Secularist Propaganda, and How You Can Avoid Being Taken In
You’d think 94 years would seem like a long time. Not at the American Humanist Association; not if they can embarrass religious believers over it. But that’s the nature of secularist propaganda: embarrassing, distorting, manipulating. It’s unseemly, it’s wrong, and it’s going on all the time.
New articles from the humanist organization about a Tennessee education bill provides a case study. By dissecting their articles, we can learn to spot secularist propaganda and avoid being taken in by fake “facts” and other tactics. (You can also use this as a guide for how not to communicate yourself.)
The Embarrassment Tactic
Luis Granados opens a recent article, “The Tennessee legislature is at it again.” His article came just days after another on the same site by Sam Gerard, who led his piece with, “In July of 1925, The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes was argued in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee.” The trial’s more familiar name is the Scopes Monkey Trial.
And sure, it’s proved an embarrassment for believers in biblical origins. That’s got a lot to do with a seriously distorted version made popular in the play, Inherit the Wind. But hey, if it works, run with it, right? And keep on running, and running, and running. … Granados even quotes from the trial, “Do you know whether [the snake in the Garden] walked on his tail or not?”
Embarrassment works as a persuasive tactic — unless you’re willing to see it for what it is. There’s no argument in it; no reasoning. In this case it’s nothing but ancient history playing on today’s emotions. You need not let it sway you.
The Misinformation Tactic
Now, when an author relies on embarrassment this way, you can be pretty sure he’s spouting “false facts” along with it.
Gerard’s article, for example, focuses on how “discussion of evolution in schools has often been met with religious counter-teachings.” Sure, that kind of thing has happened. But the Discovery Institute, arguably the nation’s leading scientific organization questioning the sufficiency of evolutionary explanations, strongly advises schools not to teach religious theories. Rather, they call for schools to teach evolution’s weaknesses along with its strengths. Gerard wouldn’t bring that up, though; it doesn’t serve his purposes.
Meanwhile Granados says the Tennessee legislature has just passed a bill to ““teach the controversy”” in science classes. I use doubled quotes there intentionally: I don’t know how else to quote Granados while showing at the same time that he’s quoting nothing at all. The bill doesn’t mention “teaching the controversy.”
Why then would he imply it does? It’s because that phrase has been associated (for good reasons or for bad) with teaching biblical creation vs. evolution, which has long been ruled out of court (literally) in America’s public schools. So it’s rhetorically useful grenade to toss in the mix.
Tennessee’s bill actually “encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues.” That’s what he’s objecting to. His propaganda goals wouldn’t allow him quote it that way.
The bill also provides that “teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.” Furthermore, nothing in it shall “be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine,” the bill says.
Your best defense against this kind of misinformation? Do what I did: Look it up.
The Name-Calling Tactic
Notice again what neither author mentioned about the bill: It’s for understanding, analyzing, critiquing and reviewing theories objectively. That’s hard to condemn; and since condemning is what they’ve come to do, they dare not bring it up.
But they’re not the only ones. The leading science journal Nature name-called it the “monkey bill.” You know where that came from. Eugenie Scott, one-time director of the misleadingly-named “National Center for Science Education” (historically they’ve had no science agenda but one, evolution) still claims it amounts to “a permission slip for teachers to bring creationism … into science classrooms.” No, actually creationism is specifically ruled out.
But “monkey bill,” “creationism,” and other name-calling tactics work well rhetorically, as long as the reader doesn’t care about whether someone’s delivering actual reasons or evidence to support their case. Your best answer here is not to answer at all. Ignore it. Or if you do answer, don’t deal with it as if there were any substance to it. Instead, point out how empty it is.
The Confusion Tactic
Sam Gerard’s article focuses primarily on the “Clergy Letter Project,” for religious leaders who are willing to say they’re all in favor of evolution — without specifying what they mean by it.
Evolution can and does mean any number of things. It can mean change over time, which no one doubts. Or change within species, such as bacterial antibiotic resistance. No one doubts that, either. It could be change within genera (the plural of “genus”), which is just slightly more controversial. Or it might refer to common descent of all organisms from a single ancestor, which is much more open to debate on scientific, philosophical and of course religious grounds.
Or it could mean the grand theory that all the above happens without needing any God to guide it. That version, which is mainstream science to many, should never gain any Christian clergy’s agreement. Either a person believes God has a hand in guiding the course of the world, or they’ve got no business calling themselves Christian believers, much less leaders.
Yet more than 15,000 have signed it, affirming the “theory of evolution,” as if it were just one theory with a single meaning, or as if God’s part in it didn’t matter, if He had one, that is.
I can’t help wondering how many signatories on it knew just which “evolution” they were agreeing with, or why. I suspect some let themselves be led along by a tactic of confusion on the term’s definition.
How to deal with the confusion tactic? Ask the person to explain just what they mean. Explore further if possible: “Now, if you mean that, then you don’t mean this other thing, right?” More often than not you’ll find they really don’t know what they mean.
The Everything Tactic
Sometimes secularists combine all these tactics in a grand feast of distortion, name-calling and confusion. Take Granados’ article. He tries to make Christianity look like it’s opposed to medicine. For that, it’s not enough to reach back 94 years in time; he wants millennia! Look at King Asa in the Bible he tells us — he trusted in physicians, and he died!
Meanwhile, though, I’d be willing to bet today there’s a Christian-named medical center within a few miles of his home, demonstrating in real time how wrong he is.
Or again, he wants to make Christians appear as if we’re against education, and always have been. Never mind that Christians invented the idea of the university (as even Wikipedia acknowledges. For this, Granados only stretches back 16 or 17 centuries in time, pulling this quote from St. Augustine: “For Christians, there is no need for education outside of the belief in the Lord’s creation.” The problem is, the quote is completely out of context. Augustine was referring only to religious education there. You could summarize it as, For learning religion, study religion. That’s hardly what Granados made it sound like.
He’d be up in arms a lot quicker than 16 centuries’ time — or even 94 years — if he heard anyone suggest, “For learning science, study religion.” But that’s what Eugenie Scott claims the Tennessee law is all about, even though quite plainly it isn’t. It’s the same thing Granados claims — falsely — he’s reacting to as well.
In fact, I can just about guarantee someone will try to tell us the same thing again in a comment under this column. “You’re just using ‘teach the controversy’ as a cover for your religion! Evolution has no weaknesses!” I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard that. But it’s just another misinformation tactic. Propaganda. You don’t need to fall for it.
Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream, and the author of A Christian Mind: Thoughts on Life and Truth in Jesus Christ. Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.
And for more on the Discovery Institute and intelligent design, check out their website at www.discovery.org.