Missing the Boat on Creationism at the New York Times

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

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

Jesus on a dinosaur.jpg 1

Kicking ass for creation.

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

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

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

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

God appears sloppy and incompetent, if not downright vicious.

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

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

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

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

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

toumey

Read this!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Free Speech Firestorm Jumps the Creationist Gap

Everyone supports free speech. But these days, academic “free speech” has become the latest creationist tactic to wedge creation-friendly science into schools. Mostly, that has been a K-12 effort, but it seems like creationist tactics have piggybacked their way into higher education.

The latest incarnation comes from the University of Wisconsin. Conservative lawmakers have promoted a bill to protect free speech on campus. To be fair, the conservatives who push Wisconsin’s bill insist that it has nothing to do with classroom topics, creationist or otherwise. The target, they insist, are leftist radicals who won’t allow conservative speakers on campus.

Wisconsin free speech

Let creationism ring?!!?!???

In Wisconsin’s case, the headline-grabbing incident was a talk by conservative pundit Ben Shapiro. In November 2016, Shapiro was shouted down for about twenty minutes before campus police kicked out the shouting protesters. Conservative lawmakers hope their bill will guarantee a balanced ideological environment; an infusion of conservative ideas on campus. The bill is patterned after other campus free-speech bills, inspired by the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix.

To this reporter, though, it seems like the current higher-ed furor over free speech has leaped the curricular gap. Here’s what I worry about: Campus free-speech efforts will be used to protect the “free speech” of creationists and other conservative folks locked out of mainstream science. Attempts to box out creationist ideas will be stymied.

Full disclosure: I can’t even pretend to be neutral on this one. I love my alma mater and I quake at the notion that lawmakers would pass any sort of law demanding or prohibiting certain forms of teaching. It’s not just an intellectual or political thing, either. If big granting organizations such as the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health think UW is shackled by creationist science, they will be less likely to fund UW-based projects. Alumni will shy away from sending in donations. Students will be less likely to bring their tuition dollars. In short, the possible negative ramifications of a move like this could be huge.

But at this point, my dear SAGLRROILYBYGTH, you may be asking yourself a smart question: What does this conservative political move to welcome conservative speakers have to do with creationism?

First, the background: For years now, creationists have pushed for “academic freedom” bills in K-12 schools. The idea is to protect teachers and students from harassment or discrimination if they choose to voice their creationist ideas. Seattle’s Intelligent-Design mavens at Discovery Institute, for example, have offered the following language in their “academic-freedom” petition:

Teachers should be protected from being fired, harassed, intimidated, or discriminated against for objectively presenting the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory. Students should be protected from being harassed, intimidated, or discriminated against for expressing their views about the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory in an appropriate manner.

The idea is to mandate the intellectual rights of creationists in K-12 schools, to protect teachers and students from any sort of negative reaction to their zombie science. If successful, these bills put science education in a legal gray area. A school can’t insist on teaching mainstream science. Teachers can’t insist that students learn it.

We’ve seen glimmers of this sort of creationist “academic freedom” dispute in higher ed, too. Remember Eric Hedin at Ball State? He earned tenure after facing charges of preaching intelligent design. Or Mark Armitage at Cal State Northridge? He successfully sued after facing discrimination for his creationist publications.

The Wisconsin bill, however, introduces a new element to these creationist “academic freedom” battles in higher education. According to Madison’s Capital Times, the bill’s sponsor is a convinced young-earth creationist. His bill would create a Council on Free Expression. Creationist students who feel persecuted could file complaints with this Council.

In the give-and-take in the Wisconsin legislature, skeptical Representative Terese Berceau questioned Jesse Kremer, the bill’s sponsor, on this question. What if, Berceau asked, a student in a geology class argued that the earth was only 6,000 years old?

“Is it okay for the professor to tell them they’re wrong?” Berceau asked during the lengthy session on May 11.

“The earth is 6,000 years old,” Kremer offered.  “That’s a fact.”

Representative Kremer insisted the new law would not affect classroom discussions. But he affirmed that a creationist student—any student—who felt discriminated against could take his or her complaint to the Council on Free Expression.

Again, I know I’m not thinking clearly and calmly on this one. I’m nervous about the possible ramifications of Kremer’s bill and I’m likely to make creationist mountains out of conservative molehills.

Am I being overly paranoid? Or will conservative free-speech bills end up giving creationist students in college the ability to jam up the works of mainstream science classes? Will efforts to set up an intellectual preserve for conservative ideas on campus end up giving creationists more control over college classes? And, most important, will that new creationist influence stymie the mainstream science that usually goes on in Madison?

Do Teachers Have the Right to Be Wrong?

How do we draw the line? How do we know when to punish a teacher for being wrong and when to insist that teachers have a right to express their views on controversial topics? A new bill in Montana again insists that creationist teachers should have legal protection to teach their views. Nor is this simply a Montana question. From its headquarters in Seattle, the Discovery Institute has proposed a model bill for legislatures nationwide. From Alabama to Colorado, Florida to South Dakota, lawmakers have offered similar bills.

The basic argument is the same: Teachers must be allowed to teach the full range of ideas about evolution and the origins of life. Should they? And if they shouldn’t, why not?

These are not easy questions, though they might seem so at first. Opponents of these sorts of creationist “academic freedom” laws scoff that no teacher has the right to tell students things that aren’t true. Supporters, on the other hand, might insist that this is a simple question of teachers’ rights to academic freedom.

Neither of those positions captures the complexity of the situation, though. For those of us who oppose these bills, it seems obvious that teachers must not be allowed to tell students things that are not true. As Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education put it, Montana teachers do not have the right to teach “bunk.”

The hard question, though, is who decides on the definition of bunk, and how. Historically, we’ve seen teachers persecuted for unpopular political beliefs. As historian Clarence Taylor has described, in the early 1950s eight New York teachers were fired for their leftist sympathies.

Throughout the twentieth century, as I argued in my new book, progressive teachers and school administrators struggled to protect their rights to their political opinions. These educators insisted on their right to hold controversial opinions. More pertinent, they insisted on their right to teach students about these ideas.

In hindsight, it’s clear that the rights of these teachers were egregiously violated. What’s worse, the climate of public education as a whole was degraded by these educational witch-hunts. Only a few teachers were actually purged, but a climate of fear pushed teachers and students to hew more closely to the patriotic party line. That’s not good education.

So creationists ask: Aren’t these bills protecting the same right? Don’t creationist teachers have the right to present all sides of scientific questions about origins?

Yes and no. As philosopher Harvey Siegel and I argue in our upcoming book, creationist teachers and students DO have enormous rights in public-school classrooms. Too often, evolution mavens get too wrapped up in winning culture-war battles to admit it. Far too often, science teachers imply that students need to believe evolution; earnest teachers want students to acknowledge the fact that real knowing means abjuring supernatural explanations of events. Creationist students have every right to dissent from such beliefs. If students want to believe that the earth is 6,000 years old, or that the earth is a floating turtle, or any other sort of thing, they have every right to do so.

Public schools must welcome a plurality of religious beliefs. Creationists—teachers and students alike—must be defended in their quest to protect their faith from assault, even if that assault is only implied or suggested.

By that same token, however, these sorts of academic bills fail on two counts. First, students in public schools have the right to be protected from religious indoctrination. No teacher may preach religious doctrine. Though creationists might howl in protest, even the most intelligently designed creationist bills have religious goals. Instead of protecting teachers’ rights to teach controversial subjects, in effect these sorts of academic freedom bills protect a non-existent right to preach a certain religion-friendly doctrine in public-school classrooms.

Second, students in public schools have the right to learn the best ideas available. When issues are truly controversial, students must be exposed to those controversies. But when ideas are not controversial, students must not be forced to mull false ideas as co-equal to truer ones.

This is not only an evolution/creation idea. In history classes, for example, students should not learn that the South won the Civil War. Or that most enslaved people preferred bondage to freedom. These ideas are held by lots of people, but that doesn’t make them just as true as other historical ideas.

Teach the controversy?

Teach the controversy?

In science classes, the sorts of dissent that people such as Montana legislator Clayton Fiscus wants to protect are not equally scientifically valid. True academic freedom does not include the right to offer worse scientific ideas as equal to better ones. True academic freedom does not include the right to preach religious ideas as facts.

So do teachers have the right to be wrong? Yes, indeed. But they do not have a right to encourage students to believe any particular sort of religious belief. Nor do they have the right to pretend two sets of ideas are equally valid when they are not.

The Wide Wide World of Creationist Sports

When pro athletes start to fight, the officials intervene. What happens when pro sportscasters start to fight about creation and evolution? ESPN has had to silence at least one commentator for defending evolution. We got another taste of that sideline action when star-turned-commentator Bill Walton poked fun at award-winning announcer Dave Pasch.

Pasch has made no secret of his faith, including his Christian beliefs. He sees broadcasting as a perfect opportunity to spread the Word. As part of their jokey relationship, Bill Walton surprised Pasch at a recent game with some presents: a cake and a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Here’s how the dialogue went:

Walton: We wanna make sure that you believe in evolution.

Pasch: I don’t. But I’ll set this over here…. By the way, Bill, I have a book that counters the Origin of Species if you’d like me to bring that to you next game.

Other guy [?]: Crickets…

Walton: I believe in science. And evolution. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon.

Other guy [?]: Alright, let’s…let’s move on here.

Pasch: We’ll take a break. Eat some cake. Talk about the book Bill gave me, and maybe a little irreducible complexity to straighten Bill out.

Sports fans may remember an angrier sideline fight a few months back between pitcher Curt Schilling and commentator Keith Law. The two got into a Twitter shouting match over the fossil record. In the end, ESPN suspended Law from Twitter, not officially for his pro-evolution stance.

What in the wide world of sports is goin on here?

What in the wide world of sports is goin on here?

We could ask if the interchange between Pasch and Walton gives us evidence that intelligent design really is just a stalking horse for conservative evangelical religion. The theorists of the “irreducible complexity” Pasch refers to insist that their ideas are not religious, just scientific. But we clearly see in this interchange that at least one ardent evangelical creationist considers intelligent design to be on His side.

We don’t want to get into all that, though. Instead, let’s focus this morning on some simpler questions:

What’s with all these sports creationists? We know that star athletes from Russell Wilson to Tim Tebow to Jeremy Lin have used their fame to spread the Gospel. Is there something about sports that is friendly to conservative evangelicals?

Here’s What Creationists Call Anti-Science

Who is anti-science? Depends whom you ask! Recently World Magazine offered a creationist list of the real anti-science stories of 2014.

The sophisticated and good-looking readers of ILYBYGTH may be surprised to hear it, but there are still people out there who think this is a simple question. They have not read books such as Ron Numbers’ Galileo Goes to Jail. Such folks are trapped in the old notion that science and religion have been at loggerheads ever since Galileo and Giordano Bruno poked their scientific noses under religion’s intellectual tent.

Your anti-science or mine?

Your anti-science or mine?

Such naïve readers may assume that creationism is simply “anti-science.” They don’t know that creationists and non-creationists have, instead, been fighting for decades over the title of “real” science.

Karl Giberson is not one of these people. Giberson understands the complex cultural politics of creationism and science better than most people. So when Giberson published his list of top-ten anti-science stories of 2014, he knew he was making a political point, not a scientific one. Giberson blasted such creationist institutions as Bryan College, World Magazine, the Discovery Institute, and the Institute for Creation Research. He called out prominent creationists such as Ken Ham and Albert Mohler by name. Such folks, Giberson accused, led the list of “America’s flakerrati” with their “preposterous claims.”

As Giberson knows well, proving that your enemies are anti-science is good politics. In spite of some chatter to the contrary, very few Americans distrust science as an institution. Believe it or not, even conservatives tend to have more trust in science and scientists than they do in such things as big business and churches.

Sure enough, one of the institutions on Giberson’s anti-science list has taken some pains to dispute its anti-science status. At World Magazine, Daniel James Levine has offered a rebuttal. As Levine puts it,

WORLD believes good science is vital, so we want to contribute to the effort to keep research on the straight and narrow.

As we might expect, what World thinks of as anti-science looks very different from Giberson’s list. Levine offers seven top anti-science claims of 2014. Instead of creationism, Ebola hysteria, and climate-change skepticism, Levine gives these top seven anti-science ideas:

1.) “Selling abortion through euphemism;”

2.) “Denying homosexuals can change;”

3.) “Denying the dangers of the gay lifestyle;”

4.) “Searching for extraterrestrials;”

5.) “The ‘overpopulation’ crisis;”

6.) “Gender as a social construct;” and

7.) “The imaginative multiverse theory.”

Clearly, this is not simply a case of to-may-toe/ to-mah-toe. What each side views as “real” science is dramatically different. Nor must we simply shrug our shoulders and conclude that there is no way to differentiate real anti-science from false anti-science. With apologies to creationists and religious conservatives out there, I agree that mainstream science is better science than the creationist alternatives.

In the end, though, we must remember that accusations of “anti-science” are not really about science: They are first and foremost strategic moves in our continuing culture wars.

Creationists: We Don’t Want Creationism in Public Schools

We don’t push creationism on America’s public schools.  That’s the word from two very different ends of America’s creationist spectrum.

An intelligent observer might be forgiven for feeling a little confused.  If creationists don’t want creationism in America’s schools, what do they want?

Seen from this outsider’s perspective, this creationist plea demonstrates the important fact that America has not hit a wall with evolution/creation controversies; we are not trapped in a timeless deadlock; evolution and creation are not grappling in an endless, changeless battle.

Evolution is winning.

Don’t believe me?  Consider the recent statements of two leading creationists, two creationists with very different anti-evolution ideas.

Our first creationist voice for keeping creationism out of public schools comes from the leading proponent of intelligent design, Seattle’s Discovery Institute.

According to the conservative Christian World Magazine, the Discovery Institute’s Stephen Meyer has called recently for intelligent design advocates to stop pushing ID on public schools.  In a New York talk about his new book, Darwin’s Doubt, Meyer insisted it would be “imprudent for our side to be pushing intelligent design into textbooks.”

There was no need for such forceful public advocacy, Meyer argued.  Instead, growing doubt among mainstream scientists should be allowed to bubble over into public-school science curriculum.  According to Meyer, “There are too many scientists doing science from this perspective to keep it out of schools.  I’d prefer for it to happen organically.”

At the other end of the creationism spectrum, Ken Ham has called for a similar hands-off policy concerning public schools.  Ham, the founder of the leading young-earth creationist ministry Answers In Genesis, has insisted recently that his group does not push young-earth creationism into public schools.  Why not?  Because mandated creationism, Ham argued, would “likely be taught poorly (and possibly mockingly) by a teacher who does not understand what the Bible teaches. . .”

On the other hand, Ham does hope that public schools will teach a greater variety of ideas about evolution, including young-earth creationism.

For those of us non-creationists hoping to understand American creationism, what lessons can we take out of these statements?

At first glance, such arguments seem merely strategic.  My hunch is that both Meyer and Ham would prefer to see more intelligent design or young-earth creationism in America’s public schools, respectively.  Insisting that they do not push such notions seems nothing more than an attempt to play the role of innocent bystander in creation/evolution fights.

But we can take other lessons from these creationist statements as well.  First of all, both statements demonstrate a recognition that ID or YEC are not currently dominant in America’s public schools.  Dr. Meyer says he does not want to push ID, since that will leave the decisions in the hand of a judge, as happened in the Dover trial.  Mr. Ham worries that mandatory creationism would lead to withering critiques of the creation curriculum by the vast numbers of anti-creationist teachers.

As I’ve argued in my 1920s book, such creationist attitudes represent a wholesale revolution in anti-evolution politics.  In the 1920s, anti-evolution campaigns wanted more than to have creationism included in public schools.  Back then, anti-evolution politicians hoped to ban evolution wholesale.  Not only that, in the 1920s politicians and activists insisted on banning all sorts of ideas that might have challenged traditional Protestant culture.  Consider the “anti-evolution” law that passed the US Congress in 1924.  That law specified that no teachers could engage in “disrespect of the Holy Bible.”  But the law also insisted that DC teachers could not teach that the USA had an inferior form of government.

The sort of “us-too” strategy engaged in by Ham and Meyer demonstrates a very different goal.  Even if they are being duplicitous in their insistence that they do not want to push creationism on public schools, the very fact that they choose to disavow such insistence speaks volumes.

In the 1920s, anti-evolutionists wanted evolution out.  All the way out.  With all its attendant theories of atheism, socialism, sloppiness, and bad manners.  Anti-evolutionists went out of their way to show their vehement condemnation of all things evolutionary.

In the 21st century, in contrast, anti-evolutionists claim only to want a place at the public-school table.

This revolution in anti-evolution strategy demonstrates that there is no long-term deadlock in the evolution/creation struggle.

I’ll say it again: Evolution is winning.

It only appears to be a deadlock if we restrict ourselves to a short historical perspective.  Yet, for understandable reasons, many of the smartest voices in the evolution/creation debates have implied that we are in fact stuck.

Randy Moore, for example, has long been the smartest guy in the room when it comes to the struggle over creationism and biology education.  Yet even he allows himself to imply that evolution/creation has bogged down.  In a recent essay in the BioLogos Forum, for example, Moore opens with the following assertion: “the evolution-creationism controversy has been one of the most abiding controversies in America during the past several decades, public attitudes about evolution and creationism have changed relatively little during that time.”

True enough, but he restricts himself to a relatively short timeline.  Opinions since the 1980s may have congealed, but that does not imply a longterm freeze.

Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, too, open their wonderful study of evolution and creationism battles with the assumption that these battles have changed little.  They do not ask IF creation/evolution fights have deadlocked.  They only ask WHY such fights have been so durable.

Today’s statements from Stephen Meyer and Ken Ham demonstrate the dangers of these assumptions.  From an historian’s perspective, attitudes that have stayed the same since the 1980s are not proof of deadlock.  Rather, they appear only to be recent trends.

The fact that leading creationists insist that they do not want to push their theories into public schools tells us a lot.

It doesn’t tell us, of course, exactly how sincere such protestations might be.

But it does tell us that the evolution/creation controversy has changed dramatically over the past century.  Whereas the first rounds of this battle saw anti-evolutionists pound evolution education into the ropes, more recent decades have seen that trend reversed.

It is now creationists who insist they don’t want to push their ideas into public schools.

“Why can’t creationism be included?” is a vastly different question than “Why should schools include evolution?”

Creationist Rebels in the Classroom

How can we improve evolution education in this country?  Some suggest that new science standards will do the job.  Others suggest evolution educators need to get to creationists’ kids early.

Good ideas.

But there are also proud creationist teachers in schools, folks such as Daniel Brown.[*]  In a World Magazine article about the influence of intelligent-design workshops for teachers, Brown proclaimed,

When the culture tells me I’m not allowed to think outside the Darwinian box, it makes me want to think outside the Darwinian box.

Several teachers described their devotion to include creationism despite pressure to teach evolution.  Brown, for example,

avoids legal quicksand by teaching in a way that prompts students to do their own thinking. As a physics teacher, he doesn’t talk about biology, but introduces the concept of fine-tuning in the universe. For example, the Earth’s atmosphere blocks harmful radiation from the sun but is transparent to the visible light needed for photosynthesis. The Earth is an ideal distance from the sun to host liquid water, and our solar system is ideally placed to avoid dangerous radiation from the center of the galaxy. Brown ends such talks by suggesting to students, “It kind of makes you think!”

Another public-school teacher felt pressured to quit her job.  She told World Magazine she followed a “middle-of-the-road” path, but her principal accused her of infusing her classes with faith.  In the end, she took a less-than-perfect job at a Catholic school.  The school still taught evolution, but at least the teacher was allowed to praise the Lord in class.

So how can we push more and better evolution education into America’s classrooms?  It won’t hurt to have better standards.  It won’t hurt to expose more students to more science.  But we must start by acknowledging the durable and powerful cultural roots of creationism.

For instance, in spite of the tone of beleaguered victimhood of the World Magazine article, these teachers all received training and encouragement this summer at a workshop run by the intelligent-design focused Discovery Institute.  Such programs represent a continuing effort to prevent mainstream science from taking over America’s science classrooms.  Institutions such as the Discovery Institute will likely continue actively to promote various creationist ideas as good science.

Also, we also have to consider the stubborn effective resistance of creationist teachers themselves.  The teachers profiled by World Magazine did not simply stumble onto an intelligent-design dissent.  They eagerly sought out the aid of outside agencies in their continuing fight to promote creationism in their own classrooms.

 


[*] A pseudonym.

White House Petition: A Creationist Scheme?

Is the White House petition to ban creationism and intelligent design just a creationist scheme?

That’s the question asked recently by the ever-vigilant Sensuous Curmudgeon.

Here’s an update for those just joining us: Two weeks ago, someone filed a petition with the White House to ban creationism and intelligent design in the US.  These petitions need 100,000 signatures in 30 days in order to guarantee consideration by the Obama administration.  So far, this petition has 39,080 signatures, with 60,920 more needed by July 15.

The Sensuous Curmudgeon‘s blog is a must-read for anyone who follows creationism issues.  The Curmudgeon tracks and ruthlessly pillories creationism wherever and whenever it raises its head.  Yet the Curmudgeon opposes this petition.  The Curmudgeon argues that such things are not only useless to stop creationism or intelligent design, they actually help creationists paint themselves as victims.

We agree.

The Curmudgeon, however, goes one step further.  This petition is such a bad idea for those who support evolution education, the Curmudgeon believes, that it smells like the work of a creationist provocateur.

As the Curmudgeon puts it,

We suspect that it’s really something concocted by a small group of “clever” creationists — possibly in some dingy Seattle “think tank” — who want to demonstrate how “intolerant” we “Darwinists” really are, and how we want to suppress their glorious insights about creation science and intelligent design, and how we’ll resort to governmental force to maintain our “atheistic monopoly” on public education.

What do you think?  Is this petition just a creationist scheme?

Would You Sign It?

Should creationism be banned from schools?  Intelligent design?

That’s the question posed by a new petition on the White House’s website.

As of this morning, the petition has garnered 7,662 signatures.  It only needs 92,338 more by July 15 to earn an official response.

The language seems mild to an evolution believer like me:

Since Darwin’s groundbreaking theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, scientists all around the world have found monumental amounts of evidence in favor of the theory, now treated as scientific fact by 99.9% of all scientists.

However, even after 150 years after the establishment of evolution, some schools across the US are “teaching the controversy,” including Creationism and Intelligent Design. Both of these so-called “theories” have no basis in scientific fact, and have absolutely zero evidence pointing towards these conjectures. These types of loopholes in our education are partially to blame for our dangerously low student performances in math and science.

Therefore, we petition the Obama Administration to ban the teachings of these conjectures that contradict Evolution.

I agree with these sentiments.  Though there are legitimate scientific questions about evolution, such questions do not merit teaching evolution as merely a “controversy.”  Evolution is a fundamental idea about science and deserves to be taught as such in public schools.

However, I think this talk of a “ban” misses the point.  The religious notions of creationism and intelligent design are already banned in public schools.  This kind of anti-creationist activism only antagonizes the substantial number of Americans who sympathize with religious explanations of the origins of life.  Antagonizes without purpose.

In the pages of the Christian Post, for example, young-earth creationist Ken Ham correctly pointed out that the petition could never have any real impact on the teaching of creationism.  The petition only proved, Ham insisted, “the intolerance of evolutionist activists who do not want to see any challenge to their deeply held secularist worldview.”  Since the petition did not specify public schools, Ham argued, this petition can be seen as an aggressive attempt to dictate the teaching even of religious private schools.

Similarly, John West of the Discovery Institute, an intelligent-design think-tank, called the petition “ill-informed, confused, and beside the point.”

I don’t want to see creationism of any sort taught in public schools.  But I agree here with West and Ham.  This petition looks like another well-meaning but ill-considered scheme by overzealous anti-creationists.

Would you sign it?

Creationist Bogeymen

Say, did you hear what happened to Senator Kruse’s “Truth in Education” bill in Indiana?

Unless you’re a close personal friend of the Senator, I’m guessing you haven’t.  The career of bills like this one can tell us a thing or two about the cultural politics of creationism.

Senator Kruse garnered some headlines six months ago for his plan.  Kruse, the chairman of the Indiana State Senate Education Committee, promised a new law that would guarantee students’ right to challenge their teachers’ pronouncements.  The barely disguised goal was to allow creationist students to confront evolutionary teaching.

At the time, pundits and scribblers announced Kruse’s plan as the latest offensive in a creationist juggernaut.  Reporters noted the connections to Seattle’s Discovery Institute, the leading intelligent-design think tank.  Progressives lamented this latest power play by religious conservatives.  One commenter called the bill the latest effort to “march the education of American children toward the 19th century.”  Another explained Kruse’s new effort as an end run around evolution.

But here’s the problem: Kruse’s bill didn’t do any of those things.  It didn’t do anything.

Kruse’s bill died the quiet death of most legislation.  As House Bill 1283, Truth in Education went nowhere.  But no one reported on that. [**DOUBLE CORRECTION: First, HB 1283 was not introduced by Senator Kruse, but by Kruse’s ally, Representative Jeff Thompson.  Second, the National Center for Science Education, that tireless watchdog of all things creationism, did in fact report on the fate of HB 1283.  Thanks to Glenn Branch of the NCSE for calling our attention to it.]

To be fair, several of the journalists who talked about the looming threat of Indiana’s latest creationist bill wondered if the bill would ever get anywhere.  But a casual news reader could be forgiven for assuming that creationists pass laws like this all the time.  The news media’s hunger for the sensational feeds a skewed perspective on what is and is not legal in America’s schools.

This is not new.  In 1942 Oscar Riddle and his colleagues conducted a survey of high-school science teachers.[1]  They asked teachers if they taught evolution or special creation, and why.  Those answers were illuminating.  Over three thousand teachers responded to the questionnaire.  Those who claimed not to teach evolution gave a wide range of reasons.  One teacher from North Carolina explained that evolution education was “a taboo subject to most people” (73).  A Nebraska teacher said she avoided evolution education mainly due to “Lack of time.”  One California teacher added, “Controversial subjects are dynamite to teachers” (74).  In the stereotype-shattering department, another California teacher from a “large city” explained that he or she didn’t teach evolution because the “Fundamentalist beliefs of majority of our students may not be attacked (negro and Mexican)” [sic] (74).

Most relevant here, lots of teachers incorrectly believed evolution education was illegal in their states.  Since the 1920s, as I detail in my 1920s book, a handful of states really did pass anti-evolution laws or education-department rules.  But a significant percentage of teachers in the 1940s believed incorrectly that their states had also done so.

Why?  My hunch is that anti-evolution bills get much more attention than they deserve.  Any conservative religious lawmaker can earn quick points for introducing a bill destined to go nowhere.  This was the case in the 1920s, the 1940s, and it is the case today.  Senator Kruse’s bill did not change anything for any students in Indiana.  But it did contribute to a widespread notion that creationism is on the march all over the country.


[1] Oscar Riddle, F.L. Fitzpatrick, H.B. Glass, B.C. Gruenberg, D.F. Miller, E.W. Sinnott, eds., The Teaching of Biology in Secondary Schools of the United States: A Report of Results from a Questionnaire (Washington, DC: Union of American Biological Sciences, 1942).