The amount of hatred one can earn simply by speaking one’s mind and doing one’s job never fails to astonish me. All the more remarkable is how the people who hate so viciously are the very ones you’d expect to be tolerant, or at least quietly begrudging — people whose ancestors, both familial and ideological, were themselves the targets of bigotry in generations past, when different powers were the oppressors. Yet today, even in a country which prides itself on a long list of freedoms, speaking the plain, factual truth of the world is a sure way to win oneself ire, derision and abuse.
Both history and current events teach us that forces of prejudice and inequity oppose the dissemination of truth to certain sectors of society. As recently as 2006, the Afghan schoolteacher Mohammed Halim was drawn and quartered by motorbikes, the remains of his body put on display so that others would think twice before defying Taliban law and committing the unforgivable crime of teaching female children. I doubt the Taliban thugs who beat the algebra teachers of Ghazni have any particular animosity towards the mathematics; given a moment’s reflection, they might wholeheartedly support the math lessons necessary to train engineers who then build weapons to be used against the United States. The crime in their eyes, I’d wager, is not the material, but the audience.
In the country where I grew up and am writing now, the story is a little different: most of the time, hatred against educators does not escalate to physical violence, although threats of violence are common enough, and most of the time, the factor provoking abuse is not the audience, but the lesson itself.
The plain truth I’m talking about is the biological principle of evolution. The single most powerful idea in biology, this discovery has withstood decades of criticism to emerge triumphant as one of the most well-checked propositions in human history. Learn about evolution, and you can go to work on diseases, or help find out where species both living and extinct fit into the family tree of life. You can understand the living world, and help preserve human life within it.
Open your mouth about evolution around the wrong people, though, and you can find yourself harassed, ejected from your job and even beaten in the street.
Just ask these people.
Steve Bitterman was an instructor who taught the Western Civilization course at Southwestern Community College in Red Oak, Iowa. In 2007, at the age of sixty, he was fired because he did not teach the story of Adam and Eve as literal truth. (How many faithful Christians there are in this country who see that story as an allegory, and a powerful, meaningful one, of the loss of innocence!) “I just thought there was such a thing as academic freedom here,” he said afterward. “From my point of view, what theyâ€™re doing is essentially teaching their students very well to function in the eighth century.”
Alex Bolyanatz was an assistant professor of anthropology at Wheaton College, a Protestant liberal-arts college in Illinois. He had been popular with both students and his fellow teachers, but in the spring of 2000, he received a letter from his provost issuing a stern rebuke: “During your term at Wheaton College,” Stanton Jones wrote, “you have failed to develop the necessary basic competence in the integration of Faith and Learning, particularly in the classroom setting.” Jones castigated Bolyanatz for not treating creationism with respect and instead teaching evolution as the plain, scientific truth. Bolyanatz had repeatedly made the point that evolution did not conflict with his own religious faith, but claiming that “The evolutionary model does not discount faith” was not enough to save his job. His experience parallels that of Howard J. Van Till, who taught physics at Calvin College in Michigan. When Van Till made the modest claims that evolution had been scientifically proven and that Biblical texts were influenced by the cultures in which they’d been written, angry community members pressured Calvin College’s Board of Trustees into forming an investigative committee, which subjected Van Till to four years of inquiry. He was, eventually, cleared, but not until the committee had performed, he said, “a test of the entirety of my theological position.”
Likewise, Richard Colling graduated from Olivet Nazarene University and taught there for twenty-seven years. A man of strong religious convictions, he argued that one could believe in the Christian God and still accept the scientific truth of evolution. In 2004, he published a book about this belief, and for his pains, he was barred from teaching general biology or having his book used in the school.
Colling had been granted tenure, so that at least his job and paycheck were secure, even though the ejection from the community he loved brought him significant anguish. Nancey Murphy of Fuller Theological Seminary did not have that shield, and so when her negative review of Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial aroused Johnson’s ire, she had to fight for her job. Johnson, a lawyer who was one of the instigators in rebranding creationism as “Intelligent Design,” has never displayed a grasp of basic biological facts, but that didn’t stop him from calling up a Fuller trustee and starting a campaign to get Nancey Murphy fired.
Gwen Pearson taught biology at the Permian Basin branch of the University of Texas, located in the city of Odessa. Her three years as an assistant professor ended with assaults on her integrity and her physical self:
This all became a great deal more serious when I began to get messages on my home answering machine threatening to assist me in reaching hell, where I would surely end up. I also received threatening mail messages: “The Bible tells us how to deal with nonbelievers: ‘Bring those who would not have me to reign over them, and slay them before me.’ May Christians have the strength to slaughter you and end your pitiful, blasphemous life!”
An envelope containing student evaluations from my evolution class was tampered with. A student wrote a letter to the president of the university claiming that I said in class that “anyone who believes in God gets an F.” Despite the fact that she had never been in my class, and it was clearly untrue, a full investigation of the charge ensued.
There were other problems. Often I arrived in class to find “Dr. Feminazi” scrawled on the blackboard. An emotionally disturbed student assaulted me on campus. In town, Maurice Sendak’s award-winning book Where the Wild Things Are was removed from school libraries, as it might “confuse children as to the true nature of Beelzebub.” The California-based Institute for Creation Research (ICR) preached in the county stadium to 10,000 local people.
I finally resigned when I received an admonition from the dean in my yearly reappointment letter to “accommodate the more intellectually conservative students with a low threshold of offensibility” in my evolution course. Rather than compromise my academic freedom, I chose to leave what seemed to be a dangerous place.
Pearson was faced with an intolerable situation — people who had seemingly never contemplated the nobility of forgiveness — and left of her own volition, but Chris Comer was not so lucky. A dedicated employee of the Texas Education Agency, Comer was serving as Director of Science when she forwarded a brief e-mail message mentioning that the philosopher Barbara Forrest would be giving a talk at an Austin public events center. Forrest and her colleague Paul Gross are authors of Creationism’s Trojan Horse, a book which details how creationism has masqueraded as serious science in order to slip particular religious beliefs into the public schools. For sending a brief “FYI,” Comer was forced to resign.
Paul Mirecki was professor of religious studies and department chair at the University of Kansas. He planned to teach a class called “Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies,” but canceled those plans after events took an unfortunate turn. He had displayed an acerbic tongue in online discussion forums, and on further reflection apologized for his less temperate remarks, concluding that the class was better taught at another time; that apology and change of plan did not prevent two men from beating him in the street one December morning, for the crimethink of having proposed the class in the first place. Sympathy for a physically assaulted human being did not stay the KU administration, who forced him to step down as department chair.
The real occurrence of violence gives death threats a certain cachet of intimidating force. Eric Pianka, a biologist at UT Austin, gave a speech before the Texas Academy of Science, which was presenting him with a distinguished-service award. In his speech, he articulated his fears that overpopulation will lead to a disaster for the human species. The story then took a twist which a fiction writer would be hard-pressed to surpass: a creationist named Forrest Mims claimed that Pianka advocated releasing the Ebola virus to eliminate 90% of the world’s population. Other creationists, like William Dembski, soon picked up the story, leading to online hysteria. Within days, Pianka himself and others in the Texas Academy of Science received death threats.
“I don’t bear any ill will towards anybody,” Pianka told one reporter, and elaborated: “I’ve got two granddaughters, man. I’m putting money in a college fund for my granddaughters. I’m worried about them.”
The issue of creationism has been simmering for decades, sometimes frothing up into great legal battles which attract widespread attention. The most recent of these watershed events happened in Dover, Pennsylvania, where a school board tried to push “Intelligent Design” into the science classrooms.
Judge John E. Jones III, a Republican and faithful Lutheran, delivered a landmark verdict in which he summarized the claims of Intelligent Design proponents as “breathtaking inanity.” Once the verdict was revealed, Judge Jones became the target of character assassination and even received death threats for the crime of doing his job.
His decision put Judge Jones on the cover of Time Magazine, but you don’t have to be famous to have someone get very upset about you. Michael Korn sent threatening letters, adorned with skulls and crossbones, to several biology professors at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Several of the messages were delivered by slipping envelopes under the professors’ office doors after working hours; Korn’s missives referred to “killing the enemies of Christian society.” He then skipped town and is currently a fugitive from justice.
When will one of these threats come to fruition? When will self-righteous anger, fueled by ignorance, unchecked thanks to prejudicial culture, meet a loosening of inhibitions and end in grief? If you think this is such a long shot that it could never happen and isn’t worth bothering about, what about the sad story of Rudi Boa?
A 28-year-old graduate of Edinburgh University with degrees in chemistry and forensic science, Boa was backpacking across Australia with his girlfriend, Gillian Brown. At a bar in Tumut, New South Wales, Boa had an argument over religion with another traveler, Alexander York. Later that night, it appears, York attacked Brown and in the ensuing fight, Boa was stabbed, once, in the chest. York was found guilty of manslaughter. A community center in Phnom Penh, through which Boa had traveled shortly before his death, was later founded and named in his honor, using donations from the Boa family.
I wonder: when will this happen in America? All the ingredients are already here. It doesn’t take an organized conspiracy, just a culture in which the enemy has already been defined.
We fight over scarce resources, whether they be oil or cocaine, and we invent new scarcities over which to wage war, treasures whose very existence depend upon human perception and whose value can never be tested through experiment and rational investigation. Even when this contest does not lead to physical violence, it deranges lives and brings anguish.
Many of the names I’ve mentioned in this essay belong to faithful Christians. These people, who have suffered because they accept the scientific truth of evolution, are not raving atheists or infidel interlopers. They learned the hard way that some folks just aren’t satisfied with “theistic evolution,” with the idea that the Creation took a long time or that science and religion answer different kinds of questions. Compromise and coexistence are, quite simply, not good enough. Those who advise such a friendly relationship find themselves, dare I say it, expelled.
And stories which begin with unshakable hate do not end very well.
UPDATE (20 April 2008): I should have known that my Gentle Readers would have additional items to offer. See, for example, the story of Kanawha County, West Virginia and this list of incidents, which overlaps with my own.
Oh, and I’ve also been alerted to the unfortunate case of Terry Gray, a Christian biochemist whose negative review of Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial sparked an unhappy response from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which eventually forced Dr. Gray to recant.
UPDATE: In addition to that, Christopher J. O’Brien describes his correspondence with Richard Colling, the professor at Olivet Nazarene whose experiences I summarized above. Colling writes to O’Brien thusly:
I am deeply saddened that the entire situation has come to this point of misrepresentation and organized attempts to discredit and malign my reputation. My heart has always been to offer a means to students and to the general public by which science and faith can be viewed as compatible. My faculty colleagues and students will attest that I have done this accurately, as well as faithfully and sensitively in the classroom and in my book, Random Designer. Yet sadly the university leadership, without willingness to accept responsibility for questionable actions and misleading communications, has apparently chosen to ignore these facts. I have discovered that some of the most fundamental voices in the Christian church and culture only want war, and seemingly will stop at nothing to discredit/destroy anyone who understands the biology/evolution and makes an intellectually honest attempt to communicate peace between Biology and the Bible. This grieves me deeply.
I believe the anguish in Colling’s voice can reach out to others of different faiths, or of none at all. We all listen to human stories.
UPDATE (21 April): The problem is not restricted to the United States. Christopher diCarlo was teaching a critical thinking course at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada, when one day he wore a T-shirt he had made which said, “We Are All Africans.” It’s true: go back a mere eyeblink of geological time, and our ancestors all lived in East-Central Africa. A student became incensed when diCarlo explained that human beings had evolved and filled up the world by migrating around it; she complained to the administration, and diCarlo found himself explaining his case again to the Associate Dean. Almost certainly in consequence, diCarlo was passed over for a full-time professorship. He hasn’t done too poorly for himself in the years since, but it’s worth noting that his supporting the fact of human evolution caused him at least as much trouble, if not more, than that suffered by the “martyrs” whom creationists like to trumpet as victims of “Darwinism.”
UPDATE (29 April): Thanks to the alert reader who caught my timeline glitch with regard to Prof. Mirecki! Where would I be without my legion of intrepid fact-checkers?