What Effect Would Teaching Creationism in Science Class Have on Education?
by Lenny Flank
Despite the Supreme Court ruling that creation "science" is religious in nature and cannot be legislated into the classroom, the creationist movement has continued its efforts to have their Biblical version of "science" taught to students. We must therefore look at what effect creationism has had on American science education, and what further effect it would have if the creationists should ever be successful in their campaign to replace science with Divine Revelation.
Creationists from the ICR and CRS would like to in effect turn the clock back to 1920, when evolution was illegal and the Biblical story of origins was mandated by law. As Henry Morris puts it, "A key purpose of the ICR is to bring the field of education--and then our whole world insofar as possible--back to the foundational truth of special creation and primeval history as revealed first in Genesis and further emphasized throughout the Bible." (Morris, Back to Genesis, July 1995) CRS co-founder Walter Lammerts echoes, "Our aim is a rather audacious one, namely, the complete re-evaluation of science from the theistic viewpoint." (Lammerts, 1975, p. 2)
The creationists cite several reasons why they believe creationism should be taught in the public schools, and one of these, they flatly admit, is that it encourages belief in a personal Deity and thus encourages a "Christian lifestyle": "There is no greater stimulus to responsible behavior and earnest effort, as well as honesty and consideration for others, than the awareness that there may well be a personal Creator to whom one must give account." (Morris, Scientific Creationism, 1974, p. 14) And this, of course, is the real reason why fundamentalists want to force the Biblical account of origins into the classroom.
However, since the creationists know that the US Constitution prohibits the teaching of religious doctrines in the public schools, they were unable to make these arguments in court, and instead had to resort to a two-pronged strategy-- arguing, in an inversion that would have made Orwell proud, that (1) creationism is science, not religion, and (2) evolution is religion, not science. As Morris summarizes, "Since creationism can be discussed effectively as a scientific model, and since evolution is fundamentally a religious philosophy rather than a science, it is clearly unsound educational practice and even unconstitutional for evolution to be taught and promoted in the public schools to the exclusion or detriment of special creation. . . . Creationist children and parents are thereby denied 'equal protection of its laws' and the state has, to all intents and purposes, made a law establishing the religion of evolutionary humanism in its schools." (Morris, 1975, p. 14)
Each of these arguments was dealt with by Judge Overton during the Arkansas case. Based on the testimony and the statements of the creationists themselves, Overton flatly concluded that "Creation science is not science." (Overton Opinion, McLean v Arkansas, 1981) It was, he concluded, "a religious crusade, coupled with a desire to conceal that fact . . . The only inference which can be drawn is that the Act was passed with the specific purpose by the General Assembly of advancing religion. . . . It was simply and purely an effort to introduce the Biblical version of creation into the public school curricula." (Overton Opinion, McLean v Arkansas, 1981). The Arkansas law, Overton ruled, "lacks legitimate educational value because 'creation science' as defined in that section is simply not science". (Overton Opinion, McLean v Arkansas, 1981)
Overton also considered the creationist argument that evolution is itself a religion and must be "balanced" by creationism, and rejected it. "It is clearly established in case law," Overton ruled, "and perhaps also in common sense, that evolution is not a religion, and that teaching evolution does not violate the Establishment Clause." (Overton Opinion, McLean v Arkansas, 1981) Overton concluded, "If creation science is, in fact, science and not religion, as the defendants claim, it is difficult to see how the teaching of such a science could 'neutralize' the religious nature of evolution. Assuming for the purposes of argument, however, that evolution is a religion or a religious tenet, the remedy is to stop the teaching of evolution; not establish another religion in opposition to it." (Overton Opinion, McLean v Arkansas, 1981)
As for the argument that the teaching of evolution, which is offensive to the religious beliefs of fundamentalist students, means that these students are being infringed upon in their free exercise of religion, Overton simply and clearly concluded, "The argument has no legal merit." (Overton Opinion, McLean v Arkansas, 1981) In the Epperson case, the US Supreme Court ruled that "There is and can be no doubt that the First Amendment does not permit the State to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles and prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma . . . It forbids alike the preference of a religious doctrine or the prohibition of a theory which is deemed antagonistic to a particular dogma." (US Supreme Court, Epperson v Arkansas , 1968) The Christian Science religion, for instance, holds the tenet that only prayer and faith can be used to heal diseases, but this does not mean that high school health classes and medical schools must be closed down in deference to these religious views.
The "evolution is religion" argument was settled in 1994, in the Peloza v Capistrano School District case. The Federal Curcuit Court ruled that "evolutionism" is not a religion, and the teaching of evolutionary theory in science classrooms neither establishes a religion nor interferes with religious practice.
The most common argument heard from creationists has been the "fairness" approach--since there are two "models" of origins, evolution and creationism, and since neither can be "proved", why not simply present both arguments and let the students decide for themselves which is the better supported? As Morris puts it, "Both models should be taught, as objectively as possible, in public classrooms, giving arguments pro and con for each. Some students and parents believe in creation, some in evolution, and some are undecided . . . This is clearly the most equitable and constitutional approach." (Morris, ICR Impact, January/February 1973)
The creationist "fairness" argument seems, on the surface, a reasonable demand. There are two sides to every story, the argument goes, so why not just present both sides? As Frederick Edwords puts it, "The idea of giving a minority position a fair hearing along with that of 'the establishment' seems as American as apple pie." (Godfrey, 1983, p. 301) What could be simpler?
In support of their "fairness" argument, the creationists like to cite a long string of opinion polls and surveys which demonstrate widespread support for the idea. In 1981, during the Arkansas trial, an NBC News poll showed that 76% of the public thought that both creation and evolution should be taught in the schools, with 10% believing that only the creation story should be taught, and only 7% believing that evolution alone should be taught. A 1986 study of American college students concluded that 50% believed in the Divine Creation of life (33% of college students, it was also pointed out, believed in flying saucers). And in 1987, a survey of college students in several states concluded that approximately half of American students believed that both creationism and evolution should be taught in schools. The percentages ranged from 46% in Connecticut to 47% in California to 57% in Texas. (On the other hand, the percentages were much lower when the question was changed to whether "there is a good deal of scientific evidence against evolution and in favor of the Bible's account of creation"--the percentage in agreement dropped to 25% in California, 30% in Connecticut and 47% in Texas.)
The creationist "fairness" argument was also dealt with by Judge Overton. Under a Constitutional form of government, Overton pointed out, the rights of a minority are protected against the opinions of even an overwhelming majority. "The application and content of First Amendment principles," Overton concluded, "are not determined by public opinion or by a majority vote. Whether the proponents of Act 590 constitute the majority or minority is quite irrelevant under a constitutional system of government. No group, no matter how large or small, may use the organs of government, of which the public schools are the most conspicuous and influential, to foist its religious beliefs on others." (Overton Opinion, McLean v Arkansas, 1981) The First Amendment was clear, Overton ruled, that religious doctrines may not be introduced into public school curricula, whether such an idea was popular or not.
The "fairness" and "balanced treatment" argument of the creationists is, moreover, misleading, since it is not fairness or balanced treatment they want. What they really want is for their particular religious views to be adopted and no one else's. The definition of "creation science" given in the Arkansas bill, for instance, is:
" 'Creation-science' includes the scientific evidences and related inferences that indicate: (1) Sudden creation of the universe, energy and life from nothing, (2) The insufficiency of mutation and natural selection in bringing about development of all living kinds from a single organism, (3) Changes only within fixed limits of originally created kinds of plants and animals, (4) Separate ancestry for men and apes, (5) Explanation of the earth's geology by catastrophism, including the occurrence of a world- wide flood, and (6) A relatively recent inception of the earth and living kinds." (Arkansas Legislature Act 590, 1981)
This definition rules out all but the young-earth creationist view held by the ICR, CRS and their ilk. The bill does not give "equal time" or "fairness" to such interpretations as theistic evolutionaries, or even old-earth creationists such as the day-age or gap theorists. The Jehovah's Witnesses, for instance, do not accept evolution, but also do not accept an "explanation of the earth's geology by catastrophism, including the occurrence of a worldwide flood", nor do they accept "a relatively recent inception of the earth and living kinds." Under the terms of the creationist "balanced treatment" bills, it would be illegal to teach this view.
Similarly, there are numerous other religious viewpoints which posit a supernatural creation of life by a divine being or beings. The Hara Krishna sect of Hinduism, for instance, rejects evolutionary theory. But under the terms of the "Balanced Treatment" bill, it would be illegal to teach the "scientific evidences" in favor of the Hindu creation myths, because such myths do not include "the occurence of a worldwide flood". Besides, says Morris, the Hindu creation story which describes the supernatural creation of the universe is really only evolution in disguise--"The cosmogenic myths of the Hindus, et al, are not creation models at all, but rather esoteric evolutionary systems." (Morris, Scientific Creationism, 1974, p. 15) "Paganism, humanism and pantheism are merely variant forms of evolutionary uniformitarianism, as ultimately are all religions and philosophies except Biblical Christianity." (Morris, 1970, p. 16) Such an assertion--that all religious views except his own are really just "evolution-science", is convenient for Morris, no matter how absurd it may be.
The same creationists who argue so loudly for "equal time" and "balanced treatment", moreover, have yet to magnanimously invite the evolutionists to their church services next Sunday so they can give a lecture explaining how evolutionary theory works (all in the interests of "equal time" and "fairness", of course.) Their dedication to "fairness" has also not convinced the creationists to allow Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist creationists to become members of the ICR or CRS.
By automatically ruling out any religious views but their own, as well as other versions of their own Christian view, the creationists make it obvious that the only "equal time" and "fairness" they are interested in is one that gives a hearing for their viewpoint--literalist Christian fundamentalism--and nobody else's.
The "balanced treatment" requirement also presents enforcement difficulties. The bill explicitly states that religious instruction and discussion of religious doctrines must be avoided: "Treatment of either evolution-science or creation-science shall be limited to scientific evidence for each model and inferences from those scientific evidences, and must not include any religious instruction or references to religious writings." (Arkansas Legislature Act 590, 1981) However, as Judge Overton points out, "The Act is self-contradictory and compliance is impossible . . . . There is no way teachers can teach the Genesis account of creation in a secular manner." (Overton Opinion, McLean v Arkansas, 1981) In order to see that the law is upheld, and that no illegal references to religious doctrines or religious writings are introduced into the classroom, the state will have no choice but to scrutinize every creationist textbook and to listen in on classroom discussions.
Overton describes where this process leads: "How is the teacher to respond to questions about a creation suddenly and out of nothing? How will the teacher explain the occurrence of a worldwide flood? How will the teacher explain the concept of a relatively recent inception of the earth? The answer is obvious because the only source of this information is ultimately contained in the Book of Genesis. . . . Involvement of the State in screening texts for impermissible religious references will require State officials to make delicate religious judgements. The need to monitor classroom discussion in order to uphold the Act's prohibition against religious instruction will necessarily involve administrators in questions concerning religion. These continuing involvements of State officials in questions and issues of religion create an excessive and prohibited entanglement with religion." (Overton Opinion, McLean v Arkansas, 1981)
In other words, the creationist "balanced treatment" bill would lead to direct state involvement in religious decisions. The creationists, of course, have no problem with this, since, as we will see, they would in any case like to do away with the separation between church and state. For those of us who believe in the free expression of religion without interference from the state, however, the prospect of direct state involvement in such religious matters is chilling.
There are other problems with the "balanced treatment" approach. Does the legal requirement for "equal time" mean that biology teachers cannot point out all of the distortions and inaccuracies in the creation "model"? If biology teachers present the creation "model" to their students and then demonstrate that nearly all of the creationist "evidence" is baloney, does that constitute "balanced treatment"? If not, are teachers then to be forced to teach creation "science" as being valid even though they can demonstrate that it is not? Will the state then have to monitor every biology classroom to make sure that no biology teacher illegally points out any errors in creation "science"--in affect mandating that teachers teach creationism as if it were true whether it is or not? As theologian Langdon Gilkey writes, the precedent being set here is extraordinarily dangerous: "It is not uncommon for a legislature to mandate subjects that must be included within the curricula of its public schools: so much science, so much civics, so much American and local history, and so on. But it is a new precedent, and an ominous one, when a legislature requires what theories are to be taught within these mandated subjects, how much emphasis is to be given to each, and, by clear implication, what theories may not be taught . . . Whenever the government has determined the content of a curriculum (as for example in the Soviet Union), free inquiry and free debate in education have vanished." (Gilkey, 1985, p. 14)
In effect, the creationists are attempting to use the political power of the state to force their religious doctrines into the schools, and at the same time make those views legally immune from criticism. And such tactics are intolerable in any democratic form of government.
If we are to take the "equal time" demands of the creationists seriously, why stop with them? There are numerous other "scientific alternatives" out there, each of which is, presumably, deserving of the same "fairness" and "balanced treatment" as creation "science". If we give the "alternative science" of creationism equal time, why not do the same for such "alternative sciences" as channeling, pyramid power, crystals, and other New Age practices? Why should not the "alternative science" of alchemy be given balanced treatment in chemistry classes? The Flat Earth Society believes that the facts of geology demonstrate the earth to be flat; should not this "alternative scientific view" therefore be given equal time in the geology classroom? Shouldn't medical students be given the choice between the "alternative models" of Christian Science and the modern theories of disease treatment? Shouldn't future astronomers be presented with the astrology model alongside that of astronomy, or the Ptolemeic geocentric model as well as heliocentric theory? If the "fairness" demands of the creation "scientists" are met, why not then the "fairness" demands of these others as well?
Rather than being a fair-minded plea for open discussion, the creationist "balanced treatment" approach is merely an attempt to legislate the fundamentalist religious view--and not any other view--into the classroom. It is no wonder that US courts-- including the US Supreme Court--have consistently rejected the "equal time" argument, and have excluded creation "science" from the biology classroom.
Under the terms of this "balanced treatment" act, it is likely that many, if not most, school districts would simply avoid the whole controversy by foregoing any instruction in "evolution- science" at all, and would solve their quandary by dropping all mention of "evolution" in the classroom, as they did during the post-Scopes era. (In 1979, after the school board in Cobb County, Georgia, passed an "Equal Time" policy, school officials decided to drop biology as a requirement for graduation rather than deal with all the resulting problems.) If evolutionary theory were to be once again censored from the Amerian classroom, the effects today would be even more profound than they were back in the 1920's. In today's heavily industrialized and mechanized society, technological knowledge and innovations are the lifeblood of any national economy, and the life sciences, ranging from genetic engineering to medicine to bio-manufacturing, are at the very forefront of technological progress. All of these technological advances depend on the science of biology, and, as biologist Ernst Mayr points out, the science of biology is itself dependent upon the theory of evolution: "The theory of evolution is quite rightly called the greatest unifying theory in biology. The diversity of organisms, similarities and differences between kinds of organisms, patterns of distribution and behavior, adaptation and interaction, all this was merely a bewildering chaos of facts until given meaning by the evolutionary theory" (Ernst Mayr, Population, Species and Evolution, 1970, p. 1)
If the creationists succeed in replacing evolutionary theory with their religious doctrines, it will be a crippling blow to the biological sciences and to science education in the United States, on a par with the devestation that Lysenko wrought in the Soviet Union. As Judge Overton noted in his opinion, "Implementation of Act 590 will have serious and untoward consequences for students, particularly those planning to attend college. Evolution is the cornerstone in modern biology . . Any student who is deprived of instruction as to the prevailing scientific thought on these topics will be denied a significant part of science education. Such a deprivation through the high school level would undoubtedly have an impact upon the quality of education in the state's colleges and universities, especially including the pre- professional and professional programs in the health sciences." (Overton Opinion, McLean v Arkansas, 1981)
And not merely biology would be affected. As writer Phillip Kitcher notes, "Evolutionary biology is intertwined with other sciences, ranging from nuclear physics and astronomy to molecular biology and geology. If evolutionary biology is to be dismissed, then the fundamental principles of other sciences will have to be excised." (Kitcher, 1982, p. 4) The text of Act 590 explicitly points out, "The subject of the origin of the universe, life and man is treated within many public school courses, such as biology, life science, anthropology, sociology, and often also in physics, chemistry, philosophy and social studies." (Arkasas Legislature Act 590, 1981) As a result, the bill goes on to state, the "equal time" provisions require equal treatment of creationism not only in biology classes, but also for all the others-- and not only in the classroom, but also "in library materials, taken as a whole for the sciences and taken as a whole for the humanities, and in other educational programs in public schools, to the extent that such lectures, textbooks, library materials or educational programs deal in any way with the subject of the origin of man, life, the earth or the universe." (Arkansas Legislature Act 590, 1981)
In other words, the "balanced treatment" doctrine would not be limited to the biology classroom. Under the provisions of this law, half of all the science books in all school libraries would be required to be creationist in orientation, and creationism would have to be given equal time in such widespread classrooms as astronomy (since, according to creationism, the universe isn't really 15 billion years old and the Big Bang never really happened), geology (Flood geology would have to be granted equal time with standard geology), nuclear physics (creationism holds that nuclear decay rates are not constant), archeology and world history (nothing happened longer than 6,000 to 10,000 years ago), to chemistry (organic molecules cannot be formed by natural methods), electromagnetic theory (equal time would need to be given to the creationist idea of magnetic field decay), and quantum mechanics and relativity (since creationists hold that the speed of light has decayed). In essence, such a policy would lead to the complete abandonment of nearly all scientific knowledge, in deference to the religious doctrines of the creationists.
That this is indeed the aim of the creationist movement is made apparent by Morris himself, who explicitly says, "True education in every field should be structured around creationism, not evolution." (Morris, Scientific Creationism, 1974, p. iii) To prepare for this eventuality, the creationists have already prepared a creationist astronomy textbook (Harold Slusher, The Origin of the Universe, CLP Publications, 1980) and a creationist world history textbook (Albert Hyma and Mary Stanton, Streams of Civilization, CLP Pub, 1976). Presumably, these will be followed by creationist physics, geology, and chemistry textbooks.
It is obvious that the "balanced treatment" and "fairness" arguments of the creationists are a smokescreen, and what they really want is to have their religious views legislated into the classroom to the exclusion of all other views. In spite of all the special pleading made by the creationists, creation "science" is not science, and has no place in the public school classroom.
One of the reasons why creation "science" is so widely accepted in the United States is because science education in this country is abysmal. A 1988 survey by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, which tested American 17-year-olds against those from 12 other countries, found that the American students came in last in biology and in the bottom 25% in chemistry and physics. The US did not come higher than 8th place in any category of education. Another 1988 survey, by the National Geographic Society, found that an incredible 14% of American adults could not identify the United States of America on a world map. A study by the National Science Foundation in 1989 found that only 45%, less than half, of the adults surveyed knew that the period of time it takes for the earth to go once around the sun is one year. Most Americans are incredibly ignorant when it comes to the findings and methods of science, which does not bode well for our future economic growth and innovation in a high-tech world. The creationist efforts to turn the clock on scientific knowledge back to the 15th century can do nothing but encourage and exacerbate our scientific ignorance.
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