Want to Teach Evolution? Ditch THIS Baggage!

It was never going to be easy. But if we want to do a better job of teaching evolutionary theory in America’s public schools, there is a simple, easy, and obvious step that we should start with. For a long time now, evolution mavens and science pundits have blithely adopted a missionary zeal. It’s not at all necessary and it makes teaching evolutionary theory much more difficult. This week, we notice another example of this awkward tradition.

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Do students see God at work? Or not? We don’t need to care!

The recent whoopsie comes from Michael Dixon, director of the London’s National History Museum. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, Dr. Dixon and I are generally in agreement about the nature of science and of science’s role in a healthy democratic society. We agree that public schools ought to teach evolutionary theory and only evolutionary theory in science classes.

In a recent editorial, though, Dr. Dixon repeated the old mistake, the missionary supposition that has hindered evolution education for no good reason.

In his article, Dr. Dixon wisely pointed out the creeping dangers of anti-evolution teaching. In Israel, Turkey, and India, Dixon notes, the political power of religious extremists has led to woeful watering-downs of evolutionary theory in schools. Dixon asks,

So how should we respond to overt or insidious attempts to undermine this vital scientific concept?

He offers three good answers and one bad one. As he puts it,

We must – of course – teach it in schools as the core part of any science curriculum. And we must speak up to defend scientific evidence and rational debate. But more than these things, we must inspire children with the sheer wonder and variety of nature, and ignite their curiosity in the world around them.

Teach evolution in schools? Yes!

Speak up to defend scientific evidence and rational debate? Yes!

Ignite children’s curiosity in the world around them? Yes, yes, yes!

But should those of us who want to teach more and better evolutionary theory “inspire children with the sheer wonder and variety of nature”? Sorry, but no.

Of course, it is not a bad thing to inspire children, but these days, phrases like this are packed with unnecessary and unhelpful religious importance. If we want to teach evolution in creationist nations, we need to get over our tendency to over-reach our true educational goals.

There is nothing religious about evolutionary theory. In spite of what so many radical young-earth creationists say, evolutionary theory does not function as a kind of crypto-religion for secular people like me. Children can earn a thorough knowledge about evolutionary theory and a deep understanding of its premises whatever their religious beliefs.

Phrases like Dixon’s, however, echo an old religious zeal among some exponents of evolutionary theory. There has long been an unhelpful tendency among science pundits to pooh-pooh religious thinking, to assume that people need to pick between their religious beliefs and their knowledge of mainstream evolutionary theory.

For example, in the first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Darwin exulted in the religious implications of his theory of natural selection. Did it make for a bleak and loveless universe, as critics charged? No, Darwin argued. Once we really understood it,

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one.

In later editions, Darwin made that statement more creationism-friendly, but Darwin’s followers did not. Fast-forward a hundred years, and we see the same sort of irrelevant speculation by science pundits. In the 1960s, for instance, one of America’s leading evolution propagators was George Gaylord Simpson. In his book This View of Life (1964), Professor Simpson went out of his way to bash religious belief. Instead of understanding the universe with “reality and reason,” Simpson lamented, instead “higher superstitions [were] celebrated weekly in every hamlet of the United States.”

These days, the unnecessary and unhelpful tie between atheism and evolutionary theory has been preached most famously by Richard Dawkins. As Professor Dawkins wrote in his book The God Delusion (2006), the goal of evolution educators is to free people from the travails of religious belief. As Dawkins wrote,

a proper understanding of the magnificence of the real world, while never becoming a religion, can fill the inspirational role that religion has historically—and inadequately—usurped.

Like Dr. Dixon’s, the assumption here is that evolutionary theory can perform the vital task of inspiring us, of making us grasp the infinitude of reality and our own humble place within it. I don’t get invited to their parties, but I would guess that people like Dr. Dixon, Dr. Dawkins, Dr. Simpson, and Dr. Darwin himself believe that young people need to be inspired by evolutionary theory in this sense.

They don’t, and the sooner we can separate out the good goal of promoting real science from the bad goal of interfering with private religious belief, the better off we’ll be.

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

August already! Instead of reading those stupid back-to-school ads, read some of these ILYBYGTH-themed stories from the past week:

Which comes first, God or politics? Michele Margoulis’s new book says people choose their party first, then their pew, at RNS.

Richard Dawkins’s anti-Islam rants miss the point. At The Conversation.

The changing face of private education—the rich get richer. At Atlantic.

Dawkins call to prayer

Are some calls to prayer more violent than others?

Helpful locals donate eight assault rifles to their local Texas school along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in other weaponry. At AP.

Collusion confusion: Is Trump really in cahoots with Nancy Pelosi? At The Hill.

Milwaukee sheriff in hot water for touting toilet-paper doctorate from unaccredited fundamentalist colleges, at JS. HT: NS.

An atheist’s case for religion at RNS.

We Don’t Disagree about Evolution—We Just Hate Each Other

Why can’t we stop fighting about evolution and creationism?  As I put the final touches on my new book about American creationism, one obvious but counterintuitive point keeps presenting itself: Creationists love science and want their kids to learn evolutionary theory. So why the endless battle? This morning at Heterodox Academy, Musa Al-Gharbi makes some points about culture-war confrontation that help explain the problem.

ebenezer-exhibit

We all love science, we just hate each other.

Al-Gharbi reviews some of the literature on the futility of culture-war shouting matches. We might think a reasoned, sensible argument will convince anyone who isn’t absurdly prejudiced. It seems the opposite can be true. Studies have found that stubbornness and intractability can increase when people are moreintelligent, educated, or rhetorically skilled.”

Why? Intelligent, informed, sophisticated people are more likely to be committed to ideas and ideologies. They are more experienced at the kinds of mental gymnastics that can help justify and rationalize seemingly illogical positions.

What can be done? Al-Gharbi suggests three general suggestions for improving real communication:

#1: LOWER THE PERCEIVED STAKES OF THE DISAGREEMENT OR CONFLICT

#2: APPEAL TO YOUR INTERLOCUTOR’S OWN IDENTITY, VALUES, NARRATIVES, FRAMES OF REFERENCE WHEN POSSIBLE

#3 LEAD BY EXAMPLE. MODEL CIVILITY, FLEXIBILITY, INTELLECTUAL HUMILITY, GOOD FAITH IF YOU WANT OTHERS TO DO THE SAME

Could these suggestions help creationists and non-creationists talk to each other more productively?

Consider a few obvious points.

First of all, it may seem like a tired old idea to SAGLRROILYBYGTH, but some people out there still don’t get it. Creationists aren’t anti-science. Not even the most extreme sorts of young-earth creationists are. As we’ve seen in these pages, young-earth creationists spend millions of dollars to give their creation museums the look, feel, and intellectual heft of mainstream science museums.

And, as trenchant critics Bill and Sue Trollinger point out, the Creation Museum doesn’t oppose science. To the contrary, the creationists at Answers In Genesis took pains to create something that looks like a “cutting-edge, state-of-the-art natural history museum.” In Kentucky, at least, radical creationists might not agree with me about the definition of good science, but they definitely love science itself.

righting america at the creation museum

We don’t have to agree with creationism to do a better job of understanding it.

Even when it comes to the science of mainstream evolutionary theory, creationists and non-creationists agree on big questions. Here at ILYBYGTH, we’ve heard from creationist homeschool moms who read Richard Dawkins to help teach their kids about evolution. And we’ve noticed ardent Texas creationists who want schoolkids to read the latest evolutionary science.

If we all want the same things—though maybe for different reasons—why do we keep fighting about evolution?

At least in part, we non-creationists need to take a good hard look in the mirror and see if we’ve been following Al-Gharbi’s advice. Have we tried to lower the perceived stakes of our conflict? Have we tried to really understand creationism and creationists? And have we spoken civilly and humbly to our creationist neighbors?

Too often, the answer is an angry no.

Consider just a few of the most famous examples.

Our most famous evolution mavens tend to speak angrily and ignorantly about creationism. They tend to do what they can to increase the stakes of our disagreements.

Richard Dawkins, for example, repeatedly blasts creationists as nothing but ignoramuses or worse. He tells anyone who listens that a profound understanding of modern evolutionary theory is the best way to cure religious people of their “god delusion.” As he promised about his book of that title, “religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.”

It’s hard to imagine a better way to raise the perceived stakes in our creation/evolution disagreements than to insult all creationists and promise that evolutionary theory will lead them to atheism.

It’s not just the irascible Dawkins, though. The friendlier Science Guy Bill Nye also tends to muff his chances at better communication. In his recent book Undeniable, for example, Nye lambastes creationists as people “casting doubt on science and unbelievers.”

As we’ve seen, though, creationists love science. It’s the unbelievers they’re chary about.

What’s the takeaway here? When it comes to our creation/evolution battles, those of us who want more and better evolution education will be wise to avoid these sorts of unnecessary and unhelpful blunders. We should work hard to understand creationism better. We should try to build on our vast areas of agreement instead of focusing on the things we won’t agree about. And we should avoid preaching to our own choir with gratuitous and inaccurate insults of our creationist neighbors and friends.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

July’s almost out the door, and apparently that means the return of book-burnin’ season. Check out that story and a few others you might have missed:

Is history destiny? Vouchers described this week as tools of segregation by foes, or the best ticket out of segregation by fans.

The latest speaker to be banned at Berkeley? Anti-creationist Richard Dawkins. The students didn’t like Dawkins’ statements about Islam.

Trump’s outreach to HBCUs can’t find any takers.

Evangelicals and politics: historian Chris Gehrz wonders about the relationship.

Yikes: Watch Elizabeth Johnston, aka “The Activist Mommy,” burn her Teen Vogue. Why? The magazine included information about anal sex.

How Richard Dawkins Begat Ken Ham

Why is there creationism?  Marc Barnes at Bad Catholic makes the argument that today’s young-earth creationist movement is nothing more nor less than a theistic outgrowth of Richard Dawkins-style materialism.

Today’s sort of Ken-Ham-style creationism, Barnes correctly observes, is an entirely modern phenomenon.  Barnes doesn’t make the point, though he could have, that ignorant partisan anti-creationist hack jobs like that of Mark Stern in Slate miss the boat entirely when they accuse creationism of being “medieval.”  Nonsense.  Today’s creationism is a thoroughly modern affair.  Even the briefest familiarity with the history of the movement makes that point abundantly clear.

Today’s creationism, Barnes argues, is not a wholesale repudiation of the materialist viewpoint, though it falsely claims to be.  Materialism, after all, in this sense, means the assumption that life and everything has purely material origins.  Primordial soup somehow got a transformative spark, perhaps from undersea volcanic vents.  Life came from non-life due to purely material causes.  Similarly, life itself, though it may feel like it has transcendent spiritual meaning, is nothing more than biochemistry.  When the switch goes off, the magic ends.  Back to carbon.

Such a view of life separates God out entirely, Barnes points out.  And Ken-Ham-style creationists make the woeful mistake of simply plugging God back in, from the outside.  In other words, Barnes argues, young-earth creationists stupidly think that by insisting on a God who popped into time, created life and the universe, inspired a Bible, and sent his kid in to fix things, they have refuted materialist assumptions.  Not so, Barnes contends.  That sort of outsider God, a God who creates, judges, and saves, all from somewhere outside of, beyond the creation itself, actually endorses the materialist vision of life.  Instead of electricity as the prime mover, though, Ken Ham’s style of creationism plugs in a Bearded-Guy-in-a-Throne sort of God.

God, in this YEC vision, is a mere competitor with electricity for the role of life’s spark.  God, in this YEC vision, is simply the materialist understanding of life with a quick substitution of God for an unintelligent spark.

Instead of falling for this materialist presumption, instead of simply rebutting one part of materialist assumptions about life, real creationism needs to posit an entirely different relationship between the world and its Creator, Barnes argues.  As he puts it,

God is not simply the Creator of the material order, and the theistic tradition has never made such laughable claims. The concept of God as Creator has always been the source of existence as such. This means that God does not just answer the material question of “Where came this rock, that plant, or the entire conglomerate of material thingmabobs we call the universe?” He answers the ontological question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

 

 

Can Evolution Match This?

So clear and compelling a seven-year-old can understand it.  That’s the boast of young-earth creationist leader Ken Ham.  As proof, he published the lecture notes of one of his young audience members.

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

For those of us hoping to improve evolution education in the United States, Ham’s revelation raises a serious question: Can evolution hope to match the gut-level appeal of creationism?

Science pundits have long noticed this yawning gap between the popular acceptability of mainstream science and that of creation science.  The most clear-headed writers have admitted that creationism has better stories.

As Richard Dawkins put it in his 1996 book The Blind Watchmaker,

It is almost as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism, and to find it hard to believe.

The creation stories of young-earth creationists, on the other hand, are appealing to all age levels.  There’s a garden, there’s love, there’s disobedience, there’s punishment.  All of these are powerful themes that resonate with young and old alike.

And, lest we evolution-embracers smugly conclude that this stark advantage of creationism will fade as audiences get more intelligent and more sophisticated, let’s remember that creationism’s advantage also pulls in the intellectually sophisticated.

ILYBYGTH readers may remember the postmodern plea of journalist Virginia Heffernan.  A few months back, Heffernan declared her affinity for creationism over evolution.  Why?  In her words,

I was amused and moved, but considerably less amused and moved by the character-free Big Bang story (“something exploded”) than by the twisted and picturesque misadventures of Eve and Adam and Cain and Abel and Abraham.

Obviously, something doesn’t need a compelling narrative in order to be true.  But in the stubborn culture wars over evolution and creationism, popular appeal matters.  Evolution’s biggest selling point is that it does a better job of explaining and predicting than does creationism.  Maybe the winning narratives won’t be the detailed natural-selection classic tales starring finches and moths, but rather the far more stirring story of enlightenment triumphing over dunderheaded fogeys.

That’s a good story.  At least it worked for Kevin Bacon in Footloose.

 

Is This Child Abuse?

Arch-creationist Ken Ham wants to train up a spiritual army of young Christian creationists.  Does that count as child abuse?

I’m no creationist, but I just don’t think so.

Ham trumpeted the training of a new generation of young “soldiers” at an Answers In Genesis conference at Atlantic Shores Baptist Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia.  By teaching young people the truths of young-earth creationism, Ham claimed he was “preparing them for the spiritual war going on around us.”

Image Source: Answers in Genesis

Image Source: Answers in Genesis

This language of child soldiers makes me nervous.  Plus, I don’t like the notion that young people are being turned away from real evolutionary science by this sort of religion posing as science.  To me, this seems like another painful example of the ways faith has been tangled unnecessarily with real evolutionary science, resulting in bad science and tortured theology.

But it is child abuse?

Leading skeptics have called it that, folks such as physicist Lawrence Krauss and biologist Richard Dawkins.  They assert that cramming this false science down young people’s throats counts as abuse.

Let’s look at both sides of this argument.

Why might someone call this child abuse?

1.)    These young people are being told things are true, when they really aren’t.  They are being taught, to cite just one example, that dinosaurs and humans coexisted a few thousand years ago.  Worst of all, relationships of close trust between parents, teachers, and children are being exploited to promote the veracity of this false science.  Loving mothers, loving fathers, caring teachers tell innocent young people that this is scientific truth.  Ingenuous young people take their word for it.  Such deception is abusive.

2.)    In this essay, Ken Ham explicitly calls them soldiers—spiritual soldiers, but soldiers nonetheless.  This seems a terrible violation.  Young people should not be exploited as culture-war cannon fodder.

Why might defenders disagree?

1.)    There is no threat or coercion here.  Though it may come as a surprise to outsiders like me, Answers In Genesis makes it very clear that believing in a young earth and recent special creation are not required for Christian salvation.  In other words, Ken Ham and his colleagues do not threaten young people with terrifying visions of hellfire if the children don’t embrace creationism.

2.)    The parents and teachers seen here are apparently sincere in their belief that creationism is true.  They are trying to pass that truth to their children and pupils.  There’s nothing abusive in passing along the best knowledge to the next generation.

3.)    Though science pundits such as Bill Nye have argued against it, believing the young-earth creationism of Answers In Genesis will not hurt the life chances of these young people.  According to Gallup polls, nearly half of American adults share a belief that humanity has only been around for a few thousand years.  And as I’ve argued elsewhere, careers in science-related fields do not seem thwarted by a belief in young-earth creationism.  Consider the case of US Representative Paul C. Broun Jr. of Georgia.  Broun is a fervent creationist, a medical doctor, and a member of Congress.  Not a bad career!

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Is it child abuse?  No.  And calling it that is irresponsible.  After all, there is real child abuse out there.  It is horrific and terrifyingly common.  Calling this sort of science/religion education ‘child abuse’ is only an ill-considered scare tactic.

Perhaps this argument could use some illustration from another religious tradition.  Consider the recent career of child abuse in the Catholic Church.  As we all know only too well, the despicable actions of some priests and prelates in that church have caused untold suffering.

But the abuse perpetrated by members of the Catholic Church does not extend to its anti-scientific teachings.  After all, the Catholic Church teaches young people that certain wafers and wine can magically transform into flesh and blood.  And then young people are taught to eat that flesh and drink that blood.  For outsiders like me, teaching children to engage in this sort of ritual cannibalism is creepy and anti-scientific.  It is also demonstrably false: the wafers and wine are always really just wafers and wine.  Nevertheless, it is not child abuse for Catholics to teach their children this mystery of transubstantiation.  Calling such teaching ‘child abuse’ would disrespect the real suffering that real child abuse has caused within the Catholic Church.

A similar logic may apply in this case.  The young-earth creationism peddled by Answers In Genesis is not true.  But it is sincerely believed by its adherents.  Teaching those ideas to young people is not child abuse.

Unfortunately, we can picture what real abuse might look like in similar cases.  As Billy Graham’s grandson has pointed out recently, evangelical Protestant organizations have also engaged in real child abuse.  They have conspired, just as did the Catholic hierarchy, to cover up that terrible real abuse.  We could imagine a scenario in which a Protestant organization such as Answers In Genesis called together thousands of children and abused some of them.

But that is not the case here.  This was an educational gathering.  To call it ‘child abuse’ makes a mockery of the all-too-real threat of abuse.

 

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.

 

Does Science Hate God?

If God loves science and scientists love God, why do we keep hearing that they hate each other?

It’s the $64,000 question Daniel Silliman asked yesterday on his terrific blog.*  As Silliman points out, the “warfare thesis” between religion and science just doesn’t hold water.

Yet films such as The Unbelievers attract enormous attention and support.  In that upcoming documentary, leading science pundits Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss apparently insist that true science must crush false religion.

Silliman could have extended the point on the other side, as well.  Plenty of religious leaders have encouraged the legend of warfare between true religion and “science falsely so-called.”  Young-earth creation leader Ken Ham, for instance, insists on the importance of this “struggle over the question of authority.”

Silliman ends with a great question for fans of The Unbelievers:

The real question that this documentary raises, though, is why there’s such a market for the conflict thesis. Why does it persist in its obfuscations and false oppositions so long after it was demonstrated to be historically bankrupt as a theory and demonstrably empirically false?

Is it because a fight is just more interesting than a compromise?  Is it due to our reality-show culture in which viewers insist on drama?  Or are there substantial differences, necessary hostilities, that persist in the face of historians’ denial of the warfare thesis?

*You can tell it’s a great blog because he lists yours truly as one of his links.  Thanks!

Richard Dawkins Encourages Creationism

Does Richard Dawkins’ brand of in-your-face science atheism push religious people to embrace a “creationist” identity?

That’s a common argument—one I heartily agree with—made recently by Andrew Brown in his Guardian blog.

In this case, Brown argues that Dawkins’ attitudes push British Muslims, especially disaffected youth, to adopt more radical creationist positions.

Brown reports a talk by Salman Hameed, who insisted that Muslims often feel forced to make a false choice between science and faith. Not surprisingly, many choose faith.  Hameed related a telling anecdote.  One young woman reported attending a lecture in which

the lecturer started by asking if there were any creationists in the room. She put her hand up, because she believes that God created the universe, and was immediately singled out for humiliation.   

In the case of young British Muslims, Brown makes a compelling argument.  Already facing a crisis of cultural identity, many young British Muslims come to see their religious identity as a way to channel their feelings of alienation.  In such a Dawkins-influenced climate, young British folks may feel pressured to reject modern science as part of their assertion of an oppositional Muslim identity.  As Brown puts it,

Because there is a self-consciously oppositional culture among young poor Muslims, who feel themselves stigmatised and disadvantaged, they can tend to embrace creationism simply because they know it’s wrong by the lights of the majority. Dawkins’ dismissal of Muslim creationism as “alien rubbish” was not only found as a YouTube clip on the EDL website for a while, but also used in the propaganda of Harun Yahya, the Turkish creationist and self-publicist. The emotional logic is clear: if this rich, sneering white man is against it, it must be good for disaffected young Muslims who feel that they are themselves treated as “alien rubbish”.

Brown is right on.

Offering a false choice between religion and science fuels creationism.  As Brown points out here, so does suggesting a false equation of “Western” or “White” with “atheist.”  Better, as Brown says, to engage in the arduous and awkward task of building true dialogue.