Peeking outside the Darwin cage
Five teachers talk about their passion for pointing students to the mind behind the universe and the risks they take to do it
In the Sept. 7 issue of WORLD, we look at a few scientists, students, and teachers who spent 10 days in Seattle at the Discovery Institute’s summer seminar learning about intelligent design (ID), the scientific theory that nature displays evidence of having been designed. Below are additional profiles of other courageous attendees who were willing to put their careers on the line for their ID beliefs.
To protect the identities of some attendees, WORLD agreed to use pseudonyms (designated with an asterisk).
David Brown,* a public school physics teacher in his 30s, doesn’t like to simply follow the rules, especially when it comes to science and evolution: “When the culture tells me I’m not allowed to think outside the Darwinian box, it makes me want to think outside the Darwinian box.”
Chances are his students don’t care for rules, either. But the current American educational paradigm doesn’t leave room for dissenting viewpoints if the subjects are the origins of life and the universe. Instead, kids hear everything about random evolution and nothing about design.
“We tell children in our culture to be themselves, to follow their hearts,” said Brown, who teaches in south-central Pennsylvania. “But in our culture, in the realm of science, you’re not supposed to think for yourself. You’re supposed to follow the leader.”
Brown would like to see students thinking for themselves, but in a public high school, he has to be careful with his words. His school district lies in the same region as Dover, Pa., where a school board in 2004 tried to institute a teaching policy that would have included information about intelligent design and criticism of Darwinism. After some parents filed a lawsuit, a federal judge ruled intelligent design represented religion and that teaching it in public school was unconstitutional. (But the theory of intelligent design is not religiously but scientifically based.)
Brown avoids legal quicksand by teaching in a way that prompts students to do their own thinking. As a physics teacher, he doesn’t talk about biology, but introduces the concept of fine-tuning in the universe. For example, the Earth’s atmosphere blocks harmful radiation from the sun but is transparent to the visible light needed for photosynthesis. The Earth is an ideal distance from the sun to host liquid water, and our solar system is ideally placed to avoid dangerous radiation from the center of the galaxy. Brown ends such talks by suggesting to students, “It kind of makes you think!”
Sometimes he gets a class full of blank stares in return. But occasionally a student or two will show interest and spark some back-and-forth discussion.
Brown used to teach origins by telling students how some people believe the universe was created, and others believe it just popped into existence. At the Discovery Institute’s intelligent design seminar this summer, though, science research coordinator Casey Luskin advised him that approach was technically considered teaching intelligent design—and therefore illegal.
If he said too much about intelligent design during his physics class, Brown says, “there certainly would be repercussions.” —Daniel James Devine
While the Texas Board of Education changed the wording of its science curriculum in 2009 to make room for teaching alternatives to evolution, the school district where Phoebe Johnson* teaches took a hardline stance: Darwinism is true; everything else is wrong. Johnson, a high school biology teacher, soon started to feel the heat. Although her classroom curriculum only required a summary of evolution, Johnson was also part of the school’s Christian club, where she held a talk about how science and religion can coexist.
“I think I have a middle-of-the-road approach to it,” Johnson said. “One thing about the ID movement is that the people involved are really doing a good job being objective and trying really hard not to get wrapped up in politics or religion but looking at it for what it is.”
Soon the principal called in Johnson and a fellow teacher also involved in the Christian club. The principal complained they weren’t teaching the curriculum, questioned them about rumors, and intimidated them into quitting. Johnson’s co-worker ended up leaving the school, and Johnson soon applied for a teaching position at a Roman Catholic school (although she’s Protestant).
Johnson soon realized her new job environment would not be drastically different. While the school does believe the Bible is true, Pope John Paul II encouraged Catholics not to abandon science, which many took to mean embracing Darwinism. In her advanced biology class, she is allowed to teach the criticisms of Darwinian theory, but can’t supply students with alternative possibilities. She can say, “Isn’t God amazing?” while studying the design of kidneys, but can’t say that it didn’t come by evolution.
Part of the reason for her classroom taboo is the school’s goal to help its students get into top colleges: Some might be hesitant to accept students if they knew they were being taught ID. But Johnson does assign some of Discovery Institute’s articles—ones that aren’t specifically about ID—to her students for bonus quizzes. After this summer’s seminar, she is considering teaching students an overview of what ID entails. —Angela Lu
John Ferrer felt called to ministry in high school, and automatically assumed that would mean pastoring a local church or heading out as an overseas missionary. While studying to be a youth minister at Southern Evangelical Seminary, he started to realize university campuses made up one of the biggest unreached mission fields, where atheist professors slaughter the beliefs of unprepared Christians.
His worries about bad ideas spewed from the lectern and their effect on young minds that grow up with a warped worldview. For instance, Princeton professor Peter Singer exalts to his students his belief in purely utilitarian ethics—condoning abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and bestiality.
“So many churches are just mopping up the blood rather than stopping the source of the bleeding,” Ferrer said. He’s since pursued a Ph.D. in the philosophy of religion and sees himself as an evangelist for the redemption of universities.
He said campus fellowships work on personal transformation, which is important, but neglect the transformation of the entire university. He thinks that can only be remedied as churches turn away from a tendency toward anti-intellectualism, and train students to seek truth and think for themselves.
Ferrer believes Christians need to be the best students in the classroom. Then after they graduate, they should enter top-notch grad programs and places of influence in politics, business, and academia. Once Christians become professors or even college presidents, they have more power to change what is taught to the country’s future leaders. —A.L.
Former math teacher Lugo Martinez,* 49, is a Seventh-day Adventist from Mexico who doesn't eat pork and can play “Battle Hymn of the Republic” on the piano from memory. He’s currently studying to earn a doctorate in geology at Loma Linda University, an Adventist school in Loma Linda, Calif., that hosts the Geoscience Research Institute. The institute conducts research into Earth’s history and origins and seeks to discover harmony between science and the Bible.
Martinez said attending the intelligent design seminar at the Discovery Institute this summer strengthened his faith: “I believe in the biblical frame of the origin of life. I think God came and put the conditions on Earth for life to begin.” Martinez personally believes that biological life is young, perhaps 6,000 to 10,000 years old, but that the Earth itself is old. He believes Noah’s flood was responsible for creating the fossil record.
His area of study is igneous rocks—those formed in the Earth’s hot interior. In particular, Martinez is interested in rocks that form underground as cooled magma, then are revealed by erosion. This month, he planned to accompany other researchers on a trip to Peru to study the Andes Mountains.
Once he finishes his Ph.D. program, Martinez plans to return to Montemorelos, Mexico, to head up an extension of the Geoscience Research Institute at an Adventist university. There he’ll do geology research and teach religion and science—from an intelligent design perspective—to theology students. He might also drop into math, the old teaching specialty that led to meeting his wife, a former student.
Although he doesn’t fear academic persecution in Mexico, Martinez asked that his real name not be used to avoid problems when speaking at U.S. universities. —D.J.D.
The Potter’s School is an online Christian school popular among homeschoolers and missionary and military families. The lead science teacher, Lori McKeeman, 58, has been teaching students about intelligent design and the Bible for seven years. She traveled from her home in Pensacola, Fla., to the Discovery Institute’s seminar to learn the latest ideas from intelligent design scientists. “With science, you have to continue professional development,” she said. McKeeman and another Potter’s teacher are considering using the Discovery Institute’s new private school science curriculum, Discovering Intelligent Design.
McKeeman taught about 210 students last year: “They get into the military academies. … Our Latin students are some of the higher scorers in the country. My view is, these are students that are going to be leaders.”
To guide her students through lab assignments or difficult science concepts, McKeeman uses videos and animations, some of which she creates herself, and hosts live online discussions with a microphone. She coaches students through experiments like extracting DNA from peas and fruit, and uses science to demonstrate the Bible’s accuracy. (One example: Hyssop, a cleansing agent in the Bible, contains thymol, an antiseptic used in mouthwash.) McKeeman can easily list off examples of evident design in nature: suicide bomber lysosomes … glow-in-the-dark fungi … explosive bombardier beetles. (“Chemical weapons! … God already had it in nature!”)
When her students arrive at college, she wants them to “have some bona fide scientific material they can fall back on,” so they can defend their faith. Otherwise, a professor might challenge their view of the Bible and leave them wondering, “Well, maybe that was just a fairy tale.”
The students in McKeeman’s virtual classrooms have hailed from around the world, including Iceland, Italy, Egypt, Mauritania, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Russia, England, Canada, Mexico, Honduras, Jamaica, and Belgium. —D.J.D.
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