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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Secularism cuts both ways

I haven't yet read the full judgment in this court case, only a couple of media reports, so maybe I'm missing some facts. I'll see if I can learn more. On the face of it, though, the case was correctly decided.

A teacher in an American public school made a statement to the effect that creationism is superstitious nonsense (plus, I gather, various other anti-religious comments). This was found by the court to contravene the freedom of religion clauses in the First Amendment to the US constitution.

There's been quite a bit of fuss about this in the secularist blogosphere this morning, but I don't think it's justified. The case concerned a trivial incident, so any actual damages should be minimal (these are yet to be assessed). Perhaps nothing more than a declaration of the parties' rights is required, though I expect that more relief than that will be given. But in any event, the finding of law appears correct.

Teachers in public schools should just teach the science, or the history, or whatever subject it is that they are paid to teach. If some of the content is inconsistent with a student's religion, then it's up to the student to work out the reconciliation. The First Amendment does not give anyone the right to go through life without being exposed to scientific or other knowledge that may happen to be inconsistent with her particular religious beliefs. How could it? People have all kinds of strange beliefs that are inconsistent with research by scientists, historians, and others. A teacher does nothing wrong if simply teaching secular knowledge in a religion-blind way. In particular, there is nothing wrong with teaching well-supported science, such as the theory of evolution. But the teacher shouldn't be expressing either a religious view or an anti-religious view.

I do realise that this can be a fine line, and it is going to get more and more difficult to maintain strictly in a litigious society such as the United States. There could be embarrasssing situations for teachers, and an overly-officious application of the principle could chill valuable discussions in such subjects as English literature, where it may be necessary to explore the worldviews of authors and the responses of students. Courts should allow teachers some margin for discretion, though not too much margin or we'll find teachers exploiting it to indoctrinate school children with blatantly religious views.

Be that as it may, this particular case looks clear-cut to me. From a quick look at the reports, I can't see anything in the situation that forced the teacher to refer to a particular religious view as superstitious nonsense (even though that's obviously what it was).

We need to be consistent about secularism. Religious teachers in American public schools don't get to teach that religion - or a particular religion - is correct. Teachers in public schools don't get to teach that a particular religious viewpoint that they disagree with is incorrect. If they teach material that happens to be inconsistent with a student's religious view, that's fine - they do so in a religion-blind way for the secular purpose of imparting knowledge. But it's gratuitous for them to go the extra step and express the conclusion that some religious position (such as creationism) is wrong.

Unless there are facts not obvious in the media reports, the court has simply applied these secular principles, which we should all subscribe to.

This case also highlights why it's so important that legal training and intense advocacy experience teaches judges to be objective. As today's blogosphere discussion shows, it's obviously very difficult for people to resist the temptation to cheer for their "side" - the side for which they feel sympathy - on every issue that comes up. But that is not the role of judges; they are there to apply the law to the facts, without playing favourites.

We need to know that our legal rights are safe in the hands of people who have the capacity to distance themselves from personal likes and dislikes and to apply the law neutrally. What would worry me far more than this case would be a judge who seemed not to be neutral and objective, or who displayed a shaky understanding of legal fundamentals, even if my "side" of a dispute won the case in question. I suggest we not be too quick to attack judges just because the side that we're sympathetic to loses a particular case. The important thing is that sound legal principles be upheld, even if the result in a particular case seems unfortunate in the sense that the "bad guys" have a win.

We should criticise judges when they seem to fudge the law to produce an outcome that they favour, even if we are sympathetic to the winning party. When judges apply sound legal principles objectively, based on a plausible construction of the facts, they are simply doing their job - a very important job in any society, and absolutely critical for the functioning of a liberal democracy.

11 comments:

John Pieret said...

A very good analysis for someone in the antipodes. Incidently, the judge found no violation in several other instances of statements by the teacher that were quite harsh on religion but which were, in context, relevant to the subject he was teaching. The judge's opinion was thoughtful and appears legally supportable, though there can always be circumstances that didn't make it into his decision that an appellate court could find to be grounds for reversal.

The school district will probably have to pay the plaintiff's legal fees (which can be substantial) and will be enjoined from doing it again (i.e. take steps to prevent similar occurances involving its employees).

Emlyn said...

Would the legal situation be different if the teacher had said "Creationism is wrong"?

Russell Blackford said...

In context, it might have made a difference. Hard to say, though. There's an inevitable clash between teachers having some pedagogical discretion in what they say and trying to avoid them doing or saying anything that tends to impose or suppress religious beliefs.

It's not satisfactory, but at least we can understand why ... and this teacher must have known he was sailing close to the wind.

John Pieret said...

In all these things, context is everything. If it was a science teacher in the middle of a geology course discussing the age of the Earth and responding to a student's question about something Henry Morris wrote about the biblical flood and it was clear that he was talking about "scientific creationism," it would probably be okay. If it was a sociology teacher talking about various religious ideas in America, it might not be.

Jerry Coyne said...

Creationism is not a religion, it's a particular point of view about where the world came from. The "creator" could have been space aliens (and some think they are). I think the judge was wrong. Had the teacher criticized Chrstianity, or Islam, that would have been a violation of the first amendment. But to criticize the view that the world did not evolve but was created--I don't think think that crosses the line.

Russell Blackford said...

There's a good discussion of this going on over at Richard Dawkins' site.

Russell Blackford said...

If Jerry comes back, though, he might want to respond to this aspect. I do actually think that Creationism is a religious doctrine (though an entire religion). That's why it's unconstitutional to teach it in schools in the US. It's not a religion, but it's a doctrine of some Christian fundamentalists and has little other basis. Behe style Intelligent Design could more plausibly be passed off as not a religious doctrine - the Designer could be an alien or something - but it's been established, by now, that the attempt is a sham.

All that being the case, I don't see how we can claim that gratuitous and emotive disparagement of Creationism by a teacher in a public school is any more acceptable under the First Amendment than gratuitous and emotive disparagement of any other religious doctrine, such as, say, the doctrine of transubstantiation.

That said, it can potentially get very complicated. Disparagement of homeopathy, which doesn't seem to be a doctrine of any religion, but a piece of standalone pseudoscience, doesn't seem to create any problems. But disparagement of the doctrine that homosexuality is a sin may. The courts would not want to prevent debates in school about such issues as gay marriage, but a teacher could get into trouble if she disparaged the Catholic doctrine on the subject. It's tricky.

For better or worse, we live in a world very different from that of the Founding Fathers or John Locke, a world in which many popular religious doctrines now seem to be plainly crazy to reality-based people like all of us, religious sects don't normally keep to themselves (the Amish being a dramatic exception), most teaching of children is done by the state, and we want to get children and teenagers to think critically, which sometimes necessitates provoking them. I don't think it's easy for the American courts when a situation like this arises.

I'm hoping that my next book will be on the whole subject of religious freedom in the modern world - examined from a philosophical perspective - so good discussion of such cases is valuable to me. (But, of course, we'll have to see if I can interest a publisher in the idea ... and convince a publisher that I'm the person for the job.)

Russell Blackford said...

^Eek, in the fourth line I meant to write "though NOT an entire religion".

Robert Byers said...

AMEN mostly.
I am a biblical creationist Canadian.
I have always argued that if the U.S schools can not say the God/Genesis is true then it can not be taught it is not true. The separation concept is a separation between parties and not just one party from the other.

Likewise as you said even if origin ideas infringe on religion its not the too stop the discussion in science class. So if positive arguments for creationism happen to infringe on religion this is not to bring censorship of these beliefs.
Origin issues are not to be interfered with because they inadvertently advocate against or for religious ideas and presumptions.
The founders of America were a very Protestant christian people and never put into their great constitution anything that could be construed to deny the teaching of origins from concepts of God and the bible.
Every evolutionist in america should read this from Mr Blackford.

Robert Byers said...

AMEN mostly.
I am a biblical creationist Canadian.
I have always argued that if the U.S schools can not say the God/Genesis is true then it can not be taught it is not true. The separation concept is a separation between parties and not just one party from the other.

Likewise as you said even if origin ideas infringe on religion its not the too stop the discussion in science class. So if positive arguments for creationism happen to infringe on religion this is not to bring censorship of these beliefs.
Origin issues are not to be interfered with because they inadvertently advocate against or for religious ideas and presumptions.
The founders of America were a very Protestant christian people and never put into their great constitution anything that could be construed to deny the teaching of origins from concepts of God and the bible.
Every evolutionist in america should read this from Mr Blackford.

Robert Byers said...

AMEN mostly.
I am a biblical creationist Canadian.
I have always argued that if the U.S schools can not say the God/Genesis is true then it can not be taught it is not true. The separation concept is a separation between parties and not just one party from the other.

Likewise as you said even if origin ideas infringe on religion its not the too stop the discussion in science class. So if positive arguments for creationism happen to infringe on religion this is not to bring censorship of these beliefs.
Origin issues are not to be interfered with because they inadvertently advocate against or for religious ideas and presumptions.
The founders of America were a very Protestant christian people and never put into their great constitution anything that could be construed to deny the teaching of origins from concepts of God and the bible.
Every evolutionist in america should read this from Mr Blackford.