Are Public Schools “Churches of Atheism?”

Once again, I totally agree with radical creationist Ken Ham about something. Not that the earth was created only about 7,000 years ago. Not that a real worldwide flood wiped out everything except Noah’s Ark. But I agree with him 100% that public schools should not serve as churches of atheism. However, as I know, you know, and large majorities of Americans know, public schools aren’t churches of any sort. How can we tell? Americans LIKE their local schools. They don’t like church.ham tweet churches of atheism

Mr. Ham has not grasped that fact. He is fond of warning his followers that public schools are not community resources, controlled and paid for by the community based on democratic processes, but rather sinister institutions—“churches of atheism”—dedicated to stripping children of their faiths, to belittling any religious viewpoint, and to cramming sexual immorality down children’s throats.

gallup school a or b

People tend to give high grades to their children’s schools.

The problem is, that’s not what public schools do in real life. I know because I spend my days visiting public schools in my area. I don’t see the kinds of mind-control efforts Mr. Ham is so nervous about. I see hard-working teachers who help their students become the best versions of themselves.

It’s not just me. The most careful surveys of public-school science teaching don’t find huge majorities of teachers cramming atheism down students’ throats. As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found in their huge survey of high-school science teachers, the biggest determining factor for the way teachers teach is community sentiment. If the local community wants more mainstream science, teachers teach it. If they want it watered down with creationism, teachers tend to oblige.

Worst of all for Mr. Ham’s radical Chicken-Little-ism, most Americans understand that. Gallup pollsters have asked Americans what they think of their public schools. By and large, people LIKE the public-schools their kids attend. What don’t people like? Church.

gallup church attendance

Americans are voting against church–with their feet.

So if public schools were really “churches of atheism,” as Mr. Ham contends, you’d think more people would be dissatisfied. You’d think more people would stop going. That’s not what is happening. It’s good news for the rest of us, even if it is not good news for Ken Ham and his radical allies.

Why Do Scientists Defend Some LGBTQ Rights and Not Others?

Okay, all you science nerds—what do you make of this story? It raises a couple of big questions. First: among mainstream scientists, is anti-LGBTQ Christianity really more objectionable than anti-mainstream-science Christianity? And are some kinds of anti-LGBTQ religion more objectionable than others?GSA baylor adHere’s what we know: Two professional scientific organizations recently pulled job ads from Brigham Young University. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the American Geophysical Union and the Geological Society of America yanked the ads because BYU discriminates against LGBTQ students and faculty.

I have my own strong opinions about this sort of move.* This morning, though, we’re not talking about me. Rather, we need to examine a couple of questions raised by this move. The first question is the most obvious, and it was raised by some faculty members at BYU. Namely, why is Brigham Young University being singled out for exclusion? The GSA, at least, still apparently welcomes ads from other universities that discriminate against LGBTQ students.baylor creationism

By accepting an ad from Baylor University—which has an explicit anti-LGBTQ “practice” policy—the GSA seems to be differentiating between types of anti-LGBTQ discrimination. Why?

The decision to nix the BYU ads raises another troubling question: Would these science organizations take ads from institutions that dispute mainstream science itself? Though Baylor quickly reversed course, in the early part of this century it established a creationist science center on its campus. According to at least one report, President Robert Sloan tried to impose a religion litmus test on new faculty. As one participant later recalled,

Jim Patton, a professor of neuroscience, psychology, and biomedical studies and former chairman of his department, remembers sitting in on an interview with Sloan and a candidate for a psychology position. The young scholar was asked whether he went to church and read the Bible. When he answered yes, he was then asked the topic of that week’s Sunday school lesson and which theology texts he was currently reading. “If precise answers weren’t acceptable,” Patton told me, “folks weren’t allowed to work here.” Many professors came to feel that Sloan was filtering out everyone but the fundamentalists.

Baylor may have changed course in terms of creationism. But when the university was pushing a different kind of science, would the GSA or AGU have accepted ads from Baylor? Or would these professional organizations have made the same protest against alternative-science institutions that they make against (one) anti-LGTBQ one? And what about now?

These problems lead us to our questions of the day. What do you think:

  1. Should professional organizations discriminate against discriminating colleges?
  2. Should they be more consistent and ban Baylor, too? (And other anti-LGBTQ schools)?
  3. Should they defend mainstream science with the same vim that they use to defend LGBTQ rights?

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*In general, I support this sort of professional activism. I agree that anti-LGBTQ policies put institutions outside the realm of mainstream thinking. If religious institutions want to engage in anti-LGBTQ policies, that is their right, but such policies should not be supported by public money. And other institutions, such as these professional societies, are well within their rights to exclude discriminatory colleges. I personally would support such a move by my closest professional organization, the History of Education Society (US). But just to make sure everyone dislikes me, I also advocate more freedom for students to participate in discriminatory student groups.

What Do Radical Creationists Really Care About?

Sure, creationists care about creationism. But as SAGLRROILYBYGTH know well, radical creationists these days tend to talk a lot more about other culture-war issues. (What counts as “radical” creationism? Check out the classification system I’m using in the new book.)

what do radical creationists care about

Ken Ham’s tweets categorized: October 4, 2019–November 4, 2019.

This morning, I got curious about the relative emphases different issues got by radical creationists, so I did an unscientific little test. I perused the tweets of young-earth creationist leader Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis for the past month. I noted the top issue in each of Ham’s threads.

In some cases, issues could have been counted in different ways, but I limited each thread to what I thought was presented as the most important issue. For example, in recent tweets about the AIG Pastors’ Conference, Ham tweeted about both the topic of the conference–racism–and the proceedings of the conference. I placed each tweet in only one category, based on my reading of what Ham was presenting as the most important issue.

The results are not very surprising to people who follow the goings-on at Answers In Genesis. Sure, AIG cares about promoting its flashy Ark Encounter and Creation Museum. But by far the most important issue–at least in terms of tweet volume–is the threat posed by LGBTQ rights. Just over a quarter of Ham’s tweets warn followers of the dangers of Drag Queen Story Hour, same-sex marriage, and transgender equality.

So what? It’s not news, really, that Ken Ham should primarily be understood as a fundamentalist minister who draws a culture-war line based on young-earth creationism, rather than as a science activist who happens to have conservative religious beliefs. This tweet-chart only demonstrates the way Ham’s focus these days is anti-LGBTQ first, creationism second.

Don’t Tell Me It’s All About Abortion and Racism

I know, I know: you’re as sick of reading about white evangelical support for President Trump as I am. We keep seeing over and over again that white evangelicals are among Trump’s strongest supporters. But I can’t help it—this morning I came across another bit of evidence that evangelical Trumpism goes deeper than mere strategic considerations. This seems like more proof that some conservative evangelicals feel a much deeper connection to Trumpism than we might think.

Ham fake news tweet

Scientific evidence? …Fake News!

Smart people will give you good explanations for evangelical Trumpism. Some say white evangelicals support Trump because they are all racist. Others will explain that white evangelicals—even younger ones who are okay about LGBTQ rights—support Trump as a strategic move to fight abortion rights.

Those explanations are helpful, as far as they go. But this morning I stumbled across more evidence that confirms my ILYBYGTH hunch: White evangelicals–some of them, at least–don’t just stick with Trump for strategic reasons. They don’t cling to Trump because they like Trump’s racism.

For a lot of the most conservative white evangelicals, Trump isn’t just the least-worst option, he is a rare leader who really gets them.

Exhibit A: This morning, radical creationist leader Ken Ham tweeted out his disgust with mainstream science. As the fundamentalist faction of evangelicalism has done for a hundred years now, Ham protested against the basic assumptions of mainstream thinking. This morning, Ham objected to new findings that might explain the story of Noah’s Ark and the flood.

When scientists wonder if a new discovery of shipwrecks could help explain widespread myths about global flooding, Ham counters that such thinking is clearly ignorant. The real story of Noah Ark and the flood, Ham explains, is in the Book of Genesis.

There’s nothing new about that part of Ham’s argument. Ham’s Trumpish conclusion, however, is telling. As Ham explains,

the author of this article says there was a Flood in Noah’s day as the Bible records, but then the author either didn’t read or totally rejects the details of the account that make it clear Noah’s Flood was global–covering the entire globe. This article is more fake news. [Emphasis added.]

There you have it, folks! “Fake news.” For the most conservative members of the white evangelical network, Trump’s approach to reality matches their own. For decades, fundamentalists have warned that mainstream ideas about sexuality and science were balderdash. Radical creationists like Ken Ham and his mentors have scrambled to prove that the “evidence” of mainstream science can be dismissed.

When Trump stumbled into power, fundamentalists liked more than just Trump’s anti-abortion stance. They liked more than just his support for white racism. In addition to all that, Trump’s vision of reality resonates deeply with white fundamentalists. For them just as much as Trump, the ability to dismiss evidence as “fake news” is deeply satisfying.

Gov’t Fights Anti-Christian Bias: Will Conservatives Celebrate?

Maybe you didn’t see this one, because no one seems to be talking about it. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed suit against a Pennsylvania company for bias against three Christian employees. On first blush, it seems like a story that culture-war conservatives would want to celebrate.

EEOC

Big Government fighting for persecuted Christians…

After all, this seems to be good news for conservative Christians. In this case, the EEOC alleges that three workers were insulted and treated badly. Their Pentecostal religion was demeaned as a “disgusting cult.” The suit points out that creation of a “hostile work environment and disparate treatment” due to the workers’ national origin and religion constitutes “unlawful practices.”

On its face, this diligent protection of conservative Christians might seem like good news for anxious religious conservatives. Very different types of conservative Christians have lamented the fact that mainstream society and government persecute traditional Christians.

From the crunchy side, for example, Rod Dreher warns,

the cultural left—which is to say, the American mainstream— has no intention of living in postwar peace. It is pressing forward with a harsh, relentless occupation, one that is aided by the cluelessness of Christians who don’t understand what’s happening.

And from the Kentucky creationism side, Ken Ham has insisted,

It’s not enough to just tell students, ‘Believe in Jesus!’ Faith that is not founded on fact will ultimately falter in the storm of secularism that our students face every day. . . . Our country has forsaken its Christian soul. We need to see that for what it is.

Rod Dreher and Ken Ham probably wouldn’t agree on much, but as Christian conservatives they agree that mainstream society has turned hopelessly anti-Christian. Yet I’m guessing they won’t take this story as good news. Why not?

First, it is simply bad strategy for them to notice. Like a lot of conservative cassandras, Dreher and Ham have both put all their chips on a persecution story. A more complicated version of that story won’t help them much.

If more thoughtful folks like Dreher DO comment on this story, they could explain it a couple of ways. First, they might claim that conservative religion was more of a free-rider in this case. The government was really interested in protecting these particular Christians because they were also insulted for their Puerto Rican heritage. Plus, intellectuals like Mr. Dreher might point out that this sort of legal protection is beside the point. Sure, the EEOC might fight against insults and harassment, but the EEOC will then turn around and persecute Christians who do not recognize LGBTQ rights. The actual beliefs of conservative Christians, Dreher might say, are nowhere protected.

So although these three plaintiffs might have the government on their side when they are mocked for being Puerto Rican Pentecostals, Mr. Dreher might retort, when they actually try to live their lives as demanded by their Christian faith, they become instead the target of the EEOC.

Or maybe conservative pundits just won’t say anything at all.

Badger Bound!

When conservative activists have won their battles about public education, how have they won? I’m excited to make my case next Monday at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

bucky badger

Thanks, Bucky. It’s great to be back!

Thanks to an invitation from my grad-school mentor William J. Reese, I’ll be traveling to sunny Madison, Wisconsin this week to talk about the history of conservatism and American education. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware that I explored this history in my second book, The Other School Reformers (Harvard University Press, 2015).

In that book, I wondered what it has meant to be conservative about education in these United States. It’s not as simple a question as it seems. Some conservatives want one thing, others want another. Most people–whether they consider themselves conservative or not–don’t have crystal-clear ideas about what they want out of schools.

In my talk next week, I’ll share some of that research, but I’ll also expand it to include my more recent findings. In short, I think that conservatives have won NOT by proving their case for conservative values and ideas, but rather by doing something else.

What’s the “something else?” Well, you’ll just have to come to Wisconsin on Monday to find out. Good seats still available: Monday, October 14, 12:00, Education Building room 245.

madison talk flyer

I’ll Give You $1,000,000 if This Creationist Plan Works

Here comes Halloween, and in the USA that means giving out candy to neighborhood kids who come to your door dressed as Elsa. The radical creationists at Answers in Genesis have offered their fundamentalist friends a way to spread the gospel among trick-or-treaters. Can we put aside our differences about creationism and evolution for a second just to consider this simple question: Would any child REALLY prefer a creationist tract to a candy bar?

First, a little background: Like a lot of super-conservative Christians, the folks at Answers in Genesis are nervous about Halloween. They warn that this holiday can turn children’s heads and embroil them in the very real dangers of witchcraft and Satanism.

AIG money treats

Want some candy? How about these tracts instead?

What can Christian parents do? AIG suggests giving out tracts featuring dinosaurs and fake million-dollar bills. As AIG leader Ken Ham enthuses,

Kids love these, and it’s a fun way to share the gospel—something worth far more than a million dollars!—with children and their families.

Ken Ham and I disagree on a lot of things, but this just might be the simplest, starkest disagreement we’ve had.

“Kids love these”? Really? I can’t imagine many kids being excited to receive a fake million dollar bill instead of a Kit Kat or Twix. If I were a creation-evangelist, the last thing I would do is replace candy with fake money and creationist propaganda. I can’t imagine a better way to turn kids AWAY from the radical-creationist message.

Empathize with Racists? Really?

Historians—especially K-12 teachers and public historians—have been struggling with the challenges of teaching the history of slavery. It is time for us to learn from the dearly bought experiences of our science-education colleagues. The hardest lesson of all? Sometimes it’s not about being right.

BBC slave plantation

Sometimes tourists say some nasty things. What should we do about it?

First, some background: You’ve probably seen the disturbing stories lately about how difficult it can be to teach tourists about the history of slavery. At Monticello, for example, tourists ask guides not to focus so much on the negative stuff. In South Carolina, tourists sometimes actually defend the institution of slavery. As the BBC reported recently,

“Slavery was not that bad – it’s probably the number one thing we hear,” says plantation tour guide Olivia Williams.

“To my face, people have said: Well, they had a place to sleep. They had meals, they had vegetables.”

It’s not only museums that are having problems. As one contributor to the NYT’s 1619 project described, the history of slavery in the USA has long been ignored by schools, at best. In her words,

It’s ugly. For generations, we’ve been unwilling to do it. Elementary-school teachers, worried about disturbing children, tell students about the “good” people, like the abolitionists and the black people who escaped to freedom, but leave out the details of why they were protesting or what they were fleeing. Middle-school and high-school teachers stick to lesson plans from outdated textbooks that promote long-held, errant views. That means students graduate with a poor understanding of how slavery shaped our country, and they are unable to recognize the powerful and lasting effects it has had.

So what are history teachers to do? There are a lot of resources out there to help students understand the history of slavery, like Teaching Tolerance, PBS, and Stanford History Education Group materials.

But there’s another place to look that might not seem obvious at first. Like historians, science educators have been struggling for generations to break through popular hostility toward central scientific ideas. Most powerfully these days, many people have a strong visceral distrust of any ideas about human evolution and human-caused climate change.

How have science educators grappled with these challenges? What can historians learn?

In the latest edition of Reports of the National Center for Science Education, Kate Carter describes the ways she trains tour guides at the Smithsonian. Carter knows that many visitors will come already hostile to the messages of mainstream science. They are often already convinced that concepts of deep time and human-caused climate change are bogus. For example, she describes one typical couple that walked away from the information concluding, “There are two sides to every story.”

rncse empathy

Can history educators learn from this kind of science-ed training?

What are educators to do? We can’t just throw up our hands and conclude that some people are just not willing to learn about science or history. Carter suggests we avoid a simple “rookie mistake.” Instead of preparing to bombard our students or visitors with the evidence for our cases—whether it be about human evolution or American slavery—we should start with a very different idea: EMPATHY.

Make no mistake: Carter is not suggesting we avoid the subject, or agree that there are simply two sides to every story. No, she agrees that communicating the best information about science is our main goal. To get there, though, she suggests beginning by trying to understand the people with whom we’re speaking. As she explains,

While effective and accurate communication of science is a crucial element, it is not enough to reach the most skeptical populations. By taking time to assign real human emotions to the visitors, volunteers can better empathize and use this newfound understanding to decide the best way to share their evidence.

Seems obvious, right? But when it comes to teaching the full, unvarnished, unpleasant history of American slavery, empathizing with resistant listeners can be extremely difficult. If a tour guide tries to understand a visitor who doesn’t want to learn about Thomas Jefferson’s slaves, is she continuing the lamentable tradition of overlooking the truth? If a teacher spends time trying to understand why her students reject the evidence for the brutality of slave markets and slave labor, is she guilty of contributing to the long, shameful silence of those crimes against humanity?

In short, it seems like the time for polite empathy about the history of American racism and slavery is over. Teachers and tour guides might blanch at the prospect of bonding with racist tourists and students.

In spite of these important challenges, we can still learn from our science-ed colleagues. No one is suggesting any kind of watering-down or truckling, either to neo-creationists or neo-confederates. All we want to do is begin a conversation by filling in culture-war trenches and building connections so that a real conversation can take place. If we don’t start with that, no amount of proof, evidence, or explanation will do any good.

The Good News: Teachers Have Always Known What to Do about Culture War Topics

What is a teacher to do? How can she teach her class if parents are always suspicious of her motives? Someone out there in interweb-land has been searching for answers, so today we’ll share the good news about America’s educational culture wars.how to deal with fundamentalist parentsHere’s what we know: Someone has been stumbling across this blog lately searching for answers to the age-old school culture-war question: How can I deal with fundamentalist parents? I don’t know what this person is going through. I don’t know where they are or what they do for a living.

But if the question is about how public-school teachers should “deal with” parents who come from conservative evangelical backgrounds, let me share a little bit of my argument from my upcoming book about creationism.

Let me start with the least-obvious part: The thing Christian fundamentalists most fear about public education has NOT been evolution, or sex ed, or any of those things. After all, even the more-creationist-than-thou folks at Answers In Genesis advocate the teaching of evolution to kids. And plenty of conservative Christian groups have long actively promoted sex ed in public schools.

The big questions in school culture wars have not been WHAT should be taught, but HOW it should be taught and BY WHOM. Fundamentalist Christian parents–like (almost) all parents–want their children to learn how to thrive in the modern world. That means learning about sex and science. But from the fundamentalist perspective, too often sex and science are taught with a dangerous do-what-feels-good attitude. Fundamentalist parents want their kids to learn about sex, but not be encouraged to have premarital sex. They want their kids to learn about science, but not to be encouraged to ditch their religious ideas.

And that brings us to the good news: We can all agree on those things. Public schools shouldn’t be cramming religious ideas down students’ throats. Schools have an obligation to help students learn the best information out there about sex and science, but schools also have an obligation to leave students’ religious ideas to students.

So what should a teacher do about fundamentalist parents? What good teachers have always done: Begin by building trust. Build a positive relationship with students. Reach out to parents to let them see what you are doing.

gallup local schools

People LIKE the schools they know.

And here’s the better news: It works. Teachers and parents have been bridging the educational culture-war trenches for a long time now. How do we know? When Gallup asks parents what they think of their kids’ schools, parents usually give positive responses.

Why? Because teachers, parents, and students have been working together, building trust. Fundamentalist parents might be nervous about the kinds of sex ed they read about in newspapers. They might read about science teachers trying to cram atheism down their kids’ throats. But when they meet their kids’ teachers and principals, they like them. They trust them.

And that’s the place all of us should start. So how should teachers “deal with” fundamentalist Christian parents? Just like all parents: Get to know them. Tell them how much you love their kids and want the best for them. Share your lesson plans with them and listen to what they have to say.

What Does Radical Creationism Look Like?

A reminder, if anyone needed one, that radical creationism does not always look like what you might think. This week Turkish arch-creationist Adnan Oktar is heading off to trial. For Americans who think creationists all look like Christian televangelists, the story is worth a look.

Unlike the American stereotype, Adnan Oktar’s brand of firebrand creationism is Islamic, not Christian. And unlike most of America’s radical-creationist leaders–except maybe Jerry Falwell Jr.–Oktar surrounded himself with roomsful of belly-dancing “kittens.”

Adnan Oktar–who wrote under the name Harun Yahya–was arrested last year on a list of charges ranging from sexual abuse of children to blackmail. If the name sounds familiar and you can’t quite remember why, it is probably because of Harun Yahya’s big creationist splash back in 2007.

harun yahya atlas of creation

Proof of creation! Also, bellydancing.

Back then, Harun Yahya sent unsolicited copies of his radical-creationist book Atlas of Creation to scientists and journalists worldwide. Religion and science agreed, according to Harun Yahya. Both had clearly “refuted the theory of evolution. . . . We never underwent evolution; we were created.”

What’s our takeaway? I have no idea if Adnan Oktar is guilty or innocent. I DO know that his expensive distribution of Islamic creationism didn’t seem to pay off. Most of all, this story serves as a reminder that radical creationism is not limited to northern Kentucky or the Texas state school board.