August 18, 2008

Bible Colleges: Keeping America Ignorant and Fearful

Liberty University may be America's best-known madrassa, but it is by no means the only one. Fundamentalist institution with the same sort of rancid flavor dot our landscape, working every day to insure that fresh crops of the fearful and ignorant will always be available to hold back progress and keep our nation bellicose and hypocritical.

Such an institution is Tennessee Bible College of Cookeville, Tennessee. Amongst its core values are that Islam is the work of Satan and condones the sexual molestation of children; that Catholicism denigrates Biblical teachings and that clapping one's hands in church is anti-Christian. Make no mistake, this is one hardcore Fundamentalist institution; students won't even be admitted before they've passed a test of their Biblical knowledge (TBC Catalog, Admission Requirements, page 14).

It comes as no surprise, then, to find that this purveyorship of spooky learning is offering a course that teaches, amongst other nonsense, that the acceptance of evolutionary biology as scientific fact is the equivalent of murderous intent and amorality:

Creation VS Evolution To Be Taught

It's an issue being addressed in a new biology course offered this fall at Tennessee Bible College with guest instructor Ray Tenpenny of McMinnville, who'll be on the Cookeville campus Mondays from 1-4 p.m., Sept. 8-Nov. 19.

Tenpenny holds bachelor's and master's degrees in biology from Tennessee Technological University, as well as a bachelor's degree in religious education from Tennessee Bible College. He has taught biology and science at various schools, including Motlow Community College in McMinnville, Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, and high schools in Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta, Ga. He has also worked for the Centers For Disease Control in Atlanta.

"With his background in both biology and the Bible, Brother Tenpenny is well qualified to teach this course at Tennessee Bible College," said TBC dean Kerry Duke...

"If you think, as the atheists do, that life arose spontaneously — that we all evolved from a single source and there is no God — then what real basis do you have for saying that it's wrong to kill a human being but okay to kill a mouse or a fly?" Duke said. "If you look at it from a biblical point of view, you realize that life is a gift from God and that human beings are above the animals."

He added, "Things have changed so much in this country. It used to be against the law in Tennessee to teach the theory of evolution. The Scopes Monkey Trial (Dayton, Tenn., 1925) is a good example of that. But now it's against the law to teach creation in public schools..."
I have no idea what Ray Tennpenny might have done for the Centers for Disease Control; a search of the CDC website as well as one of PubMed turns up nothing at all with his name on it. For all I know, he was likely a lab technician or perhaps swept up after hours, but he doesn't appear to have his name on any publications. I did find a rather crackpot osteopath named Sherri Tenpenny, however, who talks about using "inside information" from the CDC to justify not having children vaccinated. I have no idea if there's any connection between Ray and Sherri Tenpenny, though, so I'll steer back from this diversion and just address the purely Biblical crackpot.

That Tennessee Bible College should offer a course given by a crank comes as no great surprise, and whether or not he has some degree in biology isn't really relevant to the issue at hand. The fact is, it doesn't appear he's done much with it and, in fact, he's spent at least the last decade not studying or working in biology at all. Instead, he's been taking Bible courses at TBC and even established a scholarship there in his own name expressly to "assist people in learning more about the Bible." Rather than being a scientific investigator, Tenpenny "...attends Bethany Church of Christ in McMinnville and sometimes fills in as preacher." Whatever degree he may have earned long ago, Tenpenny isn't a scientist and hasn't been one in decades (if ever). The other four-year college listed in the article is also a madrassa. Freed-Hardeman University, like TBC, is a Church of Christ outfit that, to put it mildly, places a premium on religious obedience. Tenpenny — and I'm sure his classes are worth exactly what his name implies, scientifically speaking — has been at this Creationism bit for a long time.

In doing so, his course will raise the usual ignorant, fear-inspiring and hypocritical question about evolutionary theory and atheism. That is, if one doesn't posit a special place for humanity insured by the act of special Creation by Jehova, then one is a potential killer who doesn't see human life as qualitatively different from that of insects. It's the same constantly-repeated religious insistence that morality can only exist with a specific religious basis. It's a garbage charge that's been answered time and time again, but Tenpenny and Tennessee Bible College and various skyghost-insisting fruitcakes keep flinging it about as if nobody's ever been able to answer the question. They thus insure the existence of an enemy, a big, bloody-fanged boogeyman that diverts attention away from the big, bloody-fanged boogeyman that they worship.

So, what the heck, let's answer this idiocy one more time.

The basis of human morality is not religion, but the evolution of social behavior. Even the great apes have a degree of morality, which in turn is based on empathy. The evolution of the prefrontal cortex in humans has allowed us to take this to a greater degree of development precisely because it has allowed us to think in abstract terms in ways that other animals cannot. That is to say, both humans and other primates are capable of empathy. We can respond to the emotional states of our fellows by taking cues from their facial expressions, body language, sounds, etc. The big leap in humans is that we can imagine the ramifications of our actions before we actually take them and what the emotional state of another human being will be because of those actions. This is a wonderful byproduct of the evolution of social behavior as a key to the success of humanity as a species. In addition to our tool use and generally big brains, we have neural circuitry devoted to nothing but mirroring the emotions of others, and we put that circuitry into play not only when we've actually done a thing but when we merely contemplate doing it.

That isn't to say that we don't have purely selfish, even animalistic, drives. We clearly do, and there are individuals among us who are deficient in their ability to empathize. Such people don't feel guilt for harming others. We call them psychopaths. No amount of religious training turns a psychopath into a decent human being; they will always act selfishly and will cause harm to others so long as they believe that they derive some benefit. Ted Bundy, Dennis Rader, and most recently Alabama preacher Anthony Hopkins are all very good examples of such people. The existence of such people demonstrate that the ability to empathize is pre-requisite to morality, whether or not moral lessons are delivered by religion or any other external source.

Now, I can only use myself as an example. I won't presume to know what goes on in the mind of another as well as I know what happens in my own mind.

When I feel anger toward another human being, when I feel jealousy or lust or any other emotion, I don't simply act them out. The rising of such feelings is accompanied by the consideration of what acting upon them would do to another person, and that consideration is, in turn, based upon my own knowledge of how I would be affected if someone else took the same action upon me. All of this happens without effort on my part; I don't force myself to think about it. The process initiates itself. Thus, when someone angers me, there's a primal part of me that says, "Let's pick up a rock and bash that son of a bitch's head in." On the other hand, there's another part that says, "That person is more than a target for your momentary rage. He also feels pain. He loves others and is loved by others. Other people depend on him, just as they depend on you. You, too, sometimes inspire anger in others, and they may want to bash your head in from time to time. How would that feel? What would it do to the people who care for you?" The net result is that I have never killed anyone and, unless absolutely forced to, I doubt that I ever will.

Note that I don't take time out to pray about this. The internal dialogue that I've written out above isn't a literal thing; I don't hear a little voice that says words to me. It happens as quickly as the speed of thought. Nor is there a fear of external authority, including but not limited to some omnipotent deity watching everything I do and dangling me over some eternal stewpot like a piece of meat. Real morality, and real free will, comes from the ability to see the value in another's life, not from concerns over reprisal. Even the most amoral psychopath in the world will restrain his actions if he believes that he'll be caught and punished. That's not morality, that's simply fear.

I find it rather telling, though, that this Fundamentalist version of morality doesn't see the value in the lives of creatures which aren't human. The short answer to Duke's charge that someone like me doesn't see a difference in killing a human and killing an animal, and that it's "OK" to kill a mouse or a fly, is that he doesn't have the first notion of what he's talking about. In fact, I don't think it's "OK" to kill any animal. It may be a necessary act when done to provide food or to gain access to knowledge that will benefit not only my species but others as well, but it isn't something that I, as a person who routinely sacrifices a few insects to get a better idea of how their species came to be and live in the world today, think is "OK." I don't simply go about randomly killing even the smallest of creatures based on my not seeing value in their existence; I take what is necessary and hope to benefit what is not in the course of my research.

When there is a fly in my house, I open a window and shoo it outside. When there is a spider in my house, I let it be. When there are wild animals coming to my door, I'm more inclined to toss them a cookie than I am to put a bullet in them or scare them off. The more I understand of the history of life on earth, the more I come to know of the commonality that we humans share with all other life on this planet, the clearer it becomes to me how connected all of it is. I see the value in all life, even that which doesn't directly benefit me and for which there would be no penalty in its destruction, whether from legal authorities or religious hobgoblins. Every living thing on this planet has some role, some value, to the whole. Some of them seem to have value to one another. Birds and mammals appear to even love one another in many cases. Rather than placing humanity above other living things, then, I have come to see my species as one mode of existence on this planet that has a particular value which is strongest to me because it is most like my own (in fact, identical). It isn't a matter of being set apart by some special act of a deity; I understand it on an individual level and I therefore place a value in it. I thus do my best to cause as little harm to my fellow man as I possibly can and, instead, aim to provide some good with the tools I have at my disposal. This is what it is to be human, I think, or at least to be a good human.

By the same token as Duke and Tenpenny's fear-mongering question, which I hope I have answered, I pose another one. If life on earth is simply a dress rehearsal, a test for the afterlife, why is it wrong for the pious to kill one another? Part of the test is certainly suffering (see the Book of Job for more); why prolong that suffering? The pious undertake all sorts of actions in the belief that they do so as instruments of God's will. Why not just send one another to heaven, that perfect and unchanging Utopia where, according to the New Testament, "Him that believeth on Me shall never die"?

Thinking this way, it would become clear — were I a hypocrite of the calibre of Dean Duke or Ray Tenpenny — that all Christians are potential murderers, liable at any time of thinking that it was time to dispatch the righteous to their reward and the unrighteous to their punishment. For the most part, I don't have to live my life in such fearful circumstances, however, because I have the knowledge — not faith, not mystery, not prayer, not dusty books and raving preachers, but knowledge — that the vast majority of humans, be they Christian or atheist or Muslim or Jew, have been equipped by evolution itself with the ability, even the drive, to empathize with one another, at least to the degree that prevents us from running wild with torches and bludgeons through the streets. The "golden rule" is not a product of imposed authority but of the very stuff that makes us up. Only those who are deficient in this basic ingredient of what it is to be a fully functional human being need the fear of punishment and the commensurate parental surrogate to not be murderers, rapists and thieves.

When people put forth this question of morality, then, we are really hearing one of two things. Either they are telling us that they themselves are deficient in their ability to empathize with their fellow man and need to be warned away from doing terrible things, or else they are attempting to inspire fear in us of some of our fellows. The latter case doesn't exclude the former, of course, and the sowers of discord may well seek to reap benefit by causing harm to others, also demonstrating their own deficiency, their own substantial weakness, their own lack of humanity.

I don't know into which category Ray Tenpenny might fall, but I have no doubt that one or both describe his motivation in his continuing quest to mislead others. For so long as we humans believe that we need fear to inspire morality, there will always be men like Tenpenny who exploit the rest of us and there will always be those among us willing to be so exploited. When the day comes that our species finally sheds supernatural awe — and it will come someday — in favor of natural empathy, the Bible Colleges and churches and mosques will be preserved perhaps as archaeological curiosities, as illustrations of architecture, as primitive tokens of what mankind can accomplish when we work together as rational and empathic beings, even when we don't know why we're compelled to do so in the first place.

I won't be here to see it, and neither will you, but I think it will come someday. It will come without regard to the efforts of all the Bible Colleges and Fundamentalists and psychopaths in the world. These things are but fleeting moments in a much, much greater history that is far more beautiful, far more awesome, and far more accessible than anything dreamed up by religion.

Sphere: Related Content