The Relentless Christian Crusade to Prevent Kids from Learning Science
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The debate that took place on the floor of the Tennessee House of Representatives in April could not exactly be described as a feast for the intellect.
Legislators were deliberating a bill that would open the door to creationism in public schools by requiring schools to “find effective ways” to teach about three “controversial” ideas: evolution, global warming and human cloning.
The discussion quickly degenerated into name-calling when one bill supporter called opponents “intellectual bullies,” reported the Knoxville News Sentinel.
One lawmaker even tried to press Albert Einstein into service. Rep. Frank Niceley, a Republican from Strawberry Plains, asserted that Einstein once said, “A little knowledge would turn your head to atheism, while a broader knowledge would turn your head to Christianity.”
Niceley should have checked his facts: Einstein, who was raised Jewish and usually referred to himself as an agnostic, never said that. Something similar was once uttered by English philosopher Francis Bacon – 400 years ago.
At the end of the day, the debate was mainly for show because the conclusion was foregone. The measure passed easily 70-23 and was sent to the state Senate, where its prospects remain uncertain. It reached the upper house just as the session was winding down, and even its sponsor admitted it was unlikely to pass this year.
The incident, however, was telling. It’s yet another example of how Religious Right strategies to introduce fundamentalist Christianity into public school science classes have (ironically) evolved over the years. Measures like the Tennessee bill have popped up in other states during this legislative season, showing an increasing sophistication on the part of activists who are determined to revise biology instruction to conform to religious dogma.
In decades past, state legislators passed laws flatly barring the teaching of evolution or requiring “balanced treatment” between creationism and evolution. Those efforts were struck down by the courts.
Undaunted, Religious Right activists returned with a host of new ideas and presented them to friendly lawmakers. They advocated teaching the “weaknesses” of evolution, asserted that public school teachers had a free-speech right to attack evolution in class and even advocating pasting anti-evolution disclaimers in science books.
When courts rejected those gambits as well, the creationists retrenched and relabeled. Creationism became “intelligent design” (ID), a concept that its proponents swore was not necessarily religious (although they were unclear on who the designer could be other than God).
That gambit floundered in court as well, bringing us to the newest incarnation of creationism: Teach the controversy.
Under this approach, evolution is falsely branded a “controversial” idea that is losing support even in the scientific community. Thus, students must be taught to engage in “critical thinking” about its flaws, and, for good measure, controversies over global warming and human cloning will be discussed as well.
Bills promoting this idea surfaced in a number of states this year. According to the website Livescience.com, legislatures in Florida, Texas, Missouri, Kentucky, Oklahoma and New Mexico have considered anti-evolution measures. Most of the proposals died, but the persistence of the issue says a lot about the state of science education.
“This is a recent trend,” remarked Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a group in Oakland, Calif., that supports evolution instruction in public schools. “Part of the reason for including global warming and human cloning seems to be to deflect the criticism that evolution is being singled out for special treatment, and another part of the reason seems to be to appeal to a wider base of science denialists.”