HOW do you begin to reverse the religious stupidification process that has left millions of Americans, and a sizeable number of Europeans and others wallowing in a nonsensical belief in creationism, or its ugly sister, “intelligent design”?
In a fascinating, albeit depressing New York Times article this week – A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash – journalist Amy Harmon concentrated on the efforts of one teacher in Florida, David Campbell, 52, who introduces evolution with pictures of Mickey Mouse.
In February, Harmon points out, the Florida Department of Education modified its standards to explicitly require, for the first time, the state’s public schools to teach evolution, calling it “the organizing principle of life science.”
Spurred in part by legal rulings against school districts seeking to favour religious versions of natural history, over a dozen other states have also given more emphasis in recent years to what has long been the scientific consensus: that all of the diverse life forms on Earth descended from a common ancestor, through a process of mutation and natural selection, over billions of years.
But in a nation where evangelical Protestantism and other religious traditions stress a literal reading of the biblical description of God’s individually creating each species, students often arrive at school fearing that evolution, and perhaps science itself, is hostile to their faith.
The poor treatment of evolution in some state education standards may reflect the public’s widely held creationist beliefs. In Gallup polls over the last 25 years, nearly half of American adults have consistently said they believe God created all living things in their present form, sometime in the last 10,000 years.
But a 2005 defeat in federal court for a school board in Dover, Pa., that sought to cast doubt on evolution gave legal ammunition to evolution proponents on school boards and in statehouses across the country.
With a mandate to teach evolution but little guidance as to how, science teachers are contriving their own ways to turn a culture war into a lesson plan. How they fare may bear on whether a new generation of Americans embraces scientific evidence alongside religious belief.
Campbell starts with Mickey Mouse.
Mickey evolved. And Mickey gets cuter because Walt Disney makes more money that way. That is â€˜selection.’
Later, he gets to the touchier part, about how the minute changes in organisms that drive biological change arise spontaneously, without direction. And how a struggle for existence among naturally varying individuals has helped to generate every species, living and extinct, on the planet.
Evolution has been the focus of a lot of debate in our state this year. If you read the newspapers, everyone is arguing, â€˜is it a theory, is it not a theory?’ The answer is, we can observe it. We can see it happen, just like you can see it in Mickey.
Campbell deflects public criticism that his courses do not include alternative explanations for life’s diversity, like intelligent design, thus:
We also failed to include astrology, alchemy and the concept of the moon being made of green cheese, because those aren’t science, either.
Science explores nature by testing and gathering dataIt can’t tell you what’s right and wrong. It doesn’t address ethics. But it is not anti-religion. Science and religion just ask different questions.
Asked by one pupil, “Is there a God?”, Campbell replies.
Can’t test it. Can’t prove it, can’t disprove it. It’s not a question for science.
Another pupil, Bryce, a boy of 16, from a strong Christian background, says:
But there is scientific proof that there is a God. Over in Turkey there’s a piece of wood from Noah’s ark that came out of a glacier.
Campbell chose his words carefully:
If I could prove, tomorrow, that that chunk of wood is not from the ark, is not even 500 years old and not even from the right kind of tree – would that damage your religious faith at all?”
The boy thinks for a moment, and replies “No”.
Faith is not based on science. And science is not based on faith. I don’t expect you to â€˜believe’ the scientific explanation of evolution that we’re going to talk about over the next few weeks. But I do expect you to understand it.
Bryce is unconvinced:
Evolution is telling you that you’re like an animal. That’s why people stand strong with Christianity, because it teaches people to lead a good life and not do wrong.
We wish Campbell, and teachers like him, lots of luck. They are sure as hell gonna need it!