Teaching “Both Sides”?

I was homeschooled from kindergarten through high school, and like many homeschooled students, I studied from creationist science textbooks. The most prominent science curriculum in our community was Apologia, which calls itself an “educational ministry” and offers “Learn, Live, and Defend the Faith” as its motto.

Creationists often argue that creationism should be taught in public schools alongside evolution so that students can “hear both sides” and decide for themselves. Beside the obvious problems with this argument – scientists are infinitely more qualified to decide what is and is not accurate science than are teenagers – is the fact that it is a bit hypocritical. I, after all, was never allowed to “hear both sides,” and nor are plenty of other young people who are homeschooled or sent to Christian schools.

My apologia biology textbook was divided into sixteen “modules,” each intended to take two weeks. One of these modules covered evolution. I offer its title and contents for you below (for the full table of contents of the apologia biology textbook, click here):


Evolution: Part Scientific Theory, Part Unconfirmed Hypothesis


Charles Darwin

Darwin’s Theory

Microevolution and Macroevolution

Inconclusive Evidence: The Geological Column

The Details of the Fossil Record: Evidence Against Macroevolution

The Cambrian Explosion

Structural Homology: Formerly Evidence for Macroevolution, Now Evidence against It

Molecular Biology: The Nail in Macroevolution’s Coffin

Macroevolution Today

Why Do So Many Scientists Believe in Macroevolution?

The entire point of this module was to explain why evolution is wrong. The only discussion of evidence was to show that the evidence is all against evolution. No actual evidence for evolution was discussed, except to show that it was fake or misinterpreted, or actually proved evolution was wrong.

Creationism was also integrated into the rest of the textbook, into almost every module, through comments like “isn’t God’s design obvious?” and “clearly, this mechanism could not have ‘evolved.’” For example, when discussing the formation of scabs in the human anatomy textbook, designed to serve as an advanced biology curriculum, the text explains that there is no possible way that every mechanism in the chain reaction that forms scabs could have evolved like that. Little comments and commentary of that sort are peppered through each apologia science textbook.  

When I arrived at college and came in contact with the actual theory of evolution it was like learning about it for the first time. I realized that the version of evolution I had been taught was only a straw man version set up to be knocked down. I realized that I had never really actually learned about the theory of evolution and what it says, about the evidence for it and the complexities of it. I learned that what was taught in that module on evolution in my apologia biology textbook was often completely false, or left out important information, or was simply misleading. And, of course, I learned that scientists know exactly how the mechanism for scab formation evolved. I was appalled by the depth of my deception.

So when I hear the talk of teaching “both sides,” I can’t help but feel that if creationists had their way, they would never ask for teaching “both sides” at all, but would instead prefer to teach only their side. Creationists use the “both sides” argument both because they know that in today’s world there is no way to ban evolution from the schools entirely, and because it is a good rhetorical tool.

Creationists should be fighting their battle in the academy. They should be writing academic articles and getting published. They should be doing research and experiments. They should be arguing it out with other scientists. Instead, they fought their battle over the terrain of my teenage mind.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Anat

    What surprises me is that you were able to attend a college that taught you about evolution. How did that come to happen? Did your parents approve of your choice of college? Were they not aware of the fact that you would be exposed to teachings they opposed? Did they think your home education would withstand the encounter? Or were you already seeking independence while still accepting their belief system? Something else?

    • Libby Anne

      Short story: I was taught to “be a light to the world” and it’s kind of hard to find “the world” to be a light to at a Christian ollege. And yes, my parents thought they had educated me well enough to withstand the teachings they opposed. You have to remember that they – and I – honestly believed that the evidence proved evolution false and creationism true. I hope that answers your question!

      • Gordon

        That’s an interesting answer. It promises hope from the honestly mistaken. It would be great if more of them could follow your route out.

      • Another person who has left Christian patriarchy

        Has your experience changed your parents’ minds about sending your younger siblings to college? I ask because the fact that I and some of my older siblings “strayed” has caused my parents to become more and more ill-disposed to college, to the point that my youngest siblings aren’t going at all. And those of us who went, went to a very conservative Christian college! But it was still too “worldly” for my parents in the end. I feel heartbroken about my youngest siblings still at home, and somewhat responsible for their plight. I would have kept my changes more hidden if I had realized it meant closing off options for them.

      • http://janeyqdoe.com/ Janey Q Doe

        What seems odd to me is that they didn’t realise that giving you a skewed view of evolution and then sending you to a secular college wouldn’t cause any problems. If you had been given a full understanding with more developed arguments against, do you think it would have worked out differently? Would you still be a Christian in that case?

      • Libby Anne

        The thing is, they thought they gave me an accurate picture. Every creationist I have ever met – including the ones who top such organizations as Answers in Genesis – either unintentionally or willfully misunderstand what the theory of evolution actually is. If they’d given me an accurate view of evolution, they never could have offered problems with it, since their “problems” would have disappeared. Also, I remained a Christian for years after ceasing to believe in creationism.

      • Anat

        Thanks for your response. I’m reading your story on your old blog. It is so different from anything I lived, but then, I know that there are people living variations of that life in many places. Very enlightening.

  • Anders

    “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”

    The battle for the future has always been the brain of kids and teenagers. Look at how much weight Plato – and totalitarians ever since – put on controlling education.

    • Contrarian

      Wasn’t there a Pharyngula post recently about when people make a lasting commitment to Christianity? IIRC, the plurality (almost majority, something like 45%) of Christians make their lasting commitment to Christ between the ages of 8 and 21.

      • Anders

        I find that very easy to believe. Agoge, the Hitler Youth, Komsomol… and this.

        I looked at the reviews at Apologia and my heart nearly broke. These kids were so happy to learn creation science… they loved to learn! And yet every word they heard was poison. Some poisons cause the heart to stop; this does the same with the mind. Just imagine what they could have been if they had been taught real science!

        I don’t blame the parents, they did what they thought was best for their children. But the people who wrote the textbooks must have known, on some level, that what they were writing were lies. And I just can’t understand the people who do that.

  • Steve

    Presenting supposed evidence against evolution is all Creationism can do. It doesn’t have a single idea of its own. It doesn’t offer any conclusive proof. It doesn’t make any predictions. It’s all about “This is wrong, so god did it”. Basically the god of the gaps fallacy.

    Even saying that that there are two sides is wrong. There aren’t. It’s a manufactured controversy. No serious scientists in the life sciences dismisses evolution in its entirety. And Creationism/ID simply isn’t science. Period. That’s the main reason it doesn’t belong in a science curriculum

    • Libby Anne

      Presenting supposed evidence against evolution is all Creationism can do.

      Absolutely this. I am a graduate student today, and I have a decent understanding of how academia works. Simply poking holes in someone else’s theory isn’t enough, you have to build your own and do productive work as well.

      You make another good point at all. Simply using the “both sides” rhetoric serves to legitimate the idea that there are two sides. I’ve also heard it said that part of the problem is the talking head phenomenon. The news media always wants to put up an expert on “each side” of any given controversy, and have them respond to each other, but what that does is make it look like there are two equal sides on an issue. They do this all the time by putting up creationists as counterpoints to evolutionists.

    • ‘Tis Himself, OM

      Many creationists don’t understand how science works. They see it as a zero-sum game. If evolution loses then automatically creationism wins. Here’s just two objections to this idea.

      There may be more possibilities than evolution and creationism. The Hindu creationist myth is completely different from the Genesis story, as is the Polynesian myth. The original point of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was to show it’s easy to produce a creation myth.

      Creationists have to produce evidence which contradicts evolution and then they have to come up with a theory which explains that evidence and all the evidence which evolution explains before evolution can be discarded. Contrary to popular belief, Relativity didn’t throw Newtonian physics (NP) into the trash. Relativity answered a couple of questions NP couldn’t as well as answering all the questions NP could. A creationist theory would have to do the same thing. “God did it” doesn’t explain anything because it explains everything.

      • Libby Anne

        There may be more possibilities than evolution and creationism. The Hindu creationist myth is completely different from the Genesis story, as is the Polynesian myth. The original point of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was to show it’s easy to produce a creation myth.

        In Indiana recently, the state senate passed a law allowing the teaching of “alternative theories of the origins of life” in public schools, and one democratic state senator added an amendment requiring that if a school district decides to do this it must teach “multiple theories” including those of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and even Scientology. The point was exactly the one you make here – that there are many, many, many different “creation myths,” not just the Christian one!

      • Steve

        They need to be careful with that. Elephants balancing on turtles are way cooler than an invisible sky man

  • http://www.sustainablemommy.wordpress.com Naomi

    Great post, insightful comments! I too was brought up on Creationism and never actually heard a defense of evolution until I was in my mid-twenties in college. I was blown away when I realized how much crap I’d been fed all those years!

    Recently I was thumbing through Sunday School papers at my parents’ house and found a column that listed all the ways scientists have been wrong–but wouldn’t have been if they’d just read the Bible. Once more I was blown away by the hypocrisy of their claims since religious institutions have historically been at the forefront of denying those very discoveries (heliocentrism, etc.).

    But regarding your larger issue, these professions of pluralism are devious, insincere, and highly problematic. David Barton uses it to sell his brand of crazy-quilt “history” too. Gah!

  • vianne

    excellent post. I, too, was homeschooled & used the Apologia curriculum for both biology and chemistry. I believed it completely, of course, and one of my parents’ proudest moments was when I was asked what I thought about “the theory of evolution.” my response? “It’s not a theory; it’s a hypothesis.” whenever I remember that moment, now, I cringe. oh, I was brainwashed so thoroughly.

    • Caravelle

      You know vianne, I’d be proud too : you actually seemed to be using the word “theory” correctly !

  • Ace of Sevens

    I was homeschooled with A Becca, but thankfully went to public school starting in fifth grade. Public schools didn’t do a very good job countering the mis-information, but when I was in my early twenties, I went to a talk by Stephen Jay Gould, where he demolished everything I had learned in about an hour and a half. He exposed the quote-mining tactics and refusal to acknowledge any of the real arguments for evolution.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    “Creationists should be fighting their battle in the academy. They should be writing academic articles and getting published. They should be doing research and experiments. They should be arguing it out with other scientists. Instead, they fought their battle over the terrain of my teenage mind.”

    Of course that’s what they’re doing because they know that’s the only thing they can do. If they took their fight to academia, their work would never survive peer review, if it even got THAT far.

    So instead they cast doubt on the entire system of peer review and of the academy in general, trying to cast scientists and academics as a bunch of effete elitists meeting in smoke-filled rooms to figure out how to brainwash ordinary people with their agenda. How dare those trained scientists presume to think they know more about science than good, honest folk!

    Imagine if we all took this attitude with everything? What if we all decided to just fix our own cars because we were sick of those highfalutin mechanics thinking they know more about car repair than the rest of us, just because they were trained in it and all.

    What the religious right (and the right in general) has done very effectively is sow a kind of faux-populist suspicion of the entire concept of expertise (applied selectively, of course). It’s a very clever tactic.

  • Doc

    Dear Libby Anne:

    Thank you for your thoughtful discussion. I especially appreciate your concern about ‘both sides’ and the need to do more than just criticize.

    In Indiana a creationist bill is tied up in the legislature because an amendment was added that expanded ‘both sides’ to include the creation stories of many of the other world religions.


  • AztecQueen2000

    I’m planning to homeschool. I have already showed my kids the Museum of Natural History, and explained that dinosaurs lived millions of years before humans. And, yes, I plan to teach my kids about evolution. (In fact, part of the reason I want to homeschool is so that they CAN learn evolution.)

    • John Marley

      That’s great. If you have the time and ability to make a good job of it, and with proper oversight, homeschooling is fine. Libby was not disparaging homeschooling itself. She was pointing out the abuse of it by creationist organizations.

  • M.Nieuweboer

    The thing I will never understand is how those christian creationists on purpose and in full consciousness violate the Ninth Commandment. I’m not aware of any excuse or extenuating circumstance mentioned in the OT. The inescapable conclusion is that no creationist takes his/her own conviction seriously.

  • http://janeyqdoe.com/ Janey Q Doe

    Yeah, I actually kind of figured that they believed the strawman argument themselves, but I do wonder how much people willingly ignore the other parts of evolution to sustain that.
    I remembered that you had been a Christian for a while after, but what I was trying to get at, was if you would have questioned your parents’ version of Christianity at all, if you had not been given the strawman version in the first place. Although, I too, am sure that it’d be pretty bloody hard to give a kid Christian arguments against ACTUAL evolutionary theory. It was really just a hypothetical because I do wonder if giving kids this one-sided, biased understanding of the secular world actually makes them MORE likely to deconvert, because they can see the holes very easily which leads them to more holes.

    • jasondick

      This is my favorite post on that very phenomenon:

      I think the short answer of how this works is two-fold:
      1. Religion conflates creationism with morality. Creationism isn’t only correct, but it is morally good to believe in it. Evolution isn’t only incorrect, but those who believe in it tend towards immoral, evil behavior. This conflation of creationism with morality throws up a huge emotional wall that makes the creationist predisposed to reject any evidence they do run across, long before they are able to engage the rational part of their brain.
      2. Creationists typically receive continual and consistent reinforcement of their beliefs through friends, family, and church. This repeated reinforcement helps to prevent thoughts counter to creationism from being allowed to fester: the spurious excuses they throw out are reinforced again and again in their social circles. This social reinforcement acts as another wall preventing contrary beliefs from creeping in.

      • http://janeyqdoe.com/ Janey Q Doe

        Jason, that makes total sense. It is also made worse by the tendency of the more religious to only mix with those who are as religious as them. More liberal religious types tend to mix with people who hold a range of views because they don’t think that their view is the only way to be saved.

        When I watch people like the Duggars, though (damn you Libby Anne for mentioning them and putting me off my lunch)I always wonder if their faith is actually incredibly fragile. When you bind every single belief up so tightly into one take it or leave it package, I wonder if the questioning of one tiny idea leads to a gigantic, crumbling house of cards.

      • Libby Anne

        Janey, I think you’ll find the answer to that in this post, How Creationism Drove Me Out of the Church.

      • kisekileia

        “Religion” does not equal evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity. Please don’t use the terms interchangeably. There are numerous religious beliefs and people that are not creationist.

      • Libby Anne

        Perhaps he meant that for those who believe in creationism, religion conflates creationism with morality. Jason has been a regular commenter for a while and I know he knows there are a variety of religious viewpoints on the origins of the world. I think his point – and a good one too – is that their belief that only creationism leads to moral living while belief in evolution leads to immorality (“why not just act like monkeys if we’re descended from them?” or similar nonsense) reinforces their belief in creationism and makes it harder to challenge.

      • Jason Dick

        Yes, Libby, that’s what I meant. Looking back at my post, I realize that I worded that somewhat poorly. So sorry and thanks!

        I would like to add, however, that it seems to me that this conflation of belief with morality is really common in a lot of dogmatic belief, whether we’re talking about more liberal religion, political affiliation, or whatever. And I’d say it’s the #1 thing about religion (or any dogmatism) that I dislike the most.

      • kisekileia

        Thanks for clarifying, Jason. Apology accepted.

  • cccbccc

    I see your terrible homeschool science education and raise you: we *debated* other homeschoolers on the topic, based on EXACTLY the sort of misinformation you describe. The other students posed as “Evolutionists” and played “devil’s advocate.” (Literally?) I attributed my loss of the debate to my poor advocacy skills.

    Slightly off-topic, I have really really enjoyed your posts thus far, and can’t wait to see more.

  • Glenn Davey

    OMG yes, THANK YOU. There’s a whole chapter about this STRAW MAN EVOLUTION we were taught in my book about why Jehovah’s Witnesses are full of shit and why I left.

    They set up a phony version of “evolution” so they can knock it down with their ignorance.

    Learning about evolution again from scientific sources is really learning it for the very first time.

    It was a true “revelation”.

  • http://saltycurrent.blogspot.com SC (Salty Current), OM

    It’s upsetting. My church/Bible school/Bible camp taught this, but not my parents or real school, and my best friends weren’t for the most part Christians, or Baptists, or fundamentalists, so “I’m no kin to a monkey…” as anything other than a song didn’t take.

    I have to wonder what the role of other animals in my life was. I sure felt like “kin” to dogs. And happily played on monkey bars, so the lyrics didn’t ring true. My ancestors didn’t swing from a tree? I still love swinging from trees!

  • Diana

    I used the Apologia books too and was shocked sophomore year of college when I took a science class and found out a better picture of what evolution was.

  • Meggie

    I think it is an interesting point about ‘hearing both sides’. I don’t know any home schoolers who are prepared to teach evolution in an unbiased manner. Then again, I don’t know any home schoolers who teach any area of Science properly, so maybe it is just the people I mix with.

  • Agent Smith

    There’s two sides to be taught. We’ll teach you one side. Oh, by the way, just to save time and avoid any awkward situations, we’ll teach you the other side as well. Can’t have the people who are too emotionally invested in that side misinforming you, now.

    The Creationists.

  • http://sheilacrosby.com Sheila Crosby

    This is all really exotic to me. I grew up in England, and went to a Church of England school and a Methodist church. We were taught evolution. Proper evolution. When I was about 11, I think. I never met anyone who believed the “created in 6 days, about 6,000 years ago” bit in real life until I was in my forties. Coming across that attitude all over the internet made me question my own Christianity. I mean if these people were that certain on less-than-zero evidence, hadn’t I better check my own sources? So what evidence did I have for Christianity other than the bible?

    And it collapsed pretty quickly after that.

  • Roel

    Teaching both sides would make sense if there actually were two sides to teach.

    • Meggie

      There are two sides to teach …..

      1) Evolution which is Science.

      2) Creationism which is Religious Studies. As part of learning about creationism I looked at the Ancient Greek bible and the use of the word kiros (sp?) versus kronos, both of which are translated as ‘day’ but have very different meanings in Greek.

      • jasondick

        Changing the definition of “day” really doesn’t have any impact whatsoever on the truly dramatic differences between the Genesis 1 creation account and reality.

      • lucrezaborgia

        If you want to nitpick, a higher being could be living in a different time frame than we are due to relativity. Tho…again…that still does not exclude evolution.

  • http://pretendbiologist.blogspot.com Travis

    Reading posts like this make me very happy that I was raised in such a non-religious way and was unaware of this type of thing until I started reading books by Gould, Sagan and Dawkins in my early teens. The curriculum in the post makes me sad, it seems like such a sham science education.

    • http://pretendbiologist.blogspot.com Travis

      Why Do So Many Scientists Believe in Macroevolution?

      This also bugs me. What was the content in this section? I can imagine what it might be from my experiences reading other creationist literature (The first one I ever set my hands on was “Stones and Bones” and if I remember correctly its reasoning had to do with how evolutionary scientists are atheists)

  • Lucy


  • Sheena

    Libby (and others, if the question applies) — did your textbooks also include ad hominem attacks against specific people? I wasn’t homeschooled, but share the religious background. Others at my churches were told, in their homeschool curricula or by pastors, that Darwin was racist (claiming that he considers anyone non-white “less evolved”). And Darwin wasn’t the only target; basically anyone they disagreed with was racist, amoral, “anti-Christian”, etc.

    • cccbccc

      My curriculum didn’t include that sort of thing that I remember. There was some stuff about “this scientist became a Christian after discovering the beauty of God’s creation” and “X number of scientists are Christian!” etc. As if that proves anything.

      • Sheena

        Thank you :)

        I went to a religiously-affiliated college, and the “so many people in X field are Christians” or “we take Scientist Bob more seriously because of his profession of faith” was part of half of my classes (fortunately, there were a few teachers who focused more on the content than the religious aspect; I stuck with their classes as much as possible). That was still remarkably more “tolerant” than the churches I grew up in and their leadership.

  • lane

    Late to the party here, but heck, I’m commenting anyway.

    I used those same textbooks and remember the “isn’t god’s creation awesome” comments utterly grating and tired after going through 3 of this guy’s texts. I have since had to spend (and am still spending) heaps of time teaching myself the very basics of evolution. (THANK YOU, Richard Dawkins.) As a scientist, it’s very embarrassing.

  • Anonymouse

    I started homeschooling my teen in high school because the public schools in my area are a God-a-rama convention. I use an academic online curriculum (yes, there are several out there) and the local community college. I have a teen who loves Carl Sagan and just finished watching Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Great Courses class and wrote a paper on it (no paper, no more Great Courses!). Last year the teen read the bible and wrote a paper highlighting a selection of the many inconsistencies and outright false information.

    We have an awful time trying to do things with other homeschoolers because the group is just so rife with illiterate, uneducated parents passing on fundy ignorance to the next generation. There are some like-minded homeschoolers, but they have to be sought out and aren’t willing to speak up publicly.