Most major religious groups in the United States have no problem with scientific explanations for the history of the universe. But last week, motivated by a literal belief in the biblical creation stories, a majority of the Kansas State Board of Education decided that the state's children don't need to learn about those explanations. The decision is comparable to leaving the U.S. Constitution out of civics lessons. Evolution is the framework that makes sense of the whole natural world from the formation of atoms, galaxies, stars and planets, to the AIDS virus, giant redwood trees and our own health and well-being.

The history of life on Earth began with the Big Bang and formation of simple atoms. Heavier elements such as carbon and oxygen, atoms used to construct living things, were synthesized later in stars. Explosions of stars called supernovae spewed these atoms into interstellar space, and they were then incorporated into new stars and planets. At least one such planet, our own, is a suitable place for life. We don't yet have a good scientific explanation for how life began on Earth, but we do have a solid one for what happened once life got started. It's called the theory of evolution.

A theory in science is not a hunch or "just a theory" as some say. It is an explanation built on multitudinous confirmed facts and the absence of incompatible facts. A scientific hypothesis is sometimes a hunch, although it can't be an off-the-wall idea and has to be testable. But a hypothesis lacks the scope and solid factual foundation of what scientists honor with the name "theory" -- such concepts as the chromosomal theory of heredity or the general theory of relativity. The theory of evolution is supported by myriad physical, chemical and biological observations and experiments.

The goal of science education should be an understanding of the theory of evolution; the students can decide whether or not to believe it. Understanding is different from believing. The difference between believing and understanding is why so-called debates about evolutionary biology and creationism are not debates at all. Religion and science are concerned with very different questions about the world. Answers to these fundamentally different questions cannot be resolved by adversarial procedures or votes or empty consensus. Those who believe that biblical creation stories are realistic do so on faith. We can respect their faith and at the same time conclude that faith is irrelevant to science and the teaching of science. Many people of great faith, including many scientists, accept the theory of evolution.

In trying to frame this issue as a debate, biblical literalists pretend that creationist ideas are science. They misinterpret or deny the vast amount of data demonstrating that Earth is more than 4 billion years old and has been home to living things for at least 3 billion of those years. They present as fact findings that do not pass even minimal standards for scientific rigor and reliability; one example is their claim that dinosaurs and humans existed simultaneously. They assert that disputes among scientists regarding the details of evolutionary processes cast doubt on the theory as a whole. But they give themselves away when they dwell on particular aspects of evolution that trouble their beliefs. I saw this recently when I talked with several members of the board. They accepted that within a species individual traits can change continually. But they were unwilling to recognize that some changes can lead to the emergence of new species, as when humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor.

It is foolhardy to accept creationist arguments as part of scientific discussions. Their purpose is to arrive at a conclusion consistent with religious faith. Science approaches questions the other way around. Even a theory as well supported as evolution could, in principle, be replaced by new and compelling evidence. Here is the most profound difference between belief based on faith and understanding based on science. The first is unassailable, the second inherently tentative.

People who believe that Genesis is literal history want children to learn the creationist explanation for life on Earth. The Supreme Court and several lower courts have, however, ruled repeatedly that creationism cannot be taught in public school science classrooms because it is a religious view and inconsistent with the Constitution's requirement that public schools be religiously neutral. The Kansas Board of Education's action amounts to the same thing because it allows religious beliefs to determine what should be taught.

Before last week, the word Kansas reminded Americans of all ages of Dorothy, the wonderful child of L. Frank Baum's imagination. Now Kansas will remind us of the thousands of real children who will be ignorant of one of the most remarkable and useful concepts ever to emerge from science. That ignorance will make them regret their schooling when, as citizens, they must consider, for example, environmental issues or the consequences of the Human Genome Project, or if they undertake careers in science, engineering, agriculture or medicine. If in the 21st century, their century, life is discovered on some other planet in our solar system or around some distant star, they will wish for a richer understanding than what their superficial science classes provided. It's a shame, because Kansas otherwise has a good public school system.

Dorothy was lucky because the Wizard of Oz was wise. The wizards of the Kansas State Board of Education look foolish in comparison.

The writer is is a molecular biologist and president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.