I Don’t Know What to Believe…

I don’t even know what to know, or what knowing means, or what believing might mean.  The good news is that I’m not alone.  No one seems sure of these things, especially not when it comes to touchy subjects like evolution. But I’m still confident of our argument that the best approach to teaching evolution is to encourage a separation in science classrooms of the need for students to KNOW evolution from the need for students to BELIEVE evolution.

It’s a tricky distinction, and I’m sympathetic to criticism that it may not make a real difference.

Some recent survey results make me wonder if this distinction might not even be a workable one in public schools. In the blog of the National Center for Science Education, the prolific Josh Rosenau notes the results of some survey work from the University of Alabama. In short, the researchers found that the more college students accepted evolution, the more they knew about it. Now, this confounds claims by cultural-cognition guru Dan Kahan that “knowing” evolution says more about who you are than about what you know. It is more a measure of belief than of knowledge.

For a mild-mannered historian like me, these conflicting survey results leave me scratching my head. Not only are we not sure if people need to “believe” evolution to “know” it, but we’re not even sure if we “know” that “believing” and “knowing” go together!

But I can’t just throw up my hands and go back to the archives. This question of knowledge and belief is central to all of us who care about evolution education. In my upcoming creation/evolution book with talented and stylish philosopher Harvey Siegel, we argue that public schools must teach evolution, but they must teach it in a way that separates claims of knowledge and belief.

Because there is one thing I do know, as a historian: Creationism is a religiously driven belief system. It is not exactly science, but this whole foofaroll about evolution education stems from the fact that creationism is a religiously driven belief system with claims to scientific legitimacy.

When it comes to educational policy, we have to make a delicate distinction that is usually lost in all the hot air. Creationists’ claims to scientific legitimacy do not carry any weight outside of their own religious circles. But that does not mean creationists do not have a right in the public square to believe in their own scientific legitimacy.  It means creationists have a right to public schools that do not force them to perform religious acts. Since affirming the truth of mainstream evolutionary thinking would be a religious act for many creationist students, public schools need to be more careful about insisting on such things.

In practice, in public schools, this means we face a situation that makes everyone unhappy. Creationism has no legitimate claim to a place in public-school science curricula, since it is derived from religious beliefs. But public-school science classes (and history classes, and math classes, and literature classes and gym classes) have no right to push creationist students to engage in religious acts, either.

Rather, to be more precise, public schools may teach ideas that tend to denigrate religious ideas. Schools shouldn’t do so casually or glibly, but if there is an important reason, they may do so. However, public schools may not force (or even encourage) students to engage in the (possibly) religious act of denigrating creationism themselves. In short, public schools CAN expose students to ideas students find religiously offensive. But public schools CAN’T ask students to do religious acts. If affirming the truth of evolution is a religious act, then public schools cannot insist upon it, or even imply that such an affirmation is desirable.

Creationists may hate this conclusion. Since the 1920s, anti-evolutionists and creationists have insisted that their beliefs are better science, true science. In court case after court case, however, experts have demonstrated the intellectual paucity of this belief. Creationists may not admit it, but they might recognize that their claims to scientific legitimacy don’t convince people outside of their own religious circles.

And for public education, that’s enough. My religious beliefs do not carry weight—as religious beliefs—in public schools. Even if my religious beliefs insist that they are better science. Or history. Or literature. Or physical education.

But traditional science-ed types will also hate this conclusion. As a set of religious beliefs, creationism is entitled to special consideration in public schools. Though the case law is somewhat mixed on this point, the moral case is compelling: Children of any religious or cultural background must be made welcome in every public school. Their beliefs may be challenged by the curriculum, but students cannot be asked to perform religious acts in those public schools. And acts that might not seem religious to me might be religious to religious people, or even to an imaginary “objective observer.”

Conservative Christians have had mixed results trying to make this case in court. Perhaps most famously, in 1987’s Mozert v. Hawkins, an appellate court ruled that conservative parents could not ban curricular materials they found offensive. The conservative parents had argued that textbooks with references to occult practices, evolution, and impolite children infringed on their rights to religious liberty. The books, the parents believed, hurt their children’s ability to freely practice their religion.

The constitutional complexity in this case was demonstrated by its tortuous path through the court system. One district court judge agreed with the parents on one point: textbooks that say there are multiple ways to worship God really are teaching religious content. In the end, the appellate court disagreed.

Other federal courts have made this difficult point. In another case from Tennessee, Wiley v. Franklin (1979), the court decided that

if that which is taught seeks either to disparage or to encourage a commitment to a set of religious beliefs, it is constitutionally impermissible in a public school setting.

The rub in these cases, it seems to me, is that courts have trouble defining the boundaries of religion. The final ruling in Mozert relied on the fact that the conservative children didn’t have to do or say or affirm anything about religion. They were only exposed to ideas that their parents considered offensive.

And that seems telling for our case here. Though I may find it a simple statement of fact, the notion that there are many paths to religious salvation has profound religious implications for many people. And though I may find it a simple statement of fact, the notion that the earth is bajillions of years old has profound religious implications for many people. Public schools should expose students to these ideas. But public schools cannot force creationist students to engage in the religious act of agreeing with these ideas.

The fact that affirming evolution is not a religious act for me does not mean it is not a religious act for anyone. For many creationist students, saying that evolution is true is a religious act. Schools can’t insist upon it. But understanding the basic concepts of evolution is not. Public schools must insist upon that.

Though this post is already too long, let me add one caveat. This argument does not agree with creationists’ insistence that evolution is a religion. Rather, it simply says that evolution is an idea that some religious people consider religious. This is a hugely important distinction.

Public schools cannot force students to do religious things. For many students, affirming that evolution is true would be a religious act.

At the same time, public schools must teach the best available knowledge. In science classes, the modern evolutionary synthesis is an example of that sort of knowledge.

So here is our goal: Separate out our demands on students. It is not as complicated as it may seem. Adding two or three little words can do it. Instead of asking students to say, “The earth is millions of years old,” we ask students to say, “Scientists say the earth is millions of years old.”  Instead of asking students to say, “Humans evolved from other forms of life,” we ask students to say, “According to scientists, humans evolved from other forms of life.”

Do I know that this will work? No, but I believe it will help.

Leave a comment


  1. Strictly speaking, you “believe” (i.e. accept on faith) anything that you “know” that you lack the expertise and direct access to the information in order to independently verify. And even if you can “know” something (because you DO possess the expertise and direct information access), at some level you still “believe” that you can trust your senses to feed you the information that you are relying on.

    For everything that any of us claims to “know,” if we dig down far enough we arrive at foundational unquestioned assumptions that we “believe.”

    I am not a biologist or an archaeologist (or an -ist, really), so for me it is more accurate to say that I believe in evolution because I trust that those who do have the appropriate expertise to convey the information dispassionately and accurately.

    Part of teaching kids how to think is to encourage an awareness of: 1) what we know; and 2) how we know it. And flexibility when we find new information from (what appears to be) a reliable source.

  2. I take issue with this comment: “Creationists may not admit it, but they might recognize that their claims to scientific legitimacy don’t convince people outside of their own religious circles.” I here of testimonies from all the major organizations + facebook groups I’m in of former atheists, etc. who became Christians because of creationism. I hear these testimonies quite often. Apparently creationist arguments do reach people outside their religious circles.

    • Tim, Could you share some? Are there some of these testimonies that are public that we could link to? I would be interested to hear some of these. On my side of the fence I’m accustomed to hearing stories of earnest creationists who went to school and lost their faith as they learned mainstream science. And even conservative creationist folks seem to agree that learning evolution will sometimes push students away from their faiths. If there are a lot of Christians out there who were guided to their faith because of creationism, I’d like to hear about it.
      But that was not really what I meant in the original post. As usual, I didn’t express myself clearly. What I was getting at was that maybe creationists would agree that non-creationist scientists did not recognize creationists’ scientific claims as legitimate. This does not mean that creationists would agree with mainstream scientists, but rather a very limited concession: Creationists, I thought (and still think) might be willing to agree that mainstream scientists are generally not friendly to the scientific claims of creationists.

  3. For an alternative view on evolution as religion


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