An eager reader helps me bounce not too far from Bartlett and Howie’s fact-free Christian exceptionalism to this Slate article about the willful ignorance of creationists. Columnist Vanessa Wamsley cites research finding that religious students are less scientifically literate. Wamsley, who grew up creationist, says she can see that effect in her own high school education in Nebraska. When her science teacher, Terry Wortman, would cover evolution, she would smugly ask, “Were you there?” then tune out the answer and the rest of the lesson, just as her church instructed her:
What was I learning about evolution, then? The church I attended with my family when I was young had a monthly “Creation Moment” in the service. A respected church board member would give a five-minute presentation on topics such as humans living with dinosaurs or the geologic importance of Noah’s flood. We were encouraged to confront anyone who seemed to assume that evolution is true with a simple question meant to stump them: Were you there? It was the question I eventually asked Wortman. The act of asking that question demonstrates how little I understood evolutionary theory. No one needs to directly observe an aquatic species slowly evolving the ability to crawl onto dry land in order for scientists to surmise that mammals evolved from a fish. As Wortman said, we can observe the evidence in the fossil record and draw reasonable conclusions. But I always stopped thinking critically about the details once I had posed my short question. I wasn’t listening to the answer. I knew I believed what my church had taught me [Vanessa Wamsley, “Were You There?” Slate, 2015.05.26].
I have to wonder if the elders in Wamsley’s church ever addressed what church members should do if a sharp teacher ever asked a student to apply the “Were you there?” test to Genesis.
The religionist’s need to understand science is akin to my need to understand the Christian cultural soup in which I swim. I could apply the “Were you there?” test, then smirkingly dismiss my religionist friends’ responses. But I am better off listening to and understanding their theology and looking for ways that their beliefs can work with mine to find common ground and take practical action.
Not understanding evolution may not have a practical impact on most daily activities. But smirking and specious challenges to the science of evolution can leak into dismissal of the merits of science and evidence-based expertise in general, which can lead to all sorts of sloppy politics.
Students, go ahead, ask your questions. But use questions to open doors to understanding, not to slam doors shut.