science at the time often proved friendly to notions of “scientific racism.” As I describe in my new book (page 49 for those of you following along at home), leading evolutionary pundit Henry Fairfield Osborn supported both evolutionary theory and the racism that he thought went along with it.

Of course, simply because dedicated and consistent creationists have often been anti-racist, we can’t conclude that all creationists are anti-racist. Perhaps most famously, Bob Jones University in South Carolina has been fervently creationist AND fervently racist throughout most of its history.

The point here, rather, is that mainstream science has not always been right. Creationists these days can legitimately claim a more consistent history of anti-racism than can mainstream scientists. The same theological impulse that leads young-earth creationists to insist on a young earth also leads them to insist that all of humanity has the same roots.

More Proof that Conservatives Won’t Win

Every once in a while a progressive pundit will howl a warning about the fundamentalist conspiracy. Watch out, we’re told, rich and sinister conservatives are organizing a vast army to mount an electoral coup of this great land. We see more proof today that these warnings are more fantasy than reality. The nature of conservative religion tends to work against any insuperable fundamentalist coalition.

The end is near...

The end is near…

From the beginnings of America’s modern culture wars, fundamentalist-watchers have warned of the coming fundamentalist storm. 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.”

Yikes.

But these Cassandresque warnings tell us more about Asimov and Shipley than they do about real fundamentalists. In practice, the nature of conservative Protestantism in America has usually made any sort of collective action impossible.

In the 1950s, to cite only the most obvious historical example, fundamentalists split from evangelicals over the question of Billy Graham’s crusades. Fundamentalists refused to embrace Graham’s wildly successful outreach, in spite of Graham’s conservative theology. Why? Because Graham also worked with liberal and progressive Protestants. Instead of making a pragmatic decision to support Graham as the least-bad option, fundamentalists instead clung to a purer separatism.

Conservatives' best hope?  Or biggest threat?

Conservatives’ best hope? Or biggest threat?

These days, too, conservative Protestants often refuse to win. Most recently, we see a protest among conservative Calvinist Southern Baptist pastors against conservative Seventh-day Adventist Ben Carson. As we’ve noted in these pages, Dr. Carson is a profoundly conservative religious thinker. And he seems like the best hope of religious conservatives in the 2016 elections.

Yet as Christianity Today reports, Southern Baptist conservatives have dis-invited Carson from their annual meeting. Carson’s Seventh-day Adventist beliefs, some SBC pastors noted, put him at odds with Baptist orthodoxy.

They’re right, of course. Seventh-day Adventism holds to many peculiar theological doctrines, including those in the prophetic writings of Ellen G. White.

But the refusal of Calvinist Southern Baptists to welcome a prominent Seventh-day Adventist helps demonstrate why Isaac Asimov and Maynard Shipley could have relaxed. Among conservative Protestants, suspicion and even virulent hatred of theological near-neighbors have long roots. The notion that a fundamentalist army—a creationist army—is organizing in conservative colleges and meetings just doesn’t match reality.

Could conservatives win? Sure. But intra-conservative clashes like this show how difficult it is for conservative Protestants to act together.

Can It Work?

Is it possible for conservative religious people to know and understand evolution without believing it? And, if it is possible, what does it look like? What does it mean? At the ever-challenging Cultural Cognition blog, Dan Kahan challenges the notion of “cognitive apartheid.” Do Professor Kahan’s ideas match real experience?

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are aware, I’ve written a new book with philosopher Harvey Siegel suggesting a different approach for evolution education. Too often, the implicit goal of evolution education is to encourage student belief in evolution. Students from families who dissent are sometimes made to feel unwelcome in public schools, as if their dissent disqualifies them as science students. Instead, we argue, the goal of evolution education must be to foster knowledge and understanding of evolution. If students choose not to believe it, that is their right.

But is it possible? It seems difficult to know something and not believe it. Do I really know that 2 + 2 = 4 if I don’t believe it, like some sort of Orwellian thought-victim?

Studies of real students have shown that it is not only possible, but a relatively common practice. In 1996, W.W. Cobern suggested that resistant students commonly practice what he called “cognitive apartheid.”[1] Students who don’t want to believe the philosophical or religious implications of evolutionary theory, Cobern thought, could segregate out those ideas for use only in specific situations. When they needed to pass a science test, for example, students could pull up their knowledge of evolutionary theory, but in other contexts, they could keep those ideas separate from the rest of their thinking.

In a 2012 study, Ronald S. Hermann looked at the ways this apartheid worked in practice. Hermann located students who did well on tests of evolutionary ideas. Then he talked to two of them who knew and understood evolutionary theory very well, yet refused to believe it. “Krista” and “Aidan” both described the ways this process worked for them.

For those of us from secular or liberal religious backgrounds, these interviews provide fascinating insights into the ways conservative religious people justify their seemingly conflicted knowledge and belief. Hermann argues that the mental processes involved are “unclear and ambiguous in nature.”

For Aidan, his thorough knowledge of evolutionary science jostled along uncomfortably with his religious beliefs. As he tried to explain to Hermann,

I don’t know enough to make a real good judgment. I just try and take the Bible as its literal interpretation, and kind of leave the science stuff alone.

Krista had an even more complex relationship to evolutionary knowledge. As Dan Kahan points out, she did not simply wall off her knowledge in one segregated part of her brain. That is, she did not simply memorize a list of facts for use on rare occasions such as tests. Rather, she served as a tutor in Hermann’s class and planned a career as a veterinarian. She was able to teach evolutionary concepts to other people. And she planned to use basic evolutionary ideas in her future career. Yet she says she does not believe them.

From the snippets of her interview provided by Hermann, Krista does not seem to wall off evolutionary knowledge in her mind. Rather, she seems to be able to switch back and forth from knowing it and using it in some situations, to disbelieving it in others. Or, more precisely, she seems to know evolution in a different way. She tells the interviewer at one point, “I don’t think I, like, put my emotion into it.”

Professor Kahan wants to call this something other than “cognitive apartheid.” A better description, he suggests, is “cognitive dualism.” Some people, from Pakistan to Kentucky, seem to believe mainstream science at work, but disbelieve it at home.

In K-12 public schools, too, I think we see similar effects. Students tend to believe all sorts of things at school, then switch to a different set of beliefs at home. This is not only about controversial ideas in science, literature, or history. Rather, students do this constantly with their social identities. They might be one kind of person at school, with peers and teachers, then present a very different persona to their families at home.

As usual, I don’t have much personal experience with this kind of cognitive struggle, whether it be “apartheid” or “dualism.” Have you experienced such struggles in your life? Do you remember maintaining a dual belief system in your youth, only to move more firmly in one or another direction as you grew older?

[1] Cobern, W.W. Worldview theory and conceptual change in science education. Science Education 80, 579-610 (1996).

The Biggest Creationists in the World

Is Christianity the most creationist religion?  Islam?  A new study from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East suggests some surprising conclusions about the relationship between religion and creationism.

The study by Pierre Clément of the Université de Lyon used a questionnaire distributed to teachers throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.  Fifteen of the questions had something to do with evolution.

Creationist hotspot, whatever your religion...

Creationist hotspot, whatever your religion…

Perhaps not surprising, in countries where teachers tended to be more religious, they also tended to be more creationist.  In Algeria, for example, 91.9% of respondents identified as Muslim.  Only 1.3% called themselves atheists or agnostic.  And over 90% of those Algerian teachers thought that “Only God” was responsible for the origin of humanity.

Compare that to France, where just over half of teachers identified as atheist/agnostic, 38.1% called themselves Catholic, and 1.5% said they were Muslims.  Only about 2% of French teachers thought that “Only God” was responsible for the creation of humanity.

The authors had wondered if Islam tended to push teachers harder toward creationism than did Christianity.  That is, do Muslims tend to be more creationist than Christians?  Their conclusion: Not in these countries, it seems.  As Clément put it,

There is not a specific effect on the Muslim religion itself on the teachers’ conceptions of evolution, but a more general effect of their degree of belief in God, whatever their religion.

In creationist-heavy countries, that is, Christians and Muslims agree.  On creationism at least.

Academic Freedom vs. Creation College

nnu crusaders

President Alexander’s Last Crusade?

What is a college president to do? At conservative religious colleges, leaders are in a real pickle. Hosting faculty with unpopular beliefs could lead to a loss of tuition dollars. Getting rid of them could lead to charges of dictatorial ambition. At Northwest Nazarene University in Idaho, President David Alexander fired Thomas Jay Oord. Now Alexander has to deal with the consequences.

First, some background. According to Christianity Today, Alexander’s administration claims that the firing was due to financial straits. Professor Oord taught theology for a decade at the college and had earned a reputation for teaching evolution and “open theology.”

The faculty senate at NNU has protested the administration’s move. The school’s financial future is rosy, according to the faculty. Oord’s firing, they say, is more about reputation than budget.

As at many other conservative religious colleges, that reputation can be difficult to protect. As we’ve discussed in these pages, college leaders face intense pressure to remain orthodox. Parents and alumni control the pursestrings. Such folks can be ferocious defenders of traditional values.

School leaders are forced not only to keep teaching orthodox, but to avoid any appearance of liberalism. If a professor like Oord becomes well known for favoring theistic evolution, it can tarnish the creationist reputation of a college. Parents will send their creationist children elsewhere. Alumni will keep their money.

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