Two weeks ago, I wrote an article discussing some disturbing trends in young adult literature and the shared responsibility that different members of society have for protecting children against distasteful and inappropriate material. During an online discussion, one friend asked, on a loosely related note, where I stood on teaching creationism in public schools. This sparked a longer debate that pushed 50+ e-mail exchanges. Here are some of the main points.
First off, I think it’s important to distinguish between creationism and intelligent design. Creationism usually refers to a religious belief that the universe is the creation of God. It is inherently religious because it prescribes to the Genesis account of how things came into existence. This isn’t specific to Christians, as Jews, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslims would all generally be “creationists”. In fact, I would think that most religions are creationist by nature, whether it’s the Shinto religions of Japan, Hinduism in India, or any of the mythologies of antiquity.
Intelligent design is a completely different thing. From intelligentdesign.org, “The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an un-directed process such as natural selection. Through the study and analysis of a system’s components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof…” Intelligent design does not point to any religious text and it’s important to note that it does not advocate any single religion. It is just another theory. So why shouldn’t it be taught in school as a possible explanation for our existence?
One of my friends responded in this way: “My primary discomfort with the teaching of creationism in public schools is the fact that it imposes a theistic view on students through a publicly funded forum. I have no objection to teaching kids the Bible through private schools or Sunday school because neither is publicly funded and both require the prior consent of parents… I consider myself a Christian and will raise my children as such. But I don’t want public dollars to impose my beliefs on my Hindu/Muslim/Jewish neighbors and their kids. Not in the United States of America. We teach evolution, not to push atheism or spite Christians, but because it’s the most widely held theory within the scientific community. I have no objection to that and agree that intelligent design can be reconciled with this theory. But I’ll do that outside of the schools and let my kids decide for themselves when they’re older.”
While I can understand that creationism may impose a theistic view, intelligent design does not. On the other hand, isn’t the theory of evolution naturally atheist? Isn’t that an imposition itself, especially when it is presented to students as pure, concrete, and incontrovertible science and that any other belief contrary to it is folly? I think that the most honest thing that schools (and therefore the government) can say is “we are not entirely sure, but here are a few theories.” What’s interesting though is that politicians will openly affirm their beliefs in the public square, but those same declarations are silenced when we enter a public school. I’m reminded of an historic event during the Clinton Administration, when the mapping of the human genome had been completed and President Clinton interestingly announced this triumph like this: “Today, we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, the wonder of God’s most sacred gift.” I mean, this, in a nutshell, is the intelligent design argument.
Failing to achieve agreement on whether or not creationism/intelligent design was religious imposition or presentation of another theory, the conversation took a step back and started to examine the place that religion should have in our public schools:
“As to the larger point, though, why shouldn’t our students be taught the teachings of the oldest and most influential religious traditions in the world? I think that is part of a good and complete education, and am sad to say that I wasn’t exposed to them more. Much of literature and philosophy was influenced by the Bible, for example. But biblical literacy is very much lacking. Much of history is shaped by differing religious viewpoints, as anyone who has studied European history knows. But how do you fully understand the history without knowing the religions and their different denominations? I believe our rabid secularism in public education today is an historical aberration and a distortion of the founding principles of our government.”
“I think teaching the beliefs of the oldest and most influential religious traditions is a positive thing and good for promoting broader understanding and perspective, but to do so in a holistic and non-offensive manner would be very difficult since religion is such a sensitive topic. I can already see the parents up in arms – one for mentioning that Jesus might have been a real person, one asking why Hinduism and Christianity are taught side by side as if the two faiths were in any way equally valid or comparable, one for teaching their own religion as “culturally relevant” rather than “indisputably true,” etc. Such a curriculum would have to be exceptionally well designed and nuanced, and taught by a very skilled educator. I’m not sure I would trust that to our public high schools (they can barely handle the ‘controversy’ around sex-ed), though comparative religious studies is still a great course for college (and dodges the “mandatory” aspect of K-12 public education)… I would argue that schools already do a good job of discussing how religions influenced history – the Vatican, the Holy Roman Emperor, the Crusades, the Protestant reformation, the Puritans and other groups seeking religious freedoms, the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, the Greek Pantheon, the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, etc. Secularism in our schools doesn’t downplay any of these or similar influences, but you can have these discussions by focusing on commonly-held motivations rather than the validity of beliefs. There’s also plenty of Biblical stories that dominate our shared cultural references (David and Goliath, the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, etc), though again, these are generally used as analogies to illustrate principles rather than in the context of divine faith.”
“Alexis de Tocqueville observed: “The greatest part of British America was peopled by men who, after having shaken off the authority of the Pope, acknowledged no other religious supremacy; they brought with them into the New World a form of Christianity which I cannot better describe than by styling it a democratic and republican religion. This sect contributed powerfully to the establishment of a democracy and a republic, and from the earliest settlement of the emigrant politics and religion contracted an alliance which has never been resolved.” During his visit, de Tocqueville also learned that the “[American clergy] filled no public appointments . . . [u]nless this term be applied to the functions which many of them fill in the schools. Almost all education is entrusted to the clergy.” Democracy in America, Ch. 17 (Bantam). This history, in my view, demonstrates that religion in education is perfectly compatible with the First Amendment. That Amendment prohibits establishments of religion (e.g., Church of USA) and protects the free exercise of it (e.g., government cannot compel people by threat of penalty to attend church). Teaching religion in public schools doesn’t run afoul of those principles.”
Again, while recognizing that there was value in the knowledge of religious beliefs and morals, the central point that we seemed to be debating was whether or not we could present a religious belief without proselytizing. Could we achieve the education without evangelism? Or would it turn into the imposition of a religious worldview?
Whatever your answer, it’s important to note that the Founders recognized that religion was a very important part our society. Our Founders have referred to religion as wholly sufficient for guiding morality in our society. We’ve unarguably taken our moral cures from it. Some examples:
John Adams: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Benjamin Rush: “The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be aid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments. Without religion, I believe that learning does real mischief to the morals and principles of mankind.”
George Washington: “Religion and morality are the essential pillars of society.”
We live in a society filled with violent crime, substance abuse, and increasing mental illnesses. We have a national anti-bullying initiative in public schools. Fatherlessness is a huge problem that some say is related to almost every social ill faced by America’s children. It may not be the cure all, but perhaps we can use more religion in our public schools.