The Science and Religion Wars

By Singham, Mano | Phi Delta Kappan, February 2000 | Go to article overview

The Science and Religion Wars


Singham, Mano, Phi Delta Kappan


The recent flap over the decision by the Kansas State Board of Education to no longer requireknowledge of evolution theory in its science standards has rekindled the perennial science/religion debate in education. And so it seems worthwhile to look at this difficult topic in some depth because the issue will undoubtedly be coming soon to a school district near you.

A CASUAL (and even not-so-casual) observer of the science/religion debate can be excused for being confused as to whether or not there actually is a conflict between the two. On the one hand, newspapers report that the 1999 Templeton Prize for Religion was awarded to a physicist who promotes dialogue between science and religion, and in 1998 Newsweek determined that "Science Finds God" was worthy of being a featured cover story.

On the other hand, there are the recurrent heated conflicts about questions such as whether evolution or creationism better explains the origins of life in all its forms and which world view should be taught in schools. The push by some groups to obtain equal treatment of both views in school science classes led to state laws (in Louisiana and Arkansas in 1981) mandating such teaching. That such laws have been overturned by appeals courts and by the U.S. Supreme Court may have settled the legal issue of what can be taught in schools (at least for the time being), but the acrimonious nature of the discussion has not changed.

The recent flap over the decision by the Kansas State Board of Education to no longer require knowledge of evolution theory in its science standards has rekindled the perennial science/religion debate in education. And so it seems worthwhile to look at this difficult topic in some depth because the issue will undoubtedly be coming soon to a school district near you. In order to be able to discuss the issue without creating undue antagonism, it is necessary to have an understanding of what drives the reasoning of the leading characters in this conflict.

To the casual observer, the conflict seems to be about deciding between two fairly straightforward but dissonant propositions. Proponents of one side advocate the view that both creation science and evolution are unproven theories and that simple fairness requires either teaching or omitting both from the school science curriculum. Those who support the other side argue that creation science is a religion-based belief, while evolution is not, and so the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution justifies the exclusion of the former from the public school curriculum and the inclusion of the latter.

The fact that both sides believe fiercely in the rightness of their positions should give us a clue that the underlying issues involving science and religion are not really so simple. In fact, these issues do involve subtle and complex questions, drawing upon knowledge from many disciplines. It is often said that politics makes strange bedfellows, but perhaps nowhere can stranger bedfellows be found than in the controversies surrounding science and religion. Scientists, theologians, creationists, postmodernists, social constructivists, feminists, multiculturalists, philosophers, and historians of science all play key - and often surprising - roles in this contentious debate.

To understand how these strange coalitions are formed, a good place to start is by looking at the discussions of scientific literacy that periodically take place among elite opinion makers. Three features of such discussions are entirely predictable.

The first is that everyone will lament the sorry state of scientific literacy in the U.S. and predict dire consequences if the situation is not improved.

The second is the inevitable listing of all the deplorable things that the general public believes in (e.g., aliens, alternative medicine, astrology, psychokinesis, superstitions, and the like) and that allegedly contribute to this illiteracy. …

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