Friday, January 13, 2006

Philosophy Friday: Creationism Class

One of my biggest complaints about efforts to incorporate "Intelligent Design" into the school curriculums in Kansas and Pennsylvania has been the stubborn insistence by Intelligent Design supporters that it belongs in biology as an alternative to evolution. In light of the devastating Dover ruling, however, it appears that perhaps the Creationists have stumbled out of one briar patch and straight into another.

From Americans United:

On Jan. 1, the board of trustees of El Tejon Unified School District approved an elective called "Philosophy of Design" that advocates "intelligent design" and other concepts of creationism. The course is now being taught at Frazier Mountain High School in Lebec.

I have said in several posts here that I believe that Intelligent Design can be taught in public schools, as part of an overall elective on world religions. That's not to say that I believe anything useful can be learned from Intelligent Design; as far as creation myths go it's about as stimulating as the back of an aspirin bottle. However, in the free market place of ideas, there is room for discussion of everything and Intelligent Design is no exception. However, El Tejon USD walks right up to a good idea and tramples right on over it in its zeal to promote a fundamentalist Christian agenda.

A good call from the director of Americans United:

"There is a national crusade under way to inject religion into our public schools, and it must not succeed," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. "Religious Right activists are looking for every opportunity to proselytize students into their doctrines. The so-called 'philosophy' course in Lebec is the latest maneuver in a long line of misguided schemes."

"This situation has nothing to do with academic freedom or teaching critical thinking, as school officials contend," Lynn continued. "This is a clear case of government promotion of religion, and it violates the U.S. Constitution. Public schools serve children of many faiths and none, and the curriculum should never single out a particular religious viewpoint for preferential treatment."

If only El Tejon USD had bothered to include a study of other creation myths, along with Intelligent Design, then I believe the class would have passed Constitutional muster. A better understanding of various religious beliefs, especially at a younger age, would go many miles towards easing interactions between members of different faiths, both within the U.S. and without. One of the biggest issues facing our country is how to deal with Muslim extremism and a good, comprehensive study of Islam could only benefit us as a nation. The same holds true for a study of Christianity and Judaism for countries that are majority Muslim.

The class description for this "philosophy" course is very telling:

The "Philosophy of Design" course description, which was given to students and their families in early December, stated that it would "take a close look at evolution as a theory and will discuss the scientific, biological, and Biblical aspects that suggest why Darwin's philosophy is not rock solid. Physical and chemical evidence will be presented suggesting the earth is thousands of years old, not billions."

First of all, there is no other way to look at evolution other than as a scientific theory. Claims by conservative Christians that somehow evolution is a kind of pseudo-religious dogma is both wrong and insulting. It makes certain erroneous pre-suppositions about the religious beliefs of the scientifically informed, which of course run the entire gamut of belief systems. Science and religion, in the liberal mind, can and do compliment each other, not conflict. Further, such a view assumes that those who understand and accept scientific theories are just as inept as religious fundamentalists at telling the difference between science and religion; again insulting and untrue.

Second, again we see this notion of the "flaws" in evolution. No scientist anywhere in the world claims that evolution cannot be challenged; quite the opposite, in fact. The very nature of scientific discovery requires that our ideas be tested by new evidence. That's how scientific theories are created and modified. Some theories, and evolution is one, are so well proven and supported by evidence that the benefit of the doubt remains on their side. Now, reasonable people can disagree as to whether that's good policy but that doesn't change the fact that evolution is indeed "rock solid".

As for the claim that "physical and chemical evidence will be presented suggesting that the earth is thousands of years old", that's just an out-and-out lie. There is no such evidence. Even if the class was not a blatant attempt to indoctrinate public school students on the taxpayer dime, it should still be banned for its lack of educational merit. No school, public or otherwise, should be allowed to teach blatant misinformation and errors to its students intentionally.

So, who penned such a course for the El Tejon USD? Sadly, someone whose professional ethics were thrown completely out the window by doing so:

In its complaint seeking to block the high school from teaching the course, Americans United noted that teacher Sharon Lemburg proposed the course for overtly religious reasons. Lemburg wrote the course description and also prepared a course syllabus showing that intelligent design would be the primary topic of discussion. ID maintains that life is so complex that an intelligent entity, likely God, must have created it.

For example, Lemburg's syllabus asks why ID is "gaining momentum" and why it is "so threatening to society, the educational system and evolutionists." The original syllabus for the class listed 24 videos for potential use, all but one of them produced by religious organizations and centered on attacking evolution and advancing intelligent design. One video, called "Chemicals to Living Cells: Fantasy or Science," is produced by a Christian ministry called Answers in Genesis.

I have much respect and admiration for teachers, and it saddens me to see one involved in such a misguided venture as this. Ms. Lemburg's proposed course may be perfect for a Sunday School class at whatever church she attends (assuming she attends), but it has no place in a public school and a teacher should know that. This was not a case of skating close to the line of church/state separation. It would be very possible for a good, qualified teacher to innocently slip close to that line, as the line of separation in public schools is not always crystal clear. But this course leaves little doubt as to Ms. Lemburg's intentions for her students and that's really a shame. She has not only likely ended her teaching career but has also been a lackluster witness for her faith. Mendacity and misdirection is a poor way to win hearts for Christ, even with the best of intentions.

It's instructive to see, in the El Tejon case, exactly where the Intelligent Design movement is heading next. The Dover ruling has largely insured that future attempts to undermine science education with Creationism have been largely stymied, though it's always possible that such a case could reach the increasingly conservative Supreme Court and be decided another way. Elective public school classes teaching comparisons of various religious beliefs are a good idea as religion is one of the most powerful forces shaping our world. But the role of advocate for a given religion is not given to taxpayer-funded institutions under our Constitution, and further attempts to side-step this by the Christian Right only exposes the weaknesses of their cause.

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