Thursday, April 01, 2004

Is the NCSE Promoting Religion? The good folks at National Review Online (NRO) have come up with a novel attack against people defending the teaching of evolution in public schools. You can find it here. I'll let them make their point in their own words:

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is on the front lines of the battle to keep religion out of the nation's science classrooms. A group whose self-described mission is "Defending the Teaching of Evolution in the Public Schools," the NCSE routinely condemns anyone who wants to teach faith-based criticisms of evolutionary theory for trying to unconstitutionally mix church and state.

But in an ironic twist, it now turns out that the NCSE itself is using federal tax dollars to insert religion into biology classrooms. Earlier this year, the NCSE and the University of California Museum of Paleontology unveiled a website for teachers entitled "Understanding Evolution." Funded in part by a nearly half-million-dollar federal grant, the website encourages teachers to use religion to promote evolution. Apparently the NCSE thinks mixing science and religion is okay after all ?— as long as religion is used to support evolution.

Teaching faith-based criticisms of evolutionary theory is indeed an unconstitutional mixing of church and state, but that is not the reason for keeping them out of the classroom. Rather, they should be excluded because such criticisms have no place in a scientific discussion. If one side is arguing that the latest data from paleontology, genetics, and molecular biology is entirely consistent with evolution, and the other side is arguing that a particular interpretation of the Bible says evolution did not occur, then one side is behaving scientifically and the other side is not.

Even here, though, I would only object to a teacher presenting faith-based objections as if they had any legitimate scientific standing. Certainly if a student brings up the issue I'm all in favor of the teacher taking the opportunity to explain more about the nature of science, and why supernatural hypotheses are generally considered suspect.

So is the NCSE encouraging teachers to use religion to promote evolution? Of course not. We learn the basis for the charge later in the article:

But the strangest part of the website, by far, is the section that encourages educators to use religion to endorse evolution. Teachers are told that nearly all religious people, theologians, and scientists who hold religious beliefs endorse modern evolutionary theory, and that indeed such a view "actually enriches their faith." In fact, teachers are directed to statements by a variety of religious groups giving their theological endorsement of evolution.

For example, educators can read a statement from the United Church of Christ that "modern evolutionary theory... is in no way at odds with our belief in a Creator God, or in the revelation and presence of that God in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit." Needless to say, statements from thoughtful religious groups and scholars who critique Darwinism because of its claim that the development of life was an unguided process are not included. Nor is there any indication of the fact that, according to opinion surveys, the vast majority of Americans continues to be skeptical of Darwin's theory of unguided evolution.

The website in question can be found here. Here is what it says about evolution and religion:

Response: Religion and science (evolution) are very different things. In science (as in science class), only natural causes are used to explain natural phenomena, while religion deals with beliefs that are beyond the natural world.

The misconception that one has to choose between science and religion is divisive. Most Christian and Jewish religious groups have no conflict with the theory of evolution or other scientific findings. In fact, many religious people, including theologians, feel that a deeper understanding of nature actually enriches their faith. Moreover, in the scientific community there are thousands of scientists who are devoutly religious and also accept evolution.

Notice how the statement that ``Most Christian and Jewish religious groups have no conflict...'' got transformed into ``...nearly all religious people, theologians, and scientists who hold religious beliefs endorse modern evolutionary theory...''. Also notice that this section is labeled as a ``Response.' It is labeled that way because it is being offered as a response to certain misconceptions that students are likely to have. Teachers are not being instructed to present religious viewpoints as part of their lesson. But if they are confronted with students who have always been told that religion and evolution are incompatible, it is certainly reasonable to point out that, actually, they are compatible.

The NRO says that ``In fact, teachers are directed to statements by a variety of religious groups giving their theological endorsement of evolution." There is indeed a link to the NCSE's website, where they maintain a list of statements from religious organizations defending the teaching of evolution. In context, these statements are offered to back-up the claim that most mainline denominations have no trouble with evolution. They are not there so teachers can include them in their lesson plans.

The article closes with the usual self-righteousness of ID proponents. There is a curious thing, though. The author of the article, John West, is a representative of the Discovery Institute. Discovery is usually at great pains to claim that their objections to evolution are entirely scientific. Yet here he is arguing that public-opinion polls and faith-based objections should be part of the curriculum.

The reason he argues in this way is the he is writing in NRO, which appeals primarily to very conservative readers. As I've noted many times, when preaching to their choir ID proponents remove their masks of civility and objectivity and expose themselves as the dishonest, religious charlatans they actually are.


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