Ignorance and Evolutionism

In a recent commentary, First Amendment Center pundit Charles Haynes noted that teacher “neutrality toward religion cuts bothways.”  He examined two recent court cases. In the first, math teacher Bradley Johnson had been forced to remove pro-Bible, pro-Christianity banners from his classroom.  In the second, history teacher James Corbett had been accused of anti-Christian, anti-creationism bias in his lectures.  However, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that Corbett had not done anything to infringe upon the First Amendment rights of his religious students.

Haynes made the salutary point that such court decisions reflected an unfair court bias against religion.  He argued, “In my view, the 9th Circuit was right to bar promotion of religion in the classroom. But fair is fair. If religious people are to accept that their faith cannot be privileged in schools, then they need to be assured that hostility to their faith will not be tolerated, either.”

But the Corbett case deserves a second, and even a third look.  Court documents noted that Corbett had sent home letters to the families of students in his Advanced Placement European History class.  He had explicitly warned students and their families, “Most days we will spend a few minutes (sometimes more) at the beginning of class discussing current events . . . . Discussion will be quite provocative and focus on the ‘lessons’ of history.  My goal is to have you go home with something that will provoke discussion with your parents.” In this letter, which the accusing student and his family received and acknowledged, Corbett
insisted that all students “may offer any perspective without concern that anything they say will impact either my attitude toward them or their grades. I encourage a full range of views.”

In addition, the course description for the Advanced Placement European History class, designed and tested by the College Board, mandated the inclusion of such topics as “[c] hanges in religious thought and institutions,” “[s]ecularization of learning and culture,” “[s]cientific and technological developments and their consequences,” and “[c]hanges in elite and popular culture, such as new attitudes toward religion, the family, work, and ritual.”

Seen from this perspective, it would be irresponsible of Corbett to refrain from challenging the creationist views of students.  Such ideas are inherently challenged by the history of the Reformation and Scientific Revolution.

But Corbett was more than an earnest historian hoping to spread enlightened ideas in his discussions of the Enlightenment.  The court record indicates that he was a dedicated and determined culture warrior.  Almost twenty years previous to this case, he was embroiled in another creation/evolution case at his high school.  A science teacher at the school had been accused of teaching creationism as science.  The school had demanded that the science  teacher, one John Peloza, refrain from teaching creationism.  Peloza sued the school and Corbett as adviser of the school newspaper for five million dollars.  When the school attorney advised Corbett to refrain from making any further derogatory comments about Peloza or
creationism, Corbett refused.  As Corbett recalled, “At that point, I stood up and said, ‘I’ll tell you what. I will sign a statement giving you — you do not have to defend me, but I will not leave John [Peloza] alone to propagandize kids with this religious, superstitious nonsense.’”

The goal to avoid propagandizing students and to bravely defend against attempts to do so is a laudable one.  But Corbett then fell into a very similar trap.  His discussion of science clearly took an excessively hostile, anti-creationist tone.  He used the language of the anti-creationist movement, as when he disparaged the notion of a literal six-day creation as
being as ridiculous as the notion that a spaghetti monster that lived behind the moon had created the universe.  That language, as the lawyers for the aggrieved student pointed out, came from ardent anti-creationists.  Creationist students and their families were familiar with such accusations.  They had heard such things, and they connected it, reasonably enough, to an attack on their religious beliefs.

Some of Corbett’s other classroom statements from the court record also indicate the creation of a resolutely hostile environment for a creationist student.  Consider the following examples:


[T]hink how humbling it’s going to be, you know,

whenall these people who have been talking about

Adam and Eve and creation and all of this stuff for

all that time when eventually something happens,

and they find out that there are people on another

planet, six billion light years away, who don’t look

like us, worshipping huge geckos. (Students laughing.)


How do you get the peasants to oppose something

that is in their best interest? Religion. You have to

have something that is irrational to counter that rational

approach. No problem. . . . [W]hen you put on

your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth.


It’s okay for religious people to, you know, or a

magician (inaudible). There may be a distinction, but

there is no difference. What was it that Mark Twain

said? “Religion was invented when the first con man

met the first [fool].”


This kind of language goes beyond treating history or science in an authentic way.  These
quotations, along with Corbett’s history, suggest a sustained bias against creationist belief, or even against any deeply held religious belief.

Let’s be as clear on this point as possible: Teachers must be allowed, and even encouraged, to make provocative statements about religion and science.  They must challenge students to examine their own beliefs and articulate their reasons for those beliefs.  But a teacher should never accomplish those goals by belittling, humiliating, or demeaning students.  Not only is it cruel, it is also ineffective.  As in this case, it merely forces students to retreat to a wholly defensive posture.  It does not draw them out to think deeply about science, history,
religion, and their personal beliefs.

I don’t know James Corbett.  But my hunch is that he would not want to belittle students or
discourage them from learning about science and history.  My hunch is that he is intelligent, brave, and self-sacrificing.  My hunch is that he is so deeply entrenched in his own position on evolution and creation that, like Richard Dawkins, he cannot imagine that an intelligent, informed, well-meaning person could possibly believe it.  From that perspective, there is no more harm to be found in mocking creationism than there would be in mocking flat-earthers or other kooks.

The problem is not only that James Corbett—and those like him, whether teachers, journalists, scientists, or involved citizens of other professions—showed sustained hostility to religion.  The deeper problem, in my opinion, was that he displayed an utter ignorance of the harm he was inflicting.  He hoped to be controversial and thought provoking.  He hoped to be humorous andengaging.  But his jokes and disparaging tone proved deeply offensive to at least one of his students.

The best parallel here is not the Bradley Johnson case, in which a teacher displayed Biblical and religious slogans in his math classroom.  The better parallel would be Michael Scott, the loudmouthed, offensive boss from TV’s “The Office.”  Scott told all sorts of offensive, sexist,
racist jokes.  When challenged, he would just throw up his hands and smile and say, “I didn’t mean to offend anyone.  I thought it was funny.”  Some people on either side of this evolution/creation divide are just that ignorant about those on the other side.  They don’t understand how people could really be offended to have their deepest religious beliefs mocked.  They don’t understand how deeply offensive it can be to compare belief in a creative God to belief in a giant spaghetti monster.

The deep irony is that some crusades against ignorance fail to consider their own deep ignorance about the people they hope to enlighten.