Should Biology Textbooks Include “Biblical Myth” Language?

April 12, 2010

Last week, we learned that a father in Tennessee is fighting to ban a high school biology textbook describing creationism as “the biblical myth that the universe was created by the Judeo-Christian God in 7 days.” Kurt Zimmermann charges that the book, "Asking About Life" is biased against Christianity because use of the word “myth” could “mislead, belittle and discourage students in believing in creationism and pointedly calls the Bible a myth.” Zimmerman recommends instead that “non-biased textbooks" be used. You can watch the (soft-ball) interview Zimmerman did with FOX News here.

Zimmerman seemingly has support from some on the six-member book reviewing committee who deemed certain material "questionable "; but that committee also concluded, using a different interpretation of the word "myth," that the book was "appropriate." Moreover, the local school board has tabled the issue for now, and it seems unlikely there will be changes. I am admittedly not an evolutionary biologist, but before dismissing the case out of hand, and/or reacting with the oft-heard "religious fundamentalists are at it again" — as many of my secularist friends have — let us weigh the issue against the backdrop of church-state separation in the U.S. Consider the following material from P.Z. Myers, which represents a commonly heard secularist response to these types of stories:

"[The statement is] not misleading at all, it doesn’t belittle students except in the sense that students who believe something that is wrong will be faced with a direct statement that they are wrong, and I should hope schools would discourage people from believing in stupid and fallacious mush!"

Myers and I would likely agree that schools should teach our children how to think critically, and about what we know — regardless of how that plays out for their beliefs. However, our government — and thus our public schooling system — is supposed to remain neutral on matters of religion. Federal and state governments cannot aid one religion, aid all religions, prefer one religion over another, or prefer non-religion to religion. This means that while I agree with Myers that the Biblical creation story is a "myth," the public school classroom doesn’t seem to be the place where our message should be pushed. More specifically, the purpose of biology class is not to reject religious ideas; it is to inform students about biology*. There is no scientific reason for the textbook to discuss Christianity or label its creation story a "myth"; it has nothing to do with teaching the theory of evolution or biology generally. And While Zimmerman overstates his case to some degree — the passage does not refer to the entire Bible as a "myth"– directly rejecting specific stories in The Bible still shows preference.

Myers continues to write that this biology textbook "doesn’t go as far as I’d like … It would be nice if we did have a high school biology book that called all of Christianity and Judaism a collection of myths, but we don’t. Yet." But I hope we never have a high school biology textbook that refers to our religious stories as myths. Science classrooms should teach science. Biology class should, at least on evolution, cover the work of Charles Darwin and other early scientists theorizing about evolution; it should tackle the meaning of the word "theory" in science; it should discuss the enormous advances in evolutionary biology since Darwin’s time; it should talk about the multiple lines of evidence supporting the theory of evolution; and much, much more. By the end, there should be no doubt that evolution is as close to a fact as we have. Talk about discouraging students from believing in creationism…

Will this science-only approach negatively impact the quality of public school education? Myers seems to think so.

"You see, the only level of education we’re allowed to raise children to is the Kurt Zimmerman level…which is a little scary. I was kind of hoping that sending my kids off to school would produce progeny who are smarter than me , and now I learn that they’re only supposed to produce kids who are dumber than Kurt Zimmerman? How dismaying."

Why is it that our biology classes — or even public schools generally — must reject religious beliefs to really educate children? I think we will find that, even if decided that our children would be better off hearing critique of their parents’ religious beliefs, this question is irrelevant, as according to our laws we cannot do such a thing, nor do I think it is appropriate as evidenced here. In turn, the answer seems to be that we should ensure our high school science teachers are instructing students on how to think like a scientist, and imparting to students the body of knowledge scientists have accrued (and that all of our teachers generally are doing similar in their respective fields). From there, the children take that knowledge as they will. At the same time, Richard Dawkins and other writers who have done a fabolous job popularizing scientific knowledge should continue to do what they do so that hopefully we can collectively accomplish the social and political change we need.

*It is important to note that creationism and related ideas like intelligent design do belong to the field of religion, not science; they are theology and philosophy ( bad theology and philosophy, but that’s another matter). Hence, science cannot reject them in full — for how does the scientist answer the claim that God made it look like there’s been evolution, and that we are merely natural products, to test our faith? Or that God has been the hand behind the process of evolution? A scientist must here put on the philosopher’s cap to continue.

Postscript: there have been some misunderstandings about my essay. This is a short attempt to clear them up.

1. “Context matters.” I agree. Someone has been good enough to find the entire textbook passage. Here it is:

“In the 1970s and 1980s, antievolutionists in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana passed identical bills calling for ‘equal time’ for teaching evolution and creationism, the biblical myth that the universe was created by the Judeo-Christian god in six days. But a court ruled that the ‘equal-time’ bill was unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the separation of church and state.”

I don’t know how much the context proves my argument wrong. The textbook still refers to the Biblical creation story as a “myth.” Which brings us to …

2. “The word ‘myth’ has different meanings.” It is true that the word “myth,” by reference to dictionary , does not necessarily imply falsity. However, I would argue that in everyday use, the word “myth” does indeed do that. I rarely hear the word “myth” used without it referring to a false story (usually from ancient thinking). In fact, if the textbook instead said “biblical account,” I wouldn’t have written this post (nor would we likely ever have heard of Kurt Zimmerman). But use of the word “myth” here seems to imply creationism is false. Now, I obviously think it is — but remember my post held the case against the backdrop of church-state separa

3. “You are defending creationism.” My endnote apparently got people thinking I was defending creationism, specifically on the grounds that science cannot fully refute it. The first thing to note here is that my post was specifically about the denial of creationism in the high school biology classroom . But to the point, I wrote that science is a tool with its limits, and that creationist arguments are fully responded to by reference to science (say, the age of Earth and universe) and philosophy (say, the nature of God). That science cannot fully answer every human argument is not a knock on science — it’s an admission of its purview and of the need to realize nuance where it exists — nor is it a defense of creationism. Now, I am admittedly not a philosopher of science, so I could be wrong about this distinction between science and philosophy (though I have reason to think otherwise ; also see the talk "Atheism, Science and Politics" ). But even if I’m wrong, that doesn’t mean I’m defending creationism.

4. “But creationists exist; the controversy must be covered.” The fact that the social controversy over creationism and evolution exists does not mean the biology textbooks should take up the debate. It might be meant for public schools generally — in, for instance, a philosophy (or sociology) course — but that’s a different conversation. Even if biology courses were going to teach background on the theory, as I would admit they probably should to some minor extent, then textbooks obviously have to acknowledge the existence of dissent. But I don’t see a church-state issue with merely mentioning that religion exists. Denying religious ideas is the step that puts us in a bind.

5. “Teaching facts is the same thing as denying falsities.” Some have argued that teaching the Earth is 4.5 billion years old is the same as denying the Earth is 6,000 years old. But one clearly imparts scientific knowledge; the other clearly denies a religious idea. One is constitutional; the other is not. Scientific knowledge makes many ideas seem crazy, but there is no reason for a high school biology teacher to actually go into denying all of them, specifically the religious ones. In fact, this approach is probably the only way to keep our public school biology classes in line with government neutrality on religion. The courts simply will not rule that biology classes are unconstitutional because they teach children about biology, no matter the implications of gained knowledge; but they will rule it unconstitutional if biology teachers or texts specifically criticize religious ideas in the biology classroom. This should be fine, too, as we do not need to deny religious ideas to teach our children about biology.

6. “Denying creationism is the same thing as denying 2+2=5.” I can’t imagine teachers have had to seriously entertain this argument, but suffice to say that the belief 2+2=5 is not a religious belief. Others have posited the geocentric argument. But again, geocentrism was not a specifically religious idea — in fact, it originated with Aristotle and the ancient Greeks.