Creationist U.

Chris Mooney

When it comes to America’s unique crop of home grown creationists, it’s safe to say there are two places that they desperately aspire to get into: Heaven, and the nation’s public schools and universities. And while it’s impossible to say how creationists have been faring in their quest for salvation, it’s quite clear that these have been heady days for their standing on college campuses.

First, in the apparent conclusion to an episode I wrote about for this website almost three months ago, the Department of Justice has closed its religious discrimination inquiry into Texas Tech biology professor Michael Dini over his letter of recommendations policy. You may recall that Dini, among other criteria, had required that students receiving medical school letters of recommendations from him be able to “truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer” to the following question: “How do you think the human species originated?” Faced with DOJ’s investigation, Dini essentially backed down, changing his letters of recommendation policy so that it now states, “How do you account for the scientific origin of the human species? If you will not give a scientific answer to this question, then you should not seek my recommendation."

The difference is a subtle but important one: Dini’s policy now challenges students to explain evolution, not believe in it. Justice Department Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Ralph F. Boyd, Jr., had this

to say of Dini’s policy change: “A biology student may need to understand the theory of evolution and be able to explain it. But a state-run university has no business telling students what they should or should not believe in.” Texas Tech did nothing of the sort, of course: It merely allowed its professor, Michael Dini, to decide for himself on what basis he wishes to write recommendation letters for students, which is a voluntary activity in the first place. Only under a radically exaggerated notion of the rights of Christian students can this possibly be seen as religious discrimination – but it seems that just such a notion has taken hold at the Department of Justice. And this change, in turn, suggests that a legal environment highly favorable to creationists is in the offing.

Also troubling, though in a different way, is the following. In early May at the University of Arizona in Tucson, the massive

McKale Memorial Center, home to the Wildcats basketball team and capable of seating some 15,000, will host a debate over evolution between creationist guru Duane Gish and a University of Arizona ecology professor, Peter Sherman. Creation-evolution debates are not unknown on college campuses, but this one is rather unique due to its high profile. As astronomer James McGaha, who was initially accepted to debate Gish but was subsequently turned down by event sponsors, explained in an interview, McKale Center is “probably the most recognizable place in Tucson to have something like this.”

It’s often debated in skeptic circles whether it’s worthwhile or counterproductive to debate Creationists. But the Arizona instance gives a pretty clear example of a case where such a debate would do more harm than good. Rather than a truly balanced “debate,” there’s ample reason to think that this choicest venue on the University of Arizona campus will essentially serve as a massive podium for the Institute for Creation Research’s Gish – who, according to those familiar with his debating techniques, excels at convincing unsuspecting audiences that the theory of evolution is riddled with holes. For a fascinating account of how this event came into being, see this column in the Arizona Daily Wildcat which charges that the University of Arizona evolution debate was deliberately designed “to make a mockery of evolution."

What do these two incidents have in common? Well, most obviously, they prove that the battle against creationism, and its cousin, Intelligent Design, is far from over and requires continuing vigilance. I think they suggest more than that, however. Especially in the case of the Arizona debate, it’s clear that that the defenders of evolution were asleep at the switch. On a similar note, the unfortunate conclusion of the Dini affair shows that the U.S. Department of Justice under John Ashcroft is committed to enforcing a concept of religious freedom that could have dramatic consequences for the standing of creationism at state universities.

Let’s start with the Dini case. According to a Justice Department spokesperson, the Texas Tech inquiry was a project of the Civil Rights Division’s Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination, Eric W. Treene. Treene’s position was recently created in John Ashcroft’s Department of Justice; it did not exist before. Treene himself formerly worked as litigation director for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, described by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State as a “a conservative Catholic-oriented legal group.” Last summer, Treene’s appointment to his post was

hailed as a “New Day For Christians in Washington” by Rev. Rob Schenck, who heads a group called Faith and Action, which aims to remind lawmakers of “the prominent role that the Word of God played in the creation of our nation and its laws.” Of Treene’s work, Schenck had this to say: “He is an advocate for people of all religious beliefs, and even of none, but he is especially big-hearted for Christians like us."

The Justice Department’s Dini inquiry was spurred on by a complaint by Texas’s Liberty Legal Institute, which like Schenck’s group has supported the posting of the Decalogue on government grounds. On a similar note, the DOJ’s Special Council for Religious Discrimination has also gotten itself involved in a Massachusetts federal district court case called WESTFIELD HIGH SCHOOL L.I.F.E. CLUB, et al. v. WESTFIELD PUBLIC SCHOOLS, where Treene helped to file a brief arguing that Westfield High School had been engaged in “viewpoint discrimination” by refusing to allow Christian students to pass out candy canes distributed with religious messages. The Justice Department’s involvement in this case followed on the heels of work by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Scotsdale, Arizona-based outfit that describes itself as a “unique Christian legal organization that works to protect and defend traditional family values, religious freedom, and the sanctity of human life."

Why point all this out? Well, because it shows that the Dini case didn’t simply come out of nowhere. Instead, the case reflects the Bush administration’s new responsiveness to Christian conservatives who would, given the chance, love to unseat the teaching of evolution in public institutions. Failing that, these groups can try to subtly shift the legal climate in their direction through measures such as targeting a professor like Michael Dini, who was gutsy enough to try to write an anti-creationist stance into his letter of recommendations policy.

While there has been significant attention to the Dini case, no one yet seems to have realized that it represents a shift in approach by the Bush-Ashcroft Justice Department, and one that could have profound implications for the standing of evolution in universities. Similarly, I am not aware of any major civil rights or legal organization that took the opportunity to stand up for Dini. (Dini himself did not respond to a request for an interview for this column.)

A similar lack of awareness – and activism – seems evident in the Arizona case. According to columnist Caitlin Hall, the machinations of the Calvary Chapel of Tucson and other debate organizers to ensure that Gish will have an outstanding forum from which to launch broadsides against evolution are pretty extraordinary. As previously mentioned, they included first accepting, and then afterwards turning down, one pro-evolution debater, the astronomer James McGaha. Hall suggests the reason for turning down McGaha may have been that he would be too tough a competitor for Gish to handle.

Moreover, the notion that the event, as currently planned, will really be a “debate” in the first place is dubious. According to McGaha, both Gish and his opponent will have a staggering hour long period to expound their views, followed by very limited rebuttal time and no cross examination or audience questioning. Rather than a debate, then, this event should be considered a pair of lectures. And that essentially means the University of Arizona has decided to give over its biggest venue for a creationist speech.

This is, of course, just what creationists want. As National Center for Science Education executive director Eugenie C. Scott has written about creation-evolution debates: “The evolutionist debater is never going to be able to counter all of the misinformation that a creationist can put out in a lengthy debate format. And the way these things work is that suspicion is sowed in the minds of the audience no matter what.” Another Scott warning has particular relevance to the Arizona situation:

What usually happens in these debates? Usually they take place at the invitation of the other side, and usually they take place in a religious setting or minimally under religious sponsorship. That’s the first problem. The audience that is most anxious to come, and that will be recruited the most heavily, is the one that supports the creationist. In the comparatively rare situation where the debate is held on a college campus, the supporters of good science and evolution are invariably in the minority in the audience, whereas the creationist supporters seem to exercise every effort to turn out their crowd. Don’t be surprised to see church busses from many local communities lined up outside the debate hall. In some cases, the sponsors advertised only among the faithful, posting up only a handful of flyers on campus. Guess who came?

It’s important not to be alarmist: Neither of these developments, either at Texas Tech or at the University of Arizona, herald the unseating of evolution from its privileged place at the nation’s universities. Far from it. However, both are important examples of creationists winning significant victories through clever strategizing, as their opponents stood idly by. Moreover, in both cases the creationist camp has cleverly exploited a liberal notion of open-mindedness and receptivity to differing viewpoints – especially open intellectual debate – in order to get a foot in the door. Unless the defenders of the teaching of evolution prove themselves willing to think strategically and counter creationists at every turn, they will most assuredly continue to loose small battles like this. And if they lose enough small battles…

Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist, blogger, podcaster, and experienced trainer of scientists in the art of communication. He is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality. He blogs for Science Progress, a website of the Center for American Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund.