Science and religion don't mix.

Confusion about science at heart of incident

October 02, 2003

The suspension of Colonial Heights Middle School students is a sad and unfortunate reminder of the deep, but still all-too-common misunderstandings that surround the place of science in our society generally, and the teaching of evolution in particular.

The eighth-graders were suspended after they placed a religious pamphlet on a teacher's desk and repeatedly discussed religious beliefs with a teacher after being told not to. While the suspensions involved an issue of disobedience, the underlying religious motivation of the behavior deserves further examination.

According to school officials, the incident arose out of a biology class discussion covering the Big Bang Theory of creation.

According to Colonial Heights principal Mike Cline, some students in the class wanted to discuss "Creationism," but were told by the teacher that she could not lead a discussion related to religion. Creationism is the doctrine, first advanced in the late 19th century, that attributes the various forms of life on Earth and of the existence of the universe itself as the divine creation of God, usually in the way described in Genesis.

According to CHMS principal Cline, "What always pops up when they teach these kinds of things is kids want to talk about (religion), and our teachers say we can't discuss those things in school. What happens is these kids get in their minds that, OK, she (the teacher) doesn't want to talk about religion and Christianity, then therefore she must be an atheist. We've talked to the kids and warned them not to say these things. It is hurtful. After we warn them, then there are consequences."

The principal says one student was initially chastised for being part of a rumor mill concerning the teacher's religious beliefs that were disrupting class and proving harmful to the teacher. But even after that warning, Cline says, the student persisted, encouraging another student to place a Christian pamphlet on the teacher's desk. At that point, the teacher reported the incident to school officials and the punishment - a one-day suspension - was ordered.

This is only the latest in a disturbing pattern seen across the nation's schools. Among other things, such incidents point to the critical need for science teachers and the scientific community to do a better job explaining what science is - and what it is not.

If public polls are to be believed, a clear majority of American adults believe Creationism should be taught along with evolution in public schools. But science does not and cannot reach its conclusions on the basis of polls or public sentiment. Nor should a religious belief be taught as science, when it is not a result of the scientific process.

The mathematical equation two plus two equals four is not a matter of opinion, but of fact. Similarly, the concepts that undergird science are not something susceptible to vote. Gravity would not cease to exist merely because a majority of the population wished to deny it.

Creationism, likewise, should not be taught alongside evolution for the same reason that we don't teach a flat-Earth model along with a round-Earth model.

There are two main reasons that Creationism continues to attract the attention it does. The first is the absolutely appalling state of scientific illiteracy in the general population despite the hundreds of billions of dollars expended on our nation's schools. The second reason is that more than a few people believe evolution precludes the very foundation of Christian faith.

And yet, there was a period in Western civilization when virtually 100 percent of the populace believed that the sun revolved around the Earth. After all, the Bible describes a stationary Earth in several places and common sense seemed to demonstrate that the sun rose in the east and set in the west. Moreover, the church severely persecuted or muzzled the handful of people who first recognized - on the basis of scientific inquiry - that the reverse was true.

The faith of our fathers may make us believe that it is an insult to human dignity that the Earth is not at the center of the universe, but we cannot move it there. We may find moral or aesthetic objections to the manner in which natural history appears to have unfolded, but we cannot command nature to take another course.

Short-changing, distorting, or omitting a frank discussion of science, especially evolution, makes the teaching of the life sciences essentially impossible. And no matter what one's faith, no one can reasonably argue that a scientifically unacceptable belief like Creationism should be taught - even if a majority of students or their parents hold that opinion. Likewise, neither should beliefs of various other religions be a matter of discussion in a school science class.

The desire of parents to raise their children to think as they do is understandable. But if the parents' belief is based on a poor understanding of the content and methods of science, it is well if they hope and expect that their children will understand science better than they do. In doing so, parents will provide the means to expose their children to expertise beyond their own.

Indeed, that is precisely why most parents want to send their children to school. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once observed, "A mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions."

Although not every student or parent appreciates this "mind stretching," such intellectual exercise has always been the foundation of every successful society and the mission of every teacher worthy of the name.

Copyright 2003 Kingsport Times-News.