When I first read the breathless accounts of the latest Texas textbook controversy — this time over so-called creation science — I wanted to believe that the ridiculous remarks reported in the left press were exaggerated or taken out of context, if only because I instinctively want to be on the side that Mother Jones isn’t. But, unhappily, I know better.
Texas has a long and unproud history of Evangelical knuckleheadedness when it comes to education. I went to high school there in the early 1990s, just after the crest of the great wave of national panic over fictitious Satanist cults that were giving everybody fits. The local superintendent of schools circulated a list of “occult” symbols to be on the lookout for; one of them was the peace sign — and another was the Star of David. Much mirth was had over the characterization of the emblem of the Jewish faith as a dastardly sign of the occult, and that mirth was intensified by the fact that the boob who circulated the list was named Moses.
But the boobs got the last laugh when Governor George W. Bush made Mike Moses the state education commissioner. He went on to superintend the schools in Dallas. He now occupies an “endowed chair in educational leadership,” the existence of which is as sad a commentary on the educational establishment as is its occupant.
There is no limit to how high intellectual mediocrities may rise in the world of education, as one can learn anywhere from a meeting of a big-city school board to the convocation of a university’s board of trustees. But the evolution controversy brings out a special strain of pseudointellectual dopiness in generally well-intentioned people — people who are an important part of the conservative coalition but need to be brought to heel when it comes to insisting that “‘creation science’ based on Biblical principles should be incorporated into every Biology book that is up for adoption,” as one Texas textbook reviewer put it.
These remarks came out of a process intended to solicit public input; ironically, the public-input process is a secretive one. It took an official open-records request to have the committee’s remarks made public, and no one on the committee would comment on the matter when asked. Panel member Mary Kay Johnston, an assistant professor of biology at Concordia University, was an insistent “no comment.” It would be interesting to know the views of the scientists on the committee.
“Teach the controversy” is of course precisely the right approach — for graduate students in biology and for those in theological studies. Like any living scholarly discipline, the study of evolution has some lively disputes — but whether Genesis 1 is a biological account of the origins of life on Earth is not one of them. (Or so I am reliably informed.) Spend a few hours browsing the evolution literature and you will come away with three unmistakable impressions: (1) Molecular biologists can be angry, angry people, and (2) such controversies as actually exist within the study of evolution are specialized and technical far beyond the ability of high-schoolers to participate meaningfully in the conversation, because (3) science is hard.
Similarly, there exist disputes within theological studies about the meaning of the Old Testament, and about how evolution might influence our thinking about what it means to be human. Literalism regarding the creation accounts (yes, plural) given in the Bible is a minority disposition, largely limited to a peculiar Anglo-American strain of Evangelical Protestantism. Absolutist literalism regarding the Old Testament is in fact a fairly new intellectual phenomenon within the Abrahamic tradition; you won’t find much of it in Augustine or Maimonides, for example. Would that the textbook critics in Texas applied those men’s classical rigor to their own religious enterprises.
There is a very good case — in my view, a winning one — for incorporating the study of Christian thinking and texts into every school curriculum as a matter of literacy, if not moral instruction. (It is not that I think moral instruction is unimportant — far from that, it is too important to be entrusted to the government schools.) But there is no respectable case for incorporating so-called creation science, or its slightly more sophisticated and intellectually fraudulent big brother, intelligent design, into biological studies.
And there isn’t a good religious case for doing so, either. This is where our Evangelical friends could really use a magisterium. After spending a century or so thinking about it, the Catholic Church decided that there is no intrinsic conflict between its teachings and the science of evolution. That is as it should be: A Christianity with intellectual confidence in itself is not threatened by biology or any other science, because it is not threatened by reality. One of the great glories of Catholic thinking in the era that began with John Paul II and continues with Francis is a more generous and more dynamic conception of Christianity’s role in the world and of man’s relationship to God — Who is, it should go without saying, not subject to laboratory analysis or hypothetical confirmation. It is worth remembering that the Catholic Church’s worst episodes of anti-intellectualism came at the moments when it had the least true confidence in its own cause, especially during the Reformation. A Christianity that believes its own dogma does not need to insist upon petty certitudes: Witness the intellectual ape show — in secular and religious circles alike — that greeted Francis’s recent remarks regarding the redemption of atheists. Some people will never be happy until they have a detailed census of Hell.
When Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, the only Christians who experienced a crisis in response were those who feared that it might be true — who did not know that it was not true. If God is real, then believers have nothing to fear from reality.
Perhaps it is the case that the scientific consensus regarding evolution is wildly off base and that George Gilder is in possession of the secrets of the universe. If that is the case, then the people who need convincing are the professors, not the high-school kids. Attempting to influence the scientific debate by monkeying around with high-school textbooks is like trying to steer an aircraft carrier with a wooden oar. That the creation-science gang is most interested in sharing its ideas with the audiences least intellectually prepared to evaluate them suggests that it is up to no good.
Unfortunately, these misguided assaults on biology textbooks undermine the intellectual and moral standing of Christians and conservatives in toto, leaving us in a much weaker position when it comes to legitimate disputes related to scientific questions. For example, there is a great deal of policy activism masquerading as science education on the subject of global warming, and the liberal strategy of protecting this activism by labeling its conservative critics “anti-science” is strengthened immeasurably by the presence of conservative critics who are anti-science, and who advertise themselves as such when Texas shops for textbooks.