Law & Courts

Teachers Torn Over Religion, Evolution

By Sean Cavanagh — February 01, 2005 8 min read
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When science teachers in a small Pennsylvania town were asked last month to read a statement to their classes that introduced students to the concept of “intelligent design,” they refused, citing legal and professional obligations.

In taking that stand against what critics say amounts to thinly disguised religious doctrine, teachers in the 3,600-student Dover Area school system endorsed a position in line with two of the country’s largest groups for science teachers—and the vast majority of leading scientists.

Yet for the past two decades, studies have consistently offered a more complicated picture of high school science teachers’ opinions of religion’s role in their classrooms—one that more closely reflects the views of the public at large.

Biology teacher Roger DeHart

A survey of teachers in Oklahoma, conducted in 1999, found that about 25 percent of public school life-science teachers placed at least moderate emphasis on creationism, or the biblical belief that God created the universe, in their classes. Forty-eight percent believed strong scientific evidence exists for creationism, the study found.

In Louisiana, 29 percent of public high school biology teachers said creationism should be presented in the classes they teach, according to another study, published in 1999.

And in Minnesota, a survey of first-year biology students at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities reported that only 38 percent said their high school biology courses had emphasized evolution. Twenty percent of those students said their courses had emphasized creationism, according to that 2004 study. Similar polls dating back to the 1980s, from states such as Illinois, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota, closely mirror those results.

“It’s accurate, but disappointing,” Wayne W. Carley, the executive director of the National Association of Biology Teachers, said of the opinions reflected in the surveys. Once a science instructor closes the door of a class, “there’s no telling what the teacher is doing,” he said.

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Despite the courts’ consistent rejection of attempts to include creationism and other religiously based beliefs in high school science lessons, support for recognition of those views persists. In the past few months, debates over proposed alternatives to the theory of evolution—accepted overwhelmingly within the scientific community—have emerged again in districts in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Increasingly, such debates center not on overtly biblical beliefs, but on intelligent design—the general belief that an intelligent cause has influenced the development of living things.

Both Mr. Carley’s Reston, Va.-based organization and the National Science Teachers Association, in Arlington, Va., strongly support the teaching of evolution and oppose efforts to present concepts they see as based in religion as science.

“This is not a phenomenon that’s restricted to the Bible Belt, or the South, or any of the stereotypes out there,” Randy Moore, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota, who has studied teachers’ attitudes toward evolution, said of the prevalence of creationism in public schools. “It’s common everywhere.”

Suspicion From Both Sides

One obvious factor in the teacher-survey results, school officials say, is the overall prevalence of Christian beliefs among teachers and the communities they serve. According to a national poll conducted by CBS News last November, 65 percent of adults responding favored schools’ teaching of both evolution and creationism, while 37 percent believed schools should offer creationism instead of evolution. (That survey had a 3-percentage-point margin of error.)

The force of public opinion ultimately leads some teachers, even those who want to keep religion out of evolution discussions, to give creationism equal time, Mr. Moore contends. “Parents complain,” he said. “School boards complain. Teachers say, ‘I have to live with these people.’ ”

But John H. Calvert, a managing director of the Intelligent Design Network, says the pressure works both ways. Mr. Calvert, whose organization is based in Shawnee Mission, Kan., said he often hears from teachers who want to introduce intelligent design to students, but are afraid they’ll be sued or fired if they try. He encourages them to meet with administrators to explain how they would broach the subject before taking any further action.

“We want a teacher to decide they are going to do this with the comfort that they’re not going to get a pink slip,” Mr. Calvert said.

One teacher who came under scrutiny for teaching intelligent design is Roger DeHart. The former teacher at Burlington-Edison High School in Washington state initially began telling his students about intelligent design in the late 1990s—though he says he was talking about the general concept long before then, even if he didn’t know what to call it.

Mr. DeHart had read Of Pandas and People, a book supportive of intelligent design, and incorporated some of that material into lessons. He says he gave a thorough treatment of evolution, and never presented religious doctrine to his students.

“I kind of drew a line early on, that there is science, and the Bible didn’t have an aspect in it,” Mr. DeHart said. Today, “any criticism to Darwin is seen as almost blasphemous,” the teacher added. “To say that there’s no part of science that can’t be questioned—that’s not good science.”

Mr. DeHart’s approach drew complaints from parents and the American Civil Liberties Union, and a few years later, he was reassigned to teach other science subjects. (Burlington-Edison Principal Beth Vanderveen recalls Mr. DeHart as an “excellent teacher,” and said he was reassigned because of staffing shortages in other science subjects.) Mr. DeHart eventually left the district, and now teaches at a Christian school in California.

Debate over the scientific validity of intelligent design erupted last fall in the Dover district in south-central Pennsylvania. In a move that has drawn national attention, that district’s school board decided to revise its curriculum to require that students be made aware of “gaps/problems” in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution—and of alternative views, including intelligent design. The action sparked a federal lawsuit from opponents seeking to halt the district’s policy; they contend it violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

Science and Belief

Intelligent design posits that the complexity of the world and living organisms cannot be explained entirely by natural processes, such as evolution, and that some form of intelligent cause must have played a role. Backers of that view often point to the apparent irregularity and complexity of species’ development to speculate that they were the product of a design.

Proponents of intelligent design have called it a scientific theory, but that description angers most scientists, who define “theory” as an explanation that has been thoroughly vetted and has support from several lines of evidence. A 1999 report by the National Academy of Sciences, widely regarded as the nation’s top advisory body on scientific issues, said that both creationism and intelligent design “are not science.” Those concepts “subordinate data to statements based on authority, revelation, or religious belief,” the study said.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act calls for the use of “scientifically based research” as a foundation for education programs and classroom instruction. But Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, said in a statement that the standard is not meant to address the teaching of evolution and intelligent design. The requirement for scientifically based research is used to gauge whether individual education programs are accomplishing their goals, he said.

“Our standards are not relevant to the question of whether intelligent design or evolutionary theory best characterize the origin and development of life,” Mr. Whitehurst wrote in response to the question from Education Week. “That is a question for the biological sciences, not the education sciences.”

Unsolved Mysteries

As districts wrangle over how to teach evolution, some scientists say that state leaders have provided classroom instructors with little support for developing a stronger understanding of the subject. In 2000, Lawrence S. Lerner, of California State University-Long Beach, conducted a study that found 31 states were doing at least an adequate job of explaining evolution in their state standards, but 19 were doing “weak to reprehensible” jobs.

Some teachers, meanwhile, say the current debate over intelligent design and evolution has polarized an issue that a sizable proportion of the public views as more nuanced. A 2000 survey conducted for the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, in Washington, found that among people familiar with the term “evolution,” 68 percent said an individual can believe in that theory and still believe that God created humans and guided their development. Twenty-eight percent disagreed, and 4 percent expressed uncertainty.

Observers note that many religious faiths and philosophical movements have allowed a role for both a supreme being and evolution. “God created the universe, and evolution is a part of it,” Mr. Lerner said, in describing one view. “What’s wrong with that?”

Some teachers who oppose allowing religion into public school science classes say they try to find room for a less divisive discussion. Brad Williamson, a biology teacher at Kansas’ Olathe East High School, was vocal in his opposition to the attempts of some state board of education members to remove evolution from Kansas’ curriculum a few years ago. He tells students from the outset that his class will focus on science, not religion. But he says he also acknowledges to them that there are mysteries in the natural world that the scientific community does not yet understand, such as what came before the Big Bang.

“That sure does leave a lot of room for religious revelation,” said Mr. Williamson, who works in the 24,000-student Olathe Unified School District 233.

He recalled a recent conversation he had with two students who typically brought Bibles with them to his biology class. One day, after hearing the two girls talk about Islam, a subject they said they had been introduced to at their Christian church, Mr. Williamson asked if they thought their church was trying to convert them to that religion.

“Of course not,” they said.

“Well,” responded the science teacher, “I’m not either.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as Teachers Torn Over Religion, Evolution


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