A Suggestion for Fighting Creationism
By Paul Hanley
There's a national effort to promote creationism in the public schools, which affects the teaching of evolution in one way or another in every local school district in the U.S., as far as I know. Organizations like the Discovery Institute are leading the way, led by people like Phillip Johnson. Organizations like the National Center for Science Education are involved at the national level to counter these efforts by creationists.
I don't know what's going on in your particular school district, but to get the flavor of the local effects of this national campaign by creationists, here's a report put out by People for the American Way: creationism_report.
I have a suggestion for a new tactic to use in the fight against this campaign. Please feel free to pass it around to whoever you'd like to. Even if nobody thinks it's good enough to act upon, it still might stimulate somebody to think of a better idea along similar lines.
Anyway, here is a brief summary of my idea.
First, here are some general observations to put the issue in context:
It has become increasingly clear lately to what extent creationist tactics have been evolving, adapting to circumstances. Having lost in the courts, they shift to school boards and textbook committees. If so-called "Creation Science" is declared unconstitutional, so-called "Intelligent Design Theory" is put forward as an alternative. If supporters of the integrity of science education become well-organized and raise awareness among educators and the general public about this issue and disseminate information about how to counter creationist arguments, the creationists devise a "Wedge strategy" to mobilize and direct their own forces in order to intensify their efforts. While there has been success so far in keeping creationism out of science classes, the net effect of the controversy has been the glossing-over or watering-down of evolution in public school textbooks and curricula. I would maintain that this, and not the actual injection of creationism into science classes, is the real aim of the creationists' strategy.
There has been a certain reluctance on the part of many in the pro-science community to give the devil his due (so to speak), and to recognize their capacity for innovating new tactics, and to recognize their political skill in maintaining the morale of their forces in the face of their many tactical defeats. There has also been a certain reluctance on our part to experiment with more innovative approaches of our own, preferring instead the tried-and-true methods which have largely kept creationism out of science classes so far. Unfortunately, like I said, the real strategy of the creationists seems to be to keep the pot boiling enough to make the politicians feel the heat and compromise by glossing-over or watering-down the teaching of evolution. In this regard, they have been largely successful. Therefore, these tried-and-true methods have not, so far, fully served the interests of our public school students, who are thus deprived of an adequate science education. I say we need to supplement these methods with more innovative tactics of our own, and to increase our own level of political skill in order to counter the strategy and tactics of the anti-scientists. And this requires debate, discussion, the sharing of ideas, and imagination on our part--and the willingness to try new things to see if they work.
The status quo suits the creationists just fine. If it suits us just fine too, then they've already won. To me, the status quo is unacceptable. Our strategy should be to change this status quo and get much more evolution actually taught in science classes.
As for a specific idea for a new tactic to implement this strategy, I offer the following suggestion:
In my view, just defending against creationists' attempts to inject religion into science classes isn't enough. It is necessary to do this, of course, but I think it's also important to go on the offensive and try to make people more aware of the nature of dogmatic theology and its historical record, and thereby, hopefully, undermine its appeal. After all, underneath the guise of "Creation Science" or "Intelligent Design Theory," it is essentially religious dogma that these people are trying to inject into science classes, and because of this, it is important that we should make every effort to educate people as to the inherent dangers of taking this road. One of the most effective ways to do this, I believe, is for us to lobby in a serious way to get the real history of religion taught in public school history classes. Not the kind of watered-down history we have today, but the real thing--such as the theological justification for the Inquisition and the witch-burnings, the theological rationale behind the various religious wars, and everything. Nowadays these subjects are glossed-over and gutted in the same way that evolution is, and so students fail to grasp the integral relationship between dogmatic theology, religious intolerance and some of the darkest chapters of human history. Therefore, many come away with a distorted view of history, much in the same way as many come away with a distorted view of science because of the watering-down of evolution.
The facts speak for themselves. If more people knew about them at a younger age, perhaps there would be less fervor for injecting religion into science classes. Perhaps, faced with the prospect of their own youth starting to learn about the darker side of religious dogma, the creationists themselves might begin to see more clearly the risks of their own strategy and might come, belatedly, to see the benefits of a strict church/state separation. But if not, at least it might give them something new to worry about and might serve to divide and disorganize them. Even the fundamentalists, in spite of their current dogmatic theology, take great pains to distance themselves from those particular dogmatic theologies which led to the Inquisition and the religious wars. Dogmatic theists from different denominations might be united now in their desire to maintain the status quo of covering-up or whitewashing religious history in general, but once a public discussion actually breaks out, all bets are off. Their views regarding what lessons should be learned from particular episodes in religious history are all over the map. Remember that it was largely theological disputes which were behind much of the Medieval reign of terror in the first place. Heresy had to be crushed. Therefore, they might not all be on the same page today with regard to the particulars of what to include in the proposed curriculum, and the particulars of what to oppose. And this could sow confusion and division in their ranks. There's no easier way to divide religious fanatics than to remind them of the old issues that caused them to fight with each other long ago. Many of the same theological issues that divided them then still divide them today. And any proposed revision of the history curricula would be full of such reminders.
Even if such a lobbying effort on our part fails to actually change the curricula at first, I think that the ensuing public debate that the effort could generate would be very healthy and could help break the taboo about discussing such things in public; a taboo that the creationists have used to their advantage, by railing against evolution with impunity, while remaining sheltered from the harsh light of dogmatic religious history. The lobbying effort would also have the beneficial side-effect of furthering the education of those who choose to participate in it with respect to the history of religion and the dangers of dogmatic fanaticism, and thereby would make them better advocates for science and genuine historical scholarship. And besides this, the publicity that might be generated by all this is much more likely to hurt the public image of the dogmatic theists and help that of the pro-science folks than the reverse, given the facts of religious history. And in the end, it is public opinion that matters most to the politicians who decide what is to be taught in public schools. If this can be shifted away from protecting the sensitivities of dogmatic theists, from not rocking the boat, and towards actually educating students, it will be a major accomplishment.
I know that this approach might seem rather risky at first glance, and might be perceived by some as an attack on religion itself. I'm sure that many of the dogmatic theists would like to portray it in this way. But if we avoid religion-bashing as a matter of principle and stick to the facts as understood by professional historians, and stick to the general view of religion as understood by cultural anthropologists, I think we would be on pretty solid ground, as far as mainstream, educated public opinion is concerned. After all, it's not religion itself which is the enemy of science, just that type of dogmatic theology that cannot tolerate any compromise with the modern world. I believe that many moderate religious folks would also agree that dogmatic theology is their enemy as well, and many might join us in the effort to improve the history curricula if we take the lead on this. Especially in view of the fact that many moderate religious folks of the past, along with scientists, rationalists and others, played a significant role in ending the reign of terror which dogmatic theists imposed on Western Christendom for all those centuries. There are plenty of heroes to go around, as well as plenty of villains. History is funny that way.
To sum up then:
It is my view that the watering-down or glossing-over of evolution and the censorship of religious history in public schools are both due to political pressure by dogmatic theists. I think it's time that we see both issues as being linked and act accordingly. I believe the dogmatic theists already do.
The status quo is unacceptable. To change it, I think we need to be willing to consider new ideas. In order to consider new ideas, they must first be spread around. If you've found this one worth considering, please spread it around to whom it may concern.