Threats to the status of science and social-humanistic disciplines in education

  • Date / 2008
  • Location Ratified / Washington DC, United States of America
  • Ratifying Body / General Assembly
  • Status / Current

Development of scientific knowledge and the evolution of social-humanistic disciplines, with which the former is strongly connected, have fundamentally changed human civilization and lifestyle, especially during the last centuries. In order to be understood, wisely used – according to the democratic principles of an open society – and further pursued by the coming generations, the extraordinary development of human knowledge must be adequately presented in schools without any ideological or dogmatic interference.

Although in many countries modernity led to the separation of church and state, in numerous others religion is still married to politics. This frequently results in the alteration of scientific information and the privileging of religious or pseudo-scientific information in schools.
Whether as a result of the decisions of uninformed or populist politicians lacking in vision, or of the pressures of influential religious organizations or churches on the decision-makers, the contents of school curricula sometimes stray from the principle of the superior interest of the child. Biology, philosophy, and history are among the subjects most exposed to unwarranted influences.

In some countries there have been attempts to present in school certain scientific theories or data in an inaccurate or tendentious manner, or to replace such theories with pseudo- or non-scientific conceptions on the origin of the universe, of life, and of human beings. The International Humanist and Ethical Union salutes the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Resolution no. 1580/2007 on the “The Dangers of Creationism in Education” [1]. It recommends states worldwide to take into account the contents of this Resolution in elaborating the curricula for the scientific disciplines as well as for other relevant school subjects. Numerous scientific academies and distinguished researchers have made public statements [2] opposing attempts to present religious points of views in education, especially creationism or intelligent design, as scientific theories.

In some countries public education is used to catechize students during religious education classes taught on a confessional basis, while sensitive subjects in the philosophy curriculum, such as religion or the existence of God, are glossed over or presented in passing, rather than examined in a critical manner, from several perspectives, like all other similar themes.
Education remains crucial to the prosperity and the scientific, cultural, and democratic development of humanity. Fully aware of the current dogmatic and ideological threats against education, the International Humanist and Ethical Union urges all states to take the following recommendations into account when deciding upon the contents of curricula and the general educational framework:

  1. In education, the distinction between religious and scientific information is crucial and should be adequately explained to the students. This must be emphasized especially in the countries where religion is still being taught confessionally, since the risk of confusions is significantly higher there. If the distinction between science and religion is not explicitly formulated in school curricula, the very foundation of modern education is threatened. The students will be exposed to the high risk of becoming victims of confusions. This distinction is sometimes misunderstood by educated persons, decision-makers, or other persons responsible for school curricula. One consequence is the decision to present during biology classes a religious perspective on the origin of the universe and of human beings known as “scientific creationism” or “intelligent design”. A scientific theory cannot be worked out with the purpose of confirming a religious outlook on things or a previously established result.
  2. By virtue of freedom of thought, conscience and religion, religious conceptions on the world, onthe origin of life and of human beings may be introduced and explained to students during religious education classes. But they must be introduced and explained as convictions or beliefs of one or more religious communities, not as “absolute truths” or as “superior truths” contrary to scientific knowledge. The diversity of religious opinions must be preserved and encouraged. Yet a unanimous view regarding particular dogmatic matters is not achieved even among the followers of one single faith.
  3. Science is grounded on the critical analysis of facts and natural phenomena and leaves aside “supernatural” or “metaphysical” matters. The events and facts claimed to be supernatural are examined by scientists with the critical and methodological apparatus specific to science. Religious statements or statements representing the religious views of researchers or scientists are not statements which engage their scientific competence, but rather their private beliefs.
  4. Teachers should explain to students that the object of science is not divinity, or gods, or their supposed actions. Furthermore, that science is not anti-religious and does not aim to attack religious faith. The fact that science is sometimes perceived in such a way represents an unfortunate misunderstanding of the essence of the scientific approach. Still, not all churches or religious groups are hostile to science. Some try to reconcile authentic scientific knowledge with religious vision without deforming scientific theories, but rather accepting the latter as “more than simple hypotheses”.
  5. Students should be told that science is not dogma, the proof of this residing in its rapid development under conditions which make possible freedom of research and investigation. The critical examination of theories and their presentation as provisional rather than absolute truths is essential and reflects scientific thinking. Scientific theories generally accepted by the scientific community must be accorded a central place in education and should be presented in a manner that is adapted to the students’ power of understanding.
  6. At the same time, education must explicitly introduce scientific theories as more than simple opinions. They may be criticized and contested at all times, and may undergo improvements and reformulations, but only on the basis of scientific criteria and arguments. A scientific theory is the result of a rational approach, of the critical examination of problems and phenomena, and of specific competences, all of which represent the foundation of creativity and progress in science and technology.
  7. The conflict between science and religion emerges especially when certain theories or scientific data which seem to contradict beliefs or assertions grounded on religion are contested. Sometimes and in some countries, such religious beliefs or statements are represented in school curricula and textbooks.
  8. When education is attached to political ideology or religious dogma the students’ right to knowledge is directly violated. The noble purpose of education is thus perverted. Democratic states should make sure the purpose of education remains that of assisting students in developing their own capacities of understanding and critical evaluation, rather than of inculcating a certain faith or ideology.
  9. Religion should not be taught in schools confessionally but in an objective manner, so as to ensure that students are correctly informed with respect to the great religions and their influence on culture, traditions, history, and social life. This goal of religious education should be formulated clearly in laws on education and other documents which determine the legal framework of religious education.
  10. Even when particular scientific data or theories seem to conflict with specific religious conceptions, such as those regarding the origin of the universe, of life and of human beings, the former must not be censored, presented inaccurately or tendentiously, or eliminated from school curricula.
  11. The attempts by some religious groups or important churches, often supported by populist politicians, to impose creationism in school curricula or to eliminate the theory of evolution and of other scientific theories or information, or to diminish the role of the latter, are unacceptable. In some of the scientifically and technologically advanced countries, such as the USA or the UK, there have been partially successful attempts to teach “creation theory” or “intelligent design” as scientific theories in some schools. In other countries attempts were made (Serbia, 2004) to eliminate the theory of evolution from the biology curriculum; sometimes they were successful (Romania, 2006).
  12. Biology classes must present scientific theories on the emergence and evolution of life in a clear and detailed manner, adapted to each educational level. Considering its importance and implications on other scientific disciplines, the theory of evolution must occupy a central role in science curricula.
  13. Social-humanistic disciplines must also be protected from ideological or dogmatic interference leading to biased curricula. Critical debate on fundamental subjects, including religious ones, must be encouraged. The plurality of views and the confrontation of different conceptions are essential in an educational system safeguarding the higher interest of the child. The philosophy curricula and textbooks should encourage critical debate based on an objective presentation of various philosophical points of view, including viewpoints inspired by religion and viewpoints critical of religion. We deplore and consider unacceptable the elimination of such themes from the philosophy curricula (Romania, 2000).
  14. In some countries history curricula and textbooks explicitly or implicitly present religious narratives, often involving supernatural events, as real historical events. Sometimes students are taught that the result of military confrontations was decided or influenced by divine will. The notion that certain nations are privileged by divinity while others are disfavored has been and remains one of the grounds of intolerance and interethnic tension, as well as a cause of suspicion between different nations.
  15. Students should be taught the difference between religious narratives and narratives which are accepted as genuinely historical. Education should not accord the same status to historical and religious information, lest it should spread confusion among students.
  16. The type of information that may be presented as science in a legitimate and objective way in schools addresses the power of reflection and understanding and may be verified by anyone through honest and disinterested investigation.

[1] http://assembly.coe.int/Main.asp?link=/Documents/AdoptedText/ta07/ERES1580.htm


General Assembly, Washington DC, 8 June 2008

Suggested academic reference

'Threats to the status of science and social-humanistic disciplines in education', Humanists International, General Assembly, Washington DC, United States of America, 2008

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