The other day I heard from a friend who’s using WEIT as a text in a summer-school evolution course. This is at a large university somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line.
I was told that my book was a hit “with about 95% of the students,” but that “5% thought I was an asshole.” I was pretty chuffed, but also concerned—not such much that students called me an asshole, but about why they would see me as an asshole. That’s a pretty personal remark, and though I can live with students not buying my evidence or arguments—after all, they’ve been propagandized with faith since they could understand English—I couldn’t see that there was anything in the book that would tar me with such an epithet.
I asked for clarification, and the teacher sent me a short explanation, including a reconstructed dialogue with a female student who was apparently horrified by one statement in the book: “If a designer did have discernible motives when creating species, one of them must surely have been to fool biologists by making organisms look as though they evolved.” Here’s what I got:
Girl: “He doesn’t have to do that.”
Me: “Do what?”
Girl: “sound like a jerk like that.”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Girl: “He didn’t have to say that. He could have concluded differently. He didn’t need to make that joke at creationists’ expense.”
Me: “That’s pretty mild, don’t you think?”
Girl (and a minority of others): “Even if it’s mild, it’s unnecessary.”
Boy defender: “Have you seen the shit the other side says? I’d say this is a pretty innocuous response comparatively.”
Girl doesn’t back down. Insists that creationists don’t do such things. 3 or 4 other people agree with her.
(agree that you’re a fucking asshole).
This resulted in me making an entire lecture where the class was forced to examine video arguments made by famous creationists and to identify the specific fallacious arguments used. I also forced them to read Ray Comfort’s introduction to the origin.
The girl was not pleased.
When teaching evolution, especially to religious people, I’m always concerned that I might bruise their feelings or come off as arrogant or strident. There’s a time and a place for stridency and mockery, but the classroom is not one of them. But in this case I completely reject the notion that what I said was “assholish.” If you believe that the world and its life was created ex nihilo by God, how can you explain why thousands of biologists have, after looking at the evidence, concluded otherwise? My statement was simply factual: if there was a fundamentalist-style creator God, He must have created things looking as if they evolved.
There is of course a trace of satire in what I said, but what students really object to, I think, is the cognitive dissonance it creates in them. Indeed, why would God have done that? And what kind of God would have done that? A duplicitous one? And so they take their dissonance out on me.
When you can’t answer an argument, harp on the tone—or call your opponent an asshole. To students like these, I paraphrase Roman Polanski: “It’s college, Jake!” You have no right not to be made uncomfortable at university.