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Creationism and Religion in Public Schools

evolution-cartoon-11Two 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, “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.”

clinton-prayingWhile 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.”

Secondary-school-students-007“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.

Paul G. Lee
Paul is a displaced Southern California native who currently resides in Washington D.C.. His post-collegiate experience was highlighted by his move to the East Coast where he worked briefly for Congress. After his stint as a public servant, he jumped into the private sector and currently works as a consultant with a D.C.-based technology firm.

8 thoughts on “Creationism and Religion in Public Schools

  1. This all sounds very reasonable, Paul, and you should honestly be hired as the face of the advocacy groups for these causes because you cleaned it up, made it look non-threatening and hid the truth about what these groups actually want very well.

    Personally, I have no problem with students learning critical thinking skills, which would mean being presented with multiple points of view on any subject (I think education would benefit a lot from no holds bar discussions about everything, similar to college but starting at a very young age). However, it would have to be paired with teaching students how to weigh those points of views against facts and for them to then be allowed to draw their own conclusion but be scored on their ability to make their case, and sorry, this is not what the religious right has in mind and is not what they are advocating for. They want religion taught their way and not questioned and Christianity taught above all others. And given your point about how a big a role Christianity has played in America, wouldn’t it be fair to say that all the other religions should be taught more since they are the one’s Americans dont know about? Christianity is every where in America. Americans know more about it than every other religion combined, so it’s logical to say that if religion education is going to be introduced it should be for the purpose of teaching people what they dont know. But try getting people who want “religion” taught in schools to agree with that. No, when they say religion, they mean Christianity. The religious right would not allow for any questioning, debate or critical analysis of their religion in public schools. They want Bible study not thought provoking discussion.

    As for intelligent design, that is creationism dressed up to sound scientific. Science has a process, God, who is unseen, and unprovable, doesn’t fit the scientific criteria for being included in its theories. To say that the absence of God in a theory makes it atheist is like saying the absence of darkness is light. God will get into scientific theory when god shows up.

    1. Definitely understand your point about the religious right and how they would want to wield/inject more influence in the public square. I kind of agree with my liberal friend that developing a curriculum that presents religion in a very nuanced manner and from a purely educational lens is an enormously difficult task, one that the state would not be willing to undertake. My point was that exposure to religion is better than no exposure at all, because our later exposure is what is coming from the media, Hollywood, etc.
      I would disagree with you, however, that intelligent design is creationism dressed up to sound scientific. A couple of examples.. how does evolution explain the cambrian explosion, where over 90% of animal phyla appeared in a relatively short amount of time (according to the fossil record)? How did the eye develop? What about the brain? Complex codes of DNA, which are instructions to create, multiply, and become different parts of the body… how did that come into existence? There are a lot of holes in evolution, particularly macro-evolution, but it’s presented as fact.

      1. The Cambrian explosion is VERY explainable using natural selection. In the absence of competition, new niche species will flourish. After the mass extinction that occored prior, the DNA differential was present in the ecosystem to allow for such changes. Why havent we seen anything like it since? Adaptations towards perfecting these niches have developed through millions of years of natural selection. Think of it as a small mom and pop store directly competing with Walmart. Not exactly going to survive. The eye has been mapped out extensively throughout the evolutionary time frame. Look at Cepholopods. They evolved eyes through co~evolution (seperately). The DNA encoding is present to allow for such changes. The brain is another example of this. Remember that just because science says it is so does not make it 100% fact. I think you are mixing up non scientific minds by claiming that is shown as absolute fact. Thats what religions do. The scientific theory was designed to be forever open. Something that most people forget. There are gaps yes, but that is because it is the scientific method doing its work. Do you beleive that he Earth recolves around the sun? Because that is just a theory,not fact. Religion is not a science. It claims things as fact. Science claims things as a strong possibility based on testable evidence. This is why religion should be left out of our science courses.

  2. Being a student of science and a spiritual person is not easy in this age. Yes, I do believe that God played a big role in the formation of our world and greater universe, but do I think we should be teaching this in school? For me, that is a resounding NO.

    I think the crux of the issue is that the concept of intelligent design was birthed by intelligent people that wanted to carve out a place for creationist theories while allowing for science to explain the world around us. All that being said, it is still a spiritually and religiously based concept that should not be part of any government-approved curriculum if for no other reason that it would be a slippery slope. If we allow for intelligent design to be an official part of the curriculum, it would be impossible to exclude other creation/origin stories without seeming biased and utterly hypocritical. While I don’t believe that Earth and the universe was created in 7 days, if there are others that do, I cannot find any valid arguments for teaching intelligent design and NOT teaching creationism by itself. Further, since neither example has any basis in quantifiable data, it would be impossible for me to say that one is better than the other without calling believers of what I DON’T believe, idiots. Obviously, this is not an option.

    Now, if we were to look for an avenue for teaching this and other BELIEF systems (I am making a concerted effort to stay away from scientific terminology here), it may be best to just include classes on WORLD RELIGIONS, to underscore and highlight the fact that these are BELIEFS and not theories based in observation (which is what science is).

    Good luck getting 90% of the dim-witted American citizenry to agree to learning about Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, etc.

    1. In Canada, not in the public schools but in Christian schools, they teach world religion. I never went to a Christian school.but everyone who went said it was one of the most ineresting classes they have taken. Something to shed a light on why people beleive such things. I for one would have liked to have taken this course. Just keep it away from science as far as possible. So dont call iy inteligent design class. Call it world religions class like you said.

  3. I’m confused as to why you don’t think religion isn’t taught in America’s public schools. At my (quite liberal) public high school, the Bible (Tanakh and New Testament) was part of our English curriculum, for precisely the reasons you say it should be: it’s a very important piece of literature that has had profound influence on American and global thought. And I know of no one who objects to teaching it for that purpose. The objection is to teaching it as history, or as science, not to teaching it at all. And of course, teaching it as literature entails opening up to criticism as a literary/polemical object, which many people are uncomfortable with.

    And intelligent design, for its part, has no place in a science curriculum because it isn’t a scientific theory. Intelligent design lacks the core feature of a scientific theory: falsifiablility. Intelligent design has no explanatory power — or perhaps more accurately, it has far too much. There is no phenomena that could not be explained by “God did it,” and for that reason the theory is useless as an explanatory tool.

  4. Thanks for the comments everyone. Let me pose a question. Would you guys be ok with educators acknowledging the weaknesses of evolution as a theory and acknowledging the existence of many theological counter perspectives? Or do you feel that even this is encroachment on the part of the religious right?

    1. No, this is the same as asking if anytime there is a weakness or shortcoming in a scientific theory we should just resort to explaining it as magic.

      How did the dinosaurs go extinct? There is some evidence it was a meteor, there is some evidence it was a super volcano; however, these things cannot be fully proven, so magic is an acceptable answer.

      Point being religion and science are not the same thing in any way shape or form.

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