Secularism and Science Education

Overall recommendation

The government should set standards in education to ensure that public school science classrooms are free of religious dogma, including the latest incarnation of Creationism known as Intelligent Design.

1. The CSA supports methodological naturalism in science education.

Science is a constantly expanding and self-correcting body of knowledge based on a controlled experimentation, deduction, and logical inference. “Methodological naturalism” is the principle underpinning the modern scientific method. As philosophy professor Michael Ruse notes, “the methodological naturalist is the person who assumes that the world runs according to unbroken law; that humans can understand the world in terms of this law; and that science involves just such understanding without any reference to extra or supernatural forces like God. Whether there are such forces or beings is another matter entirely and simply not addressed by methodological naturalism” [1]. In other words, scientists must proceed under the assumption that there are no supernatural forces at work – this is the only rational means of adding to our knowledge of the universe, regardless of whether a deity actually exists or miracles actually occur. Methodological naturalism is distinct from “metaphysical naturalism” – the philosophical position that the universe is composed of matter and energy, and that supernatural phenomena do not exist. As philosophy professor Barbarra Forest puts it: “Methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism are distinguished by the fact that methodological naturalism is an epistemology as well as a procedural protocol, while philosophical naturalism is a metaphysical position” [2]. Methodological naturalism does not necessarily imply atheism – a point misunderstood by much of the general public, and exploited by religious fundamentalists seeking to misrepresent scientific opposition to their claims [3].

2. The CSA opposes the teaching of religious dogma in science classrooms.

Religious dogma posing as scientific knowledge (for examples, see [4]) does students a disservice by blurring the distinction between two fundamentally different ways of arriving at a conclusion: reason and faith. Critical thinking skills — the cornerstones of a modern education — are undermined by presenting evidence-based and faith-based beliefs as equivalent in a science classroom. The CSA maintains that instruction in various religious beliefs and practices is not inappropriate in several areas of education. Courses in world religions, history, and literature would be remiss if they did not include the contribution of numerous religions and its practitioners. However, unfalsifiable claims and supernatural interventions are utterly inappropriate in the science classroom.

3. The CSA opposes the promotion of Creationism/Intelligent Design as a viable scientific alternative to evolution.

Despite claims to the contrary, evolution is currently the only scientific explanation that can account for the complexity of life observed on our planet. Evolution underpins all of the biological sciences, and has been strengthened and supported by a massive volume of scientific evidence uncovered in the last one and a half centuries. As the consensus view of the scientific community, evolution is widely supported by religious, educational, and civil liberties organizations [5]. The Canadian Secular Alliance applauds the work of organizations like McGill University’s Evolution Education Research Centre (EERC), which aims to advance the teaching and learning of evolution in Canada through research [6].

The latest incarnation of Creationism, known as Intelligent Design [10], maintains that the complexity of life cannot be accounted for by natural evolutionary processes, and necessitates the existence of a “designer”. Although not explicitly stated, this designer is implied to be the deity of Christianity. Intelligent Design is aggressively championed by a small number of vocal activists who seek to attach scientific legitimacy to their religious beliefs, but is rejected by the overwhelming majority of the scientific community. Even the Vatican’s chief astronomer has clearly stated that Intelligent Design is not science and does not belong in the science classroom [11,12]. Even so, Intelligent Design appears to enjoy some support in Canadian academic circles. In a 2005 decision to reject a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant application, the peer review panel criticized the applicant for failing to supply “adequate justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of evolution, and not intelligent design theory, was correct” [13,14].

Creationism/Intelligent Design does not meet the minimum requirements of a scientific theory. It is unfalsifiable and offers no testable predictions. The claims of Intelligent Design proponents have been comprehensively and repeatedly refuted by the scientific community [15-48]. Creationism/Intelligent Design does not qualify as ‘science’ without a complete, wholesale re-definition of the word as we currently understand it.

4. Background note: Canadians’ views on evolution.

Public opinion polls of Canadians’ attitudes toward evolution provide a nuanced picture. In a poll conducted by Angus Reid in July 2008, 58% of Canadians said they believe human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years, while 22% said think God created human beings in their present form within the last 10,000 years [7]. However, a Canadian Press-Decima Research poll conducted in June 2007 asked a more detailed question that also probed respondents beliefs about how they believe evolution occurs. In this poll: 26% of respondents said they think God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so; 29% said they think human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process; and 34% said they think human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but that God guided this process [8]. Thus, the position most accepted by Canadians seems to be that of “theistic evolution” – a concept that has been criticized as non-scientific because, by invoking the intervention of a deity, it violates the premise of methodological naturalism that underlies all of modern science [9]. As biochemistry professor Laurence Moran notes: “There is widespread agreement among philosophers of science that adherence to methodological naturalism is one of the features that distinguishes science from non-science. If your explanation of the natural world allows miracles or supernatural beings, then it may or may not be correct but it isn’t science” [9].


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    5. National Center for Science Education. Voices for evolution. Berkeley, California: National Center for Science Education, 2008.
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Revision date: 29 June 2009