Easy but Painful: Converting to Atheism

What would it mean for religious people to abandon their faith?

Yesterday we saw an example of this process from Jerry Coyne’s blog Why Evolution Is True.

As “Matthew” describes, leaving his conservative Christian faith was not very difficult.  But it was painful.  And it can teach us some important lessons about conservatism and education.

First, Matthew’s story confirms the fears of many young-earth creationist activists.  Folks at organizations such as Answers In Genesis and the Insitute for Creation Research have long argued that learning about evolution can (or will) lead to atheism.  According to Matthew, that was exactly his experience.  For Matthew, evolution was a “gateway” idea for rejecting Chrisitianity in toto.  For young-earth creationists, this must come as proof of long-held fears.  For evolution educators, this must demonstrate that young-earth creationists have a point when they lament the atheistic implications of evolutionary theory.

Also, Matthew’s story shows how difficult it will be to improve evolution education in the United States.  For many resistant students, as sensitive science-ed types such as Lee Meadows and David Long have pointed out, evolution is not just one idea among many.  Evolution is word that provokes profound cultural, psychological, theological, and even existential anxiety among some students.  As Matthew’s story demonstrates, only when a student from this background actively seeks an alternative way of understanding the world can such evolutionary theory take hold.

Finally, though, Matthew’s story shows how important evolution outreach efforts are.  Matthew started his odyssey away from conservative religion by browsing internet sites and podcasts.  The educational work of organizations such as the National Center for Science Education has been a leading source for such evolution content online.  Matthew’s story shows how important that work can be, even if it must seem frustrating at times.


Call Me, New York Times

Did you see it yet?

All of us who follow creation/evolution debates have likely read by now the “Room for Debate” essays in the New York Times the other day.

The jumping-off point, it seems, was Virginia Heffernan’s recent claim that she is a creationist.  The editors asked contributors, “Is it really so controversial to believe in biblical creationism?”

Each essay is short and pithy.  Certainly worth your time.  They include fourteen cents altogether, two each from an evangelical physicist, a liberal theologian, an evangelical apologist, a Muslim pundit, a political scientist, a law professor, and a theologian/environmentalist.  All in all, an interesting and idiosyncratic collection of opinions on the subject.

But here’s my beef: Where is education in all these voices?

Other scribblers, I’m sure, will ask other questions.  For example, where is atheism?  Or any sort of strong argument that it is, indeed, a big problem to believe in biblical creationism?

The editors would not have had to work hard to find a good atheist to contribute.  Even outside the big names such as Jerry Coyne or PZ Myers, plenty of articulate atheists could have offered a strong opinion about the dangers of believing in biblical creationism.

More directly relevant to readers of ILYBYGTH, where is the voice of education?

IMHO, the issue of “biblical creationism” would not be nearly as controversial if Americans did not have to decide what to teach in our public schools.

As Professor Giberson noted in his piece, “The brouhaha about ‘biblical creation’ is really a proxy war about the reality of meaning in the world.”

Well put.  But that proxy war is fought primarily in boards of education, in classrooms and PTA meetings, in state textbook meetings, and in thousands of other school-related battlefields.  The evolution/creation controversy is not primarily an issue simply of scientific or theological disagreement about epistemology and ontology.  There are plenty of other issues on which people do not agree that have not had the tumultuous career of the creation/evolution debates.

In short, the brouhaha over reality of meaning is only a brouhaha because we need to decide on what sorts of meanings we will teach our children.

It would have helped this discussion enormously, I believe, if someone had pointed this out; if at least one contributor made education his or her primary intellectual interest.  I’m not only saying this because I wish the NYT had called me.  Though I do work for peanuts.

In the bigger picture, leaving an “education” voice out of a creation/evolution debate has long been a problem for those of us trying to understand the issue.  Too often, creation/evolution is framed as an issue of science and religion.  Science and religion only.  As if the truth of life’s origins remained the primary source of controversy.

That makes it difficult to understand the real issues.  As thoughtful scholars such as Randy Moore, Lee Meadows, Michael Berkman & Eric Plutzer, and David Long have pointed out, creation/evolution is not only about “the reality of meaning in the world.”  The rubber hits the road in this culture-war issue with individual students, in specific classrooms, day after day, decade after decade.

Unless we recognize the importance of the way creation/evolution plays out in such real-life environments, we will not move forward.

So, for the record, the next time any editor wants to corral a herd of scholars to comment on creation/evolution issues, please be sure to include someone with a primary interest in evolution.

It doesn’t have to be me.  But I’m always available.

I will also talk about creation/evolution at Labor Day cookouts, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, awkward crowded elevator rides, or any other event.  Just call me!


Those Krazy Kids ‘n’ Their Young-Earth Creationism!

A fascinating recent column in Christianity Today can give us a couple of clues to help navigate our educational culture wars.

In her latest “Wrestling with Angels” column, the singer and author Carolyn Arends describes her recent heart-to-heart with her fourteen-year-old son, an ardent young-earth creationist.  No way, her son told her, would he ever want to go to the wrong university, where he would have to “sit in some biology class in a secular school and be told I descended from apes.”

Arends was surprised.  Though she admits she was a “keen young-earth creationist as a teenager,” she had come to agree that the world had been created through “evolutionary processes.”  With a reassuring evolution-friendly quotation from Billy Graham, circa 1964, her son was consoled.

“Maybe you’re not a total heretic,” he conceded.

Two things in this column jumped out at me.  First, it adds more fuel to my growing, but still uncomfortable conviction that the best way to teach evolution might be to push MORE religion in public schools, not less.

As Arends writes, “if I believed that the Bible truly asked me to reject the scientific consensus, it would be the end of the debate.”  Creationists like Arends and her son will not often embrace evolution due to the overwhelming scientific evidence alone.  But they will (or might) accept evolution if they can be convinced that they can accept that overwhelming evidence while being true to their faiths.  If “resistant” students—to borrow Lee Meadows’ term—can be convinced of the theological acceptability of evolution, then the scientific evidence will have much more success.

The second striking point about Arends’ column is its reminder that we Americans can live in parallel universes, where everything looks the same but all the meanings have reversed themselves.  I can’t imagine my daughter will ever go through a young-earth creationist “phase.”  But if we substitute the phrase “anarcho-syndicalism” or “joys of marijuana” for “young-earth creationism” then I can imagine a very similar scenario to Arends’.

As it is, for many Americans, a belief in young-earth creationism is a sensible, even logical conclusion.  Smart young people in Arends’ world may experiment with it the way I expect my daughter might experiment with funny hairdos or goth boyfriends.



Keep Your “Facts,” I Know the Truth

Cass Sunstein argues in this morning’s New York Times that balanced reporting will lead to more, not less, polarization.  When people read both sides of an argument, Sunstein points out, they tend to dismiss the other side and only accept the facts that bolster their previously held opinions.

This does not seem like a ground-breaking insight into human nature.  Anyone who has had an argument in a bar–or in school, or at church, or at a Thanksgiving dinner–knows that facts don’t make much impact on people’s thinking.  Sunstein, a law professor at Harvard, a university in Massachusetts, vaguely cites unnamed “studies” that confirm this tendency to “biased assimilation.”  When we hear information that confirms our beliefs, we absorb it.  When we hear information that challenges our beliefs, we dismiss it.

The implications of these notions for our entrenched culture wars in education are obvious.  To cite just one example, mainstream science educators tend to take a public-health approach to evolution education.  If we can just expose enough creationist students to the overwhelming evidence for evolution, such scientists usually assume, the students surely will be convinced.

Yet generations of effort have yielded very little result in this direction.  These days, according to Gallup polls at least, Americans are just as fervently creationist as ever, despite nearly a century of crusading evolution education.

The answer can’t be simply more of the same.  Perhaps science educators such as Lee Meadows have a better solution.  Instead of assuming that the profoundly impressive scientific evidence for evolution will do the job on its own, what if we consider packaging that information in a way that will be sensitive to the cultural background of creationist students?

As Meadows argues, educators have long tried to make other kinds of education culturally sensitive.  Why not do the same with evolution?  As Sunstein concludes in this morning’s op-ed, “What matters most may be not what is said, but who, exactly, is saying it.”

Lee Meadows and “Sensitive” Evolution

ILYBYGTH friend Lee Meadows, author of Missing Link: An Inquiry Approach for Teaching All Students about Evolution, has posted a great new short video: “Help!  I’m a biology teacher and I don’t really understand evolution.”

I know some ILYBYGTH readers disagree with Meadows’ approach to teaching evolution.  Some anti-evolutionists feel he goes too far in sugar coating a dangerous doctrine.  As an evolutionist myself, I appreciate his student-centered approach to the subject.  He argues that too many evolution educators–out of ignorance or spite–take a hostile approach to their anti-evolution students.  Meadows argues that they don’t need to.  Not only is it unethical, it is ineffective.

Whether you’re a creationist or evolutionist, it’s worth taking a few minutes to check out his thoughtful video.

Meadows and the Missing Link

According to author Lee Meadows, (check out his blog here) the main goal of his evolution-education book is to get “resistant students [to] understand evolution, but they don’t necessarily have to accept it.” (xxi) His 2009 The Missing Link: An Inquiry Approach for
Teaching All Students about Evolution
promises to train teachers to seize the middle ground in the evolution culture wars.  It offers practical and specific ways to teach evolution to students who come from anti-evolution backgrounds.

Unlike other models, Meadows’ approach never waters down the science of evolution.  It does not attempt to teach “the controversy;” it does not teach a balance between creation and evolution; it does not teach evolution “lite.”  Instead, it teaches the science of evolution in a way that frankly recognizes student resistance to the notion.  It offers coping mechanisms for science teachers to deal with that resistance in a caring, thoughtful, respectful way.  It does not view that student resistance as a challenge to be crushed, but rather as a legitimate part of student identity.  For example, he speaks in helpful terms of “accommodation for resistant students.”  As Meadows argues, “Public schools must embrace diversity of all kinds, including students from all religious backgrounds.”  (xiii)  This tone shifts the
discussion from combat in classrooms to education.

The essence of Meadows’ strategy is nothing new to teachers.  He hopes to use an inquiry method to allow students to wrestle with difficult questions that might challenge their religious faiths.  By using student inquiry instead of teacher-led direct instruction, Meadows hopes to have science teachers avoid the charge of evolutionary indoctrination.
Students can gain an authentic understanding of central questions of evolution and science without feeling that such notions have been imposed by a hostile ‘secular humanist’ school.

In my view, that kind of inquiry learning is worth pursuing for its own sake, in all
classes.  When teachers, schools, and students can pull it off, it is a powerful and effective way to learn.  Of greater promise to the continuing controversies over evolution education, however, is Meadows’ sustained tone of caring for all students, regardless of their backgrounds.  It does not approach student creationist beliefs as a problem for science teachers to overcome.  Instead, it recognizes those beliefs as part of the young person for whom the teacher is charged to respect, care for, and educate.

This is not a philosophic tome, but a practical teaching guide.  It includes lesson plans and specific teaching strategies.  More important, perhaps, it is full of helpful reminders for eager
science teachers of how NOT to proceed.  It identifies the distinction between an evolutionary and supernatural worldview, for example, then warns:

You can’t resolve these tensions for your students, so please don’t try. It’s not our place as science teachers to impact students’ religious beliefs, even if we’re being “helpful.” That’ssomething that we must leave to their families and their spiritual leaders. (61)

Meadows’ approach will earn him some flak, inevitably, from both sides in the  creation/evolution debate.  Some mainstream scientists will undoubtedly protest that students should not be allowed to decide if they will accept evolution after they learn about it.  To many evolution-believers, that makes no more sense than asking students to decide if they believe in the Pythagorean Theorem.

From creationists, on the other hand, I can imagine Meadows will come under fire for teaching evolution as true, as fact.  And more, creationists might object that Meadows’ suggested methods simply sugarcoat evolution by pretending to care for creationists’ beliefs.  Better, some creationists might say, to honestly attack those creationist beliefs rather than to sneak in evolution education under false pretenses.  I can imagine creationists objecting that Meadows’ distinction between guaranteeing that students KNOW evolution but allowing them not to BELIEVE it is a false one.  It would never be suggested for other subjects.  For example, it is hard to imagine knowing that 2 + 2 = 4 without believing it.  And how could my child learn and know how to identify an indirect object without believing it?

It is a similar dilemma to those parents who object to explicit sex education in public school classrooms.  Since the first days of SIECUS in the 1960s, for instance, sex educators have insisted that they are not advocating sex.  Conservative parents, however, insist that merely by knowing how to use a condom, students have been hurt.  Those parents do not want their
children to know about condoms (or evolution) at all.  They vigorously dispute the notion that their children can learn something in school about such topics without that knowledge
causing fundamental harm.

I believe that these potential objections prove that Meadows is onto something.  When the more extreme elements on both sides attack, it suggests that Meadows is speaking to the great wide middle: Creationist parents who do not want their children attacked in schools;
creationist students who feel as if ‘school science’ is not for them; teachers who feel they can’t simultaneously care for their creationist students and teach those students something the students see as blasphemous; school administrators who need to reach out to parents and students while still encouraging evolution education in their science classes; and mainstream
scientists who want to see more authentic evolution education in American classrooms.

It is a tall order, but Meadows’ work promises something for everyone in this moderate middle.

For a taste of Meadows’ approach, you can read a chapter of his book at his publisher’s webpage.