We Must Not Succumb to Specious Arguments for Equal Time

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Anti-evolutionist efforts to gain equal time for creationism in the science curriculum of the public schools must be continually and firmly resisted. The nature and methodology of science, the requirements of the First Amendment of the Constitution, the principles of curriculum development, and the stated goals of the creationist movement all provide convincing arguments to support this view.

The status of creationism as a body of scientific knowledge is a major consideration in determining its place in the biology curriculum. Arguments on this point continue, despite the admissions of proponents of creationism that their tenets are not scientific. For example, Duane Gish, the associate director of the Institute for Creation Research, who has been very influential in the creationist movement, recently wrote:

"As a creationist scientist, I wish to point out that creation-science scientists readily acknowledge that creation is not a scientific theory. The concept of creation lies beyond the limits of empirical science; it does not provide a testable theory, nor can it be disproved." In his defense of Arkansas's creation-science legislation, State Attorney General Steve Clark also admitted creationism did not meet the definition of what constitutes science. That the judge in the case, William R. Overton, found that creation-science had no scientific base is not surprising.

Inasmuch as creationism is not science, its absence from the science curriculum seems justifiable. Yet there are those who charge that this is not fair or reasonable because the creation accounts in Genesis transmit the beliefs and values of many people today, and, according to a recent poll, 76 percent of Americans think the biblical "theory" of evolution should be taught in the public schools. Creationism, they say, deserves equal time.

Policy-makers and educators cannot fall prey to this rationale. Equal time is not necessarily a fair or educationally sound procedure. A policy of providing equal time could result in a biology curriculum that includes the view, held by Nazis and members of the Klu Klux Klan, that different ethnic groups had a separate creation. Such ideas of "fairness" might also dictate teaching the satanic view of origins or Erik von Daniken's belief that humans resulted from cross-breeding of extra-terrestrial beings and ape-men.

Schools cannot treat all knowledge equally. In formulating educational policy and curricula, we must make distinctions and establish priorities. In determining content for the biology curriculum, we must select knowledge that explains the natural world scientifically, and that has the ability to unify, illuminate, and integrate other facts. Ideas that cannot serve these functions should not be included. The Genesis version of creation, which is useful in the ordering of non-scientific thoughts about the nature of the world, does not belong in the science curriculum because, instead of serving unifying and integrative functions, it tends to distort, ignore, corrupt, and contradict established facts about the natural world.

The requirement that government and schools be neutral in matters of religion also dictates that equal-time mandates for creationism be rejected. A 1973 Tennessee law that required the Genesis account of origins to be given the same amount of words, space, and emphasis as evolution in biology textbooks was declared unconstitutional in 1975. This law specifically required that the teaching of satanic and occult beliefs of human origin be excluded.

The court ruled that the law represented "another method of preferential treatment of particular faiths by state law" and emphasized that the "First Amendment does not permit the State to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibition of any religious sect or dogma" (Daniel v. Waters, 515F.2d 485).

After this ruling, creationists began to promote the use of "scientific creationism" and "creation-science" to neutralize the study of evolution. Educational materials and model legislative bills were stripped of religious references. But such semantic changes have not been able to set scientific creationism apart from biblical creationism.

In finding the 1981 Arkansas equal-time law unconstitutional, Judge Overton stated, "It was simply and purely an effort to introduce the biblical version of creation into the public-school curriculum." Moreover, he wrote, "the application and content of the First Amendment principles are not determined by public-opinion polls or by a majority vote.... No group no matter how large or small, may use the organs of government, of which the public schools are the most conspicuous and influential, to foist its religious beliefs on others."

But judicial setbacks have not stopped the creationists. In Arkansas, a new bill aimed at eliminating the constitutional vulnerability of past efforts has been drafted already. A bill similar to the Arkansas bill has passed the Mississippi state senate. However, it seems unlikely that any mandate to teach creationism can meet the test of secular purpose and avoid entangling religion with government.

That sectarian purposes have fueled the creationist movement from the beginning is reflected in the statement of Nell Seagraves, founder of the Creation Research Society. The movement's purpose, he stated, was "to get the biblical belief system into the schools and the evolution heresy out." Materials written by creationists and recommended as references for public schools are loaded with doctrinal positions, scriptural references, and evangelistic messages. Overall, if creationism were to be taught, it seems clear that a great deal of state surveillance then would be required to keep religious positions and doctrines out of the classroom.

Creationists argue that evolution is religious dogma and, in particular, an important tenet of secular humanism, which they claim is the official religion of public schools. This argument has been rejected in several courts. Judge Overton asserted that these past cases and "perhaps also common sense" showed that evolution was not a religion and teaching it did not violate the Constitution.

Several courts have also rejected the argument that creationism must be used to neutralize the teaching of evolution because this teaching abridges the free exercise of religion for many students. Finally, creationists argue that exclusive instruction in evolution violates the academic freedom of students because they are indoctrinated in evolution and denied a choice between different versions of the natural history of life.

The state's right to prescribe school curricula was recognized in Epperson v. Arkansas and several other judicial decisions. Decisions that are not based on reasonable educational goals and concerns and that restrict the dissemination of certain ideas and content should be challenged in courts. But creationism is not science, and it is inherently religious; its absence from the science curriculum is not a violation of reasonable educational goals and the academic freedom of students.

The right to disagree is important to the freedom and vitality of this nation and as well as to science. Scientific theories must be rethought continuously. Competing ideas must be allowed to exist. However, if the marketplace of ideas is to remain free and democracy sustained, government mandates that require equal time for any or all competing ideas cannot be tolerated.

Proponents of creationism may not succeed in getting equal classroom time for their ideas, but they nonetheless have had a dampening effect on the teaching of evolution. Biology textbooks, which are very influential in determining the biology curricula, reflect their modest success.

In my own study of high-school biology textbooks, I found that prior to 1960 textbooks' coverage of evolution generally was brief, noncontroversial, and characterized by restraint. In the 1960's, evolutionist ideas were integrated throughout several textbooks and given unprecedented emphasis.

In the 1970's, the overall coverage of evolution in biology textbooks was reduced. In certain textbooks, the emphasis on selected topics concerned with evolution was drastically reduced or eliminated. Changes in wording resulted in material that was more cautious and indefinite. One biology textbook, published in 1981, did not use the word evolution or have a specific chapter on evolution. Material concerned with evolution was scattered throughout. A 1980 biology textbook with two chapters on evolution did not cover human evolution. Another 1980 biology textbook treated human evolution briefly, omitted evolution from the glossary, and used the word evolution only once in the chapter on the subject.

But the power of evolution to explain and make sense of the natural world has not diminished. Instead, this steady deemphasis of evolution in biology texts has come about because publishers, authors, educators, and politicians have responded to the strenuous efforts of anti-evolutionists to suppress the study of evolution. This effort is ideological, and it should not be confused with a scientific movement. Creationism has failed to compete in the scientific and theological worlds of scholarship, and its supporters must not be allowed to guarantee, through other tactics, its perpetuation in science classrooms in public schools.

Vol. 01, Issue 18, Page 19

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories