Notes from the Perimeter

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Natural Rejection: Texas Judge Dismisses Creationism Degree Lawsuit

In a decision that’s bound to further rile the advocates of creationism-as-science, Austin federal judge Sam Sparks has dismissed a suit filed by the Dallas-based Institute for Creation Research. Its graduate school (ICRGS) had petitioned the court for the right to offer a master’s degree in science education from a biblical perspective. To use a distinctly non-evolutionary metaphor, in his rejection of the suit the judge tore the ICRGS a new one.

First, a little background: in 2008, the ICRGS applied to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board for the right to offer master’s degrees in science education grounded in a literal interpretation of the biblical version of creation and the vigorous repudiation of evolutionary theory. The application was rejected due to the strong bias toward creationism; the ICRGS then sued, claiming that the board violated the institute’s first amendment rights of the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech.

Part of Sparks’s opinion states, “Having addressed this primary issue, the Court will proceed to address each of ICRGS’s causes of action in turn, to the extent it is able to understand them. It appears that although the Court has twice required Plaintiff to re-plead and set forth a short and plain statement of the relief requested, Plaintiff is entirely unable to file a complaint which is not overly verbose, disjointed, incoherent, maundering, and full of irrelevant information.” (Thanks to Care2’s Scott Pasch for pointing out this out.)

One irony here (of so many) is that California, where the ICR graduate school is based, has allowed the degree to be conferred since 1981. In California, the graduate school is accredited by something called the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS – their acronym, not mine), a body not recognized by Texas. According to their website, TRACS “was established in 1971 to promote the welfare, interests, and development of postsecondary institutions, whose mission is characterized by a distinctly Christian purpose….” (Oddly enough, I visited both the ICR and TRACS websites but found no mention, not in the “Updates” or “Daily News” sections of either, any mention of the suit dismissal. Could this inexplicable absence be an example of unnatural selection? Holy moley!)

Why did California, with its reputation for being open to all manner of unorthodox ideologies, permit the ICRGS to teach creationism as a scientific methodology, with the prize of recognized masters degrees in the offing? If California views creationism as just another iteration of “you say tomatoes and I say tomahtoes,” well, I beg to disagree. Creationism is much more of the “my way or the highway” school of thought. And what’s up with Texas, whose school boards rewrite US history with apparent impunity? One can only marvel. Apparently, the thinking of both Judge Sparks and the Texas Board of Education was that while theology might infuse and inform many disciplines, science isn’t one of them.

For many people, especially those who rely on fundamentalist doctrines as the foundation for belief, science and religion coexist uneasily if at all. In this Weltanschauung, the primary religious text is literally the only vessel of truth, and ‘literal’ is the operative word: any view that allows for interpretation or (gasp!) an evolving understanding of the tenets is unacceptable. Thus, the role of science is to confirm, not to challenge.

I take no issue with religion as a way of acknowledging and making peace with the great mysteries of life. I heartily support the moral and ethical guidelines that underlie most of the world’s great belief systems. However, I believe that science and religion lay out two different paths to truth. As Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes said, “Religious belief is not science. Science and religious belief are surely reconcilable, but they are not the same thing.”

I balk at the imposition of a narrative of uncertain authorship and provenance (a narrative I consider to be part historical record, part literature, part mythology and part spiritual longing) – one whose fundamental principle is that faith needs no proof – upon our inspired (divinely or otherwise) human ability to comprehend the miraculous workings of our miraculous universe.

Creationism, for me, is a pale, feeble construction compared with the majesty of evolution and all that evolution implies: deep time, a vastly rich and complex system, purpose in seeming randomness, and the moral imperatives of emergence and extinction. That might not be the underlying cause of the Texas decision, but, as with evolution, I'll take what I can get.

(first published on www.care2.com in July 2010)

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