April 26, 2005

Ignorance Is Strength?

Filed under: Politics,Science — PolitiCalypso @ 8:27 pm

Neoconservatism Meets Ingsoc in Schools

Judging from their policies and proposals, as well as their own behavior, one would have good reason to believe that most members of the Religious Right dislike public schools and think them secular, "liberally slanted," ungodly institutions that corrupt their children and turn them against their parents and their religion. After all, it is this group that most strongly advocates private and parochial school vouchers. It is this group that initiates the "put prayer back in school" drives and raises the most fuss when any blatant school-sponsored religious–often denominational–display is sanctioned by the courts. It is this group that controls many home-school organizations, at least in the South. (Full disclosure: While I was never home-schooled, my parents do home-school my younger siblings, but not because they are "Religious Right" or think that there isn’t enough religious indoctrination in the public schools.) However, their raging against public schools is really quite ironic, since–in the South at the very least–many public schools would be thought to be religious private schools by an observer who knew no better.It’s a sign of extreme cognitive dissonance that the Religious Right whines about the teaching of scientific theories that conflict with a literalist’s interpretation of the Bible, especially in the South, where most of this activity appears to take place. Of course, I speak primarily of the theory of natural selection, discussions of the geological history of the Earth, and mentions of the Big Bang theory. These scientific ideas are the Religious Right’s most common boogeymen, since they conflict with their dear-to-their-heart notion of a 6000-year-old Earth. However, more recently, the Neoconservative political agenda has made its way into ecology classes, where global warming and environmentally responsible consumerism–if discussed at all–are treated dismissively as "unproven theories." This, in public schools, the institutions of the devil.

All of the following anecdotes are true, unembellished, and occurred in public schools in the Southeast. You have not heard about them on the news because—with the notable exception of the Georgia evolution debate—public schools that side against science tend not to make it into the news stories that get splattered across the nation, while schools that side with scientific knowledge are demonized:

  • In a junior high science class, the state-mandated unit on evolution is "taught" by having the students write brief outlines of the textbook’s chapter on evolution. There is no in-class debate or discussion because the teacher refuses point-blank to give a lecture on it.
  • In a junior high science class, the textbook’s unit on paleontology and the geological history of the Earth is taught, but the discussion on
    geological epochs and eras–measured in millions of years–is omitted because the teacher doesn’t like it.
  • In a freshman biology class, the teacher states in front of the class, "This is the Bible Belt, and I don’t expect you to give up your creationism, but state law requires me to teach this material" when beginning a discussion of evolutionary theory.
  • In a high school biology class, the teacher requires parental permission slips from students before giving a lecture on human evolution, presumably to avoid lawsuits and harassment from outraged Religious Right parents.
  • In an Advanced Placement biology class, the teacher begins the unit on evolution by having the students submit a summary of the first chapter of Genesis.
  • In the same Advanced Placement biology class, students are given the option on their final exams (not the Advanced Placement college-credit exams, but the exams for the class) of again summarizing the first chapter of Genesis as an alternative to discussing the mechanisms of evolution.
  • In a junior high science class, the textbook’s chapter on astronomy mentions the Big Bang theory and clearly states that it is a "theory" that has not been proven but for which there is strong evidence. However, the teacher interjects a comment that "[he/she] believe[s] that God created the universe rather than this Big Bang theory"–as if the two are mutually exclusive.
  • In a junior high science class, the teacher discusses the mechanisms of the greenhouse effect, then concludes the discussion with "but it’s a theoretical idea; there’s no real evidence of global warming."
  • In a junior high science class, the teacher interjects a discussion of ecology and conservation with "I mean, the Bible says that God gave us dominion over the Earth."

All this begs the question of why any Religious Right parent in the South would object to schools on the basis of there not being enough religious teaching. Yet the majority of home-schooling parents in this region are doing so on exactly that basis. If this blatant disregard or contempt for scientific knowledge, as demonstrated by the events detailed above, is not sufficient "religious" indoctrination for such people, one must wonder what they want. It’s a frightening concept to ponder.

As a believer both in science and in God, I have often wondered what is the obsession with that first chapter of Genesis. Surely, of all that’s in the Bible, there are more important or relevant passages than a literary metaphor for the creation of the world and the fall of man. I have wonderered what exactly is the problem with accepting scientific knowledge and retaining one’s religious beliefs simultaneously.

In the distant past, when people knew very little about any of the forces that affect the planet, they attributed everything to seemingly random, inexplicable acts of deities. Today people would scoff at those who honestly believed, for instance, that thunderstorms were judgments of God upon ungodly places, but this idea used to be believed. Yet there is little difference between believing in that and believing that, rather than creating the universe according to logical, reasonable, understandable methods (e.g., Big Bang and the laws of physics to expand the universe, and natural selection to produce a huge variety of life), God would have created the universe and created life using incomprehensible forces, then allowed the cosmos and the biosphere to be governed by scientific laws that humans can understand. This isn’t a new argument, but I used it in a debate over this subject with Religious Right people to see what their response would be. The response was surprising, but more than that, it was disturbing, and gives the lie that this denial of science has anything to do with religion.

After stating my belief in God and explaining my position on scientific knowledge, using that argument, I was stunned by the response. My adversaries went wide-eyed and looked alarmed (perhaps they also believe in thunderstorms as manifestations of the wrath of God and expected me to be struck dead by a lightning bolt, who knows?), then said gruffly that they recognized that I was sincere but was "missing the point." The point, I was told, was not that science was intrinsically evil or that I was anti-religious for accepting science, but that I did not believe in the literal truth of every word in the Bible. They seemed especially concerned for me because I had thought the matter over long ago and arrived at my own conclusion reconciling belief in God with belief in science, rather than blindly accepting one to the complete exclusion of the other. Evidently they were accustomed to thinking of anyone who accepted the Big Bang and natural selection as being a God-hating anti-religious hellbound heathen and were astonished and alarmed to find that "a Christian had been ensnared by the devil’s teachings." (I’m not quoting them in this last instance, but I have since then seen such expressions in fundamentalist evangelical literature.)

"Religious" Right Neoconservatives who push for Biblical allegories of the world to be taught alongside of, and equivalent to (or better than) accepted scientific theories hide their true agenda behind nice-sounding catchphrases such as "equal time." Those who oppose this are then billed as being "anti-religious" and are trying to "outlaw God from schools." The phrase "equal time" is particularly well-chosen for Neoconservatives, because it suggests to people that the Scriptural fable of creation is somehow scientifically "equal" to the theory of the Big Bang or the theory of natural selection. This despicable manipulation of language hides the truth. My own experience showed me that for these people, it is NOT about who believes in God and who doesn’t. My adversaries didn’t believe me insincere or imply that I was anti-religious. They were upset, however, that I was not in complete agreement with them.

This debate, this issue, is about obtaining and enforcing total conformity of thought, which by definition is a suppression of actual thought.

Orwell’s 1984 was a work of fiction, but some aspects of the society portrayed therein are being realized in present-day America. Orwell’s totalitarian ideology, "Ingsoc," had three central tenets. Insofar as their policies and proposals concern science education in the United States, the Religious Right would appear to have embraced fully the Ingsoc tenet of "Ignorance Is Strength."

The natural history of humanity has been to accept new scientific knowledge. For any new idea, there have been stragglers who were stubborn about holding on to the old, discredited ideas. The Left can and should win this debate, but that will not be done by playing the right-wing’s game of "equal time" for unequal ideas. The issue is not about hating religion or hating God, but is instead about indoctrinating children with an ideology that demands absolute conformity of thought. The Religious Right has accused
public schools of "telling their kids how to think." The Left can make this same argument, only with justification.

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