Fighting for Our Sanity in Tennessee

By Shanks, Niall | Free Inquiry, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Fighting for Our Sanity in Tennessee


Shanks, Niall, Free Inquiry


Life on the front lines

Let me introduce myself. I am a professor of philosophy at East Tennessee State University (ETSU) in Johnson City, Tennessee. I also hold adjunct appointments in the Department of Biological Sciences and the Department of Physics and Astronomy I teach courses on the history of science and technology, the philosophy of biology, and evolutionary biology.

But more than this, I am what my neighbors call a "ferner," for I am a transplanted Englishman who grew up in Manchester in the north of England, a city about the size of Los Angeles but without the sun and earth tremors.

Johnson City is located in upper east Tennessee, in the heart of Appalachia. We enjoy some of the most spectacular scenery in America, being barely a stone's throw from the Appalachian Trail. But Johnson City is also one of the many buckles on the Bible Belt, and this poses some curious problems for someone who teaches evolutionary theory. To see why, it will help to begin by taking a look at the community in which the university is located.

This is a community whose attitudes are deeply shaped by religious beliefs--beliefs, moreover, that have evolved a symbiotic relationship with extremely conservative political views. Strong anti-abortion attitudes thus co-exist quite happily with keen advocacy for the death penalty. On cars you can find Jesus fishes by the school. But this is not an ecological niche in which Darwin fish thrive. Indeed, putting one on the back of your car is essentially an invitation to vandalism. The Ten Commandments figure prominently on the county courthouse. And when the Supreme Court let stand a lower court decision that such a religious display violates the constitutional separation of church and state, Washington County Executive George Jaynes was quoted in the June 2, 2001, Johnson City Press as saying, 'We're a majority The atheist group and the people hollering about that are minorities, and I can't figure out why they would rule in favor of minorities or something like that." (I guess Mr. Jaynes had forgotten how t he presidential election was settled last year!) In solidarity with the courthouse, many homes have placards displaying the Ten Commandments on their lawns.

One of our local papers, the Kingsport Times-News, recently polled its readers about their religious beliefs (June 22). Of the 209 respondents, 69 percent said they took the Genesis account of creation literally; 26 percent said they didn't; and 4 percent were unsure. This is indeed an area where religious fundamentalism flourishes, and the university is no exception. It is a microcosm of the community in which it is embedded. Religious attitudes that flourish in the broader community are reflected in the views of students, faculty, and administrators. Secular faculty and students--those who openly profess to having no religious beliefs or affiliations--are a distinct minority and are apt to be viewed as curiosities. But they nevertheless exist, and last spring one of my former students, Scott Lavoie, founded a branch of the Campus Freethought Alliance. The group and its faculty supporters are truly strangers in a strange land.

THE UNIVERSITY

ETSU has very good science faculty and students who specialize in the sciences (as opposed to those who have to take a science class to meet general education requirements) do well by national measures. Our biology majors, for example, not only exceed the national average on the ETS Biology Major Field Test, they place in the top 20 percent in the nation. Nevertheless, teaching courses that focus on science, its history, and its implications have provided me with some interesting challenges in the classroom.

With the exception of the biology majors, all of whom are extensively exposed to evolutionary ideas as part and parcel of their training here, there is widespread misunderstanding of evolution among ETSU students, (and, sad to say, among some faculty who should know better). …

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