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A dispute over a college course to examine creationism in the context of "Religious Mythology" escalates in Kansas...

by Conrad F. Goeringer
December 12, 2020


We do not have the full story of what happened earlier this week to Dr. Paul Mirecki, the embattled University of Kansas religious studies professor who had proposed to teach a course on evolution and creationism.

As noted in the latest AANEWS, Dr. Mirecki had planned the class(the original description included the words "and other Religious Mythologies") after state education officials had announced their intent to once again claim that Intelligent Design was a reputable and competing account of how the universe and human beings came to be. Mirecki and other more enlightened persons saw this correctly as a shabby effort to preach "religious mythologies" in science courses instead of classes teaching history, ancient philosophy and, of course, religion. This would the equivalent of teaching astrology as an "alternative" or "compliment" to astronomy.

The reaction from lawmakers was, alas, predictable by Kansas standards. Politicians leapt to the cameras and microphones with frenzied calls for official investigations and cancellation of Dr. Mirecki's new course. On the latter they got their way. We do not know if there will be probe in the style of the late Joseph McCarthy -- "Are you now or have you ever been an Atheistic-Materialistic- Darwinian Evolutionist?" -- but that could come to pass as well.

Fueling the controversy have been the reports of comments Dr. Mirecki posted to a listserv operated by the Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics, a university student organization. The professor described religious fundamentalists as "fundies" and said that the proposed class would be "a slap in their big fat face." None of what Mirecki posted to the listserv even approximated what is often impetuously described as "hate speech," and his comments in no way justified canceling a scholarly course about religious beliefs.

There ARE, however, some important lessons to be learned here. They have to do with comportment, tactics and the whole question of how Atheists and other nonbelievers -- even religious persons who support good science and teaching evolution in the classroom -- approach the controversy over creationism and so-called Intelligent Design.

There are other aspects to this story, including the reports of an assault on the embattled academic by two unidentified thugs, and Dr. Mirecki's announcement that he is resigning as head of the school's Department of Religious Studies.

It used to be the case that creationists or anyone else advocating a religion-based "alternative" to Darwinian evolution were ill-informed louts or uncouth, ranting maniacs on a street corner frenetically waving a Bible and shouting something about not being related to a monkey.

Times have changed.

There ARE, however, some important lessons to be learned here. They have to do with comportment, tactics and the whole question of how Atheists and other nonbelievers -- even religious persons who support good science and teaching evolution in the classroom -- approach the controversy over creationism and so-called Intelligent Design.
Disagree with them we still do; but even hard-core "creationists" have improved their public appeal with videos, slick literature and carefully-phrased argument that can seduce the uninformed. Even more alluring are the advocates of Intelligent Design or "ID" who artfully enlist the rhetoric of science, showcase their academic credentials and propose that "alternatives" to evolution should be welcome in the classroom under the rubric of fairness and free expression. This sophisticated approach has propelled ID promoters into the halls of Congress and the spotlight of mainstream media.

Professional academic and scientific groups have learned the disquieting lesson that they can no longer avoid the culture-war fray going on in legislatures, school board meetings and other public gatherings.

Indeed, creationists and ID promoters are winning this battle, not so much on the substantive questions about evolution, but by their well-financed and carefully crafted propaganda campaign to win popular support. A CBS news poll revealed in October that "Most Americans do not accept the theory of evolution," with 51% of respondents stating their belief that "God" fashioned human beings "in their present form."

Thirty percent stated that while humans evolved from earlier life forms, this deity "guided the process."

Only 15% were comfortable maintaining that human beings evolved without any sort of divine intervention or management.

However the case involving Dr. Mirecki is resolved, there are some important lessons to be learned here.

A number of them can be found in a piece that appeared in the "Creation/Evolution" journal, Winter 1991-1992 edition published by the National Center for Science Education written by Jim Lippard, appropriately titled "How Not To Argue With Creationists." (It lives on the internet and can found easily by a Google search.)

Mr. Lippard begins with a caution about scientists who become "true believers" and retreat into "irrational modes of defense" when discussing creationism. He focuses on a 1988 debate between an outspoken and articulate advocate for creationism, Duane Gish (Institute for Creationist Research) and a prominent professor of geology. The latter "used the occasion to abuse and ridicule Gish" and, wrote Mr.Lippard, made a number of egregious factual errors.

He also included a list of suggestions proposed by Ray Hyman, a psychologist and member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). They constitute a "list of suggestions for proper criticism of paranormal and fringe science claims which should also be taken to heart by critics of creationism."

Hyman's list is forthright and concise. He advised:

1) Be prepared
2) Clarify your objectives
3) Do your homework
4) Do not go beyond your level of competence
5) Let the facts speak for themselves
6) Be precise
7) Use the principle of charity
8) Avoid loaded words and sensationalism.

Lippard's cogent analysis of the debate coupled with the suggestions from Ray Hyman should constitute a "must read" for any Atheist, nonbeliever or other secularist wading in to the stormy waters of the present culture war. Our intellectual and political adversaries are certainly well prepared, superbly organized and financed, and have learned volumes from political professionals, image makers and rhetorical spin-meisters. They frequently debate well and comport themselves in a professional, collegial manner and project a public image of "fairness" and "being reasonable." They are experts at what political handlers call "issue framing." They have learned what kind of language to employ, how to "connect" with audiences, and how to mobilize their base of support.

With cultural opposition like this, those of us defending an agenda based on Reason and Enlightenment had better learn those important lessons outlined in Mr. Lippard's article and elsewhere.

Mirecki's proposed course in creationism and religious mythology may have been fated a premature demise from the moment he proposed it. He inadvertently handed his critics, however, the very shovel to bury the course when he posted those ill-tempered statements about "fundies" and slapping big bad faces on a listserv. He may have thought that the comments would remain private; but even putting bombastic remarks in a personal e-mail today runs the risk of them becoming a public spectacle.

To his credit, Professor Mirecki was right in issuing his apology. It is testament to his personal character and academic credentials. His words were "offensive," but more to the point was his frank admission that "Students with a serious interest in this important subject matter would not be well served by the learning environment my e-mails and the public distribution of them have created..." Indeed, there are many students at the University of Kansas and elsewhere who probably believe in the specious claims put forth by creationists or ID promoters. They also can embrace other ideas and philosophies that we regard as foolish and ill-informed.

Our task, though, as advocates of Reason and Enlightenment is to argue those beliefs and propose more reasonable, testable and scientifically-based concepts. We make little or no progress on that (we often alienate others) by resorting to slurs, ad hominem insults, mindless stereotyping and generalities. We might enjoy far more success by carefully stating our case, documenting our claims and politely (yet firmly) putting forth our conclusions.


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