Where Science and Faith Converge

A Brief Response to the Kansas Board of Education Decision

By Krista Bontrager - October 14, 1999

On August 11, 1999 the Kansas Board of Education (BOE) voted 6 to 4 to remove macroevolution and big bang cosmology from the state's science curriculum. [1] The newly revised standards supposedly neither ban "Darwinism" nor promote "creationism". Rather, they deny that any single model be used as a "unifying system" of knowledge. The BOE's position of "no position" created a whirlwind of media attention.[2] Most notably, it prompted a related cover-story in Time Magazine.[3] Battle lines are being drawn. Many Christians are sounding the trumpet of victory for "our side". Meanwhile atheistic scientists like Stephen Jay Gould are proclaiming that science has entered a fantasy land which is no longer in the "real world."[4] Is the Kansas Board of Education's decision a "victory" for the Body of Christ? Is it a defeat for science? Our goal at Reasons To Believe is to cut through the propaganda on both sides of this issue and to promote a position that is biblically and scientifically responsible. This approach yields an alternative view that supports both a high view of Scripture and a respect for the science, potentially bringing peace to both sides.

This recent stir represents a new battle in an old, and on-going, culture war.[5] The controversy over evolution being taught in the public school has raged for almost a hundred years. A pivotal event fueling this debate is the infamous 1925 Scopes "Monkey" Trial. High school teacher John Scopes was prosecuted for violating Tennessee's Butler bill: "It shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the universities, normals, and all other public schools of the State...to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.[6]" This trial was the first American courtroom drama to be nationally broadcast on radio. The press hyped it as the "trial of the century." Listeners sat riveted as Scopes' lawyer, Clarence Darrow, turned the tables on the prosecution and put the Bible in the dock instead. An outspoken agnostic, Darrow painted a picture that made "open-minded" Modernists like Scopes appear to be the protectors of public education against Fundamentalist bigotry.[7] Darrow capitalized on the Fundamentalists' suspicion of science by challenging prosecuting attorney, William Jennings Bryan, to take the witness stand and testify in defense of the Bible. A three-time presidential candidate and a well-known evangelical leader, Bryan made his living traveling the country ridiculing the speculations of Darwinism and promoting the fight of Fundamentalism. He seemed the ideal witness for the prosecution. But Darrow's cross-examination of Bryan on his beliefs about the scientific and historic reliability of the Bible was relentless. Unfortunately, in his zeal to protect the Word of God against this atheist's attack, Bryan offered grossly unsophisticated answers that virtually capsized 1900 years of Christian scholarship.

In the end, the jury found Scopes guilty of violating the Tennessee statute and fined him $100. But this "victory" for evangelicals was no victory at all. Bryan failed to convince the American public that the Fundamentalist view was factually viable. Instead, the trial revealed the emergence of two competing arenas for determining "truth," one "biblical" and the other "scientific." Bryan's testimony solidified Fundamentalist suspicions about science derived from the "secular" university. On the flip side, it confirmed atheists' suspicions about Christians' ignorance and intolerance. Such conclusions led to the lasting, popular impression that "faith" and "reason" are totally separate, perhaps mutually exclusive, spheres of knowledge.

The Scopes trial separated society into two distinct groups - public knowledge and private faith. Secular scientists successfully ousted such "backward" thinking from the public sphere and entrenched their position as the "accepted" view. The fundamentalist exodus from the universities, already in progress, intensified. Christian leaders discouraged young people from entering "secular" fields like science, law and philosophy. Bible colleges sprang up to provide a protective fortress from Modernism and to prepare young people for "spiritual" pursuits in full-time ministry. The Scopes trial marked a strong defeat for evangelical Christians engaged in a culture war that continues to this day.

Cut to Kansas' Board of Education, 1999. History may be in the process of repeating itself. Five young-earth creationists now hold seats on the Kansas BOE. Board chair Linda Holloway told the Associated Press that the main force behind this revision is Steve Abrams, a veterinarian from Arkansas City and a former Republican state chair. Abrams enlisted an unnamed "fundamentalist group" to draft an alternate set of standards which he then presented to the board. According to Holloway, the final version represents a "compromise" which "shows a respect for diversity of opinion and...expands the learning opportunity of the children of Kansas rather than narrowing it."[8] Unsubstantiated reports from people close to the BOE suggest that the board came under tremendous pressure to adopt Darwinian evolution as the "unifying concept" for biology. The board's goal was to pass standards that could be agreed upon by all. Thus, they voted for a position of "no position" on the matter of origins in order to defer the matter to the local school districts. Contrary to some news reports, however, the standards no where promote creationism, Christianity, God or the Bible. Even so, the wording of the document is not totally neutral. Some young-earth creationists[9] appear to have had a strong hand in crafting it. And while some Christian leaders are applauding the moral courage of board members,[10] the long-term effects of this decision could result in harm to the cause of Christ.

The standards attempt to open the door for wider public acceptance of creation. Instead of ridiculing children for holding to a 24-hour, 6 day creation framework, teachers are exhorted to be tolerant of diverse viewpoints.

"A teacher is an important role model for demonstrating respect and civility, and teachers should not ridicule, belittle or embarrass a student for expressing an alternative view or belief. In doing this, teachers display and demand tolerance and respect for the diverse ideas, skills, and experiences of all students. No evidence or analysis of evidence that contradicts a current science theory should be censored."[11]

It is unclear, however, whether certain "silenced" viewpoints fall under this broad-minded umbrella as well. Since the standards exclude any information about macroevolution, would the BOE take disciplinary action against a teacher like John Scopes? Would his principal be required to place a note in his permanent file because he taught students about neo-Darwinism? What if a science teacher instructed students about the big bang as a model that points to a Divine Designer? Could this Christian brother be written up by his superior for promoting a forbidden origins model? While the standards allow for a certain degree of academic freedom, it is unknown how far such freedom reaches. It seems possible that such ambiguities in the curriculum could foster a hostile environment, even for Christian science teachers.

This broad-minded, tolerant language could also lead to another problem. If a child believes that the speed of light varies because he has an alternate explanation, is the teacher not allowed to correct him? How are teachers supposed to grade students' essays about the effects of thermodynamics if one student doesn't believe in the constancy of thermodynamics? Surely the writers do not mean to imply that science is based on subjective rather then objective principles. Yet this implication could arise from the ambiguous wording of the guidelines.

Like their fundamentalist forefathers, many leaders in the young-earth community remain suspicious of science done in the secular university. [12] They are largely detached from the academic setting where their model could be more widely researched, tested and verified. The long-term result of this posture in the mind of the public is a confirmation of the myth that the Christian position cannot be intellectually respected because it is based neither on sound scholarship nor on responsible science. These facts become clear as one examines the strategic insertions and deletions from the Kansas science standards.

Ironically, members on both sides of the debate do agree about one thing: big bang cosmology puts their position in jeopardy. The big bang poses a problem for young-earth creationists because it makes the universe billions of years old rather than thousands. Such an assertion undercuts their system at its foundation. Big bang cosmology also presents a problem for atheistic scientists because it points directly to the existence of a transcendent Creator - a fact they dare not concede. We notice that the media has lightly covered the deletion of the big bang cosmology from the standards. Both sides involved in the dispute may be breathing a sigh of relief that it is gone.

By removing big bang cosmology from the Kansas curriculum, however, Christians have lost one of their most potent weapons to argue for the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, transcendent Creator. Classical Christian theology describes the creation as coming into existence ex nihilo, out of nothing. From a scientific standpoint, general relativity and big bang cosmology state that all matter, energy, and space-time dimensions came from a singularity.[13] In other words, out of nothing came all of the matter, energy, and space-time dimensions that we have today. The resemblance between the big bang model and the Bible's account of creation ex nihilo is so striking that for decades it has sent atheistic scientists in search of alternative origins models.

Big bang cosmology does not stand in isolation, however. Its deletion triggers ripple-effects in other sciences as well. The discipline of astronomy takes a particularly hard hit. While students are encouraged to do observational astronomy, such as look at planets in our solar system through a telescope,[14] and be given general information about the existence of comets and planets, they receive no instruction about such "controversial" facts as the burning rate of stars or the formation of planets. In fact, specific instruction about bodies outside our own solar system is glaringly absent.[15] [16] Because stellar burning requires billions of years instead of thousands, one cannot help but wonder whether this omission represents a deliberate attempt by the young-earth community to prevent students from having access to any information that counters their position.

The geology curriculum also contains thinly-veiled promotions of young-earth ideology. In Standard 4 for grades 9-12, students are supposed to learn about the "history of the earth." Teachers are guided to instruct in the following manner: "Investigate how rocks and fossils are dated. Identify assumptions used in radioactive decay methods of dating. Compare and evaluate data obtained on ages from such places as Mount St. Helens and the meteorite named Allende."[17] These examples have been put forth by the young-earth community to illustrate how radical geological changes can occur rapidly. Young-earth creationists imply that only catastrophic geological changes have shaped the earth. Such catastrophes supposedly allow for the possibility of the earth being only thousands of years old instead of billions. Of course, without big bang cosmology and the physics of star-burning and planet formation, little is left in the standards to give students the tools to evaluate this hypothesis.

The Kansas standards assert this confusing position: "Students should develop an understanding of the universe. The origin of the universe remains one of the greatest questions in science. Studies of data regarding fossils, geologic tables, cosmological information are encouraged. But standards regarding origins are not mandated."[18] How can students develop an understanding of the universe if they only study the solar system and are not instructed about the origins of planets and stars? How can students arrive at knowledge about the origin of the universe if they do not study about big bang cosmology, a well-supported scientific model? If no specific standards about the subject of origins are mandated, then what guidelines should teachers use to instruct their students about it? Once again, we are confronted with the ambiguity that riddles this document. On the one hand, the standards do not mandate which origins model should be taught in Kansas public schools. On the other hand, however, the educational standards in no way restrict instruction about big bang cosmology, or Darwinian evolution. For this reason, individual teachers are free to step beyond the bounds of the standards and supplement their curriculum with units promoting either Darwinian evolution or big bang cosmology. At this point, the curriculum is at the mercy of the personal worldview held by the teacher.

The standards also promote an overly simplistic approach to such complex subjects as speciation. While the writers have deleted all references to the controversial subject of neo-Darwinism (macroevolution)[19] evolution, many questions remain. Standard 3, Benchmark 5, tells 8th graders to "observe the diversity of living things and relate their adaptations to their survival or extinction," (microevolution) [20] [21], but we see no guidelines for discussing the big questions of macroevolution: Does speciation precede or follow adaptation to local ecological conditions? Is speciation a by-product of genetic divergence among populations or does it occur directly by natural selection through lower fitness of hybrids? How quickly does speciation occur? What evidence is necessary to show that a speciation event has taken place? None of these questions can be resolved given the vague parameters set forth in the Kansas standards. The writers give little attention to the conflict among biologists as to the definition of the term "species" itself.[22] Some biologists now deny that "species" are real entities. The Kansas Educational Standards, however, simply use the term without much explanation. This kind of broad-brushed approach leaves teachers ill-equipped to prepare their students to handle the challenge of college science.

The Kansas BOE decision seems a mixed bag. While the Board may have at least temporarily blocked efforts to adopt Darwinian evolution as the "unifying concept" in biology, the document's ambiguity and deletion of big bang cosmology are issues of concern. So, while students may not be learning about Darwinian evolution, they may not be receiving an adequate science education either. The Kansas BOE decision actually represents a victory for science illiteracy. One also wonders how this decision will affect the state's educational system over the long haul. Will the state BOE eventually develop curriculum and standardized tests based on these standards? If so, how will the board flesh out the vague parameters set forth in the standards? Will there be any repercussions for Kansas-educated students when they apply for college? Critics are already suggesting that students who take high school biology in Kansas should be excluded from admittance to science programs at top universities.[23] The Kansas educational standards may also foster an environment of fear among Christian science teachers who want to instruct students about big bang cosmology, yet fear disciplinary action by their superiors. The safe road for these teachers will be to stick to the mandates and not venture into untested territory. Rather than equipping teachers to show their students about how to investigate controversial questions regarding origins, the Kansas curriculum standards actually create an academic environment that makes the responsible study of science unsafe for people of faith. Sadly, the long-term effects of this decision will most likely only perpetuate the myth that Christians are not concerned with "facts" but prefer to cling to "blind" irrational faith.

In actuality, however, the opposite ought to be the case. Christians, above all people, should concern themselves with compiling an accurate and coherent view of reality. When rightly discerned, our understanding of the physical world stands in perfect harmony with the Word of God. We concur whole-heartedly with scientists who write in Nature, "If more children were taught science as a means of interrogating nature, rather than as a toolbox of rules, the `debate' between creationism and Darwinism would come to be seen in a clearer light."[24] Exactly! Let the research commence. Let all theories for origins be tested out in the open for all to see. Which model best explains reality? Which model best predicts future scientific discoveries? Our main point of disagreement with the Nature article is with its prediction of what the outcome of such research will be. Instead of believing that the evidence for Darwinism will continue to mount, we believe it will decline and that the evidence will continue to mount for divine design. Since the Bible is true, science will eventually mirror our position.

One of the foundational premises on which good science rests is that its results must be publicly verifiable. In other words, if scientists with conflicting worldviews perform the same experiment they should derive the same results. This prevents one's worldview from manipulating the science. Of course, the scientist's worldview may influence the kinds of experiments he chooses to perform or his interpretation of the significance of the conclusion. This approach does not in any way deny the far-reaching effects of sin in the thinking of the unbeliever, however. Atheist scientists may, for example, resist a certain interpretation of certain facts that point to a Divine Designer. Or they may resist belief in the Christian God due to other reasons, such as a philosophical objection like the "problem of evil," or because of emotional obstacles, such as trauma as a child. We do not deny that the unbeliever's sinful mind is capable of going to great lengths to resist an admission of guilt before a holy God. Nor do we deny that a Christian's mind is capable of going to great lengths to resist admitting a faulty interpretation of Scripture or of nature's record. But in the scientific realm, the experiment itself and the data rendered ought to be the same no matter who performs the experiment or what their worldview may be.

The point is that since the Christian worldview is correct, we have nothing to fear from the facts of science. In fact, scientific discoveries will confirm the truth and, in turn, be in harmony with the reality put forth in the Bible. This is why good science must involve the unbelieving community. Scientific models must be studied out in the open, in an environment that can predict, test, and verify the results. It is not enough for Christian scientists to do science among themselves, read each other's papers, and confirm one another's conclusions. Such a methodology belongs neither to good science scholarship nor to effective evangelism. As my grandfather used to say, "When churches want converts, they don't preach to the choir."

Christians cannot afford to allow history to repeat itself. The Fundamentalist retreat from the university and culture in the wake of the Scopes trial only resulted in Christian ideas being further marginalized. For this reason we find ourselves still embattled in the same culture war 75 years later. Moreover, we must go beyond "evolution-busting" and challenging the atheist's worldview assumptions - although these scholarly endeavors are important and must be accomplished. At the same time, we need a scientifically responsible model to stand in the old one's place. The challenge before us is to make a concerted and positive effort to put forth an origins model that can be rigorously and openly researched and tested. Only then will Christians have the opportunity to demonstrate that the God behind the Bible is also the God behind the facts of nature.

To learn more about the history behind this cultural debate, consult:

1. Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).
2. George Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1991)
3. George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1991).

To learn more about the testable creation model currently being developed by Reasons To Believe, visit our web site at www.reasons.org. Also consult:

1. Hugh Ross, The Genesis Question (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1998).

[1] Kansas Curriculum Standards for Science Education, final version adopted August 11, 1999. This document was available for public viewing at www.ksbe.state.ks.us/outcomes/science81199.html, but unfortunately has been temporarily removed due to legal problems. Here's another link to the document.
[2] Constance Holden, "Kansas Dumps Darwin, Raises Alarm Across the United States," Science, v. 285 (1999), pp. 1186-1187; "The Difference Between Science and Dogma: Scientists and science teachers can draw useful lessons from the Kansas Board of Education's efforts to expel Charles Darwin from the state's schools," Nature, v. 400, n. 6746 (1999), p. 697; S. Carpenter, "Kansas Cuts Evolution From Curriculum," Science News, v. 156 (1999), p. 117; Rex Dalton, "Kansas Kicks Evolution Out of the Classroom," Nature, v. 400 (1999), p. 701.
[3] Michael D. Lemonick and Andrea Dorfman, "Up From the Apes: Remarkable New Evidence is Filling in the Story of How we Became Human," Time, v. 154, n. 8 (1999), pp. 50-58.
[4] Stephen Jay Gould, "Dorothy, It's Really Oz: A pro-creationist decision in Kansas is more than a blow to Darwin," Time, v. 154, n. 8 (1999), pp. 59.
[5] For a thoughtful discussion about the Scopes Trial and its role in the debate over science and religion see: Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).
[6] 1925 Tennessee House Bill 185.
[7] For more about the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy, see: George Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1991); George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1991).
[8] Constance Holden, "Kansas Dumps Darwin, Raises Alarm Across the United States," Science, v. 285 (1999), pp. 1186-1187.
[9] Not all "young-earth creationists" approach this topic in the same way. For a responsible discussion of the young-earth position, its strengths and weaknesses, consult: John Mark Reynolds, "Young Earth Creationism," Three Views on Creation and Evolution, J.P. Moreland, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998).
[10] News Release - August 20, 1999: Kansas Science Education Standards, (Escondido, CA: Institute for Creation Research, 1999), p. 1. Available for public viewing at www.icr.org/news/update.htm.
[11] Kansas Curriculum Standards for Science Education, "Nature of Science," under the sub-heading "Teaching with Tolerance and Respect."
[12] For a summary explanation about the historic connection between Fundamentalism and young-earth creationism, see: Ronald L. Numbers, "Creating Creationism: Meanings and Usage Since the Age of Agassiz, Part 1" Facts & Faith, v. 9, n. 4 (1995), pp. 8-9; Ronald L. Numbers, "Creating Creationism: Meanings and Usage Since the Age of Agassiz, Part 2" Facts & Faith, v. 10, n. 1 (1996), pp. 8-9; Ronald L. Numbers, "Creating Creationism: Meanings and Usage Since the Age of Agassiz, Part 3" Facts & Faith, v. 10, n. 2 (1996), pp. 12-13;. This paper is available for public viewing at www.reasons.org/resources/apologetics.
[13] Big bang cosmology states that there is an ultimate beginning to all the matter, energy, and space-time dimensions of the universe, that the cause of the universe brings it into existence independently of matter, energy, and all the space-time dimensions along which matter and energy are distributed.
[14] Kansas Curriculum Standards for Science Education, Grade 8, Standard 3, Benchmark 4.
[15] Ibid, Grade 8, Standard 3, Benchmark 4.
[16] Ibid, Grades 9-12, Standard 4, Benchmark 4.
[17] Ibid, Grades 9-12, Standard 4, Benchmark 3.
[18] Kansas Curriculum Standards for Science Education, Grades 9-12, Standard 4, Benchmark 4.
[19] Macroevolution (or "neo-Darwinian evolution") involves the radical mutation of one "basic type" of animal called "reptiles" eventually turning into a different "basic type" called "birds."
[20] Kansas Curriculum Standards for Science Education, Grade 8, Standard 3, Benchmark 5.
[21] Ibid, Grade 8, Standard 3, Benchmark 5.
[22] For a good summary of the main viewpoints, visit the Talk Origins web site. www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-speciation.html.
[23] Herbert Lin, "Kansas Evolution Ruling," Science, v. 285 (1999), p. 1849.
[24] "The Difference Between Science and Dogma: Scientists and science teachers can draw useful lessons from the Kansas Board of Education's efforts to expel Charles Darwin from the state's schools," Nature, v. 400, n. 6746 (1999), p. 697.

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