Creation, Power and Violence

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 they’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?

63 thoughts on “Creation, Power and Violence”

  1. You not to think for yourself and stop being a regurgitator. there is no way you believe that evolution is fact? Wake up – there is not one shred of evidence for that view. Open your eyes and think for yourself – don’t allow people to cram their No Rules No Morality views on you. Trust me you are not related to the zoo animals – you were created in God’s image!

  2. Heartfelt, stirring and potent. Also more than a little depressing. It seems that a significant chunk of humanity — not necessarily a majority, but many, and vocal — desire nothing but to enslave themselves to any benighting mental parasite they can use to justify their innate belligerence. Sad for them, tragic for the rest of us. How can reality compete with their comforting, self-protecting delusions? Sometimes I fear that Ignorance really is Strength.

  3. lmikker:

    I suppose can only feel flattered that God also has a receding hairline, nearsighted eyes and recurring allergies which make springtime the season of sneezes. You accuse me of endorsing a “No Rules No Morality” view of life, which given that I’d just spent twenty-one hundred words explaining the moral problems which creationism has caused, seems a little ironic.


    Thanks for the kind words. I have little enough consolation to offer.

  4. Very well done if also very depressing. I am afraid you are right about it only being a matter of time before some religous whack job kills some teacher for daring to teach facts and not their favorite myth. What is even more depressing is that the killer will be considered a martyr for the cause by his fellow whack jobs.

    An low and behold we have a religious whack job here by the name of lmikker. Actually we do think for ourselves, that’s why we accept facts rather then badly told myths. You on the other hand have given up thinking altogether it seems.

  5. It was indeed a depressing post. Is the situation really so bad in the US? If so, I now understand why you (and many other praiseworthy science bloggers) put so much effort into denouncing the various anti-scientific idiocies that circulate in the world.

    Thank you and good luck!

  6. I wouldn’t say you’re making people sad. I would say the information you’ve presented makes people sad.

    Especially when some of your relatives are those ‘whack jobs.’ Kinda hard to convince someone to even consider something when everything that doesn’t agree with their standpoint is propaganda.

  7. Great work, Blake! An excellent post. And I want to especially thank lmikker for taking the time out of his or her busy day to demonstrate the kind of dangerous non-thinking this post is warning against. Good job all around!

  8. Nick, sorry if I insulted your relatives. I do get rather worked up by this sort of thing because the same people who prefer their myths over facts also use those myths to justify spreading hatred and bigotry against me and mine. I’m very tired of being told I deserve no rights and am going straight to hell just because of who I am.

  9. Blake, do you think this might be a good essay to link to They currently have a video about Chris Comer on the splash page. Thanks for taking the time to write this up – I had seen a simple list of links for most of this, but this summarizes everything effectively.

  10. Excellent post, as usual, but also very disturbing. This November will mark the seventieth anniversary of kristallnacht. I hope we are not heading for another one.

  11. I really appreciate the comments, everybody. This is one of those essays which had been “begging to be written” for a while, now; all of the information is part of the public record, but I wasn’t aware of a place where it had been gathered together and summarized. I dare say that the folks who’ve spent a while hanging out in the science-blogging orbit are familiar with several of these names (Comer, Pianka and Jones above all). Unfortunately, if we don’t make the effort to have this information easily available, people who are just now entering the fray won’t be aware of it. What is common knowledge among us — the Wedge Strategy, the truth about Richard Sternberg, etc. — is not so common elsewhere, more’s the pity.

  12. Excellent post, Blake. Thanks for putting this up.

    (Oh, and lmikker’s gotta be a fake; no one’s really that stupid.)

  13. Very moving, and potent. I’m bookmarking this post for future reference when I hear crap about creationists being “oppressed”.

  14. Blake,
    Thank you for cataloging what I suspected to be the truth. If the ID folks had anything like this to work with, or any research, or any science, or any thing… They seem to equate stubbing your toe to being hit by a train. I am and always have been an athiest. I am only glad that most of the thiests I know are decent intelegent people, unlike the “Expelled crowd. Keep it up

  15. Blake, this was most excellent. I think it makes a very good answer to two questions I’ve been hearing too often: “Why are you so angry?” and “What’s the big deal?” I can now just point questioners here and say, “This is why.”

    Thanks also for the kitten. Sorely needed!

  16. This is great Blake, some of the sad stories assembled in one place. I’m sure there are more where these came from, which is also sad. Not everyone wants to be in the spot light, and if the religious crowd does their job effectively, the persecuted educator, or scientist will be so brow beaten and cowed, and scared, as to not make a fuss, and therefore not make your depressing list.

    I think someone should make a counter expelled movie with this list, I’m sure the participants in some of these episodes would not mind a little camera time. The only problem is the audience. Who would watch it, other than the few of us screaming in the dark. It would never make money, which is needed for that kind of venture. That is where expelled shines. It has the ready audience in desperate need of some more lying to. Some of them will suck it up and continue the “good” fight for their rights. That is how they will see it, and they will bring out all the lies touted in expelled to justify themselves, with no real education needed. Sad but true.

  17. Eric P:

    I expect you’re right: there are probably all too many more where these came from. I just found the most readily available names in the public record. Who knows what goes on without being remarked upon?

    My own ninth-grade biology teacher (a basketball coach recruited to fill an empty slot) said that evolution was “too controversial,” so he wouldn’t spend any time teaching it. I think he meant that it was controversial in our community, not that he thought there was actually a scientific dispute. Just goes to show you don’t need “Intelligent Design” talking points to ruin a science class, only the fear of reprisal.

    My sincere gratitude goes to those who have commented here and linked to this essay on their own sites.

  18. I didn’t realize that your basketball coach/pseudo biology teacher thought evolution was too controversial to teach in our community. What does that say about Huntsville . . . which supposedly has the third highest concentration of Ph.D.s in the country (if you believe the hype)? Of course this is the same town where the Presbyterian Church down the street from your high school wouldn’t let a high school senior sing “Landslide” at her baccalaureate ceremony because it was written by Stevie Nicks – a witch! Education doesn’t always equate to enlightenment does it. Or is it the fear of being ostracized that causes enlightened people to remain silent? Very interesting post . . . thanks for pulling it together.

  19. Great post Blake. Unlike Expelled, where the “victims” were manufactured from lies and nothing much happened to them, there are real victims of the creos, people fired, persecuted, beaten up, threatened with death, and even killed. They are also ahead on body counts, their 6 flunkeds to science’s greater than 11 victims.

    This post deserves to be linked and spread widely. As you say, the real truth is 180 degrees inverted. Hopefully, NCSE, Pandasthumb, PZ, and the usual places should be interested.

  20. Good work, Blake. I see it didn’t take long for the creationists to climb out from under their rocks. When they say they didn’t evolve, I wonder if it might be true, at least where they’re concerned.

    Thanks for taking the trouble to compile all of this information so carefully.

  21. Wow, great post. Thank you, I didn’t realize how horrible the backlash really is…I can’t believe people are getting death threats for teaching!! On the Expelled side, their oppression is bloggers criticizing them; on our side, its death threats and assault. Yep, poor persecuted IDers.

  22. I despair for education in this country (US). “Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.”

    Nice post – but I fear we are fighting a losing battle. I hope I am wrong.

  23. Excellent, Blake! But you forgot an important component of EXPELLED– Your examples are all pro-science people who have been harmed at the hand of Average Joe/Jane Creationists. But where do Average Joe/Jane Creationists get this idea?

    From professional Creationists– the stars of EXPELLED.

    How many students have been harassed and character assassinated by DI Fellows and their associates for having the audacity to speak up for science? Not just on the whim of one renegade individual, but systematically attacked through ‘official’ DI press releases by DI associates?

    This is NOT about ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘letting the students decide’. DI Fellows have made their disdain for thinking students perfectly clear.

  24. Harassment comes in many flavors. Some, like the events Blake cites, are very threatening with real consequences. Others are less significant, but nonetheless real. Four or five years ago a local school board vice chairman proposed that ID be included in the biology curriculum. I promptly wrote a 400 to 500 word letter to our local rag explaining in layman’s terms why this was a bad idea. The paper published the letter. Two days later I got a rock through one window of our home and over the course of the following two weeks I received three “heavy breathing” phone calls (calls where nothing is said but one can hear heavy breathing at the other end). Nothing further happened but the events made my wife implore me to cease writing letters. I haven’t and nothing further has happened, but those events, mild as they were, did give me pause. And this was in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Oh, the school board and the superintendent shot down the proposal for adding ID to the biology curriculum. And the proposer is now off the school board.

  25. I’ve read a great deal of Paul Mirecki’s work, but I had no idea about what was described here. Thanks for the information

  26. Blake: Great indeed! We really do need to keep this list and add to it. Surely, NCSE will do this in a way that folks can add to the list and entries can be vetted. This is the sort of information that can be very useful and I will urge NCSE to keep this going as well.

  27. thanks for posting this – I’m not a scientist, nor do I play one on TV, but I’m passionate about this issue. My friends and coworkers will ask “why do you care what happens in classrooms in the US – you’re Canadian, you have no kids, no pony in the race” –

    your post illustrates why I’m passionate about this…not only are kids being taught religion in the guise of “science”, but violence is being used to promote this “christian” agenda.

  28. Thank you for the kitten. I really needed that after reading.

    This post will be filed away as ammution in case my creo friend ever give me an opening.

  29. What can I say, Blake? This is a very useful post, and I hope that it is given a high profile across the net. I’ll certainly post on it (briefly, because there’s little to add to what you said) when I have a moment.

  30. I’m really distressed about the events against that professor at U. Kan.

    Next time I get a plea from the alumni association, I’m coming back here, re-look up that information and tell them that they should just stop bothering me because the institution has obviously failed in it’s mission to provide an honest education.

    thanks for sharing

  31. I suspect this has something to do with the movie “Expelled”. Unlike government schools, private schools do have more authority to up hold standards in which they deem valuable for a good education. Most private schools generally will show these guidelines before one is employed as a teacher or before one is a student there. For example, a small private baptist college forbids students to live together if they are not married. If caught doing so, under the contract which is signed by a student before he or she is able to attend, they automatically expelled. In some cases, a private school might suspend them for awhile. If a student doesn’t like those standards, they are free to attend somewhere else.

    If a private school advocates a certain doctrinal position, or holds to creation science in their classrooms, a teacher in the private sector has no right to change school policy for their own views. And if they attempt such thing, then the school has every right to let that teacher go, or rebuke them.

    It’s similar to that at government schools where a teacher cannot teach beyond the limits of the laws in place. For example, a teach who believes in God, cannot give a speech on the realities of God. If a teacher does this, there is no question that teacher will be suspended or let go.

    Also, even a government teacher cannot teach outside the text books in which they are given.For example, math is taught in a certain book, a teach cannot change the text book unless approved by the school. There is flexibility teaching within the framework of the text book like some teachers will teach certain things one way, while others show more short cuts.

    In conclusion, there is no “free wheeling” schools which have no policy and teachers can teach whatever they want. In both situations regarding government schools and private ones, they need approval from those above them.

  32. First of all, thanks, everybody.

    I might have to turn on comment moderation or something on this thread, much as I’d feel like a jerk doing so; I’ve already had to delete troll/spam comments, and that’s just not something I want to spend time on these next few days. (I’m going to be screamingly busy and on tight deadlines for the next week or so at the ol’ day job. . . .) If you’d like a no-holds-barred discussion, well, try here. People will certainly get back to you faster than I will, in the coming week.


    This isn’t about people getting let go from private institutions. There’s a bit of that, to be sure, and the folks who’ve been on the receiving end of that business have their grievances. But the list is full of state officials and instructors at public institutions who have been forced beyond all reason to comply with a medievalist ideology. Requiring that algebra teachers use a certain book is reasonable; threatening a teacher with hellfire and, more importantly, physical harm in this world is not.

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