But What about All the Dead Bodies?…

Forget about evolution and creationism for a minute. We see more evidence today that the first shot in many educational culture wars takes place not in science, but in history.

When it comes to schooling and culture wars, we spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about creationism and science. It makes sense. In that case, we see a stark and shocking disconnect between contending visions of proper knowledge for children.

But some of the most virulent culture-war battles happen over historical issues. Conservative Christians in the United States often embrace an historical narrative that is at odds with mainstream academic interpretations. Counter-historians like David Barton sell just as many books as do counter-scientists like Ken Ham. And the difference between mainstream academic history and dissenting Christian histories can be just as stark as the differences between the modern evolutionary synthesis and young-earth creationism.

In the United States, one of the most stubborn conservative dissenting histories has been that of neo-Confederatism. As David Blight demonstrated in his terrific book Race & Reunion, conservative history activists in the US South scored major successes in limiting public-school histories to those that flattered the losing side in the Civil War.

In nations around the world, culture-war conflicts often show up as debates over the nature of real history. In Japan, for example, the horrific crimes of the Japanese army in World War II are repeatedly minimized or even ignored in mainstream textbooks. In my own ancestral homeland of Estonia, a long Russian occupation has generated a kind of historic cognitive dualism. Most Estonians of a certain age know the pro-Russian history they got in their Soviet-era schoolbooks, but they don’t believe it. In contrast, Estonians tend to believe a folk history of heroic Estonian resistance, even though they don’t know much about it.[1]

In the pages of the New York Times this morning, we see another example of this kind of battle for history. In pro-Russian breakaway regions of Ukraine, new educational directives insist that the Soviet famine of the 1930s was not a Stalinist genocide, but rather a morally neutral tragedy that befell the entire Soviet Union.

Controlling the past to control the future...

Controlling the past to control the future…

According to mainstream historians, including especially Robert Conquest in English, the Ukrainian famine was anything but morally neutral. Instead, the famine—a tragedy that killed millions of people—was the precise goal of Stalinist policy. In order to bring restive provinces in line, Stalin intended for the region to suffer.

According to the NYT, the new “Fatherland History” hopes to emphasize the region’s long ties with Russia. It plans to minimize Ukrainian nationalist ideas. Igor V. Kostenok, the new minister of education in charge of the new historical guidelines, described the goal as the creation of “a culture, a culture for the Slavic world, for the Russian world.”

Will it work? Not likely. As is the case in every aspect of our educational culture wars, dissenting ideas have a way of surviving and even thriving in spite of official condemnation.

[1] See James V. Wertsch, “Is It Possible to Teach Beliefs, as Well as Knowledge about History?” in Stearns, Seixas, and Wineburg eds., Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History (NYU Press, 2000), pp. 38-50.

In the News: Atheist Hate Crime

Three people are dead, shot in the head by a murderous thug. That thug was an outspoken atheist, and the victims were publicly identified as members of a religious group. Does this count as an atheist hate crime?

To be fair, many of the facts are still up in the air, but it does not seem disputed that Craig Stephen Hicks shot three of his neighbors dead. The neighbors were all Muslim, and Hicks was an outspoken atheist.

According to a story on Yahoo News, Hicks had posted the following rant on his Facebook page:

There’s nothing complicated about it, and I have every right to insult a religion that goes out of its way to insult, to judge, and to condemn me as an inadequate human being — which your religion does with self-righteous gusto, . . . the moment that your religion claims any kind of jurisdiction over my experience, you insult me on a level that you can’t even begin to comprehend.

Is this an escalation of culture-war polemics to real-war violence? ILYBYGTH readers will recall the episode from August, 2012, when Floyd Lee Corkins shot a security guard in the office of the conservative Family Research Council. Is this another example of anti-religious terrorism?

For their part, leading atheists are scrambling to make sense of these charges. The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has issued a statement blaming mental instability, not atheism, for the atrocity. Yet as Hemant Mehta (my personal favorite atheist pundit) has charged, if this shooter had been a member of any religion, leaders of that religion would be called onto the carpet to separate themselves publicly from the act.

Is it fair to ask if militant atheism somehow contributed to this heinous murder?

A Christian in the Lion’s Blog

Okay, be honest: How many of us are brave enough to try talking with people who really really hate us?  I talk a good game, but in real life I hardly ever interact with people very different from me.  Recently on the arch-evolutionist/atheist blog Why Evolution Is True Don McLeroy tried to defend his religion.  I don’t agree with McLeroy’s ideas about God or science, but I have to give him credit for his willingness to talk civilly with his culture-war enemies.

You may remember Dr. McLeroy as the Texas dentist who came to educational power a few years back on the Texas State Board of Education.  Viewers of the documentary The Revisionaries will remember some of McLeroy’s positions.  He wanted less evolution and more country music.  He wanted less hip-hop and more Ronald Reagan.

Those of us outside the world of young-earth creationism were wowed to hear McLeroy teach his Sunday-school class the verities of his religion.  How did all those animals fit on the ark?  Easy! How was it possible that all the evidence of an ancient earth was wrong?   No problem!

And some viewers poked fun at McLeroy for his anti-expert opinions.  “I disagree with the experts,” McLeroy famously intoned in The Revisionaries.  “Someone has to stand up to them.”  To many skeptics, this sort of attitude demonstrated McLeroy’s willful ignorance.  Why WOULDN’T we want experts to decide our school curricula, critics asked incredulously?  As I argued at the time, however, McLeroy’s ideas about proper expertise have a long and storied history among educational conservatives.

In his recent appearance on Why Evolution Is True, McLeroy defends his Biblical epistemology.  McLeroy had pointed out elsewhere that 500 witnesses had attested to Jesus’ rebirth.  For McLeroy, that seemed to be important evidence.  Not surprisingly, the commenters of WEIT tore McLeroy apart.  Some did it politely, calling him “Dr. McLeroy.”  Some did not, referring to him as “Donnie-boy.”

The crux of the disagreement concerned the nature of evidence and how we can know something.  For McLeroy, Paul’s biblical statement that 500 witnesses had seen the Risen Jesus seemed conclusive.  As the readers of WEIT pointed out—and I wholeheartedly agree—there are enormous holes with this sort of knowing.  How can we know Paul really consulted 500 other witnesses?  How do we trust what Paul thought he saw?  Indeed, how can we know Paul was a real person at all?  For folks like me and the commenters on WEIT, such evidence does not count as convincing.

For folks like Dr. McLeroy, the Bible’s writings carry greater weight.  If the Bible attests to something, we know with confidence that it is true.  If the Bible says God created the universe in six days, then we have no need to doubt it.  We can trust that it is true.  Indeed, if we don’t trust that it is true, we risk calling God Himself a liar.

'Cause the Bible Tells Me So...

‘Cause the Bible Tells Me So…

Obviously, these two very different attitudes toward knowledge have a difficult time communicating with each other.  But there seems to be a cottage industry of efforts to do so.  Conservative theologian Doug Wilson and atheist-at-large Christopher Hitchens spent some time together in the film Collision.  As Wilson and Hitchens found out, there is not much point in shouting at each other.  Each side misunderstands the other in such fundamental ways that time is better spent chatting politely and drinking beer.

In his recent appearance, Don McLeroy thanked WEIT commenters for their opinions, and promised to read the books suggested.  But he did not seem likely to be convinced.  Nor did WEIT readers seem likely to turn to the Bible the next time they had a question about science, history, or politics.  Nevertheless, McLeroy pointedly maintained his famous good-natured politeness.

In the end, that might be the extent of dialogue we can expect across these profound culture-war chasms.


Stuff It, Perfesser: The DINE Response

Cross-posted from Do I Need Evolution

What do we do when we can’t agree?  Evolution, US History, sex, prayer . . . there’s a lot we can’t agree about.  A few days back, I asked what a historian like me should do when challenged and insulted.  Should we fight back? Or try to understand why we’ve been insulted and make some connections between disagreeing sides?  Prajwal Kulkarni of the must-read Do I Need Evolution has offered a response:

I can understand why both historians and scientists get angry and feel they must fight. But to fight or not to fight is not the only question. How we fight matters as whether we fight. It’s possible to fight fairly and treat your opponents with respect, something sorely missing with creationists.

Scientists and educators themselves disagree which topics in science are critical for people to learn, and especially non-scientists. Moreover, pretty much everyone agrees that there are many paths to science literacy. Since the experts don’t think evolution is absolutely necessary, and since there are many different ways to cultivate science appreciation and literacy, “fighting” over evolution seems particularly inappropriate.

History is different. Adam can comment more authoritatively, but I get the impression historians agree on a canon that everyone should be exposed to. There also aren’t easy substitutions in history education. You can’t legitimately teach mid-19th century US history and avoid the civil war. But as medical schools all over the world demonstrate, you can teach biology and avoid evolution. “Fighting” might actually be a more appropriate response for history. And even then, we can make sure to to fight fairly and respectfully.

Living in a democracy requires us to draw these types of lines. When it comes to public education, it may be okay to concede on evolution but not history.

Stuff It, Perfesser…

Ouch.  This is what biologists and geologists must feel like when young-earth creationists get aggressive. In the past, I’ve chided mainstream scientists for their unwillingness to sympathize with creationists.  Now that the topic is US History and I’m the one under attack, I feel more sympathetic to the biologists in the room.

Here’s the story: A couple days ago I posted a short essay in the pages of the History News Network.  I compared the history of neo-Confederate attacks on mainstream US history to the decades of creationist attacks on mainstream science.  Why do textbooks still include hackneyed old myths, I asked.  Why insist that slavery was not a leading cause of the Civil War?  Why claim that thousands of slaves fought loyally for the Confederacy?  Such things just aren’t true, and I reminded my history colleagues (and myself) that we must remain active supporters of real history in America’s classrooms.    

A few commenters took me to task for swallowing the myths of false history.  “Whoever this Laats character is,” one James Bendy remarked,

he’s definitely drinking the Kool-aid of the history revisionists. What he calls “revised history’ is actually the unvarnished truth. Yes, there were thousands of free blacks who fought FOR the South, along with thousands of Asians, Spaniards, Jews, Italians, all kinds of Europeans, and several entire tribes of Native Americans. It’s all documented and proven beyond any doubt.

Another commenter accused me of “egotistical presumption and condescension” along with “narcissism and moral blindness.”


I hadn’t meant to be provocative, really.  I hoped to remind other historians that they needed to remain actively involved in history education in their local communities.  It was an historian from William and Mary College, after all, who discovered woeful mistruths in a textbook used by fourth-grade public-school students in Virginia.  All of us need to serve as this sort of watchdog.   

My surprise reminds me of the ways generations of mainstream scientists felt after engaging for the first time with anti-evolutionists.  As I note in my 1920s book about the first generation of Protestant fundamentalists, when University of Wisconsin President Edward Birge disputed the scientific accuracy of anti-evolutionism in 1921, he found himself under political attack by the wily William Jennings Bryan.  President Birge went on to warn Princeton biologist Edwin Conklin, if you mention evolution, “you will receive an enormous number of letters and much fool printed stuff.”  

President Birge was one of the first mainstream scientists to tangle with anti-evolutionists.  His lesson to Conklin has been repeated by generations of mainstream scientists who engage with the issue of creationism.  Lamentably, in these durable culture-war controversies, conversation has always taken a backseat to accusations.

The same certainly seems to be true in this case.  There really isn’t a controversy here; not a real one.  Neo-confederate histories rely on half-truths and outright fabrication to “prove” their preferred stories.  Activists rely on political pressure to crush out dissent and promote politically palatable myths instead of real history. 

To be fair, I don’t dispute the notion that this sort of anti-historical meddling goes on from the left, as well.  There’s also not much disagreement among historians that the leftist history peddled by the late Howard Zinn is full of misleading half-truths and exaggerations as well.  Yet Zinn’s People’s History continues to be used by activist teachers in America’s schools.  That’s a shame as well. 

So what’s an historian to do?  Do I have to swallow these insults in order to build bridges across culture-war divides, as I have suggested mainstream scientists need to do?  Or is it more important to fight back, to take on neo-Confederate historians and activists on a point-by-point refutation?

What would Bill Nye do?


Hamas, Textbooks, and a Real Educational Culture War

What does a real educational culture war look like?  A recent story in the New York Times describes the way the Hamas government in Palestine’s Gaza Strip has pushed its all-out war against Israel into its textbooks.

The militant Hamas government has produced new histories that glorify the role of Hamas, that denigrate Israeli land claims, and that teach a self-consciously heroic history to youngsters in the Gaza Strip.

Will these textbooks change the way the next generation understands the Palestinian/Israeli conflict?

The director of the research study about the Hamas textbooks thinks so.

As quoted in the NYT story, Daniel Bar-Tal, a professor at Tel Aviv University, explained,

When a leader says something, not everyone is listening. But when we talk about textbooks, all the children, all of a particular peer group, will be exposed to a particular material. . . . This is the strongest card.

Fair enough.  Textbooks matter.  As Professor Bar-Tal carefully put it, textbooks “expose” children to a certain perspective.   As we’ve seen in the American context, every conservative group from the American Legion to Accelerated Christian Education has attempted to introduce patriotic or religious textbooks that will transform schooling and culture.

But “exposing” children to a certain worldview is not the same as imposing that worldview on them.  Textbooks make up only one part of education.  As we’ve seen with evolution/creation battles in the USA, the way teachers use textbooks is significantly more important.  As political scientists Eric Plutzer and Michael Berkman argued, teachers function as “street-level bureaucrats,” making important decisions about what to teach and how to teach it (pg. 149, see also pps. 160-169, 219).

As the NYT article argues, Hamas certainly seems to understand this.  The education policies of Hamas have ranged far beyond altering textbooks.  Hamas sends morality police to patrol school campuses for proper behavior between boys and girls.  They have also made important structural changes in schools in the Gaza Strip.

Most of all, we see in this case the central importance of schooling and education in culture-war battles far beyond the shores of the United States.  It seems whenever two groups come into drawn-out conflict, schools become an important battleground.


Hamas and a Real Educational Culture War

Creation/Evolution, racial segregation, school prayer, sex ed . . . we talk about these things as America’s educational “culture wars.”

We get a reminder this morning that in some parts of the world, schools are central battlefields in more vicious culture wars.

The New York Times reports on Hamas’ education reforms in the Gaza Strip.

Starting in September, boys and girls above age nine will be separated more strictly in school.  Gaza schools will teach more aggressively that Palestine belongs wholly to the Palestinians.  Successful students in this new education regime will be “committed to the Palestinian, Arab and Islamic culture,” according to the Times.

The new rules are not intended mainly for existing public schools, which usually already observe these rules and teach these ideologies, but rather for about twelve private and Christian schools.

As we’ve noted before, it is important to remember how central schools can be to the bloodier sorts of culture wars that have only rarely infected American culture.  It is a sobering reminder of the dangers of excessive rhetoric and over-zealous culture-war combat.  In places like the Gaza Strip, as in Nigeria and elsewhere, education policy is often just an extension of military combat.

Lest we get too complacent, let’s remember that America is similarly prone to culture-war violence, from abortion-clinic shootings to the murder of homosexuals.  When we argue about what culture our schools should teach, let’s remember we all want to keep the peace.

War and Culture War

What is a Culture War?  In America, it generally means an angry squabbling over such issues as the proper role of religion and traditional culture in the public square.  Should public schools teach evolution?  Does a fetus have equal human rights?  Should homosexuals be allowed to marry?

Recent headlines demonstrate the terrifying possibilities of other forms of culture war.  In central Nigeria, for instance, Islamic militant group Boko Haram has sharpened a bloody conflict between Muslims and Christians.  The organization has bombed Christian churches and killed Christians who would not convert to Islam.

BBC: “Who Are Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamists?”

Could such atrocity result from America’s milder culture wars?  After all, America is no stranger to intensely violent civil war.  It’s not hard to imagine a new breakout.  Jonny Scaramanga of Leaving Fundamentalism has argued recently how easy it is to envision a Bible-Christian theology of suicide bombing.  And unfortunately we don’t even need to imagine.  With shootings of abortion providers and murders of homosexuals, not to mention generations of lynchings and white-supremacist violence, Fundamentalist America has proven itself capable of war, genocide, and atrocity.The Left, too, has shown its teeth.  When the Students for a Democratic Society splintered in the late 1960s, the Weather Underground faction devoted itself to a nearly suicidal campaign of bombings.   More recently, too, angry anti-fundamentalists such as Dan Savage have demonstrated their willingness to demean and belittle their Christian audiences.

Now, we need to be careful here.  There is a vast gulf between Dan Savage’s culture-war anger and the bombing of churches.  There is also, thankfully, a huge divide between ardent advocacy for a more thoroughly Biblical public culture and pogroms.  The point, though, is that the aggressive bombast of America’s culture warriors makes it depressingly easy to imagine an America in which culture war turns into real war.

At the risk of sounding apocalyptic, let’s imagine some of the ways America’s culture wars might escalate into something far more horrific.

1.)    Geographic contiguity.  If two or more regions developed a sense of beleaguered cultural identity, those identities could form the bases of separate warring nations.  For instance, when the eleven states of the Confederacy determined that their interests were no longer defended in the Federal government, they seceded.  Similarly, during the War of 1812, the Hartford Convention nearly led to the secession of the Northeast.  In today’s politics, we can see some sense of a sharpening coastal/flyover divide, a red state/blue state antagonism.

2.)    Connection of culture issues to existing racial/ethnic/religious divisions.  These divisions have often proved the most explosive in American history.  Wars and riots among groups such as Native Americans, Irish-Catholic Americans, and African Americans have burned America’s cities and bloodied America’s plains.  Were similar connections be made between ethnic status and religious affiliation, similar violence could certainly emerge again.

Our hopes, of course, remain high that America’s culture wars will mitigate, not escalate.  The purpose of this blog is to build intellectual bridges between Fundamentalist America and its critics.

Nevertheless, the depressing norm from history and current world events is for culture wars to attach themselves like lampreys to other sorts of conflicts, escalating the bloodshed as each side sees itself as holy warriors in a righteous cause.

Required Reading: Matthew Lee Anderson on Non-Culture War Conservatism

“Why do the angry people get all the attention?” 

That was one of those audience questions that has stuck with me.  It was at a talk about the history of American creationism I gave a while ago to an audience of (mostly) committed students of biological evolution.  I had included one of my go-to bits from the aggressive atheist Richard Dawkins.  I often explain my purpose in studying conservative religion in American public life as a quest to deflate Dawkins’ 1986 warning: Anyone who does not believe in evolution, Dawkins insisted, must be “ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).”  Though I don’t believe in creationism, I think many people who are not ignorant, stupid, or insane do believe it.  Our talk turned after that to the prominence of mean-spirited, angry culture warriors.  Why do such voices get all the attention, when most of us, whatever our beliefs, would prefer a respectful dialogue?  

Yesterday at Mere Orthodoxy, Matthew Lee Anderson posted another in his series on what it would take for conservative religious Americans to create a post-culture war persona.    

Anderson suggests “four moves” that would move the public engagement of conservative religious Americans in healthier directions:

1) Recover a robust doctrine of creation that is isn’t afraid to be doctrinal.

2) Emphasize the moral imagination and attempt to construct arguments that both appeal to and buttress it.

3) Remember that the church does not simply engage the culture, including politics, but is a culture and so has her own political order.

4) Reframe American exceptionalism around America’s responsibilities rather rather than its virtues. 

As Anderson admits, some of these moves might just be restatements of the goals of the last two generations of culturally engaged evangelicalism.  Carl Henry’s call in 1947 for a “progressive Fundamentalism with a social message” comes to mind.  But for those of us from the outside, those of us trying to understand conservative religion in American public life in order to take away some of the power of all the “angry voices,” understanding Anderson’s moves (and his supporting reading lists) might be a good place to start.

IS there a creation/evolution culture war?

IS there a creation/evolution culture war?


Is there really a culture war between evolutionists and creationists?  Have you experienced it in your lives?

Some folks have argued that culture war talk is more the figment of politicians’ and journalists’ ambition than actual fact.  Morris Fiorina and his colleagues, for instance, cite survey data that attests to large majorities of Americans identifying themselves as centrists and moderates on religious and cultural issues.  As they argued in their 2004 book Culture War, “The simple truth is that there is no culture war in the United States—no battle for the soul of America rages, at least none that most Americans are aware of.”

Their point is valid.  Lots of Americans feel themselves to be in the middle on divisive issues.  Nevertheless, I think Fiorina
and other culture-war-deniers miss the boat on the big picture.  I think we do suffer from a culture war on the creation/evolution issue, for two main reasons.  First, I see a stark divide between believers of the two camps.  Creationists have a hard time believing that evolutionists truly believe their scheme.  Evolutionists return the favor.  Also, the feelings on both sides of this divide seem ferocious and bitter.  These are the ingredients for a durable and damaging culture war.

I’ve seen these effects in my own work.  As I’ve mentioned in these posts, I am personally an evolutionist.  I believe human life came to its present form through a process of natural selection over millions of years.  As a historian of American conservatism and conservative religion, I’ve given talks to largely evolutionist audiences in which I’ve described the ideology and theology of generations of American anti-evolutionists.  The responses I’ve received from those audiences have convinced me that many evolutionists suffer from a real blind spot in their understanding of creationism and creationists.

For example, after one brief talk about 1920s anti-evolution activism, one evolutionist audience member asked me in all sincerity, “What’s wrong with these people?”  She was earnest and sincere; she could not believe that “these people”—creationists—could really oppose the findings of mainstream science for so long.  (See a related discussion over at the US Intellectual History blog.)  There is no way this woman—a distinguished American academic and specialist in multicultural education—would ever allow herself to refer to any other subcultural group as “these people.”  But in the case of creationists, she did not mind lumping them all together in this condescending and demeaning way.  In her opinion, creationists deserved to be demeaned.

Similarly, evolutionists have often asked me if I think creationists REALLY believe in creation, and if so, how they can be so
dense.  The evidence of evolution, to evolutionists, is so self-evident that any disagreement seems either ignorant or mysterious.

Evolutionists often find themselves stumped by the vast difference between their own understandings of life and those of
creationists.  As a result, many evolutionists assume creationists must be scheming and dishonest.  Even in the pages of this blog, I have been accused of being a “lying creationist” for framing arguments in favor of divine creation.  There is a great deal of bitterness with which some people on each side of this cultural divide regard the others.  So much so that any attempt
to understand the other side is seen as stark treason, a punishable offense.

Perhaps my sense of uncertainty developed from my long exposure to other intelligent people who were serious about their religious beliefs.  For a long time I worked in Catholic schools, with a faculty that included lay Catholic and Jesuit
teachers.  Many of the serious Catholics seriously believed in transubstantiation.  They believed that a wafer and a jug of wine could really transform into the body and blood of Christ.  They believed that such things happened commonly, every time there was a Mass, all over the world.

I cannot get my head around that kind of miraculous belief.  I firmly believe that a scientific diagnosis of the wine after it had been supposedly transformed would still show the same chemical makeup that it showed before.  Yet such conclusive proof would not convince my former colleagues.  They might even agree with me that chemical tests had proven that wafers were still chemically wafers and wine was still chemically wine.  And yet they would also believe that they were not.  The wafer and wine had actually become flesh and blood, no matter what the chemical tests may show.  How could my Catholic colleagues believe that?  They were well read and intelligent.  They were good people.  Many had dedicated their careers and lives to
helping others instead of getting themselves ahead.  Yet they believed in this unlikely miracle of transubstantiation.

How?  I don’t know.
But I do respect them as intelligent people and I guess that my inability to believe might be a weakness on my part rather than on theirs.  I can’t help but see their belief as an authentic understanding of the world that differs starkly from my own.  Perhaps the same could be true for those who believe in other ideas that seem outlandish to me?

Have my experiences been unusual?  Have other people interested in the creation/evolution debate had similar experiences?  Those of you who are creationists, have you experienced a wide divide from evolutionists?  Have you seen or felt bitterness and anger toward the other side?  How about evolutionists?  Have you had a difficult experience with a creationist?  One in which he or she would simply not listen to reason?  Or, even worse, one in which he or she lied or acted dishonestly in order to promote creationism?


FURTHER READING: Morris P. Fiorina, with Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremy C. Pope, Culture War?  The Myth of a Polarized America (New York: Pearson Longman, 2004).