Challenges to the teaching of the science of evolution and cosmology seem to be gaining momentum in Florida’s K-12 schools a decade after evolution made its first highly contested appearance in the state’s science standards.
Now, as then, some opponents of evolution and cosmology education argue that this is a broad conflict between Christian faith and science. While it’s true that several Christian denominations have doctrinal conflicts with modern understandings of cosmology and biological evolution, it is entirely incorrect to argue that such science is not acceptable to all Christians – or that Christians cannot be excellent scientists. A vote last month by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to recognize that a Belgian Jesuit priest, Georges Lemaître, was the first scientist to come up with the Big Bang theory provides a dramatic illustration of that.
For many years, the quantitative statement that the universe is expanding was named Hubble’s Law in recognition of Edwin Hubble’s 1929 paper on the subject. However, Father Lemaître published a similar paper in an obscure Belgian journal in 1927 – two years before Hubble’s publication. To recognize Lemaître’s contribution, the IAU voted last month to recommend a change in the name of Hubble’s Law to the Hubble-Lemaître Law.
All 11,072 members of the IAU were eligible to vote, and 4,060 chose to do so. Of those 4,060 voters, 78% voted for the recommendation to change the name of the law.
This isn’t to say that the Catholic Church has always been squeaky clean in its acceptance of modern science. Another Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, was a paleontologist who participated in the discovery of Peking Man in 1925. But in 1962, seven years after his death, Rome issued a warning about “dangerous ambiguities and grave errors” in Father Teilhard’s work.
Nevertheless, the Vatican Observatory has an active research program – including its own telescope, the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope in Arizona – and runs conferences and summer schools for space scientists.
And the Pontifical Academy of Sciences includes many members who are not Catholic to make sure the flow of science through the church remains robust. Avowed atheist Stephen Hawking was a member of the academy.
Difficult and important questions about the role of religion in schooling will be debated and addressed in Florida during the next several years. To best serve the needs of the state’s students, those discussions will have to be clear-eyed and charitable in spirit. Being honest about the scope of the concerns raised will be central to keeping the debate constructive.