Can We Tell Students the Truth about Truth?


I don’t know what to think.  For almost a hundred years, creationists and other conservatives have complained that mainstream science—often symbolized by the idea of evolution—threatened their children’s faith.  For just as long, leading scientists have insisted that there was nothing religious about real science.  But a recent chat with physicist Carlo Rovelli makes me wonder.

First, some premises:

1.) Public schools should not be teaching religious ideas to children.  Schools may and should teach ABOUT religions, but public schools should not attempt to push students toward or away from any faith.

2.) Public schools must offer students the best available scholarship.  In science class, this means students must learn the modern evolutionary synthesis.

3.) Secondary-school education–in the USA, that means high schools and middle schools–should train students to think in ways familiar to the scholarly disciplines.  So, in history class, we follow Stanford’s Sam Wineburg in hoping to teach students to engage in the “unnatural act” of thinking like a historian.  The same should be true in other disciplines.  Students should be learning basic principles of mathematical thinking, literary thinking, and scientific thinking.

So here’s our dilemma.  For a while now, conservative creationists have complained that public schools are teaching evolution as a religion.  Nonsense, mainstream scientists have responded.

Because, of course, if evolution were a religion, it should not be taught in public schools.  It could be taught ABOUT, but not taught as something towards which students ought to be pushed.

But as trenchant observers have observed, there are indeed some religious aspects of mainstream scientific belief.  Or, to put it more precisely, there are important ways in which the attitudes of mainstream scientists clash with certain conservative theological beliefs.  As my favorite atheist observer of American creationism Jason Rosenhouse argued, traditional Christians are correct in thinking that evolutionary ideas pose a drastic theological threat.

And today we come across more fuel for this dilemma.  In a recent interview in Scientific American, physicist Carlo Rovelli seconds the notion that mainstream science is–as much as it is anything–a skeptical attitude toward absolute truth.  As Dr. Rovelli put it,

I have no idea what “absolute truth” means. I think that science is the attitude of those who find funny the people saying they know something is absolute truth.  Science is the awareness that our knowledge is constantly uncertain.

Tell me the absolute truth: Do these glasses make my face look fat?

Dr. Rovelli, Tell me the absolute truth…

I don’t need to be up on the latest in quantum physics to see how such an attitude could be problematic for the conservative parents of American school children.  If such children were being taught the basic principles of mainstream science, and if those principles coincided with Rovelli’s attitude, then conservative parents might indeed have cause for complaint.

A family wouldn’t need to be any sort of creationist to take issue, either.  Anyone who takes their Judaism or Christianity seriously might be chagrined to find their children coming home from school and telling them, “I find it funny when people say they know something is absolute truth.”


I Know Who Will Win the Super Bowl

Call Vegas.  Bet the farm.  We know for sure who will win in this weekend’s Super Bowl.

First a note for readers outside the United States or for those ensconced in thick protective layers of nerd: The Super Bowl is a contest between football teams.  It is typically a hugely popular TV and social event.

The winner this year has been proclaimed in advance.  No matter what happens on the chilly field, the winner will be… Jesus!

Image Source: The Biblical World

Image Source: The Biblical World

That’s right: no matter how the game goes, Americans tell pollsters they believe that Jesus will determine the outcome.  At least according to a recent report from the Public Religion Research Institute, a majority of Americans think that “some type of supernatural forces” will decide who wins the big game on Sunday.  More than a quarter of fans say they pray to God to help their team win.  And roughly a quarter of fans think their team has been cursed at one time or another.

Image Source: Public Religion Research Institute

Image Source: Public Religion Research Institute

Shocking?  Not really.  It seems to be just another piece of evidence that Americans are enormously religious.  And another warning to out-of-touch academics that their understanding of a liberal, secular society is woefully out of step with social realities.


Jon Stewart and Richard Dawkins

What happens to us when we die?

Does religion make society better?

Doesn’t science rely on faith?

Can’t intelligent people be both scientific and religious?

These are some of the questions leveled at leading science-atheist Richard Dawkins by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show recently.

For all of us interested in issues of science and religion, the short interview is well worth watching.

Stewart asks Dawkins some zingers, such as whether the world will be destroyed by human destruction or through more natural causes.  He challenges Dawkins to explain why faith is a negative force for society, even though it often seems so benign.

“It’s very easy to look at the dark side of fundamentalism,” Stewart said. “ … Sometimes I think we have to challenge ourselves and look at the dark side of achievement.”

Is science a threat?

Dawkins said he felt a little more optimistic about it.

As always, Dawkins expresses himself well.  Stewart gave him plenty of friendly opportunity to defend his argument that faith is inherently dangerous.


Religion? Or Discrimination?

What if I think my religion condemns homosexuality?

The US Constitution says the government must not interfere with my right freely to practice my religion.  Does that mean I have a right to discriminate against homosexuals?

Thanks to liberal watchdog Texas Freedom Network, we see a case from San Antonio that forces us to confront this dilemma.

According to the San Antonio Business Journal, the Texas-based Liberty Institute has complained about a proposed city ordinance in San Antonio.  The proposed ordinance would extend the city council’s non-discrimination rule to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

Conservative Christians have complained that this expanded rule would effectively prohibit them from the free practice of their religion.

Such issues often wend their way through education debates.  For instance, religious conservatives in America have warned against the “homosexual agenda” in public education.  In this CitizenLink video, for example, conservative Christian commentators explain the “sneaky” nature of pro-homosexual ideology in America’s schools.  Conservatives have repeatedly scoured their school libraries and classrooms for books that cram a “gay is okay” message down the throats of unsuspecting schoolkids.

Thinking conservatives have complained that sexual orientation and gender identity are not simply the newest civil-rights issue.  In cities with an anti-discrimination rule, would conservative opposition to homosexuality become illegal?  Would conservative Christians find themselves forced to choose between the free practice of their religion and their observation of the law?

The San Antonio City Council has found itself in the thick of this dilemma.  By proposing a ban on anti-gay discrimination, are they unintentionally proposing a ban on many conservative Christians?  Are they trampling conservative constitutional rights in an effort to protect the rights of homosexuals?


Evolution: Beyond Science and Religion

Outsiders are telling public school families that we must follow the rich man’s elitist religion of evolution, that we no longer have what the Kentucky Constitution says is the right to worship Almighty God.  Instead, this fascist method teaches that our children are the property of the state.

–Matt Singleton, Frankfort, Kentucky, July 2013

Why do so many Americans oppose the teaching of evolution in schools?

The knee-jerk answer is that people fight against mainstream science for religious reasons.

A news story out of Kentucky reminds us that we need to say, “Yes, but…”

Opposition to evolution education in the United States incorporates ideas about religion and science, but we can’t stop there.  If we hope to understand creationism, we need to unpick the tangled skein of ideas that can make up anti-evolution ideology.

This is something that science pundits such as PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne seem unwilling to acknowledge.  America does not face a clear-cut battle between “Science” and “Religion,” between “Knowledge” and “Ignorance,” but a much more stubborn conflict between convoluted collections of ideas, ideas that have grown together over time.  Some science advocates limit themselves to berating creationists for ignorance of evolution, to ridiculing creationists for reactionary adherence to religion.  Such attacks may satisfy our sympathizers, but by willfully mischaracterizing anti-evolutionism, these pro-“science” bloggers only compound the difficulties of healing culture-war divisions.

And those divisions are indeed more complex than activists on either side tend to admit.

Case in point: a notice recently in the Huffington Post drew our attention to this story from Kentucky’s Courier-Journal.  Reporter Mike Wynn described a public meeting over Kentucky’s adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards.  As Wynn reports, opponents of evolution offered comments to the state board of education.  Those comments offer a window into the complicated thinking of anti-evolution activists.

Matt Singleton, for instance, read a statement to the board describing his opposition to the new evolution-friendly science standards.

“Outsiders,” Singleton read,

Are telling public school families that we must follow the rich man’s elitist religion of evolution, that we no longer have what the Kentucky Constitution says is the right to worship Almighty God.  Instead, this fascist method teaches that our children are the property of the state.

As I argued in my 1920s book, anti-evolution activists have always made this sort of intellectual scattershot attack on evolution.  This kind of anti-evolutionism can’t be reduced to merely a theological or scientific argument.  If we hope to understand it, we need to understand the broad intellectual and cultural implications of the argument.  If we want to make sense of it, we must see it for what it is: an “anti-evolution” argument that moves far beyond the boundaries of religion or science.

Some evolution proponents might dismiss The Reverend Singleton’s rant as merely ignorant.  I admit, my first response when someone howls about “outsiders” and “fascist[s]” is to assume we have reached the territory of sea-monsters and sandwich-sign prophets.

But that sort of glib dismissal misses the point.  It does not help us understand why this bundle of anti-evolution ideas remains so politically potent.  Whatever we may think of the connections Singleton makes between region, religion, and rights, those connections make sense to significant numbers of Americans.  It is worth our time to try to understand them.

As a start, let’s try to list all the different reasons for opposing mainstream science education that Singleton packs into this paragraph.

1.) Evolution comes from somewhere else.  (“Outsiders”)

1a.) As an import, evolution is illegitimate.

2.) Evolution is for the rich. (“rich man’s . . . elitist”)

2a.) This elitism calls for popular opposition.

3.) Evolution is a religion. (“religion of evolution”)

3a.) As a religion, it can’t be taught in public schools.

4.) Evolution destroys traditional Baptist religion. (“we no longer have . . . the right to worship Almighty God.”)

4a.) As an attack on religion, it can’t be taught in public schools.

5.) Traditional religion is a Constitutional right. (“the Kentucky Constitution says is the right to worship”)

6.) Evolution is dictatorial. (“fascist method”)

7.) Evolution imposes illegitimate government control over children. (“teaches that our children are property of the state.”)

The Reverend Singleton does not want Kentucky schoolchildren to learn evolution.  But we woefully misunderstand his anti-evolutionism if we simply label him an opponent of “science” and move on.  We also miss the boat if we say too simply that Singleton’s opposition is due to “religious” reasons.  Singleton’s fight against evolution combines a complex bundle of ideas.  That bundle implies certain attitudes toward science and religion.  But it is misleading to say that Singleton is motivated only by “anti-science” attitudes.  Nowhere in his statement—at least in the part published by the Courier-Journal—does Singleton attack science.  And nowhere does Singleton argue that true Biblical faith demands belief in six literal days of creation.

In the American context, we might assume that Singleton believes such things.  But his political argument here includes a much broader bundle of ideas and slogans.

Anyone who hopes to improve evolution education in the United States must start by understanding the complexity of that bundle.  It is not enough to dismiss such arguments as “ignorant” or “irrelevant.”  They make sense to people such as The Reverend Singleton.  They also make sense to the politically powerful voting populace who continue to support the teaching of creationism in America’s science classrooms.




Eric Hedin and the Care and Feeding of Young Scientists

Scientists aren’t necessarily stupid.  Yet, as we’ve seen, some academic scientists demonstrate a curious ignorance or even proud self-delusion about important aspects of science and culture.

Perhaps the continuing kerfuffle over Professor Eric Hedin and Ball State University can shed some light on this puzzle.

The case began, it appears, with complaints by University of Chicago scientist and science activist Jerry Coyne.  Coyne complained that the teaching of Eric Hedin at Ball State University represented the indoctrination of students by a religious zealot. Professor Hedin taught a course cross-listed as “The Boundaries of Science” or “Inquiries in the Physical Sciences.”  True enough, Hedin’s reading list leaned heavily on old-earth creationism and intelligent design.  Worst of all, Professor Coyne argued, Hedin’s course proselytized for a specific sort of Christianity and called it science.  The university and department reluctantly agreed to investigate Hedin’s teaching.

Professor Coyne hoped the university would pressure Professor Hedin to stop his preaching.

Other leading science bloggers disagreed.  PZ Myers argued that Hedin’s teaching, though lamentable, must be allowed as an issue of academic freedom.  “If we’re going to start firing professors who teach things that are wrong,” Myers insisted, “we’re all going to be vulnerable.”

The debate between these science activists on the boundaries of acceptable university teaching might help us understand why so many scientists are so strangely unaware of the cultural context of their work.  Neither Professor Coyne nor Professor Myers seems to think that Professor’s Hedin course might actually be of value to the scientists-in-training at Ball State.  Myers defends the classes as a protection of Hedin’s rights, not the protection of student interests.

Is it not possible that such intellectual diversity could be a positive good?

In issues of race, the US Supreme Court has ruled that diversity is a legitimate goal of university admissions.  Racial diversity, in other words, is not only good for members of racial minority groups.  Diversity is good for everybody who wants to learn.

Does not the same principle apply here?

Of course, we would want to avoid the absurd extension of this principle.  We would not want to teach people things that were obviously not true only to give students some sort of intellectual workout.  But the ideas taught by Hedin are not the ravings of some isolated madman.  Rather, they represent an influential and important tradition in our culture.  Though these ideas do not qualify as representatives of mainstream science, they are nevertheless ideas about science.  Scientists should know about them.

Raising young scientists in an ideological or cultural hothouse produces fragile flowers.  It helps explain why so many smart people emerge from this training so remarkably dumb about important ideas.

If we looked into this question as one of encouraging intellectual diversity, we could shift the debate in useful ways.  Everyone can agree that students can benefit by being exposed to a diversity of ideas.  The question becomes, then, at what level and in what format should students learn about heterodox ideas?  What courses should count as requirements, and what courses should be elective?  Most important, where are the boundaries of acceptable diversity?  These are questions with which university faculties have long experience.

In my field, for instance, it would not make sense for introductory courses in American history to teach only a Marxist interpretation of the past.  Students from all sorts of fields take those introductory courses.  For many students, such a course may be their only collegiate exposure to American history.  It would not make sense for those students to learn that history is the unfolding of the class struggle.  But for history majors, students will benefit from having one or more advanced courses taught about specific interpretive traditions, whether or not the instructor is a Marxist.   Even though I do not think a Marxist interpretation is the best approach, I support the inclusion of such courses in university programs.  Not only to defend the teaching rights of professors, but more importantly, to ensure students experience a true diversity of intellectual approaches.

In the case from Ball State, it does not seem as if Professor Hedin’s religion-heavy course should be the ONLY exposure students have to science.  Nor should this course be taught as an introduction to science as a whole. But students who take a full course load of science classes could certainly benefit from considering such ideas.  Even if taught by an instructor who embraces the theological implications.  Other courses might study other aspects of science, and might usefully be taught by professors with strong intellectual commitments to a particular worldview.

Making the debate a question of when and how students encounter intellectual diversity is not as exciting as debating if religious ideas can be taught as science.  It is not as exciting as arguing whether professors have the academic freedom to teach heterodox ideas.  But it seems to me the most productive way to discuss Professor Hedin’s case.



God and the Battlefield States

At Religion News Service Mark Silk offers a sketch religious breakdown of important battleground states for Tuesday’s election.

Of course, the broad categories of “Mainline Protestants,” “Evangelicals,” “Catholics,” “Nones,” and “Mormons” do not offer a nuanced portrait of religious life in America.  Nor does it tell us enough to see various percentages.  Among every category, there are important differences.  Catholics, for instance, break in many different directions electorally.  Some Catholic groups, such as Latinos, tend to vote Democratic.  But other Catholic groups, such as pro-life voters, tend to vote Republican.

Nevertheless, even with all those caveats, Silk’s sketch is worth looking at.  It must make a significant difference, for instance, to have religious make-ups as broadly different as those of North Carolina and New Hampshire:

“North Carolina

  • Mainliners: 32%
  • Evangelicals: 44%
  • Catholics: 9%
  • Nones: 6%

“New Hampshire

  • Mainliners: 27%
  • Evangelicals: 10%
  • Catholics: 38%
  • Nones: 16%”

For each of the 12 battleground states, Silk offers a brief commentary on the trends suggested by the data.  For those interested in religion and politics, Silk’s article is certainly worth a read.

I Love You but You’re Going to Hell

A Guide to Peaceful Coexistence in an Age of Culture Wars.  This blog is intended for every person who has someone in their family, or at work, or in their apartment building or neighborhood, or on TV, who doesn’t make sense at all.  Maybe it is a teacher at your school who refuses to teach evolution.  Maybe it is the opposite: someone who insisted that business meetings can no longer start with a prayer.

This blog will try to articulate both sides of these difficult culture-wars issues.  The goal is not to convince or convert the other side, but just to show that intelligent people of good will can have good reasons for believing ideas that seem crazy or stupid to others.