teaching about science and religion in the public schools

Michael Dowd has left a comment on my previous post that I think deserves to be shared. The comment was appropriate there, but it raises a problem that’s a little different from the main focus of that post; so this new post can focus on Dowd’s own proposition.

The earlier post quoted John West of Discovery Institute saying evolution education in the U.S. is “dumbed down.” I agreed, but added that the remedy is not the introduction of Intelligent Design into Biology class, but instead teaching Biology at least well enough that people will know the difference between what is and what is not the natural science of Biology.

Dowd book on WorldCat.orgDowd, who wrote Thank God for evolution: how the marriage of science and religion will transform your life and our world, (click on the title or the cover image to find the book; click here for a 4-minute interview of Dowd on CNN), contributed this comment:

I agree with you, Tony. ID is not science and should not be taught in science classes. I do, however, think that students, schools, and society as a whole would be greatly served by having worldview classes that show how mainstream Biology and other evolutionary sciences can be interpreted in ways that enrich a variety of religious and nonreligious perspectives.

My other post was about how science should be taught. This post shares the proposition that in addition to, and outside of, science classes, it would be a good thing to have “worldview” classes in which students could learn about the kinds of relationships that Michael suggests.

I agree, Michael, in principle; and I think that dealing with this controversy could necessity creating a place in the curriculum where appropriately qualified teachers could help students learn about these things. As a Constitutional lawyer, I think I could make a case for a course in which even your book could be read by students in a public school, perhaps alongside Dawkins and another book by someone arguing that Darwinism cannot be reconciled with Christianity.

If I were a public school principal, however, just about anyplace in the United States, I’d probably think that’s just not feasible politically, no matter how much I might personally want to see it done.

What qualifications would a teacher need before they were qualified to teach such a course? Recall that the “philosophy” course that was shut down in California right after the Dover decision, was being taught by a gym teacher whose husband was a local fundamentalist minister. But if not her, then who? They would need to be trusted, as well as qualified. Ironically, I think this would have a better chance in Catholic schools, not because of the Constitutional difference, but because the parents would be more inclined to trust teachers hired by their Catholic school.

But the first challenge is likely to come from creationists such as those who have brought the lawsuit over the Understanding Evolution for Teachers website hosted at UC-Berkeley. As reported in The Christian Post, the Pacific Justice Institute (the group bringing the lawsuit) “points to parts of the site that feature pro-evolution religious denominations alongside faiths that the site says adhere to creationism and ‘explicitly contradict science.'” Claiming that this case presents “a clear situation of viewpoint discrimination,” they argue that

Whatever one’s views on the origin of life or the theory of evolution, it is completely inappropriate for the government to declare that some religious denominations are better than others,” explained PJI Chief Counsel Kevin Snider, in a statement. “The Supreme Court has long held that government must not decree what is orthodox in religion, and we are seeking to hold UC Berkeley to that standard.

Roy Caldwell, one of the defendants at Berkeley, responds

“Basically, what we have is a page that deals with the misconceptions and challenges to the teaching of evolution, and we provided resources to teachers to answer them,” he told UC Berkeley news. “One of those questions is, ‘Aren’t religion and evolution incompatible?’ And we say, ‘no,’ and point to a number of sites by clerics and others who make that point.”

On the page that’s titled Misconception: “Evolution and religion are incompatible,” we find this explanation:

The misconception that one always has to choose between science and religion is incorrect. Of course, some religious beliefs explicitly contradict science (e.g., the belief that the world and all life on it was created in six literal days); however, most religious groups have no conflict with the theory of evolution or other scientific findings. In fact, many religious people, including theologians, feel that a deeper understanding of nature actually enriches their faith. Moreover, in the scientific community there are thousands of scientists who are devoutly religious and also accept evolution.

So, Michael, as reasonable as you are trying to be, and as Constitutionally scrupulous as I might try to be, if I tried to use your thoroughly religious book in a public school classroom, I would be sued for doing that — not by the “Darwinists,” but by the Christians who insist that to teach that God is not ruled out by evolution, is to impermissibly take sides in a religious dispute.

What do you think?


Added July 6, 2008:

There’s a post on the Religion blog of the Dallas Morning News where Sam Hodges writes about Dowd’s book. (Thanks to Ed Darrell for this lead.)

Read the comments on that post to see examples of Christians insisting that “macroevolution” cannot be reconciled with Christianity.



  1. Posted July 8, 2008 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    I fail to see how claiming something as random that has apparent order is science.

    It seems you can not separate the phase “Intelligent Design” ID from the teaching of religion. Would you be happier with the term “apparent order” AO. Scientists don’t need to be teaching or denying religion just teach critical logic skills and present provable facts not opinions; if opinions are involved ask how would you test that idea; of course the test for randomness can be done with mathematics; comes out to the odds in the neighborhood of 254 5 slot slot machines coming up all 7s one after the other. And those odds are only for one animal.

    “Read the comments on that post to see examples of Christians insisting that “macroevolution” cannot be reconciled with Christianity”

    … you mean Mike and Herman. JohnFranc points out “In 1950, Pope Pius XII said that evolution is not incompatible with Christian faith … Truth Cannot Contradict Truth” and Ken. while action explains it is an interpretation …

    or “Read the comments on that post to see example of Christians who reconciled “Macro evolution” with Christianity”

    Any event a solid missing link would result in reconsideration.

  2. Kevin Currie
    Posted July 9, 2008 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Whitson,

    Good post. I also see nothhing wrong with such a class that explores worldviews from a sociological perspective. It would certainly pass constitutional muster, and may even be a great way to appease religious folk who feel, with decent justification, that God has been banned from public schools.

    You raise great points about why such a class might not go off well in practice, and I want to expand on it. A class like that would be interesting and informative only if handled by a really good and hopefully well-seasoned teacher. Otherwise, such a class could EASILY become a biased and polemical class subject to whatever ideological spin the teacher wants.

    By way of example, I just today sasw (youtube) a debate between Dinesh D’souza and Daniel Dennett, and Dennett proposed just this type of class (also proposed recently by Stephen Prothero in his book, “Religious Liteacy.”) Students would learn the basic tenets of and facts about various ‘big’ religions in a SOCIOLOGICAL and LITERARY context.

    D’Souza objected not to the idea of the class, but simply desired that atheism also be taught in the class as a worldview – and talked of his desire to see that students learn that atheism is responsible for the Holocuast, Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung, etc.

    It is doubtless to me that both of these thinkers have their own agendas for this class. D’Souza clearly wants to use the class to make a point about atheism (and if we dug futher, probably wants to make the opposite point about Christianity). I can’t help but think that Dennett has a motive also: as an atheist, it sounds like Dennett wants to present comparitive religion in a sociological context so as to elucidate his central thesis that religion is a construct, and that there are too many religions claiming to be true for them to really be true. (He does suggest in the video that he desires that a class like this will keep religion alive while “cleansing it of its toxic elements.”)

    What I am saying by all of this is that a class like this could VERY EASILY be held hostage not only by the teachers teaching it (and the spin they want to add), but by the writers of the curriculum (and the spin they want to add).

    Of course, a course like this also runs into the objection that it would not really satisfy those who it aims to satisfy: that is, those who want to see religion be a permissible topic in school. Those who are pushing for religion to be taught in schools generally mean by this that THEIR religion be taught in schools and that it be taught as the true religion. These people would likely object to the very type of relativism that would be inherent in a comparitive religion course.

    Moreover, many of these types of people – really, fundamentalists – would take STONG objection to the idea that we study religion secularly (as this course would do). We saw how much flack William James got from doing this in his Varieties of Religious Experience, and how much Daniel Dennett took for doing so in his Breaking the Spell. Were religion to be treated secularly and comparatively (necessarily relativistically, as we are not claiming in this course that any one of the religions prsented are true or false), it is quite easy to imagine believers of religion of an evangelical and fundamentalist sort feeling more than uneasy at this type of treatment.

    But really, my biggest objection to any type of “worldview” course is that it would be simply too easy for teachers and curriculum writers to slant and distort in any way they wanted.

    -Kevin Currie

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