Evolution and Christianity: 1. Christian homeschooling parents dismayed by creationist textbooks, accommodationist books on the way

March 13, 2013 • 8:30 am

I have some good news and some bad news.

(That reminds me of a something my father used to say:

Dad: Jerry, I have some good news and some bad news. Which would you like to hear first?
Jerry: The bad news. [I’m Jewish.]
Dad: The bad news is that there isn’t any good news.
Jerry: Well, then, what’s the good news?
Dad: The good news is that that’s the only bad news there is.

Depending on what the other person requests, you can also do the reverse, saying that the good news is that there isn’t any bad news, but the bad news is that that’s the only good news there is. I’ll be here all week, folks.)

At any rate, the good news today is that, according to an article in the latest Atlantic by David Wheeler, evangelical Christians who homeschool their kids are getting fed up with the blatantly creationist biology textbooks that, until recently, were all they could find for their kids.

It’s no secret that the majority of homeschooled children in America belong to evangelical Christian families. What’s less known is that a growing number of their parents are dismayed by these textbooks.

Take Erinn Cameron Warton, an evangelical Christian who homeschools her children. Warton, a scientist, says she was horrified when she opened a homeschool science textbook and found a picture of Adam and Eve putting a saddle on a dinosaur. “I nearly choked,” says the mother of three. “When researching homeschooling curricula, I found that the majority of Christian homeschool textbooks are written from this ridiculous perspective. Once I saw this, I vowed never to use them.” Instead, Warton has pulled together a curriculum inspired partly by homeschool pioneer Susan Wise Bauer and partly by the Waldorf holistic educational movement.

. . .This staunch rejection of modern science tends to characterize today’s leading homeschool textbooks. For example, Science 4 Christian Schools, a homeschool textbook published by Bob Jones University Press, doesn’t mince words when it comes to evolution and Christian faith. “People who accept the Bible believe that God made everything,” the book states. “They call God’s description of how things began the Creation Model. Those who disregard the Bible believe instead that everything got here by itself. They call this description of how things began the Evolution Model.”

The assertion that anyone who believes in evolution “disregards” the Bible offends many evangelicals who want their children to be well-versed in modern science. Jen Baird Seurkamp, an evangelical who homeschools her children, avoids textbooks that discredit evolution. “Our science curriculum is one currently used in public schools,” she says. “We want our children to be educated, not sheltered from things we are afraid of them learning.”

For those homeschooling parents who are science-friendly and read this website, the piece lists several publishers who present evolution from a largely scientific—as opposed to a completely creationst—viewpoint.

That’s the good news. It’s time that homeschooling parents had biology textbooks that didn’t show humans riding dinosaurs. (Seriously, the article mentions one book that does this.)

The bad news is that the books that are available always try to comport evolution with God.

The rising number of homeschool families striving to reconcile belief in God with today’s scientific consensus has attracted the attention of at least one publisher — Christian Schools International in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Most science textbooks that attempt to present the content from a Christian perspective also attempt to discredit the theory of evolution,” says Ken Bergwerff, a science curriculum specialist at Christian Schools International. “Some do it discreetly; others are quite blatant. The CSI science curriculum clearly presents science from a Christian perspective, but does not attempt to discredit the theory of evolution. The content presents God as the author of all of creation, no matter how he did it or when he did it.”

Dorothy Boorse, a biology professor at Gordon College, a Christian college in Massachusetts, applauds these underdog homeschool textbooks. “I believe that the best evidence is that the earth is very old and that God used and continues to use the biological process of evolution,” she says. “Many Christians in the sciences believe such a position is consistent with several possible interpretations of Scripture, including some that go way back in Christian history, and several from the Jewish tradition.”

So they’ll learn evolution, butit comes with the obligatory dose of apologetics, showing how evolution doesn’t conflict with their faith.  This will almost always involve theistic evolution: either God set up the process to create his creatures (especially humans), or he sticks his finger into the process from time to time to make desired mutations, plants, and animals (especially humans). Both interpretations are unscientific. After all, do homeschool chemistry textbooks say that God guides every molecule? Why not say in the history textbooks that God created human history as well, knowing that it would produce a Hitler?

Do apologetics really belong in any science textbooks? If homeschooled kids are disturbed by scientific truths, let them go to their parents for the obligatory theological brainwashing.

And guess who’s getting their sticky fingers into the accommodationist-textbook business?

Other Christian organizations that believe in evolution are beginning to put money and resources into their efforts to reframe the conversation. In 2012, the BioLogos organization received a multimillion-dollar grant from the John Templeton Foundation to fund its Evolution and Christian Faith project, which disburses money to Christians who reconcile theology with evolutionary biology.

For example, grant recipients Dennis Venema, a biologist at Trinity Western University, and Scot McKnight, a New Testament scholar at Northern Seminary, will “write a book on the evidence for evolution and population genetics, with informed theological reflection on how these issues interact with orthodox Christianity,” the BioLogos website states. [JAC: see the book proposal here.]

Go here if you want to see how dreadful the Templeton/BioLogos “Evolution and Christian Faith” program is. One of them is the development of an accomodationist college textbook, which, after teaching evolution, will do this:

Tensions perceived by readers between scientific and biblical accounts of origins are defused when the purviews of science and theology are properly defined and their historical engagement is reviewed, a robust doctrine of creation is explored, and the cultural-historical contexts of scriptural accounts are understood.

The key word here is “properly defined”, and it’s a weasel term that is the basis of Steve Gould’s NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) approach. That was an approach that didn’t work because religion obstinately refuses to remain “proper”. (Gould, for example, didn’t see fundamentalism as a “proper” faith simply because it encroached on science. His argument thus devolved into circularity.)

Scientists as divergent as Francis Collins (in The Language of God) and E. O. Wilson (in Atoms and Eden) also argue that Gould’s accommodationism is a non-starter because both agree that the epistemic claims of faith intrude into science, and (on Wilson’s part), religion is a human-created phenomenon that doesn’t have the corner on morality and meaning.

The Templeton/BioLogos project pushes a specific theology: that there is a “proper understanding” of scripture—a metaphorical one, of course (with the exception of the Virgin Birth and Resurrection, both of which Collins accepts as truths)—that makes evolution okay. Where this approach always fails is in convincing anti-evolution theists that the new theology is “proper.”  You can lead a creationist Christian to evolution, but you can’t make him think.

The inevitable failure of accomodationism will be the subject of a second post later today, when we’ll see why an ex-fundamentalist preacher sees even moderate Christian dogma and evolution as thoroughly incompatible.

34 thoughts on “Evolution and Christianity: 1. Christian homeschooling parents dismayed by creationist textbooks, accommodationist books on the way

  1. I think it’s great news that textbooks are being written that present evolution as real. The fact that these textbooks use theistic evolution doesn’t offend me. These parents were never going to present any other kind of evolution.

    1. Its just silly. Just buy a regular, mainstream textbook. There is no reason a science textbook needs to give editorial commentary on how its consistent or inconsistent with sect A, B, or C at all. Science’s consistency with some theology is something to discuss in philosophy or theology classes, not science classes.

      1. Yes, indeed. The supposed conflict between science, esp. in the form of evolution, and religion is entirely in the minds of the religious. Science says not one thing about religion, pro or con. If the religious feel there’s a conflict, then maybe they need to re-examine their belief system and ask why it conflicts with the facts.

        Admittedly, science often implies that religion is so much b.s., but drawing that inference is again something the “believers” do.

        The crux of the conflict is xtian fundamentalism: the idea that the bible is God’s word, inerrant, perfect, and so on. This p.o.v. is itself obvious b.s., given (for starters) that no two of ancient biblical texts are exactly the same. It’s clearly a human document and anybody who says otherwise is either very stupid or a con-man.

        1. My point was more pedagogical than philosophical. The point is, the interaction between science and some faith tradition and how to deal with any mismatch does not fall in the category “what you should teach in a science class.”

          A chemistry teacher should be teaching stoichiometry, acid-base reactions, etc. Not what to do if your religion conflicts with the orbital model of the atom. Even if that’s really important to the student, it doesn’t belong in that class and, frankly, a science teacher is probably unqualified to lead such a discussion. The student should be talking to their priest about how to resolve that conflict, not the chemistry teacher.

  2. When teaching the religiion/science stuff in philosophy classes at Virginia Tech, I always say something like, after finding out some science class that a student had last semester,”Ok, rememember in your metereology textbook, how you got to that last chapter, and it said, “The Role of God.” Or your physics textbook, “How God is Behind It All.” Remember those chapters? No, you don’t? They weren’t there were they? Well, they used to be, but they aren’t in there now not by chance, but because of a long process of coming to understand that that ISN’T a part of the science.” I guess I shouldn’t use their high school biology books as examples!

  3. I cannot see why home-schoolers cannot use standard, secular evolution textbooks that say nothing explicit about the religious implications.

    If homeschoolers worry that their offspring are going to be able to figure out those implications anyway, the necessary (bogus, of course) reassurances can be addressed in a quite separate book.


    1. I guess because the source matters. When kids see doubts about evolution or the necessary but bogus accomodationist reassurances as you put it, in a “science” textbook as opposed to a separate book; they might take that information more seriously. Evangelical parents or not, I am sure that kids already view science/scientists as more trustworthy (is that the right word here?) because the larger culture puts more value and faith in scientific explanations for those things that don’t explicitly clash with religious beliefs. So doubts expressed in a separate book elsewhere may not take hold in the kid’s minds as much as those coming from the biology text itself.

    2. Ant – right on, and throw Christian schools in with the homeschoolers. BioLogos had originally hoped to produce adjunct material to accompany a standard text such as Miller and Levine’s biology. However, the project got derailed because of different opinions about exactly what theological position should be presented.

      Having spent some time in Germany this past academic year, I would have to agree with the German law that makes it illegal to home school children.

  4. The key word here is “properly defined”,

    Reminds me of Andrew Dickson White in A History of the warfare of science with theology in Christendom (1896)

    “My hope is to aid–even if it be but a little–in the gradual and healthful dissolving away of this mass of unreason, that the stream of “religion pure and undefiled” may flow on broad and clear, a blessing to humanity.”

    After cataloguing the interference of religion with science for 800 or 900 pages, including acceptance of scripture as mythology, I have to wonder what he thought was left.

    1. An investigation into his friendship with Leo Tolstoy might offer a clue to that question, but I’m only guessiong

    2. Reginald, I had the same reaction at reading White’s brilliant book. He does a great job of showing how the churchmen were consistently on the wrong side of history time after time, with each new scientific discovery that they feared and suppressed. One immortal line (paraphrasing from memory) is where he dryly observes that some silly position is the result of entrusting the education of minds to men whose job is the care of their souls.

      After seeing him dismantle the church, one embarrassment and absurdity after another, I got to the end of White’s book wondering just what he thought there was left to believe in. It’s a bit like the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, which denies an afterlife or divine intervention and seems to have had the thinnest veneer of piety painted onto it (e.g., the very last part) in order to keep it acceptable as a part of somebody’s idea of a Hebrew canon.

  5. The real question is why are home schoolers teaching religion with their science? The answer to this will tell you most of what you need to know. A couple generations of fundamentalist fry cooks is probably all we’ll need to suffer with.

  6. I miss the years after Sputnik when Science was in the driver’s seat and religion was trying to bathe in it’s reflected glow. I remember our Methodist preacher (my dad forced us to attend church) explaining that when Moses struck a rock with his staff and water flowed out that it was a special kind of limestone that naturally holds lots of water inside. He also gave several sermons that tried to make a connection between cybernetics and man coming closer to god. (I never could figure out how that was supposed to work.)

  7. How much different is it really, for those Sophisticated Theologians™ that assert God directs or sometimes “noodles” with the evolutionary process, and the long defunct idea of “Vitalism”?

    1. Fairly different. The second posits a ghost in the machine; the first a ghost outside of the machine, pushing it around.

  8. Anyone who puts religious apologetics into a straight science book on some level does !*not*! believe in NOMA even if they say that they do.

    The problem with NOMA is that one must acknowledge (as Einstein did) that science really does limit religion in numerous ways, and that religion has no monopoly on morality.

    (Religion may be for some a special motivator to act according to one’s best lights, but religion has never been a primary source of morality. Lots of Catholic moral philosophy is taken from various pagan Greek philosophers.)

    If there exists any workable version of NOMA (Einstein?), it is pretty much going to have to let science and not religion set the boundaries & decide where those fences are. Gould evaded these issues.

  9. and as others have noted, claiming this ““I believe that the best evidence is that the earth is very old and that God used and continues to use the biological process of evolution,”

    means that their Christ is worthless since the nonsense of the creation story is null and void. Evolution happened, then no dirt man and no original sin.

  10. It’s worth noting this from the Atlantic article:

    Jen Baird Seurkamp, an evangelical who homeschools her children, avoids textbooks that discredit evolution. “Our science curriculum is one currently used in public schools,” she says. “We want our children to be educated, not sheltered from things we are afraid of them learning.”

    As I noted on Panda’s Thumb, that’s a far cry from what I myself have heard from fundamentalists and some evangelicals during the Freshwater affair.

  11. The idea that a god has a “process” was refuted by John Stuart Mill, in his critique of the design argument for God.

    Mill pointed out that “design,” properly defined, is the process we use to overcome an obstacle. If I come to a river I wish to cross, I must design the process to do so: design a boat, build a bridge, learn to swim. I cannot just wish myself across the river.

    But for the gods, presumed to be omnipotent, no obstacles can exist. Every state of reality is the result of their desires, not a process. Since for the gods, no obstacles exist, the concept of design does not exist when applied to gods. Since the design is meaningless to the gods, the gods cannot have a process.

    Some apologists attempt to evade this argument by defining God’s creation as a “purely creative act.” However, this is special pleading, not a counter-argument.

  12. Homwschooling is really a sign of the beginning of the end for the practice of christianity in the public square. If parents are so existentially threatened by public or wider socially-inclusive education models that they are driven to educate their children in an asocial environment, is it any wonder that religion is increasingly receding into the home closet away from public scrutiny? Such parental action is indeed reflective of a pathological aversion to the wider community triggered largely by the underlying segregative and exclusionary nature of religious education.

    I see homeschooling as little more than a form of child abuse, as Dawkins would have it. It is an abusive practice that that is anathema to the fundamental understanding of the human species as highly social animals.

    1. And you’re talking out your ass. You know nothing and attack all homeschoolers, regardless of your stone ignorance.

      You argue like a fundie — throw ignorant shit against the wall and hope you don’t run into someone who knows better…

      1. Why so, moseszd?
        Please apprise me of that which I know nothing. There are many good reasons for homeschooling. I just don’t see religious and anti-science reasons as being good ones.
        Are you homeschooling your kids? And if you are, what are your reasons? Fear of society? Fear of the great unwashed? Fear of the explanatory power of evolution? Fear that your children might come home with some pretty awkward inquiries questioning the existence of gods? Fear of the Devil? Fear of Hell? Fear of eternal damnation?

  13. I wish the author had used some actual science to back up the vague claims of “increasing numbers” etc.

    There are no numbers to support the conclusions, and personally I really doubt that evangelical homeschoolers are accepting evolution in higher numbers. I think it is probably true that homeschooling is becoming more mainstream, and therefore there might be more people open to teaching their kids evolution, but suggesting that evangelical homeschoolers are changing? That needs some data behind it.

    I am a homeschooler myself, and I know there are some good science resources out there. It’s also true though that science is one area where we could use even more. Homeschooling is big business now, so anyone want to make some money?

  14. “You can lead a creationist Christian to evolution, but you can’t make him think.”

    That’s quite good. With your permission I’m tweeting it with links to this site.

    On another note, the parents that find themselves “horrified” have no one to blame but themselves. They may be educated, and in some case even schooled in some discipline of science but their ignorance is undeniable. They teach “good science” while simultaneously embracing
    (and teaching) beliefs that are devoid of any evidence or logic, contrary to science.

    I’m not sure which type of ignorance I detest more, Type I – Avoid the use of all logic and reason, and ignore all evidence that challenges faith, or
    Type II – Appropriate science at every opportunity to bolster the credibility of otherwise untenable beliefs.
    Intelligence enough to know better, too stupid to use it.

  15. We homeschool. In fact, we’re doing HS biology this year and are using the HS biology book by Miller & Levine. (Yes, it’s that Miller.)

    I also belong to a HS group. It’s really funny, because people will ask about science books and I tell them they have their choice:

    Books that will keep your children out of a good college or books that won’t… It’s your choice. Then I recommend HS BIology by Miller & Levine as it’s very well written.

  16. “Instead, Warton has pulled together a curriculum inspired partly by homeschool pioneer Susan Wise Bauer and partly by the Waldorf holistic educational movement.”

    Frying pan into the fire? The anthroposophy/Steiner/Waldorf crowd is at least as loony as any young-Earth creationist.

  17. That reminds me of a something my father used to say:

    Seriously, that’s the most entertaining bit I’ve heard in some time. Maybe I just don’t get around much but, in any event, I intend to employ it repeatedly.

  18. “The bad news is that there isn’t any good news … The good news is that that’s the only bad news there is.”

    “Coyne’s Newsmongering Paradox”?

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