Mike Kueber's Blog

April 20, 2012

Re-thinking creationism

Conservative America seems to be in the mood for re-thinking controversies that I had been taught were resolved.  The best example of this is the separation of church & state.  I actually included this as a no-brainer in the first edition of my congressional-campaign brochure until one friend and many constituents said, “Not so fast.”  They suggested moving this issue from resolved to controversial. 

Other examples of this rightward tilt are abortion (Roe v. Wade), limits to federal regulation of commerce (ObamaCare), and global warming.

Just last week, a new item was added to the list – creationism.  A headline USA Today proclaimed, “Debate over evolution now allowed in Tennessee schools,” and the associated article reported that a new law – the so-called Teacher Protection Academic Freedom Act (attached below) – would “reopen a decades-old controversy over teaching creationism to the state’s schoolchildren.” 

Ironically, Tennessee was also the venue for the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial.  Although the Scopes trial was not, as generally portrayed, the devastation of creationism as scientific theory, it was a landmark in public opinion on the issue.  As stated in Wikipedia:

  • The trial was thus both a theological contest, and a trial on the veracity of modern science regarding the creation-evolution controversy. The teaching of evolution expanded, as fundamentalist efforts to use state laws to reverse the trend had failed in the court of public opinion.

The official summary of the new Tennessee law provides:

  • This bill prohibits the state board of education and any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or principal or administrator from prohibiting any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught, such as evolution and global warming.

But the USA Today article explained that, although the new law in Tennessee was technically directed toward encouraging critical thinking, there were significant fears within the scientific community in Tennessee that it was intended to encourage the teaching of creationism:

  • Instead, it encourages students to question accepted scientific theories — listing as examples evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and cloning — and it protects teachers from punishment if they teach creationism. Proponents say it will encourage critical thinking and give teachers license to discuss holes in scientific theories if they choose to do so.

The Republican governor of Tennessee, by refusing to sign or veto the bill, seems to agree with the scientific community:

  • “I have reviewed the final language of HB 368/SB 893 and assessed the legislation’s impact.  I have also evaluated the concerns that have been raised by the bill.  I do not believe that this legislation changes the scientific standards that are taught in our schools or the curriculum that is used by our teachers.  However, I also don’t believe that it accomplishes anything that isn’t already acceptable in our schools.  The bill received strong bipartisan support, passing the House and Senate by a three-to-one margin, but good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion.  My concern is that this bill has not met this objective.  For that reason, I will not sign the bill but will allow it to become law without my signature.”

Critical thinking is wonderful, but it’s troubling that scientific theories are often challenged by conservatives whenever there is any component to the theory than cannot be definitively proven, while by contrast conservative doctrines are supposed to be given deference in American education unless they are definitively disproven.  (How about this canard – to raise government income, you simply cut tax rates.) 

Many Christians argue that intelligent design should be taught in schools as a scientific alternative to evolution.  Most scientists object that intelligent design has no place in a science class because it has nothing to do with science.  Rather it is a Christian attempt to reconcile evolution with the Bible.

There is nothing wrong with reconciling the Bible to science.  The Catholic Church has been doing that for years.  But this reconciliation has no place in a science classroom.  That’s as clear as the separation between church & state.

 

Teacher Protection Academic Freedom Act 

SENATE BILL 893HOUSE BILL 368

AN ACT to amend Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 49, Chapter 6, Part 10, relative to teaching scientific subjects in elementary schools.

BE IT ENACTED BY THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE STATE OF TENNESSEE:

SECTION 1. Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 49, Chapter 6, Part 10, is amended by adding the following as a new, appropriately designated section:

(a) The general assembly finds that:

(1) An important purpose of science education is to inform students about scientific evidence and to help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to becoming intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens;

(2) The teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy; and

(3) Some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects.

(b) The state board of education, public elementary and secondary school governing authorities, directors of schools, school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues.

(c) The state board of education, public elementary and secondary school governing authorities, directors of schools, school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies. Toward this end, teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

(d) Neither the state board of education, nor any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or any public elementary or secondary school principal or administrator shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

(e) This section only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion.

April 6, 2012

Evolution and fundamentalist Christians; does it matter whether God exists?

Filed under: Religion — Mike Kueber @ 8:56 pm
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When I was at the gym today, a guy struck up a conversation with me because I was wearing Longhorn colors and he lived in Austin.  Midway through the conversation, after we learned a little about each other’s history, he suggested that I should consider moving from San Antonio to Austin because the life is so much more vibrant there (and the beautiful, single women are so much more plentiful).  Of course, I am familiar with the lifestyle and scenery in Austin, having lived there for five years a while back and through occasional visits since then, and I promised to give it some thought. 

Later in the conversation, this guy started talking about how modern men (and women) were beginning to be so helpless because, instead of relying upon themselves, they were becoming accustomed to relying on the government or law for protection.  He gave the example of the multitude of warnings that are provided to tell people to not to do obviously stupid things – like using a screwdriver to clean your teeth.  I responded with my oft-used line that there are weaklings today who are able to survive and even thrive even though their weakness and lack of common sense would have doomed them if they had been on a wagon train in the olden days or lived on a remote farm. 

My newfound Austin friend readily agreed, and then gave some other examples of people becoming helpless.  But he also started making some references to all of this being part of God’s plan.  I commented that his thinking reflects how believers in Christ can accept the teaching of evolution, just as Mitt Romney recently said that he believes in the science of evolution and that God is working his will through evolution.

“Whoa,” said my Austin friend.  “who said anything about believing in evolution?”  I told him that the essence of his story was a description of natural selection at work, but he resisted.  He said he believes in the inerrancy of the Bible and anything that he said that conflicted with the Bible was a misstatement on his part.

Wow.  Imagine going through life and resorting to the Bible to tell you what and how to think.  But that is not an uncommon position to take.  A recent blog posting in the New York Times explored whether a religious person needed to believe in God as opposed to merely seek a fulfilling life.  The posting presented the following from philosopher John Gray:

  • He points out that in many cases — for instance, “polytheism, Hinduism and Buddhism, Daoism and Shinto, many strands of Judaism and some Christian and Muslim traditions” — belief is of little or no importance. Rather, “practice — ritual, meditation, a way of life — is what counts.” He goes on to say that “it’s only religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths” and that “what we believe doesn’t in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live.”

 

  • The obvious response to Gray is that it all depends on what you hope to find in a religion. If your hope is simply for guidance and assistance in leading a fulfilling life here on earth, a “way of living” without firm beliefs in any supernatural being may well be all you need. But many religions, including mainline versions of Christianity and Islam, promise much more. They promise ultimate salvation. If we are faithful to their teachings, they say, we will be safe from final annihilation when we die and will be happy eternally in our life after death.

I find philosophical discussions about religion and the meaning of life fascinating, but obviously the subject can quickly become too complicated to comprehend.  The simplest philosophy is what the blog posting describes as “blind faith,” and I suspect that most people, like my Austin friend, gravitate toward that position.  Others, like me, like to think our way through things even though, as the blog posting suggests, it is arrogant to think that our reasoning has some connection or resemblance to God’s reasoning.  That is ultimately why I am satisfied with a good-faith attempt to live a fulfilling life and then let the chips fall where they may.

August 31, 2011

Science and the Republican Party

Filed under: Issues,Politics,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 5:32 am
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NY Times columnist Paul Krugman recently wrote that the Republican Party was becoming an anti-science party.   He concluded his column with the following statement:

  • Now, we don’t know who will win next year’s presidential election. But the odds are that one of these years the world’s greatest nation will find itself ruled by a party that is aggressively anti-science, indeed anti-knowledge. And, in a time of severe challenges — environmental, economic, and more — that’s a terrifying prospect.

To support his column’s thesis, Krugman pointed to Rick Perry’s cavalier dismissal of man-made global warming and Mitt Romney’s backing away from prior statements in which he accepted man-made global warming as a scientific fact.

I agree with Krugman that (a) Perry is pandering to a significant percentage of the Republican primary voters and (b) Romney is trying to avoid alienating this group en masse.  But the problem isn’t the candidates; the problem is figuring out how to deal with this group of voters.

I had some first-hand experience with these voters during my congressional race in 2010.  At a candidate forum in Devine, one voter asked Quico Canseco and me whether we gave any credence to that “crazy global warming thing.”  Quico quickly responded that the whole idea was ridiculous and a corrupt conspiracy, and the crowd roaringly approved.  I said that, although the scientific evidence was compelling, I endorsed Romney’s position that America should continue to study the problem instead of agreeing to some draconian cap-and-trade law.  My response was greeted with silence.

Of course, America has always had its irrational people, but historically the cost associated with politicians pandering to them outweighed the benefit.  If you said something stupid to win their few votes, you would lose more votes from the moderate middle.  Inexplicably, the irrational people in the Republican Party primaries have reached a critical mass that can win a primary election.  For proof of that, see the primary victories of Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell.

Krugman’s column focused on the issue of global warming, but it also referred to evolution, which is even a bigger issue in Texas.  Krugman quoted Perry as “dismissing evolution as ‘just a theory,’ one that has ‘got some gaps in it’ — an observation that will come as news to the vast majority of biologists.”

According to the Texas Tribune, Perry went on to say, “In Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools.  Because I figure you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right.”  This created an uproar because teaching creationism in public schools was held unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987.

The Texas Tribune article went on to quote former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman for “seeming to mock Perry for the creationism comment, as well as for his recent statements on climate change:  ‘To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.’

Call me crazy, too, because I had no idea that a lot of people felt compelled to deny the science of evolution.  Global warming can be dismissed as a money-making conspiracy, but I don’t know of any conspiracy allegations surrounding the science of evolution.  Even the Roman Catholic Church, according to Wikipedia, has accepted evolution:

  • “The Church has deferred to scientists on matters such as the age of the earth and the authenticity of the fossil record. Papal pronouncements, along with commentaries by cardinals, have accepted the findings of scientists on the gradual appearance of life.”

My only hope is that there are enough moderate Republican voters to prevent control of the party from going over to the dark side.  That means Romney or Huntsman.

June 24, 2011

Creationism and intelligent design

While driving back from North Dakota, I continually switched from listening to talk radio and CDs of the book American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips.  As I previously blogged, the former warned that cultural liberals were causing America to become a secular state while the latter cautioned that the Religious Right was producing scientifically backward country.  As an example of backward science, Phillips referred to intelligent design, which he said was a Christian attempt to provide a scientific alternative to those who refused to accept the science of evolution.

Coincidentally, shortly after hearing from Phillips on this topic, I heard talk-show host Sean Hannity being challenged by a listener who wondered how someone as intelligent as Sean could believe in God.  Sean responded by giving a heartfelt explanation that relied heavily on the concept of intelligent design – i.e., certain features of the universe and living things, such as irreducible complexity and specified complexity, are best explained by an intelligent cause, not by an undirected process such as natural selection.

The listener didn’t accept this explanation, but before he could put forward follow-up questions, Sean disconnected the call.  My follow-up question would have been how Sean’s explanation supports his view that Christianity is the only true religion.

Upon returning to San Antonio, I decided to research the issue of intelligent design to determine if the positions of Kevin Phillips and Sean Hannity are in conflict, and I concluded that they are not.

The term “intelligent design” has been used since 1847, but the concept came to the forefront in 1987 when the US Supreme Court held in Edwards v. Aguillard that a state couldn’t require the teaching of “creation science” as an alternative to evolution science.  The Court came to
this holding after reviewing supportive amicus briefs from 72 Nobel prize-winning scientists, 17 state academies of science, and 7 other scientific
organizations that described creation science as essentially consisting of religious tenets.  Therefore, requiring that creation science be taught as an alternative to evolution was a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

In response to the Aguillard decision, Christian groups decided to push the “science” of intelligent design, but in 2007 in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District a federal district court held that requiring the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution was infirmed
for the same reason creation science was – i.e., it violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Based on these legal decisions, it appears that Kevin is correct in declaring that intelligent design is not science, but rather is a thinly-veiled effort of Christians to challenge the science of evolution.  But evolution is not inconsistent with Sean’s belief in intelligent design.  Teaching of the belief, however, should be reserved for religious instruction, not public schools.