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.

Advertisements
Leave a comment

6 Comments

  1. Adam – I agree with your overall thesis, but would suggest that cultural anthropology is a bit too broad for addressing this issue. A number of years ago, several of us worked in conjunction with BioLogos on a proposal to do basically what you are suggesting, but with a focus on providing teachers resources and tools to specifically address theological and religious perspectives, particularly of evangelical Christian YEC’s. Unfortunately, the Templeton Foundation deemed our theological perspectives too liberal for their funding parameters. I still encounter high school biology teachers who long for such resources.

    Reply
  2. I think you are engaged in wishful thinking.

    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.

    I have no problem with that. But if it is religious dissent, then the creationists should not be attempting to force their view into the curriculum. And it’s the curriculum that is involved in the culture wars. If creationists stopped attempting to influence the curriculum, they would mostly be accepted.

    I like to think that I could teach biology in a way that was not seen as attacking creationist viewpoints. But not every teacher could do that. Teachers are human, after all. And even if I were teaching biology in a very non-offensive way, there would be some creationist parents who would take offense. Parents are human, too.

    If all teachers were to teach biology in a way that should not offend, but was still honest to the science, they would be teaching about a world of cruelty that is very different from the idyllic picture of the Garden of Eden. And, inevitably, this would indirectly influence the religious beliefs of some students. And, just as inevitably, parents of those students would go on the offense against the teaching of biology.

    Reply
    • Excellent points, Neil and Douglas. To Douglas first: Not just you and me, but generations of folks have tried and failed to introduce to the wider cultural discussion a version of “Evolution” that was stripped of its unnecessary materialistic trappings. I just finished Bradley Gundlach’s excellent history of “Old” Princeton. Despite the best efforts of profoundly heavy hitters, the notion that “evolution” could be a religion-friendly idea just hasn’t penetrated very deeply. I think the problem lies in what you describe: Once we get into theology, then we can never get over the many devastating distinctions that will certainly be made.
      And to Neil: You raise a crucial issue. It is one thing for us to talk about how we *should* teach evolution, but in fact it only matters when it is actually taught. Who will teach it, and how? Even if we pretend for a moment that all the science teachers in the country would get on board with an effort to teach culturally sensitive evolution (and that is utterly impossible, given the broad diversity out there), then would all the parents out there also? When I wake up in the middle of the night and think about these things, I have to admit that such things seem fantastically unlikely.
      But what else is there to do? Throw up our hands and say ‘too bad so sad?’

      Reply
      • But what else is there to do? Throw up our hands and say ‘too bad so sad?’

        My reaction is similar to Neil’s. I think you give up too much ground if you really believe what so many others will stumble over, even if they are themselves religious and well aware of the cultural histories and perspectives involved. Specifically, I mean your claim that:

        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.

        Why is this a cultural strength? I could see a willingness to engage in meaningful debate as a strength in students, but this issue is hard to take places where both sides feel their interaction is meaningful. I can see the sense of avoiding polemic and adversarial pedagogy — of course — but the students do have a deficit, they are ignorant in many respects, and they may believe the same is true of the teacher.

        Can you elaborate on what you mean by this: “Once we get into theology, then we can never get over the many devastating distinctions that will certainly be made.” ?

        That is an interesting reflection. I don’t know if you mean it this way, but to me the problem is entirely theological or philosophical. You have certain cultures who are remarkably resistant to shedding a premodern, metaphysical, “enchanted” view of reality. The idea that their old myths are “just myths” displaced by scientific rationality (etc.) is so traumatizing they try to destroy or co-opt science. Then there are others who have ways of letting that go and remaining religious or by embracing a secularism that is functionally religious in its own way, and there is a much broader culture war between these groups.

        Personally I think the country just has to face this on many different fronts. There is movement. I’m willing to bet that genetic research and an enlarging grasp of multiple early human and proto-human species (if not 19th century geology) will — in the near future — finally reach a level of penetration where Ken Ham’s audience has declined to a tiny fringe. Once the basic facts are no longer in dispute everyone can talk about value and meaning.

      • Thanks for the thoughts, Dan. When I noted that public schools shouldn’t try to take one theological position over another, I only meant that schools can’t afford to be perceived as sectarian institutions. They can’t afford to be seen as pushing one particular religious idea, about evolution or anything else.

      • I thought that was probably it. That accusation can always be made, but I don’t think it would be pushing one idea or a particularly “religious” issue if we took more of a “history and philosophy of…” approach to the major subjects and pushed the conflicts there. French teenagers taking the Bac get questions and texts you could call “religious,” but there is no reaction to this as a threat to French Laïcité.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s