“Do not feed the fundamentalists”: The Smithsonian manages to engage creationists in civil dialogue! Stop the presses!

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History appears to have posted an invisible warning–perhaps more for its staff than its visitors. The implied sign resembles the familiar zoo warning: “Do not feed the bears!” Only it is not bears that worry the custodians of this temple to science, but rabid creationist fundamentalists.

What surprises scientist and Huffpost writer Alan I. Leshner is not so much that creationists go to the museum’s exhibit of early hominids as that the museum manages to draw them into (gasp) civil dialogue. Here’s a bit of his take from the article:

The exhibit — including a wealth of physical evidence, from fossilized skulls to stone tools — reveals without ambiguity how hominids have gradually evolved over millions of years. Of course, this evidence stands in sharp contrast with the creationist view that God created the Earth and all its inhabitants, virtually simultaneously, between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Yet curator Richard Potts reports, anecdotally, that visitors representing diverse worldviews generally seem to enjoy the exhibit without incident. Docents routinely have mutually respectful conversations with visitors from conservative Christian schools where human evolution is not being taught. Potts points out that many such visitors “can be excited about the discoveries of science.” Enthusiasm for science then sets the stage for increasing visitors’ level of comfort with science and the nature of scientific evidence.

The Smithsonian exhibit offers important lessons on promoting civil dialogue about scientific issues that impinge on worldviews.

While Leshner’s reflections are overall respectful, his main point–that the museum is able to foster civil dialogue in a potentially volatile public space–can only be read as condescending. Leshner seems to assume that creationists, left to their own devices and without some carefully orchestrated coddling, would never be capable of such dialogue.

Leshner assumes without argument that creationists have no interest in science. “After all,” he says, “creationist views are non-scientific.” That’s a puzzling statement from someone who appears to be trying to foster a civil discussion. I know what Leshner means, and at one level I agree with him. At its roots, creationism rests not on the accumulated empirical evidence that is the stuff of scientific method, but rather on a faith commitment to a scriptural book (Genesis) read in a distinctively literal way. But creationism moves rapidly from that commitment into the realm of science, seeking a scientific understanding of the scientific evidence that seems to (and I think conclusively does) contradict that literal reading of Genesis. And real scientists with creationist commitments have done real scientific work in that search.

Granted, for every carefully scientific study in the history of creationism, there seem to have been a dozen ill-conceived, shallow, and yes, quasi-scientific (or “bad-science”) propaganda pieces. But the times, they are a-changing. As I have written elsewhere:

By the early 21st century, although creationism was still solidly a fundamentalist preserve, linked as it was to a literal reading of the Genesis creation accounts, it had also expanded to include many evangelicals and even some mainline Protestants. Helping this mainstreaming of creationist argumentation has been the “intelligent design” movement. Originating in the 1980s from the thought of scientist/historian Charles B. Thaxton (b. 1939), then carried forward by mathematician/philosopher William Dembski (b. 1960) and biochemist Michael Behe (b. 1952), intelligent design (ID) argues that there are organisms and organs in the natural world far too complex to have arisen by mere chance.

Today the Roman Catholic Church, which has historically supported a qualified evolutionary position, is now beginning to reconsider that support. Even some non-religious folks, drawing on postmodern understandings of the subjectivity of scientific knowledge, have begun to waver in their support for evolutionary theory. Activist preachers and their followers have continued to make creationism their focus, and creation-science institutes, think-tanks, and museums have developed multi-million-dollar budgets and sophisticated literature campaigns. All of these have focused their argumentation on portraying Darwinian evolution as a “theory” that is shaky and unproven.

Creationists have proved savvy political lobbyists, drawing support from such highly placed leaders as House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), and President George W. Bush. Across forty-three states, activists have brought their movement to legislatures, school boards, and school districts. As a result, some districts have adopted standards allowing for critiques of evolutionary theory within the science curriculum, and others have either allowed creationism to be taught alongside evolution or have even avoided teaching evolution altogether.

I am not a creationist. And I have read and enjoyed many Huffington Post articles that touch on the concerns of my conservative evangelical brothers and sisters. But sadly–and Leshner is by no means the only offender–these articles often feel elitist to me. Their writers seem to dwell comfortably in a land of unchallenged assumptions about what reasonable people believe (since they and their friends believe those things).

How is that not just as narrow as the supposedly benighted beliefs of the evangelicals they are trying to report on? Even though I share some of the assumptions of these writers, I find their efforts often fail to come up to the level of civil discourse they claim to be pursuing. They need to break out of their charmed circle once in a while and get to know some of the folks they’re writing about.

If I may recommend a book to such good-hearted but blinkered journalists: read, if you please, the careful and charitable ethnography of a fundamentalist church community by James M. Ault Jr., Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church. An expansion of his award-winning documentary film “Born Again,” Spirit and Flesh records Ault’s three-year experience as a participant-observer in a fundamentalist Baptist church in Worcester, Massachusetts. Ault, a Harvard-educated sociologist with a research interest in feminist and other leftist activism, launched into this study in order to better understand the Religious Right. What he discovered was a warm, close-knit, community in which everything revolved around relationships—a stark contrast, in this largely working-class church, to the autonomous individualism of the professional classes in America.

The portrait that emerges in Ault’s study is one of “popular conservatism as an effort to defend family obligations as sacred duties against the tide of individualism and individual rights unleashed in the 1960s and 1970s.” The family dimension extended to the congregation: one of Ault’s most helpful insights came from observing the on-the-ground implementation of convictions that seem, to outsiders, inflexible to the point of inhumanity. When faced with instances in their midst of teen pregnancy, abortion, and divorce, the congregation proceeded in supportive and flexible ways that belied their absolutist political rhetoric. Yes, Virginia, there is a flexible fundamentalist. Perhaps even more than one.

True, today’s conservative Christian culture-warriors hold deep religious and social commitments, anchored in a belief in an inerrant scripture, which have led them to affirm beliefs that place them outside the mainstream of American life. Scientific creationism is probably Exhibit A. But they are not intellectual children, unable to handle evidence that contradicts those beliefs.

So please, Mr. Leshner, and your journalistic colleagues. Spend some time finding out “how the other half lives.” Take a fundamentalist to lunch. And along the way, try to consider that some of your own beliefs may themselves need challenging. Don’t speak down to your subjects. And most of all, don’t indulge the same vice of intellectual inflexibility that you decry in others.

3 responses to ““Do not feed the fundamentalists”: The Smithsonian manages to engage creationists in civil dialogue! Stop the presses!

  1. Do you mean that the Teilhardites might be displaced? When I was at Georgetown, we just never discussed creationism. As for me, I am probably in the same camp as you, Chris. We can’t dismiss the evidence of the universe, but random groupings of atoms do not explain the complexity of life.

  2. What’s the evidence that the RCC is reconsidering its stance on evolution? I strongly suspect that this statement is bogus.

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