By Leonard Krishtalka
Here is a thought experiment. You are a biology professor grading the following multiple choice question on a final exam: “Mammals that chew their cud are: (a) whales and porpoises, (b) pigs, (c) rabbits, (d) duck-billed platypus; (e) none of the above.
The correct answer is (e). None of the named mammals is a ruminant. None chews its cud, a mass of plant food that is semi-digested in the first chamber of a ruminant’s four-chambered stomach and regurgitated into the mouth for more chewing.
A day after the graded exams are handed back, a student who circled “(c) rabbits” demands credit for a correct answer. The student, a devout, sincere believer in the inerrancy of biblical scripture, cites Leviticus 11, verse 6 (“the rabbit, because he cheweth the cud”), then hands you a copy of Kansas House Bill 2384, Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act.
Absurd? Not according to legal experts who have studied the legislation. Under this bill, modern zoology could place an undue burden on the student’s “sincerely held religious tenant or belief.”
So could modern genetics, to any science student or teacher who holds fast to the story in Genesis 30 of Jacob and the goats. It is written that Jacob bred striped, speckled and spotted goats from all-white parents. How? He had the male and female parents stare at striped, speckled and spotted tree branches prior to mating. People at that time believed in the inheritance of visual cues — if a female goat saw spots or stripes before mating or giving birth, the kid was likely to inherit spots or stripes. It would take a few thousand years before Gregor Mendel, the Austrian scientist and Augustinian monk, and later workers established that genes, not pre-viewed scenes, coded for the physical traits of offspring.
Is it the intention of the Kansas Freedom of Religion Act to have archaic notions pass for modern science in the classroom? Almost assuredly not. It’s doubtful the Kansas House promulgated the bill so it could be used by students and teachers to defend the taxonomy of bats as fowl (Leviticus 11:19) or the bird blood alternative cure for leprosy (Leviticus 14) or the mathematical value of pi being 3 on the money (30/10 cubits, Chronicles 4:2) instead of a messier 3.14159.
No. As George Will recently put it, “Controversies can be wonderfully clarified when people follow the logic of illogical premises to perverse conclusions.” You can follow the logic of the bill’s illogical premises to no end of perverse conclusions in zoology, genetics, math, and medicine. Under the bill, no piece of modern science is safe in schools, libraries and museums — at least no piece that has a ready scriptural reference to the contrary. To a biblical literalist, Genesis recounts the Earth is flat, geologically young (about 5,000–10,000 years) and at the center of the solar system, instead of round, old (4.5 billion years) and in orbit around the sun. Then there is the creation-evolution business. The point here is not whether Hebrew or Greek linguistic gymnastics can make scripture square with modern science –– it should not have to. The point is that the bill unwittingly invites the selective misuse of scripture by anyone who wishes to opt out of modern science.
“Unwittingly” is the key word. The likely target of the legislation is not science. As others have commented, the bill is aimed at two frontline sexual issues in the culture wars between the secular and the religious. First, same-sex couples: Can a Christian landlord cite scriptural belief to deny housing to gay tenants? Second, can a pro-life pharmacist refuse to fill an order for contraceptive pills?
Unfortunately, whether it’s science or the culture wars, the bill appears to bless pick-and-choose beliefs — pick and choose your scriptural verse to ordain a particular stance. For example: Would the same devout, anti-gay landlord turn away prospective tenants who cook and eat pork or shellfish, given the explicit scriptural proscription of both as unclean? Not likely — although the possibility is at once frightening and farcical. So would be the apparent right of an orthodox Jewish landlord to restrict tenancy to those who strictly observe Leviticus’ litany of kosher commandments. Completing the Abrahamic trifecta, let’s not forget the Islamic literalist potentially spurning “immodest” women tenants who do not cover the head and face with a scarf or burqa. Perverse? Not really. Check out the recent legal and political firestorms over Islamic dress in Quebec, Europe, Turkey and the United Kingdom.
The legislation, approved by the Kansas House on March 28, is temporarily dormant, awaiting Senate consideration. Let it sleep.
— Leonard Krishtalka is director of the Biodiversity Institute and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Kansas University