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In Theory: Electing to bypass natural selection

A Missouri lawmaker, Rep. Rick Brattin (R-Harrisonville), contends that public school children in his state who question Darwinian theory are ridiculed. He introduced a bill into the state’s General Assembly that would allow parents to opt their children out of evolution teaching.

“What my bill would do is it would allow parents to opt out of natural selection teaching,” Brattin told a Missouri TV channel, KCTV. “It would not prohibit the child from going through biology from learning about cell structure, DNA and the building blocks of life.”

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Q: Tell us your thoughts about Brattin’s proposal.

   

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At least Brattin’s bill wouldn’t cut out all of science education. But giving parents the chance to have their kids not be taught the theory of evolution is in general a bad idea. It is a theory, after all; it’s a pretty good theory, as far as I’m concerned, but it is a theory. Couldn’t the parents emphasize to their kids that a theory is not a fact? I mean, if the kids are ridiculed now, won’t they be even more laughed at if they get to go to the non-Darwinian room or some such during that aspect of science class?

And something else: How come parents get to decide what gets taught? In the interest of full disclosure, I am a former teacher, and I can’t remember any parent of any student of mine being angry with me because of some concept I raised in class. But in America, don’t we believe in “new and improved”? Shouldn’t your child’s education be better than what you had, or at least as good?

I am aware that Socrates in ancient Greece was thought of as a threat, and he did drink the hemlock that killed him. So there has always been this tension between town and gown, between the pointed heads and the pencil heads. But it’s dangerous when those on the outside think they know better than those on the inside.

Don’t get me wrong: there should always be a conversation between the parents and the teachers, and having know-it-alls on either side is not good. But I’m inclined to say, “Let the teacher teach.” After all, he or she was drawn into that profession, and not many of them go into teaching for the money.

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I’ll close with this story, which I remember from Mr. Sheets, my ninth-grade home room teacher back in Indiana: A teacher contacts a boy’s parents, and says that little Johnny has been smarting off to him. The boy’s father comes to school to find out what’s wrong, and the teacher shows him what’s wrong by asking little Johnny a question: “Johnny, who wrote the Declaration of Independence?” Johnny says, “I don’t know, and furthermore, I don’t care!” The teacher, looking at the father, says, “See?” The father pulls his little boy to the side and says to him in a very stern tone, “Listen, son, if you wrote that thing, you tell him you did!”

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge

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I believe that Brattin’s proposal is a reasonable solution to the tension created by schools that choose to teach as fact theoretical content that contradicts students’ and their families’ deeply held religious convictions. This controversial topic should be treated the same way sex education is in many schools, with the option for students to opt out of what is morally objectionable to them or their families.

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Lest anyone think it’s unreasonable for families to balk at the teaching of evolution, notice that for the most part there’s no outcry by people of faith against the way math, or chemistry or physics or most other subjects are taught. People who reject the theory of evolution aren’t stupid or irrational. It’s actually quite reasonable to object to the notion that an unproven theory is being taught to children as an inviolable fact.

Given the Bible’s proven track record as an unparalleled guide to civil law and morality and personal relationships and faith it’s reasonable to object when a textbook directly contradicts its account of the origin of life. One hundred, 200 or more years from now when current textbooks have become laughably outdated the Bible will still be giving people hope and encouragement and wisdom as it always has. The ultimate goal of education should be more than just the impartation of knowledge. It should equip the student to be wise. And “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10).

Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church
Burbank

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It was the American author known for her novels for teenagers and young adults, Madeleine L’Engle, who said, “I take the Bible too seriously to take it all literally.” There is everything right with children being taught the narrative of intelligent design, and learning to let it live in tension with Darwinian notions of evolution. People of faith believe that God works with and through creation to achieve God’s ultimate purpose. We can never have too many stories of how God works because therein we have a glimpse into the incomprehensible infinity of God.

Recently in a Sunday Little White Chapel Bible study, we explored the word “merism.” Webster defines merism as a figure of speech by which something is referred to by a conventional phrase that enumerates several of its constituents or traits. In other words, we get a glimpse, or a better understanding of the fullness of something by enumerating some of its most striking attributes. For instance, “swallowing the story hook, line, and sinker,” means a gullible person bought the whole incredible tale; a naive person had their defenses down and was easily fooled.

Building on the idea of merism, the Biblical creation stories in no way describe all that God is, but they are marvelous insights into the power, creativity and compassion of God for God’s beloved creation. Besides, all ministers, and really good educators, love narrative that is relevant to her or his subject matter. Living in tension. How passionately, artistically, and metaphorically the beginning of Genesis encapsulates the power and optimism of ongoing creation, and gives humans an important position in ongoing creation.

The Rev. Dr. William Thomas Jr.
Little White Chapel
Burbank

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These seeming conflicts between science and religion are, in reality, conflicts between scientists and religion.

As mortals we perceive existence, as Paul put it, “through a glass darkly.” Our knowledge of life and the universe is limited. This is true even of scientists. They have learned a great deal but have yet to complete the puzzle.

For example, they can’t demonstrate exactly how inanimate matter can transform itself into life nor explain, precisely, how it might have happened in the past. And if they can’t do this, they can’t logically dismiss the notion that the development of life is the work of a greater being.

My personal view is that we should gladly take what science has to offer with the understanding that, if we could see as God does, there would be no contradictions. For this reason, I never wanted to remove my children from classes that taught evolutionary biology. The subject is, in fact, studied at the undergraduate, masters and doctoral levels at Brigham Young University.

Personally, I believe the question of opting out of classes on religious grounds should be left to local school boards. To those who object to an opt out, I would point out that providing this choice is consistent with current legal and policy trends of making allowances for individual differences.

Although the LDS church teaches that we were created in the image of God, we don’t believe that the scriptures are a detailed blueprint for the creation. What the scriptures do teach is the way back to the presence of God.

The late LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley is quoted as saying as much in the book “Where Darwin Meets the Bible: Creationists and Evolutionists in America.” The church, he said, requires a belief that Adam was the first human. Beyond that, he said, scientists are free to speculate.

Michael White
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
La Crescenta

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If AB 1472 passes in Missouri, I think that the unfortunate children whose parents opt them out of instruction will be the target of as much or more ridicule from their peers than they are currently experiencing for questioning the thoroughly proven theory of evolution.

I picture the opted-out moving in and out of biology classrooms frequently. The notion that students can learn about “cell structure, DNA and the building blocks of life " or much of anything else in modern biology, without hearing any reference to evolution or natural selection, basic content throughout the life sciences, is far-fetched.

That an elected official makes this claim just goes to demonstrate how embarrassingly lacking U.S. education in science is compared to that of other developed countries.

These folks who refuse to hear information which challenges their beliefs, and who won’t let their children be exposed to scientific knowledge, don’t seem to have much faith in their convictions if they fear they will be so easily shaken.

Roberta Medford
Atheist
Montrose

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I agree that the school system aggressively indoctrinates children of faith with the “law” of evolution rather than its “theory.” It is a theory, a possibility among others, yet it’s the savior of atheists and adamantly secular public education. If there’s no God, then something has to explain us, and given nothing better than, “elements and electricity combined to form life,” you get what you get.

When one rejects the biblical explanation of an intelligent designer creating the complexities of the universe, you’re left with mythical tales of salamanders crawling on land to become cows, and cows returning to sea to become whales. And then there’s us, ape-flukes. Please! Nothing can be currently observed in this theory, and sans that prerequisite of scientific method, it remains forever theory. But oh how it is adamantly foisted upon the young and impressionable! “How can you be so ignorant?” the teacher chides the Christian student who reasonably objects. “Don’t you know that information-less goo evolved upward into intelligent structures like cells and DNA?!”

We believe that an omniscient God put that information there so that every species could “reproduce after its own kind” (Genesis 1) and I think that more comports with observable reality. Government teachers should not proselytize our kids with Darwinian religion.

Teach evolutionary theory, if you must, but do so with neutrality. The law under question bothers me somewhat because it too presumes that biology is unteachable without evolution. Kids need to know about biology and the building blocks of life; what they don’t need is politically correct and godless interpretations regarding them. So, why not simply provide teachers with sensitivity training, acknowledge the “theory-ness” of evolution, and we’ll all get along just fine without the need for an opt-out law.

The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church
Montrose

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The law proposed by Missouri state representative Rick Brattin is not an appropriate way to handle differences regarding the validity of the theory of evolution. Allowing students to opt out of exposure to a scientific theory they disagree with does not help them learn either science or how to cope when they are at odds with the opinions of others.

Creationism and intelligent design should not be taught as alternatives to evolution, because neither one meets the criteria as a scientific theory. Instead, it would be more helpful for all students, regardless of their acceptance of evolution, if the theory were taught with true scientific objectivity.

Currently, evolution frequently is taught as though it is an established fact, rather than a useful theory that still has many major problems. For example, there is no agreement among evolutionary scientists if macro-evolution (transformation of one species into another) is solely the end product of micro-evolutionary processes (processes known to cause variation within species), or if some other set of processes that cause higher-level trends and patterns are also at work. Such processes could include large-scale changes in geology and environment over time.

Approaching the study of evolution presented in this way would allow students to see the strengths and the current problems with the theory. Science is not so much a set of established facts as it is a disciplined way of studying the physical world in which the “field of unknowing” is constantly shifting.

With the continuing explosion of knowledge in all fields, much of what students learn today will be obsolete by the time they reach middle age. I think we best prepare students for the future by teaching them how to think, not what to think.

Pastor Ché Ahn
HRock Church
Pasadena

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1. Children don’t have to choose. They can learn about evolution, and also believe that God is the mysterious force of life, at work within evolution. If God is the ground and soul and essence of all that lives, who cares how many natural processes, theories and discoveries we pile on top of that?

2. God is infinite and ineffable; way big enough to entertain multiple human points of view — none of which, after all, will ever define God accurately. Your kids can go to any class they want and God won’t melt.

3. Jesus never opted out when the Pharisees were speaking; he loved a good debate, respected those who disagreed with him, and went to their house for dinner. What would Jesus do, Missouri?

4. Christianity is countercultural by definition. It thinks differently from the secular world on many points — the nature of time, the definition of reality, the meaning of death, the pervasiveness of sin, and the existence of evil as a manifesting force, to name just a few. You cannot be a Christian and protect your child from having a different perspective from other people — nor should you want to. Thinking on a different plane is what we do.

5. Let’s face it, those kids would still be ridiculed, and probably more so, for opting out of science class because of religion. That permission slip might as well be a target painted on their back.

6. And finally: Avoidance is not a good way to teach values. Parenting is. Spend less time complaining about school, and more time looking to your own house.

The Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George’s Episcopal Church
La Cañada Flintridge

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How sad it is for students in Missouri that there are still those who want to present what is essentially a religious belief as though it were science. People in our country certainly have the prerogative to believe and teach what they wish about creation in their churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious institutions. But religious people do not have the right to present their creation story as science in our public schools. And because our young people live in a world where evolution is discussed in books, other print media, speeches and many other forms, I believe they need to know what it is. Keeping them ignorant about evolution is a poor way to prepare them for life in the real world.

Virtually all major religious traditions have some form of creation myth as a part of their core belief systems. And myths include powerful stories that have helped many understand life’s mysteries since the earliest history of humankind. The scholarship of Joseph Campbell has been instrumental in helping us to appreciate the value of myth from ancient to modern times. In his book “The Power of Myth” he writes: “Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth — penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words.”

So I say, let’s not try to make our religious beliefs, whatever they may be, into something they are not. There is a reason we say that religion is based on faith. Parents should be encouraged to share their beliefs with their children. But those beliefs have no place in an educational system that is supposed to be teaching the principles of science through observation to young people coming from a diversity of faiths or none.

The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
La Crescenta


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