January 18, 2016

Bricks in the Wall: Evolution trips me up

When I was twelve, my father made the decision to pull us out of the local public school and enroll us in small private school started by our church. The first year, we were three (my sisters and myself) students out of about ten students...maybe fifteen, total. The second year, we were three out of four students...six if you counted the toddlers of our teacher.

I was in seventh grade. My class was combined with four other students who were all a year behind me in sixth grade. The majority of the class was me working through my textbooks while my teacher taught the other students (understandable, I suppose, because they were all in the same grade).

It might seem counterintuitive, even hypocritical, seeing as my mother was a school teacher in the same school district we were pulled out of, but Dad had many reasons for these move. The year before our removal, a student attacked another student on a school bus using a scalpel stolen from a science lab at the middle school. The bus pulled over at my mother's school, where my younger sister was a student and spent the afternoons in Mom's classroom. Not knowing why everyone was being called to the office that day, my mom gathered all of her things and my sister, and decided they would stop in on their way outside. When she saw the bloody and traumatized students, she promptly had my sister sit on a bench...where someone else promptly plopped the perpetrator of the attack, loudly swearing and promising to finish what she'd started with the student she'd attacked. No one died, but the incident obviously hit a nerve for both of my parents, as well as my sister.

We were also attending, as I'm sure you've caught on, a very conservative church. Several families homeschooled their children, but there were many that weren't able even if they wanted.

It was into this environment that our church--which was, unbeknownst to us, struggling financially--suggested starting the school. We were to be instructed under the A Beka curriculum.  I've talked about this some here and here and here.

One of the benefits of that curriculum--one of the selling points, even--for students of my age was biblically based science instruction. Yes, you should read that as "creationism".

Up until that year, I'd never heard evolution except in the context of sermons at church. I'd never encountered a scientific representation of it. Naturally, that didn't change when I learned about evolution under A Beka Books. What did change, however, was how I looked at scientists.

A Beka approached the issue of evolution in a very methodological way. Here's the basic battle strategy, to the best of my memory:

  • undermine the scientific background of Charles Darwin
  • distinguish between macro and microevolution
  • point out any hoaxes and create hoaxes out of misunderstandings...but do not note that science was what self-corrected in each instance
  • present evidence (usually anthropological) for the Great Deluge
  • present counterarguments to evolutionary points, but make sure that the arguments are all strawmen to begin with
  • create a muddied understanding of scientific concepts like theories, hypotheses, and laws

On some levels, this worked very well. For many years, I lacked a basic understanding of evolution. I also think, to some extent, this damaged my interest in science as a whole. It undermined my faith in science, which made it possible for me to be a climate change "skeptic" for a long time. I even questioned vaccination with my older son, although I came to the decision (thanks to my pediatrician--shout out to her as a bastion of rationality) to vaccinate him fully and on the schedule my pediatrician proscribed.

What really struck me, though, was one simple question: Why, with all of this evidence, do scientists not reject evolution? Why would they still cling to it?

Despite the anti-science attitudes my creationist education left me with, this question made me wonder what could convince them otherwise when the truth, as I had been taught it, was so clear.

Essentially, I had a few explanations that I puzzled out:

  • scientists weren't particularly bright
  • scientists were deceptive
  • scientists were deceived

The first one was pretty quickly written off. We live in an age where the progress made by science can't be denied. It's inarguably improved our situation as a species in ways we can't even begin to articulate. The idea that the entire field was populated by people who were complete morons who couldn't understand arguments that I could understand as a twelve year old was absolutely unthinkable to me.

The second was equally implausible. I don't know how, with my evangelical upbringing, I managed to develop some humanistic values, but I did. One of those was that most people are good. When they are given the option, they don't want to hurt other people. I couldn't imagine that an entire field of people were purposefully colluding to send people to hell by convincing them that God didn't exist. It made no sense to me--clearly, they would also be going to hell, so what's the point?

That left the third option as the most plausible to my young self: scientists were being deceived by supernatural forces.

However, therein lies the brick that contributed to my wall. My entire discomfort with the subject of evolution rested entirely on the premise of supernatural intervention. Demonic intervention. And when I began to question the existence of actual demons, I also questioned my resistance to this theory.

There's a sort of cosmic irony to it. I listened to numerous sermons on how evolution had led people astray, and, indeed, here I am, led astray. Except...I don't know that I would have been as open to it had I not received an education in creationist arguments. It was trying to figure out why people would cling to something my textbooks seemed to conclusively disprove that drove me to think about it at all.

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