6/21/2007

LETTER TO A RETIRING FRESNO PASTOR

As I like to tell my skeptical friends, church can be interesting. Sometimes, going to somebody else’s church can be really interesting. Everybody needs a little variety now and then, and so from time I time I like to check out other churches—not that my church home is boring, you understand, but you know, I like to stretch my legs!


Earlier this year I found myself listening to one of Fresno’s most prominent pastors, and he was really on a roll, preaching about Genesis. If you missed that part in Sunday School, that’s the first book in the Bible, the one that talks about the Creation of the Heavens and the Earth and all that. So anyway, this preacher was on a roll, as I mentioned, and suddenly he up and says, "What about the theory of evolution?"

The pastor now had my complete attention! You see, in addition to being a church-hopping, leg-stretching guest in another fellow’s sanctuary, I also teach science for a living, and I like to think I do a good job of it. So I took a keen interest in the preacher’s next remark: "Well, first place, if somebody says, if a teacher says to you, I’m going to teach you the facts of evolution, that teacher is LYING, and either he knows he’s lying, or else he’s ignorant of the facts, ‘cause there are NO facts of evolution, it does NOT exist!"

Well. I have to admit that the pastor’s statement got me thinking! You see, according to the State Board of Education, fellows like me have to teach certain science standards. In fact, if I may say so, I’m asked to teach a few too many standards in my opinion, but that’s a tale for another time. What I might want doesn't count here; California, it seems, is determined I teach certain things. What does the state actually say about this evolution stuff? What are the facts?

It’s easy to find out! You can view the Grade 9-12 Biology standards on the Web. If you read Standard 8a, it’s pretty clear that the State of California regards evolution as a fact. "Evolution is the result of genetic changes that occur in constantly changing environments." The State doesn't say that maybe these changes happened. California says that they happened, and the result was evolution. The Standards go on to note the different lines of evidence used to support the fact of evolution, and that this evidence can be used to figure out the "evolutionary relationships" between living organisms today, and to estimate when past populations "diverged evolutionarily from one another."

Facts are facts, Pastor. It’s a fact that the State Standards teach evolution—as fact! It’s a fact that the Biology text used by both Fresno and Clovis Unified, approved by the state, teaches evolution—as fact! It’s a fact that the science teachers in this state are following these standards, using these approved texts and teaching evolution—as fact! And, sadly, it’s a fact that you've claimed that all of us teachers who are doing our duty are, according to you, a bunch of liars—or else, ignorant. You have, in effect, told the hundreds of young people in your congregation that they can’t trust their science teacher. That’s a fact—and, I think, a shameful one.

I’m not going to embarrass you, Pastor, by mentioning you by name here. That would serve no purpose, and besides, you've recently announced your retirement. Your congregation knows who you are, and they know that I am telling the truth about what you said, and how you said it. But I say to you, and to all of my fellow believers, that it is an unacceptable state of affairs, that one of the most prominent Christian leaders in the Valley would define the question of origins in such stark terms as to discourage young people from learning science. It’s more than wrong—it’s wrong-headed, and that’s a fact.

5 comments:

Ian said...

While some groups consider it ok to lie to non-believers, lying to your own flock is not acceptable under any circumstances. It's one thing to repeat things you don't understand. It's quite another to forcefully state something that's so obviously untrue.

Scott Hatfield . . . said...

That's an excellent point, Ian. I hadn't thought of it in those terms, but you're right: if the pastor in question didn't really believe his own polarizing rhetoric, then he really was lying to his own flock. But of course I can't look into his heart of hearts and really know, for certain, that the guy was lying. Perhaps, in his mind, it was a throwaway line, an exaggeration to make a point, the murdering of some mundane fact in behalf of a great truth.

As a science teacher, I can relate in that I often have to choose between what's easy to conceptualize and a messy reality. In most cases, the former wins out even when it simplifies to the point of distortion. But, of course, I do tell students in passing that they should be aware that the reality is more complicated. Perhaps, if the pastor had allowed that the reality might be more complicated, I would be less incensed.

PZ said...

Why not embarrass the pastor by naming him? I think a public shaming is justifiable, and we don't see enough of it.

Scott Hatfield . . . said...

PZ: I'm conflicted on that point. The guy is 80 years old, widely admired in the local community---an icon, really. In taking him on by myself, I was putting myself a bit out there.

The post you read here was submitted pretty much as you see it to the local paper nearly a year ago, along with a copy to the local pastor.

The paper declined to publish it and the pastor never acknowledged my letter, but shortly after I sent it, the video of this sermon was removed from the church's web site. So he may have had cause to
regret his rhetorical excess.

In any case, he is retired now and he's not one of these pastors who is writing lots of books, turning their personal theology into a cottage industry. I'm not sure what purpose outing this guy would serve.

In any case, people in Fresno can read between the lines and figure this one out if they want to. The pastor's retirement was a front-page item in the local paper just last week, and the graphic accompanying the post is a modification of his sprawling megachurch's logo.

Zeno said...

Why do pastors like that thunderously denounce the assurance with which science teachers impart to students the well-established facts of their disciplines, yet never see the hubris in their own smugly categorical statements? Oh, I know! They think God is on their side.

I guess that excuses anything, which is a scary thought.