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Good News October 3, 2011

Posted by Bill in atheism, Christianity, Constitution, critical thinking, Evolution, Religion, Religious Right, Schools, Science, Uncategorized.
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One of my passions is keeping up with creationist (and I include Intelligent Design here) attempts to  change what science is.    They wish to supplant the reason and evidence that is the basis for good science with faith instead – specifically their faith. 

Sometimes, actually often, it can become discouraging looking at how many battles must be fought to ensure our schools continue to teach good science; listening to all the politicians expressing their ignorance of science by expressing doubts about evolution; and seeing all the letters and forum responses from those who let their religion totally blind their ability to reason and fairly judge evidence. 

For example, consider these quotes from various prominent politicians:

“There are clear indications from our people who have amazing intellectual capability that this didn’t happen by accident and a creator put this in place,”

“Now, what was his time frame and how did he create the earth that we know? I’m not going to tell you that I’ve got the answers to that,” Perry said. “I believe that we were created by this all-powerful supreme being and how we got to today versus what we look like thousands of years ago, I think there’s enough holes in the theory of evolution to, you know, say there are some holes in that theory.”  Governor and Presidential candidate Rick Perry

and

“[Schmidt] knew my position: I believed in the evidence for microevolution – that geologic and species change occurs incrementally over time. But I didn’t believe in the theory that human beings – thinking, loving beings – originated from fish that sprouted legs and crawled out of the sea. Or that human beings began as single-celled organisms that developed into monkeys who eventually swung down from trees; I believed we came about through a random process, but were created by God.

“But your dad’s a science teacher,” Schmidt objected.

“Yes.”

“Then you know that science proves evolution,” added Schmidt.

“Parts of evolution,” I said.

“But I believe that God created us and also that He can create an evolutionary process that allows species to change and adapt.”

Schmidt winced and raised his eyebrows. In the dim light, his sunglasses shifted atop his head. I had just dared to mention the C-word: creationism. But I felt I was on solid factual ground.”  From “Going Rogue“ by Sarah Palin, conservative commentator (definitely) and Republican Presidential Candidate (who knows). 

I know that I have quoted Republican and conservatives here for my examples, the reason being is that they have the largest numbers of creationists.  However they do not have the exclusive franchise on creationism. 

According to a 2008 Gallup poll, 38% of Democrats also believe that God created the world and all that is in it only 10,000 years ago.   Independents come in at 40%.  Overall almost 40% of Americans are creationists.

This can be readily seen in the many attempts to sneak the teaching of creationism into our public schools.  Every time we review biology textbooks in Texas creationists try to supplant evolution with creationism or at the very least get both taught as if they are both scientifically valid.  And this is just not a Texas thing.

In 2011 so far there have been at least 11 anti-evolution bills presented in various state legislatures.  This includes the states of New Hampshire (actually had to anti-evolution bills submitted), Missouri, Florida, Tennessee, New Mexico, Alabama, Kentucky,  Texas, and Oklahoma (another with two anti-evolution bills submitted).  Louisiana actually passed an anti-evolution bill and so far it has not been repealed. 

And this doesn’t even consider all the creationist activity happening at the local level – school districts, individual schools or even individual teachers. 

So much determined ignorance is enough to make one discouraged at times. 

But then this comes along – a light piercing the gloom of my discouragement.

Believe it or not my good news came from a Christian radio station.  In fact it came from Ken Ham, the President/CEO and founder of Answers in Genesis.   

He and the host interviewing him were lamenting on the sad state of Christian Colleges.  They went on and on about how good Christian families are sending their children to these colleges expecting them to receive a good Christian education and instead find them being taught things that are totally unbiblical. 

Apparently Mr. Ham had a hunch about this and hired the Beemer’s  American Research Group to do a survey of 90 American Christian colleges associated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and who require their professors to sign a personal statement of faith.  In addition over 100 more Christian colleges that were associated with a religious denomination were also surveyed.   What he found shocked him and delighted me.

While most of these college said the right words in their literature – the Bible is the inspired word of God, it is foundational, etc. when they probed further they discovered that their definitions and interpretations of these words differed from that of Ken Ham and many conservative Christians. 

What I found very interesting is that these differences are not apparent in the teachings of the New Testament.  On that these colleges and Mr. Ham basically agreed.  However the problem came in when they taught science and taught about Genesis.    The great majority of these Christian colleges taught an old earth and evolution as science – NOT a young earth creationism!

So, while we are still fighting, so far largely successfully, to maintain science standards in our public schools it appears that science has made some significant inroads in unexpected places – conservative Christian colleges.   To me this is great news, on many levels. 

First off it shows that the evidence for evolution and how it works is so overwhelming that even those in what has traditionally been a hostile environment for science have to acknowledge it.  Either that or cease to reason and blind themselves to the evidence.  

They apparantly have realized the truth of what St. Augustine said in his ‘On the Literal Meaning of Genesis”  

“Even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens,… the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.  Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsens on these topics;  and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.”

What pleases me even more about this is that it also backs up my contention that evolution and atheism are not synonyms and that one can be a good Christian and still acknowledge the reality of evolution and of how it works. 

To my mind a reasoning, rational Christian should realize that if God exists then the evidence of the world cannot conflict with that of Biblical revelation.  If they do then there is something wrong with either the understanding of how the world works or with the understanding of God’s revelation.  

What this means is that if the facts accumulate to such a degree that it is no longer rational to deny a fact of the world then a good hard look needs to be taken at how God’s revelation is understood.  After all, humans are fallible creatures. 

Rational Christians realize that human fallibility applies not only in regards to knowledge of the world but also to understanding revelation.    The latter possibility never seems to occur to creationists.  

This just highlights the fact that the debate between scientists and creationists is NOT that of the atheism vs. Christianity.  Instead it is between science vs.  non-science.  And it seems that science may be winning. 

Ken Ham published his findings in a book called “Already Compromised”.  I may have to read it just for the good news.

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Smarter Activism March 18, 2011

Posted by frrobins in activism, communication, critical thinking, Current Events, iraq, Memories, Personal, Politics, Schools.
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It might seem ironic that I went through a crisis of faith as a college student. That’s the best way my husband and I could describe it. I went through this even though I was and am an atheist. Born and raised. Yet while some atheists run away in fear from the word ‘faith’ there are things I did and still do have faith in. For me this came from my Humanistic philosophy. I believe that people are mostly good and will do the right thing. And this was where the crisis in faith came in.

The invasion of Iraq and subsequent re-election of Bush were what caused it. I knew that we had no valid reason for invading Iraq. I felt it was morally wrong. And I could not believe so many people supported it. I protested, wrote letters, pestered my acquaintances with anti-war rhetoric. I did the stuff that reformers before me did that lead to progress. No one ever told me that those reformers experienced more failures than successes in their life. While Susan B. Anthony secured some property rights for women, she fell way short of her big goal of earning the right to vote. And the setback were numerous.

It was bad enough that Iraq was invaded. It was worst that Bush was actually re-elected. I wore my CD player out with Green Day’s American Idiot and went through a period of several years where I gave up on activism all together. People were idiots and it was useless trying to reason with them. It was a small comfort that shortly after his re-election people woke up to their mistake, and that long term Iraq has been considered a fiasco. It doesn’t change the fact that many have died unnecessarily and that things are worse now.

Eventually I got back into activism, though not the way I did before. I hope I’m doing it smarter. How? Well, trying to figure out how to repackage my message.

This is hard. Studies have shown that when people are entrenched in a position, reading evidence against their position only strengthens their previously held beliefs. Then there is the confirmation bias, where people seek out information that confirms their beliefs. Making it unlikely they’d even read what I have to say anyway.

So, how to reach across the aisle and convince people of the validity of my viewpoint? This isn’t an “I’m smart and right, you’re an idiot and wrong’ thing. For instance, I really don’t care about your religious beliefs, so long as you don’t try to impose those beliefs on me. What I’m talking about is stuff that does affect me. Such as global warming. The evidence supports that it is occurring and we need to do something about it. This affects me. How do I make people see the reality of the threat here and, more importantly, get them to see the importance of eco-friendly planning? Fear mongering works. People are irrational creatures. Rather than think rationally we think with our emotions. Even the most logical person will think irrationally in the throes of fear and anger. Hence, how we found ourselves in Iraq.

I don’t like fear mongering. I respect its power and I don’t like it. I don’t want to scare people into making decisions…it tends to lead them into making the wrong ones. I want people to look at the evidence rationally and make informed decisions.

So people don’t make decisions about important things rationally. I’m against using irrational means to spread information even if it benefits my cause. How do I get around this? I know! Teach kids critical thinking skills while they’re young!

Consider that a lot of people don’t know how to make informed decisions because they were never taught how. I’m going to use Shirley Sherrod as an example. An edited video came out showing that Sherrod, a black woman, discriminated against a white farmer. Or did it? When the full video was seen, it was obvious that Sherrod had done no such thing. By that time it was too late. Her reputation was damaged and she had lost her job.

What if, rather than judging Sherrod by a few video clips, people had watched the full tape from the beginning? It is ridiculously easy to manipulate sound bites or take written words out of context. What if people looked up the original source of a quote/video/sound bites, etc?

All of this can be taught. It’s not difficult to learn. Kids can learn it in history class. What if, instead of memorizing dates of events they will forget during summer break, we teach kids skills that historians use to determine what happened in the past? What if we explain the difference between a primary and secondary source and have kids find examples of each. What if we show how information can be corrupted, either intentionally or unintentionally?

Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake.” In Antonia Frasier’s biography of this infamous queen, she details how this quote had been attributed to many an unpopular queen through history, and how with Marie Antoinette it stuck. This misinformation pervades our past, present, and will be out there in our future. How do we inoculate our kids against it?

What if we showed how words and information can be manipulated by governments and other groups of people and taught children how to check their facts, think critically, and question what they see and read?

Of course, this would require a major overhaul of how we see education in America. It would require letting go of our standardized testing fetish and introducing a more difficult curriculum into the classroom. It would mean teaching kids that may be our government wasn’t always all good. And I live in a state that wants to use history class as a propaganda machine for saying that the reason the south succeeded was a state’s rights issue that had nothing to do with slavery *sighs*.

So how to reform the schools to teach critical thinking? How to convince people that this is needed? Especially when giving out harmful standardized tests is a big money maker for some people and the current broken system benefits some politicians? I can already hear cries of liberals wanting to brain wash children into godlessness, when in reality I could care less about their religious beliefs and just want people to think critically about issues that affect us all (we’re not on this rock alone). Heck, critical thinking is the opposite of brainwashing. I use it even with sources I trust or things I want to believe.

For instance, Jon Stewart once made the comment that Sarah Palin made rape victims pay for their rape kits. Alarmed, I went the check and found that while her chief of police did this, whether or not Palin supported it is undetermined. Now, I dislike Palin. I think she is harmful to the women’s movement and like to collect ammunition against her. But if I start passing around misinformation, then I look like a fool.

So, to get people to think critically about issues we need to teach these skills in school, which means reforming an educational system that favors rote teaching and blind acceptance, which means convincing people that changing it to teach critical thinking is a worthy goal without using fear mongering. Whew! So ladies and gents, how do I pull that off? Well, if you have any ideas I’d love to hear them. Because I haven’t figured it out yet.

Talking the Plane Down March 16, 2010

Posted by Dindy in Current Events, Schools, Uncategorized.
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You all have seen the movies. The jet airliner full of passengers and the pilot and co-pilot suddenly stricken with food poisoning and unable to fly the plane. The hapless passenger who gets plucked from his seat and handed the controls of the airplane while on the ground a grizzled old war pilot with a hundred years of experience– usually one who is undergoing a “what use am I to anybody now that I am 150 years old and no longer able to fly?” type of crisis– talks reassuringly to the erstwhile pilot and guides him step by step through landing the plane.  As the relieved passengers leave the plane, the beautiful flight attendant kisses the hero and tells him that he saved everybody’s lives and he replies, “No, I couldn’t have done it without the help of Old Jake,” while the grizzled old veteran blinks a tear out of his eye and rides off into the sunset.

The passengers of that plane were lucky that they don’t live in Texas because if the Texas State Board of Education had been in charge, instead of getting Old Jake to talk the plane down, they would have pulled a minister in to pray with the passengers of the plane after a banker made sure they understood the benefits of the free enterprise system.

Far fetched? Not to anyone who has been following the escapades of the Texas State Board of Education in adopting the standards for Social Studies textbooks in the State of Texas, a process that will have ripple effects throughout the rest of the United States because of the clout Texas wields over all the textbook publishers because of its size.

In a process that was so acrimonious that one member walked out of the meeting in protest, the right wing faction of the BOE succeeded in passing such measures as requiring students to describe how “describe how McCarthyism, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the arms race and the space race increased Cold War tensions and how the later release of the Venona Papers confirmed suspicions of communist infiltration in U.S. government.” (I suppose twenty years from now a similarly situated panel will be directing students to learn how the search for WMD in Iraq provided justification for the Iraq War.)

Plenty of other columnists have lambasted the individual measures of the proposals– and there is plenty of fodder to lambast– but I have to ask, why are we letting a group of politicians make decisions concerning what will be taught in public schools to begin with? If your car is broken down are you going to call up your local school board member and ask him how to fix it or are you going to take it to a mechanic? If you need to have a tooth pulled are you going to go wait for a member of the Board of Education to have a chance to yank it for you or are you going to go to a dentist? Oh- wait a minute! One of the members of the Texas  BOE IS a dentist, so lucky you can actually get someone there who is qualified to pull your tooth!

But my point is, why aren’t experts in the subject area making determinations about what should be taught? Among the members of the Texas State BOE we have 4 teachers, 1 school administrator, 1 substitute teacher/instructor/test monitor, 2 attorneys, 2 realtors, 1 investment banker, 1 businessman, 1 dentist and a couple of professional volunteers. Very few of these members would be qualified to be hired as a teacher in a Social Studies classroom, yet they are making decisions about what will be taught in those classrooms?

We cannot hold teachers accountable for poor outcomes if the standards are stupid to begin with. If we want to improve education in the United States, we need to look at the top and evaluate the processes whereby curriculum decisions are made– and I do not believe that allowing a group of people who have little to no specialized education or expertise in the field of
Social Studies is the best way to determine what should be taught in such classes.

Lousiana Is At It Again October 6, 2009

Posted by Dindy in Church and State, Evolution, Religion, Schools, Science.
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The State of Louisiana is not exactly known for its excellent public schools and with its latest volley against evolution, that trend will continue. Under the 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), teachers can use supplemental material to help students “understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner.” In January 2009, the Lousiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) adopted a policy about what types of supplementary classroom materials will and will not be allowable under LSEA. A provision that “materials that teach creationism or intelligent design or that advance the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind shall be prohibited for use in science class” was deleted.

Left unresolved was the question of how to handle complaints about whether or not supplemental materials were or were not appropriate. The Department of Education recommended that any complaints undergo an initial review by a three-member panel named by the agency, then go to the state board for a final decision. However, the BESE evidently didn’t want people who know anything about science reviewing such materials because it revised the procedure so that when there is a challenge to materials, they will be reviewed by a panel of five, two of which will be selected by the DOE, one reviewer will be named by the challenger, one by the school and one by the publisher of the challenged materials.

Excuse me? One of the persons responsible for reviewing challenged materials to determine whether or not they violate the BESE policy will be selected by the publisher of the challenged materials? Gee, let me think. What kind of recommendation do you think THAT person will make?

BESE: Hey, you, Publisher’s Representative! Do you think these materials violate the Board Policy against promoting a religious doctrine?

Publisher’s Representative: No. Absolutely not. The materials promote Creation Science which everyone knows is not at all biblical in nature but is definitely scientifically based.

My guess is that Louisiana enjoys having schools that rank in the bottom five in the nation. Maybe with this new policy, they can actually come in last on the list!

What Are We Teaching Kids Anyway? September 13, 2009

Posted by Dindy in Church and State, Religion, Schools.
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In Texas, a proposal being reviewed by the State Board of Education would drop the mention of Christmas from the 6th Grade Social Studies curriculum, replacing it with information about Diwali, a Hindu religious festival. Not surprisingly, conservative Christians are up in arms and revisiting their Continuous “War on Christmas” battle cry.

Actually, to be precise, the standards being considered are a requirement that sixth graders be able to explain the significance of religious holidays such as Yom Kippur, Diwali, Ramadan and Easter. Christmas is not included in that list although it is included in the CURRENT standards and Diwali is not.

Personally, I’d include them both, however, it’s possible that the committee recommending the changes thinks that sixth graders are probably already very familiar with the significance of Christmas and don’t need the school to spell it out for them. Let’s face it, it is not possible to live in the United States and NOT be aware of the religious significance of Christmas. It’s kind of like expecting the schools to teach kids in Texas about the importance of football– oh, wait a minute, schools in Texas– Arlington, Texas– are already expected to teach students about the importance of football. That’s why the district is busing 500 fifth graders to the new Cowboys Stadium in September.

No! No! No! It’s not to teach them the importance of football! It’s so they can hear the former president, George Dubya Bush, explain the importance of a volunteer initiative that will happen during the 2011 SuperBowl.

Volunteering is important, and no one should have a problem with their kids hearing about it. After all, it’s an important value, kind of like staying in school and studying hard- but wait! This is the same school district that completely boycotted Obama’s speech to school children about staying in school and studying hard because it took 18 minutes of class time away from IMPORTANT things, presumably like teaching the significance of Christmas!