Every day across America millions of young children in public schools are taught that dinosaurs are millions of years old and that all living things evolved, and then, usually on Sunday morning, they are told by their churches that the public schools have it all wrong. Oh, my! What is a kid to believe?
The dichotomy between what schools teach and what some churches preach should be a concern to every community. And if it takes a whole village to raise a child, as the old saying goes, some kids might be in trouble.
The trouble lies in the fact that many conservative churches do not just dismiss evolution, they demonize it. In the below cartoon, published in a popular creationist magazine, the public schools and the teaching of biological evolution are linked to school shootings and violence! Tying the teaching of evolution to homicidal behavior is outrageous, but it does speak to how fearful (and blaming) some Christians are of scientific reasoning and public schools.
My concern is that this contentious division between what conservative churches teach, creationism (aka “intelligent design,” “creation science,” “Biblical literalism”), and what public schools want students to learn (critical thinking skills) can make kids feel an uncomfortable pressure to take sides. In many ways it is like a nasty custody case where both parents are accusing the other of being a neglectful parent; the church accusing the schools of locking God out of the classroom, and the schools accusing the church of locking the intellect out of their sanctuaries. And, like most ugly custody cases, the children are caught in the hostile crossfire of opposing messages.
According to a recent gallop poll forty percent of Americans subscribe to a literal interpretation of the Bible. The number is higher among Republicans, fifty-two percent! This poll reflects a major division in America that our communities need to take seriously if we are serious about “no child left behind.” It is worth noting that states consistently at the very bottom in student achievement scores the area of science, according to ACT testing data, are all from the south and from those states that make up the Bible Belt. It is not a coincidence that in states where Biblical literalism is strongest, science scores are the lowest. To view the data click on the below link.
Here in Red Wing, Minnesota, there are numerous large and well-established churches that teach their young that all of creation was brought into existence some 10,000 years ago exactly as described in the book of Genesis. These churches passionately believe that a literal reading of the Bible out trumps scientific reasoning when it comes to explaining the origins of life. Consequently, children who are enrolled in the Red Wing school district who attend any one of these conservative churches must choose who to trust, their pastors or school teachers.
To avoid putting children in this position many parents choose to home school their children. It is estimated that seventy five percent of evangelical Christians home school their children. There are many sound reasons why a child should be home schooled, but sheltering a child from scientific reasoning should never be one of them.
Here is the problem as I see it: conservative evangelical children are raised to believe that critical thinking is okay as long as it never intrudes upon Biblical Truth. If it does, it then must be resisted and treated as an enemy and agent of Satan, the Great Deceiver. But wait, there’s more! Not only is evolution viewed by some churches as evil, it is also seen as the cause of all other evils. The below illustration is from a pamphlet distributed by the Pittsburgh Creation Society, and sums up nicely the extent to which conservative Christians see the teaching of evolution as the root cause of many other “problems” such as hard rock, sex education, abortion, suicide, socialism, crime, homosexuality, terrorism, and inflation (Inflation! Really!?).
I recently had a conversation with a colleague of mine in the science department. He told me that despite numerous lab experiments in microbiology that visibly demonstrate the evolutionary processes, he still has students say they don’t believe in evolution. How can this be? Perhaps Mark Twain has the answer:
“When even the brightest mind in our world has been trained up from childhood in a superstition of any kind, it will never be possible for that mind, in its maturity, to examine sincerely, dispassionately, and conscientiously any evidence or any circumstance which shall seem to caste a doubt upon the validity of that superstition. I doubt if I could do it myself.”
- Mark Twain
Like all teachers I expect my students to think critically and to objectively examine everything, including the Bible. Do I think the Bible has value? Yes! Absolutely! The Bible is an amazing snapshot in time of how people before the advent of scientific reasoning thought, worshiped, and viewed the world, and it is loaded with wisdom and ideas that live on in three major religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
The Bible is truly an amazing book that has, in both good ways and bad ways, played a major role in shaping Western civilization. However, it is not a science book. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the importance of faith, but any worldview that can be shaken by critical thinking might need to be shaken. Just a thought.