Teaching Science, Not Dogma:
The Creationism Controversy

Creationism, creation science, and intelligent design are religious explanations for the origins of humankind and the universe. Recent efforts to teach these ideas in our public schools as science – either along side or in place of evolution – have sparked considerable controversy across our nation.

Americans have the absolute right to prefer religious explanations for creation. However, because such beliefs are not scientific theories based on observation, experiment, and evidence, they provide an inappropriate and legally impermissible foundation for science instruction in the public school classroom.

The First Amendment mandates the separation of church and state. This principle means that government institutions, including public schools, are prohibited from promoting religion or religious beliefs. For this reason, religious explanations of creation cannot be part of the public school science curriculum. But nor should these ideas be forever banned from the public school classroom. Provided that they are discussed in the proper context – i.e., as part of an objective survey of religious or philosophical views on creation – these explanations need not threaten the important distinction between matters of faith and matters of government.

In fact, this approach makes sense and is ultimately good for religion because it leaves religious instruction to parents and to properly trained clergy. It also keeps government out of religious controversies, preserves quality science education, and ensures that public school classrooms remain hospitable to an ethnically diverse and religiously pluralistic society.

Yet many proponents of religious explanations for creation vigorously oppose these well-balanced rules. Disregarding the potential harm to religious pluralism and public school science education, they have renewed their efforts to persuade our nation’s public schools to teach these ideas either along side or in place of evolution. This has triggered conflict within school boards, local communities, and state legislatures.

Creationism, Creation Science & Intelligent Design Defined

Creationism is a religious belief that God or a divine being created the universe or humankind. Typically, creationists subscribe to the account of creation presented in the Bible’s Book of Genesis. Creation science attempts to prove that God created the world by refuting evolution and offering interpretations of scientific data to “prove” the creation account in Genesis.

The idea known as intelligent design is not specifically based on the Bible’s account of creation, though it also is a religious or supernatural explanation for life on earth. Intelligent design states that – due to the very complexity and organization of life and the failure of science to explain it all completely – the intervention of an intelligent designer was a critical component of life on earth. For many of its adherents, the intelligent designer is God or a supreme being.

Religious Explanations of Creation Are Not Science

Science is an investigation into nature and the operations of the universe that proceeds by testing explanatory theories against empirical evidence. This process is called the scientific method. Scientists have long recognized that evolution accounts for the diversity of life on earth. Using the methods of scientific inquiry and analysis, biologists have established that human beings and other species evolved over time through processes including natural selection. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, for public schools to make evolution a significant part of their biology curricula.

Although the role of evolution in shaping the biological world is accepted as a fact in the scientific community, some religious people – from a variety of faiths – reject its veracity because they believe that it is irreconcilable with divine explanations of creation.

In their view, the teaching of evolution in public schools represents an anti-religious bias against Christians, Jews, and others who believe in supernatural creation. Many opponents of the teaching of evolution believe that it is merely one example of the "secular-humanist" religion that government favors in place of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs. Demanding a much higher level of proof for evolution’s claims than other widely accepted scientific theories, they argue that evolution remains unproven and that schools should give equal time to creationism, creation science or intelligent design.

First Amendment & Religious Explanations of Creation

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from endorsing any particular religious belief. This prohibition ensures that our public schools remain places in which students of all faiths – or those who do not ascribe to religious beliefs – may learn in an atmosphere free from divisive theological debates and sectarianism.

In disapproving organized prayer in the public schools in 1962, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court said that "[w]hen the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain."

Our public schools must be true to the First Amendment's mandate against religious divisiveness and remain free from the influence of religious dogma in order for students of all faiths to attend school without fear of coercion.

But proponents of teaching religious explanations for creation in public schools share a distinctly religious view of the world's origin and believe that the public schools should present that view even to the exclusion of science. However, this approach would plainly violate the First Amendment's prohibition against state action designed to advance a religious belief.

In 1968, in Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, the Supreme Court held unambiguously that it is unconstitutional to restrict a public school teacher's right to teach evolution. More recently, in Aguillard v. Edwards, 482 U.S. 595 (1987), the Court decisively held that it is unconstitutional to require educators who teach evolution also to teach creationism. Courts have yet to address a similar requirement to teach intelligent design. But based on Aguillard and other Supreme Court rulings, courts should also find such a requirement unconstitutional.

Recent Efforts to Promote Religious Explanations
of Creation in the Public Schools

Even though attempts to ban instruction on evolution outright or to include religious explanations of creation in the public schools run counter to Supreme Court rulings, proponents of creationism, creation science and intelligent design have in recent years demanded that schools incorporate these ideas into science curricula. They have also developed new strategies for undermining the way biology is predominantly taught in the public schools. For example:

Ignoring Supreme Court rulings, the Dover, PA school district became the first in the nation to mandate discussion of intelligent design within the science classroom. In 2004, its school board adopted a revision to the high-school biology curriculum which states, “Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s Theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, Intelligent Design.”

The member of the Dover School Board who initiated the revision is an adherent of creationism, but stated that “this is not an attempt to impose my views on anyone else.” However, he insisted that “it’s a downright fraud to perpetrate on the students of this district to portray one theory over another.” Two dissenting board members resigned from the board in protest. One of them described these developments as the result of having “a vocal community group within the community who feel very strongly … that there is no separation of church and state.” Concerned parents filed a federal lawsuit challenging Dover’s curriculum revision. After the trial concluded at the end of October 2005, Dover citizens voted out eight incumbent school board members who supported the inclusion of intelligent design in the science curriculum, replacing them with a slate of candidates whose platform called for removing the subject from the curriculum. At the end of 2005, the federal court issued a decision finding that intelligent design is not science, but another form of creationism. It therefore ruled that discussion of intelligent design in the science classroom advanced religion in violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. The new school board decided not to appeal this ruling.

In 1999, the Kansas Board of Education removed evolution from the statewide high-school biology curriculum. Citizens responded by voting out of office two of the board members who supported this measure, and in 2001 evolution was restored to the required biology curriculum. In November 2005, however, a new majority of Kansas Board of Education members approved biology standards that characterize evolution as a flawed scientific theory and redefine science to include supernatural explanations -- such as intelligent design -- rather than natural explanations for physical evidence.

The Georgia State School Superintendent in 2004 removed all references to evolution and related concepts from middle and high school science materials. A backlash from concerned parents, scientists and politicians, including former President Jimmy Carter, convinced the Superintendent to restore these subjects to the curriculum.

In 1999, the Oklahoma State Textbook Committee mandated that publishers doing business with the state be required to place a disclaimer in all biology books. The disclaimer states that evolution is “a controversial theory which some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things, such as plants and humans.” It goes on to attack evolutionary theory as an “unproven belief that random, undirected forces produced a world of living things.”

Similarly, a 2002 petition initiated by supporters of creationism resulted in the school board of Cobb County, GA inserting a disclaimer into middle and high school science textbooks. The disclaimer stated, “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.”

Although couched in the language of scientific skepticism, these disclaimers are designed to cast doubt on the process of evolution – for religious reasons. Indeed, some supporters of these disclaimers have openly stated that their purpose is to give creationism an equal chance in the schools. Concerned Cobb County parents filed a federal lawsuit challenging the disclaimer. In early 2005, a federal district court ruled the disclaimer unconstitutional because it impermissibly endorsed religion.

Teaching Religious Explanations of Creation in the Public
School Science Classroom Harms Religion and Education

Any effort to introduce a theological doctrine into public school science curricula would inevitably offend some teachers and students. After all, a Protestant fundamentalist's "literal" reading of Genesis would likely differ markedly from that of a Catholic or an Orthodox Jew.

Both public school educators and religious leaders should be concerned about the prospect of biology lessons degenerating into debates on Biblical or religious interpretation. Our history has been largely free of the kind of sectarian discord that has plagued other countries precisely because we have kept government out of religion and religion free from government control.

Teaching religious ideas as fact further undermines science education by misinforming students about the scientific method -- the basis for science literacy. The scientific method teaches students the fundamentals of science -- how to observe data, perform experiments and form scientific theory. Religious explanations for creation are not science – they cannot be confirmed or denied by the scientific method. Teaching them as science confuses and misleads students about the scientific method, thereby depriving them of a high-quality science education.

Many religious people, of course, are able to reconcile religious teachings with those of modern science. But this task should be left to families and their clergy based upon a full understanding of the scientific basis of evolutionary biology. To deny students an adequate education in biology for fear of insulting their religious sensibilities underestimates the ability of believers to distinguish between scientific facts and matters of personal faith.

 

Conclusion

Creationism, creation science and intelligent design are ideas based on varying interpretations of the Bible and different religious beliefs. Consequently, any attempt to supplant or even to supplement the teaching of evolution in public schools in a way that promotes these ideas would have the effect of advancing religious views. By protecting the right and ability of students to learn science that is not molded by religious doctrine, we best fulfill the promise and purpose of the First Amendment.

The theory of evolution is a fundamental concept of biology and it is supported by the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence. Simply eliminating evolution from the public school curriculum in order to ease community tensions would do a great disservice to all students. First, it would deny public school students an adequate science education – which is more and more becoming a necessity for professional success in a high-tech world. Second, it would send the message that families cannot be trusted to reach correct conclusions when confronted by ideas that may appear to conflict with their own religious beliefs.

On both counts, Americans deserve better.




© 2000 Anti-Defamation League