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Religion and Public Education, pt. 4: Creation vs. Evolution

Here's a video of Chris Smither singing a folk song called "Origin of Species." His voice is an acquired taste, but the lyrics are a good introduction to this post.

I do not claim to have much in the way of scientific knowledge. I took a fair amount of Anthropology and Geography courses in my day and managed to fulfill the general education requirements for science, but I will make no attempt here to present any theories about the origins of life or of the universe. I suspect that the answers to these great questions are more interesting and complicated than anything that we humans have managed to develop, and there is a good chance that forces we define as natural and supernatural are both involved. In my mind, expecting humans to figure everything out is like waiting for an ant to figure out what the heck a human being might be. There are certain things beyond our capacity. But what do I know. To me, existence itself is the greatest mystery.

As a History teacher, however, I am forced from time to time to confront questions about the origins of human beings and of existence in general. (One of the best things about being a History teacher, after all, is that I get to talk about everything.) In my Early World Civilizations course, these issues come up when we read and discuss the creation stories of different cultures. Now for all of these stories, I present them in essentially the same way: as mythological stories designed to communicate certain basic truths. In most cases, people are fine with this perspective. But when you present the stories in the book of Genesis in this way, this may rub a lot of people in our Judeo/Christian culture the wrong way.

These potential objections, however, are based on a misunderstanding of the term “myth.” For many people, the word myth means “an untrue story,” an oversimplification of the term. Instead, a myth is a means of communicating truth that has been used by various cultures for centuries. In fact, our method of communicating History – the type of dry expository writing that you find in textbooks – is a modern and historically unusual way to write about the past. Legends and myths have been the norm, and the people composing and listening to the stories understood this. After all, they generally did not have the option of writing history in the way that we do. People in the past did not have access to the mass of information that is at the disposal of modern Historians. So they told stories that were orally passed down and altered through succeeding generations until they might eventually be written down. Certain aspects of the stories might be loosely based on actual events, and other elements were based on what people wanted the past to be. Whatever the case, the goals were to present certain individuals of the past as role models (for good or bad), explain mysterious aspects of life, and instill the culture’s values, beliefs, and traditions into the listeners.

Many Jews and Christians have no problem with this interpretation. They understand that the stories were not meant to be taken literally. They acknowledge that the world is probably more than a few thousand years old and that all life forms – including, possibly, human beings – were not created fully intact in an instant. For fundamentalists who take the Genesis stories literally, however, the theories and conclusions of scientists, archaeologists, and historians are potential threats to their world view. So the battle rages and has been given different labels: faith vs. reason, creation vs. evolution, or science vs. scripture.

In my Modern American History course, we confront these questions and their educational implications very directly when we discuss “The Scopes Trial” of the 1920’s. In this event that was one of many “trials of the century,” a science teacher named John Scopes was arrested for teaching that mankind descended from a lower order of animals. His behavior conflicted with a Tennessee state law, a law that was also on the books of a few other states, which stated that teaching evolution in a public school was illegal. This law, however, had not been enforced until opponents of this measure asked John Scopes if he would like to be arrested. After some hesitation, he agreed. They could now use his case to attack this anti-evolution law that they considered to be ridiculous.

So the trial had little to do with John Scopes himself. It should have been pretty straightforward. Scopes should have been asked if he taught evolution. He would then say yes. Trial over. Instead, it turned into this great media circus and entertainment event in which talented, prominent lawyers went back and forth discussing not just the merits of this law but of the whole creationist perspective. (Lots of monkey related items also went on sale in the town of Dayton, Tennessee.) The question of who won this short-term battle is subject to debate. Like all political and religious debates, most people came out believing that their side had made the better case. Over the long haul, however, many would say that the scientific perspective has won the battle in the public schools. Today, the evolutionary perspective is dominant, and people who want to bring back supernatural explanations are on the outside looking in.

Several years ago, people who called themselves “Scientific Creationists” argued that there was scientific evidence to support the fundamentalist Christian perspective. They also argued that there were holes in evolutionary theory, and these holes should not simply be glossed over. Forcing students to listen only to the evolutionary perspective was no different than banning evolution back in the 1920’s. If scientists really believe in free thought, they should not be threatened by the idea of presenting alternative theories in public school Science classrooms.

There were a couple of major problems with Scientific Creationism, however. First, as I mentioned earlier, there are many Christians who do not take Genesis literally, and they would argue, like most scientists, that evidence for a literal interpretation is pretty flimsy at best. A second, even greater difficulty in my mind was The First Amendment. Because Scientific Creationism was so blatantly pushing the perspective of a specific religion, it would seem to violate the provision banning the government from promoting the “establishment of religion.”

People eventually found a way, it seemed, to get around both of these problems. Today, “Intelligent Design” is the new movement to bring the supernatural back into the science classroom. Advocates of Intelligent Design argue that evolutionary theory, which credits the random process of natural selection with creating the world as we know it, is unable to explain certain things, particularly the existence of life itself. In their minds, highly complex life forms originating and evolving into such a wide variety of species could not have possibly happened by pure chance. There must be some kind of a supernatural designer guiding the process. This perspective has two major advantages over Scientific Creationism. First, you are not limited to providing evidence for a fundamentalist interpretation of the book of Genesis. You can now bring in both Christians and members of other religious faiths who might believe that the earth is billions of years old and who accept a certain amount of evolution. They would argue that evolution, instead of being purely random, has been guided by a “designer” working “behind the scenes.” Now, by bringing in people from many different religious perspectives, you can claim that you are in compliance with The First Amendment. Intelligent Design, by not promoting a specific religious faith, can be accepted by all people who believe in anyone or anything supernatural.

Intelligent Design supporters make a good case. Teachers in Science classes should point out the things that scientists are unable to explain. It would also be legitimate to point out that many people turn to spirituality when dealing with things not yet explainable. Inserting an intelligent designer (or designers) to fill these gaps in knowledge, however, goes beyond the scope of science. Science, by definition, is a discipline in which people seek knowledge through experiment and observation. An Intelligent Designer, by definition, is supernatural, which means that he (or she, or it, or them) is not subject to physical observation. Theories beyond the scope of scientific observation do not belong in a Science class.

This does not mean, however, that religious explanations should be kept entirely out of public schools. What the Scientific Creationist and Intelligent Design theories demonstrate, more than anything else, is the degree to which the scientific perspective has become dominant. People feel that if an idea is to be considered credible, it must be backed by scientific evidence. What we have forgotten is that science is only one path to knowledge. Philosophy, mysticism, and the use of metaphor are also approaches one can take when trying to answer life’s great questions. These also happen to be approaches that have been in wider use throughout history than the scientific method. If we overemphasize science, we lose touch with a part of our nature. I would argue, then, that religious ideas should be presented and discussed in public school Literature, Humanities, Philosophy, Religious Studies and Art classes as legitimate options. (Although no single religious option should be emphasized or promoted in any way.) Of course, it would be necessary to offer these subjects in grammar and secondary schools in order to make these ideas known, something that I also think should be done in our overly “practical” educational system.

In my Modern American History class, I always end our discussion of The Scopes Trial with two simple questions: Why did people care so much about this case, and why are people still so passionate about the creation vs. evolution issue? There may be several valid explanations for this phenomenon, but I think it largely comes down to something very simple. When The Scopes Trial occurred in the 1920’s, the country was going through a period of major social change. “Flappers” challenging traditional rules of behavior for women, an emerging youth culture, and the growing influence of a mass media seemed to threaten traditional values. Excessive drinking (in spite of Prohibition), “wild” Jazz music, and reckless spending on new consumer goods made it seem that people were seeking nothing but pleasure. Concerns about the influence of communists and foreigners, fears leftover from the World War I era, made people wonder if American culture itself was under siege. (Sound familiar?)  During times of fear and change, people often cling to traditional values. Seemingly, if scientists had their way, then the Christian belief system that was such a central part of traditional American culture would be wiped out. And if people lose the fear of God, then the rampant immorality of the 1920’s would only get worse. After all, if there is no promise of a reward in heaven or threat of a punishment in hell, then what’s the point of being good?

The human race is in a sorry state if the only reason that people are good is the prospect of getting a reward or avoiding punishment. On some level, maybe we all know that the things labeled as bad are actually good, and we would all go out and experience all the sex, alcohol, and gambling binges that we could if we knew that there were no eternal consequences. There may not be enough atheists in the world to conduct a case study in order to determine if this is true. If it is true, however, then the Christians may be right about human nature. Maybe we are inherently sinful, and we have a limited capacity to figure things out. Whatever the case, the creation/evolution struggle will rage on into the foreseeable future. In the mean time, I will try to focus on becoming a better and a wiser human being (just for the hell of it).

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