It’s time to move on in debate over origins

Sunday, May 18, 1997


What is being done to address the controversy about teaching
evolution and creationism in the public schools?

Dan Hicks, Tulsa, Okla.

Very little, unfortunately. Creationists and evolutionists continue
to shout past one another, creating confusion about what should
be taught in public schools and how it should be taught.

The argument was bitter and emotional at a recent Northern California
community forum on religion and the public schools. Each side
accused the other of wanting to impose a single view in the schools,
excluding all others.

The creationists in the audience insisted that much of evolutionary
theory is itself based on faith, not science. Besides, they argued,
we have scientific evidence to support many of our claims (thus
the term “scientific creationism”); the scientific data
does not support all of the claims made by evolutionists.

Many parents and teachers rose to defend the schools, saying
that most scientists reject creationism as a “pseudo-science”
based on the biblical account of creation. Evolutionary theory,
they argued, is the backbone of science education and is based
on careful application of the scientific method; only science
should be taught in science classrooms.

Some of the questions raised in this heated exchange have been
settled by Supreme Court rulings. The court has struck down state
laws that would require creationist theory to be taught
in the science classroom on the ground that creationism promotes
a particular religious view. The court has also ruled that states
may not forbid the teaching of evolutionary theory.

Do these decisions leave any room for finding common ground?
Yes, but the process of reaching agreement will not be easy, given
the complexity of the subject and the emotions surrounding the
debate.

The place to begin is where all sides already have consensus.
People from across the religious and political spectrum now agree
that teaching about religion is both constitutional and
an important part of a complete education. In some states, notably
California, the social-studies framework calls for history courses
to include accounts of creation found in various scriptures. (Unfortunately,
agreements concerning the importance of teaching about religion
do not often translate into staff development and curricular materials
that help to ensure such teaching actually occurs.)

If schools teach about religious views in the social studies,
is there any reason to mention creationism in the science classroom?
Yes. At the very least, science teachers should alert students
to the fact that there are a number of religious views that take
issue with the view that prevails in the scientific community.
This lets students and parents know that the teacher recognizes
there are different ways of seeing the world and the origins of
humankind. It's also a good way of informing students about the
possibilities and limits of scientific inquiry.

Science teachers should also make room for scientific theories
that differ from the prevailing view. Keep in mind that there
are a variety of creationist perspectives as there are a variety
of views concerning evolution. To the extent that creationists
or others offer scientific evidence for an alternative interpretation,
that evidence should be seriously considered. It should be possible
to teach some of the controversies surrounding unanswered scientific
questions without diluting the science curriculum.

Educators must be careful not to let this conflict mute the rich
and open discussion that should be part of every science class.
If, in an effort to keep religion out of the classroom, science
teachers fail to teach the history and philosophy of science,
they run the danger of teaching a dogmatic and uncritical view
of the data. That would be scientism, not science.

For the sake of stronger public schools and better science education,
we need to move beyond the fight over creation and evolution.
We must agree on how to be fair in the curriculum to a variety
of ways of seeing the world, including religious ways.