Should Biology Textbooks Include “Biblical Myth” Language?

April 12, 2010

Last week, we learned that a father in Tennessee is fighting to ban a high school biology textbook describing creationism as “the biblical myth that the universe was created by the Judeo-Christian God in 7 days.” Kurt Zimmermann charges that the book, "Asking About Life" is biased against Christianity because use of the word “myth” could “mislead, belittle and discourage students in believing in creationism and pointedly calls the Bible a myth.” Zimmerman recommends instead that “non-biased textbooks" be used. You can watch the (soft-ball) interview Zimmerman did with FOX News here.

Zimmerman seemingly has support from some on the six-member book reviewing committee who deemed certain material "questionable "; but that committee also concluded, using a different interpretation of the word "myth," that the book was "appropriate." Moreover, the local school board has tabled the issue for now, and it seems unlikely there will be changes. I am admittedly not an evolutionary biologist, but before dismissing the case out of hand, and/or reacting with the oft-heard "religious fundamentalists are at it again" -- as many of my secularist friends have -- let us weigh the issue against the backdrop of church-state separation in the U.S. Consider the following material from P.Z. Myers, which represents a commonly heard secularist response to these types of stories:

"[The statement is] not misleading at all, it doesn't belittle students except in the sense that students who believe something that is wrong will be faced with a direct statement that they are wrong, and I should hope schools would discourage people from believing in stupid and fallacious mush!"

Myers and I would likely agree that schools should teach our children how to think critically, and about what we know -- regardless of how that plays out for their beliefs. However, our government -- and thus our public schooling system -- is supposed to remain neutral on matters of religion. Federal and state governments cannot aid one religion, aid all religions, prefer one religion over another, or prefer non-religion to religion. This means that while I agree with Myers that the Biblical creation story is a "myth," the public school classroom doesn't seem to be the place where our message should be pushed. More specifically, the purpose of biology class is not to reject religious ideas; it is to inform students about biology*. There is no scientific reason for the textbook to discuss Christianity or label its creation story a "myth"; it has nothing to do with teaching the theory of evolution or biology generally. And While Zimmerman overstates his case to some degree -- the passage does not refer to the entire Bible as a "myth"-- directly rejecting specific stories in The Bible still shows preference.

Myers continues to write that this biology textbook "doesn't go as far as I'd like ... It would be nice if we did have a high school biology book that called all of Christianity and Judaism a collection of myths, but we don't. Yet." But I hope we never have a high school biology textbook that refers to our religious stories as myths. Science classrooms should teach science. Biology class should, at least on evolution, cover the work of Charles Darwin and other early scientists theorizing about evolution; it should tackle the meaning of the word "theory" in science; it should discuss the enormous advances in evolutionary biology since Darwin's time; it should talk about the multiple lines of evidence supporting the theory of evolution; and much, much more. By the end, there should be no doubt that evolution is as close to a fact as we have. Talk about discouraging students from believing in creationism...

Will this science-only approach negatively impact the quality of public school education? Myers seems to think so.

"You see, the only level of education we're allowed to raise children to is the Kurt Zimmerman level…which is a little scary. I was kind of hoping that sending my kids off to school would produce progeny who are smarter than me , and now I learn that they're only supposed to produce kids who are dumber than Kurt Zimmerman? How dismaying."

Why is it that our biology classes -- or even public schools generally -- must reject religious beliefs to really educate children? I think we will find that, even if decided that our children would be better off hearing critique of their parents' religious beliefs, this question is irrelevant, as according to our laws we cannot do such a thing, nor do I think it is appropriate as evidenced here. In turn, the answer seems to be that we should ensure our high school science teachers are instructing students on how to think like a scientist, and imparting to students the body of knowledge scientists have accrued (and that all of our teachers generally are doing similar in their respective fields). From there, the children take that knowledge as they will. At the same time, Richard Dawkins and other writers who have done a fabolous job popularizing scientific knowledge should continue to do what they do so that hopefully we can collectively accomplish the social and political change we need.

*It is important to note that creationism and related ideas like intelligent design do belong to the field of religion, not science; they are theology and philosophy ( bad theology and philosophy, but that's another matter). Hence, science cannot reject them in full -- for how does the scientist answer the claim that God made it look like there's been evolution, and that we are merely natural products, to test our faith? Or that God has been the hand behind the process of evolution? A scientist must here put on the philosopher's cap to continue.

--

Postscript: there have been some misunderstandings about my essay. This is a short attempt to clear them up.

1. “Context matters.” I agree. Someone has been good enough to find the entire textbook passage. Here it is:

“In the 1970s and 1980s, antievolutionists in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana passed identical bills calling for ‘equal time’ for teaching evolution and creationism, the biblical myth that the universe was created by the Judeo-Christian god in six days. But a court ruled that the ‘equal-time’ bill was unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the separation of church and state.”

I don’t know how much the context proves my argument wrong. The textbook still refers to the Biblical creation story as a “myth.” Which brings us to ...

2. “The word ‘myth’ has different meanings.” It is true that the word “myth,” by reference to dictionary , does not necessarily imply falsity. However, I would argue that in everyday use, the word “myth” does indeed do that. I rarely hear the word “myth” used without it referring to a false story (usually from ancient thinking). In fact, if the textbook instead said “biblical account,” I wouldn’t have written this post (nor would we likely ever have heard of Kurt Zimmerman). But use of the word “myth” here seems to imply creationism is false. Now, I obviously think it is -- but remember my post held the case against the backdrop of church-state separation.

3. “You are defending creationism.” My endnote apparently got people thinking I was defending creationism, specifically on the grounds that science cannot fully refute it. The first thing to note here is that my post was specifically about the denial of creationism in the high school biology classroom . But to the point, I wrote that science is a tool with its limits, and that creationist arguments are fully responded to by reference to science (say, the age of Earth and universe) and philosophy (say, the nature of God). That science cannot fully answer every human argument is not a knock on science -- it’s an admission of its purview and of the need to realize nuance where it exists -- nor is it a defense of creationism. Now, I am admittedly not a philosopher of science, so I could be wrong about this distinction between science and philosophy (though I have reason to think otherwise ; also see the talk "Atheism, Science and Politics" ). But even if I'm wrong, that doesn’t mean I'm defending creationism.

4. “But creationists exist; the controversy must be covered.” The fact that the social controversy over creationism and evolution exists does not mean the biology textbooks should take up the debate. It might be meant for public schools generally -- in, for instance, a philosophy (or sociology) course -- but that’s a different conversation. Even if biology courses were going to teach background on the theory, as I would admit they probably should to some minor extent, then textbooks obviously have to acknowledge the existence of dissent. But I don’t see a church-state issue with merely mentioning that religion exists. Denying religious ideas is the step that puts us in a bind.

5. “Teaching facts is the same thing as denying falsities.” Some have argued that teaching the Earth is 4.5 billion years old is the same as denying the Earth is 6,000 years old. But one clearly imparts scientific knowledge; the other clearly denies a religious idea. One is constitutional; the other is not. Scientific knowledge makes many ideas seem crazy, but there is no reason for a high school biology teacher to actually go into denying all of them, specifically the religious ones. In fact, this approach is probably the only way to keep our public school biology classes in line with government neutrality on religion. The courts simply will not rule that biology classes are unconstitutional because they teach children about biology, no matter the implications of gained knowledge; but they will rule it unconstitutional if biology teachers or texts specifically criticize religious ideas in the biology classroom. This should be fine, too, as we do not need to deny religious ideas to teach our children about biology.

6. “Denying creationism is the same thing as denying 2+2=5.” I can’t imagine teachers have had to seriously entertain this argument, but suffice to say that the belief 2+2=5 is not a religious belief. Others have posited the geocentric argument. But again, geocentrism was not a specifically religious idea -- in fact, it originated with Aristotle and the ancient Greeks.

Comments:

#1 Dani (Guest) on Monday April 12, 2010 at 12:59pm

I’m going to have to check my son’s science book to see what, if anything, it mentions about past beliefs.  Where did I learn that people used to think the earth was flat?  I honestly don’t remember.

#2 SimonSays on Monday April 12, 2010 at 1:01pm

Michael, in the Texas case, what are you advocating for? Just curious.

#3 Michael De Dora on Monday April 12, 2010 at 1:06pm

Simon, if you mean the recent historical revisions, I’m not terribly familiar with the specifics of that case. It seems a bit more complex than this one. Or did you mean the revisions on bio textbooks last year? (or was it further back than that?)

#4 SimonSays on Monday April 12, 2010 at 1:08pm

Apologies-I meant the Tennessee case your article is referring to!

#5 Michael De Dora on Monday April 12, 2010 at 1:11pm

Ha! No worries.

I think Zimmerman might be going a bit overboard to push for the textbook to be banned outright. I haven’t seen the textbook myself so I don’t know how good it is or the extent to which creation “myths” are discussed, but I wonder if some editing could be done.

#6 BJ Kramer (Guest) on Monday April 12, 2010 at 1:28pm

It is unfortunate but necessary to teach not just what is true, but also what is false and why it is so.

Any textbook discussing Astronomy to school children will discuss geocentrism, despite the once-heretical nature of what we now know to be true. School children are also taught that people once thought the earth was flat. Why do we teach these things? I suspect because we know children will think of these as possibilities anyway.

Many will certainly think the Genesis story is an alternative to how our planet came to be populated with its species. It is perfectly appropriate to teach children what people used to think before we learned to use science and showed that it didn’t happen that way.

Heliocentrism is no longer heretical, so we can discuss geocentrism with school kids. It seems clear to me that would be discussing Genesis without fear of controversy if it’s religious proponents no longer existed. The fact that we don’t means we’re not changing the way we teach science to attack a religious group; it means we’re changing the way we teach science to appease a religious group.

Once we’re bringing up the subject, it would not be wise to use any ‘softer’ language than “myth”. It is the correct word, so changing it would be playing politics, which we shouldn’t be doing in the classroom.

But is it the exact right word? Here’s Webster’s definition:
“a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon”

I can’t think of a better word to use.

#7 Michael D. Barton (Guest) on Monday April 12, 2010 at 1:39pm

From an interesting post by Barbara Forrest about this issue and the use of the word “myth”:

——-
Mr. Zimmermann used Webster’s Dictionary, where he found a section of the definition reflecting his contention that the word is insulting to Christians: “Describing Christian beliefs, such as Bible stories, as myth is therefore usually considered an attack on those beliefs.” But there is nothing inherently offensive or disrespectful to Christianity about the use of the word “myth.” The most respected dictionary in the English-speaking world, the Oxford English Dictionary, gives this as the first definition of the word:

1. a. A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.
——-

#8 Joe (Guest) on Monday April 12, 2010 at 2:04pm

What is the question here.  For a scientist to state that christian fiction is just that, fiction, does not violate separation of church and state. 

1.  Science is not a religion, so how would a scientific fact for a science class presented in a science textbook violate church and state.  It doesn’t.

2.  Science class is to be sensitive to scientific sensibilities, not religious.

3.  It is the religious who have forced the hand here: if christians didn’t insist that creationism is science then scientists wouldn’t have to make the disclaimer.

Furthermore, which side of the fence is the author on.  I hope I don’t have to read any more of his idiot articles with titles sympathetic to christian idiots.

#9 Michael D. Barton (Guest) on Monday April 12, 2010 at 2:13pm

Joe’s #3 point - damn right.

#10 Jamin Szczesny (Guest) on Monday April 12, 2010 at 2:22pm

If there was ANY evidence to support the Bibles claims of creation it could not be considered a myth. The evidence however shows a completely different story - therefore if Greek mythology is considered mythology by Christian standard, Biblical creationism IS mythology in biological standard. Case closed!

#11 ebdrummond on Monday April 12, 2010 at 2:39pm

In a science class, I think a biology textbook should teach biology.  I don’t see any reason why religion needs to enter a biology textbook at all.

I agree with Joe’s point that certain Christians (but by no means all) are forcing the issue.  However, I hardly think the best way to deal with this is to insert our view of religion into a science textbook.  This just adds fuel to the fire, and frankly, we don’t need to give the crazy rightwingers more to go on - they clearly are able to conjure offense out of thin air.  But more fundamentally than that, I don’t think it is appropriate for religion to be in a biology textbook whatsoever.

As a side note, I would object to the comment made about “idiot articles sympathetic to christian idiots.”  While one could debate the merits of this article (although I quite liked it myself), I don’t find it sympathetic to Christians, and I don’t appreciate Christians being called idiots.  While I fiercely disagree with their belief in supernaturalism, I find that most Christians that I know go to great lengths to compartmentalize their religious beliefs and their rationality in the rest of their life.  I myself disagree not only with their supernaturalism but the fact that they follow a belief system that requires them to compartmentalize and suspend rationality, but to outright dismiss anyone who is religious as an idiot is not only unnecessarily offensive, but also wrongly conflates a vocal minority on the religious right with the entire population of Christians in this country, many of whom are also mad as hell at the insertion of religion into public school textbooks.

#12 Daniel Schealler on Monday April 12, 2010 at 2:42pm

@Michael D. Barton

Stole the exact point I wanted to make.

@Michael De Dora

There is no scientific reason for the textbook to discuss Christianity or label its creation story a “myth”; it has nothing to do with teaching the theory of evolution or biology generally.

A scientific reason for labeling a ‘creation story’ as a myth is because ‘creation stories’ are myths. That’s what the word myth means.

And I think it should be clear that pointing out the distinction between myth and science has a lot to do with teaching the theory of evolution and biology generally. Science is all about discarding failed hypotheses.

... how does the scientist answer the claim that God made it look like there’s been evolution, and that we are merely natural products, to test our faith? Or that God has been the hand behind the process of evolution? A scientist must here put on the philosopher’s cap to continue.

Two problems. Firstly, there’s no sharp line that can be drawn between science and philosophy. Sometimes a scientist may be doing something a bit more sciencey, and sometimes a scientist may be doing something a bit more philosophistic… But it’s all still science. It isn’t a binary on/off between science and philosophy. I call fallacy of the excluded third.

Secondly, how does science react to a claim that isn’t open to empirical testing? Easy. It is fairly dismissed as not even wrong.

Why is it that our biology classes—or even public schools in generally—must reject religious beliefs to educate children?

In the case of science education, we should reject religious beliefs as non-scientific because they are non-scientific.

*holds up Origin of Species* This is a science textbook.

*holds up Bible* This is not.

*holds up Bible again* This is a book about humanity’s relationship with God.

*holds up Origin of Species* This is not.

Additionally, the creation myth - sorry, the creation story, which means the same thing - of Christianity is a regular source of disputing geologic history, evolution, and biology in general within American culture. It’s apt and appropriate to address that cultural context whilst teaching these subjects.

————————————————-

Michael, you clearly have big chewy lumps of ability when it comes to persuasive writing. But this article is drivel - I’ve stopped after three points, but I could go on. Why do you stoop to present what we might politely refer as a target-rich argument?

As a general question I’ve asked before: Who is your intended audience for this essay? The content of your article seems to be addressing those of us that think the term “myth” is an accurate description of the Christian creation stories, and is an appropriate inclusion in a scientific textbook about biology, evolution or geological history.

However, the emotional tone and style of this article is removed from that which appeals to confrontational atheism. Instead, your tone and style here seem calculated towards persuading a religious audience… It strikes me as intentional.

In a nutshell: Something about your recent essays smell fishy. What are you up to?

#13 Garbledina on Monday April 12, 2010 at 5:08pm

I realize that not prying people kicking and screaming from their deeply-held beliefs is counter-productive in the fight to get people to accept evolution (at times). However, I did read a more expanded version of the text in question earlier (I wish I had a link), and it was in the context of the discussion of court cases attempting to insert the biblical creation myth into biology textbooks. It isn’t like the book, apropos of nothing, was just letting everyone know the bible contains falsehoods. It was 100% appropriate.

And in what way is the word “myth” inappropriate here? What should be written in its place? Should we also not refer to the epic of Gilgamesh as a myth? Should we speak reverently of the alternative view that the Titans created the earth and the sky? If not, why not?

What exactly is it that you are advocation, Mr. De Dora? Is the Dover trial off limits for the AP Bio curriculum, in your view?

#14 Garbledina on Monday April 12, 2010 at 5:08pm

Ack! That word was meant to be “advocating”. Sorry.

#15 Rory Evans (Guest) on Monday April 12, 2010 at 5:51pm

@ Everyone:

While I am disinclined to agree with Micheal, I am concerned that the disagreements raised above miss the point.

Micheal isn’t making a blanket claim about a biology textbook in any classroom. He is specifically talking about a biology textbook in an American classroom.

“What’s the difference?” you say. A pesky little document called the US constitution.

Michael is saying that the US constitution prohibits the government from advantaging or disadvantaging ideas about religion.

Well much of science disadvantages religion.

Michael is saying - yes and hence in public schools, where textbooks are picked by public officials, science needs to be treated like one of many ideas rather than the pre-eminent idea.

I don’t like where Michael is going… but I haven’t devised a constitutional argument to counter his.

And I don’t think anyone above has either.

If I were to construct an argument against Micheal’s I would have to say that the constitution bars the government from picking sides among religious ideas - not among religious versus non-religious ideas.

While government cannot “establish” a religion it can establish non-religions like science. 

So the government can privilege science - because science is not a kind of religion.

If the textbook said - the Muslims faith is sound and the Christian faith is myth, then that would be unconstitutional.

But saying science is sound and faiths are myths is NOT unconstitutional.

There is another big issue with constitutionality - the final arbiter thereof is the US Supreme Court. And should she side with Micheal, then my argument no longer exists.

All constitutional arguments have this weakness.

#16 Randy on Monday April 12, 2010 at 6:19pm

If we can’t have a statement in a science text describing creationism as myth, then we’ve sunk pretty far.

That isn’t the government preferring non-religion to religion.  It’s simply preferring the scientific method, evidence, and rational thought.  That’s what the education system is paid to do.  And in today’s textbook warfare environment, it’s more important that ever to debunk the nonsense point of view.  It’s certainly going to be brought up in the classroom, by the students, anyway.  I’d rather have the text state that facts, than have some ideologue or timid teacher state that creationism is valid science.

If people are offended by the term myth, which is technically a correct term, perhaps they shouldn’t believe in myths.  Otherwise, follow the example their myth claims to set, and turn the other cheek, or render unto Caesar, or whatever.

#17 Daniel Schealler on Monday April 12, 2010 at 6:26pm

@Rory Evans

Damn.

It pisses me off, but you’ve got a point Rory.

There is (unfortunately) an argument to be made that using “myth” to describe a religious view is unconstitutional on the grounds that it implies falsehood.

I want to disagree with that… But although “myth” is entirely accurate for the creation stories Christianity (or any other religion), I can’t get around the fact that the common use of the word “myth” isn’t entirely neutral when it comes to implications of truth or falsehood.

Typically, we refer to all religious stories as myths. But since someone will typically have either one religion or none at all, it follows that most of the time, use of the term “myth” will apply to a story that the speaker considers to be untrue.

Semantics suck.

...

Hmm, wouldn’t this leave us in the rather amusing position of having to expunge any reference to the stories of any faith as ‘myths’?

Would we have to to remove any reference to the creation stories of the ancient Greeks, Romans or Vikings as ‘myths’?

Could this form some kind of fair use defense, perhaps? That if it is fair to call the creation stories of the ancient Norse “myths”, then it should also be fair use to apply the same standard to the creation stories of Christianity?

It certainly would highlight the ridiculousness of the whole scenario… What a stupid position to find ourselves in. The creation stories (both of them) in Genesis are myths. We should be able to say so whenever the situation is appropriate.

But Rory has a point. It sets my teeth on edge, but he does.

#18 SylviaB on Monday April 12, 2010 at 6:37pm

Thank you for making this argument. I hear as many knee-jerk reactions from secularists as I do from religious fundies.

Actually, this story is perfect ammunition in church-state debates. You can bring it up as an example. “See, this is what it feels like.” (to be on the receiving end of government side-taking.

#19 j. (Guest) on Tuesday April 13, 2010 at 6:55am

Let’s not miss the good news ‘..but that committee also concluded, using a different interpretation of the word “myth,” that the book was “appropriate.” Moreover, the local school board has tabled the issue for now, and it seems unlikely there will be changes.’ Let’s give credit to our secular kin in Tennessee for what seems to be a more enlightened place than what many of us in the northeast may have imagined.

#20 Eric (Guest) on Tuesday April 13, 2010 at 8:09am

There is not a need to remind children that Zeus throwing lightning, or someother dead phenomenal explanation, is a myth and has no place in science. It is a dead “theory” and children won’t be confused or competing with this “theory” when they learn of electricity (not that Greeks actually believed this, I don’t know).

The creation of Earth and human beings is a place where science and religion are competing, unfortunately, and from the scientific point of view, the biblical account of creation is grossly impeding to a larger understanding of scientific knowledge. So, in a science textbook, it is necessary to separate mythical accounts from the most plausible scientific accounts, and in cases such as creation, it must come with the caveat that the religious explanation of creation is only a mythical account. Which means science must claim an epistemoligical stance that is of higher value than the mythical, and remind people when they cross over into the other realm. On issues where this happens frequently in the present day, this is precisely where such a reminder must come in.


Children learn “Man” was created in Eden-Eden-Eden-Eden-Eden-Eden-Eden-Eden-Through Evolution-Eden-Eden-Eden . . .

#21 Ronald A. Lindsay on Tuesday April 13, 2010 at 11:23am

First, Michael, thanks again for a thought-provoking post.

Second, the textbook may be constitutionally questionable, because the Constitution does prohibit the government from promoting nonreligion, just as it prohibits government from promoting religion. Whether it is actually unconstitutional depends a lot on context, including the wording of the entire passage in which this excerpt is placed. The passage could be justified on the ground that it is criticizing what is misleadingly put forward as an alternative scientific theory, namely creationism, However, arguably the same point could have been made by stating something such as “there is no scientific foundation for creationism, which is not properly considered a scientific view at all, but rather is religious doctrine derived from some interpretations of the Book of Genesis.” This would avoid any direct characterization of the Bible itself.

Third, I probably should read Myers’s entire post, but I must take issue with the excerpts provided. Yes, I want my kids to be better reasoners and more intelligent than I am, but I believe the way to achieve that is to present them with scientific facts, train them in the use of critical reasoning, and then let them draw their own conclusions about religion. One does not do a young person a favor by having a teacher instruct them on what to believe about religion. They will become firmer in their views, and better able to defend them, if they draw their own conclusions after being presented with relevant evidence. And I hope we’re not so insecure in our own beliefs that we’re afraid most people will draw the wrong conclusion when they have access to all the relevant information.

#22 Daniel Schealler on Tuesday April 13, 2010 at 3:05pm

@Everyone

Can’t remember if this passage was around in the original place - it may have been added later, after a commenter provided the information on PZ’s thread.

Oh, this is interesting: a commenter looked up the book on Google Books and got the actual, full quote from the book.

<blockquote>In the 1970s and 1980s, antievolutionists in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana passed identical bills calling for “equal time” for teaching evolution and creationism, the biblical myth that the universe was created by the Judeo-Christian god in six days. But a court ruled that the “equal-time” bill was unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the separation of church and state.

That’s even biblically accurate. And it’s a very reasonable context in which to mention the topic of creationism.</blockquote>

@Ron

Third, I probably should read Myers’s entire post, but I must take issue with the excerpts provided. Yes, I want my kids to be better reasoners and more intelligent than I am, but I believe the way to achieve that is to present them with scientific facts, train them in the use of critical reasoning, and then let them draw their own conclusions about religion. One does not do a young person a favor by having a teacher instruct them on what to believe about religion…

I’d agree that a question like ‘Does little Jimmy really believes that the Earth is at least 4.5 billion years old?’ shouldn’t ever contribute to part of a student’s grade.

On the other hand, given a question like: ‘According to radiometric dating, how old is the Earth?’
a) 6.0 thousand years
b) 4.5 billion years
c) 6.5 million years
d) 5.4 trillion years

Little Jimmy should get one mark for circling b), and no mark for any of the others. If he circles b) whilst believing a), that should be fine.

But there’s no way around the fact that teaching students that science says b) will contradict religious claims that a) is true.

Similarly, there’s no way around the fact that teaching students that science says that humans descended from a common ancestor that we share with chimps and monkeys contradicts the religious claim that humans were created out of clay by God.

In the context of discussing the history of how America arrived at it’s current cultural framework regarding evolution, the historic role of contradiction and the status of the Bible creation stories as religious myths are appropriate and accurate subject matter.

#23 Michael De Dora on Tuesday April 13, 2010 at 9:07pm

Note the use of the word “myth” in the second paragraph.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8618878.stm

Gay rights activists have criticised a Vatican official who sought to link homosexuality to paedophilia when commenting on child sex abuse scandals.

The UK’s Stonewall group said it was astonishing gay people should still be dealing with “such an offensive myth”.

#24 Stephen J. Levine (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 6:36am

I agree with you.  Specifically mentioning of the world being created in 7 days being a myth is not relevant to the teaching of biology.  What is relevant is discussion of evolutionary mechanisms including mutation, natural selection, genetic drift etc. and presenting them in their true timeframes of millions to billions of years.  There is too much to teach in science to even spend a sentence on religion in a science class.

#25 Matt Penfold (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 9:33am

Note the use of the word “myth” in the second paragraph.

I am not quite sure what your point is here.

The BBC news website is not a textbook: Something I am sure you are aware of but seem to have forgotten.

Words can have a number of meanings. The use of Myth is a news report does not mean it is being used in same sense as in a textbook.

#26 toby (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 9:58am

Michael, you’re avoiding the hard answers here, and I suspect it’s because you know what they are and you don’t like them. I doubt you’d side against an astronomy textbook that called geocentrism bunk, or a chemistry textbook that assaulted alchemy. You are well aware that Biblical creationism is contradicted by the facts. You know that it has no greater claim to reality than the creation stories of the Sumerians, Inca, Norse or Scientologists.

Here’s the thing. The Establishment Clause does not prohibit the government or government-funded institutions from telling the truth, even when the truth is unpleasant to some. Now, I’m not saying whether Biblical creationism is true or not. However, “Biblical creationism is a myth” is a true statement. A myth is not automatically true or false; it is a myth because the truth is unknown. “Myth” is much like the word “theory”; often misunderstood. And just as “theory” may mean one thing in a textbook and another in a newspaper, so can “myth”.

Why is it appropriate to include this statement in a biology textbook? Because it is appropriate for such a textbook to provide historical context along with its subject matter.

Frankly, what you’re arguing is akin to suggesting that a math book that says “two and two is four” shouldn’t be allowed to say “two and two isn’t five”. It’s unfortunate that simple statements of fact are often taken as cause for offence, usually by idiots. I know you’re not an idiot. It doesn’t pay to defend them, though.

#27 doctor(logic) (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 10:15am

“Hence, science cannot reject them in full—for how does the scientist answer the claim that God made it look like there’s been evolution, and that we are merely natural products, to test our faith?”

This question can be answered quite easily.  There are a great many more ways that life on a planet can be designed than evolved.  Evolution has limitations.

First, design does not require descent.  No automobile has ever been born t another automobile.  Instead, we have manufacturing. 

Second, there’s common descent.  We’re all part of one family.  Why not 2, 10, or 500 families?

Third, we’re all made of the same stuff.  There are no plastic rabbits, nuclear whales or titanium raptors.

Fourth, the only apparent purpose of life on Earth is survival.  There are lots of other obvious purposes or utilities that life could have had, but which we don’t see.

Given these facts, there are trillions of ways life could have been designed, but very few ways life could look if it were evolved.  We see life consistent with evolution, so we can all but rule out design.

Yes, it’s possible life was designed, just not likely.  If I tell you a deck of cards is either shuffled or sorted, and I deal 2,3,4,5,6 of clubs off the top of the deck (in that order), are you rational to believe that the deck was shuffled?  Well, the deck could have been shuffled, but it’s 310 million to one against that being the case.

This is a rational and scientific case against design.

As to whether the textbook wording is appropriate or not, or whether a less inflammatory writing would be more effective, I cannot say.  But let’s be clear and agree that the scientific case all but rules out design.

#28 Stefan (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 10:34am

Mr. de Dora, it is obvious that you are way out of your depth here and, with views such as those expressed below, do not represent my views nor those of the majority of CFI members.

Creation stories are myths. There is absolutely nothing unconstitutional (nor counter to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, for that matter) about affirming this fact, especially in a text book teaching a science that is under attack from those who seek to foist creationism from myth to ‘viable theory’(an unassailable one too, since its ‘unconstitutional’ to question its veracity).

PZ is right… Mr. de Dora is a pablum shoveler par excellence. The only questions remaining are ‘how did he get to be executive director of CFI NY?’ and ‘how do we get rid of him?’

#29 Crommunist (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 11:05am

I think part of the problem here comes from the use of the word “myth”. The word is no more pejorative than the word “theory”, as in “the theory of evolution”. Saying “evolution is just a theory” and “creation is just a myth” are equally meaningless statements. I like Daniel Quinn’s definition of a myth as “a story that relates man, earth and the gods.” Calling creation, or any religious story a “myth” is merely classifying it properly. Just because parents like Zimmerman don’t know what a myth is doesn’t make the textbook wrong, or even antagonistic.

#30 Jim Lippard (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 11:21am

I think arguing that this statement in a textbook violates the establishment clause under the Lemon Test would be a difficult one to make, given that “myth” doesn’t necessarily mean “false”—it can simply mean without any verifiable basis in fact.

I take issue with the footnote, which seems to suggest that science can’t even address creationism, which is clearly false. The fact that Last Tuesdayism is a logically possible rejoinder to scientific criticism doesn’t put something beyond the realm of science, especially when advocates are unlikely to use that rejoinder.  Young-earth creationists are typically NOT likely to use an Omphalos or Last Tuesday defense—they claim to have empirical support for their claims about the age of the earth and a biblical flood.  What they will do to step into the realm of philosophy is to claim that science is based on observation and experiment, and if you weren’t there, you have to rely on testimony, and they rely on testimony from God, who was there.  But this is to erroneously dismiss historical sciences.

#31 Patrick Settle (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 11:42am

I won’t bother rehashing all of the arguments against Michael De Dora’s stance in this article, as others including PZ Myers have done the job well enough.  I will echo others CFI members concerns over someone like this got to be executive director.  Fortuitous timing as my letter to renew my support for CFI came in the mail yesterday.

What next?  Giant space turtles, karmic wheels, and sneezes of god in the chapter about the beginning of the Universe?  The section on entropy or the heat death of the universe including the story of ‘The Coming of The Great White Handkerchief’?

#32 Nate (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 11:44am

Is such a reference really unconstitutional? This seems like one of those questions that legal scholars can bicker over for ages, until the Supreme Court settles it. We can however, look at the phrasing and application of the Lemon-test, which was also decided upon by the Supreme Court:

(Relevant here is the second prong): The government’s action must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion.

Note the use of the word ‘primary’ effect. Thus, as long as the use of the sentence is not put there primarily to offend Christians, but has scientific explanatory value and just also happens to offend Christians, that is completely allowed.

Furthermore, I would say, that in a country in which an amazing percentage of the population believes in the literal 6-days of creation story/myth/fable/hypothesis, it is better to mention that in a scientific book that offers contrary explanations. Creationists are constantly striving to get their theory scientific credibility and publicity, and certainly we can expect this to have influenced the opinion of children on the subjects of evolution and history. You would just sit back and ignore that influence? Pretend it doesn’t exist? Wouldn’t you say that is better to acknowledge that and reply in a scientifically sound manner?

Also, how is this sentence any more offensive to biblical literalists than the simple phrasing ‘science tells us the world is about 5 billion years old’?

#33 Ronald A. Lindsay on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 11:49am

@Daniel Schealler
Thanks for the clarification you provided by giving us the entire passage from which the excerpt was taken. In context, use of this textbook in a public school is almost surely not unconstitutional.
You are also correct that the history of battles over the teaching of evolution is a proper subject, although arguably better suited to a history or civics class than a science class.

#34 SimonSays on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 11:50am

Patrick, that’s really uncalled for IMO. You’re implying that CFI management is somehow lacking because you have some philosophical disagreement with Michael? Have you gone to a CFI NYC event? I’m sorry but you come off as quite judgmental. Unlike many of the other bloggers here, at least Michael takes the time to respond to comments. So there’s disagreement-big deal. Go to the archive of Free Inquiry and I’m sure you’ll find commentators there you disagree with.

I’ve volunteered for other non-profits and I can tell you that CFI is extremely professional and their communities do great work. I’ve met Michael and other Executive Directors and those I’ve met are all hard-working and dedicated. I am personally more than happy to donate whatever I can to keep this going.

In these hard times, what we should be doing is (when possible) standing behind the organization and helping out, rather than quibbling over blog posts.

#35 Deen (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 12:15pm

You might have had a point if the book had called the Bible a book of myths, or called God or Jesus myths. That would be a clear violation of the separation of church and state. However, it only calls the creation story a myth. If the biology textbook is even halfway decent, the rest of the book should have already established that the creation story couldn’t have been true anyway. How could it be problematic to point it out explicitly?

You could even argue that it is already charitable to call the biblical creation story only a myth, rather than saying it’s fiction or just plain wrong.

#36 Nathan Bupp (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 12:23pm

@ Simon.  Well-stated. I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments. Please let us not emulate the talking heads on FOX when we disagree. It’s important to remember that we are all, essentially, on the same team, even if family disputes break out. (As they often do, and will.)

#37 cervantes (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 12:50pm

This is very simple.  The biblical story of creation is a myth, by any meaning of the term.  That is a scientific fact.  It is impossible to teach science without contradicting it, because it is absolutely inconsistent with science.  I have no idea WTF you are trying to say but you are clearly in the wrong job, working for the wrong organization.

#38 Daniel Schealler on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 1:46pm

@Ron

Thanks for the acknowledgement Ron.

#39 Michael De Dora on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 2:53pm

To those who have provided constructive criticism and dialogue, thank you. Allow me to respond to some of your posts.

1. Thanks Daniel for posting the context, and to Ron for a thoughtful reply. However, I don’t know how much the context necessarily proves my argument wrong. The textbook still refers to the Biblical creation story as a “myth.” Which brings us to ...

2. ... use of the word “myth.” This is something I admittedly brushed over a bit in my post. Some people have correctly pointed out that the word “myth” does not necessarily imply falsity. However, I would argue that in everyday use, the word “myth” does indeed do that. I rarely hear the word “myth” used without it referring to a false story (usually from ancient thinking). That’s why I posted the link to the BBC news story. Within that story, we saw the use of the word “myth” as a “false story.” Indeed, if the textbook instead said “biblical story,” I would probably have argued this post the other way, and said Zimmerman didn’t have a point. But use of the word “myth” here seems to me to imply creationism is false. Now, I obviously think it is—but remember my post was held the case against the backdrop of church-state separation.

3. I wasn’t defending creationism in any way. My note was instead pointing out that science is a tool with its limits. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s just the way science works. Science can indeed show us the age of the Earth and Universe and make old-earth creationism look silly, but it can’t go all the way and answer all the arguments about religion. Which brings us to the other point: creationism and ID are not scientific ideas, nor were they ever considered such, and so I would argue they do not belong in the biology classroom (note this seems a distinctly different argument than the one about church-and state).

Now, I am admittedly not a philosopher of science, so I could be wrong (though the philosophers of science I’ve met and read tell me otherwise). But even if I was wrong, that doesn’t mean I was defending creationism. Again, I was discussing the limits of science. Why would I defend creationism? Do people here really believe I’m an evangelical Christian in disguise? Why such distrust for people throwing around different ideas?

4. The fact that the social controversy over creationism and evolution exists does not mean the biology textbooks should take up the controversy. It might be meant for public schools generally—in, for instance, a philosophy or sociology course—but that’s a different conversation. 

5. I would agree that children who answer questions about the age of the Earth and so forth ought to be marked wrong. I never said otherwise.

6. I’ve seen some people argue here that mentioning creationism is a “myth” is the same thing as mentioning 2+2 does not equal 5. I can’t imagine teachers have had to seriously entertain this argument, but suffice to say that the belief 2+2 equals 5 is not a religious belief. Others have posited the geocentric argument. But again, geocentrism was not a specifically religious idea—in fact, it originated with Aristotle and the ancient Greeks.

#40 Michael De Dora on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 3:13pm

Also, to give people an idea of where my thinking on the science-philosophy issue comes from, here are a few links that will give you some insight:

http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2009/11/on-difference-between-science-and.html

http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/02/podcast-teaser-great-atheist-debate.html

More on this can be found in Massimo’s talk at the American Atheist conference 2010, “Atheism, Science, and Politics,” here:

http://www.platofootnote.org

Also, more generally speaking, there’s this:

http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/04/about-sam-harris-claim-that-science-can.html

#41 Michael De Dora on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 3:20pm

@Deen,

“If the biology textbook is even halfway decent, the rest of the book should have already established that the creation story couldn’t have been true anyway. How could it be problematic to point it out explicitly?”

Because it is one thing to teach biology; it is another to deny religious ideas.

#42 Daniel Schealler on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 3:32pm

@Michael

1) Thanks for the acknowledgement. I think the context is important.

2) Your comments on ‘myth’.

I hate it, but I do have to side with you on this one. Language is a mutating beast. I don’t think the word myth should imply falsehood, but you’ve got it bang to rights when you point out that this isn’t how it’s commonly used. Common usage sucks.

That said, the Biblical creation story is both a myth in the sense of a religious story. It is also revealed to be false by scientific evidence. So whichever sense we use the term ‘myth’, it’s still accurate.

I also still think it was appropriate, but more on that in 4).

3) I’ll back you up here. Nothing you’ve said has led me to believe you were advocating creationism… The implications that you have been have struck me as cheap-shot name calling.

4) I still disagree with you here. The social controversy is an important aspect of the history of the development of the theory of evolution. The history of a scientific theory is a fitting subject for a textbook on that theory.

5) I think that was my example you’re referring to. I The example was intended to demonstrate my point that teaching certain scientific facts must contradict religious claims - and if they do, the students beliefs about the truth of these facts should be irrelevant so long as they understand and provide the scientifically correct answer.

I didn’t intend the example to come over as an exaggeration of a position that I was ascribing to yourself. That would have been a straw-man, and if it came over that way I apologize.

6) This one seems a bit weaselly.

I agree that teachers in a classroom shouldn’t go out of their way to criticize religious beliefs. I wouldn’t want to see a mathematics teacher instructing their students on the logical fallacies in the Qu’ran, for example. But if 2+2=5 actually was a commonly held religious belief, this would strike me as a reason why mathematics teachers should address it in an arithmetics classroom.

In this vein, mentioning creationism is an appropriate topic to discuss when delving into the history of the theory of evolution. The social controversy is relevant to the history of the theory.

For any law, it is inevitable that it will fail to catch some of those it should, and that it will catch some of those it shouldn’t. This very well may be the kind of thing that the constitution catches that it shouldn’t.

But I still think it was a perfectly fair comment to mention creationism in the context of that text, and it was correct and appropriate to categorize it as a religious myth.

7) I hope to get an answer to this, if it’s not too much trouble.

Your content seems to address those of us who think the use of the word ‘myth’ was appropriate. Specifically PZ, but by extension those of us who agree with PZ as well - I include myself in that number.

However, your emotional tone and overall style don’t fall in line with the tone and style that have been proven to be effective on that kind of audience. Instead, your tone and style seem more in line with an audience of religious moderates.

So here’s what pricks my curiosity. Your tone and style seem to address one kind of audience, while your content seems to address a very different kind of audience.

So I’m wondering: What was your intended audience for this blog post?

Also: What conclusion were you attempting to persuade that audience towards?

I’m not asking this to be coy, either. I’m genuinely curious. Blame Daniel Coffeen, it’s all his fault that I ask questions like this. ^_^

#43 Deen (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 3:49pm

Because it is one thing to teach biology; it is another to deny religious ideas.

But science denies that the earth is 6000 years old. It denies that the first man was made out of clay, and the first woman out of his rib. Or that we can meaningfully speak of “the first man and woman” in the first place. Are these not all religious ideas? And aren’t they all denied by the very same textbook, even if you’d take the offending quote out?

I’m also not sure if you have thought through the logical consequences of your response. Are you really prepared to claim that because of the Establishment Clause, we can’t deny these ideas anymore?

#44 Michael De Dora on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 4:02pm

@Deen, but why even mention that certain religious people think the world is 6,000 years old (unless of course, it is absolutely necessary to give some context, in which case bio teachers can acknowledge existence, but not outright rail against religious ideas in the classroom). It’s a high school biology class. Teach biology and let that lead where it may.

#45 Michael De Dora on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 4:24pm

Daniel,

Thank you for the response.

“In this vein, mentioning creationism is an appropriate topic to discuss when delving into the history of the theory of evolution. The social controversy is relevant to the history of the theory. …  I still think it was a perfectly fair comment to mention creationism in the context of that text, and it was correct and appropriate to categorize it as a religious myth.”

As I said, if the passage had said “biblical story,” I don’t write the same essay. That said, the history of the debate and its current standing might be better off in a philosophy (or sociology) course. But to the point, if biology courses were going to teach background on the theory, as I would admit they probably should to some minor extent (though again, can’t we teach biology without really going into religion?), then textbooks obviously have to acknowledge the existence of dissent. Yet I don’t see a church-state issue with merely mentioning that religion exists. Denying religious ideas is the step that puts us in a bind.

“Your content seems to address those of us who think the use of the word ‘myth’ was appropriate. Specifically PZ, but by extension those of us who agree with PZ as well - I include myself in that number. However, your emotional tone and overall style don’t fall in line with the tone and style that have been proven to be effective on that kind of audience. Instead, your tone and style seem more in line with an audience of religious moderates. So here’s what pricks my curiosity. Your tone and style seem to address one kind of audience, while your content seems to address a very different kind of audience. So I’m wondering: What was your intended audience for this blog post? Also: What conclusion were you attempting to persuade that audience towards?”

Have you posted something similar before? I remember reading something like this in response to one of my other posts, but alas, I have a restricted amount of time and can’t reply to everyone. Apologies if you felt I ignored the question.

It would probably be useful here to give you some background. I don’t normally like to talk personal stuff, but it seems the only way to give you an idea of where I’m coming from.

I was raised in and remain a member of a rather religious family; and when I say family, I mean something like 25-30 people who are religious—then me. Certain of these people denied evolution. Certain of them thought I joined a cult. Certain of them thought, “he has it all wrong.” Certain of them didn’t talk to me for awhile when I took the job at CFI.

In all of this, I was not one to keep my mouth shut, so I’ve had to do my fair share of dealing and speaking with people I know are sincere but whom I think are, for the most part, dead wrong (I wouldn’t ignore that others have had similar experiences, but mine seems to have particular impact on me). But I’ve been able to make progress with my loved ones over these contentious issues, and our relationships are now as good as they have ever been. How? By taking a calm, patient, sensible, yet evidence-focused approach, which welcomed quality dialogue on very touchy matters.

Moreover, I care deeply about the secular liberal tradition and would like to see its spread (again) in the U.S. So, if my writings come off as directed toward “religious moderates” or “soft secularists” well, it might be that my message has been naturally tailored toward them.

I hope this helped give you a glimpse into why I might be writing what I am writing.

#46 Deen (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 4:34pm

@Michael De Dora:

but why even mention that certain religious people think the world is 6,000 years old

Because it’s true? Because these people do exist? Because students are bound to run into these people sooner or later?

And who’s “railing” against religious ideas in the classroom? Yes, maybe the word “myth” may not have been the best possible choice, but it can hardly be called “railing”. It’s only a single passage, and it’s in a section that deals with the social context of evolution. Students have to live in that society, so hiding this information from students does them no favors.

And you’re still making little sense. Are you saying that it’s OK to teach people that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, but it’s wrong to teach them that the earth isn’t 6000 years old?

#47 Jim Lippard (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 4:40pm

If it were unconstitutional to say anything in a public school classroom that implies that any element of any religion is false, then if someone created a new religion that had as an element a denial of anything taught in any class, it would make teaching that thing unconstitutional. 

Saying that the earth is 4.5 billion years old implies that the earth is not 6,000 years old, and would thus be unconstitutional on that interpretation.

Fortunately, that’s not how the establishment clause is interpreted.  If a statement has a secular purpose, doesn’t have a *primary* effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, and doesn’t result in excessive government entanglement with religion, it’s OK.

BTW, creationism and God *were* considered to be within the scope of science, both in the formulation of “scienta” by scholastics before the scientific revolution and in the work of the major natural philosophers who participated in the scientific revolution.  In fact, the major styles of science arguably derive from a theological controversy over the understanding of the relationship between God and his creation, either being a necessary connection through God using his reason to create an intelligible universe, or as a contingent connection through God using his will to create a universe that could be opaque to reason.  The former style was represented by Galileo, Pascal, and Descartes; the latter by Bacon, Boyle, and Gassendi.

Creationism is now pseudoscience because it has been falsified, not because it didn’t meet some universal conditions of science.  The idea of methodological naturalism can be traced back in some form to scholastics like Buridan and Oresme, as well as in some form in Galileo (though his views allowed theology to trump science), but the term and its modern form is 20th century.  Science didn’t really get fully separated from theology and theologians until the 19th century, when it was still called natural philosophy.

The NAS once put out a publication (1984’s “Science and Creationism”) that made the mistake of claiming both that creationism was not science because it was unfalsifiable, and that was not science because it had been repeatedly falsified.

#48 Michael De Dora on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 4:42pm

Also, people seem to be putting words in my mouth, arguing that I said creationism is a correct answer because science can’t fully respond to all its arguments.

I said no such thing. I said science has limits, and that creationist arguments are fully responded to by resort to science *and* philosophy. That science cannot fully answer every human argument is no knock on science. It’s an admission of its purview and of the need to realize nuance where it exists.

#49 Michael De Dora on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 4:48pm

@Deen,

“Are you saying that it’s OK to teach people that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, but it’s wrong to teach them that the earth isn’t 6000 years old?”

Yes. One imparts scientific knowledge. The other denies a religious idea. One is constitutional; the other is not. There is no reason for a high school biology teacher to get into denying specific religious ideas in a high school biology class.

#50 Daniel Schealler on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 5:00pm

@Michael

You’re right. I have asked that before - but it was in the middle of a very long line of comments, and after I’d been disagreeing with you pretty strongly, too. I figured you’d either missed the question or decided not to answer due to all the other responses you’d been giving. Don’t worry, I didn’t mind. ^_^

Thanks for the personal insight - I appreciate it. For some reason I’d been thinking that you were selecting your tone and style intentionally, and the choice seemed odd to me. Now that you’ve pointed it out, it does make more sense as just being an example of your natural style.

Thanks for the response.

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