Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Be a Creationist on Campus…

Who’s the racist? In creation/evolution debates these days, you’re likely to hear creationists tar evolution as a racist idea. Recently, however, young-earth creationist impresario Ken Ham complains that creationist anti-racism has now been labeled a racial “microaggression.”

It has long been a favorite claim of creationist activists. At the end of the twentieth century, for example, veteran creationist campaigner Jerry Bergman argued that Darwin’s evolutionary ideas led in a direct line to the Nazi Holocaust. From the Institute for Creation Research, too, Henry Morris insisted that creationists were the true anti-racists, since they believed all humans came from the same original two ancestors.

Small wonder, then, that creationists today are flummoxed by their renewed role as racists. Ken Ham took umbrage at a new list of microaggressions published by the University of California. As have many campus commentators, the UC list warns that some statements intended to be innocent or race-neutral may actually carry undertones of white privilege. For instance, to say that race doesn’t matter, or that one does not believe in race, can be seen by some as a fair-minded anti-racist statement. For others, however, such “color-blind” statements de-legitimize the unique difficulties experienced by racial minorities.

Ken Ham does not seem interested in those sorts of distinctions. Rather, he tackles the UC accusation head-on, insisting that his creationist anti-racism is the only truly scientific position. As he puts it,

Really, “races” is just an “evolutionized” term we shouldn’t use anymore because the idea is simply not true. So for the University of California to say that we shouldn’t say there’s only one race flies in the face of what observational science has clearly shown to be true! And of course, the Bible makes it obvious there is only one race because all humans are descended from Adam! The University of California (and many other campuses) is trying to suppress certain ideas and promote only one worldview—even contrary to observational science. Our starting point really does matter!

To this reporter, Ham’s umbrage seems to miss the point. By the time California students had time to be offended by his creationist anti-racist microaggression, wouldn’t they already be even more put out by his macro-aggressive creationist evangelism?

The Missionary Imposition in Our Public Schools

They’re out there. In spite of decades of talk about “Godless” public schools, there are plenty of Christian teachers who see their work as a missionary endeavor. That ain’t right, but conservative Christians aren’t the only ones to use public schools to spread religious ideas.

As a new cartoon from young-earth creationism ministry Answers In Genesis makes clear, lots of conservative Christians like the idea that public-school teachers will do their best to preach the Gospel as part of their jobs.

Heroic missionaries in our public schools?

Heroic missionaries in our public schools?

The creationists at AIG are certainly not alone in their celebration of public-school missionary work. At the conservative Christian Pacific Justice Institute, for example, Brad and Susanne Dacus encourage teachers to evangelize on the job. As Marc Fey of Focus on the Family writes about their work, it will help teachers spread the Gospel in “one of the greatest mission fields in our country today, our public schools.”

This sort of missionary vision for America’s public schools has a long history. Going back to the 1940s, groups such as Youth For Christ worked to get old-time religion into modern public schools. Beginning in 1945, as the idea of the “teenager” took on new cultural clout, YFC founder Torrey Johnson hoped to make YFC a group that would speak in the language of the new teen culture. As he explained to YFC missionaries, young people in the 1940s were

sick and tired of all this ‘boogie-woogie’ that has been going on, and all this ‘jitterbugging’—they want something that is REAL!

As early as 1949, YFC leaders such as Bob Cook argued that “high school Bible club work [was] the next great gospel frontier.” As he put it, YFC must aggressively evangelize among secular public high school students, since “atomic warfare will most certainly finish off millions of these youngsters before routine evangelism gets around to them.” By 1960, YFC claimed to have formed 3,600 school-based Bible clubs in the United States and Canada.

By 1962, these ad-hoc Bible clubs had been organized into a YFC program known as “Campus Life.” Campus Life included two main components, outreach to non-evangelical students and ministry to evangelical students.

In order to engage in this public school evangelism, national YFC leaders told local activists they must “invade the world where non-Christian kids are.” As an operations manual for Campus Life leaders warned its readers, their first entry into that hostile territory could be frightening. It described common feelings among YFC evangelists on their first approach to a public high school:

There it looms—a huge, humming, hostile high school. Hundreds, thousands of students, a professional corps of teachers and administrators, all busily turning the wheels of secular education.

To you, it’s a mission field. It has masses of kids who need spiritual help, even though most of them don’t know it. You and the Lord have decided to invade that field through the strategy called Campus Life.

This missionary attitude about public schools has also had a long and checkered history among creationists. Writing in 1991, for example, Henry Morris of the Institute for Creation Research called public schools “the most strategically important mission field in the world.”

As have other conservative Christians and creationists, the ICR repeatedly described public schools as unfairly biased against Christianity. As Henry Morris’s son and intellectual heir John D. Morris put it, “today’s public high schools and state universities are confrontational to the creationist student.” Aggressively secular teachers, John Morris warned, “take it upon themselves to ridicule Christianity and belittle and intimidate creationist students.”

Throughout the 1980s, ICR writers described the double impact of their missionary work in public schools. First, it would protect creationist kids from secularist hostility. Second, it could bring the Gospel message of creationism to students who would not hear it elsewhere. Missionary teachers had a unique opportunity. In 1989, one ICR writer explained it this way: “As a teacher,” he wrote, “you are a unique minister of ‘light.’ Your work will ‘salt’ the education process.” Similarly, in 1990 John Morris argued that the greatest hope for a decrepit and dangerous public school system lay with “Christian teachers who consider their jobs a mission field and a Christian calling.”

Every once in a while, you’ll hear young-earth creationist activists insist that they do not want to push creationism into public schools. But they certainly do want to make room for creationism. They hope to use public schools as a “mission field” to spread their Gospel.

They shouldn’t. But before we get too angry about it, we need to reflect on what this really means for our creation/evolution debates.

To folks like me, the most important value of public education is that it is welcoming to all students and families. It should not push religious values upon its students. It should not even imply that one sort of belief is proper and others are not.

As my co-author Harvey Siegel and I argue in our upcoming book (available in February!), the goal of science education must not be to indoctrinate children into any sort of belief about human origins.

Modern evolutionary science is currently our best scientific explanation of the history of human life. Therefore, we need to teach it in science class, unadulterated with creationist notions of design or supernatural intervention.

But too often, the implied goal is to free students from the shackles of their outdated religious ideas. Too often, the goal of evolution education is to change student belief about natural and supernatural phenomena. Progressive teachers like me sometimes slide into an aggressive ambition to help students see the world as it really is.

We shouldn’t. Not if students have religious reasons for believing otherwise. As I’ve argued at more length in the pages of Reports of the National Center for Science Education, too often evolution educators make the same mistaken “Missionary Supposition” that has tarnished conservative Christianity.

Are creationists in the wrong when they use public schools as a “mission field?” Definitely.

But they are not wrong because their religion is wrong.

They are wrong because public schools by definition must remain aggressively pluralist. They must welcome people of all religious faiths, and of none. In order for evolution education to move forward, we must all remember that public schools can’t promote any particular idea about religion, even the religious idea that young-earth creationism is silly.

Creationism Then & Now

Do you read Ted Davis? For folks interested in the creation/evolution debates, Professor Davis has long produced essential historical analyses of the various voices of creationism in all their befuddling complexity. I was reading one of Professor Davis’ essays on the Biologos Forum recently and it raised some perennial questions: Can we compare the dissenting science of today’s creationists to the scientific ideas of long ago? Can today’s creationists claim a long legacy of prestigious scientific antecedents?

Cutting-edge creation science, c. 1827

Cutting-edge creation science, c. 1827

Davis is writing these days about science and creationism in antebellum America. In this post, he explains the school of “Scriptural Geology” that attracted religious scientists in the early 1800s. Scholars such as Princeton Seminary’s Samuel Miller and Anglican minister George Bugg rebutted new(ish) ideas of an ancient earth.

Professor Davis pointed out the remarkable similarities of their 19th-century arguments with the 21st-century arguments of today’s young-earth creationists. As Davis put it,

Readers familiar with Henry Morris or Ken Ham will find many of their ideas, expressed in substantially the same ways and for the same reasons, in the pages of Bugg’s book.

Now, Professor Davis would be the last person to ignore historical context or to misunderstand the historical changes that have wracked the world of creationist scientists. Yet his comparison to the Scriptural Geologists to Answers in Genesis or the Institute for Creation Research points out the radical changes that have taken place in the realms of creationism and science.

In the 1820s, discussions of the age of the earth still had some fading legitimacy among mainstream scientists. Even as late as the 1920s, when American politicians such as William Jennings Bryan insisted that “Darwinism” was losing scientific prestige, their claims made some sense. In the 1920s, for example, mainstream scientists had not yet cobbled together the modern evolutionary synthesis. They had not yet figured out how to reconcile the mechanism of natural selection with the maintenance of beneficial mutations.

As I describe in my upcoming book, mainstream science has changed enormously over the course of the twentieth century. Positions that made some scientific sense in 1827, or 1927, lost those claims as the 20th century progressed.

As an obvious result, there yawns an enormous gulf between the work of George Bugg and that of Ken Ham or Henry Morris. Today’s young-earth creationists are forced to take the role of utter scientific outsiders. They are forced to dismiss the entirety of mainstream evolutionary science as deluded.

Of course, as Professor Davis explains, earlier “creationists” such as Miller and Bugg also felt like scientific outsiders. But their position was radically different. Saying nearly the exact same thing, as always, can mean very different things, depending on when one says them.

Is This the Creationist Conspiracy?

Anti-creationists have warned about it for generations: Creationists are joining forces to sweep away reason and science. A growing conspiracy of dunces threatens to upend centuries of progress. But a recent tiff between leading American creationists demonstrates just how fractured and divided creationists really are.  And it demonstrates the ways hysterical anti-creationism may do more harm than good.

The threats of a creationist conspiracy go back to the roots of America’s evolution/creation culture wars. In his 1927 book, The War on Modern Science, Maynard Shipley warned that the fundamentalist “forces of obscurantism” threatened to overthrow real learning. As Shipley put it,

The armies of ignorance are being organized, literally by the millions, for a combined political assault on modern science.

Ever since, science writers have warned of this impending threat. Isaac Asimov, for instance, warned in 1981 of the “threat of creationism.” Such unified anti-scientists, Asimov believed, had made great strides toward setting up “the full groundwork . . . for legally enforced ignorance and totalitarian thought control.” Like Shipley, Asimov noted that not all religious people are creationists, but also like Shipley, Asimov failed to notice the differences between creationists. The only religious people one could trust, Asimov wrote, were those “who think of the Bible as a source of spiritual truth and accept much of it as symbolically rather than literally true.”

What Asimov missed was the crucial fact that many creationists DO endorse real science; many folks who think of the Bible as more than just symbolic also accept the ideas of an ancient earth and human evolution.

This is more than just a quibble. When leading scientists and science pundits lump together all creationists as “armies of ignorance,” they needlessly abandon and heedlessly insult potential allies in creation/evolution debates. When science writers such as Jerry Coyne attack all religious discussion as “accommodationism,” they unnecessarily alienate creationists who want to teach more and better evolution.

A recent interchange between leading creationists demonstrates the way international creationism really works. Creationism in practice is not a horde of Bible-believing fanatics, relentlessly unified on the age of the earth and the origins of humanity. In practice, rather, creationism is a splintered and fractious impulse, fighting internal foes more viciously than external ones.

The “evolutionary creationist” Deborah Haarsma, leader of BioLogos, recently reached out to young-earth creationist leader Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis. Haarsma was “troubled” by Ham’s angry polemic about a third creationist, Hugh Ross of the old-earth Reasons to Believe.

We all have our differences, Dr. Haarsma said. But why can’t we come together over our shared Biblical faith? About our shared concern that young people are leaving the church? Why can’t we at least sit down together for a cordial dinner and talk over our differences?

Ken Ham publicly rebuffed Haarsma’s efforts. Ham agreed that his animus toward Ross was not at all personal. As Ham explained, “I don’t consider Dr. Ross a personal enemy . . . he is actually a pleasant person.” But Ross was also an “enemy of biblical authority.” And Haarsma was no better. “People like Dr. Haarsma,” Ham wrote,

make it sound like they have such a high view of the Bible, whereas in reality, she has a low view of Scripture and a high view of man’s fallible beliefs about origins!

There will be no dinner. There will be no grand alliance of creationists. Instead, we see the ways some creationists will tend to isolate themselves into smaller and smaller like-minded communities.

This story spreads beyond the borders of the United States. As historian Ronald Numbers described in The Creationists, in the mid-1980s the minister of education in Turkey wrote to the San-Diego based Institute for Creation Research. Turkey’s schools, the minister wrote, needed to “eliminate the secular-based, evolution-only teaching dominant in their schools and replace it with a curriculum teaching the two models, evolution and creation, fairly” (pg. 421). And Islamic creationism, much of it based in Turkey, has thrived. However, Numbers concluded, “the partnership between the equally uncompromising Christian and Muslim fundamentalists remained understandably unstable” (425). Numbers cited the rhetoric of American creationist leader Henry Morris: “Mohammed is dead and Jesus is alive!” As Numbers noted acerbically, such talk was “hardly calculated to win Muslim friends” (425).

There will be predictable tensions between different types of creationists. Though some conservative religious voices will work to spread evolutionary theory among evangelicals, others will focus on what Ken Ham called “rebuilding a wall” (Nehemiah 6:1-3).

Folks like me who want to see more and better evolution education will be wise to reach out to those conservative religious folks who also believe in evolution. Instead of copying the tactics of Ken Ham, as Jerry Coyne is prone to do, science promoters should embrace allies and make friends. Instead of shrieking about the “armies of ignorance,” science promoters will do well to look closer at the creationist population. There are plenty of friends there.

The Creation Debate We Need

Ken Ham, creationist debater extraordinaire, has again thrown down the gauntlet. This time, Ham has challenged conservative evangelist Pat Robertson. More than watching Ham battle Science Guy Bill Nye, America needs to hear this debate between conservative evangelical Protestant creationists.

Apparently, according to Mr. Ham and the folks at Right Wing Watch, Robertson has been taking pot-shots at young-earth creationism lately. On his television show The 700 Club, Robertson recently announced, “You have to be deaf, dumb and blind to think that this Earth that we live in only has 6,000 years of existence.”

As he has done recently with other conservative colleges such as Calvin and Bryan, Ham wondered pointedly if Robertson’s colleagues at Regent University really support Robertson’s old-earth position. Ham asked if the school followed Robertson in “compromis[ing] the Word of God with the pagan ideas of fallible men.”

Ham offered to debate these issues with Robertson. As Ham put it,

I wonder if Pat Robertson would be prepared to discuss these issues with me or one of our AiG scientists on the 700 Club? Or maybe in some sort of debate format at Regent University? We are certainly willing to do that…. I wonder if Pat Robertson, who is allowed to state these things so publicly through CBN will agree to have his statements publicly challenged and tested!

Both conservative religious folks and outsiders like me would benefit from such a debate. We outsiders would learn more about the issues that matter to creationists. None of us were particularly surprised by the arguments Bill Nye put forward. But many of us would be enlightened to hear the reasons for and against belief in a young earth, since both sides would be arguing from a relatively similar religious perspective. We outsiders could learn about the kaleidoscopic world of creationism. For some people, this might be the first time they heard that not every creationist embraces the idea of a young earth.

And evangelicals would benefit enormously. After all, belief in a young-earth as creationist orthodoxy is a very recent phenomenon. As historian Ron Numbers demonstrated so powerfully, until the second half of the twentieth century, belief in a young earth was restricted to a relatively small percentage of conservative evangelicals. At the time of the Scopes trial in 1925, for example, leading fundamentalists differed in their beliefs about the age of the earth. At that time, no one looked askance at anti-evolutionist leaders such as William Jennings Bryan who believed in an ancient earth. Only with the publication of Henry Morris’ and John Whitcomb’s creationist blockbuster The Genesis Flood did young-earth creationism become a dominant theme in conservative American evangelical thought.

Many young evangelicals these days don’t know this history. They often assume they must either accept the doctrine of a young earth or abandon their religion entirely. A debate between two conservative evangelical leaders would demonstrate the possibilities.


Why Are Schools So Terrible?

Conservative intellectuals have long asked the question: What went wrong with America’s schools?

Of course, the question presumes that something HAS gone wrong.

We at ILYBYGTH don’t really care if America’s schools are terrible.  We’re more focused on dissecting conservative approaches to the question. How have different conservatives at different times offered different answers to this perennial question?

Now available free online is an argument I put together a few years back. The article appears in the pages of the storied Teachers College Record.

This article looks at the school-history visions of four very different conservative thinkers: Milton Friedman, Max Rafferty, Sam Blumenthal, and Henry Morris. Each of them agreed that public schools had become ineffective, even dangerous institutions. But the reasons they gave for that lamentable decline differed. Friedman, for example, blamed teachers’ unions and government control, beginning just after the American Civil War. Rafferty blasted the wrong-headed “progressive” takeover of the 1930s. Blumenfeld and Morris both looked further back, to a Unitarian coup at Harvard University variously timed either in 1805 (Blumenfeld) or in 1869 (Morris).

These conservative activists do not only differ in the timelines they gave for America’s educational decline, but also in their diagnoses and prescriptions. Friedman wanted a free-market solution. Rafferty hoped for clear-headed traditionalism. Blumenfeld wanted to scrap public education entirely. Morris hoped to heal schools with creationism.

In every case, these conservatives based their arguments about schooling on a historical vision. They are not alone. Activists of every political stripe use history to prove their points. In this essay, I outlined the ways a few prominent conservatives did so.

Decadence and the Fall of American Public Education

Things today ain’t as good as when I was young.

That’s the central notion, the vaguely articulated impulse, the often-unexamined presumption behind a good deal of conservative educational rhetoric.  Schooling these days has declined from glory days of the past.

In an essay in The American Interest, Charles Hill warns of the real consequence of decadence in American life.

As Hill notes, the idea of civilizational decline and fall is an old one.  Yet Hill insists that it retains explanatory power; Hill makes the case that twenty-first century America is sliding into a dizzying downward spiral.  Everything from technologically induced “screen culture” to awkward proletarianization of elites can be better understood as part of a lamentable decadence.

As Hill concludes,

Around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, “decadence” arose as a romantically thrilling elitist fashion, providing a “sweet spot” in which a privileged, self-selected class could revel in dissolute practices while applauding their own cultural superiority. At the turn of the 20th to the 21st century something akin has emerged—call it a democratized form of decadence—among a far wider swath of the population, with the support of government and approbation of the cultural elite. Many observers have gazed upon such phenomena, then and now, and have seen mainly the sources of shifts in the art world. We move from the 1913 New York Armory Exhibition to mainstreaming of “street art” a century later rather effortlessly. But if what is at stake is world order, with national character and identity as its foundation stone, and democracy as the procedurally and practically most efficacious political form, then the fate of the art world may be the least of our concerns.

The essay is worth reading in its entirety.

Of particular interest here are its implications for American education.  Hill makes a few points about this himself.  For one thing, he notices the disturbing intellectual ramifications of “screen culture” especially among the young.  A generation accustomed to viewing people on computers, tablets, TVs, and phones, able to view without being viewed, Hill argues, adds a “new dimension” to old ideas about decadence.  Weaned on screen culture, Hill says, young people “can become oblivious to others.”

In a nuts-and-bolts way, Hill notes the way our current decadence has squeezed out learning in favor of training.

Of more consequence than the specific educational ramifications argued by Hill is the sense of decline Hill articulates.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, it is nearly impossible to understand the conservative impulse in American educational thought and activism without grasping the power of the idea of decadence.  Leading conservative intellectuals—even ones from very different backgrounds—have all grounded their educational philosophy on a notion that the educational system in the United States has ground down in a systematic pattern of decline.

In his landmark work Capitalism and Freedom, for example, free-market theorist Milton Friedman insisted that American public education entered a noticeable period of decline after the American Civil War when the government “gradually” (page 85) stumbled into the near-total “‘nationalization,’ as it were, of the bulk of the ‘education industry’”(page 89).

Conservative education leader Max Rafferty agreed about the decadence, but argued for a different time and cause.  The problem really began, Rafferty believed, in the 1930s, when “Dewey-eyed” reformers injected a deeply flawed notion of education into the American cultural bloodstream.  Instead of learning heroic truths and facing moral challenges, students in post-1930 “life-adjustment” classrooms only learned to revel in their own inability to determine right from wrong.  Such decadent teaching and learning, Rafferty argued in his 1963 book Suffer, Little Children, produced a weak generation, unable to combat the existential threat from “a race of faceless, godless peasants from the steppes of Asia [that] strives to reach across our bodies for the prize of world dominion.”

Though he viewed the goals of education very differently from Rafferty and Friedman, creationist leader Henry Morris agreed that public education had declined dramatically.  The root of the problem, Morris argued in his 1989 book The Long War Against God, lay in a one-two punch of Unitarianism and secularism.  The first blow had come in 1869, when Unitarians took over Harvard University.  Their example led American education away from its roots in what Morris considered to be authentic Christianity (pages 46-47).  The second decisive weakening came later, with John Dewey’s rising influence in public education.  That influence, Morris argued, led public schools away from religion into a markedly anti-religious humanism.

These examples could be multiplied nearly endlessly.  William J. Bennett, for instance, has argued with his Index of Leading Cultural Indicators that American culture as a whole—especially including its public schools—has declined terrifyingly since 1960.

It is taken as an article of faith among many conservative educational thinkers and activists that education today is worse than it has been.

This is more than the common griping about “kids these days.”  This is more than the old story about how when I was young I had to walk to school barefoot, through ten feet of snow, uphill both ways.

To understand conservative thinking about education, we have to understand this assumption of decadence.  Not many activists articulate this sentiment as clearly as the intellectuals described here.  Not many offer the careful examination of the meanings of decadence expressed by Charles Hill’s recent essay.

But behind many of the policies promoted by educational conservatives lurks this ubiquitous sentiment: things today are worse than they have been in the past.  Schools today are worse than they have been in the past.


Jerry Coyne Joins the Creationists

H/T: Sensuous Curmudgeon

Has Jerry Coyne really allied with creationists?

If you follow the creation/evolution wars, you’re likely familiar with the work of Coyne, a biologist and a leading voice in the long-running creation/evolution controversy.  Coyne famously argues that religion and science are incompatible.  In his book Why Evolution Is True, Coyne elegantly and concisely made the case for evolution and demolished the claims of creationists.

So how could this arch-atheist anti-creationist have joined with creationists?

In a recent interview with Haaretz, Coyne suggested that evolution went hand-in-hand with atheism, a strong central government and an expansive tax-funded social safety net.  In doing so, Coyne has added his voice to a long creationist intellectual tradition.

Science and religion, Coyne stated in this interview, “are polar opposites, both methodologically and philosophically. . . . Such contradictions [between differing religious truths], of course, render the term ‘religious truth’ ridiculous.”

In order to approach truth, Coyne believes, we must move away from religion and toward science.  To help the process along, Coyne told Haaretz, society must embrace a bigger government and a more egalitarian economy.

“The Scandinavian countries . . .” Coyne argued,

Have the most highly developed social-welfare systems in the world, and they are also the least religious countries ‏(for example, only 23 percent of Norwegians and 34 percent of Swedes describe themselves as religious‏). They are also the most receptive to evolution.

When citizens feel as if they have a government-provided safety net, Coyne told interviewer Smadar Reisfeld, they are less likely to cling to the false comfort of religion.

If scientists hoped to convince Americans of evolution’s obvious truth value, they must overthrow the false idol of religion.  Instead, Coyne said, “the government should intervene to a certain degree in order to give people a sense of security. . . . A more just, caring, egalitarian society must be created.”

So how does this sensible and pragmatic progressivism put Coyne in the creationist camp?

For generations, creationists have argued that evolution will and must lead to both atheism and socialism.  My hunch is that Coyne would not accept the “socialist” label, but Coyne’s vision of a government-led, Scandinavian-style social contract is precisely the sort of structure many creationists would call “socialist.”

At the dawn of the long creation/evolution struggle, for instance, William Jennings Bryan warned that evolution could only lead to atheism.  “Atheists, Agnostics, and Higher Critics begin with Evolution,” Bryan insisted in 1921, “They build on that.”  [Bryan, The Bible and Its Enemies: An Address Delivered at the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago (Chicago: Bible Institute Colportage Association, 1921), 19.]

As historian Edward Larson has pointed out, lawyers in 1926 Tennessee defended the anti-evolution Butler Law as a way to protect young students from creeping communism, not just a way to save them from the ideas of evolution itself.    [Larson, Summer for the Gods (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 215.]

Throughout the twentieth century, anti-evolutionists have insisted that evolution must lead to—or come from—both atheism and socialism.

By the end of the twentieth century, for example, leading creation-science pundit Henry Morris equated evolution with every ideological terror of the century.  “Marxism, socialism, and communism, no less than Nazism, are squarely based on evolutionism.” [Morris, The Long War Against God (Master Books, 2000), 83).]

Perhaps Professor Coyne might not relish the company.  But by insisting that thinking people must choose between science and religion, Coyne encourages creationist dogma.  By tying evolution to large government and restricted capitalism, Coyne agrees with generations of the most fervent creationists.


Science at the Creation Museum

Thanks to the ever-watchful Sensuous Curmudgeon, we came across a recent article in Scientific American in which an evolution-believing science teacher journeyed to Answers in Genesis’ Creation Museum outside of Kentucky.

Image Source: Answers in Genesis Creation Museum

Image Source: Answers in Genesis Creation Museum

For folks like me and the author Jacob Tanenbaum, the scientific claims of the museum are impossible to accept.  A science teacher, Tanenbaum recoiled at the misleading scientific claims made by the museum.  “What disturbed me most,” Tanenbaum reported,

“was the theme . . . that the differences between biblical literalists and mainstream scientists are minor. They are not minor; they are poles apart. This is not to say that science and religion are incompatible; many scientists believe in some kind of higher power, and many religious people accept the idea of evolution. Still, a literal interpretation of Genesis cannot be reconciled with modern science.”

Fair enough.  During my trip to the Creation Museum, though, what struck me most powerfully was simply how plausible it all seemed.  For those who did not set out to debunk the information, the museum seemed just as authoritative as Chicago’s Field Museum or any other natural-history museum.

But what Tanenbaum wrote makes sense: the Creation Museum presents a misleading picture of the differences between creation science and mainstream science.

My beef with Tanenbaum is with his own misleading conclusion.  The problem with such creation science education, Tanenbaum argues, is “that 40 percent of the American electorate seems to have forgotten what science is. Considering that our nation put a man on the moon and invented the airplane and the Internet, this development is extraordinary.”

Tanenbaum may be a gifted teacher of mainstream science, but this conclusion suggests that he is not deeply versed in the culture of creation science that he condemns.  For those of us who want to understand creationism, we need to get beyond this naive assumption that creationists don’t know what science is, or that they are somehow hypocritical in their use of technology.

As I argued in a recent commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education, simple ignorance does not explain American creationism.  Many creationists have studied mainstream science.  In many cases, such as that of leading creation science author Henry Morris, they have earned advanced technical degrees.  And, beyond such stand-out leaders such as Morris, many rank-and-file creationists have extensive science educations.  As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer discovered in their National-Science-Foundation-funded study of high-school biology teachers, of those teachers who espoused a belief in young-earth creationism (i.e., the Creation-Museum type of creationism), fully 55% had earned college degrees in science.   Furthermore, Berkman and Plutzer’s review of other such surveys led them to the following conclusion: “the overall evidence suggests that the high support for creationism in the classroom cannot be attributed primarily, or even substantially, to overall scientific illiteracy in the United States” (pg. 52).

Also, as creationists often remind themselves and their evolutionist foes, belief in evolution is not necessary for sophisticated engineering.  Dobzhansky’s claim that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution may be true, but that would not stop creationists from traveling to the moon, perfecting airplanes, or inventing the internet.

In the end, I think it makes a big difference whether Americans with creationist beliefs have “forgotten what science is” or if they have a distinctly different definition of science.  Building an anti-creationist argument on the foundation that creationism disables technical education, as does Tanenbaum and other prominent pro-science voices such as Bill Nye, is both a false claim and poor strategy.

Please don’t misunderstand me: this is not a brief for creationism.  However, if those of us, like me, Bill Nye, and Jacob Tanenbaum–who stand outside the borders of creationism looking in–if we really want to understand creationism, we must abandon our own naive assumptions about the meanings of that creationist belief.

IN THE NEWS: Santorum on America’s Educational History

This just in from the Republican presidential campaign trail: Rick Santorum knows what conservatives want to hear.  Not much of a surprise there; Santorum’s knack for positioning himself as the true conservative has led him to a surprisingly strong showing lately.

Of interest to ILYBYGTH readers, Santorum recently described his views on the proper nature of American education.  In doing so, he zeroed in on issues that have long resonated deeply with conservatives.

According to stories in the New York Times  and Los Angeles Times (here and here), Santorum outlined his thinking about the nature of public education in a speech on Saturday to the Ohio Christian Alliance in Columbus.

Santorum has already attracted attention as a homeschooler and advocate of government vouchers.  As his official website articulates, Santorum believes parental choice is one way to “restor[e] America’s greatness through educational freedom and opportunity.”

In Saturday’s speech, Santorum blasted the current “factory model” of education.  Today’s public schools, Santorum insisted, represented an “anachronism,” a period in which “people came off the farms where they did home school or had a little neighborhood school, and into these big factories . . . called public schools.”

Proper schooling, Santorum declared, should begin—and often end—at home.  Santorum appealed to a historical vision that is near and dear to the hearts of many American conservatives.  For most of American history, Santorum argued, even the Presidents homeschooled in the White House itself.

Where did they come up that public education and bigger education bureaucracies was the rule in America?  Santorum asked.  Parents educated their children, because it’s their responsibility to educate their children.

As I argue in an essay coming out this month in Teachers College Record,  this vision of the history of American education has been extremely influential among conservatives.  Since at least the 1950s, prominent conservative activists have based their prescriptions for healing American society on the notion that American education went wrong at a specific point in America’s past.  Of course, they also point out the corollary: conservative reforms can put it back on the right track.

Santorum appeals to a glorious educational past in which public schools had not yet tightened their stranglehold on educational opportunity.  This has been a common trope among conservative activists hoping to free traditionalists’ minds from the pernicious notion that education must look like today’s public education system.

Other common ideas that conservatives have insisted upon in their vision of American educational history:

  • schools started out as frankly religious institutions,
  • schools in the past did a better job of teaching more kids with less public money,
  • a set of notions known as “progressive education” ruined America’s strong tradition of real education, and
  • creeping state control led to ideological and theological totalitarianism in public schools.

On Saturday, Santorum indicated his agreement with these notions.  However, just as “progressive” educators have long fought over the proper meaning and function of schooling, so have conservatives.  In my TCR article I take a closer look at four leading activists since 1950:

  • Milton Friedman,
  • Max Rafferty,
  • Sam Blumenfeld, and
  • Henry Morris.

Each of these writers described a different vision of America’s educational past.  Like Santorum and generations of other conservatives, each agreed that the system had broken down.  However, also like Santorum’s unique insistence on the importance of Presidential homeschooling in the White House, each pundit laid out a unique educational past.

Anyone hoping to understand Fundamentalist America will be wise to listen to Rick Santorum this year.  He seems to have a knack for dishing out all the ideas Fundamentalists want to hear.