I started 8th grade at a new school—after seven years at public schools in Virginia, I was going to an Episcopal boys’ school 40 minutes from home. The school took boarding students starting in 9th grade, but the middle school was day students only. My class had 8 students. As middle schoolers and day boys we were the school punks, perhaps worse even than the seventh graders who had the advantage of looking still like cute kids while we were croaking our way into adolescence.
I liked the school. Eighth grade is not a bad time for an awkward boy to be in school apart from girls, for one thing. I liked having to wear a coat and tie to school every day, liked learning to feel at ease in what the previous year had been uncomfortably formal clothes. It felt like a major step toward growing up.
Most of the education we received there was as secular as it had been at public school. There was daily chapel to endure, but our other classes—English, Latin, Math—were standard issue. We took Bible class but it was more like a another English class than religious instruction. Only in science did I really feel the fact that we were in a school not bound by the Establishment Clause. We were doing earth science—I remember writing a paper on the Chernobyl disaster and the mechanics of a nuclear meltdown, for example. But our middle trimester was entirely given over to a thorough explication of Creationism. We learned a dozen different methods, from re-reading ambiguities in the fossil record to measuring the depth of the dust on the moon, to prove that the universe was only a few thousand years old. We watched a series of movies that laid out arguments methodically and—to my 8th grade mind—convincingly. Any objection I could imagine was pre-empted, every shred of evidence for a Darwinian reading of natural history undermined by pointing out a bit of evidence that couldn’t be reconciled to that narrative but made perfect sense in a story that began 6000 years ago with an act of God.
This teacher was, I think, an outlier even in our ostensibly Christian school .It certainly wasn’t school policy to teach against evolution. The next year, our 9th grade biology teacher, fresh out of college, hadn’t even been warned that sitting among his class of 20 students were 8 boys whose hands would shoot up any time he made a casual reference to some foundational bit of evolutionary biology. “Actually,” we’d say, “that’s not true,” before regurgitating some “fact” we’d picked up the year before.
Evolution was going through a relatively untroubled time then, as far I could tell: most Christians accepted it, at least in general outline. I grew up hearing that the “days” of Genesis were metaphorical, and that it was perfectly consistent with a faithful reading of the Bible to accept certain claims of evolution. There was no reason God might not have used the mechanism of evolution to shape creation; the only real beef with it was the idea that it could all have happened by random chance rather than being benevolently guided by God.
So our earth science teacher was out of step with almost everyone I had ever encountered in the church or out of it. But—especially to an 8th grade me—that almost made him more credible than less. The knowledge he was passing on to use was occult and scandalous: we could shock even our parents with what we learned in that class. Some of the arguments I was able to spin out were on points so arcane that nobody I knew even imagined they were up for debate. It hadn’t occurred to anyone that she might need evidence to defend the point. The reflex of people I confronted with my claims was to laugh them off, not to refute them; to dismiss the teacher as a nut rather than to explain why he was wrong.
But of course new facts did come along, and the idea that the earth had been set spinning fully populated with all its fauna and flora mere millennia ago came to seem ridiculous even to credulous me. What didn’t change was my memory of having been convinced—completely—to believe something so counter to fact.
It gave me a sense that you could have a completely coherent, rational system of thought that existed in parallel and at odds with another coherent, rational system of thought. It planted in me the idea that the world might yield an entire other set of meanings if only you had the key to it—not that everything was suddenly susceptible to rereading, but enough of it to make life and its meaning itself feel unstable.
In a way, that teacher’s lesson ultimately made me even more skeptical of my own community of faith—not because I thought their belief systems were inherently less credible than anyone else’s, but because they were just as credible as anyone else’s. What made a belief system powerful? A story—a way of taking the chaos of the visible world and stringing it together on a line of narrative. In the absence of provable claims, I didn’t see how you could ever be sure whether one story was better than another. We were all telling ourselves stories, convincing ourselves of something in a way that made it feel foundational. It all started to look provisional to me instead.