Is the NCSE Using Religion to Promote Evolution?

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National Review Online has posted this article, entitled "Evolving Double Standards: Establishing a state-funded church of Darwin". Its author, John West, claims that the NCSE is using religion to promote evolution, and using federal tax dollars to do it! Here's a representative quote:

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is on the front lines of the battle to keep religion out of the nation's science classrooms. A group whose self-described mission is "Defending the Teaching of Evolution in the Public Schools," the NCSE routinely condemns anyone who wants to teach faith-based criticisms of evolutionary theory for trying to unconstitutionally mix church and state.

But in an ironic twist, it now turns out that the NCSE itself is using federal tax dollars to insert religion into biology classrooms. Earlier this year, the NCSE and the University of California Museum of Paleontology unveiled a website for teachers entitled "Understanding Evolution." Funded in part by a nearly half-million-dollar federal grant, the website encourages teachers to use religion to promote evolution. Apparently the NCSE thinks mixing science and religion is okay after all -- as long as religion is used to support evolution.

The website in question can be found here.

Is the NRO right? Of course not. I have posted some comments in reply to Mr. West over at EvolutionBlog. Enjoy!

1 TrackBack

Replying to Rusty Again from Dispatches from the Culture Wars on April 3, 2004 11:06 AM

I've been having a bit of an exchange with Rusty in the comments on his blog. Because those comments only allow 1000 words, I'm posting this here. You can see the beginning of the exchange in this post and the comments that follow it. The argument conc... Read More


I think it was a mistake to include that section in the Understanding Evolution site. One of its problems is that it takes for granted a rather tolerant, open-minded form of religious thinking, when it is quite clear that many religious people, and especially the ones strongly against evolution and science, are not devotees of that particular faith. The anti-science crowd at the Discovery Institute, in particular, are right to be upset that evolutionists have implied that their religious beliefs are capable of being accommodated with the evidence of the natural world.

I’ve complained about it myself, in an article titled Understanding Evolution, and your religion may be wrong. At most, they should have briefly mentioned a few resources by authors who have reconciled their faith with their science, and let it drop.

By the way, the NRO article seems to be echoing a blog entry by Beckwith.


But if they are confronted with students who have always been told that religion and evolution are incompatible, it is certainly reasonable to point out that they are.

I believe you left out a negative there. Might want to fix that when you get a chance.

Is this the same NRO author who is Beckwith’s student?

No – this is John West, the senior fellow at the Discovery Institute. You are thinking of Hunter Baker.

It bears repeating from time to time that some but not all varieties of religion are indeed incompatible with what we know about the evolution of life. There are, after all, lots of folks who make it an article of faith to believe or claim to believe that the world was created 6,000 or so years ago, something which just cannot be maintained short of falling back on freshman gambits such as “maybe it’s all a dream!.”

Biology is not theology or even philosophy, but it does have implications outside of science. After all, if the sciences only produced results that mean something inside a narrow, disciplinary context, they wouldn’t be half as interesting as they are.

Seems to me that those ID guys are sore losers.

But there is a Biblical argument for evolution that I’ve thought of.

The Bible has lots of genealogies in it, and these are generally neither very edifying nor very entertaining. So why are they there? To suggest that genealogies, lines of descent, are worth studying.

And what is evolution about? Phylogenies, lines of descent.

So the Bible thus supports evolution.

Natural selection is more difficult to get out of the Bible, but we find in the Gospels that a fruit tree that does not bear fruit will get chopped down.

In fact, one can even argue that Biblical errancy is consistent with divine inspiration, that Biblical errancy was inspired in order to keep us from getting too literal-minded about the Bible.

What has become clear is that the intelligent design movement is suffering. Not only did their hopes for a scientific foundation for design fail to pan out but their ideas have been actively rebutted. So as sore losers, they try to create a ‘case’ against the NCSE (their most effective opponent) by claiming that the NCSE is using religion to support evolution.

If the author had actually read the website he would have known that the particular webpage was addressing the claim that science and religion are incompatible. The website clearly and correctly claims that they are NOT incompatible since they deal with different issues. In fact not only are they not incompatible, but many scientists have found it possible to reconcile their religious beliefs with science.

In fact in “Establishing Religious Ideas: Evolution, Creationism, and Intelligent Design” Kent Greenawalt provides 5 fundamental premises.

Five fundamental premises, in combination, generate the most troubling questions about science, religion, and the public schools. (1) Schools should not teach the truth of religious propositions. (2) For many people, the domains of science and religion overlap significantly. (3) Anyone’s assessment of what is true, overall, will include an evaluation of all relevant sources of truth, including any religious sources he or she credits. (4) Modern science is committed to methodological naturalism. (5) Scientific conclusions can bear on the likely truth of religious propositions.

An exploration of these premises provides the necessary background for consideration of what public schools should teach about evolution and the alternatives of creationism and intelligent design.

Using these principles it is clear that in order to maintain consitutional separation science cannot be used to make claims that particular religious beliefs are true or false (none were made here). What is permissible is proposing scientific answers even if they may be objectionable to some based on their religious beliefs.

The DI is out there full force with rethoric now that they seem to have realized that their hopes for ID as a scientific alternative have been effectively ‘destroyed’ not only by the effective arguments by scientists who revealed the myriad of scientific problems with their claims but also by ID’s inability to apply its own concepts in any scientifically meaningful manner. And that must sting.

It shows

Not surprisingly Beckwith misses the point, once again. First confusing methodological naturalism with ontological or philosophical naturalism and now confusing showing compatibility between science and some religious beliefs with the veracity of such religious beliefs. To suggest that the website endorses or promotes a particular religion or claims that such religious beliefs are correct is a significant misreading of the evidence. That of course assumes that the evidence really matters.

PvM, I think you’re missing my point, which is probably best attributed to my lack of clarity than any deficit on your part. What I was suggesting in my blog is that to offer a theory of religious knowledge and its relationship to another discipline, which in this case is science, is a claim about the nature of religion and how we understand the claims of particular believers. After all, the NCSE site claims that religion and science are not incompatible, which, as PZ correctly points out on his blog, is the Gould NOMA approach. But the NOMA approach is rejected by many people on theological and philosophical grounds. For examle, some theological realists defend the existence of an immaterial mind by critically assessing the empirical evidence and the inferences offered by neurophysiologists to defend a material mind. Clearly, these theological realists disagree with NOMA and the NCSE and believe that the deliverances of science touch on theological claims. Thus, what the NCSE is saying is that the theological realist’s understanding of the relationship between religion and science IS WRONG. It is in that sense that the NCSE is making a judgment about the veracity of a religious point of view. I hope that clarifies matters. I am working on a larger piece that I hope to publish in an online magazine soon.

BTW, I think that “Understanding Evolution” is generally quite good, and I have actually referred several of my students to it (In my Law & Religion class we are about to go over the creation/evolution case law).



I don’t think the website “offers a theory of religious knowledge and its relationship to another discipline”. It merely points out that there IS such a theory that allows them to be reconciled and it’s a theory held by many Christians and many scientists. And this was done in a section dealing with how to answer inevitable questions on the subject. I think it answers it in a sensitive manner, but it doesn’t endorse the truth of those who see them as compatible.

It’s the difference between saying “they’re compatible” and “they’re not necessarily incompatible”, that there are possible permutations. That one can make the statement that they’re not incompatible without endorsing the possible permutations is made obvious by the fact that many people, and I’m one of them, say the same thing while NOT believing in any particular permutation. I am not a Christian, I am a deist. Yet I think there are many ways to make Christianity and evolution compatible.

Frankly, I think you know this. I think John West knows this. And I think this is being spun for political advantage rather than a serious argument about government endorsement of religion being made. I think you know that the argument you’ve made is very, very weak and wouldn’t stand up in court.


As you stated it yourself, on theological grounds there are people who reject science but that does not mean that science and theology have to be incompatible. Certainly from a scientific perspective there appear to be no real issues. To avoid future confusions, the website may want to clarify its statement but the suggestion, especially by DI-West seems to be more about sour grapes towards the NCSE. I understand though, life as an IDist has not been easy lately if one were hoping for a scientific relevant theory of ID.

But of course, it doesn’t matter (at this stage) whether it’ll stand up in court. What matters is whether the ID proponents can make a political issue of it. They have obviously abandoned the first goal of the Wedge, to produce some actual real science, and are putting all their energy into the political process. Get the politics right and the courts will trail along after, particularly if one controls the judicial appointment process long enough.

To remind us, Phase I of the Wedge strategy reads

“Phase I is the essential component of everything that comes afterward. Without solid scholarship, research and argument, the project would be just another attempt to indoctrinate instead of persuade.” (

It appears that it isn’t that essential after all. Skip the science, proceed directly to Phases II and III. No one but those pesky scientists will notice, anyway.

From Phase II:

“Alongside a focus on influential opinion-makers, we also seek to build up a popular base of support among our natural constituency, namely, Christians. We will do this primarily through apologetics seminars. We intend these to encourage and equip believers with new scientific evidence’s that support the faith, as well as to “popularize” our ideas in the broader culture.”

And Phase III:

“Once our research and writing have had time to mature, and the public prepared for the reception of design theory, we will move toward direct confrontation with the advocates of materialist science through challenge conferences in significant academic settings. We will also pursue possible legal assistance in response to resistance to the integration of design theory into public school science curricula.”


The distinctions that Ed makes are reasonable. If the NCSE evolution guide had explicitly acknowledged what Ed is suggesting–that there are different ways that religious thinkers have understood theological knowledge and its relation the natural sciences–it would not be constitutionally objectionable, since it would be neutral on the matter of religious truth. However, that is not the posture taken by the site. Here are three claims extracted from it:

“Religion and science (evolution) are very different things. In science (as in science class), only natural causes are used to explain natural phenomena, while religion deals with beliefs that are beyond the natural world.”

“Science is about figuring out how things work and relies on empirical knowledge, not faith.”

“[A] debate pitting a scientific concept against a religious belief has no place in a science class and misleadingly suggests that a ‘choice’ between the two must be made.”

Sometimes called the “separate realms approach,” the NCSE’s theory, of course, is one of many ways to understand the relationship between science and religion. Defended by some of the leading academic lights in this area of study, it claims that science and religion can never in principle offer contrary accounts of the same phenomenon. But, as one would guess, there are other approaches that challenge this understanding. I think, for example, that P.Z. Myers is right on the money in this regard: if your religion teaches that the earth is 10,000 years old and there is no evidence for this belief, then your religious belief has a defeater. I don’t know why anyone would want to say that students are intellectually entitled to believe what is not true. They are certainly legally entitled to do so, but as a matter of pedagogy I don’t see an upside to this.

In addition to what I have already written on my blog, I believe that the guide may violate the Court’s endorsement test (since it is federally funded and published on a government server). The concern of this test is whether the disputed activity suggests “a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.” (Lynch v. Donnelly 465 U.S. 668, 688 [1984] [O’Connor, J., concurring]). Clearly, the NCSE guide is doing just that, for it states that those—like Myers and me—who believe that sometimes the deliverances of science touch on theological questions—that sometimes one may have to choose between “science” and “religion”–embrace a “misconception” that “is divisive.” (Those are the words used on the website). The Understanding Evolution page that offers this judgment includes a link to an NCSE page that contains links to religious groups that affirm a theological point of view consistent with what the guide is teaching. The message is clear: those who do not adhere to the guide’s view of religion and science are unfavored outsiders (“misconception” and “divisive” are terms that leave no doubt) who hold views contrary to the beliefs of the religious authorities judged acceptable by the NCSE.

First, thanks to Steve for pointing out my poor phrasing. The error has been corrected.

In response to Francis’ last posting I would say that the age of the Earth is not a theological question at all. The fact that some religious groups have seen fit to offer an opinion on the matter does not make it a religious question.

I can find nothing objectionable in any of the three quotes Francis cites. That science relies on empirical knowledge and not faith is a simple statement of fact. In the third quote, it is clear from the context that “religious belief” is here being used to refer to statements being made about a world beyond the purely material. Taking that definition of religious belief (which some people may find objectionable but is nonetheless the definition the NCSE is using), then it is simply true that science and religion can not conflict. Similarly, I see the first quotation as providing definitions of science and religion that are intended to be reflective of how most people view such things. Maybe they’re bad definitions, though they seem reasonable to me.

The trouble with Francis’ application of the endorsement test is that it is far too broad. Any time a teacher asserts X, it can be construed as being exclusionary towards students who believe not X. If the NCSE put up a website defending heliocentrism over geocentrism, would it be unconstitutional for them to say that there is no conlfict between religion and heliocentrism? Or would it be viewed as stating the obvious?

To put it another way, if a student says the world is only 10,000 years old and backs it up with an argument he read in some YEC book (say, that radiometric dating is unreliable) then that student is raising a scientific objection to a scientific question. The correct response is for the teacher to explain that radiometric dating is reliable and that the objections raised against it are not correct. On the other hand, if the student says he knows the world is 10,000 years old because his understanding of the Bible tells him that that is so, then that is a distinctly religious objection. The teacher should point out that Biblical testimony is not considered by scientists to be a reliable source of evidence, and that the student will have to decide for himself which is more reliable for answering questions about the world: the methods used by scientists or the testimony of the Bible.

What defenders of NOMA are saying is that science can only investigate natural phenomena, and that nothing that science discovers, even in principle, can tell us anything about the posisble existence of the supernatural. Also, scientific discoveries, by themselves, tell us nothing about proper moral conduct. Therefore, claims that religions make about purely supernatural forces or morality can not possibly come into conflict with science.

The potential conflict occurs when religion makes assertions about how their proposed supernatural forces manifest themselves in the world. If it is an essential part of your religion that God created the Earth 10,000 years ago then of course there is a conflict between your religion and science.

I think what it really comes down to is what you mean by the terms “science” and “religion”. I think the NCSE is using reasonable definitions and coming to reasonable conclusions. As they define the terms there is no conflict between science and religion. If you redefine them, there might be a conflict.


Let’s look at the entire statement.

Misconception: “Evolution and religion are incompatible.”

Response: Religion and science (evolution) are very different things. In science (as in science class), only natural causes are used to explain natural phenomena, while religion deals with beliefs that are beyond the natural world.

The misconception that one has to choose between science and religion is divisive. Most Christian and Jewish religious groups have no conflict with the theory of evolution or other scientific findings. In fact, many religious people, including theologians, feel that a deeper understanding of nature actually enriches their faith. Moreover, in the scientific community there are thousands of scientists who are devoutly religious and also accept evolution.

Can you find a single error in this? Or a single point where Berkeley/NCSE/NSF is advocating a certian faith over others? Stuff like this (certain religions believe X) is taught in comparative religion classes all the time. How does stating the fact that one does not have to choose between science and religion make nonadherents outsiders? Does Oprah stating that she didn’t want to eat a hamburger make cattlemen outsiders?

Frank Beckwith noted that “those who do not adhere to the guide’s view of religion and science are unfavored outsiders…who hold views contrary to the beliefs of the religious authorities judged acceptable by the NCSE.”

You can include Richard Dawkins in the list:

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Hi Ed. Great to see your name pop up over here. Welcome to the Panda’s Thumb. Protostome Pilsner is on the house tonight.

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This page contains a single entry by Jason Rosenhouse published on April 1, 2004 2:27 PM.

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