Thoughts on the Tennessee “Monkey Bill”

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I never learned about evolution in school. 

Even though I attended a public high school, where I took two biology courses, my teachers essentially skipped the first few chapters of our science textbook and declared them “too controversial” to teach.  You just don’t talk about evolution here in Dayton, Tennessee—home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925—without getting calls from parents. 

As I recall, we spent maybe one class session “discussing” evolution. The teacher turned this discussion over to the students and, like good church kids, we ridiculed, rolled our eyes, and dismissed evolution as ignorant, liberal propaganda. “Fish don’t just grow legs and walk out of the ocean!” we laughed.“You’d have to be stupid to believe that!” (Just a year after I graduated, PBS came to Rhea County High School, documented one of these class discussions, and put it on TV. The footage is excruciatingly embarrassing, and has thankfully been removed from You Tube for copyright reasons.) 

I would go on to attend a small Christian liberal arts college named after William Jennings Bryan, legendary orator and assistant to the prosecution in the Scopes Trial.  At the time, the majority of the science faculty espoused young earth creationism, so I learned about evolution in the context of Christian apologetics courses, with the presupposition that evolution was incompatible with the Christian faith. 

It wasn’t until after I graduated that I studied the science for myself.

And it was overwhelming. 

I had never learned about the fossil record. 

I had never learned about carbon dating. 

I had never learned about transitional species, or vestigial traits, or the profound implications of DNA sequencing. 

As it turned out, what I’d always been told was controversial was not controversial at all—at least not in the scientific community. Darwin’s theory of evolution consistently makes testable, verifiable predictions about the world. An honest assessment of the evidence led me to believe that the theory of evolution is sound...(not perfect, but sound). 

I felt betrayed—by my teachers, by my church, by my culture.  

My faith took a severe beating, and I watched in frustration as friends with similar backgrounds left Christianity for good. For some, all it took was one semester of college-level biology. 

Since then, I’ve written a book and a bunch of blog posts pleading with the evangelical community to get rid of some of these “false fundamentals” that act as stumbling blocks for so many young Christians.  Insisting that the science of evolution is incompatible with the Christian faith sets up a false dichotomy that is costing far too many Christians their faith. 

Knowing this about my background, several of you have asked for my thoughts on the so-called “Monkey Bill” that became law this week in Tennessee. The bill guarantees that teachers will not be subjected to discipline for challenging the science of evolution and climate change in class, and provides guidelines for discussing “the controversy” behind evolution and climate change with students.  (You can read the bill summary here.)

On this one, I actually agree with Governor Bill Haslam, who did not sign the bill. The governor told Reuters,“I do not believe that this legislation changes the scientific standards that are taught in our schools or the curriculum.  I also don’t believe that it accomplishes anything.” 

Exactly. 

This is an essentially meaningless bill whose sole purpose is to score political points for its proponents, who have already wasted hours upon hours of taxpayer time and money pandering to the religious right with unnecessary initiatives and bills. (See their attempt to outlaw Shariah Law, the “Don’t Say Gay in School” Bill, the “Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act” and more.)

If this “monkey bill” accomplishes anything, it simply reinforces and encourages what is already happening at public schools across the state: Students are not learning science. 

The bill is opposed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, the American Institute for Biological Sciences, the Knoxville News Sentinel, the Nashville Tennessean, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the National Earth Science Teachers Association, and the Tennessee Science Teachers Association.

Tennessean Stanley Cohen, a Nobel Prize winner in physiology of medicine, also opposes the bill. ”By undermining the teaching of evolution in Tennessee’s public schools,” he said, “HB368 and SB893 would miseducate students, harm the state’s national reputation, and weaken its efforts to compete in a science-driven global economy.“

What these legislators and their religious supporters don’t understand is this:  Evolution is not controversial within scientific circles, and so it should not be taught as controversial in science classrooms. Teach the controversy in history class, sure. (And don’t forget to mention Dayton!) Teach it in Sunday school. But don’t teach it in public high school science classes.

To teach creationism and intelligent design as equals alongside evolutionary theory is incredibly misleading, and it fails massively to prepare students to excel in the sciences in the future.

It also fails to prepare Christian students to engage their faith with intellectual integrity.  What is clearly an attempt by religious lawmakers to help young Christians retain their faith will backfire. 

Like it or not, the scientific evidence in support of evolutionary theory is overwhelming, and, take it from me, when you encounter this for the first time,  having been told  all your life that it’s just a bunch of baloney, it feels like a betrayal.  It feels like you’ve been lied to. If we fail to prepare students to face the reality of the scientific evidence while they are in high school, we leave them vulnerable to those feelings of betrayal once they leave the protective care of their pastors and parents.  You’re not doing young Christians any favors by delaying the inevitable. 

At the end of the day, Tennessee lawmakers shouldn’t be worried about keeping young Tennesseans religious. They should be worried about creating jobs, improving education, balancing the budget, and, if I had my way, stopping mountaintop removal.  (They killed that bill last week.)

But if they really want to give young Christians the chance to keep their faith, they should encourage science teachers to stick with the curriculum so that students can start working through these issues with their parents and pastors sooner rather than later. 

Additional posts about the origins discussion:

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