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


More Information



A Special Supplement to Religion in the News:

Science Education and Religion: Holding the Center
by Jon D. Miller and Robert T. Pennock


Surveys show that there is a high level of agreement among Americans that science and technology have improved the quality of their lives, making them healthier, easier, and more comfortable. There is equally strong agreement that science and technology will provide new opportunities for the next generation.

At the same time, a substantial proportion of American adults—about 30 percent—have significant reservations about the impact of science on their religious faith. Many leaders believe that “modernist” and “materialist” science undermines faith and they want to reinvent science in a form that is not only consistent with but also supports their theistic convictions that man is created in God’s image.

Though in the past this segment of Christian fundamentalists responded by withdrawing from the world, in recent decades their leaders have succeeded in awakening them as a political force. With missionary energy, they have sought to bring about a “renewal” of what they take to be the Christian foundation of the country.  One cannot understand the battle that is going on over science and science education in the United States unless one appreciates the views and goals of this large group on the religious extreme.

A 2005 survey found that 43 percent of American adults strongly agreed that 1) the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally; 2) there is a personal God who hears the prayers of individual men and women; and 3) human beings were created by God as whole persons and did not evolve from earlier forms of life.

The co-existence of this level of fundamentalism with a strong and growing scientific community fuels much of the current controversies over evolution, stem cell research, and other issues about the beginning and end of life. These controversies symbolize a new era of public policy dispute over the control and uses of science and technology. 

To give just one example, a leaked internal manifesto from the Discovery Institute speaks of “[t]he proposition that human beings are created in the image of God” and says that “modern science” denied the objective moral standards that comes from this theistic understanding of nature by putting forward a view of the universe as “ruled by purely impersonal forces.” It blames modern science for everything from moral relativism to modern approaches to product liability and welfare, and offers Intelligent Design (ID) as a “wedge” that will break apart materialist science and “replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”

The current controversy over evolution illustrates the nature of the ongoing conflict. A majority of American adults indicate that they believe that humans were created as whole persons directly by God and that humans are uniquely different than plants or other animals. This provides an opening that creationists try to exploit to bring people in the middle to their side.

One of the effects of the politicization of evolution for partisan purposes has been increased pressure on local teachers, administrators, school board members, and textbook publishers to either omit any reference to evolution or to include a creationist alternative. Nor is biology the only target. Fundamentalists have also attacked geology and physics, working to remove references to the geological time scale, the age of the earth, the Big Bang, and global warming.

Even more worrisome than the fundamentalists’ attacks upon specific scientific findings is the more general attack upon the very foundations of scientific reasoning.  In their quest for a science consonant with Christian and “theistic” convictions, they aim to overturn the ground rules of science so as to recognize explanations that appeal to supernatural beings and powers.

In calling for unscientific “alternative theories” to be taught on a par with well-established scientific findings, they are unfairly promoting views that have not earned their place by surviving the rigors of scientific testing. In requiring students to learn so-called “arguments for and against” scientific theories, they are undermining the evidence-based reasoning that stands behind established science and replacing it with a relativism of empirical knowledge that would destroy the empirical methods that make science work.

This problem has become more serious in the context of an increasingly ideological political system in the United States. Until recent decades, science policy in the United States has been largely bipartisan in nature. Both major political parties have jointly supported the creation and growth of major scientific institutions such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and a network of national laboratories. The war on cancer was a war that both parties endorsed and supported.

But as John C. Danforth, a former Republican Senator from Missouri and an Episcopalian minister, put it in a recent New York Times op-ed piece: “By a series of recent initiatives, Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians.
The elements of this transformation have included advocacy of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, opposition to stem cell research involving both frozen embryos and human cells in petri dishes, and the extraordinary effort to keep Terri Schiavo hooked up to a feeding tube.”

To be sure, there are some signs that the era of fundamentalist politics is coming to an end. The defeat of Intelligent Design in a Pennsylvania court in 2005 was so resounding that even leaders of the movement have dropped mention of the term as they try to regroup and rethink their political strategy.

Equally significantly, the 2006 elections brought a series of defeats of candidates for school board, gubernatorial, U.S. Senate and other offices who were known for their anti-evolutionism. In the current race for the Republican presidential nomination, candidates were asked in a debate about their stand on evolution and the three who said they disbelieved in evolution subsequently backpedaled when their answers were taken as evidence of ideological extremism.

Meanwhile, conservative political opinion-makers from syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer to the New Republic’s John Derbyshire have begun publicly questioning the value of anti-evolutionism to conservatism. George Will, for instance, wrote that the school board members who favored ID were “the kind of conservatives who make conservatism repulsive to temperate people.”

It is to be hoped that this trend will continue. If it doesn’t, there will be new problems and new challenges for the scientific community generally, but especially for science educators at the pre-collegiate level.

In this environment, science educators face a dual challenge. On the one hand, colleges and universities are expected to produce future generations of scientists and engineers capable of harnessing emerging science for the improvement of the quality of life broadly and to improve the economic competitiveness of each nation. The logic of this task indicates the need to identify talented students early and to provide a quality educational experience through the undergraduate and graduate years and a research or professional career. This is often translated into a “best and brightest” strategy.

At the same time, science educators must take substantial responsibility for the education of future citizens. Traditionally, the education of citizens was thought to be the responsibility of general education and perhaps of a high school civics teacher. Citizenship meant knowing how government works.

But at the beginning of the 21st century, it is clear that the responsibility for preparing future generations of citizens belongs to all educators, including science educators, mathematics educators, social science educators, and teachers of art, letters, and the humanities. An adult who does not understand some basic scientific constructs—the nature of matter and life, the role of DNA, and so on—will have a difficult time understanding public policy issues like global warming.

Those who do not know the history of humans on this planet may repeat the mistakes of earlier generations. And those who do not understand evolutionary science may not appreciate the significance of their doctor’s instruction to complete all the prescribed doses of antibiotics or evolution’s important role in agriculture, industry and environmental management.

At the secondary school level, it is essential to abandon the present smorgasbord approach to science and mathematics education and to take seriously the challenge of making every high school graduate scientifically literate. Through a complex tracking system, American high schools provide a minimally credible science education to about a third of students who find their way into an “honors” science course.

Students outside the honors track get primarily 19th-century physics and a little pond biology. What little is taught about the nature of scientific inquiry is superficial at best.

This needs to change. Evolution should be emphasized as the key explanatory framework of biology and as an exemplar of scientific reasoning at its best. Perhaps the forthcoming inclusion of science in the national testing requirement will stimulate more local education leaders to take this responsibility seriously.

Next, we should build upon elements of the educational system that have been shown to work. The American commitment to general education requirements at the baccalaureate level has produced a substantial number of scientifically literate adults—about one in four Americans aged 18 and older.

If every high school graduate were to meet the current minimal definition of scientific literacy, college and university courses could be used to produce even better informed adults for leadership positions in communities, corporations, and government. In the meantime, these college and university courses provide an essential political safety net for our democratic system.

Also, we must remember that most Americans will learn most of their science after they leave formal schooling. This observation is not a condemnation of formal education, but a simple recognition that the rapid growth of science and technology throughout an individual’s lifetime will necessitate learning a good deal of new science.

This recognition should lead formal educators to re-think the long-term consequences of their curriculum. It should inform adult educators in the media, in libraries and museums, and on the Internet about the need for adult science learning. 

Finally, science educators at all levels need to do more to communicate learning about the nature of science and scientific reasoning. If we are to not lose swing voters to missionary creationists, we need to do a better job explaining what real science is and what it is not.

Students need to know how science is different from faith and limits itself to testable hypotheses. They need to know why science may not appeal to supernatural explanations and why it is neutral with regard to metaphysical religious beliefs. 

They need to know how the different sciences are interconnected such that one may not simply choose to disbelieve some particular scientific conclusion in isolation. And they need to know the limits of science and when reasoning from the humanities needs to be brought to bear on policy issues.

These and other critical elements about the nature of scientific reasoning should not be thought of as a supplement to but rather as a basic part of the content of a science course. Science will be at the center of many key policy questions and science education cannot fail to prepare citizens to meet the challenges that face us.  It is essential that we resist the attempts from the religious extreme to undermine sound science education.

This should not be a partisan issue. For our democratic system of government to continue to work, the center must hold.


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