Neither the Science of Creation Nor the Religion of Evolution Should be Taught

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Rather than expend so much energy making fundamentalists look silly (unfortunately not always a difficult task), the news media would do well to try to understand why fundamentalists have promoted the teaching of "creation science" in the public schools. Such an effort might produce much-needed insight into what is happening in social and religious terms in America today.

Over the past 25 years, fundamentalists have felt increasingly trapped by the growing secularization of the public schools. The Arkansas law requiring balanced treatment of creation-science and evolution in the science curriculum is one response to this felt threat. But it is a pathetically weak response. Even apart from the fact that the Arkansas law almost certainly violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the state from establishing a religion, the fundamentalists' response is a strategic blunder for at least two other reasons.

The first is that few, if any, convincing scientific arguments can be found for including creationism in a science curriculum. Almost all scientists who have no religious ideological axe to grind oppose such a move. But the argument (which both sides in the dispute have used in one way or another) that science demands complete academic freedom is particularly weak. Whereas freedom of speech is indispensable to a democracy in connection with politics and the practice of religion, it is, as Robert Paul Wolff argues in his book The Poverty of Liberalism, essential for the advancement of science only in a much more limited sense.

Teachers have been free to teach what they want in science classrooms only to the degree that what they want to teach has been arrived at by using approved scientific methods. Departments of science in colleges and universities would make little progress in research and teaching if adherents to every strange doctrine--such as Nazi views on the superiority of the Aryan race or the beliefs of the Flat Earth Society--were given access to the laboratory and classroom equal to that of "reputable" scientists. Science progresses in part by refusing to re-examine constantly doctrines or theories it deems adequately disproved or dis-credited. Indeed, theories such as the creationists' assertion that God created the fossils and geological strata to give the appearance of great age appear so frivolous or unlikely to most scientists that they are simply ignored.

Much more significant and strategic, however, the fundamentalists have blundered by omission. They could have made a much stronger case than they have that evolution should not be taught in the public schools as philosophy and religion. Liberals have tried to discredit the fundamentalists' claim that secular humanism has become common in many schools, sometimes constituting the dominant value commitment of a local school or school system. Here, it is the liberals who are on shaky ground, for the fundamentalists can present convincing evidence to back up their assertions. To take just one example: School administrators have typically brushed aside the objections of groups of "concerned parents" to the use of Values Clarification techniques as little more than right-wing religious extremism. But over the past six years a body of scholarly literature (written largely by non-fundamentalists) has proved that the initial assessment of these parents is extremely accurate. The method does indoctrinate students in radical ethical relativism and frequently does invade their right to privacy.

To teach evolution as the best scientific theory we have for understanding the origin of life is appropriate. But to argue, as some teachers regularly do, that it is the only rational way to speak of the origin of life is both inaccurate and inexcusably biased (as well as unscientific!). It is to commit what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. In this case, it treats the scientific method, not just as one fruitful path toward knowledge, but rather as the only way to understand the world about us. Such evolutionism or scientism constitutes a form of intellectual imperialism and results in the de-facto demotion of religion and philosophy (and the humanities generally) to the realm of subjectivity and personal opinion.

When teachers make such sweeping claims for science they are themselves violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and they are exploiting the state's virtual monopoly over education to advance one particular religious and philosophical understanding of life. They quite overlook the fact that many first-rate scientists not only believe in evolution but are also convinced that at some deeper or more ultimate level a divine presence pervades reality and guides the course of evolution itself. Such scientists believe that life is not finally grounded in random, mindless mutations but rather in the intelligent purposing of a cosmic mind.

Thus, fundamentalists could and should, for example, call attention to the atheistic materialism that pervades Carl Sagan's tv series "Cosmos," and they should insist that such material not be used in public-school science education. Sagan's first statement--"The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be," especially when viewed in light of his subsequent attacks on the church and traditional religion, makes it abundantly clear that the reader is getting much more than straightforward science. A convincing case has been made by a number of critics that "Cosmos" also presents Mr. Sagan's personal religious testimony--a powerful and not all subtle witness to his secular nature mysticism.

I hope that the American Civil Liberties Union, which has argued the case against the Arkansas creation-science law, will prove liberal enough (in the basic sense of the term) to defend the civil liberties of those, including fundamentalists, who rightly object to the subtle indoctrination involved when evolution is taught as philosophy and religion.

Vol. 01, Issue 16, Page 18-19

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