From Scopes to Dover-29: What next for evolution and religion in schools?

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

As a result of the long string of judicial rulings and Supreme Court precedents that have been outlined in this series that seem to have eliminated almost all their options, what can religious people do now about the teaching of evolution?

In 2007, IDC advocate Michael Behe published yet another book The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits to Darwinism (which I have written about earlier) that tries to add a wrinkle to IDC ideas by arguing that the mutations that drive natural selection are not random but are somehow guided by their peripatetic and secretive designer to achieve a desired organism.

This is a pathetically feeble attempt that will not get anywhere legally. All the reasons given in the Dover verdict for why IDC is a religion and not science apply with equal force to this idea too. Furthermore, it is not even an original idea, having been proposed in the late 19th century by eminent scientists, also for manifestly religious reasons, a fact that is not going to help the case legally.

But the opponents of evolution are determined and there are rumblings that Texas may try to get creationism and/or intelligent design creationism and/or criticisms of evolution into their state curriculum. The state’s state science curriculum director has been forced to resign her position and some suspect that this was a prelude to making such changes.

So what options does Texas or any other state body have left?

As I see it, there seem to be only three options left for those trying to undermine the teaching of evolution or otherwise get religion back into the public schools. One is to not single out just evolution for ‘critical analysis’ but include one or two other theories as well, and use them as a cover for the real goal of discrediting evolution. But given the legislative history of opposition to teaching evolution in schools, it is likely that the courts will see through this ruse to circumvent the establishment clause.

Another option is to ask that all scientific theories be subjected to critical analysis. This might pass constitutional muster but would not serve the purpose that religious people seek. It is, after all, what good science teaching has always professed to do and is routinely called for in present day science standards. Religious people seem to have no problem with, for example, the theory of gravity or Newton’s laws of motion or the heliocentric model of the solar system or the laws of photosynthesis and presumably don’t want their children’s time wasted on discussing evidence against those theories or speculate on why those theories too are wrong and the associated processes driven by an intelligent designer. As I have shown earlier, what what really bugs them is evolution.

The third option is to seek what IDC advocate Phillip Johnson seemed to be hinting at, and that is to arouse public opinion against evolution theory, in order to foment some type of popular revolution. We see that in the creation of the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed to be released on Darwin’s birthday in February 2008. (See Bad Idea Blog for a seven-minute promo for the latter film and a critique of it.) The aim seems to be to portray themselves as victims, oppressed by the scientific and legal establishment. They seem to be advancing the truly bizarre argument that scientists are secretly aware of terrible weaknesses in evolutionary theory and are afraid that the revolutionarily new arguments of the courageous IDC advocates will result in the structure of science crumbling. The only way scientists can prevent this, in their view, is by colluding to cover up the facts, suppressing all dissent, and expelling pro-IDC people from the academy.

In reality of course, scientists are comfortable with the merits of the theory of evolution even though they know it has not answered every question as yet, and reject IDC because it is an old idea that has no content that is of any value or use to scientists.

But even if this policy of painting themselves as poor, pitiful, oppressed victims is successful and arouses some public sympathy, I cannot see any way for this IDC strategy to achieve its ultimate goal of overthrowing the teaching of evolution in schools, since all their previous attempts to do so have run aground on the rocks of the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the US constitution.

The only way that they can succeed, as I see it, is by calling for an overthrow of the establishment clause and undermining the whole idea of separation of church and state. But this is a huge barrier to overcome. The Bill of Rights and the other protections of the constitution have become seen as providing the bedrock protections of American society. As time when on, its protections have been expanded but never formally restricted, although administrations have from time to time curtailed those freedoms by fiat, as we see now with habeas corpus violations and gross violations of due process using the USA PATRIOT Act and the Military Commissions Act. But despite such setbacks for basic liberties and justice, it seems unlikely that an attempt to formally rescind those constitutional freedoms will succeed.

But constitutional issues aside, the important question has always been about who determines what should and should not be taught in public schools.

“Who does have “the right,” [Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter] asked, to decide what gets taught as science in the public schools? Creationist parents and teachers, based on their relatively subjective religious beliefs, or professional scientists and educators, based on their relatively objective scientific theories?” (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 260)

This is an interesting question to explore. If a school district decides that it should teach something absurd or even flat out wrong, like the moon is made of cheese, is it allowed to do so? Can a parent complain and have the courts overturn such a policy even though there is no obvious constitutional violation involved? As we saw in the 1982 creation science case McLean v. Arkansas, the judge ruled that creation science should not be taught because it was not science but a religion. Some supporters of the decision criticized the reasoning, saying that the reason creation science should not be taught was not because it had failed to meet unjustifiable demarcation criteria but because it was bad science and simply wrong. But is teaching even manifestly absurd ideas a sufficient reason for the courts to intervene?

In 1926, in oral arguments during the appeal of the Scopes verdict to the Tennessee Supreme Court, defense counsel Arthur Garfield Hays raised the interesting possibility that the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution prevented the state from enforcing unreasonable laws and “Tennessee’s “absurd” antievolution statute violated this standard as much as a law against teaching Copernican astronomy would.” (Larson, p. 215). But as far as I know this issue has not been adjudicated.

Although this is an interesting hypothetical exercise, in reality, we may never be able to disentangle the ridiculous from the religious. The only time that people feel strongly about teaching things for which there is no evidence is when they are driven by religious convictions, such as that the Earth is 6,000 years old or that god intervened in the laws of nature to create humans.

Those who argue against teaching creationism and its derivatives in public schools tend to be split into two camps.

One the one hand there are those who think that mainstream religious beliefs are credible and valuable, but think that it is good to keep church and state separate. They argue that religious beliefs do not belong in public schools on constitutional establishment clause grounds.

On the other hand are those who are more sympathetic to Clarence Darrow’s approach in the Scopes trial. He seemed to have a different goal. He set out to argue that religious beliefs were just nonsense and that no sensible person should believe them, let alone want to teach them to their children. After all, no one is asking schools to teach children that the Earth is flat, that the Sun orbits the Earth, or that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden. No legal protections have been necessary (at least not yet) to prevent teachers from teaching that thunder and lightning are symbols of god’s anger with the world or that objects fall to the ground because the Earth is at the center of the universe. When Darrow said in his interrogation of Bryan that “You insult every man of science and learning in the world because he does not believe in your fool religion,” he was trying to make a different point, that if you can show that a belief is silly, then no one would even want to teach that belief. And he felt that fundamentalist religious beliefs were patently ridiculous, requiring people to swallow, without any evidence, the most preposterous of ideas.

As Larson says:

Darrow. . .used his defense of Scopes to challenge fundamentalist beliefs. To the extent that lawyers defending the evolutionist position in later lawsuits appeal narrowly to constitutional interpretation, fundamentalist beliefs remain unchallenged. (p. 261)

Darrow’s basic approach has been extended by modern day scientists and atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Victor Stenger to argue that even so-called ‘moderate’ religious beliefs are absurd and that it is futile to pretend that the beliefs of mainstream religions have any credibility.

POST SCRIPT: Philosophy panel on progress

The Philosophy Club at Case is having a panel discussion on the topic of progress and I will speak about the nature of progress in science. The program is at 7:30 pm in Guilford Lounge on Wednesday, December 5th, 2007. It is free and open to the public.


  1. says

    One is to not single out just evolution for ‘critical analysis’ but include one or two other theories as well, and use them as a cover for the real goal of discrediting evolution. But given the legislative history of opposition to teaching evolution in schools, it is likely that the courts will see through this ruse to circumvent the establishment clause.

    The ID creationists actually tried this in a late revision to the attempt in Ohio, just before it was discarded by the State BOE.

  2. Kathy says

    Two recommendations —

    “Darwinism” in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought by Marilynne Robinson and

    her Harper’s review of Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, available online.

    I remember teachers very seriously “teaching” us that Martin Luther King was a communist, that aboriginal people were less evolved than white people, and many other “things for which there is no evidence.” They had no religious motivation for doing so. In the case of aboriginal people, they had “scientific” motivation.

  3. says


    I read Robinson’s review of Dawkins’book before I had read the book itself and thought it was an extraordinarily bad review. I didn’t care about the fact that she didn’t like the book, which is absolutely her prerogative. But she failed in the primary duty of a reviewer to give a sense of the main argument that the author is making before taking it apart. She also writes in a very obscure elliptical style, making it hard to figure out what she is trying to say.

    I am not sure sure why you mentioned the King and aboriginal stories. Can you clarify the point you were making?

    People have always tried to enlist the prestige of science to support their prejudices. That is different from having a scientific motivation. Intelligent design creationism is another example of people trying to call something a science when it is not. I could add a whole lot more examples.

  4. Kathy says

    My comments were responding to this line in your post:

    The only time that people feel strongly about teaching things for which there is no evidence is when they are driven by religious convictions…

    I was pointing out religion is not the only motivation for teaching things for which there is no evidence. My teachers taught us nonsensical things, for scientific (by their lights) and political ends.

    In response to your last paragraph, I could easily substitute “religion” for “science”:

    “People have always tried to enlist the prestige of religion to support their prejudices. That is different from having a religious motivation.”

  5. Heidi Nemeth says

    Teachers are required to teach, or not teach, different things by both states and local school boards. Not always are the factual errors based on religion. Ignorance is a large part of the problem. Or, a belief that the students or teachers) will not grasp the additional information. Two examples stand out in my life:
    1. I was taught in fifth grade in the XX school system that a number divided by zero equals zero. In high school algebra in a different school system, I was embarrassed that I was the only student who thought so. Thirty years later, my daughter, Audrey, was also taught in fifth grade in the XX school system that a number divided by zero is zero. She knew better. We (her parents)complained to the teacher, who tried to prove to us that division by zero yields zero. Hmm. Then we tried complaining to the other teachers, the school administration, and eventually, the textbook manufacturer. Ignorance was rampant. The textbook manufacturer told us that they couldn’t include in the textbook -- nor the teachers’ manual -- that division by zero is undefined. Not that they disputed it, just that it was too much for the students (and the teachers?) to comprehend. My high school math teacher’s comment on the whole situation was, “If division by zero yields zero, we could divide the national debt by zero and be done with it.”
    2. I dated a Floridian in the early 1970’s. He told me there are only 5 rivers that flow north in the world. This seemed impossible to me. But he staunchly defended himself. The rivers included the Nile, the McKenzie and the St. John’s (in Florida). He was sure there were no other rivers in the world that flowed north but the 5 he knew. I could not dissuade him by telling him the Rocky River and the Cuyahoga flow north and were not included in his list. OK, so chalk it up to bad teaching and little critical thinking. But no. About ten years ago, the minister at my local church hailed from Florida and was about my age. So I asked him about the 5 rivers that flow north. He said something like, “Yeah, what were they? The Nile, the St. John’s….” I asked him if there were more than 5 rivers that flow north in the world, and he said no; though he had lived in Northeast Ohio for a few years already and knew of the Rocky River and the Cuyahoga. Clearly the State of Florida had required students to know 5 specific rivers that flow north and to be able to list them. The prompt probably went something like this: “List the 5 rivers in the world that flow north.” Neither the teachers nor the students interpreted the prompt to mean “list the 5 rivers [we want you to know about] in the world that flow north”. Instead, it was pretty universally interpreted as: “list the [only] 5 rivers in the world that flow north”. Even as intelligent, educated adults, both Floridians had a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that there are many rivers that flow northward, from a more southerly height of land north to the ocean.

  6. says

    Kathy and Heidi,

    A lot of wrong stuff has been taught over the years in schools for a variety of reasons, ignorance being one. It is very common. Also our knowledge base changes so that what was once thought to be correct is later thought to be wrong. I was not referring to that kind of thing.

    I was referring to people who go to great lengths, such as legislatures and the courts, to try to get things taught that go counter to what is commonly thought by people knowledgeable in the field to be true. As far as I know, such attempts are always religiously driven. I would be interested to hear of cases where it was not.


    People use whatever they can to support their prejudices. I spoke of science as one such source of support they seek. Some use religion, as you point out. But there is no question that in this day and age, being able to say that “Scientific evidence supports the conclusion that…” carries much more weight than “My holy book/cleric says. . ” This is why the endorsement of science is much sought after and why we should be wary of accepting such claims uncritically.

  7. says

    Nice discussion, but the Harper’s review of Dawkins’s book The God Delusion was really one of the worrest I have read.

    In Europe every school still has his/her vision on religion and sometimes you can feel that during every course.

    Really wondering how that will be in the USA for my exchange program…


  8. says

    Well, now I am in the USA time for a reaction. It is special to study here, and the religious parts inspire me instead of bothering me.

    Great experiences so far!


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