What Do Creationists and Holocaust Deniers Have In Common?

Yesterday, in a conversation on Facebook, I asked my cousin Bryan, a young and exceptionally gifted Presbyterian preacher, a series of purposely provocative questions about the scientific validity of creationism and intelligent design. Bryan, unlike most people on both sides of this debate, possesses an astonishingly open mind and empathetic view on this subject, a subject that, as I subsequently learned, is fraught with rhetorical landmines, a subject that lends itself to insulting stereotyping and generalizations, and as Bryan aptly put it, “morally reprehensible analogies.” Bryan and I are both relatively close in age, and although we are members of the same loyal family, we approach this subject from very different perspectives.

As a disclaimer, I posed the question in the headline, “What Do Creationists and Holocaust Deniers Have In Common?” not because I believe they actually have anything in common, but because the question, with its loaded cultural implications, to many, borders on the “morally reprehensible,” and, in so doing, deserves to be unpacked.

If you’re offended by any of this, I can only earnestly express that the purpose of engaging in this discussion is not to advance an ad hominem attack against those who believe, as an article of their religious beliefs, in New Earth Creationism or its subsequently re-engineered brother, “Intelligent Design.” It’s not to condescendingly or offensively suggest that a belief in New Earth Creationism is just like denying the Holocaust; that’s insulting and completely off-the-mark.

But the question should provoke a serious, unemotional, objective analysis about curriculum standards in American schools, both public and private. For over two years, Zack Kopplin and I have worked together and in concert with many other bloggers, small newspaper journalists, and independent publications in exposing the ways in which taxpayer money has helped to subsidize schools with absurdly anti-science agendas and curricula. Zack, as most of you know, has done almost all of the heavy lifting on researching and identifying the actual schools, while others, myself included, have focused on the machinations of the policy leaders, lawmakers, and courts. We recently learned that House Speaker John Boehner plans on making the expansion of school vouchers into a platform issue, promising that this debate will continue and that, hopefully, means more national attention will be provided to the already-broken voucher program in Louisiana, part of a package of reforms introduced and passed by Governor Jindal that has recently been declared unconstitutional by three different courts for three different reasons.

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As distasteful and offensive as the Holocaust deniers analogy may seem (it’s such a morally repulsive idea that no sane historian would ever attempt to equivocate the truth of the Holocaust with radical conspiracy theories), we would be naive if we summarily discounted that denial without understanding its origins and its import. For a great many in the radicalized Middle East, Holocaust denial is a centerpiece in education policy, domestic policy, and international affairs. We are nearly seventy years removed from the Holocaust, and I suspect that, within my lifetime, I’ll one day read about the death of the last remaining survivor.

We know the Holocaust is true, because many of us lived through it. To be sure, I am far too young to remember the Holocaust, but when I was eighteen, a group of friends and I trekked through the Dachau Concentration Camp, one of the saddest but most illuminating moments of my young life: Confronting the vestiges of undeniable evil, the inhumanly cramped boarding rooms, the crematoriums, the gas chambers, the cast-iron sign emblazoned with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei.” A place that still smelled like soot and death and dust. This was not a Hollywood set. If I had possessed even a fragment of a thought about the remote possibility of a massive conspiracy, it was forever extinguished that afternoon. Dachau is a vivid, permanent, real place on our planet; Holocaust deniers are idiots.

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Dachau Concentration Camp, outside of Munich, Germany

As a kid, in junior high, I visited Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, which, by then looked more like a well-manicured lawn, a place that some could possibly mistake as a pastoral field perfect for a golf course.

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The battlefield at Gettysburg

Creationist advocacy groups, led principally by the Discovery Institute, challenge American elected officials to “teach the controversy.” But, the problem is: there is no controversy. They’ve marketed their own religious beliefs as an alternative to well-established science, and they’re lying. Creationism and its slightly edited twin Intelligent Design aren’t science; they’re religion. And in these United States of America, public institutions are charged with adhering to the Establishment Clause.

My brother and I both collect ancient rocks, stones, and fossils. I have a trilobite that is over 250 million years old and a small fragment from a 2 billion year old meteorite that seems to magically emit some sort of strange magnetic charge. If, for some reason, a New Earth Creationist visits my home and challenges me to provide evidence that the universe is older than 6,000 years, I have ample evidence displayed without adornment on one of my bookshelves. I don’t worship these ancient fossils as deities; they are not symbols of the metaphysical. They’re just old, and they look cool.

A trilobite
A trilobite

So, the question is– particularly to those New Earth Creationists who seek to advance their decidedly and definitively religious agenda in our science classrooms and, more specifically, to those who are offended by analogies to Holocaust deniers: How can we talk about what SHOULD be admitted as valid science or valid history in the classroom, without also discussing the things we’ve rejected as manifestly invalid?