A Special Supplement to Religion in the
Competition of Secularism and Religion in Science Education
William W. Cobern
Separation of church
and state would seem to be a natural outgrowth of Jesus’ command to render
unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. In keeping with
this, Christian churches in America have strongly embraced the First
Amendment’s requirement that “Congress shall make no law respecting an
establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Americans who reject
any notion of the transcendent have, of course, always been happy to join
the embrace of this constitutional principle. For them, no-establishment has
meant secularization—what modern social thought long considered the
culmination of such modernizing forces as urbanization, professionalization,
and bureaucratization—and the decay of traditional religion.
In fact, while this
process may have rolled forward in Western Europe, it did not in the U.S.,
where belief in God holds steady, even among scientists. Far from being the
touchstone of secularization, no-establishment has been key to American
So vital was
Protestant Christianity in the early republic that no-establishment rapidly
led to the de facto establishment of a Protestant ethos, especially in
public education. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Protestant
cultural hegemony led most states to pass anti-Catholic “Blaine
Amendments”—state constitutional provisions prohibiting the use of state
revenues for the support of sectarian schools (where “sectarian” was a
thinly veiled reference to Catholic parochial schools).
But the de facto
establishment could not last forever, and in the middle decades of the 20th
century a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions disestablished it. The most
important of these decisions were Engel v. Vitale (1962) and
Abington v. Schempp (1963), which ended legal school-sponsored prayer
and Bible reading in public education.
de-Protestantization of the public square created its own hostile reaction,
however, and this in due course put science education back into play as an
issue of public controversy.
In the wake of the
1925 Scopes Trial, the teaching of Darwinian evolution largely disappeared
from school curricula. Renewed interest in the subject—and science education
generally—erupted after the 1959 Darwin Centennial celebration, where it was
declared that 100 years without Darwin was enough.
The drought was ended
soon thereafter by the National Science Foundation, whose Biological
Sciences Curriculum Study made evolution a key feature of its innovative
high school biology textbook series. The response came first in the form of
“Scientific Creationism,” and then Intelligent Design, both of which the
courts found in violation of the First Amendment.
suggests that whatever accommodations conservative Christians may have made
to dancing, divorce, the consumption of alcohol, and rock music, their
rejection of evolution remains strong. Moreover, religious interests in
recent years have been asserted in other science-related areas such as
cloning, embryonic stem cell research, and climate change.
That we have arrived
at the early years of the 21st century with secularism yet to drive religion
from the public square has the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam
Harris, and Christopher Hitchens in the throes of apoplexy. Their recent
books*—New York Times best sellers all—amount to
hysterical pleadings for driving out, once and for all, the religious
barbarians from the rightful place of secular intellectuals—the “Brights,”
as Dennett calls them.
Is there a way
forward? There is, but it does not lie with the New Atheist call to arms for
a final victory in the American cultural wars. In public education, and
especially in science education, we need to differentiate what might be
called methodological secularism from philosophical
secularism. Philo-sophical secularism is antithetical to theism. In American
culture, it cannot provide a “new ‘absolute’ language, an Esperanto of
methodological secularism is shorn of all presuppositions of
antisuper-naturalism. It invites all parties to the public square and serves
to facilitate com-merce among different kinds of belief.
A person should not be
excluded from, say, the public policy debates on funding embryonic stem cell
research merely because that person’s position was derived from Christian
doctrine anymore than one should bar an atheist from the debate because of
views derived from philosophical naturalism. Policy debate is one thing,
however; school curricula are another.
secularism can work as a policy for the public schools, but it is not
without risk, particularly when it comes to the scientific teaching of
origins. The subject of origins is inherently metaphysical. Once it is
broached, most students cannot help asking themselves cosmic questions: Why
is there anything rather than nothing? Why is what is here,
here the way it is and not some other way?
evolution offers a mechanism for answering these questions, we quite
naturally wonder: Is it a sufficient mechanism for what we believe
about our world? Isn’t something more needed? Are our other beliefs
amenable to evolutionary ones?
In fact, evolution has
evoked a range of metaphysical reflections, musings, and conclusions. The
evolutionary biologist David Lack, for example, has written, “The true
significance of the first chapter of Genesis is to assert that God made the
universe and all in it, that He saw that it was good, and that He placed man
in a special relationship to Himself.”
should not ignore such thinking and we certainly should not pretend that
such thinking is unimportant to students. Rather, this situation makes the
teaching of origins a very good place for the implementa-tion of
By this, however, I do
not mean the sort of “balanced treatment” that creationists advocated in the
1980s or the “teach the controversy” approach of more recent years. I mean
that classrooms need to allow for inevitable metaphysical diversity among
To accomplish this
within the bounds of law, I propose four rules for implementing
methodological secularism in the science classroom.
RULE 1: Teach science,
Students and teachers
need to understand the difference between science and scientism, the belief
in science as a kind of religious system of its own. A science popularizer
like Michael Shermer, columnist for Scientific American, is not
someone to follow. He proudly announces that we are now in the Age of
Science and it is “scientism’s shamans who command our veneration” and that
scientists today are our “premier mythmakers.” It makes no sense to brag
about scientism and it certainly does no harm to the enterprise of science
that we carefully observe its limitations. Indeed, one of the great
historical strengths of the natural sciences is that limitations are
observed; science only addresses questions of a certain kind.
RULE 2: Teach for
sound understanding, not belief.
Understanding is critical but belief is not. People do not find all
scientific evidence equally persuasive. They may find other evidence more
compelling, other authorities more trustworthy. Ignoring these realities is
simply counterproductive because it leads students to feel that they are
being indoctrinated rather than taught. To disbelieve, moreover, does not
bar understanding. Indeed, students are much more open to learning when they
are confident that the teacher is not trying to “convert” them. Teachers
need to recognize that rejection of evolution does not mean rejection of all
of science. Indeed, there are keen science students who reject the validity
of evolutionary theory.
RULE 3: Teach the
This rule is simply good science teaching but too often the science
curriculum employs what science educator Joseph Schwab called a “rhetoric of
conclusions.” The conclusions are needed; i.e., the outlines of the general
theory of evolution. Without some introduction to the evidence that
scientists adduce in support of evolution, however, student understanding of
evolution will be weak. Worse, some students will conclude that evolution is
more an ideological stance than an evidence-based scientific theory, which
is exactly the message of Young Earth creationists. If we want skeptical
students to develop confidence in the scientific soundness of evolution,
Rule 2 requires Rule 3.
RULE 4: Give students
time to explore their own ideas.
We do not need lessons on intelligent design and we do not need to examine
facts that some think are facts against evolution. But it makes no sense to
ignore ideas that students bring to the classroom that the students deem
relevant regardless of what their science teachers think. Science teachers
need to acknowledge that this diversity of thought is very likely to exist
and to ask the students if they would like the opportunity to explore their
own metaphysical questions. To do so creates an hospitable environment that
will open opportunities for learning.
With respect to
evolution, let students present science-based philosophical and metaphysical
positions, including religious ones. If a student wants to report on the
“young age” of the earth, fine—but require that student to study the
standard evidence used by scientists to date the earth as well. In other
words, insist that students consider all evidence, not a selected set.
The rules do open the
classroom door to creationism and other sectarian ideas, but the approach is
legal since students initiate whatever is brought to class and there is no
hint of coercion or collusion. Openness has a price and it is that ideas
running counter to standard science will circulate.
The “closed” classroom
does not stop the circulation but only bars it from the classroom. As a
result, some students will not seriously consider standard scientific
evidence. The closed approach, the philosophical secularism approach, gives
us the stalemate and conflict we have today.
Bringing the idea of
methodological secularism to the science classroom makes the teaching of
controversial subjects such as evolution considerably more complicated than
teaching, say, the kinetic theory of gases or about respiration. One simply
cannot act as if nothing mattered but the science of the subject.
At the same time,
adopting the stance of philosophical secularism is unsound. It turns science
into scientism. And it is unworkable in the vast majority of American public
student-initiated ideas defuses potential conflicts and leaves avenues open
for student learning and growth that would otherwise be shut off.
Allen Guelzo has written that Lincoln “struggled to be true to the two souls
of American culture”: one theistically religious and the other secular,
commercial, and enlightened. In Guelzo’s view, these souls “have often been
locked in combat, only to withdraw after a brief battering reminds them that
in America they have no choice but to co-exist.”
We too in recent
decades have been battering ourselves through litigation over what can and
cannot be taught at school. It is past time to cease these hostilities and
realize that there will not be any clear-cut victory for either side. The
optimism of methodological secularism is that we learn to co-exist.