Shame on You!

Okay, kids, time to fess up. Some of you students at conservative schools have been trying to cheat on your exams…haven’t you. Here’s how we know: Our editorial page here at ILYBYGTH lets us see the terms people type into their Google machines. Lately, as final-exam time swings near, we’ve noticed a definite uptick in the number of hopeful plagiarists.

search terms

What are you looking for?

It is often fun and enlightening to read the search terms. Mostly, they are from people interested in the same issues that trouble SAGLRROILYBYGTH: higher education, creationism, evangelicalism, conservatism, etc.

Here are some of the recent examples:

  • does hillsdale college teach evolution

  • is the moody institute anti catholic?

  • gay pride rainbow painted on wheaton bench

I hope those searchers found what they were looking for. Sometimes, the search terms themselves make for a kind of interwebs poetry. Once, for example, your humble editor was touched by this plaintive search:

  • Can a creationist and evolutionist be in love?

Obviously, too, some of our searchers will probably move on disappointed. Lots of people, for example, are just looking for information and don’t give a whoot for all our ILYBYGTH culture-war dickering.

For example, the person who searched for “Kentucky attractions” probably didn’t find what she was looking for.

But none of that is what we’re talking about today. In the past week or so, your humble editor has noticed a definite trend. Check out the search terms below and tell me I’m not seeing would-be plagiarism:

  • Discuss the value of traditional education;

  • What are the main problems of evolutionary theory? How do alternate ideas such as theistic evolution, progressive creation, day-age creationism, and gap theory fall short of a biblical understanding;

  • In a mid-length essay (5-7 pp.) describe the historical development of traditional education;

  • Essay creationism superior.

To me, these look obviously like test questions. And not just any tests. The kinds of schools that want students to write these sorts of essays can only be conservative religious schools. Right? Only students at conservative religious schools would be likely to be asked to write out the problems with evolution. Or the values of “traditional education.”

It wouldn’t be the first time that students at conservative schools worked hard to cheat their way through their morally elevating curricula. During the research for my current book about evangelical higher education, for example, I came across one sad-sack letter in the Moody Bible Institute archives.

In 1931, an alumnus wrote to the MBI administration with a fulsome confession. When he was a first-year student, he had cheated on every “examination, mid-term and final, through-out the year.” He had never been caught. He had never even been accused. But this student was so “conscience stricken” he pleaded with the administrators to take away all his credits.

They obliged.

Perhaps someday the cheaters and plagiarists who are hoping to evade their work by dipping into the ILYBYGTH archives will meet a similar fate. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

What’s Missing from this Creationist School?

Is young-earth creationism an inward-looking fortress? …or a missionary outpost? News from Kentucky is pushing your humble editor in a new direction.

Here’s the latest: Ken Ham’s Answers In Genesis (AIG) organization is partnering with Renewanation (it’s easier to read when you cut it into three: Renew-A-Nation) to open a new creationist school near the Creation Museum. Students will get free family passes to the museums. Teachers will be able to use the museum as a teaching aid.

So far, so obvious. But the announcement adds new fuel to an old debate about young-earth creationism. Is it meant to be a form of evangelical outreach? Or is it rather just a way to circle fundamentalist wagons?

Some scholars have made strong cases for the latter. In his wonderful book God’s Own Scientists, anthropologist Chris Toumey argues that young-earth creationism is not about outreach. Rather, young earth science

preaches mostly to those who are already converted, and its effect is more to sustain the beliefs of the converted than to change other peoples’ convictions.

AIG watchers Bill and Susan Trollinger, too, argue that young-earth creationism is more about protecting than witnessing. As they put it in a recent blog post,

In the end, it is all about protecting the children.

On the other hand, the language of young-earth creationism is full of missionary talk. The reason dinosaurs are such a powerful creationist weapon, Ken Ham likes to say, is because they are “missionary lizards.” The goal of his ministry, Ham insists, is to reach as many benighted people as possible with the saving gospel of Genesis.

As I wrestle with this question for my new book about American creationism, I’ve tended to think that we need to take Ham’s missionary talk at face value.

The announcement of a new AIG-partnered school, however, leaves a few things conspicuously absent. The goal of the new school, according to AIG, will be to help creationist students remain creationists. When they are confronted with mainstream ideas about science and religion, they will have convincing ways to rebut. As AIG puts it,

[Our new school] wants to help curb the trend of young people walking away from the church by equipping them—from kindergarten through their senior year—with apologetics, using logic and critical-thinking skills.

AIG’s partner, Renewanation, promises to inculcate a biblical worldview that will give students everything they need to resist the intellectual and spiritual trends of modern America.

twelve-stones-academy-logo

Safe Spaces

What are the most prevalent “myths” the school wants to disprove? You might think they’d be things such as “natural selection is our current best understanding of the ways species came to differentiate from one another.” Or something such as “the Bible is a powerful spiritual tool, but it was cobbled together over generations by fallible human editors.”

Nope.

The “myths” blasted by the Renewanation folks are much more closely focused on the insular community of young-earth creationists. They don’t seem interested in reaching non-creationists with their message. Rather, they mostly want to convince the converted that their school is the only way to keep their children safe.

What are the most prevalent “myths” the Renewanators want to debunk?

  • Christian schools are too expensive.
  • They don’t have good sports programs.
  • They aren’t really necessary, just optional.

In every case, Renewanation clearly targeted the already converted. Their argument is not about missionary fervor; it is about safety and protection for the already convinced. Most remarkably, the notion of young-earth creationism itself was not a huge part of the appeal. Rather, the goal of this new school—and of the Renewation school network as a whole—is to provide an insular educational setting in which young-earth creationist students can learn to remain young-earth creationists, no matter what.

The goal is not (only) to teach young-earth creationism. Rather, it is to teach young-earth creationists.

And, of course, there is no reason why YEC can’t be both an insular fortress and a missionary outpost. The fortress protects the missionaries as they do their work. This school announcement, though, certainly seems to be more about the “protecting” part than the “outreach” part.

Desperate Times at Bryan College

They might seem like two totally separate things. First, Bryan College awards an honorary doctorate to a young-earth creationist pundit. Second, Bryan’s president conducts some financial hocus-pocus to keep the school officially in the black. They might seem separate, but they are both symptoms of the same deep malaise that plagues Bryan. Moreover, they are irruptions of the perennial life-or-death tension that has always dictated policy at all conservative evangelical schools.

Here’s what we know: Last week, Bryan College awarded an honorary doctorate to young-earth impresario Ken Ham. Bryan President Stephen Livesay praised Ham, saying,

In a day when most of the culture and, sadly, many Christians proclaim a naturalistic worldview, Ken Ham boldly and persuasively argues for a biblical understanding of “In the beginning God.”

At the same time, yet another trustee resigned from Bryan’s board. Wayne Cropp, one of the few trustees who remained after the Night of the Long Knives in 2014, finally had enough. He claimed that President Livesay had sneakily made some real estate transfers to make it look as if Bryan College were in better financial shape than it really is.

Ken Ham hooded at Bryan

I love you but you’re going to boost enrollments…

Now, your humble editor has absolutely no insider knowledge about these goings-on. But based on the research for my current book about the history of evangelical higher education, I can say with confidence that these two events are likely part of the same desperate survival strategy.

In a nutshell, President Livesay is doing whatever it takes to keep Bryan College alive. Like many small colleges in the United States, Bryan is always teetering on the brink of financial collapse. At Sweet Briar, remember, wealthy alumni had to pony up extra just to keep the lights on. Unlike many small colleges, however, Livesay has an extra trump card he can play. And he’s been playing it for years.

In order to attract students with their life-sustaining tuition dollars, Livesay—like leaders at all evangelical colleges—can plant a flag for fundamentalism and young-earth creationism. In Bryan’s case, the school has taken drastic steps to purge any whiff of creationism that doesn’t meet the strict young-earth standards of Ken Ham.

As I discovered in my recent research, the pattern is as old as fundamentalist higher education itself. For example, Wheaton College in Illinois experienced a drastic rise in enrollments when it joined the fundamentalist crusade in the 1920s. Before it became the “Fundamentalist Harvard,” a majority of Wheaton’s students came from Illinois. After it planted a flag for fundamentalist higher education, a full three-quarters of its students came from outside the state. And attendance boomed. Between 1916 and 1928, the college grew by over four hundred percent in terms of student attendance.

It can be a risky game, though. Relying on a reputation as a staunchly fundamentalist or young-earth creationist school can bite schools in the behind. In the 1960s, when Wheaton’s leaders wanted to shake off some of the intellectual baggage of the fundamentalist movement, their enrollment numbers took a huge hit.

In 1964, a total of 8,528 potential Wheaton students had asked for admissions information. Only three years later, that number plunged to only 6,403. Why? Admissions Director Charles Schoenherr had an idea. In a memo to President Hudson Armerding, Schoenherr asked plaintively, “To what extent have rumors about Wheaton going ‘liberal’ hurt?”

Like Bryan, Wheaton relies on reputation to keep tuition dollars coming in. And like Bryan, Wheaton has long relied on honorary doctorates to shore up that reputation. Between 1920 and 1965, Wheaton gave out 180 honorary doctorates.

And the top leadership at Wheaton, just like at Bryan, did not hesitate to use those doctorates to reassure anxious fundamentalist parents. In 1962, then-President V. Raymond Edman wrote to one distressed parent. The parent had heard rumors that Wheaton no longer respected its fundamentalist roots. She had heard that the school had embraced evolution. Was it true? As she put it, “What grieves me most is that our daughter may lose her faith at Wheaton. Is this possible?”

Not in the slightest, President Edman assured her. How could she know for sure? Because prominent creationist Harry Rimmer held an honorary doctorate. Furthermore, Edman told her, the entire faculty at Wheaton were “convinced fundamentalists.”

If you didn’t have a calendar handy, you could simply swap out some names and the story could be from Dayton, Tennessee. Bryan President Stephen Livesay is desperate for dollars. So he gives Ken Ham a hug and a doctorate. At the same time, he rams through an iffy land deal that balances the books, sort of.

The names have changed, but the game is the same. Bryan College is desperate. Like a lot of small colleges, it is running on a financial knife edge. Unlike many schools, though, Bryan has a chance to appeal to a cultural niche market. If Livesay can convince young-earthers that his school is true to their ideas about science and faith, he might just attract enough tuition-paying students to keep Bryan alive. Until then, he’ll have to cook some real-estate books to pump a few more breaths into his campus.

HT: KT

Why Bill Nye Won’t Save the World

I like Bill Nye. I watched his show with my kid. He’s great. I wish he would call me up and we could go eat french fries together. But he won’t save the world, for two main reasons.

On his new show, Bill Nye Saves the World, Nye repeats the same errors about creationism that he has always made. At heart, Nye seems to believe that the main trouble with America is its lack of knowledge about science, our “science illiteracy.” Nye plans to save the world by clearly explaining real science. It won’t work.

On episode five, for example, Nye gives a quick description of the long history of our planet. He even goes out of his way to ridicule the notion of Noah’s ark. Where did life on this planet come from? We don’t know, Nye clarifies, but possibly it blasted in from Mars.

This sort of approach will have only a negative impact on our continuing creation/evolution squabbles. It will do nothing to bring good mainstream science to the creationist multitudes. Its only effect will be to cement them (most of them, at least) even more firmly in their dissident notion of young-earth creationism.

Why will Nye’s approach be so counter-productive? Not only because it is so hokey and strained. As I’m arguing in my current book about American creationism, the main problem comes from two common and related mistakes.

First, Nye falls prey again to the lamentable missionary supposition. Like many science wonks, Nye assumes that the truth—the scientific truth—is so powerful that mere exposure to it will convince people of its truth.

The notion is so remarkably naïve that it is difficult to know where to start. Consider the similar case of vaccinations. If people are simply unaware of the existence and benefits of vaccinations, then providing information will help. Especially if we do it in a fun, entertaining way. But if people already believe that vaccinations are dangerous, and, more important, if they believe that vaccine-promoters will be targeting them with fun, entertaining falsehoods, designed to confuse and beguile them…then we need a different approach.

Creationism, especially in its American young-earth variant, is not merely an absence of knowledge about evolution. Creationism is not a deficit. Creationism is an alternate, dissenting social system, complete with its own schools, textbooks, museums, conventions, TV shows, and celebrities.

And that brings us to the second, related problem with Nye’s approach. Not only is his show not spreading knowledge, it is actually building resistance. Like a lot of science pundits, Nye heightens the religious stakes by talking about “saving the world.” Instead of presenting this as a question of cool-headed deliberation and policy discussion, Nye’s apocalyptic attitude reinforces religious resistance.

In other words, by talking in all-or-nothing terms, Nye gives credence to religious dissenters who insist that religious people have to choose between their religion and mainstream science.

What should he do instead? He should not water down his I-F*$%&@9-Love-Science message. He should not imply that different views are all equal. He should not truckle to religious sensibilities by suggesting that all scientific ideas—even creation-science ones—have the same merit.

But he should learn more about creationism and American creationists. If he did so, he’d find out that there are plenty of creationists out there who also love science. Real, mainstream science. He should establish working alliances with those creationists to marginalize radical notions about creation and evolution. He does not need to endorse any particular view. All he needs to do is point viewers to religious people who agree with him.

Otherwise, he won’t save the world.

Safety Schools: The Exciting Conclusion

Apologies to all the SAGLRROILYBYGTH who haven’t been able to sleep for the last few nights. I know, I know, we’ve all been on the edge of our seats. Well, rest easy: The second part of my argument about Cedarville University is now live over at Righting America at the Creation Museum.

How does Cedarville’s recent purity campaign fit in to the history of evangelical higher education? Check out the exciting conclusion.

Give Creationists Government Rocks!

If you listened only to his press releases, you’d think creationist impresario Ken Ham was the most persecuted man in America, standing boldly in the path of “brainwashed” government leaders set on ruthless atheist indoctrination of America’s creationist kids. Mostly, his puffed-up rhetoric is silly and overblown. In one recent case, though, Ham and his colleagues are exactly right. There is no reason why they should not be allowed to engage in their peculiar science. More specifically, there is no reason why the government should not give them equal access to research materials.

Here’s what we know: Andrew Snelling, a young-earth creationist researcher affiliated with Ham’s Answers in Genesis organization, has been denied permission to remove rocks from the Grand Canyon. Yesterday, the conservative activist organization Alliance Defending Freedom has filed suit on Snelling’s behalf in federal court.andrew snelling grand canyon

The suit alleges that the Department of the Interior unfairly discriminated against Snelling for his creationist religious beliefs. Snelling had hoped to remove about thirty pounds of rocks from the Grand Canyon. He wanted to ship them back to his lab in Kentucky for research purposes.

According to news accounts, Dept. of Interior officials sent his application to mainstream scientists for review. One called Snelling’s creationist research “outlandish.” Another rejected the application due to its “dead-end creationist material.”

Let me be clear: I agree that the science pursued by Snelling is outlandish. It might not be “dead-end,” but it is “zombie science.”

But that does not mean that Dr. Snelling does not have every right to engage in his scientific pursuits. The reviewers in this case seem to have a woefully skewed idea of the proper role of government. According to one report, at least, one of the academic reviewers told the Department of Interior this case was

not a question of fairness to all points of view, but rather adherence to your narrowly defined institution mandate predicated in part on the fact that ours is a secular society as per our constitution.

Of course, that’s not what our First Amendment demands at all. Its two clauses—the establishment clause and the free exercise clause—never demand or even suggest a government role in creating a secular society. Rather, the federal government may not establish a religion. Nor may it inhibit free exercise of religion.

In this case, the government has no mandate to decide if Snelling’s work is secular enough to qualify. Neither the government nor anyone else can say with a straight face that Snelling is not engaged in scientific research. It might be kooky. It might be zombie. But “science” is not subject to a simple demarcation. It’s not a simple matter for anyone to rule something out of the realm of science. It is certainly more than government regulators can hope to do.

What should the Department of Interior do? Let Snelling sample the rocks! Give him equal access to publicly available research materials!

None of this means that the Department of the Interior can never limit the use of Grand Canyon rocks. Obviously, if some scheming entrepreneur wanted to take rocks out of the canyon to sell, he should be denied. Or, if the rocks were extremely rare and fragile—if removing them would harm the canyon—permission should be denied.

Plus, at times the federal government needs to make hard decisions about good science. When there’s federal money on the table, for instance, the government has a duty to choose the best, most promising proposals to fund. So, in this case, if Dr. Snelling was applying for a National Science Foundation grant to pay for his research, it would make perfect sense for reviewers to weigh in on the likely “dead-end” nature of his proposed research.

Similarly, if kids and public education are involved, the government has a similar duty to discern. As Harvey Siegel and I argue in our recent book Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation, just because we can’t clearly define away creation science as non-science, we can still conclude that it is worse science. We don’t need to include every scientific idea in public-school science classes, only the good ones. And by any reasonable measure Dr. Snelling’s young-earth science is not as good as mainstream evolutionary science.

In this particular case, however, there is no government money on the table. There is no implied endorsement of religious ideas. There are no public schools involved.

So we say: Let Snelling work! Let him study rocks!

Of course, the folks at Answers In Genesis might not like some of the results. If they call for scientific resources to be open for all, they should also open up their one-of-a-kind fossil resources to outside researchers.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

A collection of stories SAGLRROILYBYGTH might have missed this past week from around the interwebs:

From our great neighbor to the north: Alberta’s provincial government stands accused of funneling public money to a school that taught Scientology.  HT: DK

John Fea collected historians’ comments about President Trump’s latest foray into wacky history.

READING goofy washington

Words, words, words…

What’s the real black/white “achievement gap” in public schools? Maybe the problem is that white teachers are not as good as African American ones.

Lots of progressive teachers hate the way the federal government imposed tons of high-stakes standardized tests. Could the Trump administration become their anti-testing friend? California is testing the testing waters.

A new trend? Or a go-nowhere stunt? To alleviate the shortage of STEM teachers, North Carolina’s legislature is mooting a bill to allow college professors to teach in K12 schools without certification or licensure.

Check your calendar: What year is this? A NYC school official is accused of communism, as the New York Times reports.

Senator Mark Green is out. Trump’s creationist pick for Secretary of the Army has withdrawn his nomination, due to criticism over his anti-LGBTQ statements.

Campus protest as a “know-nothing” performance: John McWhorter makes his case at the Daily Beast.

Thanks to all the SAGLRROILYBYGTH who sent in tips and stories.

What Goes On in Medical School?

HT: MM

It’s probably nothing. But the latest in-your-face conservative pick by President Trump adds one more leg to the stool. Is there some reason why so many prominent radical creationists are medical doctors?

mark green

Creating a modern military….

Tennessee Senator Mark Green is only the latest. He is awaiting confirmation hearings to become Secretary of the Army. He’s already taking some heat for his official proclamations about gender and sexuality. In 2015, he delivered a fiery creationist sermon to a Cincinnati church.

For those of us who keep track of such things, Senator Green apparently emphasized two favorite notions of twenty-first century creationists. He insisted that the second law of thermodynamics militated against evolution. Since entropy increases over time, the argument goes, things won’t get more organized over time, but less.

As Green put it,

If you put a lawn mower out in your yard and a hundred years come back, it’s rusted and falling apart. You can’t put parts out there and a hundred years later it’s gonna come back together. That is a violation of a law of thermodynamics. A physical law that exists in the universe.

Green also embraced the “irreducible complexity” argument beloved by today’s intelligent designers. As articulated by biochemist Michael Behe, this argument points to some organic systems such as blood-clotting. If the entire process needs to be in place in order to confer any evolutionary benefit, the argument goes (roughly), then it makes no sense for it to have evolved in pieces.

We don’t want to argue the merits of these creationist arguments here. Our question this morning is different. In his 2015 Cincinnati sermon, Senator Green claimed to be an expert about the scientific weaknesses of evolutionary theory. On what grounds? Because of his work and training as a medical doctor.

It’s not much to go on, but there certainly seems to be a mini-trend involved here. Senator Green joins other prominent doctor/creationists in politics. Most obviously, Secretary Ben Carson rose to prominence as a young-earth creationist and pediatric neurosurgeon. Representative Paul Broun of Georgia, too, headed the House science committee, hated evolution, and claimed that his “scientific” education as a medical doctor had convinced him of the weaknesses of evolutionary science.

What is going on here? One might think that medical training would weed out creationist thinking. Most medical doctors, after all, study lots of biology. And, as the man said, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.

Again, our sample of only three prominent doctor/creationists isn’t large enough to prove anything, but it does raise the question. Why do so many of our prominent creationists come from the field of medicine?

One answer would seem to be that medical doctors can claim the prestige of science without actually doing any pure scientific research themselves. They can claim to be experts, but they really are more interested in the mechanics of biology than the driving processes.

As anthropologist David Long found in his study of undergrad bio majors, it is very easy to study biology and remain a committed young-earth creationist.

Clearly, as the case of Senator Green reminds us, simply learning more biology will not convince people out of their creationist beliefs. Just like other prominent doctor/creationists, Dr. Green’s creationism is something besides a lack of knowledge about mainstream science.

Forget Benedict, It’s the DeVos Option

You’ve heard it by now: Rod Dreher is pushing a “Benedict Option” for religious conservatives. He wants the good people of America to pull back from mainstream society into purer enclaves. When it comes to our long-simmering creation/evolution debates, that sort of BO has never really been necessary. And Trump’s latest executive order makes it even less so. Why would creationists retreat when they’ve already won?

berkman plutzer REAL chart

Traditional schools, traditional teachers, traditional “science”

In case you haven’t seen it yet, President Trump has continued his charm offensive with America’s conservatives. In his latest executive order, he has promised conservatives something they have long yearned for: greater local control of public education. Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos will conduct a 300-day study into the issue. She is charged to find ways to limit the influence of the federal government in local schools.

As DeVos crowed, this order gives her

a clear mandate to take that real hard look at what we’ve been doing at the department level that we shouldn’t be doing, and what ways we have overreached. . . . And when it comes to education, decisions made at local levels and at state levels are the best ones.

Obviously, there are enough dog-whistles in there to win an Iditarod. Conservative activists have long yearned to shackle the federal education bureaucracy. As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, since the 1930s conservatives have looked askance at federal control of local schools. Time and time again, distant experts have advocated more racial integration, more evolution, and more multiculturalism in K-12 schools. Time and time again, state and local officials have pushed back, fighting for more religion, more segregation, and more traditionalism.

In the specific case of evolution and creationism, creationists have always worried that outside control meant more evolution. Back in the 1920s, for example, anti-evolution leader William Jennings Bryan railed endlessly about the infamous influence of outside “oligarchs” on local schools. The local hand that wrote the paycheck, Bryan insisted, must rule the schools.

Bryan wasn’t alone. In North Carolina, anti-evolution activists blasted their university president for pushing evolution into their flagship public state university. President Harry Chase, they charged, was nothing but a “damn Yankee,” messing up local schools by importing “modernists, Darwinian apologists, and Northerners.”

In the case of evolution education, though, creationists have always had the last laugh. Yes, conservatives have worried about the influence of outside experts. But in most schools, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found, local values dominate. Local attitudes were the most important factor, they found, in determining how much creationism was taught in public school science classes. As they put it,

Traditional districts and cosmopolitan districts tend to hire teachers whose training, beliefs, and teaching practices serve to reinforce or harmonize with the prevailing local culture (pp. 199-200).

In communities that favor creationism, teachers teach it. In communities that are on the fence, teachers mumble about it.

So why would creationists ever want to retreat to Benedictine purity? They have already won. And, as Secretary DeVos promises even greater local control, creationists have even more cause to celebrate. As young-earth activist Jay Hall put it recently, “we support the efforts of the new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to promote school choice.”

More choice plus more local control equals more creationism.

So, though there are plenty of other reasons for conservatives to head for the hills, evolution education ain’t one of em. Local schools have always allowed local creationists to dictate the goings-on in most science classes.

And Secretary DeVos’ new local imperative seems destined to only make local creationist control stronger.

Religious Literacy—Another Dead End?

“Religious literacy.” Nerds say it is a “critical dimension of understanding human affairs.” In some cases, it might be a question of life and death. Even your humble editor makes a plea for it in his new book. But as we’ve seen from other fields, it might just be a waste of time.

waco_compound_religious_literacy_1050x700

The deadly consequences of angry ignorance.

The latest call came from Peter Feuerherd in the pages of JSTOR Daily. He made a strong case that poorly informed religious antagonisms fueled the deadly government assault on David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, c. 1993. Seventy-six people died. With a little more “religious literacy” on the part of the government forces, Feuerherd argues, the death toll could have been avoided.

As Feuerherd put it,

with a little more patience and understanding of biblical theology, the massive loss of life could have been avoided. . . . Religion scholars argued that the FBI’s impatience at Waco grew out of theological ignorance and unquestioned assumptions. . . . Waiting longer, by offering Koresh the attention he felt his theological views deserved, would have averted the tragedy, said religion scholars who spoke out in its aftermath.

We might dispute Feuerherd’s conclusion, but it seems likely that a soldier who views his enemy as a “desperate apocalyptic cult” is probably going to be more aggressive than one who views his enemy as a “church meeting.”

As the Religious Literacy Project of Harvard Divinity School argues, religious illiteracy is a significant human problem: “it fuels conflict and antagonisms and hinders cooperative endeavors in all arenas of human experience.”

As I work on my new book about American creationism, I too fall into a sort of “religious literacy” argument. People need to understand creationist religion as it really is, I argue, not as some sort of Creation-Museum, Jesus-on-a-dinosaur cartoon.

But are all these arguments about “religious literacy” doomed from the start?

After all, in the field of creation/evolution debates, we’ve seen that notions of “scientific literacy” miss the point. Creationism is not simply an “illiteracy.” Creationists don’t yearn for knowledge of mainstream science. Rather, creationism is a strong and internally coherent alternative science.

If we want to change people’s minds about evolutionary science, thinking about them as “illiterate” won’t help. If we do, we will fall into Bill Nye’s ineffective brand of “save-the-world” missionary endeavor. As Nye sees it, creationism represents one facet of America’s “striking science illiteracy.” Nye’s answer is to go on TV and go to the Creation Museum and explain, explain, explain.

It won’t work. Bill Nye won’t save the world. Why not? Because the notion of “science literacy” is at heart naïve. As science-communication guru Dan Kahan might say, “literacy” is not a helpful concept in this case.

Bill Nye will not save the world by explaining science to it. Creationism, climate-change denialism, and other zombie sciences do not merely reflect an absence of knowledge about science. They do not suffer from “illiteracy.” Rather, they are obstreperous and lively alternative sciences. If we want to convince their adherents of anything, we need to do more than just tell them about better science.

Is the same true with “religious literacy?” I agree wholeheartedly that people can and should be better educated about all religions, especially ones that we tend to think of as threatening or hostile. But precisely because people think of many religions as threatening and hostile, I think we need to do more than just spread information around. We need to think of this as something other than “illiteracy.”

People KNOW things about religion in most cases, but those things can be false and those falsehoods can be dangerous, even deadly. Talking about “literacy” obfuscates this crucial point. So what would be better?

We could copy Dan Kahan and toss out “religious literacy” in favor of “religion communication.” Or, as many activists do, we could switch from talking about “literacy” to talking about “toleration.” Or even “appreciation.”

coexist bumper sticker

Is THIS the goal?

None of those options feels right. We don’t want to imply that we are trying to convert people from one religion to another. We don’t want to fall into the go-nowhere liberal trap of calling on people from different religions to merely “co-exist.” To my mind, anyway, that approach downplays the vital universal claims of many of the religions themselves.

What are we really after? Informed understanding about religious traditions besides our own…right? That’s more than “literacy,” and “literacy” implies that the knowledge is coveted by all and value-neutral. We need another term to describe this important goal.

What is it?