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Evolution: Church-State Separation

One of the Most Significant Criminal Cases in Years,

Edward J. Larson
History and Law Professor, University of Georgia
Friday, January 14, 2005; 12:00 PM

Edward J. Larson, law and history professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion," was online Friday, Jan. 14, at Noon ET to discuss the decision by a federal judge in Atlanta to remove stickers placed in high school biology textbooks that call evolution "a theory, not a fact," charging that the disclaimers violated church-state separation.

Read the story:Evolution Stickers Ordered Removed (AP, Jan. 13)

"The decision clearly addresses the latest phase in the longstanding evolution-teaching controversy and closes the door on the latest attack against the teaching of evolution in public schools," said Larson in an interview with washingtonpost.com

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Tampa, Fls.: Isn't it incorrect to say Christians oppose teaching evolution in public schools? The Catholic Church, the nation's largest Christian denomination, teaches evolution in its own schools. I also understand mainline Protestant denominations similarly have no problem with evolution. Aren't fundamentalist Protestants the force behind the attempts to ban teaching evolution? If so, what does this say about the state of Christianity in America today?

Edward J. Larson: This question raises an important point. Many Christians accept the theory of evolution, seeing it as God's means of creation. Catholic schools typically teach the theory of evolution in biology classes, as do many other Christian schools. Indeed, many conservative evangelical Christians fully accept theistic evolution. For these people, the important point typically is to distinguish between scientific theories of physical origins and religious concepts of the human and divine soul. The judge in the Cobb County decision assumes this point when he repeatedly identifies those opposed to teaching evolution in public schools as "Christian Fundamentalists and creationists." Is is a sub-set of all Christians. Indeed, belief or disbelief in the theory of evolution divides the Christian church -- which helps to explain why it is such a major issue for some Christians. This is as much a dispute among Christians as between science and religion.


Sedalia, Mo.: How do Christians that do not believe in evolution explain to their children about the archeological artifacts and material found in museums and presented as scientific data? Also how do they explain away the National Geographic magazine?

Edward J. Larson: Different creationists explain these matters in different ways. As the Alabama textbook disclaimer states, no one was here at the time, so there is no observed record. The archaeological artifacts and materials may be only a few thousand years old. Radiocarbon dating may be inaccurate. National Geographic magazine may be wrong. Such creationists typically point to gaps in the fossil record to deny that their is adequate evidence for the evolution of basic kinds of life from other basic kinds of life, and the seeming complexity of life to suggest that one kind of being could not evolve from another in the sort of minute steps envisioned by Darwinism. Young Earth creationists (those who believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old) often attribute much of the evidence of oldness to the effects of Noah's flood. Other creationists accept an old earth, but see God as the special creator of each basic type of living being.


Alexandria, Va.: When I see these bizarre outbreaks of passion against the concept of evolution, such as the one in Cobb County recently (or Kansas a couple of years ago), I am always perplexed by this question: why does this happen only in the U.S? Surely Europe has, proportionately, as many religious kooks as we do ... why does it not happen there? As a member of a local school board, I am certainly grateful it has not happened to us, as these "intelligent design" (isn't that their latest battle cry?) people are willing to spend a lot of money pressing their point. So, why only in the U.S?

Edward J. Larson: This does not happen only in the United States. This is a growing issue in Canada and Australia, for example. Similar evolution teaching controversies have occurred in both countries. Evolution is rarely taught in many Islamic countries, even in colleges. Indeed, teaching evolution is a criminal offense in some Islamic nations. I recently lectured in Chile, and found the controversy was very hot there. Throughout Latin America and in many parts of Africa, evolutionary teaching is controversial. I found that the San Diego based Institute for Creation Research's biology textbook was used in a high school on the Galapagos Islands, of all places. Europe, in contrast to the rest of the world, is a pretty secular place. Church attendance is very low -- less than 10 percent -- among the formerly Christian peoples of Western Europe. No religiously motivated political movement can get up much steam in Western Europe.


A Christian from Staunton, Va.: Why are only creationism and intelligent design (if these two are different and I am not clear on that) the only "theories" up for possible consideration as alternatives to the big bang or evolution anyway? Why not astrology, Native American myths, and versions from all over the world along with any other possible imagining? In other words, why the assumed hierarchical preference for the literal belief system of one sect or portion of Christianity?

Edward J. Larson: Because the people raising these issues are mostly Biblical literalists. There are enough of them in some states and school districts to make a difference. In a democracy, majority rules (or at least tries to rule).


Clarksville, Ark.: I don't understand how the disclaimers on the Cobb County textbooks represent an "unconstitutional endorsement of religion." Evolution really is a theory -- hence the name, Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Further, there are actually many theories involved with both evolution and creationism, and still other theories of development that are unrelated to either of those. To say that "the theory is a theory" does not, in my view, constitute an endorsement of another possible view as the solid truth. Can you explain the reasoning behind the ACLU's arguments?

Edward J. Larson: You raise an excellent point. The court's reasoning in this case was that Cobb County had singled out theory of evolution for special treatment. The sticker did not say that all scientific theories "should be approach with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered," only the theory of evolution. Given the long history of conservative Christian opposition to the theory of evolution, to single out this one theory, the judge reasoned, would give students the impression that the school district endorsed the objections to evolution of a particular religious group. As he put it, "This Sticker aids the beliefs of Christian fundamentalists and creationists."


Rancho Mirage, Calif.: It strikes me that those who say evolution is bad science should wonder if intelligent design is even worse religion. If religion pretends to be science, it can't be faith, which is incompatible with evidence. Shouldn't the true theologians be making this point?

Edward J. Larson: Some theologians are making such points, but there is a long history within Protestant Christianity of using evidence of design in nature as proof for God and indication of His character.


Herndon, Va.: I would argue that many of the people who are opposed to the teaching of, or do not believe in evolution, depend on science in almost all aspects of their lives. How does one accept only some Facts of science, medicine for example, and refuse to accept other scientific Facts? Do you see anything strange about this?

Edward J. Larson: We all pick and choose among various options. It happens when we choose which book to read, which TV show to watch, and what church to attend. Science is not infallible and scientists disagree among themselves on many things. Indeed, scientific theories change over time. Think of the theory of continental drift in geology, which has emerged over the past 50 years, or the big bang theory, or sting theory, or chaos theory. So you accept the scientific theories that see right to you. People don't directly encounter evolution in their daily lives very much in an undeniable fashion, and can construct a whole world view without it, especially if they leave room for the micro-evolution of viruses and finches.


Washington, D.C.: I think one of the most disturbing things about this whole issue is that it illustrates what a poor job our schools do with regard to teaching science. It seems to me that if we understood what a "scientific theory" really is, it would go a long way to diffuse some of the controversy. National Geographic's recent article about this subject, written by the brilliant David Quammen, pin-pointed the issue perfectly. Did you read it and what were your thoughts?

Edward J. Larson: Yes, I did see the National Geographic issue. David Quammen is a brilliant writer. It is difficult to get good science teachers when public school teachers are paid so low -- and there is so much money to be made in biotechnology. It would be wonderful if we could teach all of our students about the basic scientific theories in every branch of science, and how to approach them with an open mind. Parents have a major role here. Quammen's writings are one resources that they can use. I hope that my recent book titled "Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Idea" helps too.


Burke, Va.: I always liked the creationist "theory" that God actually left all of the evidence of evolution on purpose. He did this as a way to test our faith. Therefore the more compelling the scientific evidence, the more proof that God is testing us and the more important it is for us to reject science as proof of our faith in God.

It is a no-win situation for a secular humanist.

Edward J. Larson: Yes, some creationist say this. Some others say that the devil left it to deceive us. On the other hand, many Christians so the evidence for evolution as wonderful evidence for God. The famous Congregationalist pastor of the late 1800s remarked that a God who could create through evolution by wholesale was more impressive than a God who separately created by retail.


Columbia, Mo.:
I am a Christian and have no trouble with the theories of evolution and continuous adaptation. They explain and help predict much, if not all, of what happens in the world.

A typical high school biology class lasts for one year and is based on this understanding.

What is the typical content and length of a class based on 'intelligent design' and how does it differ (other than the sticker on the book)?

Edward J. Larson: So far, intelligent design is mostly a critique of evolution theory rather than an alternative theory of origins. One would have to look at textbooks, such as Of Pandas and People, recommended by the Intelligent Design proponents. In contrast, the Institute for Creation Research, which supports an alternative theory of special creation over the past 10,000 years in line with the Genesis account, publish very specific textbooks that outline a full curriculum of study. These books are widely used in Christian schools. You can look at them for your answer.


New York: Like Herndon, I don't see how you can pick and choose among scientific facts, not theories. Saying that you accept biology/chemistry/physics/geology/genetics but not when it comes to evolution is like pretending Pennsylvania doesn't exist -- standing at the border and saying all you see doesn't exist, ignoring that it is inseparable from the rest.

Edward J. Larson: But some people choose Dickens when they read while other people choose People magazine. Some people pick rap music and others pick classical music. If you are not doing science, why does it matter what bits of science you pick and choose?


Washington, D.C.: Discussion of evolution vs. creationism vs. intelligent design aside, my question is along the lines of the one posed by Clarksville, Ark. I don't understand how this statement is an endorsement of religion in any way. Thus, I don't understand the judge's basis for a decision stating such. Can you please explain how the statement has anything at all to do with religion, or a state-sponsored endorsement of religion?

Edward J. Larson: The judge relied heavily on U.S. Supreme Court Justice O'Connor's interpretation of the Establishment Clause. Her test is, would the reasonable person see the action as endorsing a particular religious viewpoint. Given the history of the creation-evolution controversy, and the fact that only the theory of evolution was singled out in the sticker, this judge concluded that the Cobb County sticker's flunked Justice O'Connor's test. Incidently, Justice O'Connor joined in striking down an oral disclaimer regarding the theory of evolution used in a Louisiana public school.


Bethesda, Md.: As a devout Christian, I get weary of non-Christian elitist telling me that I am a religious nut. The theory of evolution is just that -- a theory. Held to scientific scrutiny, it does not pass muster. People who believe in it are engaged in an act of faith. What is wrong with teaching evolution as a theory, rather than fact, and acknowledging the many places where this theory has problems from scientific standpoint, such as the very limited fossil record that supports it as opposed to the extensive fossil record that should be present if the theory is true?

Edward J. Larson: Actually, the Cobb County situation does not address the issue you have in mind. Cobb County had adopted an evolutionary textbook, then added this sticker simply stating that evolution was a theory and should be studied critically. No other theory was flagged in this way, and no evidence was given critical of evolution -- simply a conclusion. It would be another case altogether to present scientific evidence critical of the theory of evolution.


Springfield, Va.: In your response to the question from Clarksville, Ark., about calling a theory a theory, you neglected to define what a theory is. In science, a theory is an explanation supported by significant empirical evidence. There are no laws in biology like there are in physics or chemistry because laws are universal (beyond space and time) with no exceptions. Due to the extraordinary amount of evidence in support of evolutionary concepts, it's about as close to a law as you can get in biology, but will still always be referred to as a theory.

Creationism, on the other hand, is not a scientific theory. It could be referred to as a hypothesis, at most. Therefore, you cannot talk about evolution and creationism as if they are equally valid scientific explanations.

Edward J. Larson: So far as I know, virtually all biologists accept an evolutionary explanation for the origin of species -- which is the basic point made by this question. For scientists, a reigning theory (like the theory of evolution) is more than a guess or hunch -- it is their best naturalistic explanation for how some aspect of the physical world operates.


Palatka, Fla.: How does the incorporation of the Fourteenth Amendment "against" the states play into this? I've read that in the early history of the republic some states actually sponsored individual churches. Is this a case where the federal courts are assuming authority that the framers intended local and state governments to hold?

Edward J. Larson: The 14th amendment is central to making this a federal question. The 1st amendment simply says that Congress shall make no laws respecting the establishment of religion.... Over the past 100 years, the Supreme Court has interpreted the 14th amendment (ratified in 1865 and which bars states from restricting individual liberty), to incorporate the 1st amendment bar against the establishment of religion and apply this against state and local government actions. Without that, limits on evolutionary teaching in public schools would probably be a state constitutional issue. I should note, however, that the judge in this case ruled that the Cobb County sticker also violated Georgia's state constitution.


Nancy, France: If Scopes were retried today, would the verdict be any different?

Edward J. Larson: I have already gone 15 minutes over my allotted 60-minute time period, with lots of outstanding questions, so let me close with this answer. It so directly ties to my 1997 book on the 1925 Scopes trial, Summer for the Gods. Scopes was convicted, of course, and the Tennessee law against teaching evolution was upheld. But that was before the incorporation of the 1st amendment bar against the establishment of religion into the 14th amendment limits on state action. After that was done, Arkansas's anti-evolution law (which was modelled on the Tennessee law) was stuck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1967 Epperson Case. Thus I am fairly certain that the Scopes trial would come out differently today. I am a historian, however, not a prophet. I can not predict how the case would come out tomorrow. Thanks for your questions, and keep evolving!


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