Getting beyond Religion as Science: "Unstifling" Worldview Formation in American Public Education

By McDonald, Barry P. | Washington and Lee Law Review, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Getting beyond Religion as Science: "Unstifling" Worldview Formation in American Public Education


McDonald, Barry P., Washington and Lee Law Review


A little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion.

Sir Francis Bacon ("father" of modern science)

In the long run nothing can withstand reason and experience, and the contradiction religion offers to both is only too palpable.

Sigmund Freud (Twentieth century psychiatrist)

I. Introduction

Are we the product of purposeful creation or impersonal natural forces? This BIG QUESTION about our existence is easy to ask, but hardly easy to answer - at least with any degree of consensus. In fact, this simple question is turning out to be one of the most divisive and intractable in the modern age. To an increasing degree it has underlain the major legal battles between science and religion in America1 and is rapidly becoming a centerpiece of our current "culture wars" - so much, indeed, that U.S. presidential candidates were queried about this issue in a major debate of me 2008 race with their responses receiving more press than their policy positions.2

Charles Darwin effectively (and somewhat reticently)3 injected this question into the public consciousness in the latter half of the nineteenth century, because before he published his evolutionary theory Western civilization largely assumed that God purposively created our world and its inhabitants.4 Darwin's theory of natural selection and the evolution of species, however, suddenly presented what many viewed as an alternative materialistic explanation for the origins of human life.5 This view was by no means dictated by Darwin's theory, however, and many theologians of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries argued that the concepts of Darwinian evolution and theistic creation were compatible with each other - in short, that God created humankind using some form of evolutionary mechanism.6

Such attempts at reconciling these two concepts were cold comfort to those religious groups that took the Bible at its literal word, however, and such "creationists" mobilized political and legal forces to stem the spread of evolutionary theory - at least in terms of it being taught in public school science classes.7 When laws were passed prohibiting the teaching of evolution in science courses, the courts eventually invalidated them as being religiously motivated in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.8 One major response was to enact laws mandating the teaching of "scientific evidence" for Biblical creation (i.e., "creation science") in conjunction with any teaching of evolutionary theory. Courts also invalidated such laws on Establishment Clause grounds, in significant part because they determined, implicitly or explicitly, that creation science was not legitimate science.9

The "creationism wars" in no sense ended concerns about the potential materialistic or atheistic implications of Darwinian theory (modernly referred to as "neo-Darwinian theory" based on its supplementation with more recent scientific findings).10 Indeed, in the 1990s, a group of scholarly religionists driven more by concerns about those implications than literal conflicts with sacred text, including a perceived infiltration of secularist and materialistic attitudes into the American consciousness, initiated amore sophisticated attack on evolutionary theory. Having learned from the "creation wars," this group has attempted to put forth critiques of that theory based on what they claim is legitimate scientific evidence and analysis - essentially purporting to present scientific proof that neo-Darwinian theory cannot explain the emergence of more complex life forms on Earth. At its core, the so-called "Intelligent Design" (LD) movement claims that the central tenet of neo-Darwinian theory-the gradual evolution of life forms based on random mutations that nature "selects" for continued existence according to their survival value (otherwise known as the theory of natural selection) - is fatally flawed either because such a process cannot logically produce the complex life forms that it claims to, or because the mathematical probability that such life forms can arise through random events is virtually nil. …

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