When I heard that the Illinois Christian Home Educators‘ annual convention was coming to town, I knew I wanted a first-hand account of what happens there — partly because I’m not Christian, and partly because I teach at a public school. Would it fit my stereotypes or would it defy them?
When I saw that the Creation Museum’s founder Ken Ham was a speaker, that clinched the deal.
But… since the bulk of the conference happened on a Thursday and Friday (when I was giving my final exams), Ryan Brandau and Mike Brownstein, both guys in their 20s, volunteered to go on my behalf. Ryan attended all three days (Thursday – Saturday) while Mike was only there on Friday.
Their reports are below. Ryan’s account is in black. Mike’s account is in red.
Before the convention, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. As a 25-year-old man there on my own, would I stand out? I was prepared, though, with a backstory just in case anyone asked questions. Why isn’t your wife with you since spouses are let in free? She was a nurse and couldn’t get the time off. Why are you here? To check out my options since my “son” is still too young to be in school. To back up my story, I downloaded some pictures of my nephew to my phone. I even dug up an old ring an ex-girlfriend gave me that could stand in for a wedding ring if it wasn’t inspected too closely…
Session 1) 12:30p Keynote: “Box Free Living” — Diana Waring
Diana began her presentation with the story of the Good Samaritan, an example of how one should “love their neighbor.” She explained that parenting is like building a house — you need a good foundation… and that foundation is achieved through Biblical parenting!
What was “Box Free Living”? She said boxes are “what we use to make the world small enough… to ensure our children turn out ok, apart from God’s constant help.” Though, from what I heard, a better definition for her boxes would involve demanding perfection from our children.
Diana also spoke about children being “mirrors” of their parents. What the parents see as weird or wrong, through their actions, are picked up by children.
In all honesty, I agreed with much of what Diana had to say, at least to some degree. I don’t think that children should feel that they have to perform in order to earn love, and I agree that demanding perfection will only hurt children. Any speaker could have made the same points Diana did in a completely secular way… but she chose to invoke God, the Holy Spirit, and various other concepts. At one point, she even went so far as to claim that, without the Holy Spirit’s help, these “boxes” would crush our “houses” (or our families).
Session 2) 2:05p “Six Days or Millions of Years” — Ken Ham
Ken Ham is most likely known to atheists as the man responsible for Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum. In case anyone in the auditorium wasn’t aware of that, he made it a point to let us all know. Repeatedly. He seemed quite determined to sell his books, DVDs, magazines, and the like.
This, his first session, was about the battle going on in the church about the Creation, specifically about the amount of time involved — Were we created over six days or millions of years? Of course, Ham informed us that every word of God is correct, and that God is the only being we can trust to never lie.
But apparently other Christians can. He showed several examples of Christians trying to merge the idea of a divine creation with the notion that the world has been around for millions of years. (Ken kept saying “millions,” ignoring that credible sources go with billions instead.)
Beyond the church’s internal struggle, Ham explained why it’s so important for those of us in the secular world to believe we’ve existed for millions of years. It has nothing to do with the vast amount of evidence in favor of that. It’s actually because secular people are afraid that “if you don’t have millions of years, you don’t have evolution.” And without evolution, there’s no way we could possibly deny God.
That’s when Ham started to sell his books. He cited his book, Already Gone, in which he states that 2/3 of children eventually leave the church (Good for us!) and those children who attend Sunday School are more likely to leave the church than those who don’t. Why is that? Because church leaders are trying to fit the idea of “millions of years” together with their religious beliefs. As children see that Genesis isn’t literally true, they think the rest of the Bible must also be suspect.
Ham likes his statistics and he kept them coming. Like when he pointed out that this problem wasn’t just limited to Sunday schools. According to another of Ken’s books, only about 17% of conservative Christian college presidents believe in the inerrancy of the Bible.
After many attempts to scare us with numbers, Ham spoke about the Old Earth Creationist belief that the word “day” might mean something other than a literal 24-hour day. He danced his way around various meanings of words and pointed out that no one questions “yom” (the Hebrew word for “day,” apparently) in any other verse that it’s used in… aside from the creation. So from what I could gather, Ham thinks that if a word with multiple meanings is used in one way for most of a book, it must also be used that way in every other instance…
A key point Ham wanted us all to take away was this: “Believing in ‘millions of years’ doesn’t affect your salvation, but the salvation of the next generations.” In other words, even though you may be a Bible-believing Christian who thinks ‘millions of years’ is possible, your kids may see that as a stepping stone to question the rest of the Bible and ultimately leave the faith altogether. He probably has a good point… but that’s not a bad thing!
Interestingly enough, Ham mentioned the infamous “You KNOW It’s a Myth” atheist billboard in passing. He also said — I believe I wrote this out accurately — “It’s not God’s fault there’s a catastrophe in (Joplin, Japan, etc.)… it’s our fault.”
Session 3) 3:25p “Why Homeschool?” — Michael Donnelly
There were several talks going on at the same time, and none of them stood out to me, so I randomly picked this one… boy, was it worth it.
Donnelly started out by explaining the most important reason to homeschool your children: Religious/moral instruction.
“Homeschooling,” he said, “is the single most effective way to fulfill our role as stewards for our children.” Following the several Bible verses he gave to back up his claim, he made it clear that he believes in some pretty solid gender roles. Moms, you see, have “patience,” whereas dads are “rough around the edges.” That’s why moms must handle the homeschooling.
After offering some reasons why homeschooling is effective — none of which involved academic excellence, which he touched on later — Donnelly told us why other approaches were not as good. What’s wrong with public schools? Public schools are “the most important tools to turn children from parents, God, and country.” He gave us a few quotations to think about, including one from Adolf Hitler, most of which concerned how public schools are a method of controlling what our children believe and value. The longer he spoke, the more he sounded like some sort of conspiracy theorist. He even said that the public school system in America was “openly hostile to Christian values.” His proof? A statistic that 80% of children in public schools turn from their faith.
During the last part of his talk, he discussed the academic side of homeschooling. He gave numbers that indicated homeschooled kids do better on standardized tests than any other children — lauding homeschooling as the reason they do so well. He didn’t consider the possibility that parents who homeschool their children are able to give them years of one-on-one tutoring and obviously have a vested interest in their kids’ education. You don’t always see that in public schools. But a fairer comparison would have involved parents who homeschool their kids and parents who send their kids to public school but who get their kids a tutor, help their kids with homework, and are actively involved in their child’s education.
There was also one more example of his clear-cut views of gender. During a short question-and-answer session at the end, one couple asked him about their children, a boy and a girl, who have a sibling rivalry. Donnelly found it funny that a boy would “compete” with a girl, as if the two were clearly not on the same level.
Session 4) 4:45p “Learning How to Think Biblically” — Ken Ham
Yep. Ken Ham again.
A lot of this material was the same as Ham’s earlier talk. Again, he pointed out the alarming rate at which children are leaving the church (as if this were a bad thing…)
Ham’s main points in this talk, however, dealt with the foundations for belief. He explained that a Christian education should not be adding God to secular material. Rather, it should start with God. No wonder the man behind “Answers in Genesis” believes all doctrine should start with Genesis and build up from there.
Most of his talk after that dealt with converting others to follow Christ. He said that preaching about Jesus only worked if the targets of conversion already believed in God, sin, and everything else in the Old Testament. In order to convert everyone else, he said, you have to start at the beginning with Creation.
(So the way to convert long-time atheists is by saying the world is a few thousand years old…? Good luck with that one.)
Let’s say you wanted to do that, though. How could you make a convincing argument? All of that information could be found in Ham’s books at the AiG booth (for a modest price, of course).
Ham mentioned the time when 300 atheists went to the Creation Museum, even holding a mock communion in front of the museum. He explained that the atheists had hardened themselves to God’s word, and it’s likely none of them converted as a result of visiting the museum… but he had hopes that at least one or two may have. (Hemant adds: No one did.)
During his presentation, Ham also stated several times that there are “only two religions in the world, God’s word and man’s word.”
All in all, there was nothing I heard during this talk that was different from what you would learn if you spent an hour looking at his website.
This was the day I (Mike) attended the convention and, to be completely honest, I knew what I was going to see would be crazy. Having been to many Tea Party events in Lafayette, Indiana and being aware of the rhetoric out there about Creationism, I had an idea of what kind of crowd I would be dealing with. I expected a rather white, slightly female-dominated crowd with a conservative ideology on just about everything. Contrary to many of the Tea Party events, though, I was expecting a lot of kids and families. I expected to see vendors with textbooks full of propaganda, and I was especially eager to check out their math and history books. Especially with Ken Ham there, I figured I’d see a lot of very conservative thinking and Biblical drilling in these textbooks.
Session 1) 9:40a Keynote: “The Genesis Family: Raising Godly Children in an Ungodly World” — Ken Ham
Waking up with the knowledge that I would be listening to even more of Ken Ham wasn’t exactly the greatest thrill of my life… but since this was a morning presentation, I was able to overhear some conversations in the audience as I sat and drank my coffee. In a nutshell, there was a lot of “I’m so happy he’s here” and “This is all so obvious; why don’t people understand?”
There wasn’t a lot of new material this session, especially for anyone who has read his work or spent a day arguing with Christians online. Basically, he thinks that True Christians™ are failing because they’re accepting our side’s ‘millions of years’ foundation. The right approach, as we heard yesterday, was to start everything from the literal Genesis account.
Who’s to blame for why children are leaving the church? Ham blamed the moderate Christians and their desire to merge an old earth with their Biblical faith.
What was most unnerving about this whole session was the response. The crowd was eating up everything he had to say, and I worry they are now even more determined to indoctrinate their own children this way. One telling quotation from Ham was, “We’re losing them as young kids. This means we need to be training them as young kids.”
Ken Ham may be unconvincing and un-engaging to a non-Creationist audience… or any audience that clearly disagrees with him. On the other hand, he had most of this room enthralled. He seemed to be very well-liked by most of the people in the audience, and he filled the auditorium during his subsequent speeches throughout the day.
Session 2) 11:25a “Handle with Care: Family Conflicts over Media & Entertainment” — Phillip Telfer
As interesting as the title sounded, I didn’t get a lot out of this session… but I did get to hear some good ol’ fashioned sexism.
“Women have a different sensitivity than men do,” Telfer said. To illustrate this, he referenced something he was told at a men’s retreat: Women are like butterflies — the smallest breeze and they think there’s a tornado. Men are like buffalo — they could be in a tornado and act like they don’t even feel a breeze.
Got that, ladies?
When pressed, he tried to justify his sexist comments by using a pottery example. Fine china is more delicate, but is still very loved and valuable… whereas there are stronger pots made for hard work. I guess the fact that he tried to justify what he said meant he at least recognized that his comments were sexist… but he didn’t seem sorry he said them.
After the talk was over, I approached Telfer to ask him about video games (a passion of mine). Telfer is quite against them. He explained that his children are not allowed to play video games, and they’ve turned out fine… His kids may be fine, but are video games (or lack thereof) the reason? I don’t think they’re the “great evil” he made them out to be. He did, however, acknowledge that video games do have some benefits and that there was research being done in using them to help with certain brain disorders.
Session 3) 1:45p “Parents’ Rights — A Crisis Is Coming” — Mike Donnelly
Did anyone else know the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is going to destroy the homeschooling movement? Because that’s what Donnelly says is going to happen. (More on this at the bottom of the post!)
Donnelly is a Constitutional Law professor at (conservative Christian) Patrick Henry College and he refuses to be a part of the American Bar Association. He was upset that the liberal world is conspiring against the homeschooling movement.
Donnelly mentioned that International law, Sharia Law, and international norms are taking precedent over the U.S. Constitution and the Supreme Court.
Just about anyone who has taken a basic Civics class would know that this statement is false. While the Supreme Court may lean in an ideological direction, all nine justices will tell you that their decision making is based on the U.S. Constitution above all else — yes, even Justice Scalia. Overall, though, Donnelly wasn’t very engaging and he spoke almost entirely from a script he had on a music stand. As someone who disagreed with him, there wasn’t really anything he said to engage me.
Oh. And on a complete side note, Donnelly looked like and had the same candor as the Sleazy 80′s stock broker from Futurama:
Session 3) 1:45p “Defending Christian Faith: Fossils & the Flood” — Ken Ham
Why do I keep going to Ham’s sessions?!
There’s nothing really new here. Once again, Ham gave his same old arguments. He delved into how evolution occurs within the same “kind,” which he defines as the same “family,” which is why there was ample room on Noah’s Ark.
I wonder if Creationists just ignore insects in their talks, because insects on the ark would make the entire matter way more complicated…
Session 4) 3:00p Keynote: “Daring to Ask for More” — Eric Ludy
This guy is all about “high octane Jesus Christ” (his words). Seemed pretty accurate to me. He was yelling on the stage, trying to motivate the crowd to get out of their comfort zone and preach to the world, to follow God wherever he demanded they go. He also spent a lot of his time talking about some guy named C.T. Studd (I agree with Ludy: awesome name).
Ludy wanted the crowd to understand some “facts” about Jesus. Such as: “You are safer in Afghanistan with me (God) than in suburbia America apart from me.” God won’t stop you from dying, but maybe that’s not a problem: “This generation needs men willing to be spent to the death for Jesus Christ.”
So Ludy wants children to spend their lives preaching Christianity in dangerous places where their lives are in danger… scary!
Eric Ludy was perhaps the most chuckle-worthy speaker of the day. He mentioned a book he wrote called The Bravehearted Bible in which he claims “puts the manly parts of the Bible back into it.”
Just as Ryan mentioned, his message was about being able to give up your life for God and spreading the word of Christ. To me, that sounded like he was encouraging a strange form of martyrdom because he stressed that you should let God use you as he sees fit. He thinks God needs to be more militant.
On that note, he pointed out a phrase (which he called a “war cry”) that is in Exodus and used by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF): “Raq Chazaq.”
He translated the phrase completely differently than what it really means, not to mention he butchered the hard ch sound that is in the Hebrew language. Roughly, in modern Hebrew, this phrase means “Only Strength,” and is a phrase similar to “Semper Fi” in the Israeli Military.
The audience was really into it, though, and very engaged. I even overheard a mother say how much she liked the “war cry” and was going to start using it more often.
Session 5) 4:35p “The Measurement of a Man” — Eric Ludy
Ken Ham was giving a talk on “The origin of races” at this time, but I decided I was done with him unless he was giving another keynote. And since Ludy was doing another session, I wanted to hear more.
Plus, how could anyone resist that title…?
He started off by saying women were allowed to sit in, but this message was for the men. It was about how to be manly. In a Christian way.
The way to do that, I found out, was by standing firm in your beliefs, never budging, and eventually dying because of your beliefs. At one point he used a scale of 1-10 to describe something, but all I remember is that atheists were a 0.
Session 5) 4:35p “History via the Scenic Route” — Diana Waring
The final speaker I saw was Diana Warring. Like Ryan said, she was probably the best speaker I encountered at the conference, because she actually gave the best advice when it came to teaching compared to all the other speakers I heard. This time around, her presentation was about how teaching history could be a lot more fun if you gave the kids information they could relate to, in addition to the synopses they might read in a textbook.
An example she gave was that a teacher could tell the kids that Patrick Henry didn’t wear shoes until he was 9, in addition to telling them (the more famous anecdote) about how he stated: “Give me liberty, or give me death!”
She had a lot of great advice… if you ignore the parts where she said to use the Bible.
Session 1) 8:00a Keynote: “Key to Rebuilding the Foundation in Family and Culture” — Ken Ham
Another talk with Ken Ham?!
Needless to say most of the information was the same as before.
But it was interesting to note that, before Ham took the stage, U.S. Congressman Randy Hultgren (R-IL) and his wife took the stage.
Hultgren thanked everyone for being involved, did a bit of badmouthing President Obama, talked about the deficit, and then said: “[Believing that the Founding Fathers wanted] separation of church and state is ridiculous.”
In case anyone is interested, his contact information is here…
Session 2) 9:45a “Exposing the Wizard of Oz: A Christian’s Guide to Teaching History ” — Diana Waring
I went here because I actually liked what Waring had to say in her first session on Thursday. Maybe in the midst of the sexism and bad science at this conference, I could find something worthwhile. But that wasn’t the case this time around.
To be fair, Diana did have some good points. I agree with her that anyone teaching history should be considerate of the fact that the people involved are, well, people, and not just characters in a story. Every story in history has multiple angles from which to view it, and we ought to take that into account when reading a historical document. Makes sense, too.
Then, she got careless. Waring said she considers the Bible to be even more credible than primary sources when looking at history. (As if the Bible is full of historical facts…)
She added that she is uneasy teaching kids about Roman/Greek gods to children, because that may confuse them. Maybe she worried kids would believe in those gods instead of the Biblical one? I’d say Ancient Mythology is no more confusing or true than Current Mythology. But that’s just me.
Session 3) 10:55a “The Things Christian Parents Don’t Talk About” — Derek and Cheryl Carter
This session was surprisingly good. A better name for it, though, would have been “How to be a Parent.” They really didn’t get into secrets or uncomfortable discussions Christian parents might have. Instead, the main point was about treating your children with respect and how to be respected back. They discussed having a vision statement for your family. They talked about the need for strict rules, but added that the rules should be able to be appealed if the child has good reason.
All in all, I would say this session probably gave me the most positive information to use later in my life. The Carters should be commended for teaching these things, and I love that their session had very little religious talk (though it wasn’t devoid of it entirely).
At this point, though the convention wasn’t over, I stopped going to more sessions. I had seen enough of them to get the idea of what they had to say, and I really wanted to talk with some of the other attendees.
All of them seemed to have about the same things to say. They were star-struck over Ken Ham’s presence, for example. On the few occasions I told people why I was there, they politely asked what I thought of Ham and his presentations. The parents I spoke with all believed that their children were being prepared for the outside world the best way possible through homeschooling. One girl working at a vendor booth told me that I should go to the Creation Museum of the Ozarks and that there was a freethinkers group that went there from time to time I should get in touch with. (Hemant adds: Really? Which group is this?!)
I knew going into this convention I would be bombarded by Creationist propaganda. I knew Ken Ham would lie about science. But I wasn’t expecting to see so much overt sexism, and the lack of response to that. That concerns me quite a bit.
Did I learn anything? Yeah, a bit. I’m not a parent yet, but I think there are some lessons I could take away from this weekend that could be helpful for my future family. I’d say the Carters were the best presenters I saw, followed by Waring in a distant second.
Here’s what worries me the most. First, how much political power these people hold. Second, the number of children that many of the presenters have.
There were a few things that surprised me during the day I was there. I knew Ken Ham was a Creationist, but I learned that Ken Ham was not a fan of President Obama, and he had no problem making that clear in his speeches. I learned how many of these parents didn’t necessarily see a value in college. For example, one of Mike Donnelly’s presentations was about the benefits of apprenticeship over a college education.
I learned how well connected these families are politically. It was stressed repeatedly that parents should get to know their elected officials personally and write to them often. ICHE is also planning a number of events in Springfield, IL to talk to elected officials about their issues — as opposed to the maybe-once-a-year lobby days many secular advocacy groups have. They are planning to have a day where they get at least 4,000 people to go down to the Capitol Building in Springfield.
They stressed bringing kids, which is an emotional grab on the elected officials, and I don’t blame them. This form of lobbying works. In Indiana, when the Planned Parenthood issue was being discussed, there were kids wearing “Defund PP” stickers walking around the state house. Senators and Representatives mentioned these kids on the floor during debate. Although they may have been pure rhetoric, those statements became part of the public record.
I was also surprised to learn about the opposition to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). This statement is all about improving the lives of children in the world. Among the things listed in it: it prohibits the government from doing cruel and unusual things to children, protects them from capital punishment, says that they have the right to their own identity, and the right to have a relationship with both parents (even if separated).
There are only two countries that have not ratified this treaty: the United States and Somalia.
One possible reason we have not signed it is because of the protocols of signing international treaties. When the U.S. signs a treaty, it must codify the treaty’s promises within the laws — which requires Congress to pass it. It shouldn’t be that complicated, but it is.
The PAC Parental Rights was on-hand and their representative gave me an annotated sheet of their talking points after we had been discussing UNCRC and International norms for about 10-15 minutes.
It seems like this convention would be something that HSLDA would be more in favor of, but they have a lot of complaints. Let me point out just two of them: 1) They don’t like Article 37 which guarantees children protection from corporal punishment. They viewed this as the government telling parents they’re not allowed to (reasonably) spank their kids, which is seen as an infringement on parents’ liberty. 2) They don’t like Article 12 which says children have the right to freely express their opinions and religious preferences. With all the talk this weekend about kids leaving church at a young age, you can see their problem with it. Basically, they believe the government will agree to this statement and then use it to restrict homeschooling.
When it came to the textbooks and their vendors, I also expected them to have a Christian slant. Some secular companies were there (e.g. Rosetta Stone), but by and large, these were Christian companies trying to sell their products.
I only looked at History and Math books because those are subjects I know pretty well.
With the history books, they were definitely slanted across the board. For example, there was no history older than the ancient Egyptians. It makes sense only if you accept Young Earth Creationism. It was also very Euro-centric, with very little about India or China before they were “found” by the Europeans.
With regards to U.S. History, there seemed to be 5 major periods: the colonization of America, the American Revolution, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and Ronald Reagan. Other history was present in the textbooks… but not nearly as much as you would find in a secular textbook.
A lot of the student books asked the students to find Bible verses that were appropriate when describing these events, which I think is a waste of time. It might make the history more personal, but it’s not fair or accurate to teach history that way.
As for math, I was pleasantly surprised. Most of the books seemed very good about their methodology on how to teach the concepts, if you ignore the Bible parts.
Yep. There were Bible parts to the Math books… One of the books for Geometry had the students looking up Bible verses to help them with congruency proofs for triangles.
What can atheists take away from this experience?
1) We need to do a better job of talking to political leaders. They may not always listen to us, but that might happen more often if they knew us on a first-name basis. We should always be in the back of their minds when they’re casting a vote. We need to do a better job of sending our elected officials letters, visiting them, and demonstrating our concerns. The homeschooling crowd can mobilize rather well, and they know how to keep their members informed. We could do that better.
2) We need to be aware of the rampant sexism in their community. These people really exploit the gender roles and norms. Is that a generalization? Yes, but it’s not an unfair one. They really think that the man should be working, and the woman should stay home and educate the children.
This was made clear even when the talks were about curriculum. For example, Diana Waring said — and I quote — “War history is more of a boy topic, and I guess the blood-thirsty girls will like it, too.”
Gender roles exist in society, but I kept thinking all day about the gender-gap in education when it comes to the science and math fields. It doesn’t help when groups like this one perpetuate the notion that women can only do certain things and they wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) be interested in fields traditionally dominated by men.
Women who are brave enough to leave this sort of fundamentalist and Christian point of view deserve better from our community, and we’re not making a good case for ourselves when we’re being sexist as well. We’re better than the Christians I met this weekend, but not always, and not by much.