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COLUMN

A Bridge to the 11th Century

Kris Schnee

How would you react to a physics textbook which began, “Gravity is a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation for why objects fall. No one was present when the physical laws of the universe were set. Therefore, any statement about falling objects should be considered as theory, not fact. You will not be tested on any concept involving gravity.”

No school system has yet reached that point, but some are headed in that direction. The Kansas State Board of Education voted this August to approve a new curriculum backed by creationists. The new science standards have altered instructions for teachers, encouraging them to attack the theory of evolution. This is a setback for common sense and for the children of Kansas, who will be hindered in learning the knowledge and critical-thinking skills they will need as adults in the next century.

Decades after the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial”, the anti-science rhetoric of religious fundamentalism still thrives in America. Fundamentalists are not a tiny minority at all -- according to a Gallup poll taken in 1991, an astonishing 47 percent of the American people believe in the “special creation” of humans more or less in their present form during the last ten thousand years. This belief flatly contradicts the evidence gathered by several major branches of science, including geology, archaeology, genetics, and cosmology, and reduces modern biology to an unexplainable jumble. Yet people continue to believe in “creation”, because the evolution issue reaches deeper than science itself. Religious believers consider their ideas separate from, and superior to, knowledge gained through science and reason, and so it is not surprising that they disapprove of having their children learn ideas which contradict their most strongly-held beliefs.

But the fact that religion is considered a separate field of study from science is one of the best reasons why “creationism” should be kept out of public education. The Constitution forbids the establishment of any religion by the federal government, establishing instead the principle that Americans have no right to impose their religious beliefs on each other. Creationism is not a scientific theory in competition with evolution -- it is a thinly veiled front for religious fundamentalists, primarily Christians, to impose their own interpretations of their religions’ scriptures on all children.

The intent to impose religious dogma on students shows clearly through the Kansas standards, despite their deceptive wording. “No evidence or analysis of evidence that contradicts a current science theory will be censured.” No particular theory is mentioned. However, Republican school board member Steve Abrams, when he decided to rewrite the science standards prepared for him by actual scientists, had one particular complaint: “[It] is not good science to teach evolution as fact.” Thanks to him, the standards’ description of evolutionary theory was slashed, leaving only a description of “micro-evolution”. Micro-evolution attempts to explain change within a species, and not evolution of species. Abrams also tried to add these words to the standards: “The design and complexity... of the cosmos requires an intelligent designer.” Cutting evolution from the standards makes teaching and learning the subject optional, as if it were insignificant to science. Meanwhile, the cleverly-worded demand for a “non-dogmatic” treatment of human origins opens the way for public school teachers with a fundamentalist bent to use the classroom as a pulpit. In other words, creationist-written school standards plead for a free debate, including the religious opinion, while shutting out or belittling the scientific opinion as much as possible. Creationists have tried to dress religion up as science, and vice versa.

Evolution, they say, is the cornerstone of a religion of secular humanism, and thus has no place in public schools. Indeed, if there were no such things as fossils, radiocarbon dating, and other evidence backing up evolutionary theory, this might be a valid argument. But again, the competition is between evolution, a theory backed by evidence, and creation, a theory contradicted by the evidence. The creationist response to “the evidence card” is that teaching children facts which contradict their religion will make them lose their faith in a contradictory world view. Irrelevant! If public schools are to teach science, they must teach about evidence and rationality, without ignoring any issue, or they will cease to teach science at all. Students are free to decide on their own how to reconcile scientific fact with their religious beliefs, but we cannot honestly certify that they understand biology without testing their understanding of evolution. It is no business or right of fundamentalists to remove the scientific community from the design of a science class.

Even if the Constitution did not bar creationism from the classroom, common sense would. The Kansas schools will now cut out evolution and, interestingly, also the Big Bang theory, from the curriculum on the grounds that since these things cannot be fully replicated in the laboratory, we do not know if they happened in the past. If we accepted this notion, we would logically cease teaching history and most of religion as well. One might also ask how strong the fundamentalist argument (that “if it’s in our scriptures, it must be literally true”) is, if it must be defended by suppressing rational thought and crushing all opposition -- see Proverbs 3:5 and Deuteronomy 13.

The Creationist assault on science is a national phenomenon. Ohio, Washington, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and even Texas have considered adding anti-evolution language to school standards, and Alabama, New Mexico, and Nebraska have also approved such bills. Will the Kansas standards help to lead the country back into a darker time? Instead, hopefully, they will serve as a sharp reminder that intellectual freedom must be constantly guarded -- and also spur scientists to check their own evidence again, just to be sure.