Monday, June 30, 2008

Fundamentalist mischief?

One of the leading far right fundamentalist christianist groups in the US is Focus on Hate the Family. It’s leader, James Dobson, has repeatedly used lies, smears and distortions to promote an agenda that is so rabidly anti-gay that it deserves the word “homophobic” in a clinical sense. Dobson himself claims that John McSame isn’t “conservative enough” for his vote, but uses most of his venom to attack Democrats and Barack Obama.

The New Zealand branch office of the group recently sent secondary schools materials promoting the religious creation story, asking that the materials be made available in school libraries and to science departments. The Education Ministry said that the materials, while unsanctioned, do not breach the Education Act, so they don’t plan to ban distribution in schools. They added, however, that evolution underpins the science curriculum and schools have a responsibility to teach theories that are subject to accepted scientific scrutiny, and the religious creation story clearly is not.

As hostile as I am to the pseudo-science of the religious creation myth, I actually don’t have a problem with the materials being available in school libraries, provided that it’s not included in the science curriculum. If religionists want to come to the school to teach their religious dogma when school isn’t in session—before the day starts, after it ends or on weekends—I can live with that, too, as long as they arrange room rental on the same basis as any other group and as long as there is no compulsion for any student to attend.

The issue, for me, isn’t the availability of the materials, but whether religious indoctrination should be taught alongside science. Clearly it never should be.

The Stuff website in New Zealand ran a poll on this issue that had interesting results. They asked, “Should schools be allowed to teach 'intelligent design'?” Note the word “allowed” rather than “compelled”. The results were No (17,812 votes, 54.0%) and Yes (15,201 votes, 46.0%). At one point during the day, the results were actually 2-1 against.

These polls are completely unscientific and unrepresentative, so I normally take no notice. But here’s the thing: These polls are nearly always skewed dramatically to the right and even far right opinion. So if a majority of respondents were against simply allowing the teaching of religious creation in schools, that indicates that conservatives in New Zealand are nothing like their American counterparts. Dobson and his minions should take notice.

Still, given its agenda, Focus is hardly a neutral organisation, so I have to admit that when I read about this it occurred to me that there might be a bit of right wing mischief at work here. New Zealand faces an election in a few months, and the far right wants to rally its troops. If Focus on the (sort of) Family had been able to manufacture a clash with the Ministry of Education and, by extension, the Labour-led government, it would’ve helped them energise the evangelical voters that right wing parties will need. Unfortunately for them, the Education Ministry is far more sensible than the right gives them credit for and they took the proper position.

Still, this won’t be the last such tactic in the run-up to New Zealand’s election, and the efforts will be spread among a variety of far right and fundamentalist christianist groups. I’ll be watching as this story—ahem!—evolves.

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