Can We Tell Students the Truth about Truth?


I don’t know what to think.  For almost a hundred years, creationists and other conservatives have complained that mainstream science—often symbolized by the idea of evolution—threatened their children’s faith.  For just as long, leading scientists have insisted that there was nothing religious about real science.  But a recent chat with physicist Carlo Rovelli makes me wonder.

First, some premises:

1.) Public schools should not be teaching religious ideas to children.  Schools may and should teach ABOUT religions, but public schools should not attempt to push students toward or away from any faith.

2.) Public schools must offer students the best available scholarship.  In science class, this means students must learn the modern evolutionary synthesis.

3.) Secondary-school education–in the USA, that means high schools and middle schools–should train students to think in ways familiar to the scholarly disciplines.  So, in history class, we follow Stanford’s Sam Wineburg in hoping to teach students to engage in the “unnatural act” of thinking like a historian.  The same should be true in other disciplines.  Students should be learning basic principles of mathematical thinking, literary thinking, and scientific thinking.

So here’s our dilemma.  For a while now, conservative creationists have complained that public schools are teaching evolution as a religion.  Nonsense, mainstream scientists have responded.

Because, of course, if evolution were a religion, it should not be taught in public schools.  It could be taught ABOUT, but not taught as something towards which students ought to be pushed.

But as trenchant observers have observed, there are indeed some religious aspects of mainstream scientific belief.  Or, to put it more precisely, there are important ways in which the attitudes of mainstream scientists clash with certain conservative theological beliefs.  As my favorite atheist observer of American creationism Jason Rosenhouse argued, traditional Christians are correct in thinking that evolutionary ideas pose a drastic theological threat.

And today we come across more fuel for this dilemma.  In a recent interview in Scientific American, physicist Carlo Rovelli seconds the notion that mainstream science is–as much as it is anything–a skeptical attitude toward absolute truth.  As Dr. Rovelli put it,

I have no idea what “absolute truth” means. I think that science is the attitude of those who find funny the people saying they know something is absolute truth.  Science is the awareness that our knowledge is constantly uncertain.

Tell me the absolute truth: Do these glasses make my face look fat?

Dr. Rovelli, Tell me the absolute truth…

I don’t need to be up on the latest in quantum physics to see how such an attitude could be problematic for the conservative parents of American school children.  If such children were being taught the basic principles of mainstream science, and if those principles coincided with Rovelli’s attitude, then conservative parents might indeed have cause for complaint.

A family wouldn’t need to be any sort of creationist to take issue, either.  Anyone who takes their Judaism or Christianity seriously might be chagrined to find their children coming home from school and telling them, “I find it funny when people say they know something is absolute truth.”

Knowin’ Ain’t Believin’

What do we mean when we say we do or don’t believe in evolution?  As we’ve discussed here in the pages of ILYBYGTH, it’s not the simple question it appears.  At his Cultural Cognition blog, Dan Kahan recently rehashed his argument about the utter disjunction between knowledge and belief when it comes to evolution.  The argument has ramifications for both the way we think about the culture wars in general and the specific ways we think about evolution education.

For those interested in issues of evolution and creationism, if you’re not regularly reading Dan Kahan’s Cultural Cognition blog, you should be.  Professor Kahan argues that culture precedes facts.  Whether the issue is immunizations, climate change, evolution, or other questions of science and public understanding, Professor Kahan insists that “knowledge” is not a simple matter of exposure to facts.  The way people respond to facts is conditioned by their cultural background.

In the case of evolution and creationism, conservative religious folks may know a great deal about education, yet that knowledge tends not to show up on standard surveys.  As Professor Kahan relates, religious people often know a great deal about mainstream science, yet when they are asked about evolution, they seem not to know it.  But the standard survey questions misrepresent how many of those conservative religious types actually know about evolution.

The traditional question asked by the science literacy survey of the National Science Foundation, for instance, asks respondents the following question: “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals, true or false?”  Not surprisingly, among highly religious Americans, the number of people who get this question “correct” takes a huge dive.  This is true even among those respondents who answer many other science questions correctly.

You know it must be true, because it has charts 'n' stuff...

You know it must be true, because it has charts ‘n’ stuff…

But this discrepancy can be fixed by wording the question differently.  When the survey added a simple phrase such as “According to scientists,” then religious people answered the evolution question correctly.  In other words, asking some conservative religious people if evolution is “true or false” is not asking them if they “know” evolution.  But!  Asking conservative respondents if SCIENTISTS SAY human beings developed from earlier species of animals comes closer to testing real knowledge about evolution.  And the simple addition of this phrase—“scientists say”—offers a promise of healing some of the viciousness of our evolution/creationism controversies.

After all, what do we want out of people?  Must we insist that Americans believe evolution to be true, rather than false?  Or rather, do we want to insist that to be educated, one must understand what mainstream science says about evolution?

As I am arguing with co-author Harvey Siegel in a new book about the history and philosophy of evolution education, only the latter makes any real sense.  It makes sense for creationists.  And it makes sense for mainstream scientists and science educators.

Those of us who want public schools to teach evolution—and only evolution—as science  need to be clear among ourselves what it is we are really after.  We do not want to impose religious beliefs on public-school students.  If a student and his or her family finds evolution objectionable for religious reasons, it is not the job of the public school to disabuse that student of those religious beliefs.  It is similarly not the job of a public school to convince creationist students that evolution does not in fact threaten those religious beliefs.  In short, the religious beliefs of public-school students are beyond the purview of public-school teachers and curricula.

But it is entirely proper and necessary for public schools to insist that all students of all backgrounds know the best current science.  And that science is the modern evolutionary synthesis.  Whatever some creationist pundits may say, creation science, intelligent design, and other varieties of creationism are not scientific improvements.  They are, rather, religious objections to mainstream science.

Professor Kahan’s careful distinction between knowledge and belief provides a helpful guide for this vision of proper evolution education in public schools.  Public school science classes must teach evolution and only evolution as the best current scientific knowledge.  Students must be able to identify and define key ideas such as natural selection, random mutation, and genetic variance.

But too many science educators implicitly tie knowledge of those ideas to belief in them.  That connection is as unnecessary as it is harmful.

As Professor Kahan points out, this connection between knowledge and belief can be fixed with a simple patch.  In surveys, instead of asking respondents if human evolution is true or false, we can ask respondents if human evolution is true or false, according to mainstream scientists.

The same approach can work in public school science classes.  Instead of implying that evolution is true, teachers can add—either implicitly or explicitly—a notion that evolution is the way mainstream science explains the origins of life.  Students can and must be expected to explain and analyze evolution.  But they can do so with a conditional always in the background.  That is, they can maintain a notion that the mechanisms of evolution are the ideas of mainstream scientists, not some grand explanation of the truth about human life.

Can it work?  According to Professor Kahan, it already does.  Changing the wording of survey questions has an enormous impact on the answers.  And historically, as I’ve argued in both my 1920s book and my upcoming book about conservative activism in education, creationists have not objected to their children learning about evolution.  They have only disputed the way evolution was taught as the simple truth about humanity’s origins.  The same is true today, I’m guessing.  Creationists, I’m confident, will agree that their kids should know about evolution.  They simply resent the attitude of many evolution educators.

This attitude can be seen in the way we talk about evolution education.  Is evolution “true?”  That sort of question is the absolute wrong approach.  It forces evolution skeptics to reject evolution.  It forces dissenters to present themselves as anti-evolution.  And students must therefore get questions about evolution wrong.  Students must try not to “know” evolution.  But if we allow students to add a simple phrase, we might sidestep a world of unnecessary and corrosive disputation.

Consider the world of difference, for instance, between the following two student responses:

  • Scientists say that some speciation arose through the mechanism of genetic drift.”
  • “Some speciation arose through the mechanism of genetic drift.”

There are only three additional words in the first response, yet the cultural meaning of the first response is worlds different from the second.  Many creationists, I’m convinced, would be willing and eager for their children to learn about evolution, if those children had the freedom to discuss evolution with the implicit addition of the phrase “scientists say.”

Am I missing something?  For those like me who want to see more evolution education in public schools—and more effective evolution education in those schools—would this approach help?  And for creationist parents, teachers, and preachers, would the separation of knowledge from belief lead you to support this sort of evolution education for your kids?



Save the Date, Evolution Wonks!

Great news for all of us in sunny Binghamton!  Professor Michael Berkman of Penn State has agreed to come up for a talk about his work.  It is scheduled for March 30, 2015, so everyone has plenty of advance warning.  Clear your calendars.

Evolution? Creation? Who decides?

Evolution? Creation? Who decides?

Professor Berkman’s talk will be part of the fantastic Monday seminar series of our Evolutionary Studies Program (EvoS).  The brainchild of evolution maven David Sloan Wilson, EvoS makes this campus a wonderfully stimulating place to work.  I’ve had the chance to talk to the assembled multitudes, and the EvoS program has brought in a steady stream of world-class evolution experts from all fields.

Those who follow the evolution/creation controversies may know Professor Berkman best for his recent-ish co-authored book, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

The centerpiece of that book—and the part that attracted the most attention—was a survey of high-school science teachers.  Berkman and his co-author Eric Plutzer found that a sizable minority (28%) of science teachers taught evolution.  Another small minority (13%) taught creationism as science.  But a large middle—roughly sixty percent—muddled through.  This middle group either taught both, or neither, or a watered down mainstream “science” that left plenty of intellectual room for creationism.

But less noticed and more momentous was their argument that teachers make the most difference in what gets taught.  And teachers tend to fit in with their communities.  When we hear that large percentages of Americans agree with a recent creation of humanity, we might think at first that those people are mixed in with the rest of us.  But far more likely is that such folks cluster geographically. In other words, in some towns, most of the residents are creationists.  In those locales, teachers will teach what their community wants.  Not out of some sinister oppressive fundamentalist machinations, but much more simply because the teachers hold those same beliefs.

As Berkman and Plutzer argued, teachers function as “street-level bureaucrats.”  They do not simply crank out whatever ideas are enshrined in textbooks and state standards.  Rather, teachers exert profound influence on the kinds of ideas students hear, and the ways those ideas are presented.  In Berkman’s and Plutzer’s words, “not only do personal beliefs influence instruction, they also have a stronger impact than any other factor we have examined” (page 186).

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

As Berkman and Plutzer put it, the best way to understand the evolution/creation fight is not as a question of religion or science.  Rather, at heart, this is “a political struggle over who decides, a question central to democratic politics” (page 31).

So Monday, March 30 should be an interesting evening.  The EvoS crowd usually runs toward the biologic and away from the politic.  Many of the undergraduate students are biology majors and many of the faculty and community participants cluster in the hard sciences.  Such folks sometimes wince at any attempt to understand evolution/creation as a cultural or political issue.  Instead, some hard scientists tend to see the issue as black and white: Evolution is science, creationism is not.

I’m not sure what Professor Berkman will discuss in his talk, but I’m counting the days til then.  These talks are open to the public and free; no registration is required.  I’ll post details of the specific time and location as we figure them out.  For those who can’t make it to our scenic but out-of-the-way campus, EvoS usually posts the audio of these talks after a few days.

Hope to see you there!




Creation and the Ice Bucket Challenge

What does a young earth have to do with pouring a bucket of ice over your head?  According to Georgia Purdom of Answers In Genesis, the popular ice bucket challenge might not be the innocent do-gooderism it seems to be.

Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve seen images of people pouring buckets of ice over their heads.  The idea is to spread the word about the work of the ALS Association.  And it’s working.  Celebrities from all over the media map have done the deed, including former POTUS George W. Bush.

So why would AIG be against it?  According to Answers In Genesis, the Ice Bucket Challenge funnels money and attention to an immoral organization.  In the words of AIG’s Georgia Purdom,

the ALS Association that is promoting the frigid challenge promotes an unethical search for a cure. Many researchers are willing to use embryonic stem cells and cells taken from “electively aborted” fetuses to search for a cure.

Does this imply that President Bush is not pro-life?  That Bush and all the Ice-Bucketeers are somehow making a political statement in favor of embryonic stem cell research?

















Creationism, Conservatism, and the Common Core

What does creationism have to do with the newish Common Core Learning Standards? Some conservative activists and politicians are rejecting both in a knee-jerk attack on educational reform. In one new educational bill in Ohio, conservatives simultaneously threw out the Common Core and opened the door to creationism. But this isn’t just a question of creationism. Rather, this is a symptom of a broader conservative attitude toward public schooling.

Not just science, but history and literature are also targeted in this conservative educational power grab.

We first became aware of this new bill in Ohio thanks to the watchdoggery of the folks at the National Center for Science Education. The NCSE, naturally, worried first about the apparent opening of Ohio’s public-school science classes to intelligent design and creationism. Ohio’s House Bill 597 would insist on new standards that specifically “prohibit political or religious interpretation of scientific facts in favor of another.”  The sponsor of the bill, Andy Thompson of Marietta, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that he included that language to allow school districts the freedom to include a variety of ideas about evolution, not to mandate that districts include intelligent design or creationism.

Representative Thompson wants the Common Core OUT and conservative curricula IN.

Representative Thompson wants the Common Core OUT and conservative curricula IN.

But the anti-Common Core bill also includes a broad-spectrum attack on the purportedly progressive nature of school curricula in other subjects as well. The original draft of the bill specified that 80% of the literature taught must be from American or British authors before 1970, though Thompson quickly backpedaled from that goal. But why was such a target included in the first place? As I detail in my new book, conservatives since the 1970s have looked skeptically at the trend toward “multicultural” literature. Conservative leaders from Max Rafferty to Bill Bennett have insisted that proper education—conservative education—must be based on the classics of our Western civilization. Anything else, they insisted, dooms children to a savage unawareness of their own cultural heritage.

In history, too, the Ohio bill insisted that history instruction include

the original texts and the original context of the declaration of independence, the northwest ordinance, the constitution of the United States and its amendments with emphasis on the bill of rights; incorporate the Ohio constitution; define the United States of America as a constitutional republic; be based on acquisition of real knowledge of major individuals and events; require the study of world and American geography; and prohibit a specific political or religious interpretation of the standards’ content.

Here also we hear echoes of long-time conservative worries. From Lynne Cheney to Dinesh D’Souza, it has become a commonplace of the conservative imagination that leftist history has taken over public education. As I argued recently in a commentary in History News Network, conservatives assume that students are taught that American history is the record of cruel white hate crimes against Native Americans, women, and African Americans. The Ohio bill hopes to rectify this America-bashing by mandating “real knowledge,” not just hate-filled Zinn-isms.

As we’ve seen time and again, conservatives are not united in their thinking about the Common Core. Some conservatives love them….or at least like them. Others blast the standards as yet another attempt at sneaky subversion from Washington.

In this new Ohio legislation, we see how some conservatives combine their loathing of the Common Core with a grab-bag of other conservative educational goals: Less evolution in science class, more America-loving in history class, and less multiculturalism in literature class. Taken together, conservatives such as Ohio’s Andy Thompson hope to broaden the anti-Common-Core juggernaut into a more ambitious conservative panacea.


Do You BELIEVE in Evolution?

It’s a deceptively simple question and it lies right at the heart of the creation/evolution controversies.  Unfortunately, Keith Blanchard’s recent opinion piece on the subject seems to miss the point.  Not because Blanchard doesn’t understand the issues, but because he deliberately hopes to change the conversation.  But it’s not that simple.  In at least two important ways, we need to wonder more deeply what we mean when we say we “believe” in evolution.

Can you BELIEVE this???

Can you BELIEVE this???

Blanchard writes from the heart of mainstream science.  We shouldn’t say we “believe” in evolution, Blanchard writes.  As he puts it,

if someone asks, “Do you believe in evolution,” they are framing it wrong. That’s like asking, “Do you believe in blue?”

Evolution is nothing more than a fairly simple way of understanding what is unquestionably happening. You don’t believe in it — you either understand it or you don’t…

Of course, we see what he means.  I even agree with his position.  But IMHO, this line or argument is nearly entirely beside the point.  It puts us evolution-supporters in the silly position of insisting that there is no debate about evolution.  Like Blanchard, we mean that the scientific facts of evolution are not open to debate, any more than is the fact of gravity or the fact of blue.

But so what?  How does that position get us anywhere?

Because there IS a debate about evolution, obviously.  Lots of influential people do not accept the facticity of evolution.  They do not accept that evolution explains the deep history of species on this planet.  Therefore, it matters to say that we believe in evolution.  Saying we “believe” in evolution, politically, means taking a stand about educational politics and cultural politics.

On a more basic level, too, saying that we believe in evolution has a value beyond Blanchard’s knee-jerk empiricism.  After all, in our society, we believe all sorts of things about which we only have a tentative or tenuous understanding.  For instance, when we have a serious medical malady, we trust in what medical experts tell us.  Not blindly, of course, but we talk to several experts and decide on a treatment course that seems to make sense to us.  We don’t necessarily understand every jot and tittle of the medical science.  But we take the life-or-death advice of doctors.  When it matters, we trust our experts.

And that is also the case here.  Saying we “believe” in evolution means something different than saying we understand its meaning.  Saying we “believe” in evolution means we trust a certain set of authorities over others.  Not blindly, of course, but in general outline.  So, for instance, when the National Center for Science Education mounts its Project Steve, I’m convinced.  The sheer numbers of mainstream scientists who publicly announce their “belief” in evolution convinces me.

After all, for educated folks these days, the un-interpreted evidence of our senses has long been suspect.  Blanchard writes that we should all trust the “evidence of [our] own senses.”  If we do so, he concludes, we’ll be convinced about the fact of evolution.  But educated people know that their senses might mislead them.  After all, the intuitive case for creationism is very strong.  Things seem to have been created according to some system, some plan.  Creationists might regularly appeal to people’s senses to prove their point, along the lines of Paley’s watchmaker.

As careful studies have proven, people who reject evolution don’t necessarily have a spottier understanding of science.  Contrary to what Blanchard says, people can and often do understand evolution yet reject it.  Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, for example, concluded from their large-group study of science teachers that creationists have an edge beyond the logic of folks like Blanchard.  Even among those Americans who understand that mainstream scientists agree on evolution, Berkman and Plutzer found, a large majority prefers that public schools teach both evolution and creationism.  That’s right: Even those Americans who know what mainstream science says about evolution still want schools to teach creationism.

In a world like that, Blanchard’s argument seems at best irrelevant.  Insisting that evolution is a simple fact, either to be understood or not understood, makes no sense in these circumstances.  On the other hand, if we say we “believe” in evolution, we’re doing something important.  Something with necessary political weight.

But there is one sense in which we should not try to “believe” in evolution.  Not Blanchard’s sense, but a more nuts-and-bolts kind of meaning.  As I’m arguing in an upcoming book with co-author Harvey Siegel, public schools need to get out of the belief business when it comes to evolution education.  That is, the goal of evolution education must not be to convince students to “believe” in evolution.  Rather, the goal should be to make sure all students understand it.

In a way, this is what Blanchard is saying, but I wonder if he would recoil in disgust from the implications.  Blanchard wants people to understand evolution.  We don’t “believe” in something that is obviously true.  We don’t “believe” in facts of nature.

In contrast, our prescription for public schools is that teachers adopt the goal of leading students to an understanding of evolution, and no more.  Students should be led to understand the principles of evolution, its mechanisms, and its evidence.  If they then choose not to “believe” evolution, that is an entirely private matter, beyond the realm of public school goals.

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that this sort of “understanding-not-belief” is not what Blanchard has in mind.

What about you?  Do you “believe” in evolution?  What does it mean to “believe” it, rather than to just “know” it?  Or, from the other direction, what does it mean to “dis-believe” it, even if you understand it?


Creationists Love Angry Science Teachers

Why would America’s leading young-earth creation ministry go to the National Education Association convention?  After all, Answers In Genesis castigates the NEA for its “godless, liberal agenda.”  AIG frets that the NEA combats conservatives’ right to homeschool their children and to teach godly creationism.

But that anti-God bias is exactly why the creationists go every year.  Answers In Genesis tries to engage NEA attendees with the gospel of creationism.  The creationist outreach at the NEA convention hopes to explain the goals of creationists and melt the hard hearts of some secular teachers.

The folks at AIG are not the first conservatives to try such tactics.  For generations now, the National Education Association has been perceived by conservative education activists as the enemy.  The NEA is seen as promoting secularism and a wrong-headed moral relativism.  As conservative gadflies Mel and Norma Gabler argued in the 1970s, the NEA had always tried to get public schools to teach that “there was no absolute transcendental God, Bible, or system of beliefs.”

And even long before the Gablers, conservatives tried to maintain their influence with the NEA.  As I note in my upcoming book about conservative educational activism in the twentieth century, the patriotic school activists in the American Legion pioneered this approach.  For the stalwart conservatives in the American Legion, the NEA offered the best way to influence American public education.  Therefore, they held their noses and collaborated on American Education Week.  Starting in 1921, the Legion and the NEA encouraged schools nationwide to focus on a certain theme for a week.  They tried to get everyone in every community engaged with their public schools.  For the conservative leaders of the American Legion, this was a way to promote patriotism and religion in public schools.  For the leaders of the NEA, this seemed like a good way to direct the public’s attention toward its schools.

For conservatives, then, the NEA has long been a target.  Generations of conservatives have hoped to influence the NEA with conservative educational ideas.  Does it work?  The conservative creationists at AIG seem to think so.  One missionary to the NEA relates the story of “Tom,” a hostile secular science teacher.  After spending time with the creationists at the NEA convention, Tom was able to understand more about the wholesome gospel mission of the creationists.  Walls were broken down, hearts were touched.


Leading Historian Would Vote for Hitler

He just flew in from New York...

He just flew in from New York…


Would you vote for Philip Hitler? Jonathan Zimmerman would. At least, that’s what he told the funny man on The Daily Show the other day.

It’s a pretty funny bit. But more important, it’s great to see our leading educational historian getting to yuk it up with Jon Stewart’s minions.

If you’re not up on the world of educational history, you may not know Jon Zimmerman’s work. But for historians, Zimmerman’s the king. Kind of like the Derek Jeter of educational historians, except Zimmerman shows no signs of quitting.

When I started my graduate work, Zimmerman’s book Whose America pointed me toward the study of culture-war issues in educational history. And now, as part of Zimmerman’s book series on the history and philosophy of education, I’m working with philosopher Harvey Siegel on a volume about the ups and downs of evolution education. So Zimmerman has been hugely influential in my career, and I’m sure every other ed historian out there could say something similar.

And now it looks as if he’s moving into the comedy business. Fantastic.


Fundamentalist Parents Can’t Relax

Rich parents can relax.  At least according to an article in this week’s Economist.  But fundamentalist parents never can.  They have to worry about more than their kids’ careers.  They have to fret about eternal damnation.  And they have to worry that Satan lurks in every textbook, every TV show, and every mainstream school.

The Economist article is worth reading in its entirety.  As it explains,

Well-to-do parents fear two things: that their children will die in a freak accident, and that they will not get into Harvard.

Getting into Harvard might be harder than getting into heaven...

Getting into Harvard might be harder than getting into heaven…

Both fears lead to exaggerated and ultimately counterproductive lifestyles.  In terms of safety, the article notes, an American child under five years of age in 1950 was five times as likely to die of disease or accident as that same kid would be today.  And though it is difficult to get into Harvard, most kids of affluent families will have fine careers without an Ivy-League transcript.

But fundamentalist parents have more to worry about.  Since the birth of American fundamentalism in the 1920s, conservative evangelicals have fretted about the influence of mainstream culture on their offspring.  Even if their kids don’t get polio, and even if their kids do get into Harvard, fundamentalist parents have to worry that success in life will lead to terrible punishment after death.  For fundamentalists, even Harvard itself can be more of a threat than an achievement.

As historian Randall Balmer put it in his blockbuster book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory,

the greatest fear that haunts evangelical parents is that their children will not follow in their footsteps, that they will not sustain the same level of piety as their parents—stated baldly, that they are headed for hell rather than heaven.

As I argued in my 1920s book, historically this fear for the children has fueled fundamentalism’s public campaigns.  Fundamentalist leaders and parents worried that no level of affluence and economic privilege could protect their children from a culture sliding nonchalantly straight to hell.

As conservative leader William Jennings Bryan explained in 1922, even the rich and powerful had lost the ability to protect the faith of their children.  As a former Secretary of State, Bryan knew many of these families personally.  He wrote about one acquaintance, a US Congressman, whose daughter came home from college only to tell the family that “nobody believed in the Bible stories now.”

It was not only conservative Congressmen who worried.  Fundamentalist evangelist Bob Jones Sr. liked to tell the story of a less powerful family who had a similar experience.  This family, Jones explained in one of his most popular 1920s sermons, scrimped and saved to send their precious daughter to

a certain college.  At the end of nine months she came home with her faith shattered.  She laughed at God and the old time religion.  She broke the hearts of her mother and father.  They wept over her.  They prayed over her. It availed nothing.  At last they chided her.  She rushed upstairs, stood in front of a mirror, took a gun and blew out her brains.

Even when fundamentalist families did not experience that sort of cataclysm, we must keep their anxiety in mind when we try to understand fundamentalism from the outside.  Why do conservative evangelicals fight against evolution?  Why do they insist on school prayer?  Why do they worry about rights for homosexuals?

In all these cases, conservative evangelicals’ public activism is made more desperate by their intense worry about their children.  In this, there is no difference between conservative evangelicals and mainstream Americans of any background.  As the Economist article points out, almost all parents love their children and make sacrifices for them.  In the case of mainstream affluent parents, it might even help if they relaxed a little bit.  As Bryan Caplan of George Mason University argues,

Middle-class parents should relax a bit, cancel a violin class or two and let their kids play outside.

Easy enough.  But fundamentalists face a very different situation.  If we want to understand the mind of fundamentalists, we can try a mental experiment.  Non-fundamentalist parents have a hard enough time relaxing about their kids, even though they feel at home in mainstream culture.  Non-fundamentalist parents fret too much about their kids’ futures, even if they don’t feel alienated by their local public schools and elite universities.

Let’s try to translate the anxiety experienced by fundamentalist parents into mainstream terms.  Imagine, for example, the sorts of public outcry there would be if public schools began promoting ideas or practices that affluent secular parents found dangerous.  For instance, what do you think would happen if a public school somewhere began promoting smoking as a fun and healthy activity?


Green Eggs and (Ken) Ham

Do you think of Dr. Seuss as a “fundamentalist” author?  Me neither.  But the fundamentalists want to claim him for their own.

Marvin Olasky of World Magazine offered recently a top-ten list of good children’s books.  Topping the list was Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hatches the Egg for its staunchly pro-life message.  The story, according to Olasky, presents Horton as a “pro-life hero.”

And that’s not all.  Olasky celebrates the conservative message of other leading mainstream children’s books as well.  William Steig’s Yellow & Pink tells more than just a cute story about puppets.  The two central characters wonder about their origins, with the evolution-y story of Yellow losing out to the creation-y story of Pink.

Where do we come from?

Where do we come from?

Dr. Seuss apparently didn’t like the pro-life associations of his Horton character.  But the creationism of William Steig is hard to miss in this book.

Makes me wonder—was Steig’s Shrek also some sort of creationist parable?



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