Teaching Creationism

With all the talk — not to say screaming and shouting — about the teaching of Creationism in the schools (under the aegis of “Intelligent Design”) it’s hard to think that the battle about the teaching of evolution goes back well into the nineteenth century, to the days of Dwight Moody in the 1870s and Billy Sunday in the 1890s. These men joined a cadre of fellow itinerant preachers and evangelists who were worried that such teaching would destroy what we now call “family values.”

The controversy, of course, came to a head in the famous Scopes trial in 1925 and the spokesman for those evangelists and defenders of the family was William Jennings Bryan who was nothing if not passionate and even at times eloquent. His notion was that since the majority of people in the country at that time opposed the teaching of evolution, and since those folks paid the teachers’ salaries, evolution should not be taught. It was a question of majority opinion. Bryan did not trust science any more than today’s opponents of evolution do and he preferred to look at “the science of government” that tells us that the majority rules. He appealed to the Constitution (?) and argued that “They [the teachers] have no right to demand pay for teaching that which the parents and the taxpayers do not want taught. The hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.” In the end, he said, “If we have to give up either religion or education, we should give up education.” As it happens, that sentiment (while grounding a terribly weak argument) is still strong today as the attack on the public schools continues and kids are sent instead to charter schools or schooled at home where they are taught such things as creationism as science.

But we should be clear that this is not education. It is indoctrination, which is hardly the same thing. Teaching young people ideas in the form of beliefs that cannot be questioned has nothing whatever to do with education, whatever those ides might happen to be. The notion that creationism should be taught along with (or instead of) evolution presupposes that they are both science, which is false: the latter can be questioned and scrutinized the former cannot. People like Bryan worried that a small group of intellectuals was determining what should and should not be taught in the schools and the majority was being ignored. But this is precisely what schooling is all about: a small group of people who presumably know what kids need to know determines what the curriculum should be. And creationism should not be in the curriculum because creationism, even in the guise of “intelligent design,” is not science. The central feature of scientific claims is precisely that they can be tested. They can be shown by tests and evidence to be true or, more importantly, to be false. Creationism cannot be shown to be false; its truth depends on faith, not evidence. Therefore it is not science. And people who do not understand what science is and what science is not cannot be said to be educated or expected to succeed in the modern, and post-modern, world. And they certainly should not be determining curriculum in the schools, even if they constitute a majority.

Does this mean that kids should not be taught about the Bible? Of course not. It simply means that they should not be taught about the Biblical version of creation in the schools (public or private). If it is taught it should be taught at home or in the churches. So, in the end, Bryan’s dichotomy, education or religion, can be shown to be a false dichotomy, what logicians call “bifurcation.” It supposes that children must either be educated or raised in a religious atmosphere. It need not be either/or. It can be both. It’s simply a matter of propriety: which is to be taught where.

The notion that kids are going to be forced to give up their family’s religious beliefs because they are taught about evolution, which is a tested scientific theory, is absurd. They need to learn what science is and what it is not, especially if they are to survive in the modern world. If they are never taught such things as evolution their minds will remain stunted and they will, in the end, be the losers because they will not be able to contend in the real world where, like it or not, they will either succeed or fail. It is understandable that a great many people want their kids to hold on to the beliefs their parents have held all their lives. But it is a mistake to insist that by expanding their minds they will invariably give up those beliefs. This is one of the many fallacies that has accompanied the attack on intelligence in this country: the notion that mind and heart cannot live together in harmony within the same person.


7 thoughts on “Teaching Creationism

      • Having attended a fundamentalist Christian school as a kid, I can attest to the fact that the fundamentalists believe that science actively seeks to undermine religion. The fossil record and evidence of the true age of the earth is suppressed and explained away. The suggestion that human are descended from anything other than a 6,000 year-old modern man Adam is an affront and blasphemy. Science is appreciated only for the modern conveniences it provides. Any exploration of natural science is minimal in these schools. And this is how they would like it in public school as well, so this ridiculous debate rages on. I think the whole school voucher thing, along with efforts to defund public schools, privatize them, and micromanage curriculums stems in large part from this wish to maintain an extreme judeo-christian worldview.

  1. Great post, Hugh. To deny underlying truths in teaching is an injustice to children. To say to someone the earth is only 6,000 years old when the evidence to the contrary exists in abundance, is a disservice. Bill Nye had a debate with the Creationist Museum founder and had a field day with facts, yet could never find the right door into a shell of faith to dissuade the creationist belief. As I noted in a post of a few weeks ago, God gave us a brain and we should use it, as instructed in Proverbs.

    • I like the notion of a “shell of faith.” I don’t think we have tools capable of cracking that shell in many cases. But, as I say, faith is one thing, thought another. They need not be exclusive of one another. Thanks for the comment!

      • Thanks Hugh. The only thing we can do is do the “Dragnet” thing over and over again – “just the facts, ma’am (or sir).”

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