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The Religious Implications of Teaching Evolution

Robert E. Hemenway, chancellor of the University of Kansas, declared war on creationism in his essay (“The Evolution of a Controversy in Kansas Shows Why Scientists Must Defend the Search for Truth,” Opinion, Chronicle of Higher Education, October 29). He characterized the Kansas Board of Education as wishing to destroy the idea that the public schools should be a source of truth or certainty, and quoted various hyperbolic comments that gave the impression that the board had discarded science in favor of the Book of Genesis. His worries are greatly exaggerated, but there is much to be said for the remedy he proposes. Educators should prepare science students to be skilled in public discourse, and should try to educate all students, including those not majoring in science, to be scientifically literate. To the extent feasible, education in scientific literacy should be extended to the general public as well. I applaud all that, but I suggest some additional steps.

First, representatives of academe and science educators should be scrupulously accurate in reporting what the Kansas board actually did. Contrary to much overheated rhetoric, the board did not forbid the teaching of anything, did not leave evolution or natural selection out of the mandatory state standards, and did not insist that the Bible or creationism be taught in science classes.

It did leave two subjects it considered speculative — macroevolution and the big bang — off the list of things the Kansas school districts are required to teach. The mechanisms of microevolution (genetic variation and natural selection) are still included, and schools are still required to teach the examples of variation and adaptation that scientists actually observe.

I don’t approve of leaving anything out of the curriculum, but surely it is understandable that some people balk at extrapolating an entire theory of molecule-to-mankind macroevolution from limited examples of back-and-forth variation within a species. The board also included, correctly in my opinion, the important consideration that an adequate mechanism of macroevolution has to be capable of generating huge amounts of genetic information. Such objections to macroevolutionary theory are extremely widespread, and they will not be overcome by oratory that dismisses all dissent out of hand.

Second, educators should aim to educate, and not to indoctrinate or wage a propaganda campaign. Evolution is an important topic, and students certainly should learn the theory and the reasons why so many scientists think it is true. It is also a controversial topic, and students should learn why. How can they be skilled in public discourse if they do not learn why so many millions of people find the theory of evolution unconvincing? Real education requires that students be exposed to dissenting views about evolution in their strongest form, rather than merely to some caricature written by a scientific materialist. The truly educational approach is to teach the controversy, presenting students with the evidence and arguments that will permit them to make up their own minds.

There is reason to believe that the Kansas board would welcome such an approach. World magazine quotes Linda Holloway, chairman of the board, as saying, “Evolution is an important theory, and I don’t want any kids to be ignorant of it.” Another conservative member of the board, John W. Bacon, agreed, saying he thinks that “it’s important and that students need to know it, but everything about it, not just evidence for it.”

Before the controversy in Kansas began, the American Scientific Affiliation — a group whose purpose, in the words of its World-Wide Web site, is “to investigate any area relating Christian faith and science”—proposed a formula that was endorsed by representatives of the National Association of Biology Teachers. It read: “The State Board of Education and the local boards of education shall ensure that evolution is taught as science, not as ideology. The State Board of Education and the local boards of education shall encourage teachers to make distinctions between the multiple meanings of ‘evolution,’ to distinguish between philosophical materialism and authentic science, and to include unanswered questions and unresolved problems in their presentations.”

In short, a sound educational formula is readily available, with substantial public support.

Finally, educators must be a lot more candid about the religious implications of a materialist theory of macroevolution. Chancellor Hemenway wrote that “[t]he most disturbing part of the board’s debate … was the clear suggestion from the majority of the board that one could not believe in both God and evolution.” What disturbs me is that educators are relying upon banalities to explain away the religious implications of Darwinism. Of course, there is a tension between God and Darwin. Why else would people who wish to mock the Christian fish symbol on their automobile bumpers choose as their counter-symbol a fish with feet?

A materialist theory of evolution does not prove that God does not exist, because it is impossible to prove a negative. What it does aim to prove is that matter and natural law can do the creating without requiring any assistance from God. People have every right to question whether the available evidence supports broad claims for the power of natural selection, and they can’t help noticing that Darwinist authorities like E.O. Wilson (whom Hemenway singles out for praise) promote scientific materialism as the foundation of all knowledge. No wonder they suspect that evolution is a package containing a lot more than scientific fact.

Attempting to silence such pervasive skepticism with claims of authority and evasive denials is the worst kind of science education. If the educators want religious people to trust them, they need to take those people’s concerns seriously.

I propose waging peace rather than war. But the choice is up to the members of the scientific and educational elites. If they decide to wage a war of conquest, they may find that their enemy is everywhere, and a lot more sophisticated than they imagine.

Phillip E. Johnson is a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley and advisor of the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture.