5/03/2008

THE HORRORS OF EVOLUTION-FRIENDLY BELIEF

An interesting legal development with possible implications for how I might teach my class has been brought to my attention over at PZ Mwahaha's.

I am concerned about this decision, and have discussed it at some length on this blog in other places: here and here. See, the Discovery Institute and their fellow travelers have argued that where evolution is concerned, they feel public school teachers should be constrained from pointing out that some religions don't have a problem with evolution as it is taught.

Here the discussion has focused on homosexuality, but I'd like to draw your attention to the fact that the Discovery Institute and their minions have argued that where evolution is concerned, they feel public school teachers should be constrained from pointing out that some religions don't have a problem with evolution as it is taught.

Me, I take a dim view of this claim. I think the DI and others are talking through their hat, and that I'm on good constitutional grounds in offering the fact of the diversity of religious views where evolution is concerned as long as I don't advocate any particular view. I'm particular happy to use the PBS series, as it shows one of the author's of my state-approved biology text (Ken Miller) as a believer without making any explicit theological claims.

So, to any legal eagles out there or other interested commenters: am I still on solid constitutional ground, or should I abandon an effective pedagogical strategy until the impact of this particular ruling is understood?

I look forward to comments.

15 comments:

John Pieret said...

Scott:

I've only had a chance to skim the decision (it's 84 pages -- Federal judges love to write) but you are, I think, still on safe ground as long as you don't advocate any particular religious view.

This is the heart of the decision, as far as it concerns your question (from p. 34 with citations omitted):

The handouts on Religion and Homosexuality: Some Facts to Ponder, clearly take the position that churches that condemn homosexuality do so on theologically flawed grounds. For example, the handout states: "Much to the embarrassment of the Vatican, the Catholic theologian Boswell has uncovered proof that, up until the fourteenth century, the church was routinely performing wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples." One of the questions listed under "What does the Bible Say about Homosexuality" contains the question: "Many Fundamentalists suggest that women should remain in the home, submitting to their husbands. Does the Bible especially condemn lesbianism?" And "Some TV Evangelists act as if homosexuality among men were the worst sin. What Biblical texts do they base this on? Is their approach legitimate? The supposedly sweeping Biblical condemnation of homosexuality rests almost exclusively on only eight (brief) passages in the Bible."

As further evidence of criticism of certain religious beliefs, the training manual states, "Many religious traditions have taught, and some continue to teach, that homosexuality is immoral. These condemnations are based primarily on a few isolated passages from the Bible. Historically, Biblical passages taken out of context have been used to justify such things as slavery, the inferior status of women, and the persecution of religious minorities."


The criticism was not really about informing students of religious views about controversial issues different than their own (as the DI would have it) but criticizing particular religious views, especially in a highly contentious way, such as comparing some sects' views on homosexuality to past support for slavery or disputing their theological grounds. On my reading of this decision, simply pointing out that some denominations accept evolution or presenting material from a religious scientist (sans discussion of the theology) would pretty clearly pass muster under the priciples that the judge set out in this case.

One caveat: remember that legal advice is worth exactly what you pay for it. ;-)

Larry Moran said...

In order to say that there's no conflict between evolution and some religions, you would have to be very knowledgeable about those religions.

In that case, could you also tell your students that there is a conflict between evolution and, say, Southern Baptistism?

I'd like to see a school where we could discuss these things in a free an open manner but I understand that in the USA there are laws that restrain this type of education. What I don't understand is the logic behind your question. As long as you are pointing to religions that don't conflict with evolution you are, by implication, identifying those that don't. What does the law say about doing this in a science class?

Ian H Spedding said...

IANL, but I would have thought that if you pointed out, as a matter of fact, that while some faiths accept evolution and other reject it, neither view has any bearing on whether or not it is a good theory in science, you would not be in violation of the Establishment clause.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Hello to everyone who dropped by!

John:

Just because I didn't pay for your opinion, doesn't mean I don't value it!....:)

Ian:

That's a good observation, and of course by the time I get to evolution I would HOPE my students understand that non-falsifiable claims don't count in science, but it probably wouldn't hurt to make sure I hammer that point again before I present this content.

Larry:

Hi, Professor! I don't think I would want to touch the particular tenets of any faith, nor would I want to leave the impression that evolution doesn't pose problems for a lot of traditional religion. The PBS video series I reference pretty much acknowledges why evolution challenges religion, but it says nothing about evolution-friendly theology and precious little theology from the other side, as well. As I recall, a literal commitment to Genesis is mentioned, the fear that (without God) morality ceases to exist, and there is also an allusion to the doctrine of the Fall in a segment where college students are shown discussing their views. But that's it, and I certainly wouldn't spend any time in a science class explicating those views. My main point, that there is a diversity of views, is the one that I think my students find helpful.

John Pieret said...

What I don't understand is the logic behind your question. As long as you are pointing to religions that don't conflict with evolution you are, by implication, identifying those that don't. What does the law say about doing this in a science class?

Merely pointing out that there is a diversity of religious views on evolution favors no particular religion or group of religions, any more than teaching the science of evolution disfavors those religions that reject it, or teaching about the history of religion disfavors science. The issue of the the conflict between some religions and science is at a different level: whether the philosophy of science conflicts with the particular theology.

What is prohibited in our system is government teaching that one is necessarily right and the other is necessarily wrong.

R. Moore said...

Hmm.,.
How do avoid the de facto "endorsement" you give by pointing out the superior attitude of religion X in their scientific views vs. religion Y with their unscientific views?

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Well, I think those of us who are in the public schools should avoid giving the impression that any religion is 'superior' in the sense of having the 'truthiest truth.' Properly speaking, science can't say anything about the truth of any non-falsifiable belief system, and that includes 'theistic evolution' as well as 'young earth creationism.'

Rather, I would simply say that some religions seem to have a conflict with evolutionary theory as it is taught, and others don't. It doesn't seem any different to me than acknowledging that some folk are opposed to abortion on demand, and others aren't, as in the district's sociology for living course. No endorsement should be implied.

R. Moore said...

This is how I see it playing out:

Mr. Hatfield: "...Some religions seem to have a conflict with evolutionary theory as it is taught."

Student X: "My religion sees no conflict. So we are right and other religions are wrong?

Mr. Hatfield: "No...they just have a different viewpoint".

Student Y: "My religion is not wrong, we are just following the inerrant truth of the inerrant scriptures".

Student X: "But all the evidence we have confirms evolutionary theory. There is no evidence that the scriptures are inerrant. So my religion is right because is, and the others are not."

Student Y: "Yes we are, we have a higher authority than science. And you are going to hell!"

Mr. Hatfield: (musing) " This seemed like such a good idea a few minutes ago"

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Student X: "My religion sees no conflict. So we are right and other religions are wrong?

Mr. Hatfield: "No...they just have a different viewpoint".


Sorry, but I think that's the wrong answer. The correct response is:

"Well, science can't say anything about anyone's religious belief. It's non-falsifiable."

Black Lotus said...

I think that the best stance is to leave it out of the science class all together as the conversation can get quite hairy and there is too much room for something bad to happen.

Constitutionally I think that you would be in the clear as long as you do not advocate one religion over another, but why invite the litigation?

badger3k said...

And yet, Scott, that is exactly what you are saying. We are teaching the facts and theories (and maybe some hypotheses) about Evolution, and when you say that some religions see no conflict with reality, while others do, you are by implication stating that they are wrong, at least on that point. Long, run on sentence, sorry. Pointing out that some religions are wrong about reality may not be pointing out which belief is favored by the government (through the teacher), but it seems close to me.

I haven't had this problem yet, although there have been a couple of close calls, but if it came to it, I'd say that these are the facts, here's the evidence, and now you can go do the research, ask the questions, and decide for yourself. I have no problems calling creationist crap crap, but I want my students to think critically on everything, and let them look at their beliefs and come to their own conclusions.

Just my few ounces of gasoline (the newest form of currency).

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Black Lotus:

Constitutionally I think that you would be in the clear as long as you do not advocate one religion over another, but why invite the litigation?

Mmmm. Isn't the fear of groundless reprisal one of the things that prevents evolution from being taught in much of this country already?

badger3k:

We are teaching the facts and theories (and maybe some hypotheses) about Evolution, and when you say that some religions see no conflict with reality, while others do, you are by implication stating that they are wrong, at least on that point. Long, run on sentence, sorry. Pointing out that some religions are wrong about reality may not be pointing out which belief is favored by the government (through the teacher), but it seems close to me.

I have a couple of things to say about that.

1) I am not claiming that some, or even any,religions are in conflict with reality. I am reporting the fact that some religions appear to have problems with a scientific model. You may be conflating the former with the latter, but that really isn't the way science works. Scientific models are attempts to describe reality, but they are not the final Truth with a capital 'T'. I think that some of my critics may miss that point, because they are too eager to wear the seamless garment of the strictly natural. Your mileage may vary!

Anyway, my point is that this criticism (religion vs. reality) has no force if the nature of science is emphasized throughout the course. By the time I get around to teaching evolution, my students have had several doses of the same.

2)If we can't say something that's objectively true and legally defensible, then a new Dark Ages looms as a terrible possibility;

R. Moore said...

...If we can't say something that's objectively true and legally defensible, then a new Dark Ages looms as a terrible possibility...

True, but there is a time and place for everything. And since the evolutionary process could not give a whit about anyone's religious views, the relevance remains questionable.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

True, but there is a time and place for everything.

So said Kohelleth, and later, by paraphrase, the Byrds.

And since the evolutionary process could not give a whit about anyone's religious views, the relevance remains questionable.

Ho, ho. From the (admittedly-speculative) perspective of memetics, the evolutionary process does give a whit, actually, in that there does seem to be selection for those ideas which are best able to propagate themselves, truth value be damned.

But, if we take it as you no doubt meant it (evolutionary process = 'the blind, unguided process of natural selection'), then consider Dawkins' droll comment: "It is almost as if the human mind is designed to misunderstand evolution." By that, he doesn't just mean dogmatism or slack-jawed appeals to the supernatural. He means the sort of misconceptions that virtually everyone has to unlearn: the idea that evolution is 'progress', for example, which is widely held by both its supposed friends and foes.

I am sure that you would not argue that we shouldn't do our best to disabuse our students of these conceptual missteps, about which evolution proper cares not a whit, either. We should correct these perceptions not merely because they are clearly false, but because they barriers to understanding evolution as it is. As far as I'm concerned, the trope that 'evolution is atheism' or 'evolution is the inplacable enemy of religion' is also false, also a barrier to understanding, and I should work to correct it.

After all, the issue here is not whether my religious views nor those of my students have any bearing on the question of whether evolution happens--which of course they don't! The issue is whether or not it there is anything to be gained pedagogically by referencing a spectrum of belief where evolution is concerned. In my experience, the benefits of this approach seem to outweigh the costs, but I admit the teacher needs to really know their stuff before they do it, otherwise they will give the impression that this or that religious view is privileged.

As always, your comments are appreciated.

badger3k said...

Sorry, been busy.

Truth, with a capital-T, is a philosophical concept that has no part of the scientific method, nor of science (nor, I contend, with reality itself). Some beliefs (and not just religious one, look at alt-med) conflict with the facts of reality. Some beliefs conflict with some models (hypotheses, theories, etc). Some do both. The Earth rotates around Sol, not the other way around. A belief that states a geocentric universe is wrong. No ultimate-style "Truth" is necessary for that.

My point was that, in this hyper-sensitive, "I have a right to not be offended by anything" country we live in, even saying that their belief is a pile of fetid dingo's kidneys can get you in trouble. I do agree with you that we should be able to speak truth, even if we have to tidy it up and be tactful, but I've seen too many news articles of teachers getting in trouble due to some fanatic to be hopeful. Still, I try to be as honest as I can, and so far have been good or lucky and have not had any problems.