Creationists are right—in some cases. They are not right that the world is only 6,000 years old, nor that our species descended from two innocent ancestors in an Iraqi garden. They are not right when they suggest that studying evolution force-feeds an anti-Christian religion down their kids’ throats. But creationists are right when they contend—as they have for more than a century now—that their kids should not be subjected to hostile religious indoctrination in public schools.
Those of us who want to promote more and better evolution education might worry that this sort of admission will help creationists maintain their political stranglehold on comprehensive science education in schools. But it won’t. Teaching students evolutionary theory is not in and of itself religious indoctrination.
Federal courts have endorsed the notion that evolution is not a religion time and time again. In the 1982 case McLean v. Arkansas, for instance, Judge William Overton of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas declared, "[I]t is clearly established in the case law, and perhaps also in common sense, that evolution is not a religion.” Indeed, the notion that evolution is a religion defies common sense. How could a religion have no beliefs about the supernatural? No rituals? No moral commandments?
The fact that evolution is not a religion, however, does not mean that it does not have religious implications for followers of some religions. As the atheist mathematician Jason Rosenhouse of James Madison University explained after spending time with creationists, “Evolution forces a profound rethinking of traditional faith.” So it is understandable that creationists are cautious about a subject that may have religious implications for them.
Creationists are right to complain when their children are forced to believe something that violates their religious creeds. Public school teachers should never push children toward or away from any particular religious belief. Those who have a religious belief have the right to decide if something has religious implications. For example, to many people a ham and cheese is just a sandwich. But it is also clear that this particular sandwich has religious implications for lots of people. Should children be forced to eat a ham and cheese if it violates their religious beliefs? Of course not. And, crucially, it is the religious believers themselves who should decide if something has religious implications, whether it be a science or a sandwich.
Students who don't want to believe evolution can and do still learn about it."
But students can learn subject matter that might conflict with their religion without compromising their beliefs. Evolutionary theory is a building block of our understanding of life. As the best existing scientific explanation of the way our species came to be, how evolution works is vital for all students to understand. Students should not have the right to opt out of learning about a central tenet of contemporary science. But if students have religious objections to the theory’s implications, the public school has no right to insist that they believe it—that is, to regard evolutionary theory as true.
Students do not need to believe that humans evolved from other species. It is enough for students to understand why scientists support that theory and the evidence on which scientists base that belief. Students do not need to say, “Natural selection is one of the most important ways species came to be differentiated.” It is enough for them to say, “Most scientists think natural selection is one of the best explanations.”
There is already evidence that such teaching can work. Researchers in Arizona discovered that high school students could improve their understanding of evolution without changing their beliefs about it. Ronald S. Hermann of Towson University, in Maryland, argues that this “cognitive apartheid"—separating that which is believed from that which is not believed—happens all the time in science classes. Students who don’t want to believe evolution can and do still learn about it. At the university level, too, David E. Long of Morehead State, in Kentucky, found that students in undergraduate biology programs can understand evolution and the evidence for it while not compromising what they believe to be true about creation.
In the end, creationists are right—sort of. They are not right when they try to water down science curricula by teaching intelligent design. They are not right when they try to reduce the amount of real evolutionary science taught in public schools. They are right, however, to protest if public schools impose religious beliefs on their children. By teaching comprehensive science curricula that includes evolution and teaching students to confront subjects they may not agree with, schools are not trying to change beliefs. Understanding is enough.
Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Facebook and Twitter.
A version of this article appeared in the April 20, 2016 edition of Education Week as Teaching Evolution Is Not About Changing Beliefs