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January 23, 2007

False Gods and False Worries: Lessons from the PEER Grand Canyon Fiasco

In a way, Christians should be flattered by objections from secularists. I'll explain in a bit. But first, a minor digression. (Yes, I'll eventually get around to talking about PEER and the Grand Canyon.)

You've read the ten commandments, right? (Or perhaps you read the other ten commandments.) Do you remember the very first commandment? The first commandment states, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Since it's the very first commandment, that would imply that it's probably a pretty important one. Luckily, that's an easy commandment to keep, right?

Apparently not. Basically, Moses comes down from the mountain, says "here are the 10 commandments", goes back up the mountain to talk to God some more, but stays up there too long, so the children of Israel decide to worship a golden calf created by Aaron, the brother of Moses.

And these are God's chosen people? Hmm...

Okay, so apparently not worshiping other gods is a very difficult commandment to keep. It seems rather easy for me, since I don't worship even one god, but apparently for many people this was a tough one, so God made it commandment number one. Perhaps that's why Christians get so upset when they see other religions getting treated with something approaching fairness.

On the other hand, as an atheist, whenever I hear stories about gods of other religions, they seem like old fairy tales. Greek mythology, for example. You've heard the stories -- Zeus, Apollo, etc. We even studied them in school, if I remember correctly. Norse mythology was even better. I always liked the Norse god Thor with his hammer that created thunder. A thunder hammer sounded really cool!

In the same way, Hindu and Native American religious stories sound to me like harmless fairy tales that nobody takes seriously. I don't think of them as religious. Remember the uproar in June 2005 when the Tulsa Park and Recreation Board ordered the Tulsa Zoo to install a Genesis creation story exhibit? The rationale was that, since the zoo's Elephant Encounter Museum had a statue of Ganesha, a Hindu deity that has an elephant's head, then it was already promoting one religion and should allow the Christian viewpoint to be presented.

If I had visited the Tulsa Zoo and had seen the statue of Ganesha, I don't think it would ever occur to me that I should object, even though as an atheist I believe in Ganesha no more than I do in the Christian God.

Eventually, after all of the publicity, the board reversed its decision, realizing that having one small statue in an exhibit that included a stuffed Dumbo elephant and a Republican Party elephant could not be reasonably interpreted as promoting the Hindu religion.

(Incidentally, Dan Hicks, the man who objected to the statue of Ganesha was also the driving force behind a 1995 effort to get the Tulsa Zoo to remove or modify their evolution exhibit. I believe this photo depicts that exhibit, although it may have been modified since then.)

Tulsa zoo evolution, originally uploaded by cpurrin1.

Similarly, when I visit a national park and the information they present to me includes Native American myths, I think of those as being historical or cultural rather than religious. So, for example, the bookstore at the Grand Canyon sells books which include Native American creation myths, and this generally gets no attention from atheists like me.

Yet when the National Park Service approves for sale at the Grand Canyon the book Grand Canyon: A Different View by Tom Vail -- a book which claims that the Grand Canyon was formed by Noah's flood -- we sit up and take notice. More than that, we object to such a blatant injection of religion into our national parks.

Why is that? How is the sale of a book about a Christian belief different than the sale of a book about a Native American religious belief? In a public school classroom, how is teaching a Christian belief different than teaching a Norse or Greek religious belief?

In the case of the Norse and Greek myths, the explanation that immediately leaps to mind is that those are "dead" religions. I might be wrong, but so far as I know nobody believes in Zeus or Thor these days. (Well, I'm sure that somewhere somebody does, if only to be contrary.)

But what about the Native American religious beliefs? Well, "nobody believes them anymore" is also the first thought that pops into my head, but it takes just a moment's thought to realize that this isn't true. There still are significant numbers of Native Americans who believe at least some of what their ancestors believed. For example, some Native Americans believe that their ancestors were created in North America. (Some members of the Havasupai tribe believe specifically that the Grand Canyon is the birthplace of humans. Being told by researchers that the DNA evidence indicated otherwise was quite upsetting.)

Still, when I see a Native American religious belief presented in a government setting, I don't feel threatened the way I do when I see a Christian belief presented in the same setting. Is that just because, living in Illinois, I have virtually no contact with Native Americans and thus am not used to thinking of their beliefs in anything other than historical terms? Perhaps. (Too many "cowboy and Indian" movies, I guess.)

But I suspect the main difference is that Native American beliefs are held by a tiny minority with very little political power, while Christian beliefs are held by a sizable majority with enormous influence. In the same way that a commercial monopoly, such as Microsoft, has to play by different rules that are more restrictive, perhaps a religious monopoly, such as Christianity in the U.S., should play by more restrictive rules. Seeing those Christian beliefs displayed in a government setting, such as in a bookstore in a national park, feels potentially dangerous.

But is it? Is my initial reaction (Native American myths are harmless; Christian myths are dangerous) the correct one? Or are they both equally harmless -- or equally dangerous?

I blogged earlier about PEER's news release about the National Park Service and the age of the Grand Canyon. Since then, things have gotten a bit complicated, as it came out that PEER had perhaps exaggerated a bit in their news release.

When I began writing this post, I was just going to pass on the correction. This was shortly after I had written a post in which I discussed having been misled about Medieval religious dogma concerning the shape of the Earth, so I figured this was another opportunity to make a reference to hilzoy's post at Obsidian Wings, called Hatred is a Poison.

However, as I looked into things more, I realized how complicated this all had become. In an attempt to provide some context, here is a timeline of the sequence of events:

  • Sometime in the 1960s or 1970s (nobody knows exactly when), bronze plaques bearing Psalm verses, donated by the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, were posted at 3 Grand Canyon overlooks.
  • In 2002, "National Park Service Geologic Interpretive Programs: Distinguishing Science from Religion", a pamphlet for interpretive staff which labeled creationism as lacking any scientific basis, was blocked from publication by "Bush appointees". (It's unclear at what level this was done.)
  • In February 2003, the ACLU sent a letter to Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Joe Alston asking why the bronze plaques were present on government buildings.
  • In May 2003, the ACLU sent a follow-up email about the plaques.
  • After consulting with the National Park Service Regional Director and some legal staff, Superintendent Alston ordered that the plaques be removed and returned to the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary.
  • There was a public outcry.
  • In July 2003, National Park Service Deputy Director Donald Murphy sent a letter to the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, asking for the return of the plaques so that they could be reposted pending further review of their status. They did so.
  • In July or August 2003, the National Park Service approved for sale the creationist book Grand Canyon: A Different View by Tom Vail. The book was located in the natural history section of the bookstore. Out of 23 new items submitted for approval in 2003, this is the only one that received approval for sale. Superintendent Alston tried to block the sale of the book, but National Park Service headquarters overruled him.
  • In response to the brouhaha that resulted, the National Park Service said that there would be a high-level policy review of the decision, which they hoped to complete by February 2004.
  • In December 2003, a letter protesting the decision and signed by the presidents of seven scientific societies was sent to the National Park Service. Those signing it were the presidents of the Paleontological Society, the American Geophysical Union, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the Association of American State Geologists, the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology, the American Geological Institute, and the Geological Society of America. It got no response.
  • Also in December 2003, PEER issued a news release discussing the return of the bronze plaques and the sale of the creationist book. The news release also noted:
    • "Park Service leadership has blocked publication of guidance for park rangers and other interpretative staff that labeled creationism as lacking any scientific basis." (emphasis added)
    • "The Park Service is also engaged in an extended legal battle to continue displaying an eight-foot-tall cross, planted atop a 30-foot-high rock outcropping in the Mojave National Preserve in California."
    • "[U]nder pressure from conservative groups, the Park Service has agreed to edit the videotape that has been shown at the Lincoln Memorial since 1995 to remove any image of gay and abortion rights demonstrations that occurred at the memorial. ... The Park Service has promised to develop a 'more balanced' version that include rallies of the Christian group Promise Keepers and pro-Gulf War demonstrators though these events did not take place at the Memorial."
  • In January 2004, a memo from the head of the National Park Service's Geological Resources Division stated that selling the book violated agency policies. It got no response.
  • In February 2004, a letter was drafted to be sent to some members of Congress, stating that the review would be completed in March 2004. The letter was never sent.
  • Time passed.
  • In June 2004, a revised version of the February letter was sent to some members of Congress, framing the issue as a free speech and freedom of religion question and stating that a high-level policy review of the decision was being conducted.
  • Time passed.
  • In October 2004, PEER issued a news release, PARK SERVICE STICKS WITH BIBLICAL EXPLANATION FOR GRAND CANYON. It noted that the promised review had never happened and that the creationist book was still being sold in the Grand Canyon bookstore.
  • In November 2004, Time posted Faith-Based Parks? by columnist Leon Jaroff, which discussed the issues described in PEER's news release. Near the end of the article is this sentence: "Even more troubling, PEER charges that Grand Canyon National Park no longer offers an official estimate of the age of the canyon, and that the NPS has blocked publication of guidance intended for park rangers that reminds them there is no scientific basis for creationism." (This is puzzling, because the October 2004 news release from PEER doesn't appear to claim this, so it's unclear where Leon Jaroff got this information.)
  • At some point (I've been unable to find out exactly when), Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times apparently contacted Grand Canyon Superintendent Joe Alston while writing a story. When asked for an official statement on the age of the canyon, Alston apparently gave a "no comment" and referred of the reporter to NPS headquarters. Note that Superintendent Alston is the person who ordered the removal of the bronze plaques and tried to block the sale of the creationist book. Therefore, it seems likely that his "no comment" was a reflection not of his personal beliefs, but rather a reflection of his conflicts with NPS headquarters.
  • At some point (it's unclear when), the creationist book was moved from the "natural history" section to a new "inspiration" section in the online version of the Grand Canyon Association's bookstore.
  • On December 28, 2006, PEER issued another news release, HOW OLD IS THE GRAND CANYON? PARK SERVICE WON’T SAY.
  • This was picked up by numerous blogs, including the Skeptic News, as well as by James Randi's Swift, Michael Shermer's eSkeptic, Bob Park's What's New. Where I initially saw it was at Full-Frontal Skepticism in a post titled Age of Grand Canyon classified G14 Top Secret. Like others, my interpretation was that PEER was saying that National Park Service staff had been ordered not to state the age of the Grand Canyon. What an outrage!
  • On January 4, the Sacramento Bee published an editorial about the issue.
  • A few people noted that the Grand Canyon web site listed the age of the Grand Canyon, while others said that park rangers denied being prohibited from giving the age of the canyon.
  • Michael Shermer contacted PEER in an attempt to clear up the issue and got some less than candid responses.
  • PEER posted an amended version of their December 2006 news release, downplaying (but not removing) the implication that park rangers were prohibited from stating the age of the Grand Canyon.
  • On January 10, Shermer posted an article about his attempts to clarify the issue with PEER.
  • On January 16, 2007, PEER posted a news release which omitted the implication that NPS staff were prohibited from stating the age of the canyon.

So what happened? How did PEER get the idea that NPS employees were under orders to not state the age of the Grand Canyon? I think the answer is that there is a tiny kernel of truth in the claim -- but it's very tiny.

Because the original news release has been modified, it's difficult to go back and parse exactly what it said. (Strangely enough, even the website where I originally read the story, Full-Frontal Skepticism, seems to have disappeared in the last few days. I don't know whether the controversy caused the blog to fold or if it's just a coincidence.)

The December 28 news release originally began like this:

Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees. Despite promising a prompt review of its approval for a book claiming the Grand Canyon was created by Noah's flood rather than by geologic forces, more than three years later no review has ever been done and the book remains on sale at the park, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

"In order to avoid offending religious fundamentalists, our National Park Service is under orders to suspend its belief in geology," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "It is disconcerting that the official position of a national park as to the geologic age of the Grand Canyon is 'no comment.'"

In a letter released today, PEER urged the new Director of the National Park Service (NPS), Mary Bomar, to end the stalling tactics, remove the book from sale at the park and allow park interpretive rangers to honestly answer questions from the public about the geologic age of the Grand Canyon. PEER is also asking Director Bomar to approve a pamphlet, suppressed since 2002 by Bush appointees, providing guidance for rangers and other interpretive staff in making distinctions between science and religion when speaking to park visitors about geologic issues.

I believe, but can't check to be certain because it is no longer available, that this paragraph came from the original version of the December 28 news release (all emphasis added by me):

At the same time, Park Service leadership has blocked publication of guidance for park rangers and other interpretative staff that labeled creationism as lacking any scientific basis.  As a consequence, NPS staff has no official guidance as to how to answer questions from the public concerning topics such as creationists' "young earth" claims. Further, media inquiries to the Grand Canyon superintendent seeking an official statement on the geologic age of the Canyon have produced replies such as "no comment" and referral of the reporter to NPS Headquarters.

This is a reference to an updated version of the long-stalled pamphlet for interpretive staff titled "National Park Service Geologic Interpretive Programs: Distinguishing Science from Religion". The superintendent mentioned is presumably a reference to Superintendent Joe Alston, who had earlier ordered the removal of the bronze plaques after being contacted by the ACLU and who had tried to block the sale of the creationist book. The "media inquiries" mentioned apparently refers to the contact by Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times, who had covered the story earlier.

That, I suspect, is the tiny kernel of truth. Unfortunately, what grew from this seed was an extremely misleading falsehood.

In a sense, the National Park Service was not telling park rangers to reject the Noah's flood story, because the NPS had blocked the publication of a pamphlet for the rangers that would have done just that.

So, we have two facts:

  1. The NPS has not issued guidance to their interpretive staff about how to answer questions about the age of the Grand Canyon.
  2. The NPS superintendent declined to answer a reporter's question and referred her to headquarters.

If you wanted to interpret these in the worst possible way, then you could claim that the NPS has no official position on the age of the Grand Canyon. It's a stretch, but I suppose you could argue that.

Then you could argue that not telling rangers to reject the flood story is the same thing as telling rangers not to reject the flood story. You could argue that, but you would be wrong.

Going from that to the claim that the NPS was ordering their rangers to not answer questions about the age of the Grand Canyon stretches the truth beyond the breaking point.

I've been a fan of PEER for a few years now, regularly reading my father-in-law's copies of their newsletter (although I haven't yet joined myself). This incident has been quite disappointing.

I think I understand why it happened, and it's a danger that I've tried to to avoid when writing about paranormal and pseudoscience topics (or even politics). Here is what can happen:

You're making an argument in favor of or in opposition to some position. You have point #1, which is rock solid and very convincing. You have point #2, which is also rock solid and very convincing. And you have point #3, which again is rock solid and very convincing. But you can't leave it at that, so you throw in point #4, which is somewhat shaky.

The opposition zeros in on point #4, exposes its flaws, and soon it is shown to be wrong. "No problem," you think, "because points 1, 2, and 3 are still rock solid and very convincing."

But you're wrong. The controversy over point #4 has completely distracted everyone from points 1, 2, and 3. And when your point #4 was shown to be wrong, it made everyone doubt points 1-3. You've lost the argument.

Another part of the problem, I think, was the desire for the news release equivalent of a good sound bite. "Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees." That grabs the attention of the reader in the very first sentence! But it's also, at best, extremely misleading. PEER can debate about whether it is technically true, but if they have to explain to people why what they said isn't a lie, I think it's safe to say that their news release didn't achieve the desired effect.

Okay, so enough about PEER's exaggerated claim. Let's turn our attention to the claims which are true -- so far as we know. (See what one untruth can do to your credibility?) A creationist book is being sold in the Grand Canyon bookstores, bronze plaques containing Psalms are displayed on canyon overlooks, and a pamphlet for interpretive staff addressing the conflict between science and religion has been delayed for more than 4 years.

First, the book. Some have pointed out that the bookstore is operated by a private, non-profit organization, the Grand Canyon Association, not by the National Park Service. Therefore, the argument goes, there is no issue of church-state separation.

While it is true that the Grand Canyon Association is a separate entity, what it sells must be approved by the National Park Service. So, if you wish, the question isn't whether the Grand Canyon Association should sell the book, but is instead whether the National Park Service should approve the sale of the book.

Aside from the legal issue of separation of church and state, the reality is that I think most people would assume that books being sold in a national park's bookstores are being sold by the national park. We recognize that McDonald's is a separate entity, so we're not misled by its presence in a national park. A non-chain bookstore, on the other hand, can easily be mistaken for being an official part of the park.

Another argument made is that the book is being sold in the "inspirational" section of the store, so there's no implication that it is real science. This apparently wasn't always true, and it's unclear at this point whether it is true today. At least in the online version of the Grand Canyon Assocation's bookstore, the book originally was being sold in the "natural history" section. It later apparently became the only item in a new "inspirational" section. When I check the online store now, however, the "inspirational" section is missing and the book doesn't appear to be located in any of the categories. (When did that happen?) However, the book is still available if you check the alphabetical list of all books or if you do a search for "different view". Unfortunately, I have no idea where the book is located in the physical bookstores.

So, is it acceptable for the National Park Service to approve the sale of a creationist book?

This takes us back to the fact that books containing Native American myths are being sold there. Is it reasonable to allow the Native American myths while banning the Christian myths?

Let's imagine it's a thousand years in the future, in the year 3007. Christianity has pretty much died out and few people take it seriously anymore. Would a book relating the old myth that Noah's flood created the Grand Canyon be appropriate then? I think the answer would definitely be "yes". Of course, the book probably would not be sold in the "science" or "natural history" section.

Since Christianity in the U.S. is a near-monopoly religion with enormous power, things are more complicated than that.I can see valid arguments for both sides of this issue.

I think that I'm willing to accept the sale of this book in Grand Canyon bookstores so long as it is in a section that is clearly separate from the real science books.

Second, the bronze plaques. On the one hand, they've been there for 30-40 years. On the other hand, just because something has been inappropriate for a long time doesn't mean that it isn't inappropriate. The reality is that 30-40 years ago, atheists were quite reluctant to speak out. Times have changed. It's time for the plaques to go.

Third, the pamphlet. Answering religiously-charged questions is difficult. I suspect that park interpretive staff would be thankful for any guidance they could get. If the National Park Service is uncomfortable addressing these issues, imagine how uncomfortable the front-line staff must be. Publish the pamphlet!

Okay, so now we've come to the part where I again point to a post by hilzoy at Obsidian Wings, Hatred is a Poison, which begins with this quote from Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis:

"Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, 'Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,' or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?"

Finally, if you're wondering, "hey, how old is the Grand Canyon?", here's the answer from the National Park Service's Grand Canyon National Park web site:

The oldest rocks at the canyon bottom are close to 2000 million years old. The Canyon itself - an erosional feature - has formed only in the past five or six million years.

So now you know.

Update: PEER's blog now includes a post addressing the controversy.

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January 23, 2007 in Creationism and Evolution | Permalink


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It's not necessary to take down the plaques, just open up the exibits instead. I'm sure there are a few Native American tribes, and an atheist organization or two, that would love to have their own inspirational words on plaques near the Grand Canyon. I don't see the harm, I think the Canyon is large enough to host a few more.

Posted by: One Brow | Jan 24, 2007 9:07:06 AM

The big difference is that the books with Native American creation legends weren't written by a bunch of people with (often fake) PhDs trying to convince people that their crazy stories are true. That probably has no bearing on the legality of approving the book for sale, but still it strikes me as the part that's most frightening about the incident. I really don't care about the plaques too much.

Posted by: King Aardvark | Feb 7, 2007 8:17:00 AM

I think mister Aardvark touched upon a very important point. The Hindu and Native American myths are not being presented as facts in conflict with science.
I don't think Myths, being presented as facts, in conflict with science, as in "...A Different View," have ANY place in a national park.

However, I don't entirely agree with this position:
"...just because something has been inappropriate for a long time doesn't mean that it isn't inappropriate."
Though I haven't seen them, they seem more like cultural relics than offenses to reason. As relics, it would be easy to construct an argument for their preservation.
Obviously, everything can't be saved for the sake of cultural preservation, but I can't see how a surviving plaque would be any worse than the biblical passage on the liberty bell (also on a national park).

Posted by: Matt | Jun 4, 2007 3:52:55 PM

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