Creation, Too

People don’t have anything against evolution.  But they all want us to teach creationism, too.

I don’t get out much.  But this past weekend I was able to attend a summer cook-out with some interesting people.  One of the guests was a school principal.[*]

Now, in the best of times, my social skills aren’t much.  But this past weekend, I was worse than usual.  This poor guy wanted to have a few beers by the pool, eat a burger, watch the kids swim, and wonder if the guacamole had been sitting out in the sun too long.

Once I found out he was a school principal, however, I couldn’t help myself.

I awkwardly steered the conversation toward the issues of conservatism and schooling.  This guy runs a high school in a semi-rural area of New England.  I was itching to know if he fielded lots of complaints or disagreements about the content of the curriculum, the style of teaching, etc.  Did they argue about sex ed?  Prayer?  Evolution?

When I asked him if he ever heard complaints from parents about the teaching of evolution, he offered an intriguing comment.  “No,” he said, desperately looking over my shoulder to see if someone could rescue him from this conversation.  “People don’t have anything against evolution.”

Rats, I thought.  I felt sure a rural school high school, even in the liberal heartland of New England, would field some anti-evolution pressure.  I was hoping to hear about it from the ground level.

“But,” the principal continued, “they all want us to teach creationism, too.”


For this well-educated, experienced educator, the desire to teach creationism in science classes did not, on first blush, count as opposition to evolution.  Rather, he considered the desire to include creationism as an obvious and eternal part of public opinion.

How did he handle it?  He did not seem too concerned.

“We try to keep everyone happy,” he said, before he mumbled something about his kid drowning and scurried away.

This principal’s experience fits with the national-level perspective.  According to poll data, large majorities of Americans would like to have both evolution and creationism taught in public-school science classes.

As the experience of my new friend demonstrates, the idea of teaching both is often seen as uncontroversial.

Of course, this is in stark contrast with Official Policy, as seen in court decisions such as Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) and Kitzmiller v. Dover (2005).  In 1987, the US Supreme Court decided that teaching creationism alongside evolution counted as unconstitutional government support for religion.  They also ruled, however, that scientific alternatives to evolution could be part of public-school lessons if it were done for purely secular reasons.  In Kitzmiller, Judge Jones decided that intelligent-design advocates had not made the case that intelligent design was taught for secular reasons.

Such decisions, however, in practice amount to a hill of beans.  As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have argued, teachers teach what they want.  If they work in an area that supports creationism, they will tend to include creationism in their classes, or creation-friendly ideas.

My conversation this weekend gave me one small example of the ways this reaches beyond teachers’ decisions.  My principal friend did not consider it controversial to include creationism alongside evolution, despite the fact that such things have been ruled unconstitutional.  He knew what would work in his district.  He knew what would work in his school.  And in his corner of the world of public education, that meant including creationism alongside evolution.


[*] In the US, a principal is the administrator in charge with running a school.  He or she makes hiring decisions and is supposed to implement state and district policy.


White House Petition: Halfway against Creationism

Half-way.  That’s how far the anti-creationism White House petition made it.

Well, almost.  After one month, the petition to President Obama to “ban creationism and intelligent design” attracted a total of 46,070 signatures, just under half of the 100,000 it needed to guarantee Presidential consideration.

What does it mean?  Not much.  Even if the petition had succeeded, it would have only been a symbolic statement about the popularity of anti-creationism.

For the sake of argument, I’m curious how many signatures a petition would get if it asked President Obama to support the right of students to learn about alternatives to evolutionary theory.

Our Fundamentalist Neighbors: A Rebuttal

Guest Post by Jonny Scaramanga

I am very happy to welcome a guest post today by Jonny Scaramanga. Jonny’s blog, Leaving Fundamentalism, is a must-read for everyone interested in issues of conservative Christianity and education. Jonny and I have gone back and forth a little bit about the propriety of attacking creationism. Recently, I contributed a guest post to Leaving Fundamentalism about how to handle our fundamentalist neighbors. The following is Jonny’s rebuttal. What do you think?

Adam and I are bad at choosing neighbours. I too have had a bothersome neighbour. Unlike Adam, though, I found the law quite helpful in dealing with the antisocial Ned Flanders next door.

He let his dog bark all day and night for months, so I informed the city council. They served him with an abatement notice and then fined him £5,000.

He built a hideous extension on his house without permission. For this he faced a choice between removing the extension and paying a maximum fine of £20,000.

When he continually harassed and berated me for not sharing his worldview, he received an Anti-social Behaviour Order. And when he was caught persistently leaving his rubbish on someone else’s property, he went to prison for five years.

It is true that we can’t legislate against being an unpleasant person, but we can and do legislate against behaviour that harms other people.

Adam has argued on my blog that banning the teaching of Creationism would not make sense, in the same way that passing an anti-dick law would not make sense. But the two cases are not equivalent. For one thing, dickish behaviour is already covered by existing legislation, while teaching Creationism in private and home schools is not. For another, we are not talking about the right to be a Creationist. We are talking about the right to impose Creationist views on someone else.

Adam also argues that banning the teaching of Creationism probably wouldn’t stop people doing it. That might be true, but it’s a practical matter. I’m more interested in whether there’s a moral case for banning Creationism in education.

First, we need to get the misleading notion of parents’ rights off the table. Parents are humans, with human rights; children are humans, and they also have human rights. Parental rights are not human rights; they are rights that one human being has to exert control over another. Can you think of another instance where liberal democracies allow a person to act in this way? The only similar examples I know are slavery, imprisonment, and archaic ideas of marriage where ownership of a woman passes from her father to her husband. These do not seem like paradigms to emulate.

Children have rights, but they are not yet capable of exercising those rights wisely. Someone must make decisions on their behalf. Usually, the best-placed people to do this are parents. Generally, a child’s interests and her parents’ are aligned, and parents are best placed to act in the child’s interests. But – apart from a right not to be forcibly separated from her children without good reason – these are not rights. These are responsibilities. Other conceptions of childrens’ rights treat children as though they are the property of the parents.

The right to teach Creationism is not the right to practice religion. It’s the right to indoctrinate someone else. The only relevant question is whether teaching Creationism harms children. The answer seems entirely obvious to me. Teaching Creationism involves telling children blatant falsehoods, which have no practical application, which reduce the likelihood of their integrating with wider society, and which require the corruption of the ability to think logically. I think you’d struggle to argue this could be anything other than harmful.

The only exception I can see is that it is in children’s interests to have a good relationship with their parents. It’s also probably beneficial for children to have good relations with their parents’ community. If rejecting the theory of evolution is a requirement for this, then perhaps teaching Creationism serves the child’s interests.

This would ignore the list of possible harms caused by Creationism. If followed to its logical conclusion, the study of ‘scientific’ Creationism has devastating consequences for the life of the mind. It impacts not only on obvious areas like biology and astronomy, but also on areas as diverse as history, linguistics, and psychology. ‘Survivors’ of Accelerated Christian Education writing for my blog express bitterness at the educational opportunities they were denied. Creationism may have united their families when they were children, but now it has created rifts. Creationist children endured mockery and alienation from their evolution-accepting peers, for no obvious benefit. Now they complain of setbacks in their professional life, because their poor education failed to set them up for a real career.

I suspect Adam, along with the Sensuous Curmudgeon, is right that a petition to ban Creationism in schools is likely to be counter-productive. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for effective ways to get rid of it.

About the author: Jonny Scaramanga grew up as a fundamentalist and a student in Accelerated Christian Education. He is now a PhD candidate at the Institute of Education, University of London. He has written about creationism for the Guardian and Times Education Supplement, and discussed it on the BBC and Channel 4 (UK). He blogs about his fundamentalist experiences at Leaving Fundamentalism.

Our Fundamentalist Neighbors, Part I

What do we do when fundamentalists act like dicks? That’s the question I ask in a guest post this morning at Jonny Scaramanga’s lively Leaving Fundamentalism blog.
The post continues Jonny’s and my conversation about the meanings of the White House petition to ban the teaching of creationism and intelligent design.  Jonny has promised to offer a thoughtful rebuttal in these pages.

In the meantime, come on over and participate in the chattering…

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?

An Atheist and a Fundamentalist Walk into a Bar…

Can skeptics and believers talk civilly to one another? Can creationists and mainstream scientists ever have a constructive dialogue?

Most of the time, the best efforts at culture-war mediation leave everyone only more bitter and more convinced of the “extremism” and “irrationality” of the other side.

Thanks to coverage from the Texas Freedom Network, we recently caught up with an illuminating intellectual exchange between a leading creationist advocate and a witty, informed science skeptic.  Neither one seems to have been “converted” by the argument, but the civil yet heated discussion demonstrated the possibilities of creation-evolution dialogue.

Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptics Society, interviewed Texas creation activist Don McLeroy last month.  You can hear the full interview on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast.  Also fascinating, you can follow the post-interview back-and-forth on Novella’s NeurologicaBlog.

As we’ve argued here before, trying to understand Don McLeroy is a great way to begin making sense of conservatism in American education more broadly.  As the chairman of the Texas State Board of Education in 2010, McLeroy spearheaded a campaign to overhaul Texas’ influential textbook guidelines.  In that fight, McLeroy cared about more than evolution.  He also promoted an emphasis on such disparate themes as the Christianity of the founding fathers, the beneficence of the National Rifle Association, and the civic value of country music.

In the May 8, 2013 interview, Novella and his colleagues asked mainly about McLeroy’s position on evolution education.

During the interview, McLeroy makes his case for teaching the scientific alternatives to mainstream evolution theory.  As Novella and his associates point out, McLeroy carefully avoids making a case for teaching creationism or any religious ideas in public schools. Instead, McLeroy consistently advocates only for teaching the scientific criticisms of evolutionary theory.  Most of the discussion consists of a back-and-forth on the merits and weight of those criticisms.

Are there enough real scientific challenges to evolutionary theory to merit their inclusion in public-school science curricula?

One of the most intriguing points of the exchange was McLeroy’s insistence that religious thinkers are free to be more open-minded about the scientific claims of evolution.  Since religious intellectuals are open to the idea of both materialistic and supernatural explanations, McLeroy claimed, they have greater ability to weigh the evidence. This argument did not sit well with Novella and his colleagues.

Another fascinating discussion resulted from McLeroy’s defense of his anti-expert position.  During the 2010 school fight in Texas, as captured so movingly in Scott Thurman’s Revisionaries documentary, McLeroy argued that educators needed to seize control from “experts.”  Novella and his associates explained to McLeroy why this claim seemed preposterous to them.  Why should science curricula ignore the thinking of mainstream scientists—the real experts—and instead follow the inclinations of one dentist from Texas?

I was surprised to hear McLeroy’s willingness to waffle.  As I’ve argued before, McLeroy’s indictment of “experts” has a storied history, of which Novella and his colleagues seemed unaware.  For many anti-evolution activists, indeed for many conservative educational activists on a range of issues, the baleful influence of educational experts has long been assumed.  The recent trashing of CSCOPE in Texas demonstrated only the most recent emergence of this anti-expert sentiment.  I wished Dr. McLeroy had tried to articulate some of this broader anti-expert tradition.

More important than the details of the transcript, however, was the tone of the interview and post-interview exchange.  Neither Novella nor McLeroy apologized for their beliefs.  Neither held back from pointed and fundamental criticisms of the other, though as guest McLeroy tended to be more polite.  Yet the two sides managed to speak politely to one another.  McLeroy called Novella a “scholar and a gentleman.”

For his part, Novella called McLeroy

an exemplary guest. He stayed polite throughout, and did not bristle even when directly confronted on his position. He also did something I find extremely rare in such interviews – occasionally acknowledging a point on the other side or a weakness in his own position. He also had clearly made a genuine effort to read pro-evolution material and criticisms of his position.

I came away with the impression that he is genuinely trying to understand the creation/evolution debate and to rely on only valid arguments.

Did either side walk away from this exchange converted?  Definitely not.  But was the exchange worthwhile?  Certainly yes, for several reasons.

First of all, for interested observers, this back-and-forth gave both sides a chance to make their own arguments.  Readers and listeners can see what intelligent advocates might say on some basic stumpers of the creation/evolution debate.

Second, in any tense culture-war standoff, elaborate courtesy and face-to-face meetings help defuse the tendency to demonize the opposition.  For evolution believers like me, the contours of the debate change when I hear a friendly, seemingly well-intentioned leader of the creationist cause, if only to prove that both sides can include people of good will.


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?

Rosenhouse Responds to a Critic

“Gall,” “tortured reasoning,” “gross theological ignorance,” and “demented” “troll[s].”  Discussions about creationism and evolution have it all!

A few days back, we posted a review of Jason Rosenhouse’s Among the Creationists.  As usual, any mention of this subject generated some heated comments.

This morning, Professor Rosenhouse offered a rebuttal of some of the critical comments.  He responded to the charges that he had misrepresented creationist claims, among others.

Everyone interested in the creation/evolution debate should check out his reply.

Beautiful Women Want Creationism

From the Old News Department: Miss USA finalists are friendly to creationism.

I just discovered two-year-old footage from the Miss USA 2011 competition.  As Tanya Somanader broke the news at the time, almost all of the 51 contestants supported the idea of teaching creationism in public schools.


“They’re teaching what?!?!?”

The video interviews still make for compelling viewing.  I’m no big fan of beauty pageants.  I don’t know anyone who is.  But as I found out a while back, there has been a strange correlation between conservative religion and Miss America over the years.

As Tanya Somanader noted, only two candidates affirmed that evolution should be taught in schools as science, unalloyed by creationism or intelligent design. The rest of the candidates offered either a two-model answer or flat-out rejection of evolution for America’s schools.

Miss New York, for example, agreed that evolution should be taught in public schools, but so should religion.  Miss North Dakota offered a more relaxed answer.  “Sure, why not?” she said, “Evolution should be taught . . . I think it’s good that people hear both sides of, I guess, ‘the story,’ so to speak.”  Miss Oregon agreed.  “I think every theory of how we came to be here should get a shout out in education,” she answered.

These fence-straddling answers tell us something about the conservative cultural politics common among high-level beauty pageant winners.  More telling, they show us what national finalists think will be a winning answer to the question of evolution education.  Almost all of the finalists advocated a temperate-sounding compromise, one that welcomed all theories into the public school classroom.

Even those like Miss North Carolina who stressed the fact that they personally did not believe in evolution made irenic noises about allowing evolution to have some space in public education.

To some extent, this proves that elite beauty-pageant contestants are savvy politicians.  Gallup polls demonstrate that the overwhelming majority of Americans favor the teaching of both evolution and creationism in public schools.  By waffling on this important question, these Miss USA wannabes show their understanding of this diplomatic demilitarized zone in our continuing culture wars.  Of course, the two-model approach is horrifying to mainstream scientists and science educators.

Not all the Miss USA contestants took even this middle path, however.  Miss Kentucky, for example, concluded, “I just personally don’t think it’s a good topic for school subjects. At all.”  Even harsher, Miss Alabama declared, “I do not believe in evolution, I do not think it should be taught in schools, and I would not encourage it.”

Oh, Horror! Stephen King Plumps for Intelligent Design

Promoting his new book, Stephen King told NPR’s Terry Gross that intelligent design is the only thing that makes sense.  Not only that, but King promoted a particularly religious interpretation.

I choose to believe it. … I mean, there’s no downside to that. If you say, ‘Well, OK, I don’t believe in God. There’s no evidence of God,’ then you’re missing the stars in the sky and you’re missing the sunrises and sunsets and you’re missing the fact that bees pollinate all these crops and keep us alive and the way that everything seems to work together. Everything is sort of built in a way that to me suggests intelligent design. But, at the same time, there’s a lot of things in life where you say to yourself, ‘Well, if this is God’s plan, it’s very peculiar,’ and you have to wonder about that guy’s personality — the big guy’s personality. And the thing is — I may have told you last time that I believe in God — what I’m saying now is I choose to believe in God, but I have serious doubts and I refuse to be pinned down to something that I said 10 or 12 years ago. I’m totally inconsistent.