Creationism in Public Schools

I often get into arguments with people regarding the role of Judeo-Christian creationism in biology classes.  Many non-religious people seem to be of the opinion that the “theory” of creationism (as believed by Christians) should be introduced to students before teaching them about biological evolution.  Their reasoning seems to go something like this: a) a large proportion of North Americans believe creationism to be true, b) we shouldn’t offend their beliefs and c) students should know every theory and make the decision for themselves.

Now, I believe I am a rational and fair person, but I just couldn’t be more against the rationale of this argument.  I believe that in biology class (or any other course that teaches about the science of evolution (e.g., anthropology, psychology, chemistry)) teachers should not have to mention creationism at all.  I believe this for several simple reasons:

1. Teachers of other academic subjects do not have to deal with the same pressure

Judeo-Christian creationism and biological evolution are what a cultural anthropologist would call two different “ways of knowing” about the origins of life and our species.  One of those ways of knowing is built on ideas propagated in religious texts passed down for thousands of years, and the other is built on the scientific method.  Biology is (obviously) a science class.  In biology class you learn about the way organisms function on a macro and micro level, you learn about the diversity of life, and you learn about how life came to be.  You learn about all of these things from a scientific perspective, or “way of knowing”.  You learn about the scientific method and the scientists who have used it to do research and make discoveries of biological structures that are invisible to the human eye.  Or you use it to study other living organisms, or understand what life was like in the very distant past.  I believe that since biology is a science class, you should not have to learn about any other competing way of knowing.

Don’t get me wrong.  Learning about religion is important.  We should learn about the history of religion and we should learn about religious philosophy.  It is integral to understanding the world around us and to understand the moral, spiritual and cultural evolution of our species.  However, that should be done by studying religions academically in a history, philosophy or world religions class.  Introducing a “theory of creationism” before teaching evolution is just wrong.

In fact, the very thought of this is bizarre to me.  What would it be like if any other academic course had to deal with this unwanted and unnecessary intrusion into their subject?  What if an astronomy or physics teacher was forced to introduce the Judeo-Christian genesis story before teaching about the Big Bang?  What if a history teacher was forced to introduce the biblical understanding of history before teaching about what modern day historians know about our past?  What if cultural anthropologists were forced to teach the Christian understanding of other religions and spiritual groups before teaching their students about cultural relativism?

The list could go on, but I think you get my point.  Teachers of astronomy, history, cultural anthropology or any other subject, do not have to introduce the Christian understanding of what they are discussing before teaching their students from a scientific or academic perspective.  So why is teaching evolution in biology or evolutionary anthropology class any different?  It can’t be because learning about the evolution of our species is more threatening to religious belief than learning about scientific understanding in other subjects.  Sure in biology you can learn that there is no need to evoke a Christian God to explain life on Earth, but in cultural anthropology and sociology you learn no religious belief is superior to any other and that religion is largely determined by where you were born and who your parents are; and in history you learn that all the supernatural stories and events of the Bible are myths of Middle Eastern pastoral herders from the Bronze Age; and in astronomy you learn that you do not need to evoke a Christian God to explain the universe itself.

Furthermore, the scientific “truths” in those subjects are no ‘more valid’ than the theory of evolution in biology.  Academics know that biological evolution occurred with the same level of certainty that they know the Big Bang occurred or that religious belief is dependent on socialization or that supernatural stories from the Bible are myths.

2. It gives special privilege to the Judeo-Christian origin story

To allow creationism to be introduced before the teaching of evolution, isn’t just a disservice to scientific theory, it is also a disservice to the role of secularism in public society.  Secularism is based on the premise that public society should be separate from religion and not biased to support any particular religion or religious worldview.  However, if biology teachers are forced to teach the Judeo-Christian origin story before teaching evolution, they should have to teach all of the other religious origins stories as well.  Canada and America are not Christian countries, even if Christianity is the dominant religion, they are secular countries built upon secular principles.  Teaching a Christian origin story in a public school is giving privilege to a particular religious group over other religious groups.

Either way, no religious origin story should be taught in biology class anyway.  If you want to learn about Creationism, go to a church.

3. Creates illusion that biological evolution is not a fact of nature

I think this is an underrated and overlooked point, and it is connected in many ways to the first point.  Do you ever hear any controversial debates over whether the Big Bang occurred?  Do you ever hear any uproar over history teachers teaching students that Jesus walking on water and Moses parting the Red Sea are not historical facts, but rather part of Christian mythology?  In theory, these should be important issues for Christians, perhaps just as important as trying to get creationism in biology class.  Nevertheless, I have never heard any uproar over either of the aforementioned issues.  This is partly because astronomy teachers never do feel the need to preface the scientific understanding of the origin of our universe with an introduction about what Christians think about it.  What they think about it is irrelevant.

The fact that biology teachers are often times forced to preface a class on evolution with creationism implicitly plants the seed of controversy in a students minds: “biological evolution must not be validated yet.”;  “maybe scientists don’t know for sure.”;  “it is only a theory…”.  I think this annoys me the most, because I actually believe there is stronger evidence for evolution than gravity.  Don’t take this the wrong way; obviously we know gravity exists.  But our understanding of gravity is incomplete, it is still subject to major revisions in the future, our understanding of evolution is not.  Evolution may be a theory, but it is a fact that it happened.  It is only a theory because we must keep using the scientific method to better understand how life evolved, notwhether life evolved.  And there is so much to understand about the evolution of life that it will always be a theory.  There will never come a point in time when scientists will be able to say, “ok let’s move on, we know everything we’ll ever need to know about evolution.”

I’m losing focus a little bit now, but I hope my point is clear.  When you preface a class on evolution with creationism to a group of students, the very narrative of that class will give them the impression that evolution itself is in question.  That it is not a fact; when in reality it is and there is no debate about whether it has occurred.  This is a particularly important issue for me because I remember when I started learning about evolution.  The narrative of many books and courses led me to believe there was a debate to be had.  And so I spent my first year learning about the debate between creationism and biological evolution, instead of learning about evolution itself.  And that brings me to my next point.

4. Detracts from meaningful conversation about evolution itself

I remember reading “The Greatest Show on Earth” by Richard Dawkins and he opened with a devastatingly good point about what it is like to study evolution.  He asked readers to imagine being a Roman historian that is constantly pressured by a powerful religious group that believes the Roman Empire never existed.  Even though you have spent your life studying the Romans — reading their books, excavating their jewellery, coins and artifacts, walking on their ancient roads and marvelling at the colosseum — there was a group that continually argued (facts be damned) that the Roman Empire didn’t exist at all.  And now imagine that every time you taught your students about Roman History you had to preface your class with the beliefs of this religious group, and let your students know that there is a “competing theory” arguing that the Roman Empire never existed.  You would have to spend your entire class and most of your time arguing that the Romans did indeed exist, instead of having a meaningful conversation about the Romans themselves.

I think the analogy is apt because I know that I am oftentimes frustrated by the fact that I can get wrapped up into a debate about the very existence of evolution, instead of having a conversation with someone about some of the interesting discoveries made by evolutionary scientists.  This debate gets started because of the constant pressure on science teachers to include creationism in the curriculum.  Instead of focusing on how natural selection functions or how scientists can use the molecular clock technique to predict past speciation events, students get wrapped up in the debate about whether evolution even happened.  Evolution becomes controversial.

Science shouldn’t care if you’re offended

So to end my little rant, I have a message to science teachers and non-religious individuals who think it is alright to introduce creationism into biology class: science isn’t about picking and choosing facts and trying not to offend people.  We live in a secular society and we need to keep science in science classrooms, and make sure religion stays out of them.  This is not a joke.  This is actually a war.  Look at what is happening in some states right now.  In Minnesota students in public school hardly even hear about the theory of evolution, in many other states students hear a “debate” about evolution’s validity, in Kentucky creationism is taught alongside evolution.  This is simply unacceptable.  Evolution is the fundamental framework for all of biology.  Scientists are currently using an understanding of evolution to understand the spread and transmission of disease in order to predict and prevent the next epidemic before it happens.  Scientists use evolution to treat and cure viral and bacterial infections and develop new vaccines.  Without evolution conservationists would not be able to understand some of the basic threats to extinction or be able to apply evolutionary theory to know what habitats were optimal for future survival.

If you don’t like it that creationism shouldn’t be taught in biology classes, that is sad for you.  Go to a church and learn about it if you want, but don’t bring it into the science classroom.  If you have to take biology and your upset because you are being tested on it, just do it, get over it, and don’t believe it afterwards if you don’t want to.  It is completely fine to believe in whatever you want as long as you aren’t hurting anyone else.  But in a truly secular society it doesn’t matter how many people believe in creationism, it doesn’t matter how many people are offended by evolution, creationism should not even be mentioned in a biology class, because it is not science.  Simple as that.

 

Advertisements

About Cadell Last
I am a science educator, freelance science writer, and founder of The Advanced Apes based in Toronto, Ontario. In the past my academic research focused on the evolution, ecology, and behaviour of non-human primates (i.e., chimpanzees, gorillas, ring-tailed lemurs). Currently, my official blog, The Ratchet, can be found via The Advanced Apes and Svbtle. I enjoy exploring recent research in human evolutionary sciences, as well as biology, ecology, astronomy, physics, and computer science. My work has been featured in Scientific American, American Humanist, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. I am also exploring science popularization in new mediums in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios with an animated YouTube channel. You can contact me on Twitter (@cadelllast) or via email: cadell.last@gmail.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: