Evolving Double Standards

Establishing a state-funded church of Darwin
John G. West
National Review Online
April 1, 2004
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The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is on the front lines of the battle to keep religion out of the nation's science classrooms. A group whose self-described mission is "Defending the Teaching of Evolution in the Public Schools," the NCSE routinely condemns anyone who wants to teach faith-based criticisms of evolutionary theory for trying to unconstitutionally mix church and state.

But in an ironic twist, it now turns out that the NCSE itself is using federal tax dollars to insert religion into biology classrooms. Earlier this year, the NCSE and the University of California Museum of Paleontology unveiled a website for teachers entitled "Understanding Evolution." Funded in part by a nearly half-million-dollar federal grant, the website encourages teachers to use religion to promote evolution. Apparently the NCSE thinks mixing science and religion is okay after all - as long as religion is used to support evolution.

The purpose of the "Understanding Evolution" website is to instruct teachers in how they should teach evolution, and the federal government (through the National Science Foundation) came up with $450,000 for the project. As might be expected, the science presented on the website is rather lopsided. Although there are vigorous arguments among biologists about many aspects of neo-Darwinism, teachers aren't informed about those scientific debates, ignoring guidance from the U.S. Congress in 2001 that "where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist."

But the strangest part of the website, by far, is the section that encourages educators to use religion to endorse evolution. Teachers are told that nearly all religious people, theologians, and scientists who hold religious beliefs endorse modern evolutionary theory, and that indeed such a view "actually enriches their faith." In fact, teachers are directed to statements by a variety of religious groups giving their theological endorsement of evolution.

For example, educators can read a statement from the United Church of Christ that "modern evolutionary theory... is in no way at odds with our belief in a Creator God, or in the revelation and presence of that God in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit." Needless to say, statements from thoughtful religious groups and scholars who critique Darwinism because of its claim that the development of life was an unguided process are not included. Nor is there any indication of the fact that, according to opinion surveys, the vast majority of Americans continues to be skeptical of Darwin's theory of unguided evolution.

This effort to use religion to endorse evolution is part of a larger public-relations strategy devised by the NCSE to defuse skepticism of neo-Darwinism. On its own website, the group advises inviting ministers to testify in favor of evolution before school boards, and it has created a Sunday-school curriculum to promote evolution in the churches. The NCSE even has a "Faith Network Director" who claims that "Darwin's theory of evolution... has, for those open to the possibilities, expanded our notions of God."

Eugenie Scott, the group's executive director, is an original signer of something called the Humanist Manifesto III, which proclaims that "humans are... the result of unguided evolutionary change" and celebrates "the inevitability and finality of death." Although a non-believer herself, Scott apparently understands the political utility of religion.

Of course, as a private group, the NCSE has every right to use religion to promote its pro-Darwin agenda, whether or not it is sincere. But what about using government funds to do so?

Taxpayers might wonder why it's the government's business to tell them what their religious beliefs about evolution should or shouldn't be. Presumably this government grant was supposed to be spent on science, not on convincing people that evolution comports with "the revelation and presence of...God in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit." Where's the ACLU when you really need it? It's difficult to see how the website's presentation of religion even comes close to following Supreme Court precedents on the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

One wonders whether those at the NCSE appreciate the irony of their situation. All over the country they have tried to prevent the teaching of scientific criticisms of evolutionary theory as an unconstitutional establishment of religion. But here they spend tax money to promote evolution, explicitly invoking religion, and that's supposed to be okay.

It seems the Darwinists have overseen the evolution of a new species of religion-science crossbreed: one that fits their agenda.

John West is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Seattle Pacific University.