Our fundamentalist neighbours

I’m honoured today to host a guest post by Adam Laats.  Laats is an historian in the Graduate School of Education at Binghamton University, State University of New York, USA (recently appointed Associate Professor).  He is the author of Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era: God, Darwin, and the Roots of America’s Culture Wars.  He blogs about conservatism and American education at I Love You but You’re Going to Hell. When I started writing, Adam’s blog was the first one I found, and it’s been one of my most-read blogs ever since. Adam and I recently got into a debate about whether a petition to ban the teaching of Creationism is a good idea. Here is Adam’s argument; my response will be on his blog soon.

My fundamentalist neighbor is a dick.

He lets his dogs bark at all hours of the day and night.

He parks his work truck in the yard.

He built a huge ugly palisade fence between his yard and that of our other neighbor.

After years of living next door, he still doesn’t know my name.

He berates me occasionally about America’s woeful abandonment of God and the Bible.

He throws his garbage into the yard of the church next door.

I think he drinks.

In short, my fundamentalist neighbor is a dick.  But it wouldn’t make any sense to try to pass a law to stop his dickishness.  Yet that is the attitude, apparently, behind some other recent anti-fundamentalist efforts.  

Consider the recent anti-creationism petition in the USA.  The petition at the White House wants to encourage President Obama to “ban creationism and intelligent design in the science classroom as federal law.”  In just a couple of weeks, the petition attracted almost 40,000 signatures.  If it gets 60,000 more, the President has promised to consider it.

This petition doesn’t make sense to me.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m no supporter of creationism.  I do not want religion taught as science.  But this petition seems to me like trying to amend my neighbor’s behavior by making dickishness illegal.  It just doesn’t make sense, strategically or intellectually.  Consider the facts:

  • Teaching creationism as science is already illegal.  Federal courts in the United States have already ruled that creationism is not science, but rather religion, and as such has no place in public-school classrooms.

  • The same is true with intelligent design.

  • The federal government wouldn’t have any direct influence on such policies anyway.  In the USA, education policy is made at the local and state level.  The Feds have influence, of course, but not in the sense this petition implies.  President Obama could not simply ban anything from America’s schools, even if he wanted to.

  • The teaching of creationism and intelligent design that does happen is largely the result of decisions by individual teachers.  There is indeed a great deal of creationist/ID teaching that does go on in science classes.  But a federal law would not change this behavior.

Compare this situation to that of my fundamentalist neighbor.  Why would it be stupid for me to propose a law making his behavior illegal?

  • Any of his behavior that imposes too flagrantly on his neighbors is probably already illegal.  For instance, my town has noise ordinances, zoning laws, parking rules, occupancy laws, and so on.  If I thought my neighbor’s crappy behavior warranted it, I could pursue legal recourse.

  • However, it is not illegal to be a dick.  And though I hate to sound like a liberal cliché, I will defend my neighbor’s right to be a dick to me if he so chooses.  Of course, if it really represents a harm or threat, see bullet point above.

  • He is not a dick because he’s a fundamentalist.  Those of us who are non- or ex-fundamentalists need to beware of letting our feelings about religion taint our attitudes about public behavior.  In this case, I need to separate my distaste for my neighbor’s legitimate—if unpleasant—lectures about public religion from my feelings about his illegitimate—and already illegal—dumping of garbage on other people’s yards, for example.  It is not necessary for me to attack my neighbor’s religious views in order to stop his garbage-dumping.  Bringing religious issues into our garbage discussion will only guarantee his hostility.

  • Passing an anti-dick law wouldn’t solve anything.  If I really want to change his behavior, I’ll need to engage in the much more difficult task of dialogue.  He will not stop being a dick if it becomes illegal.  He probably won’t stop if I try to “dialogue,” either.  But my only real chance at a long-term solution is to attempt a dialogue nonetheless.  And, of course, I can pursue this dialogue knowing that I have some legal recourse already in case he refuses to be civil and civilized.

  • Most obviously, what would President Obama have to do with any of this?

I don’t think the recent White House petition is a creationist scheme, as one Curmudgeonly anti-creationist has argued.  But I do think it is a good example of the wrong way to approach our fundamentalist neighbors.  We already have law on our side when it comes to fighting against the teaching of creationism or intelligent design as science in publicly funded schools in the USA.  Petitions like this one only antagonize creationists without offering any possible benefit to the teaching of mainstream science.

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About jonnyscaramanga

I grew up as a Christian fundamentalist in the UK. Now I am writing a book and blog about what that's like, and what fundamentalists believe.

Posted on July 9, 2013, in Accelerated Christian Education, Atheism, Christianity, Creationism, Education, Faith Schools, Fundamentalism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. I’m not particularly sure I understand what “banning creationism/ID from being taught in schools” actually means, and (as Michael Reiss once argued very persuasively) I think it could be counter-productive. Let me clarify my thinking.

    First, in the USA, it’s unlawful to promote religions within the state classroom. In the UK, it’s a mandatory requirement to include a moment of collective worship in the school day. However, this collective worship is usually so wishy-washy that I like the metaphor of it being an effective vaccine against its excesses.

    Second, what do you mean by teaching creationism/ID in schools? Do you mean teaching C/ID as scientific fact in science lessons? If so, that’s clearly an abrogation of a professional responsibility to present appropriate information, and a teacher who attempts to justify C/ID as ‘fact’ is not acting professionally.

    Do you mean teaching C/ID as ‘something some people believe’ in (say) religion and/or ethics lessons? If so, that’s not promoting as a truth, but exploring different approaches to the world. I think that C/ID has a place in RE/E as a way of promoting critical thinking.

    Do you mean teaching C/ID in a science lesson as an contrast for evolution? If so, that’s promoting exploration of the differences between different types of evidence, and for exploring the scientific method. That’s definitely an appropriate use of C/ID in schools.

    My issue with C/ID in schools is that when it’s an issue, it’s almost always type I (scientific fact) rather than types II or III (ethics, scientific method) unless a parent is objecting to its use in such a way because they would prefer it to be type I. When it is taught as type I, it’s at the expense of teaching the child methods and processes in favour of facts and faith. Regardless of Mr Gove’s current curriculum plans, children learn better when they’re being taught philosophical tools and practical methods that they can use to derive useful knowledge that is applicable to their own lives.

    For me, teaching C/ID in schools is symptom, and not a problem. The problem is not solved by teaching C/ID.

    • OK, to clarify:

      The context for this discussion is a recent petition to ban Creationism in US classrooms (the wording of the petition seems to extend to private schools).

      I think what we should be talking about is promoting C/ID as truth anywhere, either in science or in RE lessons. The petition talks about science classrooms (what you call type I), but as you well know, many faith schools teach RE not from a discussion perspective, but from a “this is the TRUTH” perspective. In my view, teaching any matter of belief or personal conscience in this way is unethical. But regardless, it won’t work to ban teaching creationism as fact from science classrooms unless the same is done in RE classrooms. Otherwise the schools can just say “This isn’t science; this is religious education”.

      Clearly, neither I nor Adam has any problem with type II.

      Michael Reiss’s argument relates best to type III, but I don’t think he argued in favour of it being included on the curriculum. He just said that students who raise questions about Creationism in science classrooms should be treated with respect, and that teachers should be free to discuss those aspects of the question which pertain to science.

      I agree with both of those points, but what you say above about type III runs a little bit too close for comfort to a “teach the controversy!” position for my liking. I know that’s not what you’re saying, but the people who endorse comparing creation and evolution in classrooms are generally the same people who think creationism has some merit. They’ll say things like “show children the evidence, and let them decide for themselves.” That would be alright if these people were honest about what the evidence for Creationism is (essentially nil), but they always want to permit all kinds of bullshit arguments.

      The arguments against allowing a comparison of creation and evolution in science classroom, then, are these:

      a) It lends creationism a limited amount of credibility simply by suggesting that the comparison is worth making.
      b) Why privilege creationism? If we’re going to compare scientific theories with absurdities, what’s the justification for it being this particular absurdity we consider?
      c) There is only so much school time, which might be better spent on other things.
      d) School children are not qualified to evaluate all the evidence. A “decide for yourself” exercise suggests that any idiot’s opinion is as valid as the consensus view of the scientific community.

      So what do you think C/ID is a symptom of, and what would be your proposed cure?

      • Interestingly, both your reply and Lexie’s comment, touch on what I think the underlying issues are.

        The first issue is, unfortunately, philsophical and, to date, without solution, namely the inability to clearly boundary what is and what is not science. The best we’ve come up with is a multi-axial spectrum on which things are more or less sciencey according to different criteria. We also have categories like pseudoscience (quite sciencey, but with flaws) which it can be difficult to include or exclude.

        How do we address this? Well, we only teach science which is generally accepted by the scientific communities; this is fine when we’re doing normal science, but then a Kuhnian revolution will come along and what we thought was “fact” turns out to be merely a facet of an underlying truth. I’m absolutely fine with that, but it cannot be denied that this complicates the way publics view science and scientists. Indeed, I’m am quite certain that the upheavals in knowledge and attitudes in the last ~150 years have contributed massively to the way in which certain groups have entrenched themselves in epistemological foxholes.

        The second issue, to my mind, is a divergence of views about the purpose of education.

        The Christian fundamentalist perspective (eg. ACE) is that it is to teach the child the ways of the Lord and to teach the child to fear His law. From this perspective, children should leave education *knowing* certain things, and be able to *recall* simple analogies to answer complex problems. If we think of Bloom’s taxonomy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloom's_Taxonomy), we could put this at L1 and L2, with the occasional (rare) foray into L3, but only in a very simplistic way. Indeed, straying into L3 and beyond is punitively discouraged, because it means that memorisation of “facts” doesn’t occur, and that drawing the “facts” into a wider framework can lead to the undermining of doctrinal “truths”.

        Within this model, you’d expect type I C/ID education: C/ID is true and you must accept it.

        Gove’s current policy seems (perhaps unsurprisingly given who we’re speaking about) a slightly reformed version of this, but with a slightly different focus. Effectively, his position seems to be that children should leave schools *knowing* certain things, and able to *perform* *recall* in particular ways in order to be prepared for the wide world. This echoes the deficit model in science communication, in which the assumption is that the target audience is missing intellectual things which they need in order to function in an acceptable manner. Govian policy seems to linger heavily at L1 and L2, with some time spent in L3 and forays into L4. However, it is largely based on knowing. Hence, the importance of one-off examinations instead of demonstrating intellectual skills along the route.

        (As an aside, I’d suggest that this use of the deficit model also ignores the ways in which technology is changing the intellectual sphere, as we rely to greater and greater extents to external sources of information to do our memory work for us, and we focus more on the skills needed to find that information.)

        If I were being cynical (as if) I’d suggest that Gove’s model is probably utilitarian with a capitalist framework: it reinforces authority, inhibits questioning and makes for nice worker drones who don’t realise they’re being screwed over by corporations, in employment, consumer and governmental spheres. If one accepts that, one could describe it as “equipping citizens to be effective, productive workers”.

        Within Gove’s model, you’d expect evolution to be taught as an unexamined truth as well. However, whilst this is an improvement, it also means that we continue to constrain the ways in which people view the world.

        My position is that education should be to equip a person with tools which enable them to use knowledge and facts and values and opinions in the real world. My ideal education would, even at very early stages, spend a lot of time up in L4-L6, obviously at age-appropriate levels. I’d prefer that they know how to question authorities, synthesise information to reach informed opinions and develop critical thinking skills in all of their subject matters than they spent time memorising facts. It’s unavoidable and undesirable that such a curriculum wouldn’t result in students learning facts, but these facts would be located in an intellectual framework which doesn’t depend on their veracity, but rather adapts itself to changing knowledge and information. Such a curriculum needs to be sensitive the abilities of individual children, and also needs to be real-world relevant (I love the Science 2K curriculum because of its approach to the real world).

        I would also argue that, in an information economy such as the one we’re currently in/moving towards with rapidity, Gove’s model fails to meet the grade. We actually need more people to be able to think critically and creatively, and fewer who blindly follow instructions and remember facts. Synthesis is becoming far more important than comprehension; evaluation has more long-term economic and ethical value than regurgitation. In this model, type II and III education is invaluable: we need people who can understand the current understanding, how we got to that understanding and where we might end up in the future. After all, all scientific truths are contingent on the latest published papers; perhaps* one day we’ll find that evolution also proceeds along paths we don’t yet recognise or understand.

        Until we have general consent about the purpose and values which should form an effective education system, we will continue to have disagreement. The argument, in my opinion, is not about whether C/ID should be taught in schools. There’s an old principle in argument theory which suggests that every argument has a point of stasis: a point of stasis is a short-cut to understanding what the argument actually is (see http://davidwaldock.wordpress.com/2011/05/02/points-of-stasis-and-topoi-a-handy-tool-for-helping-to-analyse-and-structure-arguments/). When you get two parties on either side of a common point of stasis, it’s relatively easy to resolve the argument, because everyone agrees what is being argued. For example, one might argue that we’re discussing “definition of the ill”: “how should we label the education of C/ID”? We can all present arguments for different labels (abuse, unprofessional, ignorant) etc…, and once we accept that, we can move onto the next topoi (quality of the ill: is it a serious enough problem that we should take action?).

        However, fundamentalists (and Gove?) probably approach this argument differently. Fundamentalists don’t concede the initial conjecture, and are still arguing about whether teaching C/ID is an ill at all (conjecture of ill); some might even argue that the forum for the argument is inappropriate (the chart on the link deliberately excludes a question before conjecture, “Forum”, which would be phrased as “Is this the right forum to discuss this?”). The mismatch of the points of stasis means this is not an argument that can ever be won because we are having fundamentally different arguments.

        Gove could well be having a completely different debate, “conjecture of cure”, which muddies the waters further.

        What we need is a debate about the role of education in society, and it needs to be a debate which is wide-ranging and includes all perspectives on educational outcomes, from economic to emotional, from value to fact. It needs to be a debate which addresses all the points of stasis, and it needs to engage all spheres and stakeholders.

        Wow, that turned out much longer than expected. Sorry 😉

        *almost certain to happen, imho

      • Long but worth reading. As (almost) always, I agree with you. Sometimes I think you should write this blog and I should get on with something else. I certainly couldn’t agree with you more about the purposes of education, and the desirability of a curriculum which spends most of its time in the upper reaches of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

  2. I do feel it is important that science classrooms should only teach students science. I am not so naive as to believe that this would rid the world or creationism, that suddenly all of the students who belong to conservative religious families will change their minds. However, while it took me a very long time to change my mind, I am someone who has come out of conservative christianity and I attribute part of the sewing of seeds of doubt to my love of science.

    If a child grows up in a bible believing family then likely every aspect of their life outside the classroom (if they attend state school) is controlled and shared by people who believe and will teach the child the faith. This child then has very little chance of gaining any perspective beyond that of their family or understanding of science and the current state of human knowledge. I feel we as a society decide (as we should) that children are entitled to an education this means that we should teach them what is currently the consensus on the state of the world and to deny some children of knowledge is wrong.

    To insist that schools do not teach creationism is not trampling all over the right to free speech or to use your metaphor your neighbour’s right to be a dick, it is simply imposing some boundaries on it. People can still believe in creationism and they can still teach it to their children in their own home, in church and in any other extra-curricular activities they want but in school we should afford all children regardless of background the right to have access to knowledge about the world as it is currently understood. To extend your metaphor I am not denying your neighbour his right to be a jerk and cover his own yard in litter but he can’t throw it over the fence into my yard.

    • “If a child grows up in a bible believing family then likely every aspect of their life outside the classroom (if they attend state school) is controlled and shared by people who believe and will teach the child the faith.”

      What do you mean by “bible believing family?” Do you mean all Christians? If so, then I know quite a few counterexamples. Do you mean fundamentalists? If so, why imply that other Christians don’t believe things that are in the bible?

      Left-wing and moderate Christians exist. Christians who want their kids exposed to multiple viewpoints (including non-Christian ones) exist. Please do not use language that implies that these people do not exist.

      • That’s an important point, The_L. Thanks for the reminder.

      • Sorry, for saying that. There is a large segment of conservative/fundamentalist christians who use the term “bible believing” to describe themselves and their “movement” so it was in this sense that I was using it. It is a term I am familiar with in that many of my family members would use it to describe themselves and their churches. Basically the term is used by people who interpret the bible literally to describe themselves. The term “bible believing” is used as opposed to “literalist” at least in part to mock other Christians for not being “real” Christians as they cherry pick or use reason to interpret the bible rather than simply following the word of god. I thought that people would be familiar with this use of the term and didn’t even think about it because it is how they describe themselves. I was brought up a conservative christian and when I left my church because it was killing me inside, I never joined another religion and after years of hating myself and confusion I became an atheist so I have little experience with liberal Christianity. I had never previously considered how offensive that term would be to liberal Christians, even though throughout my childhood I had heard it used to deride and mock their beliefs, I guess I just didn’t think about it after I left. So I’m sorry for using it and will not use it to refer to conservatives/fundamentalists again.

    • (In response to your clarification)

      Ah. Gotcha. See, I don’t like to use words like that without scare quotes, because otherwise it implies that I’m somehow agreeing with the extremists to view the world on their terms. Also, without quotes, it’s a LOT harder to tell if you’re being sarcastic. One of the many hazards of purely-textual communication. 🙂

  3. Does anybody take these white house petitions seriously?

    I take them as humor, as products of people blowing off steam.

    • Probably. I think whether the intended goal of the petition is good is still a worthwhile conversation, though.

    • Neil,
      This is a good point. I think we can assume that this is more theater than politics. But even as theater, maybe especially as theater, it is worth talking about. This is why I like the comparison to my neighbor’s behavior, even though that is also humorous.
      Here’s the big benefit, IMHO: if we think of this as theater, comedy or not, we can agree that we’re all able to take part in the same cultural conversation. That is, we have a shared language with which to evaluate the merits of this particular comedy.
      As David pointed out above, too often these creation/evolution debates are not debates at all, but mere shouting matches. In this case, we have a chance to evaluate a piece of cultural theater.

      • As David pointed out above, too often these creation/evolution debates are not debates at all, but mere shouting matches.

        When I participate in creation/evolution debates, I take the view that my job is to leave behind a clear argument for the lurkers who might be reading the thread. I don’t expect to persuade creationists to change their minds.

  4. From a comment over at I Love You but You’re Going to Hell:
    From ChazIng:
    “1. How do you know for sure that your neighbour is fundamentalist?
    “2. US law can categorize creationism and ID as religion but that is only applicable to the US so that creationism and ID can be deemed as science elsewhere. Even this is irrelevant as the law cannot confer actual scientific validity but only temporal legality.
    “3. Judge Jones copied 91% of a section on ‘ID as science’ from ACLU briefs which is clearly indicative of bias and his own non-science training.”

    This first question raises a good challenge. First of all, some may have assumed that my “neighbor” (in the US of A he doesn’t get a “u” at the end!) was some sort of fictional construct, created for the sake of argument alone. Not at all! He’s a real guy, my real neighbor. He really does all the things I accused him of. I really don’t like it.
    And I was careful in my use of the adjective “fundamentalist” to describe him.
    As Lexie and The_L note above, there is a sensitive cultural politics that accompanies all these sorts of labels. Many conservative religious folks bristle when called “fundamentalists” willy-nilly, since to some minds the term is dismissive, implying extremism and fringe belief. As a counter-balance, many conservative Protestants have adopted the tradition Lexie mentions, calling themselves “Bible” Christians or “Bible-believers.” As The_L notes, this is offensive to the many sorts of Christians who do not share the same conservative beliefs, yet treasure the Bible as the bedrock of their faiths, too.
    Among evangelical Protestants, the definition of “fundamentalism” has a long tradition of squabbling, accusations, and counter accusations. My favorite light-hearted guide to the different varieties of conservative evangelical Protestant, at least in the American context, is apparently an old joke, but one I first heard from Russell Moore:
    “An evangelical is a fundamentalist whose kids dress up for Halloween.

    “A conservative evangelical is a fundamentalist whose kids dress up for the church’s ‘Fall Festival.’

    “A confessional evangelical is a fundamentalist whose kids dress up as Zwingli and Bucer for ‘Reformation Day.’

    “A revivalist evangelical is a fundamentalist whose kids dress up as demons and angels for the church’s Judgment House community evangelism outreach.

    “An Emerging Church evangelical is a fundamentalist who has no kids, but who dresses up for Halloween anyway.

    “A fundamentalist is a fundamentalist whose kids hand out gospel tracts to all those mentioned above.”

    With all that in mind, I believe I am justified in calling my neighbor a straight-up fundamentalist. Theologically, he has told me on several occasions that he puts his belief in an inerrant Bible at the center of his faith. Culturally, he has harangued me repeatedly about the need for more traditional evangelical Protestant religiosity in public schools. I understand that he might prefer a different label. But given the history of Protestant fundamentalism in the USA, I think this is a case where the label “fundamentalist” applies.

  1. Pingback: Our Fundamentalist Neighbors, Part I | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

  2. Pingback: Our Fundamentalist Neighbors: A Rebuttal | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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