Creationism in Schools: Wisdom from Star Trek
No matter the date, somewhere in America, some group is trying to get creationism into science class.
This month, the controversy was unfolding in Springboro, Ohio, where the local school board was seeking to add creationism to the curriculum. Last month, the issue was front and center in Louisiana, where the Senate Education Committee killed a bill to repeal the ironically titled Louisiana Science Education Act. The law permits supplemental creationist materials that critique evolution to be dealt out in science class.
These events were partially mirrored in one episode of the Star Trek spin-off Deep Space Nine. In the episode, a Bajoran spiritual leader, Vedek Winn, walks into a school onboard a jointly-operated Bajoran and Federation space station and reprimands the human instructor for teaching science-based information about the nearby wormhole that conflicts with her religious views. The Bajorans believe that the portal through spacetime is a sacred gateway to the Celestial temple of the Prophets (their' gods), while scientific evidence indicates that the wormhole was artificially created by intelligent life.
"You are opening the children's' minds to blasphemy," Winn accused, later adding that the Federation "exists in a universe of darkness," devoid of soul.
"I don't teach Bajoran spiritual beliefs," the teacher rebuffed, "that's your job. Mine is to open the children's minds to history, to literature, to mathematics, to science."
In response, the Bajoran spiritual leader offered a compromise: instead of teaching controversial subjects, just don't teach them at all.
This suggestion was swiftly dismissed by the teacher, as it is antithesis to everything the 24th Century Federation stands for: to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before. The Federation doesn't embrace ignorance; they pursue knowledge in all its forms.
At the end of the episode, cooler heads prevailed. Though the devout, orthodox spiritual leader wasn't convinced, almost all of her followers realized that science wasn't directly attacking their beliefs. On the other side, the Federation personnel accepted that religion can indeed serve a positive purpose.
Can we adapt the wisdom of Star Trek to the real world? The big takeaway, I think, is that both sides of the debate need to recognize that both science and religion have a useful purpose. Science, of course, grants us ways to communicate, to cure disease, to live healthier, to view the cosmos -- its benefits are self-evidential.
But while "Science gives man knowledge, which is power," Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "Religion gives man wisdom, which is control."
Many aspects of devout religious belief are factually wrong. The Earth is not 6,000 years old. Dinosaurs and humans did not co-exist. But these errors do not make religion morally wrong. We can decide what to do with faith. It can be used to enhance lives.
"For over fifty years, the one thing that allowed the Bajorans to survive the Cardassian occupation was their faith. The prophets were their only source of hope and courage," Benjamin Sisko, commander of the space station told his son in the Star Trek episode.
A similar situation was born out in America's past. African-American science fiction writer Octavia Butler's distant relatives suffered through years of inhuman treatment and incessant toil as slaves on southern plantations. In an interview with Locus in 2000, Butler said:
"I used to despise religion... but I think I've become more understanding of [it]. Religion kept some of my relatives alive, because it was all they had. If they hadn't had some hope of heaven, some companionship in Jesus, they probably would have committed suicide."
Another key is to recognize that science and religion can co-exist in the proper context. One is not inherently an affront to the other. There's nothing wrong with teaching religion in schools, just as long as it's assigned to a proper location, like in a philosophy or an elective religion class.
However, faith is not fact. In trying to teach creationism alongside evolution in the same classroom, those pushing such policies are attempting to artificially elevate creationism to the same echelon of evidence mandated by science. Then they can say, "Look, evolution and creationism are being taught in the same place! They must be equally valid!"
But they're simply not. Religion is good. Science is good. But they're not the same. And they don't belong in the same class.
(Images: 1. Stardust via Shutterstock)