Our fundamentalist neighbours

I’m honoured today to host a guest post by Adam Laats.  Laats is an historian in the Graduate School of Education at Binghamton University, State University of New York, USA (recently appointed Associate Professor).  He is the author of Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era: God, Darwin, and the Roots of America’s Culture Wars.  He blogs about conservatism and American education at I Love You but You’re Going to Hell. When I started writing, Adam’s blog was the first one I found, and it’s been one of my most-read blogs ever since. Adam and I recently got into a debate about whether a petition to ban the teaching of Creationism is a good idea. Here is Adam’s argument; my response will be on his blog soon.

My fundamentalist neighbor is a dick.

He lets his dogs bark at all hours of the day and night.

He parks his work truck in the yard.

He built a huge ugly palisade fence between his yard and that of our other neighbor.

After years of living next door, he still doesn’t know my name.

He berates me occasionally about America’s woeful abandonment of God and the Bible.

He throws his garbage into the yard of the church next door.

I think he drinks.

In short, my fundamentalist neighbor is a dick.  But it wouldn’t make any sense to try to pass a law to stop his dickishness.  Yet that is the attitude, apparently, behind some other recent anti-fundamentalist efforts.  

Consider the recent anti-creationism petition in the USA.  The petition at the White House wants to encourage President Obama to “ban creationism and intelligent design in the science classroom as federal law.”  In just a couple of weeks, the petition attracted almost 40,000 signatures.  If it gets 60,000 more, the President has promised to consider it.

This petition doesn’t make sense to me.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m no supporter of creationism.  I do not want religion taught as science.  But this petition seems to me like trying to amend my neighbor’s behavior by making dickishness illegal.  It just doesn’t make sense, strategically or intellectually.  Consider the facts:

  • Teaching creationism as science is already illegal.  Federal courts in the United States have already ruled that creationism is not science, but rather religion, and as such has no place in public-school classrooms.

  • The same is true with intelligent design.

  • The federal government wouldn’t have any direct influence on such policies anyway.  In the USA, education policy is made at the local and state level.  The Feds have influence, of course, but not in the sense this petition implies.  President Obama could not simply ban anything from America’s schools, even if he wanted to.

  • The teaching of creationism and intelligent design that does happen is largely the result of decisions by individual teachers.  There is indeed a great deal of creationist/ID teaching that does go on in science classes.  But a federal law would not change this behavior.

Compare this situation to that of my fundamentalist neighbor.  Why would it be stupid for me to propose a law making his behavior illegal?

  • Any of his behavior that imposes too flagrantly on his neighbors is probably already illegal.  For instance, my town has noise ordinances, zoning laws, parking rules, occupancy laws, and so on.  If I thought my neighbor’s crappy behavior warranted it, I could pursue legal recourse.

  • However, it is not illegal to be a dick.  And though I hate to sound like a liberal cliché, I will defend my neighbor’s right to be a dick to me if he so chooses.  Of course, if it really represents a harm or threat, see bullet point above.

  • He is not a dick because he’s a fundamentalist.  Those of us who are non- or ex-fundamentalists need to beware of letting our feelings about religion taint our attitudes about public behavior.  In this case, I need to separate my distaste for my neighbor’s legitimate—if unpleasant—lectures about public religion from my feelings about his illegitimate—and already illegal—dumping of garbage on other people’s yards, for example.  It is not necessary for me to attack my neighbor’s religious views in order to stop his garbage-dumping.  Bringing religious issues into our garbage discussion will only guarantee his hostility.

  • Passing an anti-dick law wouldn’t solve anything.  If I really want to change his behavior, I’ll need to engage in the much more difficult task of dialogue.  He will not stop being a dick if it becomes illegal.  He probably won’t stop if I try to “dialogue,” either.  But my only real chance at a long-term solution is to attempt a dialogue nonetheless.  And, of course, I can pursue this dialogue knowing that I have some legal recourse already in case he refuses to be civil and civilized.

  • Most obviously, what would President Obama have to do with any of this?

I don’t think the recent White House petition is a creationist scheme, as one Curmudgeonly anti-creationist has argued.  But I do think it is a good example of the wrong way to approach our fundamentalist neighbors.  We already have law on our side when it comes to fighting against the teaching of creationism or intelligent design as science in publicly funded schools in the USA.  Petitions like this one only antagonize creationists without offering any possible benefit to the teaching of mainstream science.

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