Sunday, October 6, 2013

Evolution and Atheism: Is There a Connection?

On September 27, 2013, Citizens for Objective Public Education (COPE) filed a lawsuit against the Kansas State Board of Education to block them from teaching classes compatible with the newly-released Next Generation Science Standards.  These standards are part of the Common Core State Standards Initiative that has done extensive research to identify weaknesses in public school education.  The new standards were designed to strengthen math and science education and to better prepare K-12 students for potential college educations and careers in these growing industries.  Evolution and climate change are two key teachings in the new standards and most of the opposition has been aimed at these subjects.

COPE’s self-proclaimed mission is to “promote objectivity in public school curricula that address religious questions and issues so that the educational effect of the teaching is religiously neutral.”  The non-profit strongly supports religious rights for parents and students in public schools, and encourages school boards to leave information out of lessons that might conflict with religious teachings.  In this case, COPE is arguing that the adoption of these standards by the state of Kansas represents an establishment and an endorsement of a non-religious worldview and a promotion of atheism.  Since teaching of the new standards begins in kindergarten, COPE thinks the new standards will indoctrinate impressionable young children with materialistic and atheistic world views.  The group argues that teachers will ask definitively religious questions about where humans come from and how the species has developed and will only provide non-religious answers stemming from the theory of evolution.  COPE sees this as an attempt to establish a particular worldview that amounts to an excessive governmental entanglement with religion.  The non-profit requests that Kansas public schools present the limitations of science and teach students that religious theories, specifically creationism, can answer some of life’s more difficult questions.


Under the First Amendment, Congress is prohibited from passing a law that establishes religion, though this has been interpreted to have different meanings throughout the Supreme Court’s history.  In Everson v. Board of Education, the Establishment Clause was interpreted broadly and reinforced the idea of wall of separation between Church and State.  About twenty years later in Epperson v. Arkansas, the Court ruled that the government must be neutral and non-preferential with respect to religious theories, doctrines, and practices, and must not be hostile to or promote any religion or non-religion.  In Lemon v. Kurtzman, the Court established the Lemon test which identifies requirements for legislation involving religion.  The statute must have a secular legislative purpose, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and the statute must not foster an excessive entanglement with religion.  The issue at stake in this case is whether teaching evolution as a scientific principle in public schools establishes non-religion or promotes atheism over other religious beliefs.

I think it is important to realize with this case and others like it that while some religious people have accepted evolution as a teaching in which they believe, a substantial portion of the country remains skeptical about the theory’s veracity.  Creationism and other human origin and development theories remain prevalent in American society and these world views should not be immediately dismissed.  I do not, however, think that teaching evolution as a scientific principle and strengthening science education in public schools amounts to an establishment of or a preference for non-religion.  Evolution is not inherently atheistic and teaching the theory to students, no matter their age, will not “indoctrinate” them to accept only evolution-based views.  Evolution, although an important principle of the scientific standards, is presented as a theory and students are not forced to profess that they believe in its premises.  Teaching evolution in public schools also does not prevent parents from providing supplementary education for their children at home or in religious institutions.


Epperson advocates for neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and non-religion, and states that the government “may not be hostile to any religion or the advocacy of no-religion.”  I think ruling in favor of the Kansas School Board is the state’s best and most feasible method to achieve neutrality and not be hostile to religion or non-religion in its public schools.  I also think that the Kansas School Board’s implementation of new educational standards passes the Lemon test.  The standards have a clear secular purpose to prepare students for further education and potential careers in a growing science- and technology-dominated world.  The standards do not have the primary effect of advancing any religion nor do they inhibit its practice since students can learn about evolution in public school and receive specifically religious education elsewhere.  The statute also does not foster an excessive entanglement with religion.  I actually do not think it fosters any entanglement with religion at all.

It is still important to realize that true neutrality in a situation like this one is difficult, if not impossible to achieve.  The Supreme Court has already ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard that a statute requiring public schools to teach creationism whenever they teach evolution is unconstitutional because the statute’s purpose was to promote a specific religion.  In addition, students who are not taught at least the basic premises of evolution will likely be disadvantaged in later schooling and when beginning their job search.  It follows, then, that the Kansas School Board should move ahead with its implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards.  While opponents of the standards may still argue that this action privileges non-religion over religion in public schools, it is the most neutral and the only constitutional option.

What do you think?  Does teaching evolution in public schools promote atheism?  Do these new science standards establish non-religion?

5 comments:

SC said...

I agree that teaching evolution is not atheist in itself, and I think people should stop viewing the situation as “evolution vs. religion”. At this point in time, there is a sizeable amount of evidence supporting evolution. Unfortunately, some aspects of the theory of evolution do indeed conflict with some religions. However, that being said, I do not feel that just because two viewpoints may conflict, that they have to immediately view that other viewpoint as adversarial. In addition, just because the theory of evolution conflicts with some religions does not mean that deciding to teach it is favoring non-religion. There is simply too much evidence supporting the theory of evolution in order to justify not teaching it at this point.

Benjamin S said...

To me, teaching religion in school curriculum would amount to an establishment of religion. Although some argue that the theory of evolution is “atheist doctrine” I believe that the two are not intertwined. Before my own views became atheistic, I believed in both evolution and a God. Thus I’m living proof that the two are not mutually inclusive. Creationism and religion are however often mutually inclusive. Therefore I see that there is no possible way to teach creationism without entangling the state with religion. Furthermore, creationism advances religion. The secular purpose might exist in teaching students an eccentric view of the world, but the failure of the other two aspects of the Lemon test prove to me that creationism does not belong in our schools.

Dylan Smith said...

I really like the argument you provided Jennie. I think in some ways teaching only evolution does indeed promote non-religion over religion. In this case however, the lemon test provides a clear sense that there is no establishment. The school board obviously shows that it cares about the students' education. I think that here to "best" neutrality is reached with teaching evolution. I say best because, as Jennie mentioned, true neutrality is never concrete. So I agree with what Jennie said and the support a decision in favor of the Kansas School Board.

Tyler J said...

I agree with Benjamin's statement - that it is possible to both believe in G-d and in evolution, but that often times creationism and religion are tightly interwoven. Evolution is not necessarily, in my mind, atheist although I understand how it can be perceived in that way. And I think it is more important to promote non-religion over religion in our schools, so as to stay away from the establishment issue. If parents want their children to learn alternative theories, or religiously driven anything, that should be done at home or at a private religious institution. Therefore, I believe the decision in favor of the Kansas School Board was correct.

Terry B said...

I believe that evolution can and should be taught in school systems. I do not see the issue of it being taught if there is evidence to back up this claim. I would have to agree with SC that there is a lot evidence that things on this Earth evolve form one thing to another. The most recent evolution that scientist have is the evidence on how brown bears evolved into polar bears. The brown bears evolved to with stand low temperatures by creating more body fat and thickening of the fur. Scientist has found away to gain information on how this evolution happen and why and is a great educational tool that should be shared. So, I believe that with the dense evidence on evolution there is no justification on not teaching it with an ordinary science class.