Religion in the Science Class?
Why Creationism and Intelligent Design Don't Belong
Creationism, creation science, intelligent design and other theories that set out to challenge widely held scientific explanations about the origin of the universe have no place in the public school curriculum. The U.S. Constitution guarantees the rights of Americans to believe the religious theories of creation (as well as other theories) but it does not permit them to be taught in public school science classes
Nevertheless, there is ongoing debate in several school districts as to whether creationism should be taught as a "competing scientific theory" in high school science classes.
A staunch defender of religious freedom in America, the Anti-Defamation League explains why the teaching of these religious theories of evolution doesn't belong in the classroom.
What is behind the current debate about religious theories of creation?
Proponents of religious theories of creation have recently renewed their efforts to persuade public schools to teach creationism, creation science, and intelligent design theory either along side or in place of evolution. This has triggered controversy in a number of state legislatures and boards of education and among parents.
The U.S. Constitution guarantees the rights of Americans to believe the religious theories of creation (as well as other theories) but it does not permit religious theories to be taught in public school science classes. This distinction makes sense, and is ultimately good for religion, because it leaves religious instruction to properly trained clergy and to parents (where religious education properly belongs), it keeps government out of religious controversies, and it ensures that public school classrooms remain hospitable to an ethnically diverse, religiously pluralistic country.
What does the Constitution say about teaching the religious theories of creation?
The Constitution guarantees the religious freedom of all Americans in two ways -- by protecting our individual right to worship and by ensuring separation between church and state. According to the Constitution as it has been interpreted by the Supreme Court, the government cannot promote or oppose specific religious views or doctrines. Creationism, creation science, and intelligent design theory are all unquestionably religious doctrines. Therefore, the government cannot promote them as science without violating the First Amendment.
What is creationism? What is creation science? What is intelligent design theory?
Creationism, creation science, and intelligent design theory are three religious theories of creation offered to explain the origins of the universe.
It is difficult to distinguish among these theories. However, this is a starting point:
- Creationism is the belief that God has created the universe and/or humankind. Creationists typically subscribe to the account of creation presented in the Bible's Book of Genesis.
- Creation Science attempts to prove that the world was created by God via the disproof of evolution and by offering interpretations of scientific data to "prove" the creation account in Genesis.
- Intelligent Design theorists similarly offer a theory of God's role in the creation, arguing that the very complexity and organization of the world -- and the failure of science to explain it all -- makes God's intervention the only reasonable explanation. Intelligent design theorists do not typically rely on Genesis, instead working to find evidence of God's role in creation in their observations of the world.
May a science teacher who teaches evolution also teach the religious theories of creation?
No. Educators may not teach, either as scientific fact or even as an alternative or competing theory, the theory that humankind was created by a divine being. In science classes, educators must present only scientific explanations for life on earth and scientific critiques of evolution. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that it is unconstitutional to require educators who teach evolution also to teach creationism.1
Furthermore, schools may not refuse to teach evolution in an effort to avoid offending religious individuals.
In addition, disclaimers regarding the theory of evolution as the only explanation for the development of humankind have been found to be unconstitutional. In one case, a court struck down a school board rule requiring teachers to read a disclaimer that said that the teaching of evolution is "not intended to influence or dissuade the Biblical version of Creation or any other concept." 2
May a public school science teacher's right to teach evolution be restricted?
No. The Supreme Court has determined that it is unconstitutional to restrict an educator's right to teach evolution. 3
May religious theories of creation ever be discussed in the public schools?
Yes. Religious theories of creation may be included in classes on comparative religion as an example of how some religious groups believe human life began. However, creationism may never be taught as scientific fact.
Do scientific integrity and equity require that we teach a competing theory of human origins?
Equity, intellectual honesty and scientific integrity do not require the teaching of the religious theories of creation as a differing or alternative point of view to evolution. First, the religious theories of creation do not meet the tenets of science as scientists use the term.4 Moreover, it is not a matter of equity to teach a religious point of view in a public school classroom; rather, it is both unconstitutional and very harmful to the integrity of the religious points of view.
Has anyone ever proved evolution?
Yes, in exactly the same way that scientists prove any other deeply and widely held scientific claim.
Holders of the religious theories of creation (especially "creation scientists") often demand a much higher level of proof for evolution's claims than they might for other scientific claims. Scientific conclusions are rarely, if ever, arrived at through deductive -- purely logical -- methods. Yet, creationists seem to demand this of evolution scientists; they demand a level of proof that closes every avenue of contention, whether reasonable or not.
Science proceeds by testing theories so as to determine which way the empirical evidence credibly points. The record amassed in favor of evolution is far and away sufficient to draw the conclusion that evolution is the only scientific theory for the origin of the universe appropriate for the classroom.
Why is intelligent design theory inappropriate for the science classroom?
As the PBS.org website notes in its discussion of evolution, "'Intelligent design theory' is built on the belief that evolution does not sufficiently explain the complexity that exists in life on Earth and that science should recognize the existence of an 'intelligent designer.' Proponents assert that their criticism of evolution is scientific, not religious. But the various aspects of intelligent design theory have not yet been subjected to the normal process of scientific experimentation and debate, nor have they been accepted by the scientific community. No research supporting the claims of intelligent design has ever been published in any recognized, professional, peer-reviewed scientific journal. Finally, the question of whether there is an intelligent designer is untestable using the methods of science, and therefore is not a scientific claim."5
Since the claims of intelligent design are not adequately tested as science, they are inappropriate for the science classroom.
Don't the majority of Americans support one of the religious theories of creation and so doesn't our democratic system require that we allow those voices to be heard?
Neither science nor fundamental rights are subject to majority vote. As Michael Shermer wrote in Scientific American ". . . truth in science is not determined democratically. It does not matter what percentage of the public believes a theory. It must stand or fall on the evidence, and there are few theories in science that are more robust than the theory of evolution."6 And as the Supreme Court recently ruled in Santa Fe v. Doe: "Fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections."7 Thus, the right to be free from a government which endorses and teaches religion is not a matter subject to the majority.
Isn't the viewpoint that religious ideas should never be taught in science hostile to religion?
No. Strict adherence to the separation of church and state embodied in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment preserves religious freedom and protects our democracy.
ADL emphatically rejects the notion that the separation principle is inimical to religion, and holds, to the contrary, that a high wall of separation is essential to the continued flourishing of religious practice and beliefs in America, and to the protection of minority religions and their adherents. From our day-to-day experience serving its constituents, we can testify that the more government and religion become entangled, the more threatening the environment becomes for each. In the familiar words of Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black: "A union of government and religion tends to destroy government and degrade religion."8
Finally, the teaching of religious theories of creation -- in order to protect the very religious beliefs the underlie them -- should be left to parents and properly trained clergy.
Can teaching the religious theories of creation harm religious people?
Yes. Any effort to introduce a theological doctrine into the public school 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 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.
Many religious people, of course, are able to reconcile the teachings of the Bible 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 science and faith.
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1 Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987).
2 Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education, 185 F.3d 337 (5th Cir. 1999) cert. denied, 530 U.S. 1251 (2000).
3 Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968).
4 See McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, 529 F.Supp. 1255 (E.D. Ark.1982) cited favorably in Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987).
5 www.pbs.org "Evolution,"
6 Michael Shermer, "Skeptic: The Gradual Illumination of the Mind," Scientific American (February 2002)
7 Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe 530 U.S. 290 (2000).
8 Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 431 (1962).