Allaying Parental Fears About Evolution Education in Public Schools
Note: Over the next two or so weeks, students across the country will begin another academic year. Nearly all of them will receive some kind of science education, and many will experience tension between some of what they have been taught about God's creation in church or at home, and what they are likely to find in science textbooks and hear from their instructors. How should that tension be addressed? How might it be resolved? Beginning today with a personal story from doctor and educator David Vinson, we'll be publishing essays that tackle those questions from several perspectives and approaches, and as they apply in multiple educational settings from public middle-schools to private Christian colleges.
It was early spring and the weeds on the church grounds were taking full advantage of the moist soil and the warm sunlight. To keep the weeds at bay, a group of us had signed up for weed-duty and this happened to be our month in the rotation. There I was, down on my knees, grubbing around in the soil, careful to discriminate between the unwelcome intruders which we were trying to remove and the finely appointed plants which we were trying to preserve.
Jennifer, one of the church moms and a new friend, was on the beautification crew with me and my wife that day. Working side-by-side for a few hours provided us ample opportunity for conversation. She confided in me that she and her husband Michael were struggling with how best to respond to their children’s public school’s presentation of evolution. Years back these parents had had their own faith birthed and developed in a Christian tradition that sought to be faithful to Scripture, especially in those areas where biblical teaching seemed to run directly counter to popular American culture. Among their church’s counter-cultural distinctives was an affirmation of divine creation that stood in opposition to evolutionary science. The reasoning was simple and rested on two fundamentals: (1) The Bible taught that each kind of plant and animal was specially designed, and was independently brought into being directly by God himself and (2) the theory of evolution was scientifically untenable, crafted strategically by atheists to explain God away and undermine the moral fiber of our country. These tenets had been rehearsed many a time from their pulpit and reinforced by educational conferences led by Bible-believing credentialed scientists. Contradictory views were pronounced as suspect at best and destructive at worse.
But now Jennifer and Michael were coming to a crisis with their children’s public education. Next fall their oldest would be subject to the brain-washing pseudo-science of evolution, she explained. What were she and her husband to do? Though they had three choices at their disposal, only one was feasible. Because they themselves felt unqualified to assume the responsibility for a home education program, they couldn’t pull their kids out of the public school and start homeschooling. Because the costs of private Christian schooling far exceeded their limited budget, they couldn’t begin to entertain that option either. Their only choice was to leave their children in the public school and work diligently with them at home to correct the false teaching.
This “stay-in-school” option, however, confronted them with a moral dilemma. If they left their children in the public classroom, should they as concerned parents, as committed Christians, as agents of truth and light in this dark world, remain quiet or should they speak out? It was apparent that this impasse had her knotted up in emotional turmoil. Jennifer couldn’t focus on both the weeding and this part of the conversation at the same time. She stopped her work and set her troubled eyes on mine. The anguish in her voice was palpable. Was it right to stand by and let the system go unchallenged? Was it right to keep silent and let their kids, and their classmates, get fed an atheistic line? Would their failure to voice their objections to the school be a sign of cowardice, a lack of faith, a concession to the opposition?
On the other side of the equation was the potential this evolution conflict might have on the friendships they had built with the parents of her kids’ classmates, friendships that had been nurtured for years with peers who didn’t necessarily share these same beliefs about the Bible and the nature of evolution. To speak against the school’s science curriculum could put these valued friendships at risk. It was here her tone changed. Her anxiety over the conflict of creation versus evolution gave way to warmth and compassion as she related to me the depth of these relationships and the love they felt for their friends.
There seemed to be no easy solution. To speak for what they thought to be true would surely jeopardize their quest for solidarity and community with the other parents. To remain silent in the name of love would feel like a compromise of their convictions. Jennifer and Michael both felt pulled simultaneously in varied directions. When faced with this kind of decision, what did it mean to be a faithful disciple of Christ, to be a responsible parent, to be a good friend? It seemed like something valuable would have to give way.
Understandably, the weeding project had slowed considerably. But we had bigger issues at hand. After I identified with her plight and voiced my empathy, I took the liberty to introduce her to a complementarian perspective on creation and evolution that I felt would resolve their dilemma and allow them to stand by the truth of Scripture (slightly reconceived), to care for their children, to retain their friendships, and to continue to contribute to the welfare of the school. But because it was a viewpoint that neither she nor Michael had ever considered, I needed to go slowly and help her reframe both her understanding of the Bible’s teaching on creation and her perception of evolution.
I turned back to the weeds, and continued the conversation. Since my own path of discovery on this topic had a similar point of origin to that of Jennifer and Michael, I thought my story might throw some helpful light on their predicament. Over the next hour, Jennifer listened with great interest as I figuratively walked her along my own journey from a church whose creed was ‘creation versus evolution’ to a broader community who celebrates ‘creation via evolution.’
By the time our work crew had finished beautifying the many flower beds populating the lower parking lot, Jennifer was more puzzled than when we began. But now her questions weren’t so much about what to do with the school situation as about how to get her brain and heart around this novel, but strangely attractive, approach to a subject she had long been taught was black and white, cut and dried, settled.
I knew that Jennifer would be eager for Michael to get caught up on the discussion we had while weeding. That next weekend the three of us met over coffee for a few hours, taking a fresh look at Scripture, science, faith and the church’s engagement with our culture. It was a thrilling discussion for all of us, moving this curious couple a few more steps along this new trajectory. They were eager to learn more, so I passed them what I think is the best intro-level book on this topic for Christians with their background: Darrel Falk’s Coming to Peace with Science: Bridging the Worlds Between Faith and Biology. They both loved it and found that it helped answer many of their questions.
The next month Jennifer and Michael attended a presentation I give on this topic to interested groups in the area. The big-picture view helped set the debate in a much larger context and reminded them of the humble posture all Christians should adopt when discussing charged issues with fellow brothers and sisters in the faith. Jennifer found a few further recommended readings on our Web page to bring her high school biology education up-to-date.
For Jennifer and Michael their dilemma had been resolved; their fears had been allayed. They now feel good and at peace about keeping their children in the public school system, since the science curriculum is no longer viewed as a threat to their Christian faith. Their role as parents is no longer to oppose evolution but rather to set their children’s understanding of evolution in a larger theistic framework. Whether the family is reviewing the science material that the children are learning in school, or watching educational science shows on TV like NOVA, Nature, and National Geographic, they can marvel at the mechanisms of evolution and the complexity and the diversity of life that it brings forth, all as a wonderful outworking of how God creates life.
Much good came out of that morning working together in the flower beds. The weeds were all removed and the plants could get on with their growth, without having precious nutrients stolen away by competitive invaders. The same was true in some sense with Jennifer and Michael. With the weeds of the “creation versus evolution” conflict removed, they were free to direct their energies to the things that really mattered—loving God by constructively serving the people around them.
This post first appeared in May 2010
David Vinson is an emergency physician, clinical researcher, perpetual student, and educator who teaches on the constructive interface between science and faith. He hosts a Web page that serves as a clearinghouse of resources to help Christians explore the nexus between creation and evolution.