Opinion
Law & Courts Opinion

Teaching Evolution Isn’t About Changing Beliefs

By Adam Laats & Harvey Siegel — April 19, 2016 4 min read

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:

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

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn
Professional Development Webinar Expand Digital Learning by Expanding Teacher Training
This discussion will examine how things have changed and offer guidance on smart, cost-effective ways to expand digital learning efforts and train teachers to maximize the use of new technologies for learning.
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
Student Well-Being Webinar
The Social-Emotional Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on American Schoolchildren
Hear new findings from an analysis of our 300 million student survey responses along with district leaders on new trends in student SEL.
Content provided by Panorama

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 California COVID-19 Closures Infringed Private School Parents' Rights, Federal Court Rules
A federal appeals court holds that the state's closure rules for private schools were not narrowly tailored to serve compelling interests.
4 min read
Image shows a courtroom and gavel.
imaginima/E+
Law & Courts 'I Just Want to Play.' Judge Halts W. Va. Law Barring Transgender Girls From Girls' Sports
Ruling for an 11-year-old transgender girl, the judge holds that the law likely violates the equal-protection clause and Title IX.
3 min read
Image of a gavel.
Marilyn Nieves/E+
Law & Courts Praying Coach v. District That Suspended Him: What's Next in Fight Over Religious Expression
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit declined to reconsider an earlier panel ruling that sided with the school district.
4 min read
Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy, center in blue, kneels and prays after his team lost to Centralia in Bremerton, Wash., on Oct. 16, 2015. Kennedy, who was suspended for praying at midfield after games, has filed a discrimination complaint on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015 with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission according to The Liberty Institute, a Texas-based law firm representing the coach.
Joe Kennedy, center in blue, kneels and prays after a game in October 2015 when he was the assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Wash. In a long-running legal fight, Kennedy contends he has First Amendment free-speech and free-exercise-of-religion rights to express his Christian faith while on the job. The case is likely headed back to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lindsey Wasso/The Seattle Times via AP
Law & Courts Appeals Court Again Backs Transgender Student, But on Narrower Grounds Amid Signs of Rift
A federal appeals panel removed a holding for student Drew Adams based on Title IX, perhaps to ward off a rehearing by the full court.
4 min read
Image of a gavel.
Marilyn Nieves/E+