Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Creationism in American Public Schools: The Latest Battle in Science v. Religion Part 1

Originally written in December 2010

The Copernican Revolution in astronomy was a watershed event in the history of science. The event can be seen as the birth of modern science and the cause of the first of the first major battles between science and religion were brought about due to conflicts between the Bible and the field of astronomy. The theory of evolution, another watershed moment in science was introduced in 1859, and is one of the most controversial theories ever brought about, yet despite the approval of an overwhelming majority of scientists, this is a theory which has not been accepted by many people in the United States and is quite controversial especially in evangelical Christian circles. Many in this group of Christian evangelicals are opposed to teaching evolutionary theory in public schools and instead favor intelligent design or creationism due to the perceived conflict between evolution and the Judeo-Christian Biblical account of how life came about. The theory of evolution is even viewed as an attack on the Bible itself by fundamentalist Christian groups several of who teach that the Bible and its teachings are infallible. The debate over teaching creationism or intelligent design in public schools is one that has drawn supporters from Evangelical Christians and politicians, and has simultaneously drawn much criticism from the scientific community and others. Intelligent design was at one time widely accepted among scientists, but now in its current form has been derided as pseudoscience by prominent scientists in court cases and literature as a belief which does not pass the merits of scientific theory yet and should not be taught in public schools.
The debate over evolution vs. creationism is one of the many battles in the war between science and religion that has been ongoing for centuries. The debate over intelligent design vs. creation opens up many secondary questions such as the role of religion in the classroom and whether two theories that seem very different can in fact be compatible with each other. This study will examine the scientific backgrounds of evolution and intelligent design, the controversy and history of the teaching of intelligent design and evolution in the United States, and ask whether such theories which look radically opposed to each other can indeed co-exist.

Part I Science and Religion Background

The Bible as a book contains answers to many questions such as the creation of the universe, the Earth, and the origins of life on Earth. The Bible in its opening book of Genesis refers to the creation of animals according to their own kinds, and the creation of man in God’s image. The Bible which is the basis of Christianity is perhaps the most influential book in Western civilization. During the final years of the Roman Empire and in the centuries after its demise, the Roman Catholic Church became the leading power in Europe and its position of power also allowed it to be the main provider of education. The church’s position and authority put the teachings of the Bible in the forefront as the mainstream accepted view of how things came to be in Western Europe. The goals of science for a long time were to corroborate the teachings found in the Bible. To attack or challenge the authority of the Church and it’s teachings was very dangerous and could be punishable by death. In the past other scientific theories have been introduced in the Western World which have been attacked in religious circles for disagreeing with commonly accepted religious teachings, among them are the heliocentric theory, the age of the Earth, and evolution. The displacement of the geocentric theory by the heliocentric theory may be the most famous of theories that was condemned by the Catholic Church.
"To be effective, a theory- the framework of ideas and assumptions used to explain some set of observations and make predictions about the real world-must be continually tested." (Chaisson 2008:20) Polish scientist Nicholas Copernicus in 1543 published his monumental work explaining that the planets and Sun do not revolve around the Earth, but rather the Earth revolves around the Sun. Copernicus’ work was not too popular after its publication partly because it was written in Latin and largely because this theory was seen at odds with Biblical passages that postulated that the Earth itself was fixed and didn’t move, and in fact it is the Sun that moves. (Psalm 93:1, Job 9:6, Joshua 10:12, 1 Chronicles 16:30, Isaiah 38:8) After Copernicus’ death other scientists work such as Brahe and Kepler would do more work that would bolster the Copernican view of the solar system. But, the most important scientist to bolster Copernican theory would be Italian scientist Galileo Galilei. The invention of the telescope would help Galileo as he used his telescope to observe the moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus which contradicted the Ptolemaic model of the universe but bolstered the Copernican theory. Galileo then became a major defender of the theory of heliocentrism but as Galileo lived in Italy he was living in the center of Catholic power. In Italy the Catholic Church through the Inquisition had the power to punish people suspected of heresy. In 1616 a year after Galileo’s “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina”, the Catholic Church outlawed the teaching of Copernican theory and declared teaching heliocentrism as a fact to be heresy, and placed Copernicus’ writings on a list of banned books. Galileo was ordered not to speak of the heliocentric theory except as a hypothesis. A 1632 book by Galileo, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” supporting heliocentric theory and ridiculing the geocentric view would prove to be Galileo’s undoing as shortly after he would have to face the Inquisition. The next year Galileo would be placed on trial for suspicion of heresy. Galileo would be found guilty, had his work banned, was forced to recant his claim of the Earth orbiting the Sun and would spend the rest of his life under house arrest. It would only be hundreds of years after Galileo’s death that the Church would offer an apology for what happened to Galileo.

The Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation during the 15th and 16th centuries and the later Enlightenment of the 18th century did much to end the dominant power of the Catholic Church as a new wave of learning and questioning swept through Europe. No longer would the goals of science simply be to corroborate the works of the Bible, but it was expected to provide answers for questions that might even disagree with the Bible. Scientific discoveries and theories soon started to rise arose that directly conflicted with mainstream religious Christian thought, creating dilemmas for some Christian scientists such as John Ray and Robert Hooke, who originally sought to reconcile scientific discoveries with Biblical ideas. Scientific ideas, such as the extinction of species which was once thought impossible to coexist with the idea of a benevolent creator was proven true as the discovery of fossils of extinct species started to take place. Not only did the discovery of fossils show that extinction was possible, it showed as well that the Earth was much older than what it was commonly thought to be, and it also would play a key role in the theory of evolution. But, as more work and research was done geology and biology would both be freed from the constraints of trying to make scientific ideas conform to Biblical teachings. But some scientific concepts have yet to be accepted in Western religious circles and among them are the age of the Earth and the theory of evolution. In 1859 Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species” which introduced the theory of evolution and changed the perception of how life came to be about.