Some years ago I worked with a capable philosophy of science student who one day revealed his devotion to “creation science.” His was the fully blown variety in which the earth is declared to be six thousand — rather than billions — of years old. It’s the one that has God manufacturing and hiding dinosaur bones as a trick to test man’s fealty to His Word. I’ve lived and worked in the Midwest nearly all my life, so I’m used to the confidentially Bibled up, but this young man actually expected me to help him shore up his Bible pseudoscience. Even though we’d been learning to carefully distinguish mythological and magical thinking from empirical science, he assumed that my commitment to religious tolerance could be leveraged to help him remain in the cocoon of his childhood Bible world.
The situation is similar in any class that may challenge students’ religiously tinged, politicized moral views, for example, about abortion or gay marriage. Few things are more frustrating for instructors than a student’s assumption that a conservative belief’s religious cloak should exempt it from challenge or commentary, like a safe zone in a child’s game of tag. Such students may even equate their ideological positions with their identities: “That’s how I was raised. It’s the kind of person I am.” In my classrooms, each semester fundamentalist Christianity is offered by some students as both an explanation and justification for unscientific claims about reality, or for reactionary moral and political views. The message I get is that “for the Bible tells me so” is a buck-stops-here line that I cross only if I am willing to be vilified as a religious bigot.
Indeed, one of the greatest harms to eduction from politically active fundamentalist Christian zealots is that they have commandeered the very discourse of religious tolerance such that any defense of reason, evidence and secular ethical principles may be quickly repackaged as an attack on religious freedom. With their quivers stuffed full of supposedly “religious” beliefs about nature, culture and values, they are primed to become epistemological bullies, effectively declaring themselves utterly unaccountable to evidence and mature good sense. Tying a belief to fundamentalist Christianity — even if it actually has little to do with religion — is supposed to mark it as exceptional, as beyond the intellectual scrutiny of we mere mortals in the college classroom.
With loathsome MAGA extremists having seized control of key national offices, the power such students and their families wield in classrooms is genuinely threatening to academic freedom and to our very jobs. But, of course, for us to fail entirely to challenge claims that the world was poofed into existence the day before yesterday, or that the gays should burn in hell because Pastor Ricky said so, would be to fail at our jobs. And, yes, Pastor Ricky’s say-so really was offered by one of my students as a refutation of a reputable social science study about same-sex parents.
I wouldn’t raise this issue if I were not, at least sometimes, influenced by this push to privatize and personalize reason and evidence. But I feel myself being swayed sometimes by these attempts to frame belief as a mere matter of personal choice and individual conscience. Though the very spirit and purpose of education is perverted when reason and evidence are desecrated this way, I have become, like Galileo and Descartes and Kant, ever more willing to hold my tongue as the forces of ignorance threaten violence and exile. And how much greater this temptation must be for more tenuously employed instructors!
Usually, I rely on pragmatism to navigate these waters, but it’s tricky. I may begin by reminding my students of their right to believe whatever they want at church, but insist that, in the classroom, our currency is reason and evidence. I explain that we can challenge aspects of rationality and empiricism, to be sure, but only with inquiry that is itself grounded in more reason and evidence. I also point them to the venerable intellectual and scientific luminaries present in the history of each of the world’s major religions, including Christianity. And I may carefully explain how the fringe beliefs that they find to be so normal — because in their fundamentalist homes and churches they are — can come to marginalize them as they try to advance in their professions. In other words, I try to help them appreciate that a grown ass adult who refers to Noah’s ark as a historical fact will, in many contemporary milieus, be regarded, at best, as a curiosity and, at worst, as a goofball.
But, of course, since some fundamentalists delight in seeing themselves as martyrs to beliefs that have become “unpopular” — recall that this is a crowd in which crucifixion has its romantic appeal — I must be careful not to nourish that drama. If I take the bait and get drawn into playing the role of Pilate, I can hardly be surprised if the passion play ends badly for me. It may, then, generally be more skillful to give Noah, Jonah and the transmutation of beverages a wide berth in our classrooms, focusing instead on the nature of critical thinking itself. We must surely be flexible about how we handle such moments and not be too discouraged even when a student chooses to crawl under her Bible and fall into a deep sleep that lasts all semester long.
As a more straightforward academic strategy, I assign readings about current and past pressures on scientists by fundamentalist Christian extremists. Unfortunately, I find many students — even those who aren’t especially religious — to be so cowed by the fundamentalist cooptation of religious tolerance, that such discussions are difficult. And it’s when I see that lots of reasonable folks have ceded this ground out of sheer exhaustion, fear or habit that I really worry. As fundamentalist forces continue to claim our public spaces, our political and judicial policy, and our classrooms, we cannot permit children’s Bible stories to stand in for mature good thinking. We must not agree to the terms that they have laid out: that whether our current configuration of fauna owes its existence to Noah’s trusty hammer or to evolution by natural selection shall be decided by one’s particular upbringing and personal conscience. Talk about sucking the light right out of the Enlightenment….