Fighting Creationist Pollution of Science Classes

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.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • L.Long

    Come out as an atheist in a school that is religiously dominated!!??
    Good luck with that. Just being a geek gets you cut out from the group and bullied and teased. They had better be strong willed and tough enough not to care what the group thinks. I always tend to be pessimistic but it will only work if the student has a support behind them, parents and/or group. If the student thinks he/she is the only one then not much will happen.

  • The Hawkeye

    I work in admissions for a large public school, and have had this issue come up in some of my work with high school students. During one of my appointments, a student asked me if they would be ridiculed by our Biology professors if they believed in creationism and answered questions consistent with that belief. I told the student that the professors would not ridicule them in front of the class, and that professors will entertain most arguments as long as strong solid evidence is given to support your position. The student asked me what scientific evidence has been found so far that he can use to argue for creationism.

    I answered back, “There is none.”

    I ended up being mildly reprimanded for this by a superior, since I was seen as mocking this student’s beliefs. I argued that I was simply being honest with the student so that they would not be under the delusion that they can get away with the apologetic lines if they are going to attend a public school.

  • Monty

    I’ve explained the issue to creationist students as “You don’t have to believe it, you just have to understand how it works.” Obviously not ideal, but it helps some of them get over it.

  • L.Long

    I teach adults only for 2 reasons ..
    1-is I’m not allowed to teach kids, as knowing how is not as important as have a degree that says I kissed some institutions collective butts with money so they will give me a paper stating I can.
    2-with adults I tell them what they must know (electronics) to pass and I don’t have to worry about their delicate religious feelings.

    This nonsense about their religious feelings and other forms of PC crap is just that CRAP! If the kid is so delicate, or the idiot parents, then remove them from public school and put them in a religious brainwashing school!
    But that will not happen because they want control of everyone and everything.
    And unfortunately many of the school board people are also religious nuts who support ignorance.
    But like the religious should be doing I solved the problem of my kids by teaching them science at home as well and completing the instruction the school was suppose to do. But we also had my wife get a job at the school so she could spy on their operation and complain when things were not right, which fortunately was not often as the school was very good one.
    But basically when it comes to such delicate FEELINGs, no matter what is done or not someone’s delicate feelings will be insulted. And there are way too many people who worry about feelings instead of truth.

  • Ebonmuse

    Good luck with that. Just being a geek gets you cut out from the group and bullied and teased. They had better be strong willed and tough enough not to care what the group thinks.

    Good point. That’s why we need more groups like the Secular Student Alliance’s high school affiliates – those are just what the doctor ordered to create a support network for godless high school students that will help them more effectively resist theocratic encroachment. If we could get a few hundred of those in schools across the country, we’d have a really effective way to stop creationism in its tracks.

  • Andrew T.

    It’s nice to hear about the SSA’s efforts…it goes without saying that more avenues for social support in pressure-prone environments is a good thing. It’s a bit too late for me, though: Unless something’s changed in the seven years since I graduated, coming out as gay or an atheist in a rural West Virginia high school feels akin to asking to be lynched.

    I’ve grimaced before about some of the circumstances of my past, but I actually had a biology teacher with straightforward attitudes about evolution. I also, however, had an environmental science instructor who halfheartedly skimmed the material while describing it as “junk,” and spent a goodly amount of time “rebutting” the subject with incomprehensible dialogue and the usual debunked cliches (“It’s like a tornado whipping together a pocketwatch from a junkyard! The problem with science is it doesn’t allow for miracles! You don’t have to believe this!”). There was also the case of the ninth-grade science teacher who conveniently ended the semester just before reaching the evolution chapter in the book…

  • Gordon

    I’m at the University of Alabama. As part of the sane portion of the student body, I wind up fighting this pseudoscientific religiosity on a regular basis. However,note that the entire populous is not in consensus on the matter. We have an admirably large nontheist group on campus, a lecture series specifically on evolution, and an entire minor program dedicated to evo studies. Just something to note.

  • monkeymind

    You don’t have to be a parent to go to school board meetings! You could also organize an informal meet and greet for school board candidates at your local coffee shop.

  • Dianne

    The problem with creationism in science classes is that it hurts the kids, not the wackos who teach/require it. My ex’s niece had wanted to be a doctor since she was 2 or 3 years old. Her high school biology class taught creationism, so when she applied to pre-med in college, she was denied credit for her high school class, and was never able to go to pre-med or med school. Thus Oregon lost a bright, committed young prospective doctor. The creationists don’t care about this.