Would You Sign It?

Should creationism be banned from schools?  Intelligent design?

That’s the question posed by a new petition on the White House’s website.

As of this morning, the petition has garnered 7,662 signatures.  It only needs 92,338 more by July 15 to earn an official response.

The language seems mild to an evolution believer like me:

Since Darwin’s groundbreaking theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, scientists all around the world have found monumental amounts of evidence in favor of the theory, now treated as scientific fact by 99.9% of all scientists.

However, even after 150 years after the establishment of evolution, some schools across the US are “teaching the controversy,” including Creationism and Intelligent Design. Both of these so-called “theories” have no basis in scientific fact, and have absolutely zero evidence pointing towards these conjectures. These types of loopholes in our education are partially to blame for our dangerously low student performances in math and science.

Therefore, we petition the Obama Administration to ban the teachings of these conjectures that contradict Evolution.

I agree with these sentiments.  Though there are legitimate scientific questions about evolution, such questions do not merit teaching evolution as merely a “controversy.”  Evolution is a fundamental idea about science and deserves to be taught as such in public schools.

However, I think this talk of a “ban” misses the point.  The religious notions of creationism and intelligent design are already banned in public schools.  This kind of anti-creationist activism only antagonizes the substantial number of Americans who sympathize with religious explanations of the origins of life.  Antagonizes without purpose.

In the pages of the Christian Post, for example, young-earth creationist Ken Ham correctly pointed out that the petition could never have any real impact on the teaching of creationism.  The petition only proved, Ham insisted, “the intolerance of evolutionist activists who do not want to see any challenge to their deeply held secularist worldview.”  Since the petition did not specify public schools, Ham argued, this petition can be seen as an aggressive attempt to dictate the teaching even of religious private schools.

Similarly, John West of the Discovery Institute, an intelligent-design think-tank, called the petition “ill-informed, confused, and beside the point.”

I don’t want to see creationism of any sort taught in public schools.  But I agree here with West and Ham.  This petition looks like another well-meaning but ill-considered scheme by overzealous anti-creationists.

Would you sign it?

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15 Comments

  1. I think I would. I don’t think whether schools are public or private has any bearing on the ethics of teaching creationism. The conservative viewpoint on this emphasises parental rights, and I think the interests of the child are the relevant factor. I can’t think of another instance where we speak of one human being having rights over another. The only examples I can think of are slavery and the old-fashioned view of marriage where a woman was transferred from being her father’s property to being her husband’s. I don’t think either of those is a model many people would wish to defend.

    The question, then, is whether it’s in the child’s interest to be taught Creationism. The only defence I can think of is that it is in the child’s interest to be inducted into a community. If learning evolutionary science drives a wedge between a child and her parents, that could be detrimental. You’d have to weigh whether this cost can be justified by other advantages that accrue from a sound education. As I’ve argued elsewhere, teaching Young Earth Creationism impacts negatively on a wide range of academic disciplines and on critical thinking skills. It also drives a wedge between the child and the wider, science-accepting public. In my view the costs of teaching Creationism outweigh any possible benefit.

    Reply
    • Once again, Jonny, you make an excellent point. Stripped of all the talk of whether or not creationism/ID is scientifically legitimate (a red herring, IMHO), the central question here is whether or not creationism harms children. If it does, the state has a legitimate interest in intervention. In other religious cases, such as the case of Waiting For Zion, the government has made tragic overreaches. You and I come to different conclusions, though. I think the impression that the government wants to impose a religious orthodoxy does more harm than does the teaching of creationism. That’s why I would not sign the petition.

      Reply
      • Thanks for your reply Adam. I think that’s a legitimate point of view, but I wouldn’t see this as imposing a religious orthodoxy so much as supporting a child’s right to self-determination. A right to teach Creationism, in my view, amounts to a right to attempt to limit what life choices a child can make.

        I see your concern, though. I suspect we agree in principle, but disagree on where to draw the line. Are there any fringe theories you would support banning? Flat Earthism? David Icke’s Alien Lizards? Alchemy?

        I would think that many people who would not be comfortable banning Creationism might vote to ban those even more transparently absurd suggestions. I don’t see any meaningful difference between the cases though.

      • I think you make the case right there. Whether you and I like it or not, creationism–even of the Young-Earth variety–is not a “fringe theory.” It has solid mainstream support in the USA, if not among mainstream scientists. There is no need to ban flat earthism or geo-centrism, since they do not have the same sort of constituency. That’s why I call a ban on creationism an attempt to impose a religious orthodoxy. Evolution, properly taught, does indeed cast important doubts on certain forms of religious belief. That argument was one of the strengths of Jason Rosenhouse’s Among the Creationists. Insisting that all children learn an idea with important theological implications for huge numbers of American citizens, IMHO, counts as imposing religious orthodoxy. Don’t get me wrong: I am not a creationist, nor do I think creationism should be taught in public schools. But I think the creationism debate has been sidetracked for political reasons. Creationists themselves have been forced to argue that their desire for creationism in schools is not religious, due to the history of court decisions against them. Creationists have sidetracked the debate into the intellectually preposterous notion that creationism is really better mainstream science. It is not. IMHO.
        But that does not mean that creationism is not important as mainstream religion. And public schools have no right to impose alternate religious ideas on children from dissenting families. That is just as true for creationists as it is for Catholics, Amish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc. The fact that many promoters of better evolution educators do not see their goal as religious does not mean that it is not religious. Protestant do-gooders in the nineteenth century did not see why Catholics protested against Pope-bashing in public schools. Missionary teachers did not see why Native American students did not like to be forced to abandon their religions. In most cases, people who do not see the religious implications of their curricula should defer to those who come from the dissenting religious traditions. Sorry for the long-winded reply. Too much coffee this morning.

      • No, the long-winded reply is highly appreciated food for thought. So far I don’t think we disagree on any important point, so it’s interesting that we draw different conclusions.

        Out of interest, what’s your view on the 1972 Supreme Court decision, Wisconsin v. Yoder (discussed at http://freethoughtblogs.com/singham/2013/06/05/the-right-of-a-child-to-a-good-education/ if you are unfamiliar)?

        I agree with your view that Creationism is primarily religious, but not with your argument that Creationists only argue that it is science for political reasons. All the fundamentalist curricula I’ve seen insist that a) they accept the mainstream scientific method and b) Creationism is better science than evolution. This is their genuine opinion.

        Of course, you can’t just teach evolution in a science class and Creationism in a religion class, which is the compromise some evolution advocates seem to propose.

      • Jonny, thanks for the back-and-forth this morning. I love it. Hope your school program is going well. Now, to the nitty gritty:
        Re: “science,” point taken. I didn’t mean to imply that creationists don’t sincerely believe that their creation science is better than mainstream science. What I meant to say was that the fight to establish creation science as superior science purely in secular scientific terms resulted from repeated court defeats for creationism as religion. Same with ID. As the Dover v. Kitzmiller case showed, ID proponents consciously edited out all mention of God from Of Pandas and People. The need to prove the scientific superiority of creationism, purely on scientific terms, resulted from creationism’s exclusion from schools as religion.
        Re: Wisconsin v. Yoder, the reason I included Amish and Jehovah’s Witnesses in my short list of dissenters was precisely because of this case and West Virginia v. Barnette. The US Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that religious dissenters and their children have a right to keep public education from infringing on their beliefs. Each case relied, importantly, on the legitimacy and historical authenticity of each religion. That is why I think the long history of creationism and the common acceptance of creationism matter. It is not as if a small group of people, say, the Westboro Baptists, sought to impose their eccentric beliefs on American public education. Whatever we may think about the scientific or theological legitimacy of creationism, I believe it has the same claim to legitimacy and authenticity as other dissenting groups. Why not then allow children the right to dissent?

      • I’m enjoying this too.

        I haven’t spent ages considering all the viewpoints here (which is why I appreciate your thoughts) but my instinct is that Wisconsin v. Yoder was the wrong decision.

        I absolutely agree with you that children have the right to dissent. Teaching Creationism as science necessarily involves feeding them misleading information. It in fact blocks the child’s right to dissent, because they are not given the information or the skills to make an informed choice.

  2. Dear Jonny, what studies have shown that teaching YEC “impacts negatively on a wide range of academic disciplines and on critical thinking skills”? Please state the initial study and the subsequent replication studies.

    And Dr. Laats, what worldwide study of ALL scientists determined that 99.9% were evolutionists? And how were evolutionists defined? For instance, would a theistic evolutionist be a creationist or an evolutionist?

    Reply
    • Fair enough. Are there good studies of long-term effects from YEC education? I don’t know. I also don’t know if there are really “99.9%” of scientists who accept the basic truths of evolution. I took that term as a stand-in for “nearly all.” And that really is the case, as far as I can tell. You’re right, I don’t have specific survey data to back that up, but since the fundamental notions of evolution are so central to mainstream science, I think it is fair to conclude that most scientists really are willing to accept the basic outline of evolution.
      These scientists include folks who might, by other definitions, be included as “creationists.” I think in this case, evolutionary creationists, or theistic evolutionists, like the folks at BioLogos, would count as people who accept the basic facts of evolution. They are still creationists in that they believe that God created life and all ex nihilo, but they count as evolution-accepters in that they accept the fundamental ideas of shared origins and long geologic time. The same would be true, I gather, for large denominations such as the Roman Catholic Church.

      Reply
    • Thank you, that’s what I am trying to get at. Assuming that there was a study of this sort, how one defines a ‘creationist’ would skew the numbers given that the ‘middle grounders’ (OEC, ID, BioLogos, progressive) might be numerically substantial. As for numbers in the US, if 13% of biblical literalists have at least a bachelors degree, your assertion that “fundamental notions of evolution are so central to mainstream science” may not necessarily be justified.

      Baker, Joseph. 2013. Acceptance of Evolution and Support for Teaching Creationism in Public Schools: The Conditional Impact of Educational Attainment. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 5(1): 216–228. [ Available here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jssr.12007/abstract ]

      Reply
  3. This is so unlikely to be useful, so murky in its origins, so rapidly seized on by fundamentalists, and so useful to our opponents (@look; they want to censor us!”) that Curious Curmudgeon thinks it may actually be a dirty trick: http://sensuouscurmudgeon.wordpress.com/2013/06/29/why-we-oppose-the-petition-to-ban-creationism/

    Reply
  1. Would You Sign It? UPDATE | I Love You but You're Going to Hell
  2. White House Petition: A Creationist Scheme? | I Love You but You're Going to Hell
  3. Our fundamentalist neighbours | Leaving Fundamentalism
  4. Our Fundamentalist Neighbors, Part I | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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