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?

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