Will Creationists Take Half a Loaf?

Okay, so here’s a deal: If science educators in public schools agree to remain neutral about creationists’ beliefs, will creationists allow teachers to teach their kids evolution?

I don’t rule the world, but if I did, that would be my cure for our creation/evolution battles.  Let me try to spell it out in a little more detail:

I’m working on a short book with philosopher Harvey Siegel, tentatively titled Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation: Historical and Philosophical Perspectives.  Why would we attempt such a thing?  It wasn’t our idea.  Our little book will be part of a series cooked up by historian Jon Zimmerman and philosopher Randy Curren.  What if, they asked, what if we could get philosophers and historians talking to one another about educational issues?

This past weekend, the authors of these books gathered for a workshop at New York University.  Harvey and I made our case.  The high-caliber intellectual firepower gathered around the table asked lots of difficult questions.  Hardest of all, IMHO, was the one above: Will Creationists Take Half a Loaf?

In essence, given the long history of cultural battles over the teaching of evolution and creationism, Harvey and I make the following argument:

  • Creationism may or may not be science, but it’s not the best science out there.  Students in public schools must be taught the best science available.  At this point in history, that means the modern Darwinian synthesis.  (Bear with me for a minute here.  I know we can argue about what we mean by this, or whether or not that is the best name for mainstream evolutionary theory.  But for the moment, for the sake of argument, let’s proceed.)
  • Too many scientists and science teachers take this to mean that creationism must be purged from students’ minds.  If we consider creationism to be a form of religious dissent, that sort of attitude among mainstream scientists seems both cruel and pedagogically ineffective.
  • Teachers in public schools, therefore, must teach evolution.  Real evolution, not watered down with bogus religiously inspired alternatives.
  • But teachers must not make any claims on the religious beliefs of their students.  If students acquire a reasonable knowledge of evolutionary theory, their teachers will have succeeded.  Full Stop.  Public schools should tell students nothing about what religious beliefs they should hold.
  • In short, the goal of evolution education should be for students to understand or know evolutionary theory, but not (necessarily) to believe it.

One of the big issues that came up in our weekend workshop was whether or not students and teachers could really walk this line between understanding and belief.  How practical is it to ask students to “know” something they don’t “believe?”  But let’s leave that aside for a moment.  The question I’d like to ask this morning is different.

Assuming teachers could embrace this goal of “understanding-not-belief,” do you think young-earth creationists would go for it?  That is, would creationists who hold ideas that differ radically from the mainstream scientific consensus agree to allow their kids to learn evolution, IF the public schools agreed not to meddle with their children’s religious beliefs about evolution?

Smart people are skeptical.  With good reason.  At the recent blockbuster debate between young-earth creationist Ken Ham and science popularizer Bill Nye, for example, Ham did not take the role of a religious dissident, but rather insisted that creationism meant superior science.  Creationists have always insisted that their beliefs are better science, not just a religious dissent from good science.

So I ask again: Will creationists accept public education that teaches real evolution—and only real evolution—in science classes, IF that education remains stubbornly neutral about related religious beliefs?

Leave a comment


  1. Good shout. This is more or less the position my supervisor Michael Reiss has espoused in previous papers, and the position I’m currently arguing for. The question of whether science teaches us “truth” is one for philosophy anyway, not a science classroom. A science lesson can certainly explain why scientists accept the modern synthesis, what the evidence is that they find persuasive, and why they find it useful.

    And frankly, if you’re going to reject evolution, those seem like pieces of information you ought to know.

    • Thanks, Jonny. And, in effect, this is what some creationist-friendly colleges already do. I understand, for instance, that Liberty University used to require a course in evolution. The course apparently taught students what non-creationist scientists said, but in an environment that encouraged students to take those ideas with a block of salt. Of course, that’s different from what we’re proposing in two big ways. First, we’re talking about public elementary and secondary schools (in the US, that’s generally for students from age 5-18-ish), and Liberty taught evolution to older college students. Second, we’re not suggesting that teachers teach with a skeptical attitude toward evolution, the way Liberty instructors likely did. But the notion that creationists should KNOW and UNDERSTAND evolution without BELIEVING it has some strong supporters among young-earth creationists.

  2. To answer your question though: No, I don’t think they will.

  3. All the fundies I’ve ever known rejected pragmatism regarding science. To them, evolution is not how biology works as biology, but rather an element of the scientific worldview which they see as toxic to their own worldview. To make any headway with them, you’d need to disabuse them of the notion of worldviews first – at least as essential, true/false propositions. I imagine that would be like challenging the view among my more liberal friends that ‘everything is politics’. In response, you get a series of equivocations which circle back to reinforce the original assertion – kind of apologetics-like. Best of luck.

  4. Donna

     /  March 11, 2014

    Will you give a time line on what books you are writing or co-authoring, and when about they will be published?

    • Thanks for the question. I’ll certainly keep this site updated about books and publications. In brief, though, this evolution book has a completed manuscript. Right now it’s under review by some experts. They’ll suggest revisions and we’ll make them, then it will enter the publication process. It will take a while! My other book about conservatism in education in the twentieth century will be coming out in the fall.

  5. (This may be posted twice.)
    Sadly, I think this half-loaf will fail. But for perhaps another alternative doomed to failure…don’t teach evolution period! Why does anyone need to even learn evolution in the first place? You can cultivate science literacy in hundreds of different ways, and evolution doesn’t *have* to be a part of it. (Quick: when’s the last time you used evolution to do anything in your daily life?)

    I agree that “students in public schools have to be taught the best science available.” But that’s still nebulous because we haven’t decided which parts of science matters. Why evolution and not biochemistry? There’s another academic subspecialty you can look at: public understanding of science/public science literacy. There are countless papers on this.

    • 10 minutes ago, making an antibiotic choice for a patient with recurrent infections.

      • Hi Keith. Thanks for the response. I appreciate it. I assume you’re a medical doctor? How often do you actually use the science of evolution? I’d love to hear the details about the example you just listed and any others you might have.

        I wonder if evolution in medicine is kind of like quantum mechanics in some areas of electrical engineering. You learn QM at one point, and it might help in some circumstances. But in practice you don’t need it most of the time. And if you do need it, you can get away mechanically applying rules. This heuristic approach does not negatively impact your ability as an EE because QM isn’t practically that relevant to most problems. Of course this changes if you go onto do research.

        The president of Yale medical school, e.g., pushed back against teaching evolution because there are more important things to teach ((http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/brainiac/2013/04/a_movement_to_m.html).

        To also personalize a bit…Both of my parents are medical doctors. Given that my heritage is Indian, some 60% of my family friends are doctors. I literally grew up around doctors. I have discussed evolution with my dad, and I can honestly say he doesn’t know that much. It had next to no impact on his daily work. And granted I am biased, IMHO he ran a very successful private practice for 30 years.

    • Hey Praj, I think a better analogy might be quantum mechanics and chemistry. The details are not always relevant, but the concepts are vital – so vital that they are written in to the basic tenets of chemistry as it is taught and practiced. I think that is the point of Dobzhansky’s oft-quoted statement repeated yet again below. I’m sure your dad regularly used the concepts of population genetics, selection and genetic adaptation in his practice, without necessarily referring to them as such. They are ‘written in’ to biology and medicine. You get to understand the concepts piecemeal in the course of your education and practice no matter what. It is much easier if you have some background when you start. Isn’t that what primary and secondary education is supposed to be about? I mean, I’m using all my Plath and Shakespeare readings right now aren’t I (however poorly)?

      • Excellent point. And speaking of Plath and Shakespeare, I think we need to consider the point that education does not always need to be career-relevant to be vital. Students should be exposed to the best ideas. That is a good education. Even if it does not have direct relevance to the wider economy or to individual career advancement. I think mainstream evolution is the best science we have right now, and that means students need to understand it, if they are to be considered educated.

      • You are right about this! My daughter is a math teacher at the secondary level. She studied liberal arts at university, as well as her core major of math. She is a well rounded and articulate young woman (I’m biased, I know!) and can hold her own in conversations about a variety of topics. (She has her Bachelor degree in math, and her Masters in education.) My daughter would be the first one in line to assert that learning in all areas of the liberal arts and science is necessary in a good education.

      • Thanks Keith and Adam. Very helpful. I like the chemistry analogy Keith. But I think we need more granularity here. if the concepts are “vital”, how is it that there are actual practicing doctors who don’t believe in evolution? Ben Carson, e.g., is a renowned neurosurgeon and was the first to separate Siamese twins joined at the head. He is also a young-Earth creationist. How did he succeed in his medical career?

        When, exactly, do doctors use population genetics and selection? Which specialties? I remember once asking a Stanford med student if they are taught evolution, and he seemed very taken aback. He said that it isn’t relevant. So what do you mean these concepts are “written in” medicine? And if they are so written into medicine, why did the president of Yale Medical School say there are more important priorities? And if the concepts are what’s important, then why not just teach those discrete concepts and when they should be used?

        Keith: you definitely know more than I do. But from what I’ve seen, med students (and doctors more generally) already have completely insane knowledge requirements. I am continually flabbergasted how much U.S. doctors need to learn, know and remember. And this doesn’t include all the “soft” skills they need to succeed in their career. Are we really going to judge a doctor based on one single belief because there they are useful some of the time?

        Also regarding education…I completely agree it would be nice to teach evolution. I’m simply questioning to what extent, in a pluralistic, diverse society, we can enforce our particular notion of a “good education.”

        To take another approach, science educators themselves don’t agree on what constitutes a good science education, and especially for people who don’t eventually become scientists (I would refer you to the voluminous writing on public understanding of science). If the experts don’t agree, I think it’s even more problematic to uniformly enforce a single vision of a good education.

      • Great points. And for those who haven’t read much of Praj’s work at Do I Need Evolution, I recommend his recent post about Sherlock Holmes. Lots of science educators like to use Sherlock Holmes as an example of good methods of scientific inquiry. Sherlock Holmes had a million good one-liners about inquiry: ‘Don’t make conclusions without evidence;’ ‘after we eliminate the impossible, what’s left is likely, no matter how bizarre.’ Or Doyle’s words to that effect. In fact, the science-education office downstairs from mine has a Sherlock Holmes poster on the wall. But check out what Praj noted recently about Sherlock Holmes that might not sit so well with good science educators.

  6. Maybe I’m out of the loop, but isn’t that how science is already taught in the public schools in the USA? Geology, biology, physics and so forth, are presented as fact, with scientific evidence presented and interpreted. I’m not sure why creationists have an issue with this in the first place. Won’t there always be things in life that we may or may not believe, but still can benefit from having knowledge concerning them? Is evolution really not being taught in the majority of public schools? My two children are grown, so I don’t know what is being taught these days.

  7. Assuming teachers could embrace this goal of “understanding-not-belief,” do you think young-earth creationists would go for it?

    I’m pretty sure that many teachers already do that. The creationists don’t go for it.

    I’m not at all sure what the creation/evolution wars are about, but I am pretty sure that they are not about creation. They are possibly about human exceptionalism, and the creation/evolution debates are just a proxy for that. It seems to be a deeply emotional issue.

    Genesis 1 is clearly contrary to physics. Yet the creationists don’t put much effort into arguing physics. I think they really, really don’t like the idea that we are a species of apes.

    • Thanks for the insights.

    • In what ways are Genesis contrary to physics Neil?

      • A domed ceiling; waters above the ceiling; night and day before there is a sun; the sun, moon, stars as fixtures attached to the domed ceiling.

      • 1. You are caricaturing Genesis based on the discarded YEC firmament model
        2. You are misreading the text or rather, reading your own prejudices into the text
        3. Day is predicated on light, the sun is not the only source of light
        4. Creationists do argue physics, check AiG, ICR, CRS, creation.com, etc

  8. Agellius

     /  March 11, 2014


    Good point!

    Not every aspect of science is taught in public schools. Why can’t evolution be left out, like other subspecialties that aren’t taught as part of the “standard” curriculum? It can always be covered in college for those who are interested or whose majors require it.

  9. Why does anyone need to learn evolution? From the wiki – “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” is a 1973 essay by the evolutionary biologist and Russian Orthodox Christian Theodosius Dobzhansky, criticising anti-evolution creationism and espousing theistic evolution. The essay was first published in American Biology Teacher, volume 35, pp. 125–129.

    Understanding evolution helps folks understand flu vaccines, heredity, genetic errors, invasive species, and the list goes on and on.

    • Do please go on and on Douglas E and make a longer list.

      Your four examples only require small-scale evolution to be taught and you know that creationists are small-scale evolutionists so you are hurting your argument here.

    • “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” is an absurd mantra which is demonstrably false. I was taught (US high school equivalent) biology and the few references to evolution added nothing to its illumination.

  10. Agellius

     /  March 11, 2014


    Nah. People knew about heredity before evolution was taught. Dogs and other animals were bred for certain traits long before Darwin. Evolution also is not required to teach about genetic errors. Creationists don’t deny the existence of genes, for heaven’s sake.

  11. Agellius

     /  March 11, 2014

    I should clarify: The issue creationists are concerned about is origins. As far as I know they don’t deny that evolution happens, just that evolution is how species *originate*. So genetic mutations of viruses, heredity, etc., could be taught without asserting that the human species *arose* spontaneously via evolutionary processes. The question of origins could be left out.

    That is, assuming that heredity, genetic errors and invasive species need to be taught to grade school and high school kids in the first place.

  12. I didn’t say know about, I said understand. And naturally I think that K-12 ought to cover the things mentioned – not much worse than an ignorant population, and ignorance is seemingly a virtue for many US folks. Re ‘origins’ – the origin of species, including ours, is based on science. If other origin stories need to be taught, go right ahead – just don’t call it science or teach it in the science classroom. I teach Science and Religion and we cover all of the major origin stories, and I think that nearly all of the students gain a much greater understanding and appreciation of origins.

  13. Dr. Laats, forgive my ignorance, but don’t creationist parents already take half loaf? And aren’t public school teachers supposed to be neutral on religious views?

    • ChazIng, Thanks for the question. As scientific dissenters creationists already take some fraction of a loaf in public education, depending upon where one lives. But–and here’s where you and I have agreed to disagree, I think–young-earth creationists don’t have a leg to stand on as scientific dissenters. Forgive me for saying this so bluntly, but I think the science of creationism is far inferior to that of mainstream scientists. Now, having said that, I think creationists have a fair grievance as religious dissenters. Regarding your second question, I agree wholeheartedly that public-school teachers OUGHT to be neutral on religious views. But whether through ignorance or misguided anti-creationist conviction, many good science teachers see creationism as a personal deficit among their students that they need to fix, or at least to address. The crux of our book’s argument is that public-school teachers are RIGHT to teach evolution and only evolution, but WRONG to assume that creationists must be ignorant or somehow lacking.

      • Donna

         /  March 11, 2014

        “many good science teachers see creationism as a personal deficit among their students that they need to fix, or at least to address.” How often does this happen in high schools, where a science teacher will say something to a student that is a creationist?

      • That’s a question I’d love to see an answer to. All of our evidence is anecdotal and hit-or-miss. I’ve heard from several creationists who described teachers who berated them and belittled them. But is that a common occurrence? We can expect that any surveys about this will be skewed, since teacher respondents would likely describe their behavior to a surveyer differently than they actually behaved in class.

    • I see, but also forgive my bluntness, you are in no position to access the (natural) scientific content of any claim Dr Laats (if I recall, you stated as much previously). As such, I find it difficult to understand how you can further determine what is inferior, much less what is “far inferior”. To that end, what do you find scientifically deficient in creation science as compared to large-scale evolution?

      • Fair enough. I don’t think there’s anything that I can say that will be new to you; I know you’ve considered and rejected these arguments before. And, as you say, I admit that my scientific knowledge is such that I find often find myself floundering to understand my basis for preferring mainstream science to creation science. But having said all that, I do consider mainstream science to be far superior to young-earth creationist explanations. For one reason, as you say, I admit that I simply find the authority of mainstream science more convincing than the authority of young-earth creation science. That’s not really a scientific reason, but it is a powerful one, for me as much as for anyone else. But I can break down the kinds of arguments that those authorities make in a way that seems more sensible to me, too. Some of them were the (very) old chestnuts Bill Nye used in his recent debate with Ken Ham. For example, why are there trees that are thousands of years old if the earth has been destroyed more recently than that? Why is the fossil record so perfectly consonant with an old earth and development through a process of natural selection? More profoundly, why should a scientific viewpoint that accords with one specific religious belief assume its superiority to scientific viewpoints that have no such limiting sectarian influence? That is, why should anyone outside of a few inerrantist Biblical religious traditions prefer scientific explanations that are only compelling within the worldview of those traditions?

      • why are there trees that are thousands of years old if the earth has been destroyed more recently than that?

        Did Noah take trees into the ark? Don’t trees regularly survive massive floods?

        Why is the fossil record so perfectly consonant with an old earth and development through a process of natural selection?

        It is? How so? [I suspect you have been sipping too much atheist juice Dr. Laats]

        More profoundly, why should a scientific viewpoint that accords with one specific religious belief assume its superiority to scientific viewpoints that have no such limiting sectarian influence?

        The ‘superior’ model is that which most accords with the data. What data do you have that amoebas can turn into humans through minute mutations? Also, do you find Nye’s CSI argument valid?

  14. Hey Praj, Regarding Ben Carson, there’s this very useful thing called cognitive dissonance…Seriously, your basic point would seem to be questioning the need for a ‘liberal’ education as opposed to a technical one. That’s a live argument even in medical education. Let’s face it, a technical education is what mid-level providers get and they can easily handle 80% of what a primary care physician sees. However, they are left with vulnerabilities at the boundaries of their knowledge because it is relatively poorly systematized. It is also more difficult to remember all those bits of medical minutae as disparate facts rather than as features of model. It’s much easier to recall/reconstruct the ins and outs of sickle cell, S-C disease and thalassemia in terms of balanced polymorphism than as visualized lines of text.
    As far as specific uses for evolutionary concepts in clinical medicine, infectious disease and oncology come to mind immediately. Population genetics and selection pressure drive the pathology in those areas. You can certainly pick those concepts up as you go along (they are just how we talk about those disease processes – that’s what I mean by ‘written in’) but it’s harder, you risk missing the finer points and have no internal comparitor to check your understanding.

  15. Keith – thanks for taking the time to address some of Praj’s concerns with some pertinent points. I too had to think of oncology since that is where I spent a fair amount of time. Carson is a case-in-point that a physician can be a highly skilled technician sans a robust understanding of many foundational biological concepts. Many highly trained folks would have built a better iron lung rather than developing a vaccine for polio.

    Neil – I have come to realize that providing responses to ChazIng is aikin banzo/a

  16. Having read the anthropologist’s response, I think there is a serious problem with his conclusion. He seems to maintain that though historians and philosophers may lack the moral authority to ‘split the loaf’, such authority may lie in the hands of a sort of social dialectic. That contention contains the notion that the truth of statements lies in how they are taken, not at all in how they are meant, which is an unsustainable idea. I’m reminded of a friend’s complaints (he is an anthropologist as well) that his students want to deconstruct the current knowledge but have no material to work with because their entire careers have been spent on learning the methods of deconstruction.
    Like it or not biologists determine the contents of biology. That is a normative statement within biology, nothing more in fact. If students wish to creatively destroy those contents then they must understand what the biologists mean, not just what the students interpret, when biologists make statements about the subject. If the social dialectic splits that off, what remains is circular bullshit – a substance which may feed the vegetative needs of the society but which does nothing if we are at all concerned with biology itself.

    • David Long

       /  March 15, 2014

      Hi Keithnoback. I’ve replied at length to the above, but put it on the other thread as not to clutter this one.

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