Science, Religion Can Coexist in School

By Ross Pomeroy

On January 31st, the Indiana State Senate passed Senate Bill 89, allowing public schools to teach creationism alongside the theory of evolution in science classes. The bill will now go before the Republican-controlled House and then must pass the desk of Governor Mitch Daniels before becoming law.

If it does, there will surely be a court challenge. In 1987, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard that a Louisiana law requiring creationism to be taught in public schools was unconstitutional. Notably, the court's decision was supported by 72 Nobel prize-winning scientists.

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However, there is a subtle distinction between the Louisiana law of 1987 and the recently passed Senate Bill 89 in Indiana. Senate Bill 89 does not require the teaching of creationism in public schools; it merely allows schools to teach it. Whether this will make any difference constitutionally remains to be seen.

Unsurprisingly, the Indiana bill has once again rekindled the dispute over the teaching of creationism in public schools and, in doing so, it has breathed new life into the debate over whether or not faith and science can coexist in society.

I believe that they can, and on Saturday, the Indy Star published viewpoints from Three Wise People, two Methodist pastors and one instructor of ethics, who also believe that faith and science are compatible. It's also possible that maybe, just maybe, faith and science can be taught side by side in public schools. (It's probably not appropriate to do so in a biology class, but they could certainly be taught in a religion, philosophy or history class.)

Naturally, in today's polarized climate, this academic exercise would be a very tall order. However, because religion and science are both so important to our society, it may be healthy for schools to encourage -- rather than discourage -- dialogue between the two. Harmony, rather than antagonism, should be promoted. So, what must be done in order to achieve this lofty goal of fostering an intellectual religion-science discussion?

First, people must realize that religion and science are not in conflict. Accepting that the universe formed 13.75 billion years ago (give or take a hundred million years) and that life on Earth evolved over the course of 3.7 billion years is not incompatible with a belief in God.

Second, it may be interesting to determine if a consensus view of "creation" from all major religions is possible. (I am not using the word "creation" here in the sense of "creationism" -- i.e., belief in a 6,000-year old earth -- since that is not compatible with science.) Our first Wise Person, Pastor Donald Lacy, suggested an interfaith event including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists to construct a common definition of "creation."

Third, holy books cannot be strictly interpreted if science and faith are to mingle in schools. Unwavering belief in the literal interpretation of every story written thousands of years ago -- some of which were not meant to be interpreted literally -- leaves little room for free and scientific thinking. Science tells us to have an open mind, to have fluid beliefs informed from fact-based observations and evidence. So, our second Wise Person, Reverend Brenda Freije, has this to say about her Christian tradition:

"Within this framework, there is plenty of room for science, including the science of evolution. What can be measured and tested and studied through scientific methods informs my theology, and my theology informs how I understand the results of that scientific method... There is tremendous wisdom and sound advice in the Scriptures, and I believe the teachings in the Bible, if honestly followed, will be a source of joy, peace, love and life..."

At their most basic level, faith and science are compatible in one essential respect: They are both tools for understanding, meant to help better ourselves and the world around us. As our third Wise Person, Greg Manship, an adjunct instructor in ethics at the University of Indianapolis, reminds us:

There is no faith without science, for even Jesus challenged Thomas to gather empirical evidence by touching Jesus' resurrected body. And there is no science without faith, for even scientists have faith and believe in the possibilities of what they have not yet seen with their own eyes. We fail our students and we fool ourselves when we "believe" we have "proof" of the "incompatibility" between science and faith.

As these Wise People demonstrated, there is plenty of room in society for faith and science to get along peaceably and cooperatively. Honestly, we should have set aside this petty and unnecessary conflict between religion and science years ago.

Ross Pomeroy is the weekend editor of RealClearScience and regular contributor to the Newton Blog.