Opinion
Law & Courts Opinion

Teaching Evolution Isn’t About Changing Beliefs

By Adam Laats & Harvey Siegel — April 19, 2016 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

BRIC ARCHIVE

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.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the April 20, 2016 edition of Education Week as Teaching Evolution Is Not About Changing Beliefs

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
Strategies for Incorporating SEL into Curriculum
Empower students to thrive. Learn how to integrate powerful social-emotional learning (SEL) strategies into the classroom.
Content provided by Be GLAD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Leadership in Education: Building Collaborative Teams and Driving Innovation
Learn strategies to build strong teams, foster innovation, & drive student success.
Content provided by Follett Learning
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Principals, Lead Stronger in the New School Year
Join this free virtual event for a deep dive on the skills and motivation you need to put your best foot forward in the new year.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Title IX Rule to Protect LGBTQ+ Students Temporarily Blocked in 4 States
A federal judge in Louisiana delivered the first legal blow to the Biden administration's interpretation of Title IX.
4 min read
Demonstrators advocating for transgender rights and healthcare stand outside of the Ohio Statehouse on Jan. 24, 2024, in Columbus, Ohio. Republican states are filing a barrage of legal challenges against the Biden administration's newly expanded campus sexual assault rules, saying they overstep the president's authority and undermine the Title IX anti-discrimination law.
Demonstrators advocating for transgender rights and health care stand outside of the Ohio Statehouse on Jan. 24, 2024, in Columbus, Ohio. Republican states have filed a barrage of legal challenges against the Biden administration's new Title IX rule, and one of them has just resulted in a temporary order blocking the rule in four states.
Patrick Orsagos/AP
Law & Courts Judge Strikes Down Title IX Guidance on LGBTQ+ Students. Here's Why It Matters
In a June 11 ruling, Texas judge said the Education Department has no authority to expand protections under Title IX.
8 min read
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at a news conference in Dallas on June 22, 2017.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at a news conference in Dallas on June 22, 2017. His office sued the Biden administration in an attempt to invalidate guidance it released in June 2021 stating it would interpret Title IX to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Tony Gutierrez/AP
Law & Courts Court Backs School That Barred Student's 'Two Genders' Shirt
The court said the shirt could be understood to demean transgender and gender-nonconforming students, and administrators could prohibit it.
5 min read
ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of U.S. Litigation David Cortman, left, and Liam Morrison speak at a press conference following oral arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit on Feb. 8, 2024.
David Cortman, senior counsel and vice president of Alliance Defending Freedom, left, and middle school student Liam Morrison speak to reporters following oral arguments over Morrison's "There Are Only Two Genders" T-shirt before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit in Boston on Feb. 8, 2024.
Courtesy of Alliance Defending Freedom
Law & Courts Federal Judge Overturns New Hampshire Law on Teaching 'Divisive Concepts'
The judge holds that the law is unconstitutionally vague because it does not make clear to educators what topics they may not teach.
4 min read
Students walk into the front doors at Hinsdale Middle High School, in Hinsdale, N.H., on the first day of school on Aug. 30, 2022.
Students walk into Hinsdale Middle High School, in Hinsdale, N.H., in August 2022. A federal judge has struck down a New Hampshire law that bars the teaching of "divisive concepts" to K-12 students.
Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP