Feb 09, 2009

This Thursday is "Darwin Day," an occasion when scientists all over the world will celebrate the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin.

Though Darwin's theory of evolution certainly has a critically important place in the science community, it is also responsible for a decades-old crusade by Religious Right activists—who continue to push their fundamentalist agenda in the public school science classroom, try to discredit Darwin's theory and erode the separation of church and state.

So it comes as little surprise that The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that pushes "intelligent design" theory and anti-evolution propaganda, plans to put its own spin on "honoring" Darwin this Thursday.

Instead of "Darwin Day," Institute strategists will observe what they call "Academic Freedom Day," promoting events that "give students and youth workers a way to express their support for free speech and the right to debate the evidence for and against evolution."

The think tank, which was behind Ben Stein's documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, masks its intentions to push a creationist agenda by working in the name of "academic freedom." The Religious Right-backed outfit claims that students' "academic freedom is trampled everyday" because students are "censored" from critiquing Darwin's theory of evolution in science classrooms.

Because of the Institute's influence, four states are already mulling "academic freedom" bills this year:   Iowa, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Alabama. These bills seek to require science educators to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution, or use other code language to push a creationist agenda.

But scientists know the Discovery Institute's work only keeps students from learning sound science. According to biologist Kenneth R. Miller, author of Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul, Darwin probably understood that many people would question his theories. But, says Miller, "the tired stereotype of science vs. religion is often used as a weapon against the teaching of evolution in our schools, but it makes no logical sense."

That's the message many religious leaders plan to send to their congregations this week in observance of Darwin Day. Nearly 1,000 clergy members will discuss the relationship between religion and science in an event called "Evolution Weekend."

"Evolution Weekend shows that the disagreement is actually not between religious leaders and scientists," said Michael Zimmerman, dean of the college of liberal arts and sciences at Butler University in Indianapolis. "But rather between those who believe that their particular religious views should be incorporated into the science curriculum and clergy who recognize and respect the diversity of different faith traditions."

Zimmerman said he hoped Evolution Weekend will "demonstrate that religious people from many faiths and locations understand that evolution is sound science and poses no problems for their faith."

Americans United hopes that as the years go on, more and more clergy will pass on this message, and that this legal debate over public school science curriculum can finally come to a rest.

In preparation for your own Darwin Day celebration, learn more about Charles Darwin and the debate over his theory here.