Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Cobb County Affair

Two years ago the school board of Cobb County, GA, an affluent suburb of Atlanta, voted to put the following warning label in their high school biology textbooks:

This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

Of course, this is a boneheaded label for many reasons (the juvenile distinction between theory and fact, the oversimplification of describing evolution as addressing the origins of living things as opposed to their change over time, etc.) But is it unconstitutional? That's a harder question.

The ACLU has filed suit arguing that these labels are unconstitutional. The trial got underway this week. Reed Cartwright has an excellent summary of the trial so far.

Here's something interesting from Cartwright's summary

The superintendent did not want a disclaimer, but proposed an alternate wording in which students were encouraged to critically examine all ideas. The board overruled it and went with the above language, which they developed themselves.

I don't know if this counts as evidence in the legal sense, but it certainly shows that the disclaimers are not intended to serve the legitimate secular purpose of encouraging students to critically analyze scientific theories. Instead, their purpose is to get students to question evolution.

These sorts of trials are frustrating for several reasons. One is the obvious one: It's really pathetic that eighty years after the Scopes trial we're still fighting these battles. Another involves the difference between what you can prove in court and what everyone knows to be true. Of course these labels are not intended to serve any secular purpose. Does anyone really believe the issue here is between those who want students to think critically about scientific theories and those who do not? The labels exist solely because a large number of people just hate the idea that humans evolved from nonhuman ancestors.

Which brings me to my third frustration: The sheer desperation of the people who support this label is hard to believe. Basically, we are talking about people who would love to have evolution either removed entirely from classrooms, or presented in a way that makes it clear no sensible person would believe such nonsense. Barring that they want some form of creationism taught alongside evolution. But the courts have consistently ruled against such things. So, as a last ditch attempt to do something, anything, to protect their children from evolution they came up with these dopey warning labels. And now the courts might throw that out as well.

As I have mentioned previously in this blog, I used to live in central Kansas, and while I was there I frequently listened to the local Christian radio station. What quickly became clear was that the greatest fear people had was that their children would lose their faith. One example: I was listening to a call-in show in which listeners could ask the host for advice on certain parenting issues. One obviously distraught mother called in and said something like “My family recently suffered a devastating tragedy. My child wasn't killed, like the previous caller, but to me it feels just as permanent. My son called home from college and told me he had become an atheist.”

It's hard for me to describe my reaction to that. As an atheist I was insulted, of course. Putting that aside, the grief this woman felt was obviously sincere but utterly incomprehensible to me. I don't understand how people can hold their religious convictions with such fervor that their child becoming an atheist is equivalent to their child being killed.

I think a lot of the people who support this label feel the same way. Their faith is very delicate; it can only survive within a large community of believers. The secular public schools are an intrusion into that community. The mere fact that the schools are not operated from a Christian perspective makes them dangerous enough. But then you add in things like evolution and it becomes an all out assault on their child's soul. And now here comes the government to tell them that evolution is so sacrosanct they can't even have a stinking little warning label?

Don't get me wrong, I hope the ACLU wins this case. From Reed's description it sounds like the trial is going well.

But I remain frustrated. It's all well an good to rail at the irrationality of many aspects of religious belief. I can fume at the lies and distortions about science that appear in their books and are preached by their ministers. I can snicker at how those red state rubes want to take us back to the seventeenth century. But in the end I just don't understand how these people view the world, and how they have arrived at the conclusions they have. I don't understand people who think the proper way to learn about science is to read the Bible or listen to their local preacher. I don't understand people who are happy to let proven liars like Hank Hanegraaf, Ken Ham or Phillip Johnson tell them about Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Dawkins, but never think of walking down to the local public library and reading Gould and Dawkins for themselves.

And yet, in the wake of the last election, it seems that it is their values that are carrying the day. As I said, I don't understand it.


At 1:17 PM, Blogger Salvador T. Cordova said...

"And yet, in the wake of the last election, it seems that it is their values that are carrying the day. As I said, I don't understand it. "

Hi Dr. Rosenhouse,

To you credit however, you have gone farther than most to make an attempt to understand the evangelical creationists. You have my highest respect for doing so.

This should not be surprising, but the evangelicals find your postion equally mysterious. I will say however, in the process of dialoging, and occasionally arguing with the critics of the evangelical creationists, I have learned much, and have amended many of my beliefs for the better.

Even though I know it can be irritating to hear me encourage the students at your university to believe in creationism, I appreciate that you've come out to my ID and creation classes.

I apologize that you didn't get an eqaul time hearing for your opposing views in my class last week. The viewpoint in such a classes is decidedly lopsided, and frankly the students of this class wouldn't come if it were an equal time situation. However, I will make an effort this week to make sure they get a handout with links to your website and other sites like Ken Miller's and

It's too bad we're on other sides of these issues, I think I would very much enjoy talking Chess with you.



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