Missing the Boat on Creationism at the New York Times

It’s more than just a couple of minor goofs. A recent “retro” report about creationism and evolution education in the New York Times makes the usual huge mistakes in its description of American creationism.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH know I’m no creationist myself. I want more and better evolution education in America’s public schools, as I argued recently in my book with philosopher Harvey Siegel. But we won’t achieve that goal as long as we keep telling ourselves these comfortable/scary myths about creationism. If we want to fight the political influence of creationism, it is far better to understand creationism as it really is, instead of the clumsy monstrosity we usually imagine.

Jesus on a dinosaur.jpg 1

Kicking ass for creation.

Let me start with the positives. The report did a good job of describing the basic history of anti-evolution legislation and court battles from the 1920s to today. As they describe, anti-evolution laws have been struck down by SCOTUS and other courts time and time again. They also did well to include the voices of both the smartest pro-evolution pundit—Brown’s Kenneth Miller—and leading creationists, including Answers In Genesis’s Georgia Purdom and a panel from the intelligent-designing Discovery Institute.

The problems with the report are not mere details or minor interpretative mistakes. No, the danger is that too many of us non-creationists woefully misunderstand the world of American creationism. As with this report from the New York Times, we will repeat misleading notions to ourselves and think we have a better picture of creationism. The real danger, of course, is that we will traipse off with our non-knowledge to make plans and policies, without a whiff of a sense that we are building on the wrong foundation.

As I’m arguing in my current book about American creationism, the first goof most non-creationists make is to treat creationism as a large, scary, undifferentiated mass. In the NYT report, for example, the young-earth Georgia Purdom is cited alongside the intelligent-designing Stephen Meyer as if there is not an enormous difference between their two beliefs.

Why does it matter? For one thing, the suggestion that a huge army of creationists are massing to take control of public schools is scary. But the idea of a fractured and disputatious set of cranky creationists isn’t. And that’s much closer to the truth. Consider, for example, Dr. Purdom’s criticism of intelligent design. While some evangelicals might like the notion at first, Purdom has argued, in the end, in an ID universe,

God appears sloppy and incompetent, if not downright vicious.

For the young-earthers at Answers In Genesis, ID is not an ally but rather another danger to be confronted. In the end, there is no such thing as “creationism”—at least not the way the New York Times article suggests. Rather, there are many creationisms. And those different visions of science and religion often fight one another far more viciously than they fight against mainstream science.

Here’s my second beef. As always, this article and its expert talking heads refer to creationism as “anti-science.” It’s not. All of us love science. As anthropologist Chris Toumey put it in his underappreciated book, God’s Own Scientists, creationists are like all Americans. We all have deep faith in the

plenary authority of science; that is, the idea that something is more valuable and more credible when it is believed that science endorses it.

In other words, whether people are shilling toothpaste, NASA budgets, or creation science, they always dress up in lab coats to make their pitch.

Why does that matter? If there are two simple sides to these culture war fights—science on one side and anti-science on the other—then we would have a much simpler time convincing the antis to get on board. Instead, as we saw so excruciatingly in the Ham-on-Nye debate a while back, what we end up doing instead is wasting time with each side trying to prove just how much it loves science. We don’t need to have that talk again. If we all love science, we can have more productive conversations—even if we disagree—about how to teach science in public schools.

toumey

Read this!

Last and most important, we need to acknowledge the false and misleading myths about creationism’s history. This article is especially egregious in suggesting that creationism is making a bold new political advance, that fundamentalist armies are sweeping state legislatures in a frightening new show of creationist strength.

For example, the NYT report says that creationists haven’t scored a victory since the Scopes trial in 1925, until now. It describes menacingly that a “growing skepticism about science has seeped into the classroom.” I understand the reasons for alarm, but the notion of a huge uptick in creationist political power simply does not match the historical record.

The career of anti-evolution agitation has been one of steady decline in ambition and reach. For nearly a century now, anti-evolution activists have fought for a set of ever-shrinking goals. As I found in my first book, anti-evolution laws in the 1920s wanted nothing less than the imposition of theocratic rule on American public schools. In Kentucky, for example, a 1922 bill would have banned not only evolution, but atheism and agnosticism. An amendment would have pulled any book from a public library that might lead a student to question her religious beliefs.

Compare those bills to creationists’ efforts today. Please don’t get me wrong. I am in full agreement with Kenneth Miller and Zack Kopplin; today’s anti-evolution laws are terrible. But that doesn’t mean that they represent a bold new surge of strength for anti-evolutionism. They don’t. Rather, they are just the latest strategic grab at scraps of influence and power by anti-evolutionists.

Why does it matter? Well, I think I probably don’t need to spell it out, but I will. If creationism is 1.) united, 2.) anti-science, and 3.) surging to greater and greater power, those of us who oppose religious imposition in public schools need to take drastic action. We’d need a wholesale reorganization of the decision-making process in public-school curricula. We would need to come up with radical ways to intervene in local educational decisions, as the US did with racial segregation to such mixed results.

If, on the other hand, creationism is shrinking, fragmented, and in agreement about the fundamental intellectual power of capital-S science, we face a much different environment. It won’t generate as much attention, but it would be better policy to simply continue our efforts. We should continue to do what we’ve been doing: Advocate tirelessly for more and better evolution education; explain and explore the real contours of American creationism; repeat that evolution is not a religious idea—it won’t hurt students’ religious faiths.

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5 Comments

  1. I welcome the new appearance of the word “fight” in your recommendations for what should be done to combat creationism, but by the end of this post you seem to be trying to talk us out of believing there’s anything to fight that won’t collapse on its own. What to make of that?

    Your advice is good except for one big mistake. You absolutely must not say “evolution is not a religious idea.” This is a dead positivistic notion rejected on the left and the right when religion is understood properly as a container for ultimate or foundational values. The most intellectually formidable (and successful) arguments of the religious right work the same way as the Intelligent Design “wedge strategy,” by declaring the non-neutrality of science, politics, schools, everything. Everything implies a values based perspective, everything is a religion or ideological, or whatever you want to call it. Your retention of the rhetoric of liberal-scientific neutrality is at least 50 years out of date; it has been out-maneuvered and will continue to lose every time. You can declare your values and perspective and fight for it as superior, and you can point out it is not exclusive of all or even most religious perspectives, but it is is exclusive of the literalistic fundamentalism of most strict creationists.

    Reply
  2. Creationism is certainly fragmented.
    I understand (I think) why you say that “evolution is not a religious idea.” Whether I agree with that or not, I understand why someone would say that. Maybe because I don’t agree, I don’t think it follows to say, “it won’t hurt students’ religious faiths.” It may or may not. I don’t think we can know what will and won’t cause any damage to someone’s faith. It depends on the individual. I understand what Lee Meadows is saying in his book The Missing Link. (Sorry, I don’t know how to italicize on here.) I just don’t agree with what he says.

    Reply
    • Editor’s note: Here’s a link to Meadow’s book.

      Reply
      • It’s not fair to say I don’t agree with anything he says. There are certain things I do agree with and appreciate such as, “Undermining students’ faith is inappropriate for public school teachers: It erodes the trust between public schools and the communities they serve,” (pg. 7). and “You might start the unit by saying, “I care about you and your worries about studying evolution.” (Pg. 34) These types of concepts I agree with, and appreciate.

        There are reasons I don’t think this method of teaching works in terms of the goal it sets (to not undermine faith). Some of the reasons have to do with the method itself, but it doesn’t all have to do with that or the schools. Part of it has to do with parents that do not agree with evolution. (Since I am one, I’m included in this critique). I don’t think these parents have the type of resources it would take to make this type of teaching possible, because these resources simply don’t exist anywhere in faith communities. Well, at least in the Christian community. I can’t speak for other faith communities. And these resources need to exist there. So it’s not just parents, it’s also leaders in the Christian community that have failed to provide proper resources. I say this based on the understanding I have gained over the last 4-5 years of research.

        Parents have no control over what is taught in public schools. If they have chosen to send their children there, the responsibility rests on them to bridge any gap between what is taught in their child’s school, and what is taught in their home. This is NOT the responsibility of teachers. Again, one problem is lack of resources, at least in the Christian community.

        IMHO.

        To be clear, I will not be an advocate for evolution being taught in schools. I just know that it will be.

      • When there are sufficient numbers of parents with the will and the means to exercise influence, they have enormous control over what is taught and what happens in public schools. Relatively healthy communities tend to have a high level of parent involvement, influence, and leadership. I think Adam has covered this before.

        I would say it is the mark of good teachers to be aware of and sensitive to the cultures of their students, but short of directly arguing against a religious belief — which might even be necessary in some cases — I agree it’s not possible to not spread doubts. The mere fact of a teacher and institution that represents different ideas is challenging to religious cultures who avoid or are not very experienced with a pluralist society. The mere fact and experience of pluralism is enough to relativize and break the totalistic and exclusive claims of any particular group or tradition.

        The idea that this conflict can be avoided rests on the idea that “religion” somehow contains facts and values that are categorically distinct from those of “science.” You can kind of finesse this so it works in the classroom if you treat science as facts/content and religion as values/perspective. It just will not hold up under scrutiny or the slightest conflict. Science has to have values and perspectives to determine what is a relevant fact, and theory-building it to apply, question, and validate or falsify all of the above. There are philosophical/theoretical problems in this that neither side deals with well or much at all.

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