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Using Religion to Suppress Debate on Evolution

Originally published at Washington Post: On Faith

Evolution was back in the headlines this week as the Texas State Board of Education voted 13-2 to require students to “analyze and evaluate” major evolutionary concepts such as common ancestry, natural selection, and mutations, as well as adopting a critical thinking standard calling on students to “critique” and examine “all sides of scientific evidence.”

The vote was a loss for defenders of evolution who had pushed the Board to strip the “analyze and evaluate” language from the evolution standards and gut the overall critical thinking standard.

Evolutionists typically cast themselves as the champions of secular reason against superstition, but in Texas they tried to inject religion into the debate at every turn.

Indeed, this past week it seemed that they couldn’t stop talking about religion. They boasted about their credentials as Sunday School teachers and church elders. They quoted the Bible and appealed to theology. And, of course, they attacked the religious beliefs of their opponents, branding them religious fundamentalists.

By contrast, supporters of teaching the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution focused mostly on science, not religion. They even had a procession of Ph.D. biologists and science teachers testify before the Board of Education about their scientific skepticism of key parts of modern evolutionary theory.

Biology professor Wade Warren testified about the challenges to evolutionary theory posed by DNA, the fossil record, and the physiology of the cell. Microbiologist Donald Ewert, who spent much of his research career at the prestigious Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, discussed the limits of what experimental biology can show about natural selection’s power to produce major evolutionary change.

But the most dramatic testimony came from Sarah Hicks, who earned her Ph.D. in evolutionary ecology and biology from Rice University. Hicks described the intimidation—and fear—she experienced as a graduate student when a fellow student who expressed skepticism about part of evolutionary theory was forced to leave the program.

Because such thoughtful voices didn’t fit the stereotype, reporters ignored them. That is unfortunate. As someone who is not a fundamentalist (and who doesn’t believe the Bible is a science textbook), it is discouraging to see reporters endlessly recycle caricatures rather than genuinely try to understand the diverse viewpoints of those raising questions about modern Darwinism.

It is equally disheartening to see evolution activists using religion as a pretext to shut down debate.

Instead of responding to the substantive points raised by their opponents, evolutionists increasingly try to short-circuit public discourse by claiming that a person’s religious beliefs should disqualify him or her from being heard by public officials. Never mind that a person offers secular arguments based on secular evidence. If the person holds disfavored religious beliefs, he is supposed to be discounted and ignored.

Far from being required by the separation of church and state, such an approach flatly contradicts the Constitution’s guarantees religious liberty and equal protection. And far from serving the cause of science, such dogmatism is grounded in a Darwinian fundamentalism that is anything but scientific.

Fortunately, the Texas Board of Education adopted a different approach in its new science standards, one that favors an open discussion of the scientific evidence.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.