This past weekend was Darwin Day, an international celebration of science and reason in the name of the one person who did more than possibly anyone else to clarify humanity’s position in the natural universe. Alas, the great man’s legacy is still threatened by religious ignorance:
Researchers found that only 28 percent of biology teachers consistently follow the recommendations of the National Research Council to describe straightforwardly the evidence for evolution and explain the ways in which it is a unifying theme in all of biology. At the other extreme, 13 percent explicitly advocate creationism, and spend at least an hour of class time presenting it in a positive light.
That leaves what the authors call “the cautious 60 percent,” who avoid controversy by endorsing neither evolution nor its unscientific alternatives. In various ways, they compromise.
A survey published in the latest issue of the journal Science found these dispiriting, though hardly surprising, results. The teaching of evolution still faces religious resistance throughout the country. Some biology teachers are a part of it, and work actively to spread ignorance – like the odious John Freshwater, an Ohio high school teacher who repeatedly defied the school’s orders not to teach creationism in class, and who was finally terminated last month after a long and drawn-out legal battle – but most of them just keep their heads down, teaching about evolution as little as possible and trying not to draw attention to themselves. Of course, this is just what the creationists want. People who don’t know the real facts about evolution are more likely to believe creationist lies, and the cycle of ignorance is perpetuated.
Although defenders of science education have repeatedly triumphed in court, creationists are working at the local level to undercut these victories. Thanks to sympathetic school boards and spineless teachers, they’re often succeeding. If we want to turn back their assaults and create a scientifically literate population, it’s essential for us to fight at the grass-roots level as well as in the courts. As it stands, we’re winning the battles but losing the war.
And the people who can do the most are the ones on the front lines of this conflict. If you’re an atheist student and you’re not being taught about evolution in school, stand up and say something! Tell the school administration that you object to having your education watered down, that teaching creationism or otherwise bowing to religious objections puts them in a perilous legal position, that you don’t want your college applications or your future job prospects harmed because you come from a school with a reputation as a creationist-run laughingstock. Sure, it’s entirely possible to learn these things yourself – some students have even won scholarships on the basis of experience debating creationists on the internet. But it still harms your academic resume to come from a school that’s known as a cesspool of ignorance. There are smart, freethinking students who’ve turned the tables on religious intrusions in their schools. We need more of them!
The same applies if you’re a parent: join the PTA, go to school board meetings, keep an eye on what’s being taught! Creationists, and religious conservatives in general, have the advantage that they’re very good at organizing and politically mobilizing – a predictable if unfortunate consequence of a religious ideology that values obedience to dogma and the decrees of leaders. We’ll probably never be able to match their lockstep conformity, nor would I want to. But with the law on our side, a small group of dedicated and watchful individuals can have a huge impact.