By Frank Stabile
When it comes to religion in the United States, Christianity is the obvious powerhouse, both historically and presently. Nonetheless, America is not a Christian nation, no matter how often religious pundits say otherwise. In fact, the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees exactly the opposite. On paper, America is a religiously neutral, secular country. Unfortunately, in practice, it has allowed religious influence to seep into the government.
One area where this occurs again and again is education, in particular the teaching of evolution. Unlike much of Europe, America is entrenched in the so-called debate between evolution and creationism, or the idea that life and the universe are the creation of a supernatural being. More recently, creationism has been repackaged under the name intelligent design, but the results are the same.
Students across the country receive a poor biology education thanks to the efforts of a small number of very intense religious groups and an idle government. In this article, I describe recent reports of creationism in the public school system and argue that the teaching of creationism weakens American education.
First, let me say this: I am not in the business of driving out any educator who mentions creationism. Classes in history and politics should focus on creationism where relevant. Courses on the history of science are practically obliged to discuss it. However, I resist any attempts to teach creationism in place of or alongside evolution using government money. Private institutions are free to do as they please, but when the government is involved, creationism does not have a place in the classroom.
Yet somehow, it still manages to creep through. In a recent piece in Slate titled, “Texas public schools are teaching creationism,” Zack Kopplin reveals that Texas charter schools supported by the state are actively teaching intelligent design and attacking evolution. These schools serve more than 17,000 students, all of whom will graduate with a warped understanding of biology.
Slate followed up this piece with an article by Chris Kirk detailing the publicly funded schools that can teach creationism. His piece includes a map showing that hundreds of schools in Texas, Florida, Ohio, Indiana and Georgia currently teach creationism and laws in Louisiana and Tennessee allow schools to “teach the controversy.” These articles reveal the degree to which religion permeates science education in America.
Unfortunately, public universities are also vulnerable to this problem. One prominent case occurred recently at Ball State University, a state college in Indiana. An assistant professor at the university was teaching a class focused on intelligent design and Christian explanations for the origin of the universe that counted as a science course in the curriculum. Although the legality of this situation is less clear, the fact remains that a publicly funded university offered a course espousing one religious viewpoint in place of an actual science class. Professor Jerry Coyne from the University of Chicago thoroughly covered this affair on his site, “Why Evolution Is True,” where more details can be found. The point is that religious ideas, especially creationism, have leached into the American education system at multiple levels.
While it is undeniable that creationism is present in American schools, one may ask why these religious viewpoints are a problem. As mentioned above, one reason is the law. Americans enjoy not only freedom of religion, but also freedom from religion. The government cannot advocate one religion (or atheism) over others — either all get support or none do. Keep in mind that intelligent design is a Christian doctrine and that other religious ideas are absent from public schools. In this situation, the teaching of creationism amounts to the government inadvertently or directly promoting Christianity. Such bias is unconstitutional and betrays the laws that guarantee every American freedom from religion. However, the problem goes deeper than the law. Teaching creationism instead of evolution is a disservice to American students, who leave school with a fundamental misunderstanding of biology that they may carry for their entire lives. When huge swathes of the population receive mediocre science education, America as a whole suffers.
Thankfully, all is not lost. Organizations like the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union have done excellent work in defense of evolution and quality science education. Individuals concerned about the influence of religion on education should support these groups and stay informed and vigilant. How hard could it be? After all, as Christopher Hitchens once said, the only intelligent thing about intelligent design is the way they keep changing the name.