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?

5 thoughts

  1. I haven’t read the entire book, just the thesis, But it seems like a really intuitive way to reconcile Genesisian theory with evolution, the same type of reconciliation that had been adopted by Buddhists and Hindus nearly a 1,000 years before.

  2. In my opinion, at its core, this debate is not about science or the lack there of. It is about the fear from the demise of a dominant religious worldview. Conservative and fundamentalist followers of any religion struggle with any real or perceived challenge to their explanation of the world. Indeed, many cannot seem to survive without casting themselves as the embattled minority, regardless of their status in a culture. In Texas they skip the private schools and openly break the law in public schools.

    http://www.tfn.org/site/PageServer?pagename=issues_religious_freedom_bible_courses

  3. This whole issue of creationism as science is so absurd it’s hard to even discuss it in rational terms. Creationism is anti-science. The standards for science education set forth by the state include a requirement to teach evolution. How has this idea that creationism is a valid alternative to evolution been allowed to get this far. Teaching creationism is like a school teaching that 2+2=5 or that the earth is flat. Would we want taxpayer money going to schools like that? Of course not! It’s pure absurdity. Yet here we are having to argue the point with mystical numb skulls. Where is the media on this issue? Admittedly, I wouldn’t have seen it had it been covered. To that degree, I as a voting citizen am to blame for not calling ignorance out and extinguishing such nonsense. I guess I was dumb enough to assume grown adults who have the means and intelligence to become elected leaders wouldn’t advocate creationism any more than they would the earth being flat. The fact that I can’t truly makes me sad.

  4. If I may, I would like to disagree with your article. In the little study that I have done on the topic, I came to the opinion that neither Intelligent Design nor evolution are very scientific at all. Instead, they are frameworks of interpretation used to understand the facts that can be gathered through true scientific research.

    To use the example of your trilobite, you stated, “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.” While it is undoubtedly a very old fossil, it is not necessarily evidence for the theory of evolution.

    As I understand it, the tension between Intelligent Design and evolution is found in their interpretation of the facts. What can you KNOW about your fossil? It contains the imprint of something that appears to be a creature. It is composed of a certain material. It was found in a certain location with certain other fossils. However, the AGE of the fossil is somewhat foggy. An evolutionist would point to the results of a test using Carbon-14, potassium-argon, etc. A creationist would argue that these tests have often been proven to be inconsistent. He might argue that the location of the fossil and its composition indicate a more recent burial.

    There are highly qualified scientists on both sides of the debate. They study and test the same objects and phenomena, yet arrive at very different conclusions. Does this mean that one side is foolish? No, it only means that they have a different interpretive framework. And I do not mean that only creationists have preconceived ideas. Scientists on both sides approach a study with certain ideas about the world. That is true of historians, psychologists, and chemists.

    If I could clarify myself somewhat, I do not disagree with the fact that nature evolves over time. Canaries develop beaks more suited to their foods. Dogs in cold regions evolve thicker coats. Those facts can be tracked, tested, and proven scientifically. My contention is with those who claim that birds and dinosaurs are linked on the evolutionary chain. It has not been proven. Also, those who claim that the universe came into existence as the result of a Big Bang, or other cosmic event, have not been able to prove conclusively that matter came into existence without interference from some pre-matter and pre-time force.

    Does this mean I believe the biblical account to be factual? I do, but I understand that it cannot be proven through science, nor will I go to great lengths to have it taught as so. I do not advocate either theory being taught in a public school. If people desire that their science classrooms be filled with science only (as it should be), then I would argue that evolution and Intelligent Design should be kept out of the classroom. I believe that, as theories, they are merely frameworks to give understanding to the results of scientific study. Teach children about the makeup of a flower. Show them how igneous rocks develop. But why teach them that God spoke things into existence or that whales evolved from bacteria? How are those teachings productive. They are interpretations and theories, not facts.

    I apologize for my long-winded comment.

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