When to Ban Free Speech

Christ spoke to the University of California this week. Chancellor Carol Christ, that is. And according to Politico she gave her support to a new internal study of the terrible speech riots that plagued Berkeley in 2017. The report’s conclusions make sense to me, but not to Milo.free speech berkeley 2

I know SAGLRROILYBYGTH are divided on questions of campus free speech. We all should be; it’s a complicated issue that deserves more than sound-bite attention and one-size-fits-all solutions.

What if young-earth creationists intentionally manipulate our fondness for free-speech rights in order to water down science instruction? What if political radicals cynically take advantage of their speech rights in order to further their careers at the cost of other people’s feelings?

IMHO, a recent report from Berkeley hit the nail on the head. To wit: Speech must be protected, especially on university campuses—double-especially on public university campuses. But intentional provocateurs forfeit their access to some free-speech protections with their cynical manipulation of our fondness for free speech.

At Berkeley, you may recall, planned speeches by right-wing pundits Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter provoked violent, riotous protests. A committee of faculty, students, and staff concluded recently that their campus is still a tolerant place. Most students support free-speech rights on campus even for people with whom they disagree strongly.

trump tweet on berkeley

Provocateurs provoking…

But the committee defended the notion that some speech and some speakers deserved to be banned. Yiannopoulos and Coulter were singled out by name. How could the committee say so? In their words,

Although those speakers had every right to speak and were entitled to protection, they did not need to be on campus to exercise the right of free speech. . . . Indeed, at least some of the 2017 events at Berkeley can now be seen to be part of a coordinated campaign to organize appearances on American campuses likely to incite a violent reaction, in order to advance a facile narrative that universities are not tolerant of conservative speech.

Not surprisingly, Milo took affront. As he retorted, the committee was made up of

Marxist thugs … criticizing people they don’t listen to, books they haven’t read and arguments they don’t understand.

I’m no Marxist thug, but I think the Berkeley committee has the better end of this argument. The tricky part, IMHO, is that the committee’s conclusion rests on the shaky foundation of their interpretation of Milo’s intent. If he intended to talk politics, they imply, he should have been welcomed. But he didn’t. As they put it,

Many Commission members are skeptical of these speakers’ commitment to anything other than the pursuit of wealth and fame through the instigation of anger, fear, and vengefulness in their hard-right constituency.

In most cases, I’d be nervous about relying on the gut feelings of a few committee members. In this case, though, even thoughtful conservatives fret about Milo’s brainless bluster. In the end, free-speech decisions can and must rely on an informed decision about a speaker’s intent. It’s not easy, but it is necessary.

Consider a different but related example. Many creationist-friendly school laws these days rely on claims to free-speech protection. These bills claim to promote critical inquiry and reasoned free discussion. For example, as Missouri’s 2015 bill worded this mission, schools must

create an environment . . . that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues, including biological and chemical evolution.

Sounds good, right?

You don’t have to be a Marxist thug to conclude, however, that the intention of this bill is to water down evolution education. The intention is to promote a certain creationism-friendly environment in public-school science classes.

The way I see it, speech acts that deliberately hope to manipulate free-speech protections for other purposes create a new category of speech. Do people have a right to speak such ideas? Sure! But universities do not need to fork over huge sums of money to provide a home for those speeches. K-12 schools do not need to accommodate speech that intentionally weakens science education for religious purposes.

What do you think?


Where’s the Beef?

I didn’t think it was all that complicated, but at least two smart people have misunderstood my complaint, so I’ll try to clarify. If SAGLRROILYBYGTH think I’m splitting hairs or being overly persnickety, I’ll shut my yap. But I don’t think I am and I don’t think the point is all that abstruse.duty_calls

Here’s what we’re talking about this morning: Last week, I wondered if evolution maven Jerry Coyne had a glitch in his code. He didn’t think protesters against Steve Bannon had a legitimate right to block Bannon’s appearance at UChicago. Coyne pooh-poohed protesters’ claims that the issue wasn’t really about free speech.

But I assumed—correctly it appears—that Prof. Coyne does reject some claims to free-speech protections. Prof. Coyne and I agree: Just because someone claims free-speech protection doesn’t mean they should get it. Some claims are bogus. Some are even harmful, at least potentially. The most obvious case is the perennial free-speech claim of America’s creationists. In state legislatures, bill after bill purports to protect the free-speech rights of creationist students and teachers.

Especially since we agree on everything, Prof. Coyne wondered what my beef was. As he put it,

Laats’s beef seems to be this: if I, Professor Ceiling Cat Emeritus, favor free speech on college campuses, why don’t I favor free speech in the classroom?

Coyne goes on to explain—and I agree with him as far as he goes—that creationist teaching in classrooms is not the same as controversial invited speakers on university campuses. However, he didn’t identify my beef correctly. Here it is: If Prof. Coyne doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of creationists’ claims to free-speech protections, why doesn’t he grant other people similar rights to un-recognize free-speech claims?

After all, Professor Coyne makes it clear. He says,

I do not recognize creationists’ desire to teach goddy stuff in the classroom as a “free speech” claim. [His emphasis.]

Coyne means, I think, that creationists can’t claim protection for their speech if it establishes a government religion unfairly, contra the First Amendment. By doing so, creationists give up any right to free-speech protection for their creationist teaching. The important point, IMHO, is that Prof. Coyne recognizes that some free-speech claims are faulty. Those claims are not legitimate and they do not deserve the protection they demand. Creationists insist on their right to free speech; they insist that their rights to be heard are often dismissed unfairly. In general, I think Prof. Coyne and I agree—we don’t lose any sleep over such creationist complaints, because we do not recognize them as legitimate claims to the protection of free-speech rights.

Which leads us to the main question again: If Prof. Coyne is willing to dismiss some claims to free-speech protection as illegitimate, why doesn’t he at least respect the anti-Bannon argument, even if he disagrees with it?

In other words, though I agree with Professor Coyne both that Bannon should be allowed to speak and that creationists should not be allowed to teach creationism in public-school science classes, I disagree with his glib dismissal of the arguments of the anti-Bannon protesters.

I think we need to acknowledge that there are real and important reasons why some intelligent, informed, well-meaning people refuse to recognize Bannon’s claims to free-speech protections. Further, there are good arguments to be made that a private (or public) institution has a responsibility to consider the implications of its speaking invitations. By inviting Bannon to speak, an elite university like Chicago is conferring on Bannon and Bannon’s ideas more than a touch of mainstream legitimacy. Blocking someone from speaking at the University of Chicago is not the same as blocking his or her right to holler on a street corner. I don’t think the Chicago protesters are hoping to shut down Breitbart; they are merely hoping to deny Bannon the enormous prestige of a Chicago speaking appearance.

Now, in this particular case I think the decision should swing in Bannon’s favor. But that does not mean that the anti-Bannon protesters don’t have a decent case to make. It does not mean that the UChicago protesters are “discarding one of the fundamental principles of American democracy because they don’t like its results,” as Prof. Coyne accused.

Some free-speech claims are bogus and don’t deserve to be recognized. The Chicago protesters and I merely disagree about the proper decision in this one particular case. They are not necessarily against free speech; they are disputing Bannon’s claim to free-speech protections; they are against their university recognizing Bannon’s legitimate status.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

It may come as a surprise, but even during superbowl week, other stuff happened, too. Here are some ILYBYGTH-themed stories you might have missed:

Charters and choice: Yohuru Williams argues it’s not a choice at all, at The Progressive.

State of Trump’s Union analysis:

The mess in DC schools:

No surprise: gifted programs skewed, at Fordham Institute.Bart reading bible

How charter schools resegregate in Charlotte, from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project.

Trump-fueled goons and white supremacist flyers on Texas campuses, at Texas Observer.

Was Bob Dylan best when he was a fundamentalist? A review at American Conservative.

Students and faculty protest Steve Bannon appearance at UChicago, at Why Evolution Is True.

Sex abuse and evangelical religion: Larry Nassar victim Rachel Denhollander talks about “institutional protectionism,” at CT.

Does Jerry Coyne Support Creationism?

Okay, maybe I’m just mad because he poked fun at “humanities” types like me. But I can’t help wondering if Jerry Coyne’s love for free speech is really as consistent as he implies. Does Professor Coyne support creationist “free speech” laws for K-12 schools? Colleges?

Here’s what we know: Right-wing eminence gross Steve Bannon is planning to speak at the University of Chicago. Students and some faculty are protesting. Professor Coyne criticizes the protesters, calling their “tiresome” ideas “reprehensible.”

UChicago sit in

Protesting against unfettered free speech at Chicago…

I tend to agree with Prof. Coyne that almost all speakers should be allowed to speak on university campuses. We need a high bar to prohibit speech, especially for guest lectures at universities. There are exceptions. If someone is likely to directly incite violence, they shouldn’t be allowed to speak. Universities, moreover, are under no obligation to financially support disruptive tactics—the kind of intentional provocation used by the likes of Richard Spencer. That is, when speakers plan to cause riots in order to draw attention to themselves, universities are not obligated to pay for the show. That’s not about free speech, but simple administrative common sense.

White supremacists and Trumpy trolls aren’t the only ones pleading for their right to free speech. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, creationists these days demand free speech in schools. Many current school bills insist that they will give teachers “academic freedom” to teach ideas critical of mainstream evolutionary theory. Missouri’s 2015 bill, for example, promises the following:

Neither the state board of education, nor any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, superintendent of schools, school system administrator, or public elementary or secondary school principal or administrator shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of biological or chemical evolution whenever these subjects are taught within the course curriculum schedule.

I’ll say it: I don’t think this kind of “freedom” is good policy. Sponsors of bills like these, IMHO, are mainly trying to cram a wedge into public-school science classes. I’m suspicious of the “scientific weaknesses” that such bills hope to teach about. If they really wanted to teach the various disagreements about the details of evolutionary science, fine. Great, even. But in fact, teaching those “scientific weaknesses” usually means teaching creationist critiques of mainstream evolutionary science as a whole. Teachers in public schools should not consider themselves free to tell students that worse creationist science is just as good as better mainstream academic science.

“Academic freedom” creationist gambits are not limited to K-12 schools. A few years back, for example, Professor Eric Hedin won tenure at Ball State despite accusations that he taught creationism-friendly ideas.

Does Professor Coyne support free speech in cases like these? In the case of Eric Hedin, we don’t have to wonder. Coyne outed Hedin early and often. Coyne protested that no professor at a publicly funded university had the freedom to teach creationism-friendly ideas as if they were science.

In creationist cases, then, Professor Coyne agrees to strict limits on free speech. How does he choose which free speech to prohibit?

A few possibilities:

  • Professor Coyne might say that he only objects to tax-funded religious preaching, as when a public university pays Hedin’s salary.

But tax money supports lots of religious talk on public college campuses. At many schools, religious groups use tax-funded facilities as meeting rooms. They use tax-funded student lists to recruit possible converts and members. Moreover, nearly every decent public university teaches lots of classes about all sorts of religious ideas. Why single out this particular instance?

  • Professor Coyne might object that Hedin taught religious ideas as science.

Surely Prof. Coyne knows better than me how difficult it is to articulate a simple definition of “science.” Shouldn’t scholars have the freedom to explore those boundaries?

  • Professor Coyne might say that he is against schools paying salaries for the promulgation of bad ideas; he doesn’t want intelligent design afforded the prestige of appearing in a college class.

If so, he would be repeating the ideas of the anti-Bannon UChicago protesters and their ilk. They do not want to legitimize hateful trolls such as Steve Bannon by paying him to speak at Chicago. They do not want to afford Bannon the prestige of such an affiliation.

  • Professor Coyne might say that teachers should stick with the curriculum.

But I don’t think he would. The heart and soul of academic free speech is the freedom to explore ideas not dictated from above.

Or, even if Professor Coyne could convince people that Professor Hedin was a special case, a case in which a teacher falsely claimed the freedom to preach religion on the public dime, what would he say about other free-speech schemes out there, like the one in Wisconsin?

Lawmakers in Madison have proposed a law to protect free speech on campus. If a creationist student were told that his “speech” about a 6000-year-old earth was incorrect on an exam, he could complain to an ominously named Council on Free Expression.

I just can’t imagine that Professor Coyne would protect creationists’ freedom to equal status for their ideas. In fact, I’m hopeful he would join me in strident opposition to this sort of thing.

The point, in the end, is not that students, faculty, and outside speakers are all engaging in the same sorts of speech. When a professor teaches a class or a student writes an exam, they are obviously engaged in different sorts of speech than when an outsider comes for a one-off lecture. They’re not all the same, but that’s not the point. Rather, the central point is that some assertions of free speech are strategic manipulations. In the case of most creationist “free speech” bills, the true goal is to make creationism seem legitimate.

When I (and maybe Prof. Coyne would join me) argue against such creationist free speech laws, our motives and goals are not “reprehensible.” We are trying to protect a vital idea—that mainstream science and creationist alternatives are not merely equally valuable scientific understandings. Academic freedom for instructors and free speech for students doesn’t include the right to teach and preach worse science as if it were equal science. People are certainly free to speak their minds about creationism, but schools do not have to pay people to engage in that kind of speech.

Given all that, I don’t understand why Coyne is so quick to bash his Chicago colleagues. Sure, he may disagree with them, but he should recognize his own objections to some purported “free speech” claims. If he did, he would likely have a different take on the “reprehensible” actions of his Bannon-busting colleagues.

Ignorance Unto Death

It is a dilemma at the heart of Christian faith: To know or to obey? The original sin of Adam & Eve, after all, was to become as gods by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This week, a state supreme court judge in Oregon faced the unenviable task of ruling whether faithful people knew by faith or by fact. Not surprisingly, she punted. Especially in schools and universities, questions of knowledge and faith will continue to bedevil us all. I’m arguing in upcoming books that religious people deserve considerable wiggle room when it comes to requiring knowledge about evolution or US history, but it’s not impossible for policy-makers to be bolder than they have been.

What did you know? And when did you know it?

What did you know? And when did you know it?

In the Oregon case, two parents from a strict religious sect were convicted in 2011 in the death of their infant son David. The boy had been born prematurely. The parents did not call for medical help but rather treated David at home. After nine hours, David died. Were the parents criminally liable for their faith-based failure to get medical help?

Oregon Supreme Court Justice Virginia Linder recently said yes. Sort of.

For our purposes, the most intriguing elements of this case are the tangled web of meanings in this case surrounding faith and knowledge. If the parents “knowingly” allowed their baby to suffer from treatable ailments, according to Oregon law, then they are criminally liable. But they hoped to force the state to prove that they “knew” it. They hoped to force the government to prove that they must know something that they refused to know.

Justice Linder did not decide the big question. Instead, she noted that the parents defended their actions with a different set of knowledge claims. The parents said they did not know the baby was sick. They said he appeared healthy until the very last minute. Doctors disagreed. They said any reasonable person could have discerned that the baby was in severe medical crisis.

In other words, the parents did not claim that they “knew” their faith could save the baby. They said instead that they didn’t “know” he was so very sick. The parents DID insist that the state had to prove that they “knowingly” refused care to their baby. As Linder summarized,

At trial, defendants argued that, because they withheld medical treatment from David based on their religious beliefs, the Oregon Constitution requires the state to prove that they acted “knowingly”—that is, they knew that David would die if they relied on prayer alone and, despite that knowledge, failed to seek medical treatment for him.

Justice Linder affirmed earlier court decisions that the parents were guilty of criminal neglect for their actions. The state, she ruled, did not have to prove that they “knew” of the harm they caused. But she did not decide if the parents must have known something they refused to know.

The complexity of the case shows yet again the durability of questions of knowledge and faith. Can the government insist that parents provide medical care for their children? In Oregon, yes. But can the government insist that parents “knew” their child needed medical care? That is a far more difficult question, and one that this ruling painstakingly sidesteps.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, nowhere do these questions of faith and knowledge clash more regularly and predictably than in the area of education. Can the government require that students “know” evolution? …that kids “know” how to prevent sexual transmitted infections? …that kids “know” how the first humans came to North America?   Also, how have private schools and universities attempted to shield young people from these sorts of knowledge?

Alas, secular progressive types like me cannot relax and claim that public schools should always promote knowledge over ignorance. After all, I agree that certain types of knowledge are not appropriate for certain groups of students. For example, we should teach all children about horrifying historical episodes, such as lynching in the USA or the Holocaust.   But we should not expose young children to gruesome images of charred corpses, sexually mutilated before being lynched. At least, I don’t think we should.

Such images are true. People should know about them. But I do not think seven-year-old children should be exposed to that sort of knowledge. I agree that schools should work to keep young children ignorant about such knowledge, even though I acknowledge that it is true and important.

The difference, in other words, is not that conservative religious people want to keep knowledge from children, while progressive secular folks want to give knowledge to children. The difference is only in what sorts of knowledge we want to shield students from, and how.

As I argue in a chapter in an upcoming book about ignorance and education, we can see these questions starkly exposed in the history of curriculum for private conservative evangelical schools. I looked at US History textbooks produced by Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Book. In each case, from the 1980s to the end of the twentieth century, publishers made claims about historical knowledge in each succeeding edition that were farther and farther afield from mainstream historical thinking.

Know this, not that.

Know this, not that.

In a later edition, for example, a history textbook from A Beka explained that humanity expanded around the globe after the fall of the Tower of Babel. Obviously, that is a very different explanation from what kids would read in a mainstream textbook. Publishers like A Beka hoped to shield students from mainstream knowledge about history by replacing it with an alternate body of knowledge. These textbooks do not simply try to create ignorance by blocking knowledge, but rather try to foster ignorance about a certain sort of knowledge by producing a convincing set of alternate knowledge.

When it comes to evolution, too, questions of knowledge and belief quickly become tangled and tricky. I’m arguing in an upcoming book with co-author Harvey Siegel that students in public schools must be required to “know” evolution. But too many public-school enthusiasts, we argue, have a cavalier attitude about this sort of knowledge. Yes, students must “know” and “understand” the claims of evolutionary theory. But if they choose not to believe them, that is their business.

Perhaps an easier way to make the distinction is to say that public-school students can be required to “know about” evolution. They must be able to explain it correctly. They must be able to describe accurately its main points. But if they think it would harm their religious beliefs to say they “know” that humans evolved via natural selection, then they have the right to insist that they only “know about” it.

It’s not an easy distinction. Nor was it easy for Justice Linder to decide what to say about the Oregon case. Do parents have the right to their religious beliefs? Yes. Can they not know something that everyone else knows? Yes, certainly. Do they have the right to insist on that relative ignorance if it causes palpable harm to others? Not in Oregon.

But this ruling does not decide if the parents in this case “knew” that their faith would save Baby David. It only states that parents do not have the right to insist that the government prove that they knew it.

Trigger . . . a Celebration

Do universities these days coddle their students? Do progressive dreams of inclusive campuses result in hothouse indignation? That’s the charge from pundits as students complain of hostile classrooms. Far from a problem, though, this trigger-warning brouhaha should be cause to celebrate, for two reasons.

Warning: Woman turns into a tree...

Warning: Woman turns into a tree…

In recent days, commentators have leaped upon a story from Columbia University. A group of students published a complaint about insensitive classrooms and professors. One student had been forced to endure a discussion of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, replete with stories of rape and assault. The problem was not just Ovid. The students wrote,

like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.

Even worse, when students complained about these texts, or suggested other authors such as Toni Morrison, they were pooh-poohed or dismissed.

Predictably, writers from a variety of religious and ideological backgrounds have pointed out some of the over-the-top elements of such student protests. Atheist author Jerry Coyne denounced the students’ “Literature Fascism.” Conservative columnist Peggy Noonan cussed the over-sensitivity of the “trigger-happy generation.”

Noonan pulled no punches. She blasted this “significant and growing form of idiocy” as something that must be addressed. “I notice lately,” Noonan goes on,

that some members of your generation are being called, derisively, Snowflakes. Are you really a frail, special and delicate little thing that might melt when the heat is on?

Do you wish to be known as the first generation that comes with its own fainting couch? Did first- and second-wave feminists march to the barricades so their daughters and granddaughters could act like Victorians with the vapors?

Everyone in America gets triggered every day. Many of us experience the news as a daily microaggression. Who can we sue, silence or censor to feel better?

Ouch. Before we talk about why these crusty columnists give us cause for celebration, let us make a few complaints. First, contra Noonan, this is not a generational thing. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are keenly aware, Columbia and other elite schools are nearly beside the point when it comes to understanding the broad picture of higher education in this country. They attract a tremendously disproportionate share of commentator attention, but almost no one attends such schools.

And even in the calculated environment of Columbia, the student protesters represent only a tiny sliver of the student body. As Noonan smartly pointed out, the reaction from other Columbia students was not sympathetic. One student wrote, “These girls’ parents need a refund.”

Second, anyone of a certain age can attest to the fact that these same discussions have been happening—with different buzzwords—for the last fifty years. I remember my days as a student radical, back in the 1980s. Sure enough, at one of our indignant protest meetings with a dean, one student complained that the dean’s cigarette smoke was causing her some anguish. His response? Deal with it, Snowflake.   Nowadays, of course, I can’t imagine any college official smoking during a meeting, but the general tenor of student complaint was the same.

In spite of all that, this dustup over trigger warnings should give us cause for celebration. Why? First of all, it has brought together indignant “kids-these-days” jeremiads from all sides of our campus culture wars. Atheists and conservative Catholics, liberals and conservatives, Jerry Coynes and Peggy Noonans . . . a variety of pundits can agree that this sort of student activism is both silly and counterproductive. Any time we can have people from different culture-war perspectives agree on something, we can build on that.

Second, as historian Andrew Hartman has pointed out recently, simply having students who seem to care about Ovid and Toni Morrison is a refreshing sort of culture-war problem. Too often, those kinds of disputes over the proper types of college reading have been replaced by more frightening existential questions of whether or not colleges will fund literature departments.

So rejoice, all those who yearn for robust college campus life! When students are interested in the morals of their reading lists, we might suspect that they are actually doing the reading. When students come together to protest against campus policies, we might hope that they will remain active citizens as they age and fatten. And finally, whenever an issue can bring together curmudgeonly elders from a variety of culture-war positions, there is hope that we all can continue to have robust, controversial conversations.

Who Cares about Adam?

I don’t get it. Even after all these years studying conservative Christianity and creationism, I still don’t really get it. I mean, I understand the logic and history, but I have a hard time making sense of the ferocious emotion that goes into debates over the existence of an historical Adam & Eve. An author interview in Christianity Today outlines some of the tricky questions involved.

Who cares?

Who cares?

But first, a primer for those like me on the outside looking in: The debate over the historicity of Adam & Eve has a long history in conservative evangelical Protestantism. For us outsiders, making sense of this issue will go a long way toward helping us understand the theological underpinnings for young-earth creationist belief. Without making sense of this theology, it can be easy for mainstream scientists and observers to conclude mistakenly that young-earth creationism is nothing but some kind of cult of personality, a quirk of history.

At least since the 1960s (of course it is an ancient belief, but in 1960 it gained popularity among conservative American evangelicals as a vital theological notion central to orthodox belief), conservative evangelicals have insisted that the obvious meaning of Genesis is that God created two first humans in the Garden of Eden. These two, Adam & Eve, became the progenitors of the entire human race. Theologically, creationists have insisted, our belief in an historical Adam & Eve underpins our trust in the Bible. As Simon Turpin of young-earth ministry Answers In Genesis expressed it,

The debate over whether Adam was historical is ultimately a debate over whether we trust what the Scriptures clearly teach. If we cannot be certain of the beginning, then why would we be certain about what the Scriptures teach elsewhere? The uncertainty of truth is rampant in our culture partly due to the influence of post-modernism which is why many believe the issue over Adam’s historicity is unimportant.

For many creationists, believing the plain truth of the creation story in Genesis means believing in the trustworthiness of Jesus Christ. As Andrew Snelling of the Institute for Creation Research explained,

It is impossible to reject the historicity of the book of Genesis without repudiating the authority of the entire Bible. If Genesis is not true, then neither are the testimonies of those prophets and apostles who believed it was true.

Of course, for mainstream scientists, the notion that human genetic diversity came from only two original humans does not fit the evidence. In order to have today’s genomic sequence, I’m told, humanity must have begun with thousands of original humans.

John Walton of Wheaton College explains to Christianity Today why evangelicals can accept this science while still remaining true to a conservative reading of Scripture. In his new book, The Lost World of Adam & Eve, Walton argues that Adam & Eve can be read as the “priests” of early humanity, not the only two first humans.

Again, for those of us outside of conservative evangelicalism, the controversial nature of such claims can be hard to figure. Recently, theologian Peter Enns was booted from Westminster Theological Seminary for advocating similar ideas. Walton explains in this interview why it is possible to respect the authority of the Bible while still reading Genesis in a way that is not contrary to modern science. Walton insists that

You can affirm a historical Adam, but that doesn’t have quite the implications for biological human origins that are often assumed.

The key, Walton argues, lies in reading Genesis as the original readers would have. To them, Walton says, creation would be more about how the world of Adam & Eve was “ordered,” not just how it was “manufactured.” We can understand Adam as both a real person, a real creation, and as an “archetype” for humanity. Though there may have been other early humans, Walton explains, Adam & Eve served as the ones in God’s sacred space.

Why do such ideas matter? Again, for folks like me trying to understand conservative Protestantism from the outside, it can be difficult to make sense of the ferociously controversial nature of such arguments.

Yet they are at the heart of conservative evangelical Protestantism. As I argued in my 1920s book, conservative evangelicals have never agreed on the proper relationship of Genesis to either modernist theology or science. From J. Gresham Machen in the 1920s to Harold Lindsell in the 1970s, conservative intellectuals battled to affirm the notion that any compromise is deadly to faith.

And as I’m finding in my current research, these battles have long sent shock waves through the world of conservative higher education. Recently, Bryan College has firmed up its insistence that faculty members affirm their belief in an historical Adam & Eve. In 1961, Wheaton College did the same thing.

And fundamentalists are not the only ones who will spring to repudiate theories like Walton’s. Leading atheist pundits, too, agree that Genesis requires an historical Adam & Eve. Jerry Coyne, for example, laments the apologism of folks like Walton. Of course, Coyne does not want people to reject mainstream science in favor of a belief in an historical Adam. Rather, he hopes people will simply accept the obvious conclusion that the Bible is a book of myths.

If all of these whirling debates make your head hurt, join the club. For those of us outside the circle of evangelical Protestantism, it can be very difficult to understand the ferocious feelings at play in the Adam debate. But that ferocity lies at the heart of evangelical belief. Historically, any attempt to rationalize our reading of the Bible, any attempt to explain away the most obvious interpretation of Scripture in favor of one that accords with modern science, any effort to bring our faith into harmony with science…all have been seen as the beginnings of apostasy.

For evangelical readers, Adam & Eve matter. For those of us trying to understand conservative Christianity, this complicated debate will be a good place to start. Why would professors lose jobs over it? Why would Christianity Today dedicate a major article to this interview with John Walton? Why will Walton’s position provoke such furious responses?

Atheists and Creationists Agree on This…

You know what they say about the middle of the road: you won’t find anything there but yellow stripes and dead armadillos. In the creation/evolution debates, the John Templeton Foundation has staked out some ground in that dangerous middle. And predictably, the only thing that fervent creationists and obstreperous atheists can agree on is that the Templeton Foundation is terrible.

What does the Templeton Foundation do? According to their website, the foundation

serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality. We support research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will. We encourage civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights.

In general, the foundation uses its money to encourage dialogue between religion and science. With its prizes and grants, it encourages people to bridge the gap. For instance, the foundation provided millions of dollars to help launch BioLogos. How might scientists and theologians come together, BioLogos asked, to help evangelical Christians (and others) understand that evolution was nothing more than the “Language of God?”

Is "compromise" a compliment or a curse?

Is “compromise” a compliment or a curse?

Here at ILYBYGTH, this seems like an eminently worthwhile project. Time and time again, we have seen that science and evolution can wear very different cultural faces. Why bundle together ideas that do not necessarily have to go together? Why feed conservative worries that any understanding of science will somehow doom their children to atheism and immorality? Why not help Christians learn evolution? Why not recognize that some “creationists” really do embrace evolution? Why not listen to the life stories of Christians who have learned that evolution is not the devil spawn they were led to believe?

Partisans disagree. The Templeton Foundation has become the target of angry attack from the hardened edges of both creationism and atheism.

At the young-earth creationist ministry Answers In Genesis, for instance, leader Ken Ham recently blasted the efforts of the foundation. “Sadly,” Ham warned readers,

instead of pointing people to answers from God’s Word about history, organizations like BioLogos and the Templeton Foundation are actively discrediting the Bible’s history. Instead of encouraging people to start with God’s Word, they praise those who impose man’s ideas into the Bible.

Ham might not agree with science pundit Jerry Coyne on much, but they agree about the dangers of the Templeton Foundation. For different reasons, of course. Coyne blasts the foundation for watering down the message of real science, of truckling to culturally powerful and wealthy religious aficionados. “If there is to be interchange” between scientists and theologians, Coyne wrote recently,

let it be not a constructive dialogue but a destructive monologue, one in which science’s efforts knock the props out from under faith, one by one. And religion has nothing to say to scientists, at least nothing that will help us in our work. All religionists can do is educate us about the nature and influence of divine fairy tales that have inimically influenced world culture. Do we really need that?

Now, just because the Templeton Foundation has united both atheists and creationists against it doesn’t prove that the foundation is doing the right thing. But it seems logical to me that if our goal is to help people of every background understand the science of evolution, we should not spurn allies who promise to help. If theologians and scientists can come together to improve public understanding of what the Templeton Foundation calls the “Big Questions,” it seems to me an excess of self-righteousness to oppose it.

How Far Should the Creationist Purge Go?

Is a creationist historian worse than a socialist one? That’s the question science pundit Jerry Coyne is not asking. But he should be.

The 1941 report from the Guardians of American Education. Does Prof. Coyne really want to join this team?

The 1941 report from the Guardians of American Education. Does Prof. Coyne really want to join this team?

Like a lot of people, I’m a fan of Jerry Coyne. His tenacious attacks on all things religious are witty and smart. But in this case, his historical short-sightedness has caused him to blunder into dangerous terrain.

Here’s the story: In his continuing campaign against creationism, Coyne and his allies have singled out the creationist activism of Professor Emerson T. McMullen. McMullen teaches history classes at Georgia Southern University. Based on Coyne’s evidence, it does seem as if McMullen injects a good deal of proselytization into his classes.

McMullen teaches classes about the history of science and evolution. And, as one student noted in her evaluation, he gives extra credit if students attend religious films. As she warned, “most of it is trying to convert you, but hey, free points!”

Coyne and his allies in the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote to the administration of Georgia Southern. They urged GSU to “investigate” McMullen’s teaching. They did not object to teaching about religious views, especially in a history class, but they did object to McMullen’s practice of pushing those views on students.

This presents us with a difficult question: How far do we want to go in purging creationists from college faculties? We agree that McMullen’s teaching seems to cross over into preaching. But there are a couple of ominous historical parallels that Professor Coyne seems to dismiss too breezily.

So, first, as Coyne and Co. acknowledge, there is no constitutional ban on teaching religion in publicly funded schools. As Justice Tom Clark made clear in his landmark 1963 opinion in the Schempp case,

Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.

As Justice Clark specified, and as Professor Coyne acknowledged, the issue is not the teaching of religion, but the preaching of religion. As subsequent SCOTUS rulings have specified, public schools must not lend their imprimatur to religious preaching by either students or teachers. McMullen seems to be doing more than teaching about creationism. He appears to be using his authority as a teacher—dispensing grades and extra credit—to encourage students to repeat creationist-friendly ideas.

Does this mean we should actively “investigate” all such teaching? That universities have a constitutional duty to get rid of any professors or classes that move from teaching about religious ideas to preaching the ideas themselves? I think not, for two reasons.

First, university teaching is fundamentally different from K-12 teaching. The SCOTUS decisions about teaching and preaching have mostly dealt with younger students at public schools. Though Georgia Southern is a school that receives tax funding, its status as a university makes it a substantially different case from a high school, middle school, or elementary. The main issue in the Schempp verdict was that school prayer was something students could not evade. Such students were coerced, in effect, into listening to preaching. If, like the young Schempp himself, they have a pass to leave the classroom during prayers, they are still singled out by that action.  In contrast, students in college have enormous freedom to select classes. The faculties, in most cases, are much broader and more diverse. In most public high schools, students are assigned to a teacher without much input. In college, on the other hand, students put together their own schedules.

More important, Coyne doesn’t seem to grasp the tradition he would be joining if his McMullen campaign were successful, though Coyne nods to the importance of academic freedom. As I detail in my upcoming book, conservatives have conducted similar campaigns against leftist professors for decades. I doubt Professor Coyne wants to open up universities to allegations and investigations of ideologically suspicious professors.

In 1941, for example, a group of conservative leaders from the American Legion and the Advertising Federation of America teamed up to encourage Coyne-like investigations of college professors. Their main target was Professor Harold Rugg of Teachers College, Columbia University.

Should we guard the gate?

Should we guard the gate?

As the Guardians of American Education, they investigated Rugg’s teaching. They polled students and obtained copies of syllabi and course descriptions. One of Rugg’s courses, they alleged, featured what they called the “denial of certain natural and inalienable rights of man.” They gave specific examples of the way Rugg used his position as a professor to proselytize. On page 59 of Rugg’s syllabus for a course in Educational Foundations, for instance, Rugg pushed students to “admit the far too rottenness in our social, political, and financial life.”

Is this the sort of club Professor Coyne wants to join? In his earlier campaign against Eric Hedin at Ball State, Coyne alienated allies such as PZ Myers and Larry Moran. Both Moran and Myers thought that Coyne had gone too far in ignoring the sometimes-uncomfortable need to respect academic freedom. And that case was stronger than this one, since Hedin was teaching intelligent design as if it were mainstream science.

So, back to our main question: How far do we want to go to punish professors for their views? What should we do?

The purge is not the right approach. Instead, we should follow the model of Portland parents. When secular parents found out about preaching in an after-school club, they did not shut the club down. They couldn’t. The “Good News Club” had every constitutional right to do what it was doing. But the Portland parents realized that free speech and academic freedom cut both ways. They conducted a campaign to warn their fellow parents about the activities of the Good News Clubs.

That should be our model here. We do not want to slide into witch hunts and creationist-baiting. We do not want to encourage universities to investigate and purge faculty for their beliefs. Instead, we can let students at Georgia Southern know what goes on in McMullen’s classes. The publicity campaign should not be targeted at the administration of Georgia Southern, but rather at its students.

How far do we want to go in purging professors? In this case, Coyne goes too far.

Christianity Kicked Out of Public Universities

Ball State University doesn’t want any more attention. It has been the subject of a nationwide campaign by pundits who were shocked—shocked!—to hear that one professor spoke kindly of intelligent design. But my current work in the archives at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College shows me just how dramatically things have changed in the past fifty years.

You may remember the intelligent-design case. In mid-2013, Eric Hedin was accused of larding his class with religious content. The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation complained, and eventually Ball State’s president announced that religious ideas must not be taught as part of science classes.

Hedin’s use of religious themes became objectionable for two reasons. Mainly, observers complained that he was presenting religious ideas as if they were scientific. But Ball State University was also criticized as a public school using taxpayer dollars to favor one religious group.

According to Jerry Coyne, when Ball State President Jo Ann M. Gora made her announcement that religious ideas should not be taught as science, she emphasized both of these notions. Intelligent design should not be taught as science, Gora told the Ball State community, since

Intelligent design is overwhelmingly deemed by the scientific community as a religious belief and not a scientific theory. Therefore, intelligent design is not appropriate content for science courses.

But Gora specified that even if such religious ideas were taught as part of humanities courses, they must only be taught as ideas, not as dogma. That is, even non-science classes could not teach religious ideas as true, but only as history or literature. As Gora put it,

Discussions of intelligent design and creation science can have their place at Ball State in humanities or social science courses. However, even in such contexts, faculty must avoid endorsing one point of view over others. . . . As a public university, we have a constitutional obligation to maintain a clear separation between church and state. It is imperative that even when religious ideas are appropriately taught in humanities and social science courses, they must be discussed in comparison to each other, with no endorsement of one perspective over another.

Things have changed. As I’ve dug through the archives here at the Billy Graham Center, I’ve come across an intriguing historical coda to the Eric Hedin story. These days, professors at Ball State may not teach religious ideas as science. They may not even teach any single religious idea as history or literature.

But as late as 1957, Ball State University—like many other public universities—taught evangelical Protestantism explicitly and purposefully. Many public colleges, especially teachers’ colleges, had entire programs devoted to what was usually called “Christian Education.” In these courses, public-school students could learn the basics of evangelical proselytization, usually under the heading of learning to be “Sunday School” teachers. Most typically, students were women who hoped to begin or enhance their careers as part-time religious educators.

The current logo hints at this heavenly history...

The current logo hints at this heavenly history…

In some cases, today’s public colleges used to be religious or denominational schools. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Ball State. It claims to have always been part of the government system.

Not only did universities such as Ball State teach courses in spreading the evangelical Gospel to children, but they also accepted transfer credits from unapologetically fundamentalist seminaries. In my archival work, I’ve found several examples of students using their credits from the Winona Lake School of Theology to advance their degrees at public universities like Ball State and the University of Georgia. Even the state of California apparently accepted Winona Lake credits toward public-school teaching certificates.

At the time, Winona Lake School of Theology was a firmly fundamentalist summer school. It was going through an ugly separation from the Fuller Theological Seminary over Fuller’s alleged drift away from Biblical inerrancy. Now defunct, the Winona Lake school refused to go along as Fuller Seminary moved into a more ecumenical attitude.

And in 1957, teachers could use their credits from this religious school to complete their religious program in Christian Education at Ball State University. Though there is too much heated rhetoric about God being “kicked out” of American public education, this example shows us how things really have changed over the past decades.

In 2013, the president of Ball State had no problem announcing that her university must not favor one religion over another; as a public school it must not teach religion, though it can and should teach about religion. But as late as 1957, Ball State and other public universities found it unexceptional to teach entire programs in Christian evangelism. Ball State had no problem taking credits from a fundamentalist seminary, since both programs taught similar course content.

More evidence that we are not just replaying every old culture-war script. Things really have changed.