Sunday, June 21, 2009

Education and Science vs. Religion

 
As far as I'm concerned, the proper teaching of science involves explaining that it is a legitimate and powerful way of knowing based on evidence and rationalism. The scientific way of knowing conflicts with the vast majority of religious beliefs. In other words, the proper teaching of science is a threat to almost all religions and, in that sense, it encourages skepticism at least, and non-belief at best.

In most countries that fact isn't a problem but in the USA there's a problem. If the proper teaching of science promotes a "religious" point of view, namely atheism, then science can't be taught in public schools. It's fun to watch the contortions that many atheists have to go through in order to escape the obvious conclusion.

Andrew Brown (not an American, I might add) points out the problem [on being told by PZ ...]. I agree with him just as I agreed that Michael Ruse was making a valid point at the recent Center for Inquiry conference [Wherein Michael Ruse Avoids My Questions].

Jerry Coyne tries to get around the problem by concentrating on the teaching of evolution (just the scientific truth) and not "science" [Andrew Brown makes another dumb argument for accommodationism]. I think this is disengenuous but I do agree with Coyne that Andrew makes a silly case for accommodationism.

Coyne says,
Actually, we teach evolution because it’s a wonderful subject, explains a lot about the world, and happens to be true. And yes, it’s likely that teaching evolution probably promotes a critical examination of religious beliefs that may lead to rejecting faith. But teaching geology, physics, or astronomy does that, too.
This seems to contradict his main argument since it implies that teaching science does, indeed, lead to rejecting religious beliefs. But, wait a minute, he goes on to say that ..
In fact, education in general leads to the rejection of faith. (Statistics show that the more education one has, the less likely one is to be religious.) Should we then worry about teaching physics, astronomy, or indeed, allowing people access to higher education, because those “promote” atheism?
No, we shouldn't "worry" about that but it would be foolish to deny it. The essence of the scientific way of knowing is evidence, rationalism, and also one-mindedness and skepticism. We need to teach that to our children. To deny that this is inimical to faith-based ways of knowing is to deny the obvious.
Should we constantly be looking over our shoulders because the courts may catch onto this?
Maybe you should, if you live in America. The evolutionist side in America has put a high value on winning court cases based on rather arcane legal arguments—who, besides lawyers, cares about the Lemon test? If the bad guys decide to fight back in the courts by challenging the teaching of proper science then watch out. I've heard there are a lot of lawyers in America.

Speaking of lawyers, John Pieret has an opinion on this subject [Science, Philosophy and Law].
Teach only the science and the "problem" evaporates. Any tendency to reject faith because of the teaching of the science is what church and state scholar Kent Greenawalt has called "spillover effects," which do not render the teaching unconstitutional because they are not a "primary effect" of it.
If I understand him correctly, the teaching of Intelligent Design Creationism is unconstitutional because its "primary effect" is to promote religion. The teaching of evidence based rationalism (i.e. scientific reasoning) has as its primary purpose the destruction of superstitious beliefs but the fact that this includes religion is just a "spillover effect."

Wouldn't it be ironic if American courts ruled that it is unconstitutional to teach children how to think?


12 comments :

  1. As I noted at Coyne's blog, the invalidity of teaching ID as true (that is, as a valid view of science) is the more difficult constitutional case to make than that it is invalid to teach evolution.

    A government can certainly teach the philosophy of science, the legitimacy and power of empiric evidence and the rational assessment of that evidence. What they cannot do is go that last step and conclude (philosophically) that science demonstrates the truth of atheism ... not that most governments in the US would want to do that.

    The teaching of evidence based rationalism (i.e. scientific reasoning) has as its primary purpose the destruction of superstitious beliefs but the fact that this includes religion is just a "spillover effect."

    Really? You spend more time in class discussing superstition than you do biochemistry? How do your students pass the exam?

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  2. Jerry Coyne tries to get around the problem by concentrating on the teaching of evolution (just the scientific truth) and not "science".

    I don't see this as Coyne's position. I don't read Coyne's article as trying to "get around" anything or in any way "disingenuous"; although he doesn't make the point in so many words, he brings in all the various sciences and thus pretty clearly implies that Brown's view would prohibit teaching "science" in general.

    Brown's original article singles out evolution; Coyne most charitably read as taking Brown's focus and then enlarging it to encompass science.

    Brown is making a very specific argument: If it's true that scientific thinking leads to atheism, if it's true that scientists as individuals argue that honest science compels atheism, then we run into not a political problem but a constitutional problem.

    But we do not, for several reasons: as you note, the US Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court prohibits only activities that have the primary effect of promoting religion.

    The evolutionist side in America has put a high value on winning court cases based on rather arcane legal arguments—who, besides lawyers, cares about the Lemon test?

    I'm not sure what your point is here. The courts tend to care about the Lemon Test. If a venue exists in the US to fight superstition, why shouldn't we use it?

    There are of course other venues to fight in: secularists shouldn't take victory in the whole war for granted just because we have an advantage in one theater, but that's a different criticism.

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  3. John Pieret asks,

    Really? You spend more time in class discussing superstition than you do biochemistry? How do your students pass the exam?

    I also teach a course called "Scientific Controversies and Misconceptions." The brief description is ...

    Students engage in a variety of current, high profile misconceptions in human biology to change and extend incorrect common beliefs; to become familiar with the process of scientific inquiry; and to develop thinking, analytical and communication skills. Scientific misconceptions are sourced from current issues.

    My section deals with science and religion.

    Critical thinking skills and scientific reasoning should be taught in public schools as well. We need to arm students with the tools they need to reject astrology, homeopathy and email scams. They should be able to analyze whether vaccinating your children is a good thing or not.

    If these skills are taught properly then the primary effect is to discredit all beliefs and superstitions that are not evidence based. That includes religion.

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  4. I also teach a course called "Scientific Controversies and Misconceptions."

    You can teach such a course in an American state university as an elective too. Public school education is, for all intents and purposes, mandatory and involves children under the age of majority for the most part. You can teach a course in pornography as a university elective too. Do you think you should have the right to make it mandatory for all Canadian children?

    If these skills are taught properly then the primary effect is to discredit all beliefs and superstitions that are not evidence based.

    Really? So you think you can change Ken Miller's mind (I assume you think you teach them properly)? That I'd like to see. Or do you need 'em young and impressionable?

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  5. John Pieret says,

    Really?

    Yes, really.

    So you think you can change Ken Miller's mind (I assume you think you teach them properly)?

    No, I doubt that I can change the mind of Ken Miller, or Michael Behe, or the Pope. What's your point?

    That I'd like to see. Or do you need 'em young and impressionable?

    John, are you just being difficult? Do you honestly believe that teaching science properly to religious high school students would have no effect on their faith?

    Is a teacher allowed to say that the Biblical deluge never happened or would that be against the law? Is a teacher allowed to say that the Earth is much more than six thousand years old or would you haul them into court for violating the constitution?

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  6. John Pieret said...

    A government can certainly teach the philosophy of science, the legitimacy and power of empiric evidence and the rational assessment of that evidence. What they cannot do is go that last step and conclude (philosophically) that science demonstrates the truth of atheism ... not that most governments in the US would want to do that.


    A government can also teach that the specific teachings of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and whatever else you can think of are all false. This is different from promoting atheism, and it is actually good solid science

    Are you also opposed to this?

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  7. Do you honestly believe that teaching science properly to religious high school students would have no effect on their faith?

    Teaching the science may well have an effect on their faith. Then again, it may not, or may not affect it in the way you think it should, which was my point about Miller, who certainly understands the science, even if you disagree with him. As I've explained, if learning science affects their faith, that is called a "spillover effect" and does not render the science education unconstitutional. It is the philosophical conclusions that you or anyone else may draw from the scientific results that cannot be taught as true (though they can be taught about, along with other views). A public school teacher can teach that the scientific evidence shows that the Flood never happened but he or she cannot teach that the Bible is, therefore, false.

    A government can also teach that the specific teachings of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and whatever else you can think of are all false.

    In the US, it can teach that claims by some religions about the natural world are contradicted by science; it can teach that science is the best knowledge we have of the natural world; it cannot teach that religion is therefore false and it certainly can't teach that all teachings of religions -- say, "do unto others" -- are false.

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  8. A government can also teach that the specific teachings of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and whatever else you can think of are all false. This is different from promoting atheism, and it is actually good solid science

    Georgi, I don't think you've established the distinction you meant to establish. None of the religions you mention have across-the-board literal interpretations that directly conflict with scientific understanding. Obviously each has their fundamentalist strains, but notice we aren't using the word fundamentalist, we're using the word religious, a much more all-embracing term.

    How is it "good science" to say (for example) that "I am the truth and the light and the way" is false? This gets back to the tricky question of how we can say that religious belief makes for bad science, without also saying that religious scientists like Collins, Miller, Dyson, etc. are not bad scientists? PZ and Jerry have been pretty good about refraining from disparaging their scientific acumen and accomplishments, but it's hard to hold this up while simultaneously asserting, as Larry does, that "proper" science erodes religious belief.

    There are a few areas where science demonstrably rejects religious claims, mostly in geology and biology. The majority of religious "teachings" however are not falsifiable and may only be attacked in concert with a promotion of atheism, which is explicitly unconstitutional in a public US classroom.

    Larry, that goes to your question as well. A science teacher would be delinquent *not* to teach that there was no evidence of a biblical flood or that the earth is four billion years old. But he or she cannot say, as James Corbett did, that a religion has no truth value, not only because it amounts to a state-endorsed condemnation of that religion, but because it advances no specific positive scientific claim.

    Truth is not the only virtue promoted by the US legal system. It may not even be the primary one.

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  9. I think that part of teaching proper reasoning (which should be a fundamental part of one's education) is teaching how to and how not to interpret texts. The Bible says many things that are clearly false and that are not part of the "mainstream interpretation" anymore only because they have been so discredited by scientific findings that it has become embarrassing for the Church to maintain those. Which means that the Bible is interpreted very loosely, in a way that's convenient for those who want to keep their beliefs. That's some very bad reasoning.

    But even with what's left, there is plenty of things to be attacked. I don't see a reason why not to teach that virgin births and miracles have never been observed, etc.

    In the US, it can teach that claims by some religions about the natural world are contradicted by science; it can teach that science is the best knowledge we have of the natural world; it cannot teach that religion is therefore false and it certainly can't teach that all teachings of religions -- say, "do unto others" -- are false.

    I didn't say all teachings, I said the "specific teachings", i.e. the ones that are readily demonstrable to be false or highly unlikely. There are plenty of those. And you are referring to moral teachings, which is not what I had in mind.

    Truth is not the only virtue promoted by the US legal system. It may not even be the primary one.

    That's the problem

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  10. "That's the problem"

    To the extent this is true it's a problem where your ideals are in conflict with one of the most sacrosanct provisions of the primary American foundational document. Good luck!

    I think you also might want to reflect on why veridical concerns are balanced in the US system with the right to ideological autonomy. If you think it through it's easy to see how letting "truth" rest upon the honor system makes it vulnerable to despotic abuse (cf George Orwell).

    I think the value of teaching that virgin births have never been observed is overrated. The whole point of miracles is that they are unique and rarified. It's their "black swan" nature that makes them so important to religious traditions.

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  11. "The teaching of evidence based rationalism (i.e. scientific reasoning) has as its primary purpose the destruction of superstitious beliefs but the fact that this includes religion is just a 'spillover effect.'"

    "Wouldn't it be ironic if American courts ruled that it is unconstitutional to teach children how to think?"

    Is the primary purpose of teaching scientific reasoning the destruction of non-rational belief systems, or is it teaching people "how to think"? If a student doesn't have a non-rational belief system to destroy, is it impossible to teach that student?

    Yes, of course there's a tremendous overlap between learning to think rationally and doing away with irrational beliefs, but the two are not identical.

    Many of the comments have seemed to revolve around the "primary purpose" aspect of the Lemon test. Odd for an "arcane" test that no one really cares about, eh?

    Look, it isn't hard to understand how the Lemon test came about if you apply some rational, evidence-based reasoning to U.
    S. history. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides two somewhat contradictory requirements: (1) The government can't establish a belief system that it requires individuals to adhere to, and (2) The government must keep hands off individuals' belief systems. The Lemon case provides a convenient formulation to try to discern whether the government (in its public school system role) is violating either of these principles.

    Do you think a public school course mandated by the government that has as its explicit purpose the "destruction of superstitious beliefs" (avowedly including religions) might tread perilously close to violating prohibition #2 above? I think it would. The solution would be either (1) The course would be available as an elective and/or outside the public school system (at college level), or (2) amend the U.S. Constitution.

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