Helen A. Handbasket, America’s Schoolteacher

It can get weird. Sometimes, as a mild-mannered historian, I get a overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Sometimes stories from today’s headlines seem to shamble straight out of the past.

Case in point: As I warm my heels down here in sunny Florida, I got a little freaked out by the startling similarities of the letters in today’s local newspaper to those I uncovered in the research for my book about educational conservatism. Whatever the decade, it seems, people like to take potshots at teachers. Since the 1920s at least, it has been a popular national pastime to criticize the vast incompetence and presumed political chicanery perpetrated by our local teachers.

First, some background. SAGLRROILYBYGTH might have noticed a warmer, more humid tone in these pages lately. It’s due to the fact that I’ve been enjoying some family vacation time in sunny Florida. As a compulsive culture-war chatterer, though, I couldn’t just sit back and sip something. I cracked open the local paper, and 1949 jumped out.

Florida newspaper

Hello? It’s 1949 calling…

The story in the Charlotte Sun from Executive Editor Jim Gouvellis concerned a controversial recent event by local politician Paul Stamoulis. Stamoulis had given a series of lectures about the dangers of Islam. Some folks thought it was a good idea. Others thought it was a scary abuse of power by a right-wing ideologue.

Editor Gouvellis opened up the pages of today’s paper to letters from the community. The issue of political Islam was relatively new, but the tone of the letters was eerily similar to those I found in archives around the country, from the 1920s through the 1980s.

In particular, I was creeped out by the echoes from Pasadena’s school controversy between 1949 and 1951. Back then, an intrepid local newspaper editor tried the same thing. He asked for letters from the community. What did people think of their schools?

Pasadena indep

Nossir…I don’t like it.

The issues were different. Today’s Floridians are weighing in about the propriety of an elected official using public money to make inflammatory speeches. In Pasadena, parents were mad about the alleged misdemeanors of “progressive education.” You’d think the two things would have nothing in common.

But they do. Lots of people–wherever they live, whenever they lived–seem to assume that teachers are terrible. Public-school teachers, at least.

And to your humble editor, the tone and target of today’s letters seem shockingly similar to that of Pasadena, 1949. So similar, in fact, that I thought I’d try a little experiment. I’ll post below a clip from today’s Florida newspaper mixed in with a bunch from Pasadena, California, 1949.

Can you pick out the local one? Without cheating and clicking on the story link above?

  1. There is a growing feeling among parents that there is something amiss in our public schools.
  2. As for your comment and others’ regarding [XXX]’s lack thereof of a formal educational background, I do believe that perhaps we need more such “teachers” in our educational system today, based upon the misinformation being spoon-fed to our children by today’s so-called educators.
  3. Another claim that the teaching fraternity continually push forward is that they are grossly underpaid.  My observation is that in [XXX] this is untrue.  For nine months’ work and occasional brush-up courses in the summer they receive the same salary or better than competent office help receive for 11 ½ months’ work.
  4. I have personally felt that the modern school system of education is based on politics. . . . This larger percentage is easy prey to propaganda leaders and naturally look up to them, thinking the fault lies in themselves and not in the school system of education.
  5. In my opinion, the honorable school board is using our youngsters as educational guinea pigs.

Can you tell which one of these is today’s newspaper and which is from your grandparents’?

The Biggest Creationists in the World

Is Christianity the most creationist religion?  Islam?  A new study from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East suggests some surprising conclusions about the relationship between religion and creationism.

The study by Pierre Clément of the Université de Lyon used a questionnaire distributed to teachers throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.  Fifteen of the questions had something to do with evolution.

Creationist hotspot, whatever your religion...

Creationist hotspot, whatever your religion…

Perhaps not surprising, in countries where teachers tended to be more religious, they also tended to be more creationist.  In Algeria, for example, 91.9% of respondents identified as Muslim.  Only 1.3% called themselves atheists or agnostic.  And over 90% of those Algerian teachers thought that “Only God” was responsible for the origin of humanity.

Compare that to France, where just over half of teachers identified as atheist/agnostic, 38.1% called themselves Catholic, and 1.5% said they were Muslims.  Only about 2% of French teachers thought that “Only God” was responsible for the creation of humanity.

The authors had wondered if Islam tended to push teachers harder toward creationism than did Christianity.  That is, do Muslims tend to be more creationist than Christians?  Their conclusion: Not in these countries, it seems.  As Clément put it,

There is not a specific effect on the Muslim religion itself on the teachers’ conceptions of evolution, but a more general effect of their degree of belief in God, whatever their religion.

In creationist-heavy countries, that is, Christians and Muslims agree.  On creationism at least.

What If Stories, Part Deux: War, Islam, and the Ottoman Empire

How would creationism have looked different if World War I had never happened?  That’s the question the National Center for Science Education is asking these days.

In the second post of the series, Taner Edis of Truman State University asks how creationism would have evolved differently in the Islamic world.  How did the cataclysm of the war change Muslim’s attitudes about evolution?  How did the war-time collapse of the Ottoman Empire change the course of creationism in the Islamic world?  Take a look at Professor Edis’ post to find out.

Atheist Creationists

Why do people believe that the world was created in pretty much its present form within the past 10,000 years or so?  Because the Bible tells them so?

Not necessarily.

A new YouGov poll reports that significant percentages of non-Bible-believing religious folks adhere to creationist beliefs, too.  Even more puzzling, many non-religious folks agree.

As reported by the National Center for Science Education, the new poll offers some minor changes to the traditional “sticky” number of around 45% of American adults who choose a young-earth creationist explanation of the origins of humanity.  In this poll, conducted earlier this month, only 37% of respondents agreed that “God created human beings in their present form within the last ten thousand years.”

But more interesting than the minor fluctuations in the total number were the breakouts by religious belief.  A whopping 59% of Protestant respondents chose the creationist answer.  30% of Catholics; 17% of Jewish respondents.

But here’s the kicker: 2% of atheist respondents also thought creationism offered the best explanation of humanity’s origin.  That’s a small percentage, of course, but a stumper nonetheless.  Did they not understand the question?

Even more puzzling, just under a quarter of “nones” chose a creationist answer, too.  That is, of those who identified their religion as “nothing in particular,” 24% selected a creationist explanation of humanity.  24%!

These numbers baffle me.  If a small but significant number of atheists can be creationists, and a large percentage of nones can be, then our notion of creationism as the province of a diehard subculture of “fundamentalist” Protestants doesn’t make sense.

We could add, of course, that in this survey the largest percentage of creationist respondents did not come from Christianity at all.  64% of Muslim respondents selected the creationist explanation.  Significant numbers of other non-Christians agreed: 35% of Hindus opted for creationism.

Who are America’s creationists?  Perhaps our image of a Bible-wielding tent evangelist needs to be updated.


Which Religious Right? A New Islamic College for America

Whom do we think of when we think of religious conservatives in the United States?  Folks who want to censor and ban books?  Who want to get kids out of public schools and into religious one?  Who question the authority of mainstream science?

Most important for today’s post, who do we think of when we think of religious folks who start their own schools and colleges in order to pass along their religious traditions?

The obvious suspects, of course, are conservative Protestants, especially those from the evangelical tradition.  As I argued in my 1920s book, conservative evangelicals have worked hard throughout the twentieth century to save young people from pernicious ideas such as materialism and evolution.  They have founded influential schools and colleges in order to do so.

But in this century, we need to consider a new type of conservative religious school, the Islamic academy.

Recently, Religion & Politics featured an excerpt from Scott Korb’s new book about Zaytuna College, “the Nation’s first Muslim liberal arts college.”

As Korb notes in this excerpt, Zaytuna College has big plans.  Its founders hope to make Zaytuna “a place where . . . the text of the Koran could meet the context of American culture.”  Korb also argues that Zaytuna’s famous co-founder, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, is best understood as “conservative.”

In some ways, Sheikh Hamza’s educational ideology seems to echo that of his Christian co-conservatives.  For instance, Korb points out that Yusuf works with his siblings to promote religious homeschooling.  He has warned fellow Muslims, “We absolutely must remove our children from state schools.”

Though Korb’s excerpt did not include this, Sheikh Hamza has also worked together with other religious-conservatives intellectuals to discourage the availability of pornography in hotels.  Sheikh Hamza has publicly critiqued arrogant mainstream science, science that purports to know more than it can reasonably justify.

In all these ways, Sheikh Hamza and his new college seem to parallel the thinking of conservative Protestants in the United States.  However, there are some important differences.  Look, for example, at the books he recommends.  Some are classics from the conservative canon.  Michael Behe’s intelligent-design polemic Darwin’s Black Box made the list, as did William Bennett’s Book of Virtues, Newt Gingrich’s To Renew America and John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down.  Nothing most conservative evangelicals might not endorse.  But Sheikh Hamza’s reading list includes progressive favorites, including Howard Zinn’s People’s History of America and Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

More important, history matters.  Korb points out that many journalists have been too quick to call Sheikh Hamza a “‘moderate’ or ‘progressive’ Muslim” due to Sheikh Hamza’s stern anti-terrorism.   Yet even a profoundly conservative Muslim educator in 2013 faces a very different educational landscape than that faced by conservative evangelicals in 2013, or 1973, or 1913.  Unlike conservative evangelical Protestants, conservatives of other traditions don’t have the common feeling of having “lost” public education in America.  For conservative Muslims, like conservative Catholics and other sorts of conservative religious folks, the public schools in the United States have historically been hostile institutions.  Not so for many conservative evangelical Protestants.  Throughout the twentieth century and continuing today, anyone paying attention can hear a lingering desire among conservative evangelicals to “Reclaim YOUR School.”

What will it mean to have a new conservative college in the United States?  One from a very different faith tradition?  Perhaps this will continue the broadening of “conservatism” in America.  As James Davison Hunter predicted so many years ago, perhaps our culture wars will continue to change into broad, diverse coalitions of the “orthodox” against those on the other side.


Richard Dawkins Encourages Creationism

Does Richard Dawkins’ brand of in-your-face science atheism push religious people to embrace a “creationist” identity?

That’s a common argument—one I heartily agree with—made recently by Andrew Brown in his Guardian blog.

In this case, Brown argues that Dawkins’ attitudes push British Muslims, especially disaffected youth, to adopt more radical creationist positions.

Brown reports a talk by Salman Hameed, who insisted that Muslims often feel forced to make a false choice between science and faith. Not surprisingly, many choose faith.  Hameed related a telling anecdote.  One young woman reported attending a lecture in which

the lecturer started by asking if there were any creationists in the room. She put her hand up, because she believes that God created the universe, and was immediately singled out for humiliation.   

In the case of young British Muslims, Brown makes a compelling argument.  Already facing a crisis of cultural identity, many young British Muslims come to see their religious identity as a way to channel their feelings of alienation.  In such a Dawkins-influenced climate, young British folks may feel pressured to reject modern science as part of their assertion of an oppositional Muslim identity.  As Brown puts it,

Because there is a self-consciously oppositional culture among young poor Muslims, who feel themselves stigmatised and disadvantaged, they can tend to embrace creationism simply because they know it’s wrong by the lights of the majority. Dawkins’ dismissal of Muslim creationism as “alien rubbish” was not only found as a YouTube clip on the EDL website for a while, but also used in the propaganda of Harun Yahya, the Turkish creationist and self-publicist. The emotional logic is clear: if this rich, sneering white man is against it, it must be good for disaffected young Muslims who feel that they are themselves treated as “alien rubbish”.

Brown is right on.

Offering a false choice between religion and science fuels creationism.  As Brown points out here, so does suggesting a false equation of “Western” or “White” with “atheist.”  Better, as Brown says, to engage in the arduous and awkward task of building true dialogue.

Inter-faith Creationism?

It is no longer surprising to see deeply conservative religious thinkers reach across religious lines to work together.  Could we soon see effective Muslim-Christian coalitions to support the teaching of creationism?

Perhaps as a model, interfaith creationists could consider Robert George and Hamza Yusuf’s collaboration.  The two leading intellectuals, one Catholic, one Muslim, co-wrote an open letter to hotels, requesting the removal of pornography from television options.

Even more apt, we could consider the fact that American creationism has always used the work of fellow creationist writers from different religious traditions.  In the 1920s, as my grad-school mentor Ronald Numbers argued, Catholic writers such as Alfred McCann were favorites among ferociously Protestant creationists.  More recently, this tradition has continued with the creationist embrace of Jonathan Wells’ work.

Could this tradition of creationist ecumenism work to bridge the Christian-Muslim divide?

There is no doubt that both religions harbor fervent creationists.  A recent article in The Economist detailed recent creationist developments among Islamic populations.  The article cited a study by Salman Hameed of Muslim attitudes to evolution.  That study found that 20% of Muslims in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pakistan embraced evolution.  In Egypt, only 8% did.

As The Economist article describes, “controversial” Turkish evangelist Adnan Oktar, known as Harun Yahya, has long conducted an energetic creationist campaign in Muslim circles, including a series of conferences in the USA.

Of course, the conservative theology behind both Islamic and Christian creationism creates some barriers.  Orthodox religious thinkers on both sides will be wary of working with people from opposing traditions.

But there has also been a long tradition of cooperation.  As Ronald Numbers pointed out in The Creationists, in the mid-1980s, the Institute for Creation Research received a telephone call from the minister of education of Turkey, requesting teaching materials (Creationists, 2006, pg. 421).  In 1992, a Turkish creationism conference invited ICR stalwarts Duane Gish and John Morris as keynote speakers.  Professor Numbers also describes the founding in 1990 of the Turkish Science Research Foundation (Bilim Arastirma Vakfi, or BAV).  In Numbers’ words, “For years BAV maintained a cozy relationship with Christian young-earth creationists, feting them at conferences, translating their books, and carrying their message to the Islamic world”  (Creationists, 2006, pg. 425).

For a long generation, then, Muslim and Christian creationists have worked together.  The question is not whether such cooperation can happen.  Rather, the question is whether and when these efforts will gather enough support to become a major influence on the politics and policies of creationism and evolution education.