Missouri band banned, Darwin be damned!

The ascent of man, from gorilla to Jesus

The ascent of man, from gorilla to Jesus

Phew. I have new respect for the New York Post. Not every headline writer can generate jewels like “Headless body found in topless bar”—nor, for that matter, can every town. The sleepy little burg of Sedalia, Missouri, for example, has to make its own fun. Fortunately, the local Smith-Cotton High School Marching band will soon present their Brass Evolutions 2009 show, which explores how brass instruments have changed from 1960 to today. Unfortunately, they won’t be allowed to wear the shirts they printed up for the event, which depict the Darwinian stages of human evolution from the popular “Ascent of Man” illustration above, each holding a trumpet. Those t-shirts have been repossessed by the school’s assistant superintendent, after parents complained that they endorsed evolution. Props to Smick for the link.

The original complainant turns out to be a woman named Sherry Melby, who is a teacher in the Smith-Cotton school district and the mother of one of the band members. “I was disappointed with the image on the shirt,” Melby told the Sedalia Democrat, whose offices I assume are hilariously old-timey. “I don’t think evolution should be associated with our school.” I’m going to pause here to give you time to say god. dammit. slowly and ruefully.

I suppose I should be shocked that it was a teacher who started this, but after the intelligent design “debate” of a couple years ago my shock-at-teachers receptors are all burned out. More horrifying is the response of Assistant Superintendent Brad Pollitt,* who, according to the Democrat, made students turn in the shirts because “the district is required by law to remain neutral in religious matters.” Let me get this straight: some church people get mad because the marching band has printed up cute shirts that parody a drawing commonly associated with evolution, they complain about it to the school, and you gather all the kids together and take their marching band shirts away in order to remain neutral? What would you have to do to side with the church people in this situation? Burn the tuba section?

Pollitt’s response, and his belief that the theory of evolution is somehow a religious matter, is emblematic of the great structural problem of the progressive mindset. A tolerant, liberal society accepts multiple belief systems. More importantly, it accepts those belief systems by regarding them, at least nominally, as equivalent. Catholicism is a much more popular religion in the United States than Sufism, but we treat both religions as equals in the public sphere. We respect the beliefs of Sufism just as we respect the beliefs of the RCC, because that plurality is the backbone of our belief system. Here’s the problem: What do we do with belief systems that do not incorporate tolerance? For example, how do we respond to a vocal minority that demands the school marching band shirts be repossessed, because that minority’s belief system is opposed to expressions of accepted scientific fact?

This is the classic problem of contemporary democracies. On one hand, we respect non-dominant cultural traditions. On the other hand, certain of those traditions believe that adherents to other traditions are A) wrong and B) must be stopped, and they want to propagate that approach. Thus, liberal society is faced with a conflict of values. I assume that if you’re reading Combat! blog right now, you don’t need to be told that the “theory” in Theory of Evolution is a convention of naming. That species differentiation occurred over long periods of time as a result of random mutations preserved or eliminated by natural forces is as accepted as Newton’s Theory of Gravity. There is a fossil record, for Chrissakes. Yet to inflict that science on the church people of Sedalia, Missouri is to infringe on their religious beliefs, and they regard a t-shirt reminding them of the existence of evolution as an infringement. They make science itself a religious matter, and saps like Brad Pollitt have to kowtow to their whims in order to preserve “neutrality.”

I’m going to take an unpopular position here, and say that any religion that denies the Theory of Evolution is not, properly speaking, a religion, and therefore does not deserve the tolerance of a liberal democracy. Here’s why: Religions, broadly speaking, are belief systems designed to make sense of the relationship between human beings and the universe. “Catholic” is a religion because it addresses the problems of human beings in the world as it is;** “Jedi” is not a religion because it is organized around a world that is, you know, not. At this point, evolution is a known aspect of the human world. You can think it’s a trick designed to test your faith in the Creator God, you can think that a wizard started it from planet Argon, but you can’t say it didn’t happen any more than you can say the French Revolution didn’t happen. It did. If your belief system is predicated on denying that evolution is a fact of human existence, you don’t have a religion—you have a delusion. That’s fine, too, but don’t ask me to take you seriously as an adult or let you pick out science textbooks for the local high school.

Our commitment to plurality is one of the great strengths of modern liberalism. It is also the one most open to abuse. If we keep humoring religious nutjobs on this evolution thing, eventually there will be no school district in the nation that teaches it. Then we’ll have a whole country full of religious nutjobs, and our commitment to tolerance will have met an ironic end. “I liked the shirt because it was unique,” said Smith-Cotton senior drum major Mike Howard. “The theory of evolution never even crossed my mind.”  I bet it didn’t, kid. The ignorant don’t just want to be tolerated; they want your kid to be ignorant, too. If you let them be, they’re only an embarrassment. If you let them get away with it, they will spread.

* I keep envisioning the Superintendent of the Smith-Cotton school district looking at the situation, realizing that it could be controversial, and calling the Assistant Superintendent into his office. “Pollitt!” he barks, chomping on his cigar. “You’re going to have to take the fall on this one.” As soon as Pollitt leaves the office, the Superintendent’s secretary emerges from under his desk. I can keep going with this.

** In part by positing another world entirely, but that’s beside the point.

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  1. The biggest irony is that these same people go ballistic every time the “you shouldn’t have Christmas trees at school” thing comes up.

  2. This post almost made me stand up and cheer. And I’m not an expressive man. Yes, yes…evolution is not a “belief” it is a fact of existence, like the fact that we will all die, and that the sun is very bright. It is something out there that exists that we cannot change. That it took us, as a species, somewhat longer to notice this particular fact, while we could tell pretty much from the beginning that the sun was bright, doesn’t make it less a part of the unchangeable reality of reality.

    Imagine that it had taken us a tad longer to realize that the sun was bright. Or that it does not revolve around the…oh, wait.

  3. You know, it strikes me that many of your blog posts are essentially about how fucking stupid many Americans are. Nothing crystallizes this fact better than the evolution issue. It boggles my mind.

  4. An amen to Smick–that’s what many of my conversations with my wife revolve around. But, y’all hit on something that really is key to all the irrational/militant religious groups around the world–it doesn’t matter what the truth is, because they believe something else. Holocaust deniers? Women should be covered head to toe and be illiterate? Jesus riding on a dinosaur? It’s all good. But, like racism (or homophobia or insert list of bigotry here), it wasn’t reasoned in, so you can’t reason it out. Education and Love (trying to sound a little bit like Martin Luther King, Jr.) is the best way to reach out to these folks–and just keep up a constant drumbeat, trying to break that ignorance cycle….

    Go read Jesus For President–it’s filled with stories of how to be subversive when approaching folks like this. I think the T shirt is a great way to start a conversation, show the folks how ridiculous they look in banning something so innocent…

    Wonder if anybody’s contacted the t-shirt place yet–I want one too!

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