Take a Trip to a Creation Museum

How do creationists do it?

How, that is, do creationists manage to maintain a belief in a 6,000-year-old earth and a real global flood?  How do they get their children to believe that all of humanity sprang from two people in Mesopotamia a few thousand years ago?

To outsiders like me, such beliefs seem so far outside the mainstream that I have a hard time understanding how creationists manage to stay convinced.

One thing that must help is an array of institutions to support young-earth creationist ideas.  It is easy enough for a family to raise children in that tradition, attending schools, reading books, and going to museums all safely within the intellectual boundaries of young earth-ism.

Science-education guru Randy Moore took a trip to a creation museum to describe one way this can work.  In the just-released issue of Reports of the National Center for Science Education, Moore describes his trip to the Creation and Earth History Museum, just outside of San Diego.

Image Source: Creation and Earth History Museum

Image Source: Creation and Earth History Museum

The museum was founded in 1992 by the Institute for Creation Research.  It has since been sold, but its new owners continue to operate it according to ICR beliefs.  Don’t confuse it, by the way, with the much larger and more lavish Creation Museum just outside of Cincinnati.  The young-earth beliefs of the two may be very similar, but Answers In Genesis’ Cincinnati museum looks and feels much more like mainstream science museums.

Still, for those who can’t make it all the way to Cincinnati, this San Diego attraction might achieve many of the same goals.

Moore walks readers through those beliefs in an even-handed and explanatory way.  Moore does not try to critique the science or religion on display.  Instead, he offers a much more useful blow-by-blow description of the kinds of ideas museum-goers will encounter.

What does this group of young-earth creationists believe?  The museum demonstrates the unreliability of radiometric dating and the voluminous evidence for a real catastrophic global flood.  Believers might find reassurance that the best scientific evidence supports their beliefs, regardless of rumors they may have heard to the contrary.

If you’re looking for mockery and witty barbs about the bad science on display, you’ll need to go elsewhere.  Moore has a different aim: to inform other science educators of the kinds of information young-earth creationists might be exposed to.

As always, Moore’s approach is the right one.  Mainstream science educators don’t need to hear another attack on the scientific demerits of young-earth creationism.  What evolution educators do need to receive, in massive doses, are unbiased glimpses of the worlds outside of mainstream science.

Without understanding creationism and creationists, mainstream science and mainstream science education will make little headway.  For those who can’t afford a trip to a creation museum themselves, Moore’s travelogue will be a handy introduction.

 

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Creationists: We Don’t Want Creationism in Public Schools

We don’t push creationism on America’s public schools.  That’s the word from two very different ends of America’s creationist spectrum.

An intelligent observer might be forgiven for feeling a little confused.  If creationists don’t want creationism in America’s schools, what do they want?

Seen from this outsider’s perspective, this creationist plea demonstrates the important fact that America has not hit a wall with evolution/creation controversies; we are not trapped in a timeless deadlock; evolution and creation are not grappling in an endless, changeless battle.

Evolution is winning.

Don’t believe me?  Consider the recent statements of two leading creationists, two creationists with very different anti-evolution ideas.

Our first creationist voice for keeping creationism out of public schools comes from the leading proponent of intelligent design, Seattle’s Discovery Institute.

According to the conservative Christian World Magazine, the Discovery Institute’s Stephen Meyer has called recently for intelligent design advocates to stop pushing ID on public schools.  In a New York talk about his new book, Darwin’s Doubt, Meyer insisted it would be “imprudent for our side to be pushing intelligent design into textbooks.”

There was no need for such forceful public advocacy, Meyer argued.  Instead, growing doubt among mainstream scientists should be allowed to bubble over into public-school science curriculum.  According to Meyer, “There are too many scientists doing science from this perspective to keep it out of schools.  I’d prefer for it to happen organically.”

At the other end of the creationism spectrum, Ken Ham has called for a similar hands-off policy concerning public schools.  Ham, the founder of the leading young-earth creationist ministry Answers In Genesis, has insisted recently that his group does not push young-earth creationism into public schools.  Why not?  Because mandated creationism, Ham argued, would “likely be taught poorly (and possibly mockingly) by a teacher who does not understand what the Bible teaches. . .”

On the other hand, Ham does hope that public schools will teach a greater variety of ideas about evolution, including young-earth creationism.

For those of us non-creationists hoping to understand American creationism, what lessons can we take out of these statements?

At first glance, such arguments seem merely strategic.  My hunch is that both Meyer and Ham would prefer to see more intelligent design or young-earth creationism in America’s public schools, respectively.  Insisting that they do not push such notions seems nothing more than an attempt to play the role of innocent bystander in creation/evolution fights.

But we can take other lessons from these creationist statements as well.  First of all, both statements demonstrate a recognition that ID or YEC are not currently dominant in America’s public schools.  Dr. Meyer says he does not want to push ID, since that will leave the decisions in the hand of a judge, as happened in the Dover trial.  Mr. Ham worries that mandatory creationism would lead to withering critiques of the creation curriculum by the vast numbers of anti-creationist teachers.

As I’ve argued in my 1920s book, such creationist attitudes represent a wholesale revolution in anti-evolution politics.  In the 1920s, anti-evolution campaigns wanted more than to have creationism included in public schools.  Back then, anti-evolution politicians hoped to ban evolution wholesale.  Not only that, in the 1920s politicians and activists insisted on banning all sorts of ideas that might have challenged traditional Protestant culture.  Consider the “anti-evolution” law that passed the US Congress in 1924.  That law specified that no teachers could engage in “disrespect of the Holy Bible.”  But the law also insisted that DC teachers could not teach that the USA had an inferior form of government.

The sort of “us-too” strategy engaged in by Ham and Meyer demonstrates a very different goal.  Even if they are being duplicitous in their insistence that they do not want to push creationism on public schools, the very fact that they choose to disavow such insistence speaks volumes.

In the 1920s, anti-evolutionists wanted evolution out.  All the way out.  With all its attendant theories of atheism, socialism, sloppiness, and bad manners.  Anti-evolutionists went out of their way to show their vehement condemnation of all things evolutionary.

In the 21st century, in contrast, anti-evolutionists claim only to want a place at the public-school table.

This revolution in anti-evolution strategy demonstrates that there is no long-term deadlock in the evolution/creation struggle.

I’ll say it again: Evolution is winning.

It only appears to be a deadlock if we restrict ourselves to a short historical perspective.  Yet, for understandable reasons, many of the smartest voices in the evolution/creation debates have implied that we are in fact stuck.

Randy Moore, for example, has long been the smartest guy in the room when it comes to the struggle over creationism and biology education.  Yet even he allows himself to imply that evolution/creation has bogged down.  In a recent essay in the BioLogos Forum, for example, Moore opens with the following assertion: “the evolution-creationism controversy has been one of the most abiding controversies in America during the past several decades, public attitudes about evolution and creationism have changed relatively little during that time.”

True enough, but he restricts himself to a relatively short timeline.  Opinions since the 1980s may have congealed, but that does not imply a longterm freeze.

Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, too, open their wonderful study of evolution and creationism battles with the assumption that these battles have changed little.  They do not ask IF creation/evolution fights have deadlocked.  They only ask WHY such fights have been so durable.

Today’s statements from Stephen Meyer and Ken Ham demonstrate the dangers of these assumptions.  From an historian’s perspective, attitudes that have stayed the same since the 1980s are not proof of deadlock.  Rather, they appear only to be recent trends.

The fact that leading creationists insist that they do not want to push their theories into public schools tells us a lot.

It doesn’t tell us, of course, exactly how sincere such protestations might be.

But it does tell us that the evolution/creation controversy has changed dramatically over the past century.  Whereas the first rounds of this battle saw anti-evolutionists pound evolution education into the ropes, more recent decades have seen that trend reversed.

It is now creationists who insist they don’t want to push their ideas into public schools.

“Why can’t creationism be included?” is a vastly different question than “Why should schools include evolution?”

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!

 

Will It Matter?

The New York Times reports that new state science standards endorse more rigorous teaching of climate change and evolution. According to one conservative group consulted by the Times, the new standards will disregard creationists’ rights, will “classify them as outsiders within the community.”

But will they?

Happily for religious conservatives, and unhappily for those like me who support more rigorous evolution education, these standards will not make much impact on the ways evolution is actually taught.

Political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have argued convincingly that state standards have “only minimal impact” on what goes on in science classrooms.[1]  The decisions made at the state level are not nearly as important as the daily decisions made by teachers.

Similarly, science educator Randy Moore has noted that state standards “often mean little in biology classrooms.”[2]

So will these new standards fulfill the hopes of science educators or the fears of religious conservatives?  Likely not.  That does not mean that such standards are useless.  The political process of crafting and wording state education standards can make a significant symbolic statement about the cultural and intellectual values of a community.

However, in terms of transforming teaching on a day-to-day level, these new suggested standards will not likely have the impact journalists suggest.  As long as local communities feel ambivalent about evolution education, teachers will largely avoid the topic.

 


[1] Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 160.

[2] Randy A. Moore.  2002. “Teaching Evolution: Do State Standards Matter?” BioScience 52 (4) 380.

Creationists: Randy Moore Wants Your Children!

There is no doubting Randy Moore’s evolution-education credentials.

A professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Professor Moore has received the National Center for Science Education’s Friend of Darwin award, and the National Association of Biology Teachers Evolution Education award.

Randy Moore, in short, has long been one of the most engaging and engaged voices in the campaign to get more evolution education into America’s schools.

And what is Moore’s most recent argument to make America’s schools more evolution-friendly?

In a remarkable article in the “evolutionary-creationist” BioLogos Forum, Moore and colleague Sehoya Cotner offered two recommendations for improving evolution education:

1.) Let Jesus teach it!

2.) Catch creationist kids young!

Here are their actual words:

“We know of no evidence that the availability of such solely science-focused workshops, seminars, and other forms of evolution-related education will significantly affect what creationism-based biology teachers teach. Since the impediments to better teaching of evolution are primarily the philosophical and religious views of biology teachers, programs that do not address the more personal, ‘non-science’ issues of science educators directly and effectively are likely to have little impact on what students learn in high-school biology classrooms. Instead, if further fact-based instruction in evolution is part of the answer, it is likely to be most effective with young children, who are developmentally primed to seek explanations for natural phenomena. However, evolution instruction is essentially absent prior to high-school biology; by high school, a student’s teleological demands have likely been met by supernatural explanations, creating a cycle of adults who know little about evolution and teach creationism-flavored biology.”

In other words, as Moore and Cotner convincingly demonstrate, simply assuming that the scientific evidence for evolution will convince creationist teachers has not worked, and will not work.  They rely heavily on the research of Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer.  Instead, evolution education needs to get away from the delusion that the scientific evidence alone will do the job.  With adults, effective evolution education, as Moore and Cotner contend, must address “philosophical and religious” issues involved.  This conclusion makes eminent sense.  However, it brings us to an awkward realization: science education must range far beyond science education to be effective science education.  Are creationist teachers to be taught that Jesus wants them to accept evolution?  That seems to be Moore’s and Cotner’s implication, and it raises a host of thorny issues.

The second prong of their policy argument is equally radical.  If “fact-based” evolution education is to work, Moore and Cotner argue, it must reach young students before their families’ influence has become decisive.  In other words, effective evolution education must evangelize aggressively to counter the “supernatural explanations” offered young people by their parents and church leaders.  Effective evolution education must seek to replace those family influences with the influence of scientific evidence.

Randy Moore has long been one of the smartest voices in the field of evolution education.  And his logic in this article seems uncontrovertible.  Yet it raises disturbing questions.  Can evolution educators discuss “philosophical and religious” implications of evolutionary theory?  Doesn’t that amount to sectarian religious education?  In other words, if science educators try to teach that Jesus is not against evolution, isn’t that making a strictly religious argument?

And we need to ask tough questions about targeting young minds:  Can a campaign to reach young creationist kids work?  Is it the place of public education to target family culture and religion?