Recently, the Tennessee legislature passed the controversial HB 368, dubbed “The Monkey Bill” by its critics as a reference to the famous 1925 Scopes Trial.
The bill starts off with a sound argument—that science education should “inform students about scientific evidence” and “help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to becoming intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens.”
Sounds good, though one might ask if this really needs to be legislated. The bill goes on to say that public school teachers and administrators now have a mandate to encourage students to “explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues.”
Again, this may seem reasonable, until the bill identifies the controversial issues: “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” At the same time, the bill does state that it only protects “the teaching of scientific information” and doesn’t promote “any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion.”
But this caveat is questionable. Singling out biological evolution and the chemical origins of life as scientifically controversial issues-- a view not shared by most in the scientific community-- is itself controversial and, according to many critics, political. Critics of the bill, such as the National Center for Science Education, have voiced concern that the bill is unscientific and unnecessary unless the agenda is to legitimate the discussion of creationism in science classrooms. Critics argue that it will empower creationist educators who would like to promote their religious perspective rather than evolution. Supporters of the bill argue that public school classrooms have been dominated by a single secular perspective, which marginalizes and dismisses the views of those guided by certain religious orientations, namely evangelical Christianity.
Creationism, including its more current iteration, Intelligent Design, is not a scientific theory, which, by definition, must be empirically testable. However, that does not mean it has no place in the classroom. And HB 368 points to the need for this discursive space. But its proper place is in a religious studies classroom, where it can be studied as a historically, socially, and culturally particular religious perspective and movement. It can be studied alongside the cosmologies of other religions, such as the Hindu creation narrative found in the Rig Veda. It can also be studied as a religiously-driven political movement in a study of religion and politics. Along these lines, the language of HB 368 illuminates the conservative politics of the creationist movement, listing evolutionary theory alongside climate change theory as examples of so-called weak or flawed scientific theories. While climate change theory doesn’t present a biblical conflict, it occupies a space with evolutionary theory as a hot-button conservative political issue.
HB 368 highlights the need for teaching about religion in public schools. Currently, religion is not formally and explicitly taught in most public schools. It pops up here and there in history and social studies, where it is given brief and often inadequate attention. Many teachers do not have the training to appropriately teach about religion. They may feel it is too controversial and avoid it all together. Some erroneously believe that the First Amendment prohibits even the mention of religion in the classroom.
But one of the problems of the exclusion of religion in public school curriculum is that it often appears in inappropriate places, often disguised as something other than religion, such as an alternative scientific theory. If a basic religious studies course, such as an introduction to the world’s religions, were offered in public schools, it would provide a space in which to discuss—and recognize— a diversity of religious perspectives, including those of conservative Christians and other groups who may currently feel marginalized.
This course should not be a theology course in which the truth-claims or merits of religions are discussed. Rather it should be a course about religion, in which students learn about the role of religion in society, viewed from historical, cultural, and sociological perspectives. And this would provide an appropriate forum in which to explore an issue such as creationism— in the religious studies classroom—and not in the science classroom.
Tiffany Puett is a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo. Her research focuses on religious diversity and multiculturalism in North America, the ongoing construction of ‘religion’ in a liberal democratic society and the politics embedded in these processes. She’s especially interested in the intersections of religion with education, citizenship, and religious freedom.