News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

February 10, 2012

EDITORIAL: Keep religion out of science class

Evolution clearly the target of legislation

An uncertain fate remains for an Indiana Senate bill that would, if it were to become law, allow public schools to teach creationism and other origin-of-life theories in their classes. But this fight may have already been grounded.

The bill passed the state Senate last week by a 28-22 vote, but a committee chairman in the House of Representatives said Tuesday he may not move it forward because he believes it may be unworkable — unworkable not because he opposes teaching creationism but because many schools would not be able to teach the topic in the way the bill foresees.

In the beginning, the bill called for only the Christian creation story to be taught. An amendment widened that to include many, if not all, other religions’ accounts of creation. The unworkable part seems to be that no single teacher could be knowledgeable enough to teach all of those accounts. (And, we wonder, how a teacher could ever have enough time to teach all those.)

The more important questions are how and why these battles are continually waged in the first place. Evolutionary theory has long thrived as the dominant paradigm in biology. One would think that — like heliocentrism (the sun being at the center of the universe with planets rotating around it) or the germ theory of disease — sooner or later evolution would take hold of the public imagination because of its basis in hard, validated science.

Yet the language of the recent Senate bill reflects the crux of the problem: “The governing body of a school corporation may offer instruction on various theories of the origin of life. The curriculum for the course must include theories from multiple religions, which may include, but is not limited to, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Scientology.”

The problem inherent in that language is that the “origin of life” has little to do with evolutionary biology, which focuses on how species propagate and change over time.

There is little doubt the target of the bill is evolution, whose staunchest political and religious opponents display little interest in the teaching of good science, which should be a disinterested, peer-reviewed, religion-neutral process.

What many of them do have an interest in is peddling anti-evolutionary religious dogma. And as long as some fail to see the conflict between the methods of science and the goals of religion, the topic will not soon disappear.

At the same time, many enlightened religious denominations accept biological evolution as a natural process of God and consider it compatible with their faith.

Another concern is that poll data aren’t comforting that evolution is now being well taught.

In 2011, the National Survey of High School Biology Teachers discovered that less than 30 percent of a sample of public school instructors made students aware of the evidence for evolution. The reasons for this may be manifold, but when so few Americans become literate in even the rudiments of science, it’s unlikely they’ll gain the skills to distinguish it from pseudoscience.

And, according to the Science and Engineering Readiness Index, developed at Florida State University, Indiana ranks among the nation’s best in physics and calculus performance. Maybe requiring critical reasoning skills of legislators would protect the life sciences from uninformed tinkering.

Perhaps the solution, then, doesn’t start with students. Finding more engaged instructors might be the first step. This could mean requiring prospective teachers to take coursework in evolutionary biology before setting foot in the classroom, or making them aware of court rulings such as Edwards v. Aguillard or Dover v. Kitzmiller that expressly forbid, by ruling unconstitutional, the entanglement of religion and science in the classroom.

Ours is a separation-of-church-and-state heritage, flowing from the First Amendment which forbids a theocracy — “an establishment of religion,” in the amendment’s words that seek to protect both the free practice of religion and the forced adoption of a religion. And from that follows this summary: Teach creationism in the churches. Teach science in the schools. And remember that creationism is a construct of belief and faith, not of science.

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