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.

Is This the Creationist Conspiracy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Child Abuse or Church Camp?

The way we ask the question says a lot.

We could ask it this way: Is it abusive to encourage children to have certain religious experiences?

Or we could put it like this: Should children and toddlers be coerced and terrified?

Either way, these questions are prompted by a new church-camp video that is making the rounds these days.  In the video, we see young children experiencing some of the typical manifestations of charismatic Christian worship.  They jerk their limbs, fall to the ground, engage in babbling speech, cry and shout.

Adults surround the children, clearly encouraging them to behave the right way.  Some children seem to participate enthusiastically.  Others seem confused, intimidated, or tearful.

There’s not much new here.  These sorts of behaviors have been manifestations of charismatic worship for a long time.  For just as long, they have been criticized by critics.  In the first Great Awakening of the 1740s, Boston minister Charles Chauncy famously attacked the revivalists for their embrace of “enthusiasm.”  Their emotional services prompted false conversions, Chauncy believed.  Attendees at big revival meetings found themselves caught up in the moment, jerking their bodies, crying out, falling down, but not becoming truly Christian.

More recent critics focus on the way young children are bullied into a traumatic emotional experience.  Atheist pundit Jerry Coyne, for instance, puts it this way:

It’s brainwashing, pure and simple. The kids have no choice. Is there anyone who wouldn’t call this abuse?

These behaviors seem bizarre to me as well.  But I don’t call it abuse.  The adults in this video, to my mind, don’t appear to be victimizing children, but rather trying to share an authentically held belief with them.  That’s a big difference.

I know this is a difficult topic to discuss.  I also know that I have absolutely no personal experience with this sort of thing.  And I sympathize deeply with those who found themselves traumatized by this sort of intense religious upbringing.

But if we call it “abuse” we are doing more than simply insulting these adult believers.  If we call it “abuse” we open the door to government intervention in these religious ceremonies, and others.

Perhaps some other examples will help make the case.  It is sadly not uncommon for religious people to insist on alternative medical care for children.  Instead of chemotherapy, for example, some believers may lay hands on a child who is suffering from cancer.  This is abusive.  The child is being substantially harmed by being denied effective treatment.

It is also sadly not uncommon for religious organizations—and, to be fair, non-religious organizations—to cover up sex abuse of minors in the name of religious solidarity.  Here, too, the government must intervene.  This is abuse.

Again, my heartiest sympathies go out to those who are struggling to overcome religious upbringings they found coercive.  Writers such as Samantha Field and Jonny Scaramanga have educated me a great deal about the ways religious beliefs can cause emotional harm and long-term trauma.

I’m not dismissing that.  But the church-camp activities here seem to be something different than “abuse.”  Am I wrong?


A Christian in the Lion’s Blog

Okay, be honest: How many of us are brave enough to try talking with people who really really hate us?  I talk a good game, but in real life I hardly ever interact with people very different from me.  Recently on the arch-evolutionist/atheist blog Why Evolution Is True Don McLeroy tried to defend his religion.  I don’t agree with McLeroy’s ideas about God or science, but I have to give him credit for his willingness to talk civilly with his culture-war enemies.

You may remember Dr. McLeroy as the Texas dentist who came to educational power a few years back on the Texas State Board of Education.  Viewers of the documentary The Revisionaries will remember some of McLeroy’s positions.  He wanted less evolution and more country music.  He wanted less hip-hop and more Ronald Reagan.

Those of us outside the world of young-earth creationism were wowed to hear McLeroy teach his Sunday-school class the verities of his religion.  How did all those animals fit on the ark?  Easy! How was it possible that all the evidence of an ancient earth was wrong?   No problem!

And some viewers poked fun at McLeroy for his anti-expert opinions.  “I disagree with the experts,” McLeroy famously intoned in The Revisionaries.  “Someone has to stand up to them.”  To many skeptics, this sort of attitude demonstrated McLeroy’s willful ignorance.  Why WOULDN’T we want experts to decide our school curricula, critics asked incredulously?  As I argued at the time, however, McLeroy’s ideas about proper expertise have a long and storied history among educational conservatives.

In his recent appearance on Why Evolution Is True, McLeroy defends his Biblical epistemology.  McLeroy had pointed out elsewhere that 500 witnesses had attested to Jesus’ rebirth.  For McLeroy, that seemed to be important evidence.  Not surprisingly, the commenters of WEIT tore McLeroy apart.  Some did it politely, calling him “Dr. McLeroy.”  Some did not, referring to him as “Donnie-boy.”

The crux of the disagreement concerned the nature of evidence and how we can know something.  For McLeroy, Paul’s biblical statement that 500 witnesses had seen the Risen Jesus seemed conclusive.  As the readers of WEIT pointed out—and I wholeheartedly agree—there are enormous holes with this sort of knowing.  How can we know Paul really consulted 500 other witnesses?  How do we trust what Paul thought he saw?  Indeed, how can we know Paul was a real person at all?  For folks like me and the commenters on WEIT, such evidence does not count as convincing.

For folks like Dr. McLeroy, the Bible’s writings carry greater weight.  If the Bible attests to something, we know with confidence that it is true.  If the Bible says God created the universe in six days, then we have no need to doubt it.  We can trust that it is true.  Indeed, if we don’t trust that it is true, we risk calling God Himself a liar.

'Cause the Bible Tells Me So...

‘Cause the Bible Tells Me So…

Obviously, these two very different attitudes toward knowledge have a difficult time communicating with each other.  But there seems to be a cottage industry of efforts to do so.  Conservative theologian Doug Wilson and atheist-at-large Christopher Hitchens spent some time together in the film Collision.  As Wilson and Hitchens found out, there is not much point in shouting at each other.  Each side misunderstands the other in such fundamental ways that time is better spent chatting politely and drinking beer.

In his recent appearance, Don McLeroy thanked WEIT commenters for their opinions, and promised to read the books suggested.  But he did not seem likely to be convinced.  Nor did WEIT readers seem likely to turn to the Bible the next time they had a question about science, history, or politics.  Nevertheless, McLeroy pointedly maintained his famous good-natured politeness.

In the end, that might be the extent of dialogue we can expect across these profound culture-war chasms.


Creationist Credentials and the Toilet-Paper Doctorate

What does it take for a creationist to earn a PhD?  As arch-anti-creationist Jerry Coyne pointed out yesterday, not a whole lot.  Coyne looked at the embarrassingly weak doctoral work of young-earth creationist Kent Hovind.  This sham dissertation leads us to ask again about the paradoxical relationship between creationism and credentials.

patriot bible university

Hovind’s Alma Mater

It does not take a creationist-hater like Professor Coyne to find big problems with Hovind’s doctoral work.  Hovind cranked out a hundred awkward pages of claptrap about creationism under the auspices of Patriot Bible University of Del Norte, Colorado.

Intelligent creationists might cringe at this sort of hucksterism, with good reason.  It allows even the most accomplished creationists, such as Harvard-educated Kurt Wise, to be lumped together with this sort of snake-oil academic flim-flam.

Throughout the history of the creation/evolution debates, creationists have struggled to prove their intellectual bona fides.  It hasn’t been easy.  For the first generation of modern anti-evolutionists, it came as a surprise to find that their ideas no longer held sway at leading research universities and intellectual institutions.

As Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education demonstrated recently, this 1920s revelation led anti-evolutionists to scramble for certifiable creationist experts.  The most famous anti-evolutionist of the 1920s, William Jennings Bryan, groped awkwardly among scientists to find some who opposed “Darwinism.”

Bryan wasn’t alone.  As I note in my 1920s book, all the anti-evolution activists of the 1920s were obsessed with demonstrating that creationism[*] had expert support.  T.T. Martin, for example, who attracted attention with his eye-catching booth at the 1920s Scopes monkey trial, listed his expert supporters relentlessly.  In his book Hell and the High School, 67 out of 175 pages consisted of nothing more than lists of anti-evolution experts and their backgrounds.

Experts! Experts! Get Yr Experts Here!

Experts! Experts! Get Yr Experts Here!

Another anti-evolution activist from the 1920s showed similar determination.  On a typical page of Alfred Fairhurst’s Atheism in Our Universities, Fairhurst included only 23 original words.  The remaining 107 consisted of quotes from “leading writers on evolution.”

Writing in 1922, Arthur Brown used the same tactic.  He piled up impressive-sounding lists of experts and scientists who disputed evolution.  Why should readers accept evolution, Brown asked, when it had been discarded by the likes of

world-renowned men like Virchow of Berlin, Dawson of Montreal, Etheridge of the British Museum, Groette of Strassburg University, Paulson of Berlin, Clerk Maxwell, Dana, Naegeli, Holliker, Wagner, Snell, Tovel, Bunge the physiological chemist, Brown, Hofman, and Askernazy, botanists, Oswald Heer, the geologist, Carl Ernst von Baer, the eminent zoologist and anthropologist, Du Bois Reymond, Stuckenburg and Zockler, and a host of others. . . .  It seems to be a fact that NO opinion from whatever source, no matter how weighty or learned, is of any account with those who are consumed with the determination to reject the Bible at any cost, and shut God out of His universe.

As I traced in my 1920s book, following the work of historian Ron Numbers, this impressive-sounding list did not really make the point Brown hoped it would.  The names he listed came from earlier generations or from scientists who agreed with evolution’s broad outlines but disagreed on details.  But Brown, like Bryan, Martin, Fairhurst, and virtually all other creationist activists felt compelled to establish the academic credentials of anti-evolutionists.

Hovind’s case reminds us of this peculiar conundrum of credentials among creationists.  One does not have to be an evolutionary bulldog like Professor Coyne to find Hovind’s academic pretensions silly and reprehensible.  Hovind’s work certainly gives skeptics such as Professor Coyne an easy route of attack.

For those of us who don’t care to attack or defend creationism, though, Hovind’s doctoral ouvre offers different lessons.  Once a dissenting group has been turned away from mainstream institutions, credentials become both more precious and easier to attain.  At least since the 1920s, that is, anti-evolutionists have scrambled to find expert backing for their beliefs.  But once creationism had been kicked out of elite research universities, it became far easier for creationists to claim credit for academic work at bogus universities.  If universities themselves are suspect, in other words, the ridiculousness of diploma mills like the Patriot Bible University becomes less damning.

[*] The term “creationism” is an anachronism here.  Anti-evolutionists in the 1920s did not call their beliefs “creationism” yet.  But I’ll use it just to keep things readable.