Teaching creationism in US schools

A new Tennessee law will permit teachers to discuss creationism alongside theories of evolution, writes Casey Selwyn.

The case

On April 11 2012, Tennessee passed a law that protects teachers who choose to explore the merits of creationism alongside theories of evolution in public school science classes. Governor Bill Haslam claimed that the legislation would not change scientific standards in schools and refused to sign the bill. However, he refused to veto it either, so the bill became law. Tennessee thus became the second US state to enact such legislation, following the “academic freedom” law of Louisiana in 2008. It purports to support teachers wanting to “help students understand, analyse, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories”.

Its scope is not limited to evolution, as global warming and human cloning are also open to critique. These three theories are widely accepted in terms of scientific merit. Critics named the bill the “Monkey Bill” after Tennessee’s 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial”’, in which John Scopes was convicted under state law for teaching evolution and later exonerated on appeal. The law has attracted criticism, and some fear that it will inspire other states to pass similar bills in addition to acting as a backwards move in the fight to improve science and maths education in the US; others claim it violates the principle of the separation of church and state. Its supporters believe that it encourages healthy scepticism among students and that “critical thinking and analysis fosters good science”.

Author opinion

While the principles of academic freedom and critical thinking are of vital importance in fostering good science and education policy, I do not believe this Tennessee bill encourages these principles. Firstly, Tennessee undermined its own free speech credibility in education policy when that state’s House Education Committee passed a “Don’t Say Gay” bill on 18 April 2012, which prevented teachers from discussing homosexuality. Secondly, despite a provision in this law that claims that it does not “promote any religious or non-religious doctrine”, it clearly provides space for a religious creationist agenda.

While scientific principles uphold free speech to the highest standard in the practice of rigorous theory testing and the questioning of unproven facts, providing space in curriculum for children that promotes discredited theories while not truly subjecting them to rigorous scientific analysis provides them with a distorted view of facts versus fiction. So, while critical analysis does foster good science and is necessary to uphold principles of free speech, it seems that an “alternative”, an unchallengeable defence of creationism seems to be a cover for the promotion of ideology over science, even while it is being presented as an example of free speech that should be protected. If parents want to teach their kids about creationism, or the church does, that is absolutely acceptable, but to promote it as science in a secular public school setting is inappropriate. Otherwise it seems to violate first amendment principles of freedom of religion, as demonstrated by the 1987 supreme court ruling that requiring creation science to be taught alongside evolution is schools is unconstitutional.

- Casey Selwyn

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Comments (14)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. With Karl Popper, I think that theories must be debated in the light of possible alternatives. Which in case of evolutionism means: in the light of creationism resp. intelligent design.
    That implies that the most interesting aspects are the tentative refutations of Darwinism, its flaws and open questions.
    Understood in this way, the Tennessean law is quite reasonable – not as a teaching of two theories independent of each other.
    Above all, I don’t think that the children are really endangered by creationism. In fact, evolutionism is rather unimportant for great parts of modern science, and there are a lot of chemists, physicians etc. who support kinds of creationism without any damage to their professional efficiency.

  2. this is great but it must be in the fashion that the teacher is not pushing this idea to be truth but merly to inform. This is a thinking of our world and it should not be shunned. This is way of thinking and just just as physics is or that we evolved from monkey or didn’t. All a just a way of thinking and should be explored.

  3. integrare un istruzione di base religiosa, in particolare in una nazione come gli USA che si dichiara atea di principio, e’ un forte controsenso e per quanto mi riguarda un errore perché sopratutto se viene integrato il creazionismo cattolico si dovrebbe insegnare l’equivalente di tutte le altre religioni se si intende insegnarlo con il pretesto di aumentare la basa di conoscenze

  4. I don’t see what the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation has to do with this issue, except to demonstrate that the Tennessee legislature is pursuing a Conservative social agenda, and interfering with school curricula to do so. It seems to me obvious that teachers in Tennessee schools should be free to teach about homosexuality and about creationism, that children in Tennessee schools need information and discussion on these subjects. The discussion, of course, should be truly open. That is what needs to be guaranteed.

  5. Also, thank you for such thought-provoking responses!

  6. Here is another interesting view on the topic:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-moshman/should-creationist-teache_b_1496480.html

    The author brings up the point that the academic freedom laws should be applied to all subjects, to ensure that students understand that what they are taught in history or literature is open to debate. How do you think all of these arguments apply to an issue like Holocaust denial? Are they comparable, or is there something about ‘hard science’ that separates it from all else?

  7. Whoa. I don’t think this has to do with the quality of teachers so much as the religious views of the state (so much for separation of church and state there.) If someone wants to teach Creationism, I believe they should be able to do so, but within the context of the religion that proclaims it. Comparing it to Evolution is not inherently evil either. When it is set up as scientific truth though, is when I find fault with the law and the education system.

  8. I completely agree with that . It is a good point to be comented in schools , and it opens many ”doors” for teach about another things involving creationism .

  9. Sure, creationism should technically be allowed to be taught in a science class under free speech, but any teacher who would even think about doing it should not be hired in the first place. It would be like teaching biology in a history class; it just doesn’t make sense.

    Teaching creationism in a science class shouldn’t be forbid, but any credible science teacher wouldn’t teach it to begin with. If anything this is more an issue with the quality of High School science teachers than with the curriculum itself.

  10. I agree

  11. I want to manifest my great indignation with these news. I cannot believe that in a 21st century USA, we find such an important flaw in education.
    I completely agree with Casey Selwyn when he or she talks says that this is a complete defense of the Creationist agenda, even if the defenders are trying to argue that it is better for the critical analysis skills of children and to teach them freedom of speech. If we wanted to see this situation turned around, we would be spending half of a mass as usual, and the other we would be dedicating it to speaking about evolution and how everything that has just been said is a lie and false. That does not sound like a good way of making the believers think that what they are being told in massI want to manifest my great indignation with these news. I cannot believe that in a 21st century USA, we find such an important flaw in education.
    I completely agree with Casey Selwyn when he or she talks says that this is a complete defense of the Creationist agenda, even if the defenders are trying to argue that it is better for the critical analysis skills of children and to teach them freedom of speech. If we wanted to see this situation turned around, we would be spending half of a mass as usual, and the other we would be dedicating it to speaking about evolution and how everything that has just been said is a lie and false.
    Not only this, but these teachings of Creationism are purely Christian, and with the enormous cultural variety in the United States, it is even insulting for other religions and also atheists, that this is being taught in schools.
    The church is the house of religion, and schools and universities are the houses of science. One cannot break in into the other’s house through institutional orders. Like Selwyn says, the US is supposedly a country with freedom of religion, and these kind of changes degrade this freedom.
    School and science are here to teach specific facts which are scientifically tested and proven. The theory of evolution falling into that category and Creationism obviously not, this situation is for me is medieval and a step backwards in USA culture and even human evolution.

    • Oh is it? Please list the inaccuracies and state why exactly my comments are in any way irrelevant. Religion has, and will for the centuries to come deter mankind’s goal of achieving a better society. Each year thousands are cornered and discriminated against simply for having different religious views. In fact I can go all day listing reasons why religion is ultimately one of the greatest tragedies that ever happened to mankind, however as bashing religion is not the sole purpose of comments I will try to justify my point from a different point of view.

      To start with, it seems that your view is very idealistic. A human is not a retinal creature who will weigh his/her own alternatives unbiasedly and see which one makes more sense. Many succumb to peer pressure and brainwashing easier than you would expect. You say that one should ridicule but not outlaw the teaching of religion in schools, but how exactly does that help? It is clear that there is a wide support in the Southern States to promote religion. Ridiculing them wouldn’t help as the residents of such states are mainly right-wing conservatives, many of who do not just consider creationism as a plausible alternative to theory of evolution, but in their sheer arrogance consider it to be the only true course of events. Therefore their attempts are nothing more but to influence and brainwash the kids in their formative years into buying this evangelical propaganda. Of course, they are still a long way to go to have creationism taught as the main “theory” in the classrooms, but that does not mean that “we” should let them further their agenda until it gets to the critical level. I therefore consider that necessary that actions must be taken now as the repercussions of this kind of passivity might one day affect our own children in a rather negative way.

    • I couldn’t agree with you any more. Thousands of different religions have existed througout the history of mankind each one slowing the scientific and social progress of the people. This is not only insulting to atheists and to peoples of other religions but anyone with common sense.
      Religion (of any kind) is one of the greatest obstacles mankind has ever faced in its goal of achieving a better world. Had Darwin never questioned the origin of species and blindly accepted as a fact that every species in this world was created by a Christian God in first week of the creation of universe, much of the modern medicine would never exist. Had Copernicus never questioned the Earth’s position in the Universe, there would be no revolution in science and astrology, ultimately leading to many great scientific discoveries. Same goes for other scientists who have over and over questioned the religious writings to bring mankind prosperity. Imagine now, how much more advanced the human species would be had there never been such thing as a religion?
      This leaves me with one question: How hypocritical are those Conservative Republican politicians to question the Theory of Evolution while enjoying all the benifits (medicine, technology etc.) which arose from questioning what they try preach at schools?
      Another thing which I would like to add is the confusion that arises around the term “Theory” in “Theory of Evolution”. Many consider the word “Theory” to mean “a proposition” or “a hypothesis”, while that is utterly not true. There is a very clear distinction between the terms, and in order to avoid the confusion, the word “Theory” should be understood as a word “fact”. All the evidence compiled from the beginning of Darwin’s “theory” 150 years ago support evolution and there is yet to be any disprovable theory to be put forth to even start questioning the “Theory of Evolution”

      • Your diatribe against religion is both rife with inaccuracies and irrelevant to the case at hand. However:

        Teaching creationism in school shouldn’t be outlawed or prohibited, but it should be ridiculed. To me this question speaks of more serious underlying issues than a simple question of free speech. Public primary schools, for all their significance in the development of a nation’s future, must be held to a high standard of education, and to imply that substituting mythology for accepted scientific thought is useful as a means of enhancing critical thought is ludicrous.

        The underlying agenda is evident, and the fact that there are even attempts at a legal justification for it speak of a worrying fusion of church and state still present within some parts of the States.

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