Thursday, May 6, 2010

Asking About Life, Part 4

On May 5th, in Tennessee, logic and reason won a small victory, however fleeting it may be. The Knox County school board in that fine state voted 6-3 to retain a challenged biology textbook titled Asking About Life.  News coverage of the vote was released within a few hours on,, and

The father of a high school student had challenged the use of the textbook in the school’s honors Biology program because on one page, out of over 900, the book defined Creationism as a “biblical myth.”  In response to his initial challenge, a review committee was set up. But when that committee recommended keeping the book, the father appealed to the school board.  The school board has now also voted to keep the book, and the father has indicated he may appeal further, although it is not clear to whom.

This follows the ever-so-typical pattern of book challenges in public schools: 1) a parent overreacts to excerpts without considering the work as a whole, 2) the parent challenges the book without reasonable justification, 3) a review committee is formed and recommends keeping the book, then 4) the school board ignores the recommendations of the experts and bans the book anyway.  By luck or logic, I don’t know which, step four turned out differently this time.
The cash-strapped school district could ill afford to replace the textbook at present.  The district was already planning to replace the textbook at some unknown future date, whenever regular funding next became available. It is not clear whether that would have entailed an upgrade to the next edition of the same textbook or a different title altogether. Nor is it clear how the present challenge will affect that decision, if and when the funding to replace the book does become available.

What the textbook actually says on the offending page (I have the book in front of me) is:
“In 1973, antievolutionists in Arkansas, Tennessee, and Louisiana passed identical bills calling for ‘equal time’ for teaching evolution and creationism, the biblical myth that the universe was created by the Judeo-Christian God in 7 days.  But a court ruled that the ‘equal-time’ bill was unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the separation of church and state” [emphasis original].
Some Christian creationists (or are they creationist Christians?) feel this statement unfairly belittles their religion, and that a science textbook shouldn't mention religion at all. But given their all-out assault on science, I don’t think creationists can legitimately claim to be the victims here.  The textbook’s statements are irreproachably fair and accurate.

Of course, the term myth has two slightly different meanings, and a lot of the debate within this book challenge was about which meaning was intended by the authors.  Myth can mean a story that is false. Myth can also mean a story with symbolic and metaphorical meanings that are more important than the story’s factual accuracy, regardless of whether the story is true or not. The latter is the more technically accurate sense of the term, and is the one the authors have said they intended.

The distinction is irrelevant, however, since the Genesis creation story is a myth in both senses.  The vast majority of Christians acknowledge that Genesis is a myth. They recognize that what’s important about it is its spiritual message about the relationship between the human and the divine, and know that it is not, and cannot be, a statement of historical fact. Only a small group of literal-minded fundamentalists claim that the first few chapters of Genesis can be taken as a statement of scientific fact. Genesis says that plants grew on earth before the sun, moon and stars had been created (1:11-17), which is a simple impossibility in several ways. Genesis explicitly states that birds and mammals were created before humankind (1:20-26), then immediately contradicts itself, saying that God created man first (2:7), and created birds and mammals after that (2:18-20). Genesis says that men and women (plural) were created together after all the other life forms (1:26-28), then immediately contradicts itself, saying that God created a man, then birds and mammals, then created a woman out of the man’s rib (2:18-22). Don’t get me started about talking snakes. Calling Genesis a myth is the best thing we can say about it.

I agree that no science textbook should attempt to practice theology, and Asking About Life comes nowhere close to doing that.  What the book does is correctly recount some of the recent history of the teaching of science, a topic that is clearly legitimate within a science textbook. It is completely ridiculous for creationists to cry foul here. Creationists started this fight by trying to turn our officially secular public school system into an instrument for the propagation of faith. They lost that battle, and now want to insist that nobody discuss that loss as the simple historical fact that it is. I realize some won’t like it, but creationists have made their own bed, and now they have to lie in it.

1 comment:

  1. I never thought an overstretched budget would come in handy for anything. Go figure.

    When people challenge things like this, they're basically saying their children/children in general can't think critically, or even hold a concept in their heads without accepting it. Actually a lot of book banners don't seem to have any respect for children's intelligence.