When Political Sensitivities and Science Collide with Religion

grand canyon

A decade ago, controversy erupted after it was revealed that a creationist book was being sold in six bookstores at the Grand Canyon National Park. It was a biblical explanation of the Grand Canyon. As Cornelia Dean reported in the New York Times,

the book says God created the heavens and the earth in six days, 6,000 years ago, and that the canyon formed in a flood God caused in order to wipe out “the wickedness of man.” The geology of the canyon proves it, the books’ contributors say.

That’s complete bunk, as Dean went on to lay out in the next paragraph. Nonetheless, the creationist text was made available to park visitors because it offered what the person in charge of the bookstores called a “divergent viewpoint.”  That rankled geologists. The story remained in the news for years, in part due to one environmental group that wanted to make political hay of it. (The group wrongly traced the decision to keep the book in the bookstore to the Bush Administration, an assertion that many accepted at face value, perhaps because it fit a certain narrative.) In any case, amidst all the uproar there wasn’t much discussion of the Native American creationist myths that were also on sale at the Grand Canyon National Park bookstores.

For some reason, science advocates who chafe at a biblical story of the Grand Canyon aren’t much bothered  by American Indian creation tales that are remarkably similar, if you look closely.

Why the double standard? Perhaps it’s because we view the Native American relationship to the Grand Canyon in more cultural or anthropological terms, as Arizona State University explains:

One of the ways in which we trace Native American links to the Grand Canyon is through creation stories and other legends that have been carried down for centuries.

In other words, these are just quaint, harmless folk tales that nobody really takes seriously (wink, wink). Ah, but the contemporary Indian tribes that live in the Southwest take their origins very, very seriously. And because of this there are consequences for science, as I’ve written about on numerous occasions. (Indeed, the 2004 New York Times article I cite at the beginning of this post notes that “collisions between ideology and scholarship are nothing new at the Park Service.”)

What got me thinking again of all this was an excellent column in this week’s Science Times by George Johnson. An excerpt:

While biblical creationists opposing the teaching of evolution have been turned back in case after case, American Indian tribes have succeeded in using their own religious beliefs and a federal law called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to empty archaeological museums of ancestral bones — including ones so ancient that they have no demonstrable connection to the tribe demanding their reburial. The most radical among them refuse to bow to a science they don’t consider their own. A few even share a disbelief in evolution, professing to take literally old myths in which the first people crawled out of a hole in the ground.

In this turn back toward the dark ages, it is not just skeletal remains that are being surrendered. Under the federal law, many ceremonial artifacts are also up for grabs. While some archaeologists lament the loss of scientific information, Indian creationism is tolerated out of a sense of guilt over past wrongdoings.

In Johnson’s piece, he quotes Southwestern archaeologist Steve Lekson as one of the scientists willing to tolerate this tradeoff. When I interviewed Lekson in 2010 for a special Science magazine package on the 20th anniversary of NAGPRA, he was deeply conflicted but also unflinchingly honest, as this brief exchange illustrates:

KK: What about NAGPRA’s impact on archaeology? What is being lost to science?

SL: Osteological analysis–analyses of human remains really are a key part of archaeology everywhere else in the world. But we don’t do that now. Osteological archaeology is not a growth industry in North America. We just don’t do that. The other part of this that concerns me more, actually, is in the interpretive arena. In my research I am finding out things, I believe, that Pueblo people don’t want to hear, and my findings may be edited by writers, or rangers, or museums hyper-sensitive to NAGPRA issues. I’m pretty sure that those findings are already being ignored or edited in public arenas.

As I said to George Johnson on Twitter, I think Lekson is now resigned to these consequences. For a broader look at what happens when political sensitivities and science collide with religion, read Johnson’s NYT column.


Photo credit: /Shutterstock

51 Responses to “When Political Sensitivities and Science Collide with Religion”

  1. mem_somerville says:

    Interesting. Earlier today I was reading about the Hawaiian taro protest too, sounds entirely parallel to this.

    Either way, the ancient Hawaiians didn’t believe that changing the taro was a bad thing. That was completely made up as a way to oppose GMO taro, for whatever end goals that was to achieve.

  2. Keith Kloor says:

    This post has nothing to do with climate change. So to the commenter who just left a snide remark totally unrelated to this post: I deleted it.

  3. grackle1 says:

    Interesting. I’ve often thought about this issue in another realm, namely, all the Biblical creationists who demand teaching of creationism in a science class as a “divergent viewpoint” who would be totally furious at the idea of teaching Native American or other myths as “divergent viewpoints” right alongside the Biblical one. I’ve heard such people say no, THOSE stories are just as wrong as they think evolution is! They want to have their cake and eat it too.

  4. Uncle Al says:

    The Snake River Gorge is a thousand feet height of nicely layered proof of the Great Flood, albeit in basalt flows and volcanic tufa deposits. Are you going to believe your own lying eyes or various versions of divine scripture?



  5. Cheri says:

    I believe I have the same right to purchase books that line up with Christianity, as a Darwinist has a right to purchase books on evolution. freedom of religion is still a fundamental right, and when another group decides they can control what I think, then they are exposing their hatred for those that are different than they are. Wars are fought because one group decides to eliminate another. Let the people decide what they want…not politics. When I no longer have the right to chose, humanity will have died and we may as well be robots.


  6. neilcadman says:

    People who hate God must deny his attributes, especially that he is the Creator. Neverthless God is truth, Jesus is truth. God created the
    heavens and the earth in six days..Plenty of scientists agree. The fool
    says, “there is no God.”

  7. The tragedy is that humans still believe in their myths. Which god is real? Zeus? Ra? Jesus? The answer is that the gods are only real in the minds of believers. In fact, none exist anywhere else. People in the U.S. certainly can buy any book they want to, true or not. You can call me a “fool”, neilcadman, but there really is no god. It’s all make believe. Wasting your resources following a superstition is laughable. The evidence for evolution, i.e. the world is way, way older than the age set forth in the christian bible, is significant.

  8. JH says:

    As Lekson’s experience hints, many archaeologists rely very heavily on good will from tribes to do their work. If that good will disappears because of the emergence of distasteful scientific results, those archeologists could be cut off from their primary information resource.

    Most people aren’t aware of it but, beyond the academic realm there is also a cottage industry of consulting archaeologists and cultural historians who do most of their business with tribes. Because of their close working relationship and unique position, they’re often involved in tribal culture and thus tribal life is also part of their lifestyle. I’ve worked with archeologists in that position and they’re extremely nervous about anything that might upset their revenue and lifestyle.

  9. JonFrum says:

    It’s old news that liberals are caught on the horns of a dilemma they created. All non-white people are victims, who must be patronized. But Christians are the hated enemy, who must be driven into the dustbin of history. When science goes up against the worship of the non-white, science just have to give way.

  10. Benjamin Edge says:

    Or another manifestation in the protest of the TMT Observatory on Mauna Kea. If the same sensitivity had been shown to Hawaiians as Southwest Native Americans, what damage could it have done to the study of astronomy and the space program?


  11. Ortiz Jose says:

    wat scientist agree,give me a name and wat area of science he work in?….cause that sr. is the most bs argument ever…”scientist agree god exist” lol that got to be a joke,god is the ignorance of knowledge

  12. Taf Maestro Chiganze says:

    Amen to that brother. We are spiritual beigns. Why is there good and bad. Angels and devils. Ghosts. Its all much deeper than humans attempts to make the illogical logical and calling it science.

    The way dolphins can interact with people. Monkeys are related to humans. All that from a bang.

    I don’t know if you see a firework it disappears and it fizzles out after a 10 minute show.

    Why are people so afraid of snakes?

  13. John Barba says:

    Interesting comparison and I agree about the imposed white guilt bit. But I’m not feeling guilty myself. As for politics and science, Science is the handmaiden of the funder. As for creationists, try this; God created the heavens and the earth, true but the Bible is not and was never meant to be a book of science, it’s a collection of literature expressing Gods love for us. If you can get past that and you will really experience spiritual growth, because you can have faith AND reason.

  14. rrocklin says:

    Believe what you want but this has nothing to do with scientific facts.

  15. rrocklin says:

    I guess we should require books on witch craft, devil worship, and voodoo to be sold to show a balanced alternative viewpoint.

  16. rrocklin says:

    This was the result of the failure of the ice dam on an ancient lake just like the scab lands in eastern Washington. Do a little research before invoking divine intervention.

  17. Steven says:

    who are you to say how long 1 of gods days are? But you cant deny the facts. The earth is that old, so either your god is delibertely lying to us and playing games like a petty child angry that his puppy doesnt want to play with him. Oh wait even a child wouldnt kill the puppy for not loving him.

  18. Jim LeSire says:

    Regardless of who is ultimately correct, the US government cannot promote or discourage any religious beliefs and is only allowed to make statements which have no religious content. Science is not religion any more than history is. Therefore, at an American National Park, only the point of view that science presents can be offered.

  19. neilcadman says:

    And by what authority do you speak Ricardo Small? There is no evidence for evolution . There are however facts of creation ie. science, which are interpreted in the light of atheism. This is self contradictory and foolishness. It is easy to disprove evolution. Computer programming is based on yes – no answers or decisions:on -off switches. Therefore a should be possible for a computer program, if evolution were true, to be able to form a program on its own This will never happen without intellectual input.. Likewise evolution cannot happen without intellectual input. Things can devolve as they do in accordance with the laws of Creation (Newton’s 2nd Law of Thermodynamics) but they never evolve due to an increase in information.Sometimes a devolved organism may have a temporary advantage.e.g greyhounds, which are devolved organisms God says, “The fool says, “There is no God…They are abominably wicked.”

  20. gregorymark says:

    No God, no absolute objective truth. No absolute objective truth, no science. I won’t call you a fool, but I do consider your statement irrational.

  21. gregorymark says:

    The conventional explanation of the formation of the Grand Canyon is that it occurred over a very long time through the erosion caused by the Colorado River. Another explanation is to consider the possibility of a catastrophic event which cut the canyon in a very short time. Despite evidence that a catastrophic event might explain the formation of the Grand Canyon, such a possibility runs contrary to the “mythology” of conventional wisdom.


  22. hilbert90 says:

    This was refuted around 400 BC with Plato’s Euthyphro. I suggest you do a little reading before considering the statement irrational.

  23. Uncle Al says:

    Water floods do not lay down basalt flows.

  24. rrocklin says:

    Volcanoes do then water erodes the deposit and redistributes them.

  25. Nom de Plume says:

    How would you feel about building a particle accelerator on the Gettysburg battlefield? How about an observatory complex atop Mount Rushmore? Even atheists have places they hold sacred. Acknowledging this and attempting a solution that takes this into account is not a concession to belief, but respect for those who hold them.

  26. jcmmanuel says:

    The author is apparently shocked -that in a civilized country we would allow drum-banging savages with their ridiculous superstitions” as a rational argument. Well, there is something to say against this.

    This author of this article is a journalist I think, he’s probably not very familiar with the history of cultures, religions and so on. To put science “against” religion this way may be ‘the atheist way’ to do away with respect for cultures, or it may be because of something else, I don’t even care. But whatever the motivation or background of this writing is, things need to be distinguished properly. There can be no doubt that there is little room for creationism in the real world (to put it mildly) but that’s quite a different thing than taking care of how we treat people and their ancient traditions and cultures. The real problem here is not creationism (that’s just a misinterpretation by a certain group – it is not the essential issue). The problem is that scientists sometimes thing they can just dig up everything that is sacred to other people. And this is NOT exactly what science is for.

    I still have to meet the first person who can convince me – with a decent, solid argument – that science was meant to crush traditions, habits, culture, or even religions just like that. (PS. Mind you, I’m atheist myself – but I’m not the kind of atheist who would superimpose my atheism upon humankind’s science). Science includes the science of being human, being social (a.k.a. the human sciences, the social sciences). If people do the absolutely wrong thing in the name of religion, it is our justice systems that will deal with it – and our ethicists etc. – not any “scientific argument” which in reality could be an anti-religious or anti-cultural argument disguised as a “scientific” argument.

    Traditions are connected to people’s identity, and all people everywhere will have grow up at their own pace. So I think I’ll cut our native americans a lot of slack at this point.

  27. Brandy Nolan says:

    Yes the Bible states in Geniuses that God created the Earth in 6 days but I know that elsewhere in this great book ( I forget where) that one dayto us is like a thousand or maybe a million to God.

    Just a random thought….
    God is just a higher being that evolved beyond our petty human existence…and since we were made in his image, our ultimate goal is to evolve to his level of existence.

  28. Buddy199 says:

    Good article. Why the cultural hyper-sensitivity toward some religons and not others? A very interesting question that would probably be very uncomfortable for many people if they thought it all the way through.

  29. I would so like to see these ideas expanded into a doctrine.
    God has evolved and we must follow or be damned.

  30. Guest says:

    I’m a scientist, whose mother was Native American. My mother did not believe in this superstitious nonsense nor do I. Why must science take a back seat to a few self appointed activist Native American spokesmen? They don’t speak for me. Catering to the superstition of Native Americans, Born Again Christians, Muslims, and other religious groups interferes with the rights of those of us who do not practice religious superstition. Why do the rights of a few seem to always trump the rights of the majority just to assuage their views. The brainless government people always make decisions based upon political considerations.

  31. bob says:

    That’s a great right to have…and it’s only a recent one for American Indians in this country. Their religion (as well as many cultural practices) were illegal for decades.

  32. bob says:

    The only relevant attributes to reject are just that the god of Abraham (i.e. Christianity, Judaism, Islam) just happens to resemble a stereotypical western kinship system. Coincidence? No. There is not a scientist alive that uses scientific ideology to justify their belief in god. Not a one. I’m not saying they can’t be a scientist and a believer but it is impossible to use science to justify the existence of god.

  33. bob says:

    1) The “Genius” chapter is my favorite 😉
    2) Nowhere in the bible does it say anything like “one day to us is like a thousand or maybe a million”
    3) You’re suggesting that we’ll evolve to be gods? Sweet!

  34. bob says:

    I don’t object to this book being offered alongside all the other creation stories. They’re all of the same category – mythology about the Grand Canyon. As long as the government isn’t promoting one over the other it should be fine.

  35. bob says:

    I guess a “great flood” could take millions of years and still be considered a “flood” – it’s all in how you define your terms. Nobody will ever agree with it but you could in theory make that argument; it’d just be a weak one.

  36. bob says:

    You seem to be the only one that got the intent of the article!

  37. bob says:

    No evidence for evolution? I guess that’s true…but only if you’re put into a box as a baby and never allowed to interact with a human being in your entire life. Then, in your complete state of ignorance, you can honestly say to yourself (though you won’t have language), “there is no evidence for evolution”.

    Creationism and science have nothing to do with one another. You cannot ever, ever, ever, ever (see how important this is!) offer evidence in support of creationism. When you know the answer before you even ask the question it isn’t science.

    I’m not sure where your computer programming metaphor is coming from or where it’s going. It failed. Miserably.

    You obviously have no clue what evolution actually means based on your horrendous analogies.There is no such thing as devolution (unless you’re talking about a government granting more self-governance to a lower body) – there is only change over time as a response to different pressures.

    My last question, which no person has ever been able to answer, “why should I follow your god over someone else’s?”

  38. Kris Cherry Eice Youngless-Col says:

    So you don’t believe everything was created by evolution? Like maybe this planet is just a science experiment by some advanced creature who got bored and left because it was taking too long to evolve into something interesting. So in other words, “God” is a scientist. Which would explain the cold attitude towards us destroying ourselves and our planet, eh ?

  39. Don't Even Try It! says:

    I would rather believe in God and find out He doesn’t exist, than to not believe in God and find out He does exist!

  40. Don't Even Try It! says:

    God’s reality is based on Faith 😉

  41. J_R_K says:

    Personally, I think it’s a shame that scientist and Christians, and now I suppose I must add, Native American religious believers, continue to walk all over each other whenever they can… Is God a myth? Well, why is evolution not a myth given that the most outstanding characteristic of the so called (no longer called , I guess) missing link is that it is still missing? All I mean is that evolution is still theory. Creationism as it is presented is also pretty much theoretical as it also cannot be proven (Well, there is that one little thing… you know… “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…..BANG!!)

    Honestly, though, all kidding aside, any one wanting to know the truth would look for it any way they can… at least, that’s my personal theory… But to declare that there is no God… upon what scientific evidence is that claim made? Who has proven scientifically that there is no God? Why is it any more logically accurate to just declare there is no God just because you don’t believe there is than to declare there is a God because you believe their is?

    Having said all that, I think that book claiming to that the Grand Canyon came into being exactly at the time of the flood of Noahs time is kind of silly. Also, I am not to sure the Colorado River did it either. For all I know, it was there in the beginning and the river flows there because water always flows down the easiest path. I really do not personally know. But I think it’s silly for science and religious faith to butt heads when neither can actually prove their case.

  42. J_R_K says:

    Well said.

  43. Evolution’s “theory” is based on verifiable physical evidence, not the scriblings of superstitious people thousands of years ago that describe magical events like virgin birth. Evolution actually is proven. Those religious books of old form the mistaken “truth” of today’s three dominant monotheisms, because none of the magical events in those books is based on any physical evidence. It is tragic that so many humans devote so much of their resources to mythological endeavors. I say retire some of the religious buildings like churches, synagogues and mosques and invite the homeless to move in. Sell the religious groups other real estate holdings and use the proceeds to pay for education, health care, food, clothes and other needs of the poor. I once reviewed the value of the catholic church’s real estate in and around Tucson, Arizona. The total assessor’s value was in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and the assessor’s value is often lower than market value in and around Tucson.

  44. J_R_K says:

    “Evolution actually is proven” Please name for me a single animal or vegetable whose evolutionary chain has been fully uncovered… the one that has not a single missing link? Evolution is accepted as fact, but has never been proven, which if one is to be honest, is absolutely (pardon the expression) intellectually hypocritical from a scientist who requires proof… if evolution has been proven, where is the proof? I am not asking for the opinions of intellectually contemptuous scientist or atheist… where is the scientific evidence that proves beyond any doubt that evolution is true.

    Science has given us some facts: The so-called Big Bang… how is it that Moses, who wrote Genesis, knew that creation began in a single instant over 4500 years ago.. science is just catching up. The writers of the old testament knew that the world was a circle, suspended upon nothing when intellectuals still thought it was flat. Please explain why science is playing catch up to the Bible.

    You said “I once reviewed the value of the catholic church’s real estate in and around Tucson, Arizona. The total assessor’s value was in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and the assessor’s value is often lower than market value in and around Tucson.” … Please tell me that you are not one of those atheists folks who think the assets of the Catholic church should be turned over to you and like minded people for dispensation. I am not Catholic so I suppose I could say I don’t have a horse in that race, but I must also say that sounds just about exactly how Hitler felt about Jews and Christians who defended them.

  45. Of course catholic assets should not be turned over to me. If truly spiritual, instead of really being focused on wealth and property, the catholic church should liquidate assets on its own and devote the wealth to helping down trodden people.

    There is a mountain of evidence that evolution is true. By arguing against that truth, are you suggesting that creation by an invisible deity is true?

    While you might dismiss Dawkins’ writing as quickly as I discard the bible’s veracity, you might read this book: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.

  46. J_R_K says:

    I have a question for you. Assuming that Einstein was correct, that if you were to move through space at the speed of light two things would happen: 1) Time would cease to pass or exist and 2) your mass would become infinite, filling all of space-time simultaneously…. the question is this: Is it possible for a life form to exist on that plane? If it did, it would perceive all of time as a singular thing, and it would do so, forever. What would you call it?

    Of course, that is just a hypothetical question, but given the infinite largeness and infinite smallness of the physical existence of the universe, I can think of no reason why the existence of such a being should not be possible. If such a being did exist, what would be the limits of it’s power, and what would you call it?

    I have not read Dawkins book, but I believe I am familiar enough with his ideas to know that while he presents a very good argument in some ways, in other ways, his complete lack of understanding of the Bible, for example, he is very much like a talking fish declaring that there is no such thing as dry land, there can be no such thing as life on dry land. To Dawkins, could there be a more profound statement than “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy, Dawkins” (ok. the statement, if I remember right was originally addressed to Horatio, but Dawkins is much more of a philosopher than scientist and his philosophy is slanted in the direction of his own subjective beliefs.

    To answer your question, do I believe in creation by an invisible deity.. .. well, I can see the creation. It does exist, it came from somewhere, or from nowhere. Which is more likely? The problem is that when we consider that question, both science and philosophy are involved in the thinking, like it or not. Science claims the big bang, it just happened, don’t know why, cannot explain how all the something of creation came from the nothing that existed before it. What banged and who banged it? Now enter philosophy: In the beginning, God. Science and philosophy.. it seems to me that neither can adequately disprove the other. But,if I err, I err on the side that something cannot come from nothing, and if it did, behold the universe and all of life as we know it and the mathematical odds against that life upon a rock like this earth in it’s orbit, all the things that would have to line up and cooperate for this wonderful accident to happen… from nothing? Yeah, I do believe in God, even if I don’t have all the answers, like science. At the same time, I am a huge fan of science, believe it or not, always have been. But there is a difference between that which is proven and that which is theoretically postulated. Dawkins has not done away with that difference, he only denies it with his own subjective view point which denies the mathematical odds of all of creation as it is happening by a time plus matter plus chance accident.

    Final statement: Assuming that evolution has create life on earth, you and me.. what guided it? Life on earth is far to intricate and interdependent to have come about by process of “natural selection” as if that process itself were not guided by some force force greater than mathematical odds. Organic ife did not come from nothing to begin with, it certainly did not grow into what we know all on it’s own… the odds against that happening with all the intricate inter-dependency that we all see is just a whole lot harder for some of us to believe than it is to believe “In the beginning God”

  47. JH says:

    Hey bud, your avatar is offensive. IMO, it’s a threat to the President. It should be removed, by Disqus if not by you.

  48. JH says:

    I flagged your comment because your avatar is offensive. I’ll keep flagging your comments until it’s removed.

  49. Don't Even Try It! says:

    As you have the right to flag my comments, you have the right to be offended and I have the First Amendment right of expression and the right to offend you. Be offended my friend, that is your right and if you don’t like it, grow a thicker skin!

  50. Perizade says:

    There really is no double standard. Native Americans are trying to preserve their culture after centuries of forcible erosion. Christian Creationists are trying to convince everyone that their beliefs are valid, research based science. They are trying to force their views in public schools. Their impact is quite different from that of Native Americans. Until just now, I hadn’t heard Pueblo beliefs, but I haven’t been able to escape Christian Creationist beliefs.

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