playing devil’s advocate for creationists
A public school district in Tennessee decided not to bend to the displeasures of Kurt Zimmermann, a parent offended by the fact that the schools’ textbooks describe creationism as a religious myth. Even after claiming religious persecution in a softball interview with Fox News, Zimmerman isn’t getting his wish of seeing what he calls a “non-biased” textbook in his local schools, which one would think is a good thing. He can teach his kids all he wants about creationism at home because that’s his right as a parent, but he can’t force a school’s biology curriculum to have the same reverence for his religious beliefs as his friends and pastors. However, Michael De Dora of the NYC chapter of the Center For Inquiry is pulling a Michael Ruse, defending the notion of striking any objective judgment on any claims presented by religious groups as fact on legal grounds.
Or at least what he seems to think are legal grounds, backing up his stance with rather skewed and grossly inapplicable definitions of neutrality. De Dora’s argument can be boiled down to expanding the notion of total neutrality towards religious beliefs in the public sphere (as defined by the Establishment Clause) to scientific claims, then claiming that criticism of the claims presented by even the most ardent Biblical literalists may be crossing the line into disparaging religion. Now where have I heard this before? Michael Ruse’s rant against the New Atheists seemed to be going along the same exact lines, seemingly without realizing that all those religious beliefs were trying to assert themselves as factual scientific information and failing miserably in this task because scientists have volumes of evidence to the contrary. De Dora is just as oblivious, trotting out an amazing whopper of twisted logic in an addendum to his original post…
Some have argued that teaching [that] the Earth is 4.5 billion years old is the same as denying the Earth is 6,000 years old. But one clearly imparts scientific knowledge; the other clearly denies a religious idea. One is constitutional [but] the other is not. Scientific knowledge makes many ideas seem crazy, but there is no reason for a high school biology teacher to actually go into denying all of them, specifically the religious ones. In fact, this approach is probably the only way to keep our public school biology classes in line with government neutrality on religion.
Pardon me while I pick up my jaw from the keyboard and hinge it back on. There, that’s better. So when there’s a child in a biology class arguing with the teacher that the Earth is only 6,000 years old because she had this belief drilled into her head since she was a baby, to present the evidence that our planet is really 4.5 billion years old is violating the Establishment Clause in a classroom setting? De Dora studies political science, so I would presume that he would know more about the laws in this case than I would, but I’m still going to take issue with this argument because it so closely mirrors Ruse’s shot across the bow at Dawkins and PZ Myers regarding the constitutionality of refuting religious claims in class. The attitude that we must never challenge a religious belief in a science class is simply unsound and ignores the context of the discussion. We can leave the legalities to the lawyers, but we truly have to establish that refuting the notion that our planet is 6,000 years old in a classroom with the relevant science is just falsifying a claim with evidence, one of the cornerstones of the scientific process which all students must understand in today’s world.
There’s much more to science than just remembering that RNA stands for ribonucleic acid, or that fusing two fermions with the same charge and spin will involve overcoming degeneracy pressure, or what have you. The root of science is taking a claim, reviewing it with evidence, then coming to a conclusion about it based on the data available to you, or experiments you carried out. (Mythbusters is a perfect illustration of how the scientific mindset works.) And this is what we should be trying to impart on students in science classes. It took college level science classes for me to really get this concept since the real processes of review and discovery have such a low priority in schools which are often just trying to teach for standardized tests and reduce most of the scientific content to simple, route memorization. But once you get it, it really changes how you view everything around you and how easily you start grasping more advanced concepts. A lot of science teachers don’t really see this before they start teaching and as a result, neither do their students. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the hypothetical situation De Dora lays out once again.
Suppose you’re a science teacher and one of your students makes a claim that the Earth is 6,000 years old. If you counter by explaining how this was a popular idea at one time because we didn’t have the knowledge that would lead to radiometric dating and haven’t went out to collect rock deposits or meteorites to determine how old our world really was, you’re doing what any scientist would do. You took a claim and falsified it. Now, were you to suddenly go off on a rant about how anyone who thinks that the Earth is a few thousand years old is just an idiot who should start using his head without any prompting, De Dora might have a point. Likewise, noting that a whole lot of people think that the flora and fauna around us were divinely created and calling this notion a religious myth without going any further, falls along the lines of evaluating a popular claim with science. Had the biology textbook in question excerpted heavily from God is Not Great or the God Delusion, I would have no choice but to agree with De Dora since that would be inappropriate in a public, secular science class.
On the other hand, De Dora’s advocacy for not even touching religious claims because they’re sacred cows is based on our recognition that the 6,000 year figure refers to a religious idea. What about someone who thinks that the Earth is a million years old? Or 20 billion years? Or thinks that the Big Bang was really our machine or alien overlords booting up the Matrix? Just as the Establishment Clause ensures that no one can go after you with dogs and nightsticks because of your religious affiliation, or arrest you for wearing your crucifix, or Star of David, or a hijab, it allows you to claim pretty much anything you want as a tenet of your personal faith. Should we refuse to deal with this in science classes because cautious lawyers and accommodationists advise our teachers to simply ignore and allow anything that can be covered by a religious mantle, there’s potential for all kinds of abuse. When teachers mark errors on tests, students can just balk and demand their points back as the answer they put down represented their religious beliefs and should the teacher fail to respect that, they’ll have their parents and civil rights lawyers beating down the school’s doors.
Every day in science classes across the country, teachers have to make choices. Should they teach the facts and counter religious claims thrown at them, or do they simply try to avoid controversy? If the CFI intends to be helpful and promote science and reason, maybe the person who tries to speak for them should have a better grip on what a scientific education really entails and argue from facts rather than a desire to avoid any ruffled feathers. Playing lawyer from the sidelines while ignoring what lies at the heart of the debate isn’t helpful, nor does is help to promote anything other than confusion and fear of standing up for good science.