Experts Agree…

I’m delighted to report that we’ve got some blurbs up for our new book, Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation.  I’m thrilled to see such great recommendations from two people who know the most about America’s evolution/creation debate.

glenn branch

You know it’s big when you have your own cartoon portrait…

First, some background.  As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I have a new book coming out in February, co-authored with philosopher Harvey Siegel.  In this book, we discuss the history of America’s modern evolution/creation debates.  We also explore the philosophical issues involved with teaching evolution and creationism.  Finally, we offer a recommendation or two for teaching evolution in a way that is scientifically credible and culturally sensitive.


Have you read it yet?

Thanks to the work of our publisher, University of Chicago Press, we now have blurbs from Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education and Ronald Numbers of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. You may know Branch’s work on the Science League of America blog.  Or you may have read his book Not in Our Classrooms.  In any case, nobody has a better sense of the issues involved in today’s evolution/creation debates than does Glenn Branch.

And nobody knows the history better than Professor Numbers.  I’m biased, of course, because Ron was my grad-school mentor and he continues to be my friend and role model.  But you can ask anyone: Ron’s book The Creationists is the first and last word on the subject.

So of course I’m tickled pink to share their blurbs for our new book:

Glenn Branch, deputy director, National Center for Science Education
“What do you get when you cross a historian and a philosopher? If it’s Laats and Siegel, the answer is Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation. Thoughtful and provocative, historically detailed and philosophically informed, this book is a must for anyone interested in understanding the conflict over evolution education in the United States.”
Ronald L. Numbers, author of The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design
Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation provides not only a readable and reliable survey of past encounters but a sensible guide to future practices. Rather than promoting public-school classrooms as pulpits for converting skeptical students to evolution (which has rarely proved an effective technique in any case), they recommend helping students to understand the arguments and evidence for evolution. This book should be required reading for all evolution educators.”


Creation, Christians, and the Deadlock Myth

Whoops! There it is again—another commentator implying that we have been trapped in an endless deadlock over evolution and creation. It’s just not true, as we argue in our new book. That doesn’t stop it from being a very popular thing to say.


Six more decades of creationist debate…

To be fair, Pastor Ryan Gear is more interested in Christian attitudes than in educational policy. He laments the fact that so many conservative Christians continue to doubt evolution and climate change. He points out that such skepticism is not necessary, from a religious viewpoint.

Fair enough. Gear goes off the rails, however, when he implies that things have not changed for Christians when it comes to evolution and creation. As he puts it, if Darwin were alive today, “he would observe that Christians have not evolved much in relation to his theory.”

Hold the phone. In terms of both education policy and religious belief, such statements woefully misrepresent the history of the evolution/creation debate.

First, as I argue in my upcoming book, co-authored with philosopher extraordinaire Harvey Siegel, evolution education has experienced radical changes across the decades. Over long decades, evolution education has made enormous advances. In the 1920s, several states banned the teaching of evolution in public schools entirely.

As I argued in my first book, the fight over evolution in the 1920s was a fight—successful in many ways—to make explicit and legally binding the traditional evangelical Protestant domination of American public life.

These days, the goals of creationists are much tamer. Even the most vociferous young-earth advocates insist they don’t want creationism taught in public schools. Intelligent-designers have scrubbed the explicit religious references out of their arguments.


Have you read it yet?

Also, the very meanings of creationism itself have changed dramatically. As our leading historian of creationism (and my grad-school mentor) Ronald Numbers has demonstrated, today’s popular young-earth creationism was itself a novelty of the mid-twentieth century. In early evolution battles, very few anti-evolutionists insisted on a young earth.

In 1927, for example, fundamentalist activist William Bell Riley insisted, there is not

an intelligent fundamentalist who claims that the earth was made six thousand years ago; and the Bible never taught any such thing.

Back then, Riley was the hard edge of creationist activism. He was the founder and leader of the World [or World’s] Christian Fundamentals Association. He founded a thriving school in his adopted home city of Minneapolis. He represented, to many contemporaries, the extreme, uncompromising wing of 1920s anti-evolutionism.

And he did not believe in a young earth. He did not think it mattered.

Today, of course, the religious landscape of American creationism is much different. Not only do many Christians in big conglomerations such as the Southern Baptist Convention insist on belief in creationism, but they also believe that real creationism means belief in a young earth and a literal six-day creation.

That is new.

We have not been deadlocked for generations in the same ol’ evolution/creation battles. In terms of public policy and private belief, everything has changed. Utterly.

Why does any of this matter to us? Deadlock suggests a need for drastic action. It suggests a stalemate, one that can only be broken by decisive, radical action. The truth, however, is not quite so exciting.

In the past hundred years, the evolution/creation debates have not been stymied in a go-nowhere morass. Rather, people like me who want more and better evolution education have consistently scored important victories. People like Pastor Gear, on the other hand, have been forced to argue against growing percentages of evangelical Christians who insist on a scientifically outlandish young-earth creationism.

From the perspective of public policy, the prescription is clear. We should keep going with our efforts to improve real evolution education in public schools. Evolution, and only evolution, should be taught as our best current scientific understanding of the way species came to be.

At the same time, we should adopt a determinedly neutral stance toward the creationist debates among evangelical Christians. If young-earth advocates want to square off against evolutionary creationists, so be it. Such religious debates are outside the realm of public-school policy.

This kind of nuanced, non-alarmist policy argument does not make for good headlines. That’s why we will likely continue to see every creation/evolution article and op-ed opened with a lament that things have not changed.

If we really want to move forward, however, on questions of evolution, creationism, and education, we need to get beyond the headlines. We need to get beyond the ahistorical assertion that we are trapped in a never-ending evolution/creation Groundhog Day.

New Evolution Stickers for Alabama

What should they say instead?

Alabama’s famed textbook-warning stickers might be on their way out. The National Center for Science Education reported recently that new science standards in the “Heart of Dixie” make the old stickers outdated.

Watch out!  Learnin' ahead!

Watch out! Learnin’ ahead!

Alabama’s textbooks have carried the warning since the beginning of the twenty-first century. New standards, though, suggest that evolution will no longer be scientia non grata in the state.

So here’s a puzzler for the SAGLRROILYBYGTH: If the old stickers are out, what should new stickers say instead? Of course, smart-alecks will suggest that we leave science textbooks sticker-free. That is the smart answer, but it leaves us with nothing to talk about on a Tuesday.

So let’s make up new stickers. A few ground rules:

1.) The language has to be readable and straightforward. No jargon.

2.) Maximum 250 words.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’ve been working on a new evolution/creation book with my co-author Harvey Siegel.  For years now, we have wrestled with this big-picture question.  In short, we want science teachers to teach evolution and nothing but evolution in their public-school science classes.  But we need to help teachers, students, and families understand that learning evolution does not need to impinge on any sort of religious belief.

Our simple prescription: Students need to know about it.  They need to understand it.  But they do not need to believe it.  Students need to be able to explain intelligently what scientists think about evolution.  If they choose not to accept it, that is their business.  More than that: It is the public schools’ business to make sure students and families feel welcomed, whatever their religious beliefs.  It is the schools’ business to encourage students to be who they are.

With all that in mind, here’s my entry:

These textbooks include information about evolution. Evolution is our current best scientific understanding of the ways species came to be different from one another.

Science encourages you to be skeptical about evolution and every other idea. If you choose not to believe that evolution is the best explanation of the origin of species, you have every right to doubt it.

You need to know about evolution. You need to be able to explain how scientists think it worked. You do not have to agree with these scientists.

Okay, okay,…it’s a long way from perfect.  Can you do better?

Alabama’s Fractured Evolution

So…will kids in Alabama learn about evolution? Depends on who you ask. The state just published its new science standards. If you listen to NPR or read the update from the National Center for Science Education, then the new standards are unabashedly pro-evolution. But if you read the Christian Post, then the new standards offer students a choice. This is more than a question of headlines. It helps us see the tricky nature of teaching evolution and other controversial subjects.



All parties concerned seem to agree that the new standards require more evolution. And they agree that the new standards will move students away from repeating rote facts. The goal of the new standards will be to allow students to get their hands dirty in the evidence itself. As the NCSE describes, [the new standards no longer seem available online], students will soon be expected to

“[a]nalyze and interpret data to evaluate adaptations resulting from natural and artificial selection” and to “[a]nalyze scientific evidence (e.g., DNA, fossil records, cladograms, biogeography) to support hypotheses of common ancestry and biological evolution” (p. 48).

For pro-evolution folks [like me], this means kids in Alabama will learn more evolution. As Alabama science teacher Ryan Reardon told NPR,

“I’m gonna let the data smack ’em in the face,” Reardon says of his students. “I’m gonna ask them what that suggests, and then I’m gonna ask ’em what the ramifications are.”

To Reardon, the message of the new standards is clear: His students will be learning the truths of evolution and climate change. But for the editors at the Christian Post, the new standards mean something very different. The Christian Post reported that students would “Decide If Evolution Is Theory or Fact.” Decide. Allowing students to wade into the evidence themselves does not necessarily mean that they will conclude that evolution happened.

NPR wondered why these new evolution-friendly standards passed with so little “pushback.” Why have conservative evangelicals in Alabama seemed so willing to support these new standards? Perhaps the reason is more obvious than it seems. While teachers like Ryan Reardon plan to push students to see the truths of evolution, perhaps other teachers plan to push students to see for themselves the weaknesses of evolutionary theory.

As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer argued, state science standards are not the best predictor of the ways evolution is actually taught.

Alabama teachers like Ryan Reardon will likely guide their students toward a full understanding of evolutionary theory. But other teachers in the state will likely guide students differently. By helping students “decide” if evolution is a fact or “just a theory,” many science teachers in the state will likely continue to teach a mix of religious ideas in with their state-approved science curriculum.



Certainly, readers of publications such as the Christian Post might not see the new standards as an undiluted victory for evolution. If students are allowed to “decide” if evolution is a fact or “just a theory,” creationists will be able to claim a victory.

Are the new standards better? For those of us who want to see more and better evolution education, they certainly seem to be. But we need to be cautious about our expectations. These contradictory headlines show that teachers and schools will implement the new standards in contradictory ways.

Will I Go to Hell for Learning Science?

Those of us who want to get more and better evolution education into our public schools have our work cut out for us. Evidence keeps piling up that Americans still get nervous when it comes to mainstream science.

As my co-author Harvey Siegel and I argue in our upcoming book about creationism and evolution education, public schools don’t have a credible option. They must teach real evolutionary science—and ONLY evolutionary science—in their science classes. Anything else does a grave disservice to students.

Even creationist students. Those creationists, though, should not be forced to mouth vaguely religious platitudes as they learn about evolution. Rather, public school teachers must make their goal to teach students to know and understand evolutionary theory. If they choose not to believe it, that is their fundamental right.will i go to hell for learning science

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, my humble blog has wrestled with these issues of creationism and evolution education for years. Every once in a while, we get a glimmer of the harsh reality out there: People really don’t like evolution.

In the editor’s board of the blog, I can read some of the search terms that brought people to the blog. In the past, we’ve seen plaintive requests such as “Can a creationist and evolutionist be in love?”

Today we get another humdinger. In the search terms today we see, “Will I Go to Hell for Learning Science?” As David Long and other scholars have argued, learning evolution is profoundly disconcerting for some students. For those like this searcher, it is more than just a lack of knowledge that is the problem. Many students have deep worries that science these days is nothing but a lure of the devil.

What I Did on my Summer Vacation

By Adam L.

I hope you choke on your sunscreen. While you are out and about doing summer fun stuff, I’ll be in the office putting together the index for my upcoming book.

Okay, okay, I’m being a little melodramatic. I actually enjoy the process of writing an index. It helps me get into the manuscript in a detailed way. It helps me think over what the main points are. And it helps me imagine what future readers might be looking for.

If you poke your head out the window and crane your neck, you still can't see the beach from here...

If you poke your head out the window and crane your neck, you still can’t see the beach from here…

Not to mention the fact that writing an index has its own share of intellectual challenges. For example, I’m wondering which subheading to use under “Darwinism.” Should I list anti-evolution protests as “Darwinism: equated with atheism, 7, 14—15”? Or should it be more general: “Darwinism: critiqued by anti-evolutionists, 7, 14—15”?

In any case, enjoy your dog days at the beach, or the mountains, or wherever it is that normal people spend their summer time. I’ll be festering in air-conditioned office comfort. When the snow flies in January, this book should be ready to share.

So Jesus WAS on a Dinosaur…?

We just don’t know what we’re talking about.

Could've happened...?

Could’ve happened…?

A new poll inspired by the hit movie Jurassic World suggests that Americans don’t know much about much. Thanks to the ever-watchful folks at the National Center for Science Education, we see some startling responses to a simple question: Did humans and dinosaurs live at the same time?

As YouGov explained,

YouGov’s latest research shows that 41% of Americans think that dinosaurs and humans either ‘definitely’ (14%) or ‘probably’ (27%) once lived on the planet at the same time. 43% think that this is either ‘definitely’ (25%) or ‘probably’ (18%) not true while 16% aren’t sure. In reality the earliest ancestors of humans have only been on the planet for 6 million years, while the last dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago.


For evangelicals, the numbers are even more skewed. A clear majority (56%) of evangelical Protestants think humans and dinosaurs co-existed. Only 22% of evangelicals thought that dinosaurs and humans did not.



As the National Center for Science Education points out, there are a couple of possible wrinkles in this poll. Most scientists these days consider birds to be dinosaurs. Is that what the respondents meant? The NCSE charitably suspends judgment, but it seems obvious to your humble editor that most of us just don’t know what we’re talking about.

Good Seats Still Available!

The 2015-2016 lineup at Binghamton University is looking like another winner. Dan Kahan of Yale Law School has just agreed to come up in the spring for a talk about his work with science communication.

We had a very exciting year last year, too. Michael Berkman visited from Penn State. Professor Berkman gave a great talk to our Evolution Studies program about his work with evolution education. Then in May, Jonathan Zimmerman from New York University delivered our annual Couper Lecture. Professor Zimmerman blew our minds with some of the most provocative ideas from his new book, Too Hot to Handle.

Are you a Kentucky Farmer?

Are you a Kentucky Farmer?

Folks who spend a lot of time with science, creationism, and public perceptions will be familiar with Professor Kahan’s work. His Cultural Cognition Project has explored exciting new directions in the tricky field of science communication. As Professor Kahan will tell you, we’re all Pakistani doctors; we’re all Kentucky farmers.

Details of Professor Kahan’s talk to follow. It will likely be a Monday evening in the early months of 2016. As always, the seminars hosted by Binghamton’s stellar Evolution Studies Program are free and open to the public.

Can’t wait.

Dissenters, Not Ignoramuses

[Editor’s Note: As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’ve just completed work on a new book about creationism and evolution education in the United States.  Based on that effort, the education editor of Anthropology Now invited me to contribute some thoughts about the implications of the creation/evolution controversy.  Below I’m reprinting that essay in its entirety, with the permission of Anthropology Now.  You can also find the essay in its original form in the April 2015 edition of that magazine. Thanks to Zoe Burkholder and Maria Vesperi of AN.]

Physical anthropologists have long been on the front lines of debates over evolution. In the Texas textbook tumult over the past decade, for example, Ronald Wetherington of Southern Methodist University has gone head-to-head with creationists over the content of science textbooks. There is no debate over the science, Wetherington has argued. There is simply no way humanity’s origins can be traced to two bashful ancestors in an idyllic garden, 6,000 years ago.[1]

Image courtesy of Scott Thurman, The Revisionaries

Wetherington thinking it over. Image courtesy of Scott Thurman, The Revisionaries

Yet the fight goes on. Creationists insist on including their religious beliefs in public-school science classes. Mainstream scientists protest. All too often, the debate has forced folks such as Wetherington to attack the scientific pretensions of creationism. How would it be possible, mainstream scientists insist, for the earth to only have a short history? For humanity to trace its lineage from the Garden of Eden? The genetics just don’t line up. The fossils don’t line up. Nothing fits.

This sort of back-and-forth about the possibilities of science goes nowhere. More false debates pitting mainstream scientists against creationist scientists in a choreographed and predictable non-dialogue about the proper nature of science are not needed. One side calls the other a bunch of ignoramuses. Creationists retort that they are the only real scientists in the room.

Creationists may or may not be ignorant about evolutionary theory, but there is a better way to understand creationism, as primarily a form of religious dissent. Of course, notions of religion and religious dissent have always played a part in creation/evolution debates. Court decisions, especially, have tended to reject creationists’ claims on the basis that they represent a religious viewpoint, not a scientific one. Even those decisions, however, have pushed creationists to insist on their status as scientific dissenters above all. For everyone’s sake, including that of creationists themselves, creationism should be viewed first and foremost within the tradition of religious dissent in the United States.

This approach offers hope for moving the long debates over creation and evolution in a more productive direction. In the end, centering the debate on religious dissent rather than on scientific truth could offer two promising new policy goals. First, it would require both sides to agree on different goals for evolution education. Public schools would be tasked with clarifying their expectations and demands. While students from every background must be helped to understand evolution, their beliefs about that knowledge are their own business. As religious dissenters, creationists have the right to preserve their religious beliefs. Second, for public-school teachers to teach dissenting students, teachers themselves must be taught some basic principles about cultural difference and inclusion. Here is where anthropologists can get involved. Teachers should study not only biology and geology, but also ethnography and principles of cultural anthropology. Science teachers must understand the cultural beliefs of religious dissenters in order to welcome those dissenters into science classes. And teachers should be trained to understand their own cultural perspectives, to see the dissent of their students as a cultural strength, not a deficit to be corrected or an ignorance to be attacked.

Anthropologists can be helped by historians. As every historian is well aware, the US educational system has a long, spotty record of handling religious dissent. All too often, public schools have crammed hegemonic notions of proper culture and theology down the throats of minority students and families. In the 19th century, as historian Carl Kaestle has argued, Protestant school leaders often pooh-poohed the objections of Catholic dissenters. In the 1830s, Protestant school leaders in cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia dismissed Catholic complaints about textbooks that ridiculed the Pope and described Catholics as inquisitors and anti-Christians.[2] Even into the 20th century, as David Wallace Adams has shown, minority groups felt the heavy hand of the dominant culture. At Native American Indian boarding schools, Adams found, non-native teachers made it their mission to squash the religion of their native charges. School founder Richard Henry Pratt wanted to “kill the Indian and save the man.”[3]

As the 20th century progressed, religious dissenters scored some successes in major court cases. Perhaps most influential, the US Supreme Court ruled in Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) that students had the right to dissent from religious practices in public-school classrooms. Even if families were allowed to opt out of prayers and Bible readings, the Court decided, such religious practices involved the government too closely in private religious beliefs.[4] Other federal courts have underlined the rights of religious dissenters in public schools. One Tennessee district court ruling in 1979 spelled it out: “if that which is taught seeks either to disparage or to encourage a commitment to a set of religious beliefs, it is constitutionally impermissible in a public school setting.”[5] It is not enough anymore for public schools to allow minorities to attend. It is not enough to permit dissenters to share in parts of the public-school culture. Public schools, rather, must welcome dissenters and minorities as equal members.

That new consensus can be applied to the status of creationist dissenters. Their beliefs should not be mocked or dismissed out of hand. But while dissenting religious beliefs must be respected, religion should never inform the public-school curriculum. Students of all backgrounds, dissenting or not, must be exposed to the very best knowledge on offer. They should be helped to understand that knowledge, even if it contradicts their home religions. At the same time, they must not be forced to believe anything that they find theologically repugnant.

Although creationists and mainstream scientists have disagreed bitterly for generations, they have often agreed on one fundamental—but mistaken—notion. Both sides have repeatedly defined the struggle as a scientific one, rather than a religious one. Many creationists insist that their religiously motivated understanding of the origins of humanity represents a scientific vision. And many mainstream scientists engage on just this issue: Which model represents the better scientific explanation? These debates—fascinating but ultimately pointless and unproductive—roiled in the 20th century and continue into the 21st.

Monkeys and Modernity

The first generation of evolution/creation debates in the 1920s set the tone for those that followed. One of the leading anti-evolution voices of that generation, William Jennings Bryan, insisted that evolution was first and foremost bad science. Bryan proudly and pointedly maintained his membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In the pages of the New York Times in 1922, Bryan insisted that his anti-evolution position represented a deep love of true science. “We do not ask,” Bryan told readers, “for the exclusion of any scientific truth, but we do protest against an atheist teacher being allowed to blow his guesses in the face of the student.”[6] Those who insisted on forcing such false ideas on America’s students, Bryan mocked, were nothing but irresponsible “pseudo-scientists.”[7]

"Are you know or have you ever ignoramus?"

“Are you know or have you ever been…an ignoramus?”

Mainstream scientists met Bryan on the field of science. They often insisted that his was not real science, yet allowed the discussion to focus too often on such definitions. One of Bryan’s primary public antagonists in the 1920s was Princeton biologist Edwin Conklin. Conklin called Bryan a “non-scientific person,” someone utterly unqualified to assert the boundaries of scientific knowledge.[8] Conklin poured out a good deal of time, sweat and ink in his attempt to prove that creationism did not count as real science. Real science, he wrote, was the “freedom to seek and to find truth. . . . confident that even unwelcome truth is better than cherished error.”[9] Real scientists never shied away from uncomfortable conclusions, while Bryan’s sort—scientific usurpers—began with false conclusion and worked backwards.

Perhaps the defining moment of these battles over evolution and creationism came in the summer of 1925. The Scopes Trial in July of that year focused the world’s attention on the question of evolution and creationism, religion and science. Bryan battled famous atheist Clarence Darrow in the sweltering heat of Dayton, Tennessee. The trial brought public attention to the question, but did not do much to resolve the issues. Too often, debates still focused on questions of science.

For example, in the months following the trial, the first celebrity creation scientist from the United States debated the issue with journalist Joseph McCabe. In this debate, held in London in September 1925, leading creationist George McCready Price pilloried evolution as a scientific travesty. The theory made sense, Price told the assembled crowd, “for the times of comparative ignorance of the real facts of heredity and variation and of the facts of geology which prevailed during the latter part of the nineteenth century.” To real scientists, though, Price insisted that evolution could not hold water. Any believer in evolution, Price concluded, would “wake up some fine morning and find that he needs an introduction to the modern scientific world.”[10]

Price never mentioned the need to protect the rights of religious minorities. He did not argue in 1925 that evolutionary theory might outrage the religious sensibilities of dissenters such as himself. Yet it is without doubt that Price’s scientific vision emerged from his religious faith. Price was a member of the Seventh-day Adventist church, a denomination founded in the aftermath of William Miller’s failed 1844 apocalyptic visions. The prophetess of the denomination, Ellen G. White, founded the group largely on her visions of the beginning and end of time. In the beginning, White attested, God created the universe in six literal days. For orthodox Seventh-day Adventists such as Price, faith demanded a young Earth, a worldwide flood and a six-day special creation by God.[11]

Such debates at the start of the modern culture-war controversies over the teaching of evolution defined the issue mainly as one of science and science education. Not that activists did not also discuss the religious aspect of these debates—Conklin, for example, accused Bryan of pushing for “medieval theology” in place of real science—but too often the debates implied that the central questions were scientific ones.[12]

The More Things Change…

Contemporary debates feature similar definitions and boundaries. In February, 2014, for instance, today’s leading young-Earth creationist Ken Ham debated the prominent science-educator Bill Nye, “The Science Guy.” In that debate, Ham insisted that mainstream science had lost its way. Creationists such as himself, Ham told the crowd, had a better grasp of the impossibility of “historic” science. Real science, Ham informed Nye and the world, did not make leaps of illogic about past events. Mainstream scientists made a fundamental error when they limited themselves to the echo-chamber of flawed evolutionary reasoning.

Bill Nye played along. The simplest facts of real science, Nye insisted, proved the utter baselessness of young-Earth creationism. Nye referred to the local Kentucky limestone as just one example of the many that made the case. “We are standing,” Nye said, “on millions of layers of ancient life. How could those animals have lived their entire lives in just four thousand years?” The briefest introduction to the principles of geology or biology proved the power of evolutionary theory beyond any reasonable doubt.[13]

Even in the 21st century, creationists insist that their religious beliefs are better science  and mainstream scientists (and “Science Guys”) agree to define the fight as one about the proper boundaries of science. For their part, creationists these days are in a strategic pickle. Courts have ruled against teaching religious views in science classes. Most significantly, the US Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in the case of Edwards v. Aguillard specified that creationism could not be taught in public schools. Such beliefs, the court ruled in a 7-2 decision, represented religion, not science. However, the majority decision stipulated that dissenting visions of science could be taught if they represented better science instead of simply better religion.[14] Thus creationists can hope to include creationism in public-school science classes only if they can demonstrate that their science is better than mainstream teachings. Mainstream scientists, too, still hesitate to dispute creationism on religious grounds. After all, it is easier to attack the scientific pretensions of what philosopher Philip Kitcher has called “dead science” than it is to critique an opponent’s religious beliefs.[15]

While courts have repeatedly concluded that creationism is primarily a religious belief, both creationists and mainstream scientists have continued their endless rounds of debate. But embracing the definition of creationism as a form of religious dissent instead can reveal new approaches to the controversies. Dissenters in public schools have a contentious but clearly defined tradition of rights and responsibilities. They must be treated respectfully and knowledgeably, but their beliefs do not grant them the right to dictate curriculum for the entire school. Dissenters must be allowed to specify why they find curricular material offensive, but simply calling something offensive does not automatically guarantee that it should be excluded from public education.

Two general rules of thumb will help public schools walk this fine line, teaching evolution to everyone, yet respecting the beliefs of those who dissent for religious reasons. First, teachers should make their goals clear. When it comes to evolution education—or any other form of public education, for that matter—the goal should be for students to understand the material, not to adopt any sort of belief about it. In the case of evolution, all students from all backgrounds would be expected to learn the outlines of evolutionary theory. But teachers would be required to avoid implying that students should believe anything in particular about human origins or the age of the universe. And again, teachers would need to know more about the home cultures of dissenting students. Educating teachers about creationism in its cultural context would help smooth away unnecessary conflict between evolution educators and dissenting creationist students.

Creationists Get On the Bus

Along with their arguments about the superiority of their science, some creationists have long argued for their rights as religious dissenters. Most famously, in 1978, creationist scholar Wendell Bird argued for the rights of creationists as a minority in the pages of the Yale Law Review. “Exclusive public school instruction in the general theory of evolution,” Bird insisted, “abridges free exercise of religion.”[16] Other creationist activists and writers have similarly insisted on their rights as beleaguered minorities. In the mid-1980s, for instance, creationist Jerry Bergman complained that he had been denied tenure at Bowling Green State University due to his creationist beliefs. “A similar case might be,” Bergman claimed, “if a black were fired on the suspicion that he had ‘talked to students about being black,’ or a woman being fired for having ‘talked to students about women’s issues.’”[17] Speaking in the mid-1990s, creationist activist Duane Gish took a similar stance. When he learned he was one of only two creationists invited to a scientific dialogue, Gish erupted, “I will proceed to take one of the two seats on the back of the bus reserved for the creationists in this meeting.”[18] No one believed more strongly in the definition of creationists as put-upon minorities than these creationists themselves. If the benefits of that position can be made clear, perhaps other creationists would embrace a definition as religious dissenters.

Even if they do, however, it remains a question whether it be possible for creationist students to learn about evolution without embracing it as a belief. Can students be asked to understand something if they are not asked to believe it? Some scattered evidence suggests this is already happening. Anthropologist David Long, for example, studied a small group of about 30 undergraduate biology students at a large public university. Many of them came from creationist backgrounds. Those students reported no trouble in learning and understanding evolution without changing their religious beliefs. One student told Long:

I take those really big classes, because it’s really easy to excel in those huge classes. I mean, I got like a hundred on every test. You have to be an idiot pretty much not to. If you just sit, and you listen to what they’re saying, and you know how to take tests, it’s very easy to do well in those classes.[19]

Of the students from creationist backgrounds in Long’s sample, only one abandoned her creationist beliefs while studying biology at a public university. And that student had already begun to abandon her faith before she left high school.[20] Learning evolutionary science, Long found, did not lead to religious conversions.

Similar results occur in high schools. One study of roughly one hundred public-school biology students found that a three-week unit on evolution did not force creationist students to abandon their beliefs. Indeed, though students in this study learned a good deal about evolution, many of them became more firmly convinced of their creationism by learning about evolution. After the unit on evolution, for instance, students improved their performance on a test about basic evolutionary principles. More of these same students, however, agreed or agreed strongly—after studying evolution—with the statement, “Genesis is the best account of how the Earth was created and populated with life.”[21]

Americans in general already seem to separate knowledge from belief when it comes to evolution. In 2012, the National Science Board (NSB), which is part of the National Science Foundation, experimented with the wording of its questions about general science knowledge. Only 48 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” But when the NSB prefaced that statement with the phrase, “According to scientists,” 72 percent of respondents agreed.[22] In short, significant numbers of Americans know what the science says about evolution. They simply choose not to agree that it is true.

Finally, students learn better when they feel some connection to their teachers. Teachers who can connect culturally with their students will have an easier time teaching anything, from evolution to arithmetic. As education scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings has argued, “Teachers who practice culturally relevant methods. . . . see themselves as part of the community and they see teaching as giving back to the community. They help students make connections between their local, national, racial, cultural, and global identities.”[23]

For teachers who come from non-creationist backgrounds, the effect of a short course in cultural anthropology could be profound. For one thing, it would introduce teachers to the idea that the world of creationism includes a vast kaleidoscopic array of beliefs and cultures. It would be useful to know how a Baptist creationist student might differ from a Seventh-day Adventist or from a Gulenist. More important, an introduction to the foundational principles of cultural anthropology can help science teachers understand that difference is not deficit. Simply because creationist students do not accept evolution, they are not necessarily naively ignorant about evolution. Indeed, as David Long has noted, many students from creationist backgrounds perceive any discussion of evolution as “troublesome or even dangerous.”[24] Good teachers want to help students, not terrify them. A primer on the principles of cultural anthropology can help teachers connect with creationist students more productively.

None of this will make creation/evolution controversies go away. There is no magic wand here. But by placing the educational discussion more squarely on the rights and responsibilities of religious dissent, we may drain some of the venom from our achingly repetitive school battles.  


[1] See Scott Thurman’s documentary, The Revisionaries (2012).

[2] Carl F. Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860 (New York: Macmillan, 1983).

[3] David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995), 52.

[4] Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963).  (accessed January 11, 2015).

[5] Wiley v. Franklin 474 F. Supp. 525 [E.D. Tenn. 1979] at 531.(accessed January 11, 2015).

[6] William Jennings Bryan, “God and Evolution,” New York Times, February 26, 1922, 11.

[7] William Jennings Bryan, In His Image (New York: Fleming Revell, 1922), 69.

[8] Edwin Grant Conklin, “Bryan and Evolution,” New York Times, March 5, 1922, 1.

[9] Edwin Grant Conklin, The Direction of Human Evolution (New York: Scribner’s, 1921), v–vi.

[10] George McCready Price, “Is Evolution True?” in Ronald L. Numbers, ed., Creation-Evolution Debates (New York: Garland Publishing, 1995), 160.

[11] See Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, expanded edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 91-93.

[12] Conklin, “Bryan and Evolution,” 1.

[13] Video of the debate from February 4, 2014 is still available at . See the author’s commentary and discussion at “Time for Ham on Nye!” I Love You but You’re Going to Hell, February 4, 2014,  (accessed June 2, 2014).

[14] Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 US 578 (1987)  (accessed April 14, 2014).

[15] Philip Kitcher, Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 8.

[16] Wendell R. Bird, “Freedom of Religion and Science Instruction in Public Schools,” The Yale Law Journal 87 (January, 1978): 518.

[17] Jerry Bergman, The Criterion: Religious Discrimination in America (Richfield, MN: Onesimus Press, 1984), 43.

[18] Duane T. Gish, “The Scientific Case for Creation,” in Frank Awbrey and William Thwaites, eds., Evolutionists Confront Creationists: Proceedings of the 63rd Annual Meeting of the Pacific Division, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Vol. I, Part 3 (San Francisco: Pacific Division, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1984), 26.

[19] David E. Long, Evolution and Religion in American Education: An Ethnography (New York: Springer, 2011), 36.

[20] Ibid., 75.

[21] Anton E. Lawson and William A. Worsnop, “Learning about Evolution and Rejecting a Belief in Special Creation: Effects of Reflective Reasoning Skill, Prior Knowledge, Prior Belief and Religious Commitment,” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 29:2 (February 1992): 143-166.

[22] National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, “Chapter 7: Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding,” National Science Foundation, February 2014  (accessed January 11, 2015). See also “Evolution in Science and Engineering Indicators 2014,” National Center for Science Education Blog, February 18, 2014  (accessed January 11, 2015).

[23] Gloria Ladson-Billings, The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children (New York: Wiley, 1997), 25.

[24] Long, Evolution and Religion in American Education, 15.

Can It Work?

Is it possible for conservative religious people to know and understand evolution without believing it? And, if it is possible, what does it look like? What does it mean? At the ever-challenging Cultural Cognition blog, Dan Kahan challenges the notion of “cognitive apartheid.” Do Professor Kahan’s ideas match real experience?

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are aware, I’ve written a new book with philosopher Harvey Siegel suggesting a different approach for evolution education. Too often, the implicit goal of evolution education is to encourage student belief in evolution. Students from families who dissent are sometimes made to feel unwelcome in public schools, as if their dissent disqualifies them as science students. Instead, we argue, the goal of evolution education must be to foster knowledge and understanding of evolution. If students choose not to believe it, that is their right.

But is it possible? It seems difficult to know something and not believe it. Do I really know that 2 + 2 = 4 if I don’t believe it, like some sort of Orwellian thought-victim?

Studies of real students have shown that it is not only possible, but a relatively common practice. In 1996, W.W. Cobern suggested that resistant students commonly practice what he called “cognitive apartheid.”[1] Students who don’t want to believe the philosophical or religious implications of evolutionary theory, Cobern thought, could segregate out those ideas for use only in specific situations. When they needed to pass a science test, for example, students could pull up their knowledge of evolutionary theory, but in other contexts, they could keep those ideas separate from the rest of their thinking.

In a 2012 study, Ronald S. Hermann looked at the ways this apartheid worked in practice. Hermann located students who did well on tests of evolutionary ideas. Then he talked to two of them who knew and understood evolutionary theory very well, yet refused to believe it. “Krista” and “Aidan” both described the ways this process worked for them.

For those of us from secular or liberal religious backgrounds, these interviews provide fascinating insights into the ways conservative religious people justify their seemingly conflicted knowledge and belief. Hermann argues that the mental processes involved are “unclear and ambiguous in nature.”

For Aidan, his thorough knowledge of evolutionary science jostled along uncomfortably with his religious beliefs. As he tried to explain to Hermann,

I don’t know enough to make a real good judgment. I just try and take the Bible as its literal interpretation, and kind of leave the science stuff alone.

Krista had an even more complex relationship to evolutionary knowledge. As Dan Kahan points out, she did not simply wall off her knowledge in one segregated part of her brain. That is, she did not simply memorize a list of facts for use on rare occasions such as tests. Rather, she served as a tutor in Hermann’s class and planned a career as a veterinarian. She was able to teach evolutionary concepts to other people. And she planned to use basic evolutionary ideas in her future career. Yet she says she does not believe them.

From the snippets of her interview provided by Hermann, Krista does not seem to wall off evolutionary knowledge in her mind. Rather, she seems to be able to switch back and forth from knowing it and using it in some situations, to disbelieving it in others. Or, more precisely, she seems to know evolution in a different way. She tells the interviewer at one point, “I don’t think I, like, put my emotion into it.”

Professor Kahan wants to call this something other than “cognitive apartheid.” A better description, he suggests, is “cognitive dualism.” Some people, from Pakistan to Kentucky, seem to believe mainstream science at work, but disbelieve it at home.

In K-12 public schools, too, I think we see similar effects. Students tend to believe all sorts of things at school, then switch to a different set of beliefs at home. This is not only about controversial ideas in science, literature, or history. Rather, students do this constantly with their social identities. They might be one kind of person at school, with peers and teachers, then present a very different persona to their families at home.

As usual, I don’t have much personal experience with this kind of cognitive struggle, whether it be “apartheid” or “dualism.” Have you experienced such struggles in your life? Do you remember maintaining a dual belief system in your youth, only to move more firmly in one or another direction as you grew older?

[1] Cobern, W.W. Worldview theory and conceptual change in science education. Science Education 80, 579-610 (1996).