The line between diversity and apathy

Posted: Thursday, March 16, 2000

It's a bit uncomfortable to suddenly find myself questioning the value of tolerance. I've spent an awful lot of time and space defending the rights of others to their beliefs, even when they attack mine. Pluralism is a virtue.

But is there too much of a good thing?

Sometimes, an open mind comes perilously close to being an empty mind. Sometimes, tolerance is a way to avoid wrestling for the truth. Pluralism is not always the acceptance of a range of hard-won views, but a giant shrug of the shoulders, a cosmic ``Whatever.''

What brings on this dyspeptic thought is a new poll conducted for the People for the American Way on teaching evolution and creationism in the schools. This is not another quick-and-dirty multiple-choice question but a layered, in-depth survey of 1,500 Americans done by Dan Yankelovich's firm, DYG Inc.

The good news, for those of us who have rued the fundamentalist attempt at a science class coup, is that the vast majority of Americans - 83 percent - believe evolution should be taught in the schools. But a majority of people also think that the story of creation should be taught. What? Whatever?

The poll suggests that this isn't a contradiction as much as a compromise. Americans have, after all, come to believe that God and evolution are not incompatible. As Ralph Neas, the head of People for the American Way, sums it up nicely, ``most Americans believe that God created evolution.''

As he analyzes the poll, people have the sense that evolution and creation can coexist in school. Evolution can be taught in science and creation taught in some other part of the curriculum, say history or culture.

Now, this is fine. We're in an era when most of us want to reconcile the split between church and school. We can't teach religion in public schools; but we can and should teach about religion.

Still, I'm afraid there is a darker subtext in the polls. The truth is that most of those surveyed couldn't fully define evolution or creationism.

So maybe they weren't wrestling with two incompatible views of human origins. Maybe it wasn't a struggle at all. Maybe it was: ``Creationism . . . evolution . . . whatever.''

John Haught, a theologian at Georgetown University and author of ``God After Darwin,'' compares the survey to what he sees in his classroom. ``Today, there is more tolerance, but the passion for truth doesn't seem to be as strong as it could be.''

Haught is no academic absolutist but he muses, ``There is less concern with getting to the `True' with a capital T. You don't want to step on people's toes. You want to avoid conflict, including meaningful conflict.''

No, I am not a fan of those who think they have cornered the market on Truth. If you want to know how much trouble these people can cause, read the pope's apology last weekend. The Crusades and the Inquisition were just opening acts.

True-believing troublemakers are still among us. Think about the attempt of the religious right to take over local school boards. Think about the Bible History classes in public schools in Florida that include such ``lesson questions'' as: ``Who, according to Jesus, is the father of the Jews? The devil.''

But the passive acceptance of all ideas as more or less equal, the fear of conflict, the acceptance of pluralism as a political default position, don't always get us closer to real and rigorous understanding. Indeed, the postmodern attitude as Yankelovich describes it himself - ``Well, you never know, hey'' - can lead to what he also has described as whateverism.

Some of the relativism comes from the skeptical American attitude - certainly in my profession - about everything, including experts.

In medicine, the proper combination of skepticism and pluralism has led the National Institutes of Health to finally explore alternative medicine. But it has also led some to accept chemotherapy or laetrile as either/or cures for cancer.

In history, tolerance and pluralism has led us to seek out different perspectives of events. But it has also led some to accept those ``historians'' who deny the Holocaust.

As for school, it's one thing to open our children's minds to the variety of cultural stories about human origins. It's quite another to present evolution and creationism as options.

One plus one equals two, not seven. The world is billions of years old, not thousands. And school boards facing a science curriculum still must choose between science and religion, evolution and creationism. ``Whatever'' is not an option.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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