This is a guest post by Emily Dietle. A native Texan, Emily heads the blog emilyhasbooks writing on issues of atheism, Humanism, state secularism, egalitarianism, and free-expression. She is an aspiring speaker, avid reader, and strives to spread awareness of these issues, online and in person.
This past weekend in Houston, Answers in Genesis founder Ken Ham was the keynote speaker at the Texas Home School Coalition’s convention, pandering the hogwash of dinosaurs and humans living at the same time. After many refused attempts to set up a dialogue, an atheist Meetup group organized a rebuttal to Ham’s promotion of Creationism. Coordinating their efforts, three local freethought groups, spearheaded by Vic Wang, co-organized an educational event called “Answers in Science: What On Earth Do We Know?” Their efforts came under fire when Houston-area Creationist David Shormann attempted to silence the evidence-based Answers in Science from being held in the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS) on the grounds that its messages promoting evolution were intolerant to religious teachings and an attack on Christianity. Shormann petitioned HMNS to ban the freethought groups from using meeting rooms there. Fortunately, he failed.
The presentation from Answers in Science (AiS) informed myself, along with more than 200 others, of how science education is in jeopardy across the nation. The event boasted a list of speakers with faith and science backgrounds, including Dr. PZ Myers (biologist and author of The Happy Atheist); AronRa and Sister Lilandra, secular activists from Dallas; and former pastor Mike Aus of Houston Oasis, a small but lively weekly humanist fellowship. It was at Houston Oasis where the speakers gave a short presentation, followed by a joint Q&A session, before we all moved on to the museum for Answers in Science.
This is where we learned about Lilandra’s journey from Christian school teacher to science communicator in public forums. She asked a notable question: “How much more could Texas accomplish if we could catch up to the 21st century?”
PZ Myers told us how, in rural Minnesota, there are fifteen churches within walking distance of his home that serve a five-thousand person population. Where there is faith, money will flow; the town is drowning in piety and this isn’t unusual for rural America. He considers these pious persons to be good people and doesn’t accept that religion leads people to evil. To him, examples of violent acts done in the name of religion are pathological extremes. “I’m an atheist swimming in a sea of superstition. God is obsessed with preserving certain genital membranes, and has a new obsession with football. All you can do is laugh.” I tend to agree.
After a short trip across Houston, we settled in at the museum. There, we learned the history of the age of Earth debate and how it solidified ideas about evolution and geological forces. AronRa gave a thorough review of the required standards of education in Texas biology high school courses, highlighting how teachers frequently chose not to teach the material due to personal reasons or peer pressure. He memorably quipped: “There are no answers in Genesis.”
The event focused on problems with science in public education and the speakers came at the topic from a variety of places. Student activist Zack Kopplin and Kathy Miller (of the Texas Freedom Network) both addressed the issue of science denialism. Miller viewed poor curriculum in the classrooms as a symptom, stating that the true problem was unqualified people creating the standards. She explained that the Religious Right has been attacking public education for 20 years, the biggest push coming in the last decade through local and state school boards and legislative cuts. Since losing the 2005 Dover case, these anti-science activists have become a lot more savvy about how they define Creationism, insisting that their current ploy, Intelligent Design, isn’t about Biblical education at all. Kopplin discussed the Louisiana Science Education Act via a live feed, explaining that, unlike Ken Ham, the people who wrote this law were underhanded with their motives. Pushing to “teach the controversy,” teachers in Louisiana could, under this act, teach science using “alternative supplemental materials” (including Creationist propaganda). As Kopplin said, “You only need a law if you want to sneak unconstitutional unscientific information into the classroom.”
This isn’t just a problem in Louisiana and Texas; there is an anti-science push all across the nation. The fight may be long and Creationists aren’t lacking in funding, but we are making progress. It is a strong boost to morale to recognize that 40% of Nobel laureates, several national science boards, and the New Orleans City Council have joined the cause to fight the Science Education Act. Money may be the only thing keeping the Creationists’ fight alive and school vouchers are an answer to their prayers. A recent attempt to send Creationism-teaching private schools vouchers worth up to $11,000,000 was only recently ruled unconstitutional — and not even for reasons concerning science education. “Any theory that goes against God’s word is in error,” said one school website. This is a fight that is worth our time, and as Kopplin said, “investing in education is a great return on our investment.”
Answers in Science opened my eyes to how steeped in Creationism our educational system is; masquerading as many things, from Intelligent Design to religious equality. I’m hoping this will become an annual Texas event. What started out as a response to Ken Ham became a stand-alone event worth repeating. The more we do these sorts of events, letting people know about issues concerning science education, the easier it will become to develop better curricula and fight the aggressive lawmaking myth-makers.