Should Creationism Be Allowed In Publicly Funded Schools?


UPDATED 17 October 2015 (added rebuttal from Nick Martin and additional statement from HAAM)

You may have seen the following editorial, by Nick Martin, which appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on 9 October, 2015. It refers to a news release that HAAM sent to the Free Press in early September prior to River City Reasonfest. The content of the news release reflected the frustration our members felt at some of the stories we heard from visitors to our Outreach booth at the Morden Corn and Apple Festival in August, as well as from other sources over the past several years. In particular, the number of people who espouse creationism made us wonder how science is being taught in Manitoba schools, what the educational standards for science are, and whether or not those standards are being applied equally in all publicly funded schools.

Here is the editorial in its entirety, followed by the response our executive sent to the Free Press.

How Not to Enhance Your Credibility

I received a news release recently from the Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba which made a sweeping and astonishing allegation about what Manitoba schools are teaching.

It was done in the context of promoting the Reasonfest conference that the group held.

Here’s what part of the HAAM news release said:

“Did you know that Manitoba schools are producing graduates who believe that fossils are man-made? Did you know that we have a creationist museum here in Winnipeg? Did you know that many religious groups in Manitoba endorse the (legal) beating of children because they’re ‘sinners’? Are you aware of the plight of LGBT and trans kids in the bible belt, or of business owners too scared to be who they are because their community will END their family’s livelihood if they found out? Is this acceptable to you as a Manitoban? A Canadian? A decent human being?”

It’s that first sentence with which I took issue, and immediately contacted the organization. Yes, I’m aware that some people would take issue with some of the subsequent sentences.

Note that the statement is not clarified or elaborated upon in any way. It does not say some Manitoba schools, it does not limit its allegation to a certain number of schools, or name those schools, which might be private schools, which might be among the dozens of faith-based schools, which might be non-funded independent schools… it declares “Manitoba schools.”

I doubt that you’ll find a lot of public schools teach that to their graduates. I think I would have noticed if my kids had come home telling me that the public school teacher had said evolution is a crock.

And when the person on the HAAM executive who sent the email got back to me, we ended up going back and forth quite a few times. Short version, it is not “Manitoba schools” — HAAM is aware of only one school at which it alleges that graduates are taught to believe that fossils are man-made, and the organization won’t name that school, because of fears of repercussions to anyone suspected of having passed on that information.


HAAM Responds

In his article How Not to Enhance Your Credibility, Nick Martin takes us to task for using imprecise language, and rightly so. Referring to “Manitoba schools” rather than “some Manitoba schools” sounds like hyperbole, when in fact it was a short-sighted shortening of a longer phrase.

What we know is that Manitoba is producing some high school graduates who are science illiterate. From what people tell us, sometimes the misinformation is endorsed by the school, sometimes it’s provided by teachers and probably not endorsed by the school, and sometimes confusing information could be coming from church or from home. When people tell us that bad things are happening and ask “isn’t there something you can do?” it’s not always clear that they mean “something you can do that doesn’t involve me coming forward.” We were admittedly caught off guard when we contacted some of them to say “great news, a reporter is interested in looking into this!” and they begged to be kept out of it for reasons we’ll discuss below. We replied to Nick Martin saying we’re working on coaxing people to come forward with a school name or teacher name, but we didn’t know he had a ticking clock and our time had run out. We’re not paid professionals with a PR team, we’re volunteers with day jobs who are trying to make a positive difference in Manitoba and we were hoping he would be an ally in getting the necessary conversations started.

There was one recent graduate not afraid to come forward. Our focus had been in trying to get public school issues brought to light since the parents there would be the most likely to be upset at their kids learning pseudoscience, but this graduate is from Calvin Christian Collegiate. She wrote, “Every science class was prefaced by the fact that we are all created by god and all the wonderful things that we discover through science are because god is awesome. We were taught creationism, and evolution was never brought up. I remember one time we talked about the Big Bang and everyone just laughed and mocked the idea without even a basic understanding of what it meant” and “my whole life I was told a lie… a lie that took away science and sex education.”

A recent graduate of a different Christian school who is not willing to come forward or name her school said that the science teacher would teach his lesson, immediately followed by another teacher who would contradict everything they were just told by saying “that was just one ‘opinion’ but we know X exists in the world because god” (X meaning evolution or the Big Bang, or whatever the case may be). The school is technically fulfilling its educational requirements but also endorsing conflicting messages that understandably leave the students confused. We have other anecdotal evidence involving Winnipeg public schools but the parents are not willing to be quoted; where do we go from here as concerned Manitobans?

Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit, no religious pun intended. Most of Manitoba’s independent private religious schools are publicly funded*, which means we’re all paying to produce ignorant graduates from SOME OF these schools (we’ve also heard that some Christian schools have wonderful science programs). One example, from The King’s School’s website, mentions Adam and Eve in the same paragraph (#13) as it mentions science; page 6 of the Springs Academy student handbook says outright that they teach creationism. According to Manitoba’s education curriculum, a student could go all the way through school and never be taught Darwinian evolution. The foundational theory of biology is not touched on until grade twelve.

When HAAM does outreach work at the U of M each January we meet students (usually from St. John’s and St. Paul’s colleges) who want to argue that fossils are man-made or the devil planted them, or they landed there in the flood that “Noah” survived… when we ask these young adults where they went to high school we’ve heard Winnipeg, Altona, Grunthal, Winkler, and more. Why do so many Manitobans give religious schools a free pass? Isn’t education a right for all Canadians? Don’t the children of religious people have that same right? Is it ok that we’re producing some graduates who are science illiterate? How are Manitobans supposed to compete on the world stage if they’re ignorant?

The British Humanist Association proposes the following goal, which sounds like a good starting point for Manitoba:

Creationism and ‘intelligent design’ are not scientific theories, but they are portrayed as scientific theories by some religious fundamentalists who attempt to have their views promoted in publicly funded schools. We work for enforceable statutory rules that they may not be presented as scientific theories in any publicly funded school of whatever type. Such rules must also be comprehensive, so that it is clear that any portrayal of creationism and ‘intelligent design’ as science (whether it takes place in science lessons or not) is unacceptable.

Great Britain agreed and banned the teaching of creationism as science in publicly funded schools in 2014. Such a proposal leaves out home-schooled kids and those in privately funded schools.

The reasons given to us for parents not wanting to come forward or afraid to be identified by deduction are varied and disturbing. The most common reason is that their kids are in school now, and the parents don’t want them ostracized or bullied by the kids of religious people who already have an ‘us vs. them’ mentality toward non-believers. For those who are non-white and come from cultural communities rooted in religion (e.g., we’ve spoken with Filipinos, First Nations people, and Somalis recently), being exposed as a non-believer means the community withdraws its social, financial, and emotional supports, forbidding their children to play with yours, excluding you from family and community events, removing most of your accessible support systems. And of course the rhythm of your life moves to the calendar of religious events, so to be excluded is disorienting to say the least. For those living south of Winnipeg we’ve been told that if you’re found out as a non-believer, entire communities will similarly shun you and your children, spreading the word not to patronize your business (this statement is backed by current HAAM members who are former members of groups that act this way). In our yearly outreach work at the Morden Corn and Apple festival we meet many of these secret non-believers who are relieved to be able to speak freely. What we hear from these encounters forms the basis of the other questions that Nick Martin thought might be objectionable. Here they are, one by one:

  • “Did you know that we have a creationist museum here in Winnipeg?” For a comprehensive view of the pseudoscientific garbage that we hear on a regular basis in our outreach work, check out their website.
  • “Did you know that many religious groups in Manitoba endorse the (legal) beating of children because they’re ‘sinners’?” The Twelve Tribes group, very active in Manitoba, is quite open about beating (sorry, “spanking”) their children with 5-foot sticks. We’ve heard about parents in a different cult who use corporal punishment that includes a scaled number of spanks in accordance with the “sin,” a single session going well over 100 spanks for a child under age 8 for asking a question. There are other forms of physical punishments from other groups we’ve heard about but we won’t get into it here.
  • “Are you aware of the plight of LGBT and trans kids in the bible belt, or of business owners too scared to be who they are because their community will END their family’s livelihood if they found out?” We’ve already discussed the shunning part above. The LGBT and trans kids and young adults who come to us are truly heartbreaking because of their abysmal treatment. We point them to the Rainbow Resource Centre and we’ve started a collection of secular support links on our website so they know where to go if they suddenly find themselves kicked out or disowned.

The passage from our news release that Nick Martin quoted was the intro to our announcement about a secular conference we held in Winnipeg in September. The reason we think it’s important to bring together non-believers from across Canada and the USA is so that we can share ideas and strategies for addressing some of these common and disturbing issues.

Getting back to the problem of SOME Manitoba schools producing science-illiterate graduates, where do we go from here? If concerned parents with relevant information and recent graduates are willing, we suggest they send a letter to the Minister of Education and send us a copy too. We can’t do much unless people are willing to start talking.

Our last question from the news release stands: “Is [any of] this acceptable to you as a Manitoban? A Canadian? A decent human being?”

*From Manitoba Education, on Funding:

The Department provides funding to funded independent schools for expenditures related to operations (e.g., salaries, learning resources), but not for capital expenditures (e.g., building new facilities, upkeep of existing facilities). The amount that each funded independent school receives is based on the number of eligible pupils enrolled at the school. Funding is set at 50% of public school net operating expenditures from two years previous to the current funding year. Funded independent schools also receive curricular materials support which is set at $60 per eligible pupil, $30 of which must be expended through the Manitoba Text Book Bureau.”

Rebuttal from Nick Martin

On 15 October 2015, Nick Martin posted this rebuttal in the Free Press.

That’s the longest diatribe I’ve undergone in a very long time.

I wrote recently about sweeping statements made by the Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba (HAAM) in a news release a little over a month ago, most specifically a broad generalization that Manitoba schools are producing graduates who believe that fossils are man-made. The last I’d heard back from HAAM, as we went back and forth on that rather startling statement, it was aware of only one school, that the organization would not identify for fear of repercussions for the source of the information.

Last night we received an enormous letter to the editor from HAAM, a link to which you’ll find down below. It’s not running, not because it lambastes me, but because this letter would not only eat up the entire letters section and still barely be into the topic, and because the only thing we run that’s this long is the main story in 49.8 each week.
Yes, atheists attacked me. We’ll pause here while the anonymous on-line trolls, the religious right, the homophobes, all those members of my fan club roll around on the floor laughing.
Which reminds me, I saw a statement recently — with which I heartily agree, anecdotally — in one of the atheist Twitter accounts I follow, that the writer had never met an atheist who is a homophobe. But I digress.

Full disclosure: I am not now nor have I ever been a member of HAAM, and given how %^^%$# the organization is with me, it’s pretty safe to rule out my ever joining after I retire.
It could get uncomfortable if we ever encounter any HAAM members socially, which certainly isn’t out of the question. I’ve found during my decades in Winnipeg that the most adverse reaction I receive in social settings tends to be from those with whom I share at least some values, who despise me for where I work and what I do for a living, and for my crime of thinking there may be more than one perspective…but I digress again.

I’ve written many pieces over the years about school prayer and encroachments on a secular public school system, which aren’t all necessarily connected, but which tend to bring out the same crowd. I once wrote a very lengthy blog about my experiences in Ontario public schools in the 1950s and 1960s when the state imposed the mainstream Protestant churches on the education system, to the point of students receiving corporal punishment and even facing suspension for not embracing that forced faith. It’s pretty clear if you read anything I’ve written, that I believe it is not appropriate for adults to use public schools to attempt to inculcate other people’s children with their beliefs.
And despite all that, I’ve never been met with anything but politeness and welcome when I’ve gone to public schools in Steinbach and Winkler and Altona, and to the handful of faith-based schools which invite media attention.

I’ll talk about just one teeny point before I let you get on with reading HAAM’s diatribe. I did not say in my blog that I found statements made by HAAM to be objectionable — what I said was, that I recognize there are people in Manitoba who might object, which is pretty obvious — if there weren’t, why would HAAM feel the need to exist?
You can read the letter to the editor on HAAM’s website.
I considered reproducing it all below, but decided against it for the same reason I originally asked HAAM to back up its sweeping statement about what ‘Manitoba schools’ teach about evolution.

If you read the HAAM statement on its website, you’ll see that it makes allegations about two public postsecondary institutions and about several faith-based schools, and most remarkably there are statements about three ethnocultural groups which HAAM names and identifies as “non-white…cultural communities rooted in religion” which allegedly openly discriminate against and outright shun non-believers.

Am I saying that HAAM’s statements are false? No. But we don’t publish without proof and substantiation of such alarming and incendiary charges.
If you want to read the names of the ethnocultural groups and schools, they’re all on the HAAM website.

Statement from the HAAM executive

It’s unfortunate that Nick Martin took offense to our reply. That was not our intention, nor was our article written about him. Many Manitobans care about how faith-based beliefs affect our children, especially when it comes to publicly funded education.

The comprehensive, well balanced education of its children is the cornerstone of every modern society. There should always be room to talk about human myths, fables, and stories in our schools, but not to sell them as reality. The truth is that the modern world has real non-mythical problems to overcome, and those that cannot be solved by us will have to be solved by our children.

Teaching myths or demonstrably false ideas such as young earth creationism as truth will make our children less knowledgeable and less prepared to solve the very real problems we face today and in the future. And therein lies the problem.

No society has ever advanced by becoming more religious.

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