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NOTIONS: It's not science: A role for religion in our schools

October 10, 2005

In Harrisburg, Pa., last week, a trial was in progress. Attorneys and witnesses weighed in on a federal case involving the Dover Area School District.

Last year, school board members there voted 6-3 to impose a curriculum mandate. It said "intelligent design," the newfangled term for what used to be called Creationism (the biblical explanation of how life began), must be taught in high school biology classes alongside science-based theories such as evolution and random selection.

After the vote, the three dissenting board members resigned in protest. Then, some district parents filed suit.

The New York Times said the verdict "could have a profound impact on America's cultural wars over religion and its role in public life."

From one side of the case, the Times reported:

"'Nearly 2,000 years ago, someone died on a cross for us,' said board member William Buckingham, who urged his colleagues to include intelligent design in ninth-grade science classes. 'Shouldn't we have the courage to stand up for him?'"

From the other side, it said:

"'We're fighting for the First Amendment, the separation of church and state, and the integrity of schools,' said Philadelphia attorney Eric Rothschild, who is teaming up with a battery of Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union lawyers to argue the case. 'The trial should decide whether a school board can impose its religious views on other students.'"

Meanwhile, at Indiana Repertory Theatre, a staged trial was in progress. Actors in "Inherit the Wind," a fictional play written 50 years ago about real-life events that took place 80 years ago (the so-called "Scopes Monkey Trial") were portraying attorneys and witnesses weighing in on a case involving a Hillsboro, Tenn., school.

By teaching Darwin's theory of evolution in his science class, a teacher there had, according to the script, "Violated Public Act Volume 37, Statute no. 31428 of the Tennessee State Code, which makes it unlawful for any teacher of the public schools to teach any theory that denies the Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals."

"What a challenge it is," says the special prosecutor brought in to try the Tennessee case, "to test the steel of our Truth against the blasphemies of Science!"

From the other side, defense attorney Henry Drummond says, "If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to read about it. And next year, you may ban all books and newspapers. Soon, you may try to foist your own religion upon the mind of man."

I was contemplating the notion of life imitating art, and history's insistence on repeating itself, and the feud between science and religion, when I wandered into Borders and found the Dalai Lama's new book. It's called "The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality."

The Dalai Lama is a holy man. But he's fascinated by science and scientists and where his world and theirs intersect. So he spent time reading, and meeting, and wrote about what he learned.

He said he wanted to "examine two important human disciplines for the purpose of developing a more holistic and integrated way of understanding the world around us." He said, "There is much each may learn from the other, and together they may contribute to expanding the horizon of human knowledge and wisdom."

I don't know whether the Dalai Lama has read about the Pennsylvania trial or seen "Inherit the Wind," but based on his book, he'd be an insightful witness or thoughtful judge in either case.

On the one hand, he says, "Regardless of different personal views about science, no credible understanding of the natural world or our human existence ... can ignore the basic insights of theories as key as evolution, relativity, and quantum mechanics."

"Spirituality must be tempered by the insights and discoveries of science," he continues. "If as spiritual practitioners we ignore the discoveries of science, our practice is also impoverished, as this mind-set can lead to fundamentalism."

On the other hand, the Dalai Lama points to the limitations of science, saying, "There is more to human existence and to reality itself than current science can ever give us access to."

Reading the Dalai Lama, and hearing from my son, Zach, that his school curriculum, even world history, has barely touched on the myriad spiritual beliefs that ought to unite-but more often divide-us, I have to wonder whether, instead of trying to gerrymander religion into science class, we'd be better off requiring our students to study, analyze and understand the precepts and histories of Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity and other belief systems that have so shaped our world and her people.

Who knows? With more understanding of ourselves and others, we might be able to contemplate the junction of science and spirituality in the classroom, instead of doing battle in the courtroom.



Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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