Visit a public school biology class in Alabama today, and you may likely find a sticker on the textbook disclaiming evolution. Visit a biology class in almost any state in the nation today, and you may likely hear a lesson on biological evolution, but still no reference to human evolution. Visit a biology class in Florida or Louisiana in the very near future, and you may likely hear as much about creationism and intelligent design as natural selection and mutation depending on the religious beliefs of the individual teacher. And now advocates of teaching creationism and intelligent design in public school have vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin to further their cause.
C.S. Lewis, the Oxford professor and author of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” once said that it isn’t what the devil puts into our minds that we should be afraid of; it’s what he keeps out. We should all, religious and nonreligious people alike, be familiar with the concepts of creationism and intelligent design. Public school, however, is not the place to disseminate such “scientific information.”
The problem with legislation like Florida’s so-called “Evolution Academic Freedom Act” is that the logic supporting these bills fails to rise to the standards of their own lofty titles. In other words, these bills are not truly concerned with responsible academic freedom. When debating the Florida legislation, Senate Majority Leader Daniel Webster encouraged his colleagues to vote yes to one simple question: “Could it be? Can’t we ask that question?” Webster enthused. And the answer, of course, is yes, it could be; and not only can we ask the question, we should. Yet, not in our public schools, if for no other reason than the simple fact that there just isn’t the time.
If, in the name of academic freedom, we are going to ask whether creationism or intelligent design could be, then are we also going to ask whether unidentified flying objects or intelligent life on other planets could be? Similar to creationism and intelligent design, those interested in UFO’s and extraterrestrial life could also boast of a few prominent scientists to support their cause. Or, in the name of academic fairness, are we also going to ask whether various conspiracy theories could be, particularly those relating to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, or those relating to the bombing of the World Trade Center, some of which assign partial blame to the United States or direct blame to the government. Is that the kind of academic freedom being advocated for our public schools?
Of course there are places to ask whether creationism, intelligent design and many other such theories could be valid. And those places are privately funded think tanks, college campuses where interested professors have earned the right to pursue their own research projects, or in religious institutions of various kinds. But public school is not suited to explore any of these marginal theories.
Another problem with various forms of legislation like Florida’s Evolution Academic Freedom Act is that, in the end, it will only deepen the divisions of our nation. For Christians, this kind of legislation not only alienates us from secular society, it also forces the Christian community to become a house divided against itself. A scandal which Jesus fervently prayed would never occur. There are hundreds of thousands of Christians across the State of Florida – and I dare say millions of religious people throughout the country – who feel absolutely trapped between extremists of various kinds, whether Christian fundamentalists (apparently like the sponsors of the Florida bill) or scientific fundamentalists (perhaps like Richard Dawkins of “The God Delusion”). And I can only imagine how the many scientists who are already faithful members of the religious community must be feeling.
The Christians for whom I am attempting to speak do indeed believe that God created the heavens and the earth, including the process of evolution, by which we have arrived at this unique place in the history of the world. We also believe that God has spoken to us through the inspired words of Scripture. And we even believe that God continues to hear our prayers, however imperfect our understanding of that phenomenon may be. But what we do not believe is that God created the universe in a literal six day period a relative few thousand years ago. We also do not believe that mentioning God’s name in public a few more times each day will cure the ills of our country. And we do not fear the theory of evolution being taught to our children in the public schools.
Christians have no reason to fear evolution, and in fact have much to celebrate when considering the wonder of biodiversity, of which we humans are an integral part. But we should fear ignorance in God’s name. One, because it weakens the reality of God in our world; and two, because legislation like the Evolution Academic Freedom Act will inevitably invite some students to ignore the preponderance of evidence supporting the process of evolution if they so wish, weakening their own standing. It is impossible to verify whether a political climate that could produce such a bill is the primary reason why the State of Florida ranks dead last in math and science education. But when one considers the time, energy and money spent debating this kind of legislation, at the very same time while Florida’s education budget is drastically being cut, it is especially outrageous. And personally speaking, whether my children become priests or paleontologists, politicians or plumbers, my wife and I are now starting to fear that the State of Florida cannot offer the level of education they will need to utilize all of the many gifts and skills God has given them. Yet, even moving to another state outside of the Bible-belt may no longer be enough.
It is no secret that the goal of the antiabortion movement today is to overturn Roe v. Wade through the future selection of sympathetic Supreme Court justices. And with the choice of Gov. Palin as vice presidential candidate, John McCain has shown that when push comes to shove political survival takes priority over presidential principle. Therefore, if those promised justices take their place, it becomes more than conceivable that federal legislation promoting the inclusion of creationism in public school could gain ground as well.
The Rev. Richard Lindsley Walton, an Episcopal priest, is the former director of the Anglican Theological Institute in Belmopan, Belize, and lecturer in Ethics at the University of Belize.