Summer/Fall 2007, Vol. 10, Nos. 1 & 2

Religion in the News

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Articles in Special Supplement

Contents of

Education & Secular Values:

The Congruence Between the Scientific and the Secular

Science Education and Religion: Holding the Center

The Competition of Secularism and Religion in a Science Education

Scientific Literacy in a Postmodern World

High School Students Speak Out


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A Special Supplement to Religion in the News:

The Competition of Secularism and Religion in Science Education
by 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 religious vitality.

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.

The 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.

Polling, however, 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 postreligious truth.”

By contrast, 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.

Methodological 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?

Because Darwinian 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.”

Science teachers 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 methodological secularism.

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 students.

To accomplish this within the bounds of law, I propose four rules for implementing methodological secularism in the science classroom.

RULE 1: Teach science, not scientism. 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 evidence. 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 schools.

Openness to student-initiated ideas defuses potential conflicts and leaves avenues open for student learning and growth that would otherwise be shut off.

Lincoln biographer 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.


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