Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Neanderthal Lady A Day Later

Yesterday, I went at the idea with a baseball bat that creationism was being furthered in German schools, and suggested anyone responsible for such shenanigans was trying to take us back to the Middle Ages. Actually, I drew a comparison with Neanderthals.

After poking around some more, I am finding (no surprise!) a more nuanced explanation for what is going on.

Some time ago, I attended a religion conference at the UC campus in which several historians, politicians and others from Germany participated. One of the interesting things that came out of that conference was the suggestion that Germany fills a spot somewhere between France and the United States in the way it handles religion.

In France, where the concept of laïcité, roughly translated as secularism, is a fundamental civil cultural value, religion simply has no place in the public sphere. In the United States, the two sides engaged in a cultural civil war bash each other over the head, one side demanding we live up to our tradition of church and state separation, the other side insisting this is a Christian nation and if there were such a thing as a Christian Sharia, it should supercede the U.S. Constitution.

Whether Germany is between France and the U.S. or simply a third point on a triangle when it comes to religion, it is more like the United States in its public embrace of religion than France. Its churches are supported by taxpayers, it has prayers before public or parliamentary events, and people don’t hesitate to speak openly of going to church and of wanting to keep Germany a Christian nation.

No sooner do I say that when I feel I need to back up and start over. There is considerable complexity in the details. Here's a sample:
  • For one thing, there is the question of numbers; far fewer Germans than Americans go to church. And while religious people are now careful to call Germany a Jewish and Christian nation, and not just a Christian one, many think that adjustment is of little consequence.
  • Willy Brandt was an atheist – and an atheist president is unthinkable in the United States.
  • There is lots of opposition to any suggestion that the Leitkultur – the “traditional German culture” (and that, presumably, includes religion) should be first and way ahead of the cultures of immigrants.
  • The belief by the German pope that Turkey must be kept out of the EU because it would dilute the christian identity of Europe is by no means universally shared.
But those are digressions for another day. The point here still holds that Germans are closer to the Americans in their inclination to let religion slip into the body politic now and again, as long as it doesn’t scare the horses.

But with a major difference.

The main speaker at that conference, Karsten Voigt, leading Socialist Party figure and German-American Cooperation coordinator in the German Foreign Office, claimed that Germans tend to see religion less as dogma requiring action and more as something quietly woven into the fabric of German culture, the source of the moral side to culture. His description of German Christianity would apply equally well to what we are now calling “Mainstream Christianity” in America. People who have no trouble with ambiguity, who see scientific truth and spiritual truth as complementary, not contradictory.

If Karin Wolff is coming from what we Americans understand as "Mainstream Christianity" and not wingnut Christianity, we need perhaps to lower the alarm. From Condition Orange to Condition Yellow, maybe. Mainstream/German Christianity is not about religious support for the war in Iraq. It's not about males telling their women to hush up in church or about looking at gays as people who have chosen sin over God's plan. Or about casting Charles Darwin in the role of the Anti-Christ.

Religion in Germany, says Voigt, is about being nice, not about doing anything in particular to control others who don’t share your beliefs. Certainly there is no plan to infiltrate the Supreme Court, take over Congress and foster Christian fundamentalist beliefs in the schools or through home schooling.

Seen in that light, it behooves us not to see Karin Wolff’s efforts as a religious Christian working for a religion-affiliated political party – the Christian Democrats –through an American lens. Or so the argument might go. I’m not too sure yet.

She is head of the religious education committee of the Lutheran Church in Germany, and matching that role with her politician role (she is also Deputy Prime Minister for Hesse) can’t be easy. As these recent headlines indicate, suggesting some kind of moron is running the Ministry of Culture in Hesse, it’s a minefield, when seen against the American experience. And the protests from all sides, religious as well as scientific and political, for this claim by Ms. Wolff that there is something to be gained by bringing religion into biology classes, only further my suspicion that this lady is a crazy lady, and that the American experience is not entirely irrelevant.

But the cognitive dissonance of discovering she has gone public with her love affair with a touchy-feely massage lady type, suggested I might ought to dig around for more.

So here we are a day later and I take back what I said about Karin being the roaming ambassador for the Neander Valley.

Today I’m thinking she’s just one of those naïve folk who think locally, can’t bear to have their country go too far beyond the world of her childhood, and didn’t do her homework on the implications of casting the same shadow as some no-doubt-about-it nut cases in America. And I think the focus of the story has switched – at least it has for me – from a story of stupidity to a case study in the sociology of knowledge – how we all live in separate containers of our own reality.

What she said in connection with the case is worth a second look. She is urging the teaching of the Biblical creation story in biology classes, “…so that you don’t just confront students with the theory of evolution in biology and the Bible teaching on creation in religion classes. But rather that (they) see that there are oppositions and convergences.”

So that they see there are oppositions and convergences? Now what’s wrong with that? That seems like a dandy pedagogical tactic.

But in the end, it’s all about context. She is speaking out of idealism, or naïveté, possibly both. I wish she had read the Kitzmiller v. Dover court decision, in which conservative judge John E. Jones III brought the monkey trial up to date and let it inform her decision. Read it some time and be proud of the American judicial system. When she’s bad, she’s horrid, I know. This time, though, she was very very good.

I’m following what happens to Karin Wolff’s goofy foot-in-mouth move with great interest. I want to see what the Germans and the EU do with this. So far all sorts of people have been dumping on her – the Green Party, the Federation of German Biologists, the Federal Minister for Education and Research, even the Roman Catholic Diocese of Limburg. But are they (we) all wrong? Is she just a nice Church Lady who wants to make kids think?

opposition and convergences: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karin_Wolff

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