07 Oct Intelligent Design and the Debate of Religion in our Public Schools
A debate rages in science classrooms across the nation. With the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, the commonly held belief that a sole and divine creator is responsible for the conception of human life, and that it is his grace alone that provides the sole reason behind our purpose and existence, was challenged. In the years following, the popularity of Creationism began to decline in the United States and popularity of atheism began to rise. In an effort to reverse this trend, religious advocates began to push for “creation science” instruction to be included as part of the regular science curriculum. However, the failure to win popular support for this movement resulted in the emergence of an alternative philosophy, called Intelligent Design. Intelligent design is described as believing “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection” (Center for Science and Culture, 2007). Proponents of this movement tout that they do not use terms such as God or religion, and that they merely suggest a possible alternative to evolution, and that they have scientific evidence to back up their theories. Dan Peterson explains this further,
The proponents of ID base their arguments on biological and physical data generally accepted in science. They use the same kinds of analytical methods and mathematical tools as other scientists. The ID theorists do not reason from religious premises. Neither do they attempt to prove the truth of Scripture, or of any particular religious views. As a rule, they do not contest that life on Earth is billions of years old, or that evolution on Earth has occurred in the sense of “change over time” in biological forms. What they do contest is that undirected material causes alone explain life’s origin and development (Noll, 278).
In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case Edwards vs Aguillard in which the court ruled that the Establishment Clause would be violated if the teaching of evolution was banned unless taught alongside “creation science.” The Establishment Clause guarantees that no state shall publicly endorse one religion. The justices believed that Louisiana’s “Creationism Act” would undermine a comprehensive science education. Furthermore, the justices concluded that this Act demonstrated a clear preference towards the instruction of “creation science” since the topic of evolution would be excluded from science education unless bundled with additional teaching in the area creationism. “If the Louisiana Legislature’s purpose was solely to maximize the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of science instruction, it would have encouraged the teaching of all scientific theories about the origins of humankind” (U.S. Supreme Court, 1987).
This case set a precedent for any legislation that might be enacted regarding the teaching of evolution and/or creationism in schools. The U.S. Court is very concerned with the potential impact that compulsory attendance has when coupled with instruction that might violate the personal beliefs of students.
The Court has been particularly vigilant in monitoring compliance with the Establishment Clause in elementary and [482 U.S. 578, 584] secondary schools. Families entrust public schools with the education of their children, but condition their trust on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family. Students in such institutions are impressionable and their attendance is involuntary (U.S. Supreme Court, 1987).
It should be noted that the court also concluded that “teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to school children might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction” (U.S. Supreme Court, 1987).
The failure to include creationism into science instruction has prompted many religious advocates to seek other ways to penetrate what they might see as a false or invalid teaching philosophy: evolutionary biology. The latest method designed to hasten this penetration is the development of a new “science,” intelligent design. While most traditional biologists cringe at the suggestion that intelligent design be referred to a science, some teachers welcome the controversy that surrounds an alternative philosophy to the existence of life. Even Mark Terry, who questions the validity of intelligent design as a science, still remarks about the addition of both religious perspectives and evolution to classroom science programs, “Students and teachers of all sorts of religious and nonreligious persuasions have enjoyed and benefited from this study” (Noll, 269).
My personal beliefs aside, I welcome information and champion debate in America’s science classrooms. When I think about unexplained phenomenon and the limited explanation of the human mystery that either science or religion provides, I think about two things: Galileo Galilei and leeches. Both provide examples of where either religion or science has been proven false. Galileo believed that the sun was the center of our solar system and that the Earth rotated around the Sun. Religious critics persecuted and condemned Galileo and he was expelled from society, even though time and study would prove him correct. Leeches were used in medicine for centuries, believed to be helpful in removing the toxic blood from a person when they were ill. In reality, leeches have been proven to have no medicinal benefit to a patient and merely drain a body of its blood supply.
Science and religion are constantly changing and evolving. Recent examples include Pluto no longer being classified as a planet and women and gays who are openly accepted into the ministry. Because of this, I would feel it imprudent to tout any one scientific theory. Instead, open the discussion to students, have them present evidence and deliberate on the validity of that evidence. Teachers should not instruct in these areas and topics should be covered minimally as to protect the belief systems of individuals, but the debate should be raised. I believe that this should hold true for any scientific debate beyond just that of biology. The focus should be on students developing, researching and potentially proving hypotheses that explore their areas of interest and not just accepting past philosophies as true just because they are commonly accepted as such. If Galileo had just accepted commonly held beliefs as truth, we might still have the Sun rotating around us.
I believe strongly in Thomas Jefferson’s idea of the “separation of church and state,” which is why I feel it is important that school districts must stay neutral on the subject matter by simply letting students explore any and all theories related to the existence of life. Let me reiterate that there should be no standardized curriculum regarding evolution, creationism or intelligent design. But by ignoring the topic altogether, I believe that schools are making a silent statement about the impossibility of a divine creator. And doesn’t that have an impact of the personal belief system of our students?
Center for Science and Culture, Discovery Institute. “Top Questions-1.What is the theory of intelligent design?”. http://www.discovery.org/csc/topQuestions.php#questionsAboutIntelligentDesign. Retrieved 2007-05-13.
Noll, James Wm. (2009). Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Educational Issues. Boston: McGraw Hill.
U.S. Supreme Court. EDWARDS v. AGUILLARD, 482 U.S. 578 (1987). http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?navby=CASE&court=US&vol=482&page=578. Retrieved 2009-10-07.