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Is it so bad to teach that the God may have designed the universe?


(RNS) It's almost a cliche, or a reality TV show: New York family moves to the Shenandoah Valley and learns that the elementary school breaks in the middle of the day for Bible lessons. You can hear the lawsuits barreling down I-81, can't you?

The family has asked the school district to knock it off, but according to, the locals want the tradition preserved. "The classes," said CNN, "began in Virginia in 1929 after a majority of students failed a simple Bible test." One suspects that students might fail a Bible test today as well; if they cannot correctly place the American Civil War in the proper millennium, they are likely to seize up and fall to the floor like stiff boards when asked to conjugate the begats of Old Testament genealogy.

Should the public school be giving Bible tests in the first place? No. Should the school let religious groups use the facilities after school's done? Sure. No harm, unless you believe that letting them soak up heat and air provided by the taxpayers will result in the instant creation of the First Federal Church of America, attendance compulsory. Should schools teach evolution? Depends, some say.

Kansas is debating anew the application of stickers to textbooks that would warn kids about evolution: It's just a theory! Well, yes. Science is full of theories. The Big Bang, for example. You might re-create it in the lab, but best if you don't. It is hard to weigh quarks on a butcher's scale; it is difficult to know exactly what happens when you throw, say, Rosie O'Donnell into a black hole; it is tough to figure out whether "dark matter" is dark because it repels light, or because the one universal constant is the slimming effect of black, and the universe does not want to look fat.

Which brings us to Darwinism vs. intelligent design, a debate we will now answer to the satisfaction of all!

To the proponents of intelligent design, the facts suggest the hand of the God. Absent some footage from a security camera that rolled tape throughout the Cambrian Period, this too is difficult to prove. But must students be forbidden to consider the possibility?

Forcing teachers to include an intelligent design lesson would be counterproductive. I had a junior high science teacher who thought evolution was hogwash and read the required textbook passages in a contemptuous motormouth monotone.

But perhaps we could avoid conflict if teachers felt free to lead the class in philosophical speculations, just as lit classes deconstruct the era that produced a book, or history classes talk about the hidden stories behind the events. It's permissible to spend a class period discussing whether Texas Masons had JFK shot on orders from the ghost of John Birch (speaking through Jack Ruby's dog), but often verboten to speculate that some metaphysical apparatus used evolution to turn amoebas into creatures smart enough to put cameras in orbit, behold the dazzling beauty, and say, "What a coincidence."

This isn't mandatory Bible class. It's just a plea for both sides to climb out of the trenches and meet in the middle of the battleground. Otherwise no one in a class on the Constitution could chew over the supposition that rights are granted by God, not men. Not to say the issue has to be settled in the seventh grade, but it would be nice if school introduced the great issues before graduation day. So: Does everyone agree to relax, and enjoy the pleasures of open-ended inquiry, just for the joy of letting kids argue over the mysteries of creation?

Great! Next week: Social Security and abortion arguments reconciled. Also capital punishment, space permitting.

James Lileks is a columnist for Newhouse News Service, a blogger and the author of four books.