Teaching Creationism (with digressions)

At The American Conservative, Paul Gottfried has a pretty bad day in a piece on how media bias against “God” is helping Rick Perry. Contra Gottfried, Perry’s advocacy of teaching Creationism along with evolution in schools is fair game, and attacking it is not ludicrous.

Sure, it’s probably true that most journalists could no more give a coherent account of evolution than Perry could. Sure, it’s true that opposing creationism is a liberal litmus test. But it’s equally true that supporting Creationism is a litmus test for certain members of the Republican base.

There’s actually quite a lot of equivocation about what might be meant by “teaching Creationism.” I can’t decide whether and when to capitalize creationism, for instance. “Teaching” is equivocal, too.

Teaching: I doubt that Perry means “mentioning the fact that some people reject evolution because they find it incompatible with their interpretation of the first three chapters of Genesis, and then briefly describing that interpretation.” But I suppose he might.

Such “teaching” might seem like a fairly harmless digression from the science curriculum – as harmless as, for instance, starting class on Monday with “how ’bout that Colts game yesterday!” “We hire you to teach biology” is not an adequate response to how the classroom works as a teacher tries to mix in just enough digression and humor to keep students alert and engaged.

But I’ve been in the position of defending a science teacher who was commanded by his Superintendant, in effect, to “wipe that look off your face””

“Stop injecting this creationist stuff.”

“What creationist stuff?”

“Don’t get insolent with me! You know what I mean!”

In the course of defending him, I found what sneering parodies his evolutionist colleagues were getting away with as they “mentioned the fact that some people reject evolution because they find it incompatible with their interpretation of the first three chapters of Genesis.” My client’s occasional barbs at evolution were tame in comparison, and did not detract from his award-winning teaching.

Were I a Creationist parent, I’d rather my views be ignored than tendentiously put on a continuum right next to flat earth and geocentrism (which is the most memorable example of evolutionist buffoonery I found).

My client’s treatment was shameful, and it cost his school corporation a first rate teacher as he chose to leave for a friendlier district rather than live in terrorem under a ban his imperious superintendant refused to define. Allowing a creationist to be entertaining and provocative, so long as he competently teaches the curriculum as well, is quite a bit different that commanding an evolutionist to teach what he or she fervently rejects.

But as I learned from seasoned religious freedom legal colleagues, a court challenge would have been futile, because there’s a “creationism distortion factor” in the courts as surely as an “abortion distortion factor” in our laws since 1973: “Creationists” lose. Period. And my client was as frank a “Creationist” as they come.

I suspect Perry means sustained and respectful examination of Henry Morris books for a few weeks (especially if a friend of his holds the copyright, but I digress), and to that possibility I now turn.

Creationism: “Creationism” is as equivocal as “teaching.” 33 years ago, I called myself a creationist, thinking it meant merely one who believed God created the world (or the cosmos, or ….). This is the common patrimony of all Christians since the Council of Nicea, which enshrined it in the Nicene Creed.

I was unaware that “Creationist” was a term of art, denoting that God accomplished (if that’s the right word, which I very much doubt) all this in 6 days of 24 hours each roughly 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. I cannot recall ever having believed that, even as a child, or having been taught it (though it appeared in the zany marginal notes of my Scofield Reference Bible). When I learned that “term of art” meaning, I dropped the label.

(These days, it’s the evolutionists who are trying to broaden the term again, branding Intelligent Design Theory as “Creationism Lite,” but I digress, I think.)

Notably, “Creationism” (the term of art) seems to have essentially no scientific plausibility. I don’t think anyone, studying the scientific evidence without recourse to Genesis would ever arrive at its conclusions. Those who deconstruct the scientific evidence with recourse to young earth interpretation of Genesis come up with a Rube Goldberg scientific theory, full of ad hoc eddies and backwaters.

At least motion is relative, and one can describe orbits through geocentric formulae (though the elegance of heliocentric formulae proved persuasive). Geocentrism even feels phenomenally like what’s happening, as does “the sun rises” and “the sun sets.” Creationism lacks even phenomenal justification. If elegance is a valid test of a theory, Creationism gets an “F” while geocentrism gets a “D-minus.”

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Rick Perry.

But this time, I wasn’t really digressing. Gottfried’s detour and frolic into the presumed scientific illiteracy of journalists who mock creationism is a nice change of subject to the ad hominem. Liberal journalists aren’t running for President. Rick Perry is.  And when he sings the Creationist “fair’s fair”/”equal time” tune, it’s not a “dog whistle” because it’s audible to one and all.

Gottfried may be right that in this polarized political climate, Perry’s conscious identification with Protestant fundamentalists by saying “let’s teach creationism along with evolution” may work to his political advantage, but that’s not because the position is both rational and defiant in the face of unjust criticism. The criticism is just, even if most journalists are personally unqualified to level (rather than channel) it.