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Teaching the origin of species in schools

Conflicts regarding evolution, intelligent
design & creationism in U.S. public schools

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Overview:

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Protestant religious schools: There is little conflict over evolution within most Christian home schooling programs and Christian religious schools. Creation science and Intelligent Design are taught there as the only valid belief systems concerning the history of the world, its life forms and the rest of the universe. Naturalistic and theistic Evolution is generally rejected. However, there seems to be an increasing trend among some Christian high schools and colleges to abandon creation science in favor of theistic evolution -- the concept that evolution of the species happened on earth over billions of years, and that God used evolution as a tool to create the species that we see today.

"Experts say theistic evolution is showing up in a growing number of Christian colleges. For example, Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., recently invited a guest speaker from Kansas State University to lecture on the topic. And Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., also presents biology and geology from that point of view." 1

John Mark Reynolds, of Biola University in La Mirada, CA, suggests that parents check out the purity of school teaching by inquiring whether the entire faculty believes in a literal Adam and Eve, by studying the course descriptions carefully, by examining the student newspaper for discussions on evolution, and by using an Internet search engine to find and study any papers that school professors have written about origins.


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Roman Catholic schools: Among parochial (called "separate schools" in Canada) schools, there is also little discord. The schools have accepted, and taught evolution and the origin of the species for decades. However, the Church teaches that humanity once consisted of one man and one woman, called Adam and Eve in the Bible, and that specially created human souls for the first parents and all their descendents. In this way, God differentiated humans from the lower animals.
 

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Public schools: It is in the U.S. public schools that the battle between evolution and creation science has raged. It has taken many forms:

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After the Scopes Trial (Tennessee, 1925) the theory of evolution gained much public support. 2 However, this did not translate into evolution being taught widely in the public schools of America.
 

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State creationism laws were passed during the 1980's in Arkansas and Louisiana, to force the teaching of creationism in place of evolution. In a 1987 case, Edwards v. Aquillard, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that these laws were unconstitutional because they violated the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment of the U.S. constitution. Creation science was seen to be a expression of religious belief. It was judged to be not a true science because it could never be falsified -- i.e., it was firmly held as a religious belief by its adherents that no amount of contradictory physical evidence could change.
 

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With the launching of the Russian satellite Sputnik in the late 1950's, many became convinced that the country that the U.S. was falling behind in science. The National Science Foundation funded the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, which was influential in returning evolution to high school biology textbooks. In the 1960's, evolution began to be widely taught.
 

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During the mid 1990's, creation science groups started to persuade school boards to give equal time to creation science.
 

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In recent years, the emphasis has been on encouraging teachers and students to be skeptical of the theory of evolution. Various legislatures have introduced bills to encourage teaching that the theory of evolution contains internal contradictions. These are typically called "academic freedom" bills. By the end of 2008, they had been introduced in about seven states and failed in all but Louisiana.    More details.

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Can the conflict be solved? 

The battle between evolution and creation science will not be settled in the foreseeable future:

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Most conservative Protestants believe in the literal truth of the stories of creation found in the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). They interpret the Hebrew word "Yom" as implying that creation took six actual 24-hour days. This implies an earth that is less than ten thousand years old.
 

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A minority of conservative Protestants, most liberal Protestants, the Roman Catholic Church, and most scientists accept either theistic evolution or naturalistic evolution. Both accept that evolution of the species has happened, and that the earth is over 4 billion years of age -- some 500,000 times older than young-earth creationists believe. Supporters of theistic evolution believe that God used evolution as a tool to guide the development of the species; supporters of naturalistic evolution beieve that evolution was caused by unguided natural processes.
 

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Over 95% of scientists generally, and over 99% of scientists in the fields of biology and earth sciences, accept the theory of evolution. These beliefs estimate the earth to be about 4.5 billions of years old. More details.
 

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General acceptance of creation science would mean that the entire foundational structure and inter-relationships of many sciences (geology, biology, astronomy, nuclear science, etc.) would become meaningless, and would have to be abandoned. 
 

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General acceptance of theistic or naturalistic evolution requires people to interpret Genesis symbolically or to reclassify the creation stories as myths. However, the creation stories are closely tied to the fall of man and to original sin. The latter are two key beliefs among many Christians. If Genesis is interpreted as symbolic, as a myth, fable or fantasy, then the entire role of Jesus would have to be reinterpreted. Without original sin, there is no obvious need for a savior. Jews do not have this problem; although they share Genesis with Christians, they never developed the concept of original sin. Liberal Christians also have no problem; most have already concluded that Genesis is a myth. But the rejection of original sin would shake conservative Christianity to its knees, and so is unlikely to happen.

The battle over the teaching of creation science in the public schools will not be resolved soon. The concept of separation of church and state that is contained within the First Amendment of the Constitution requires that public schools do not teach that:
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one religion as superior to any other religion, or that


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religion is superior to a secular lifestyle.

Creation science could be taught in the public schools in a comparative religion curriculum. It can be argued that it is important that it be taught in order that the students become fully aware of the range of beliefs about origins among different religions. But, in order to be constitutional in the U.S.:

bullet Creation science can only be taught as a concept that some people believe in; it cannot be taught as actual truth.

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Creation science based on the biblical book of Genesis cannot constitutionally be discussed in isolation. The beliefs of other religions, and of secular movements would have to be taught along with the Judeo-Christian-Muslim belief. Otherwise, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam would seen as being promoted by the school as superior to other religions and to a secular lifestyle.

Related essay:

2009: Letter about evolution teaching from over 50 scientific societies to the Texas Board of Education

horizonal rule

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. The source of this quotation is no longer online.

  2. "Scopes trial grips nation,"  at: http://abcnews.go.com/century/feature/

  3. Kenneth Chang, "Evolutionary beliefs," ABCNEWS, 1999-AUG-16. Available online at: http://abcnews.go.com/

  4. David Miles, "Kansas drops evolution," Associated Press, at: http://abcnews.go.com/

  5. Stuart Shepard, "Some Bible Colleges Soft on Origins Doctrine," Focus on the Family, at: http://www.family.org/

  6. Bill Brewster & Kenneth Chang, "Latest evolution battlefield," ABCNEWS at: http://abcnews.go.com/

  7. Stuart Shepard, "Poll: Students Favor Teaching Creation," Focus on the Family, at: http://www.family.org/

  8. Tim Harper, "Darwin beats God in red America," The Toronto Star, 2005-JAN-14, Page A17.

Copyright © 1999 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update and review: 2013-FEB-13
Author: B.A. Robinson

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