Science is about empirically proven realities in the natural world and religion is about belief. Stephen Jay Gould, the historian of science and evolutionary biology called religion and science separate categories of learning—“nonoverlapping magisteria.” We don’t question the scientifically documented theories about the spherical shape of the earth, for example, or the existence of gravity. But lots of people want to question evolution, even though scientific data have proven its truth, because it seems to conflict with the Biblical stories of creation.
A short, 2006, resource from the National Council of Churches explains how many believers in Protestant denominations respond to this controversy, including this statement from Archbishop Desmond Tutu about the Biblical stories of creation: “Those first chapters are much more like poetry than prose, replete with religious and not scientific truths, conveying profound truths about us, about God, and about the universe we inhabit.”
Many people worry that with the administration of Donald Trump, we are headed back into the pitched battle about the substitution of religion for science in our public schools—a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution, which protects against the government’s “establishment” of religion. Valerie Strauss describes these concerns as characterized by Glenn Branch, a deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, who “said he is concerned that President Trump’s denial/questioning of man-made climate change and Vice President Pence’s denial of the theory of evolution could encourage state legislators to push through new anti-science legislation.”
Strauss describes a bill recently passed by the South Dakota state senate which includes the following language: “No teacher may be prohibited from helping students understand, analyze, critique, or review in an objective scientific manner the strengths and weaknesses of scientific information presented in courses being taught which are aligned with the content standards established….”
To interpret this abstract language, Strauss turns to a public school science teacher from Sioux Falls, who believes, “that the bill says that teachers can essentially teach what they want in science class as long as they do it in a certain way: ‘(L)et’s say I believe in eugenics. (S.B. 55) says that I couldn’t be prohibited, I couldn’t be stopped from teaching that, as long as I did it in an objective scientific manner, and it doesn’t specify what that means.'”
Strauss continues, “The bill is one of four that have been introduced so far in 2017 in state legislatures—the others are in Indiana, Oklahoma and Texas—that would allow science denial in the classroom. Since 2014, at least 60 ‘academic freedom’ bills—which permit teachers to paint established science as controversial—have been filed in state legislatures all over the country. Louisiana passed one in 2008, and Tennessee did, too, in 2012.” While the South Dakota bill has been introduced previously and never passed, Strauss reports that it has already passed the state senate this year and is awaiting action in the South Dakota house.
A spokesman for Betsy DeVos, who was confirmed by the Senate yesterday as U.S. Secretary of Education, tried to calm worries about what kind of science teaching DeVos might encourage. Greg McNeilly is quoted by Annie Waldman for ProPublica as saying, “I don’t know the answer to whether she (DeVos) believes in intelligent design, it’s not relevant… There is no debate on intelligent design or creationism being taught in schools. According to federal law, it cannot be taught.” In other words, McNeilly is aware of the prohibition of teaching about religion in public school science classes. However, in Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, when she was asked about the First Amendment and the teaching of science, DeVos herself answered that she endorses science teaching that “allows students to exercise critical thinking.” Waldman points out that as far as science classes go,”‘critical thinking’ has become a code phrase to justify teaching of intelligent design.”
Intelligent Design is an educational theory promoted by the Discovery Institute, which advocates Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolution—the bedrock scientific explanation of the origin of the living creatures of the world. Intelligent Design has been presented as a safer, non-religions way to question the scientific theory of evolution. After all, God is not mentioned. Instead the Discovery Institute has promoted “teaching the controversy” based on the conjecture that the natural world is so intricate that its creatures cannot have evolved, but must instead have been purposefully designed.
In 2005, a lawsuit in Dover, Pennsylvania, challenged “teaching the controversy” and a school district policy that permitted the teaching of Intelligent Design in Dover’s public school science classes. Federal Judge John E. Jones concluded that teaching Intelligent Design constitutes the teaching of religious belief under the guise of science. In his 2005 decision in case the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, Judge Jones declared: “The Board’s ID (Intelligent Design) Policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious antecedents. Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs’ scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.”
At issue here for conservative Christians is how the Bible is to be read—as a literal description of the natural world or as a reflection of religious truths. The Episcopal Church Catechism of Creation seeks to explain the difference: “Theology puts into words our rational and prayerful reflections on revelation. A theology of creation presents the Church’s thinking about the relationship between God and the world as it is informed by our understandings of Holy Scripture and observations of nature. It seeks to express in human language the mysteries of this relationship. It is not a theory about the universe but a doctrine about the God who creates it.”