Saturday, May 02, 2009

What American Science Teachers Can't Say

 
John Pieret is a pain in the lawyer. He has something to say about a recent court case [Accommodating the Law].
The latest ruling on the religion-science front is by a Federal judge in California holding that a public school teacher who called creationism "religious, superstitious nonsense," violated a creationist student's First Amendment rights.
Since John has been following the debate on the blogs, he realizes the implications.
The lesson is not restricted to such blatant cases, however. It is clear that a government teacher could not teach that philosophical naturalism is true, as that would clearly render most religions false. And it is more than doubtful that a public school teacher could teach that science was true while, at the same time maintaining that it was in conflict with most religions, since that which is in conflict with the truth is, necessarily, false.
This is pretty much what I thought. High school science teachers cannot say that the deluge never happened and they cannot say that the idea of a 10,000 year-old Earth is wrong.1 That would violate the American Constitution.

God Bless America.


1. I don't understand how they can get away with saying that evolution is true, since that statement is logically equivalent to saying that many forms of creationism are superstitious nonsense.

15 comments :

  1. Think of it this way: We tolerate clearly guilty criminals walking free based on "technical" violations of, say, the 4th Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. At issue is the citizens' right to be free from governmental intrusions in their private lives generally. In the case at hand, we tolerate a restriction on how far a science teacher in a public school can go in criticizing religious belief vis-a-vis origins because we value the right to free exercise of religion and fear the government's establishment of official religious belief (for example, philosophical naturalism). Larry, don't hate us for loving freedom.

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  2. Unlike John IANAL, but I wonder how much of this ruling is due to the specific wording the teacher used. "Religious superstitious nonsense" can easily be construed as an attack which creates a hostile atmosphere. Simply saying "this is false" might not. The latter should always be acceptable; the former not in all circumstances.

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  3. I don't understand how they can get away with saying that evolution is true ...

    It's a little tricky but I'll try to explain. Teaching science is a legitimate secular purpose of government. If, incidental to that -- i.e. not as the purpose of the lesson -- something is taught that some religion finds contradicts its dogma, the secular purpose controls. But, if the intent of the lesson is to show that some religion or belief is false, that means that the purpose is not secular, but religious / theological / philosophical. For example, if a lesson on geology teaches the age of the Earth is 4.5 billion years and that the geological history of the last 6,000 years does not include a global flood, the purpose is secular. If the lesson is that science disproves the biblical account, that is a religious purpose. As you can imagine, this can be difficult to determine in practice, which is why accommodationist statements by scientific organizations can be legally helpful in the US.

    It is not necessary to a science lesson to teach that science and religion are in conflict and the purpose of including such a statement could only be to attack the students' religious beliefs, which is most definitely not a secular purpose.

    Eamon:

    The real issue (on the first prong of the Lemon test) is the government intent. The more blatant the nature of the attack on a religious belief, the easier it is to determine the intent. But subtle attacks are also prohibited.

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  4. Simply teaching evolution in a classroom doesn't violate the US Constitution. That decision has been upheld time and again (all the way back to the Scopes trial). I gather the crux was not in what the teacher said but how he said it. There'll be other challenges no doubt.

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  5. It's a little tricky but I'll try to explain. Teaching science is a legitimate secular purpose of government. If, incidental to that -- i.e. not as the purpose of the lesson -- something is taught that some religion finds contradicts its dogma, the secular purpose controls. But, if the intent of the lesson is to show that some religion or belief is false, that means that the purpose is not secular, but religious / theological / philosophical. For example, if a lesson on geology teaches the age of the Earth is 4.5 billion years and that the geological history of the last 6,000 years does not include a global flood, the purpose is secular. If the lesson is that science disproves the biblical account, that is a religious purpose. As you can imagine, this can be difficult to determine in practice, which is why accommodationist statements by scientific organizations can be legally helpful in the US.I don't see a reason why there should no mention of the obvious fact that modern science disproves most of the teachings of basically all religions. This is just as much true as the scientific knowledge itself is. This has nothing to do with philosophy.

    Now the right approach is that this should be only done when the question is brought up by the students, i.e. otherwise there should be no mention of religion in class, certainly no statements that you can be learning science and in the same time still believe every word in your holy book.

    And I am tempted to say that anti-theism (in the sense of explaining why if there might still be some higher intelligence out there, because this is an unfalsifiable hypothesis, there is little doubt that all religion are wrong in their specifics) should be actively promoted by the educational system, but this can be counterproductive because the very act of doing so makes religion more important than what it really is - no one discusses shamanism or astrology in class, no one should be discussing mainstream religion either

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  6. Because, Georgi, what you tend to favor devolves into totalitarianism, for goodness sake.

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  7. DiverCity says,

    Larry, don't hate us for loving freedom.

    Interesting comment.

    No other Western industrialized nation has a prohibition against teaching religion in public schools.

    Do they all hate freedom?

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  8. I don't see a reason why there should no mention of the obvious fact that modern science disproves most of the teachings of basically all religions. This is just as much true as the scientific knowledge itself is.

    That is your opinion as to the larger import of science, not a scientific result itself. Other people view that differently based, in many cases, on religious grounds. It is fine for you to hold that opinion but, under America's peculiar system, it is not fine for the government to take a position on that question either way. The same rule has, so far, kept creationism out of public school science classes (at least officially).

    No other Western industrialized nation has a prohibition against teaching religion in public schools.

    Do they all hate freedom
    ?

    Why do you think all their religious refugees wound up here? ;-)

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  9. "(...) religious belief (for example, philosophical naturalism)."

    Funny how people who have a problem with "philosophical naturalism" are always the ones who run right into the hands of materialistic science when things get dire.

    Let me ask you, DiverCity: what would you do if tomorrow you woke up and starting puking blood all over your bathroom floor?

    Would you seek a cure? But why? Everything happens for a reason, yes?

    If you do seek a cure, then why go to the hospital? I mean, why not church? After all, prayer works, yes? So God would hear you. He'd want to cure you (he's benevolent), he'd know what's wrong with you (he's omniscient), he'd be able to cure you (he's omnipotent) and, most importantly, he would not fail (he's infallible)!

    So why go to the hospital? Why put your trust in puny human doctors when you have a perfect healer at your disposal? Why take medicine that was designed by following the scientific method and in accordance with good ol' materialism?

    I mean, why settle for less? Now it's fine to believe in all that religious crap, but look how willing you are to forget about your "truths" when your life is in danger.

    Oh, I'm sure you've got some lame rationalisation. But ask yourself this: why would you need to rationalise in the first place if your worldview wasn't defective?

    I have more respect for the Christian who let his daughter die because he thought prayer would save her than I do for people like you. At least, he was not afraid to walk the walk.

    Hypocrite much!

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  10. Eh, what does this have to do with what American science teachers can't say? It was a high school history teacher who said a lot of legitimate things in the context of the lesson, and the case against him was upheld on the narrow issue of denigrating the pupil's religion through giving his own opinion that it was "superstitious nonsense."

    If he'd said that there was ample evidence that the overwhelming majority scientific view was that it was not science, and that Dawkins said it was supertitious nonsense, that should have been ok. He went over the line and lost a civil case.

    Now, if any teacher says rude things about a child's atheism and the parents want to take the teacher to court, that may be a persuasive precedent...

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  11. Larry, my comment to you was somewhat tongue in cheek. However, to answer your question, no, those other countries to which you refer don't necessarily hate individual freedom, but they certainly aren't as vigilant at protecting it as we have been and as the American founders were so wise to do.

    Robert Moron, thou doth protest too much. I'm not on the side of creationists by any stretch of your wild and immature imagination. My training is the law and I was merely articulating for the uninformed and, in your case, mentally lethargic, an understanding of the delicate balance between the interests of government and the rights guaranteed to U.S. citizens under the Bill of Rights. And to the extent your response was a "me too" sycophantic defense, learn to think for yourself.

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  12. DiverCity says,

    ... to answer your question, no, those other countries to which you refer don't necessarily hate individual freedom, but they certainly aren't as vigilant at protecting it as we have been and as the American founders were so wise to do.

    lol

    I appreciate your sense of humor, but you'd better be cautious when you say silly things like this because many Americans won't realize that you are being sarcastic.

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  13. Because, Georgi, what you tend to favor devolves into totalitarianism, for goodness sake.Education is not, can not, and should not be a democratic process. That's exactly what the creationists are trying to achieve - being allowed to teach their children what they want and not what they're being told by those pesky scientists.

    This has nothing to do with totalitarianism

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  14. If the lesson is that science disproves the biblical account, that is a religious purpose. Is it permissible to say that geologists, while remaining very devout Christians, gave up the idea of a global flood 200 years ago, because it just didn't fit the rock record?

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  15. Ed Brayton discusses this case in a thread on his blog and finds the decision rather confusing. Actually, the teacher said some things that were far more insulting then the comment for which the judge found him libel; the judge let those comments pass.

    http://scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2009/05/california_teacher_liable_
    for.php

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