Friday, September 05, 2008


Catholic Tastes

Paul Cottle, a professor of physics at Florida State University and a member of the committee that drafted the state's new science standards, has an article in America, a Catholic weekly, about his experiences during the approval process and about his ideas for solving the resistance to science education in the US.

This was something of a surprise:

Unfortunately, I was in the minority among Catholics in my defense of evolution. It came as no surprise that according to a St. Petersburg Times poll published this February, a few days before the State Board of Education vote, 91 percent of evangelicals in Florida oppose evolution education. Yet that same poll reported that 79 percent of Catholics also took the anti-evolution education position.
As Cottle points out, the Catholic Church has made its peace, more or less, with evolutionary theory and science in general and Cottle quotes from a number of church authorities, ranging from Pope Benedict down to the local bishop of Orlando, in support of teaching evolution. So why the disconnect?

[T]he task of educating Catholics on this issue remains a tricky one, not least because it could threaten the strong partnership the church has forged with evangelical groups to advance pro-life causes. (One need only recall the controversy surrounding Terri Schiavo in Florida to remember how powerful the partnership between Catholics and evangelicals can be.)
Cottle seems to put this down to a failure by the Catholic clergy to take a lead on the issue:

I heard homilies by two priests who, in addressing the nature and meaning of God's creation, acknowledged that parishioners held a variety of beliefs about the origin and development of life. But they did not mention the church's acceptance of modern evolutionary biology. Meanwhile, as of this writing, no Catholic priests in Florida have signed ... the Clergy Letter Project.
Despite the numbers in that poll, Cottle appeals to a "vast middle ground ... who are neither committed to an anti-evolution position nor convinced by arguments for evolution" and suggests that it would be

... prudent for supporters of evolution education to frame a competing vision for teaching science in public schools ... that focuses on two principles: tolerance for students from a variety of backgrounds, including religious backgrounds; and the accountability of teachers and administrators for their adherence to state educational standards and their performance in helping their students learn science.
While I'm sure Professor Cottle's intent is aboveboard, I can't imagine what "tolerance" means in this context. If it is supposed to mean that government officials refrain from direct attacks on the religious beliefs of children, that is already mandated by the Constitution. If it means giving special treatment to the beliefs of some children because those beliefs happen to contradict science or any other part of the curriculum, that is unconstitutional and would, in any event, contradict the second half of the professor's own prescription.

Despite my doubts about Professor Cottle's proposal, the article is interesting as an insight into the conflicts, internal and external, a person of faith and science can experience in contemporary America.

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