Biology textbooks should stay out of Religion

April 14, 2010

The case in Tennessee over a biology textbook again raises the question of where to draw the line for separation of church and state. 

Interestingly, this separation of church and state case has become entangled with a separate question, how best to defend science against religion in our culture.

Michael De Dora has offered some reasons why a biology textbook should not throw around the "myth" label at nonscientific accounts of life's origins. Most of those reasons, as I read them, concern the question of how to apply the doctrine of separation of church and state. The gist of these reasons, as they strike me, is that a textbook for students should not be used to express views about religions (excepting textbooks about religion -- such texts would have to talk about religions). A public school which instructs students in views about religions (in a class not about religion) risks a violation of separation of church and state.

It is quite simple. Textbooks for students should be used to instruct students in some field of academic learning.

However, some opponents of religion want to treat this case more as an issue of how best to defend science against religion in our culture. Over at Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers has launched a tirade against De Dora , claiming that De Dora is providing aid and comfort to the enemy.

Let's focus on two propositions, quoted from Myers here. The first is NOT Myers' view, while the second is his view. I happen to agree with both of them.

It is inappropriate for a biology text to directly address a damaging social trend that is hurting the teaching of science.

When religious ideas directly contradict the scientific evidence, we must be able to point out that they are wrong.

The reason why these two propositions can be compatible is because this third proposition is correct:

School textbooks are not the right place to explicitly instruct children in "correct" views about religion.

Myers seems to think that school classrooms are excellent places to teach children about where religions are correct or incorrect. The intent of separation of church and state cannot agree, sorry. Biology textbooks have no business mentioning Christian creationism in the first place, much going out of their way to pin labels like "myth" against specific religious views. Must a biology textbook also mention every other nonscientific origin story just to label it myth too? Does Myers think that history textbooks must launch criticisms against the pseudo-historical myths in the Old Testament, or that astronomy textbooks must launch criticisms against the pseudo-cosmological myths in Hindu scriptures? Classrooms are becoming more diverse, after all....

The best way to prevent religion from getting into the classroom is to prevent it from getting into the classroom. Conduct the culture wars however you want in the public world of adult free speech. Biology textbooks can teach biology. If biology textbooks teach biology, what is going wrong? Myers is worried over dangers of silencing scientists. I can't see where any scientist would be silenced in cases like this. Science textbooks speak eloquently about science and their learning contradicts some religious stories. That sounds about right. Scientists have plenty of forums to forthrightly state their negative views about religion.

Why should defenders of science adopt the tactics of the religious to indoctrinate children? It is enough to fight the good fight to ensure that biology textbooks teach science and leave out religion.


#1 Randy on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 1:49pm

Religion already comes into the classroom in the heads of the students.  When you teach math, you teach that 1+2*3 is 7, and you also teach that it is NOT 6.  Because students will assume that it is 6.  You need to explain why it is not a matter of opinion (unless you intentionally interpret the symbols in a non-standard way).  It’s the same for origins.  You need to explain that the best information we currently have strongly favors the Big Bang + evolution, as opposed to religious explanations.  It’s never enough to explain what is.  You must also explain what is not, or you are not doing the job.

#2 Daniel Schealler on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 2:24pm

@John Shook

School textbooks are not the right place to explicitly instruct children in “correct” views about religion.

You’d have a point, but for one problem. The biology textbook in question wasn’t doing this. I’m calling (unintended) straw-man.

This whole thing is turning into a bit of a storm in a teacup. I think people aren’t actually referring to the textbook any more. The textbook has become the pretext for people on either side of the fence to take pot-shots at one another.

John, did you read the full quote from the textbook in question that got Mr. Zimmerman so hot under the collar in the first place? I get the feeling that you didn’t. I mentioned this as a comment to De Dora’s thread, but it might pay to repeat it here for anyone who’s missed it. Here’s the full quote:

In the 1970s and 1980s, antievolutionists in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana passed identical bills calling for “equal time” for teaching evolution and creationism, the biblical myth that the universe was created by the Judeo-Christian god in six days. But a court ruled that the “equal-time” bill was unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the separation of church and state.

Note that PZ has updated his original blog post to include this information.

The history of the concept of evolution is an appropriate subject for a biology textbook - particularly in America, where the cultural*  controversy surrounding the subject is so prominent.

This history grants context that is not helpful in understanding the current form of the theory of evolution - showing the bits that used to be considered true, but are now known to be wrong (e.g. Lamarckism). Observing how scientific theories change over time also helps in understanding scientific methodology. Additionally, observing the cultural reactions to scientific theories and their consequences are useful for demonstrating the importance and role of science in understanding reality as it really is.

Take-home Message
The original text correctly categorized creationism as a Biblical myth. It did so because it was appropriate for the context of teaching the subject of evolution in a biology classroom.

* Special emphasis on the term ‘cultural’. There is a controversy around evolution vs. intelligent design/creationism, but it is a cultural and social phenomenon. There’s no scientific controversy on the subject.

#3 Daniel Schealler on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 2:28pm

* Bugger. Consider:

This history grants context that is not helpful in understanding the current form of the theory of evolution - showing the bits that used to be considered true, but are now known to be wrong (e.g. Lamarckism).

I originally had a double-negative in this sentence, but I decided to strip it out. Unfortunately, I only did half the job. That should read:

This history grants context that is helpful in understanding the current form of the theory of evolution - showing the bits that used to be considered true, but are now known to be wrong (e.g. Lamarckism).

Silly me. My kingdom for an edit function.

#4 Matt Miller on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 3:18pm

@ John Shook - Let’s take a closer look at the first statement with which you profess agreement:

It is inappropriate for a biology text to directly address a damaging social trend that is hurting the teaching of science.

The “damaging social trend” at issue is not some abstract effort to decrease the effective teaching of science in general. We’re talking about a large, consistent effort to subvert the teaching of a prevailing and well-supported area within biological science, not by the advancement of alternative data, but by the political imposition of religious faith. So, to rephrase the statement to better capture the current reality:

It is inappropriate for a biology text to directly address a cultural context in which an effort is being made to block clear biological evidence using political force.

Do you still agree with such a statement? Disallowing science texts from addressing the social context in which science is conducted would be doing a grave disservice to future generations of would-be scientists.
I get the impression that what’s being said is really:

Science text books shouldn’t be allowed to talk frankly and accurately about alternative viewpoints on science, if members of a popular religion could plausibly be offended.

#5 eric (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 3:54pm

Randy is right on in his assessment.

There is incongruity between religious beliefs and scientific beliefs that cannot be ignored and should be addressed whenever the topic is approached. If a good portion of religious people today took seriously that lightning came from Zeus, it is the job of science teachers and textbooks to directly say that such a belief has no merit within the realm of science.

To teach a high school student that the earth is around 4.5 billion years old is going to directly contradict his other “teaching” that it is 6000-10000 years old, and he is going to know it. To ignore this discrepency, in the area in which it is being discussed, is disingenuous to education and to our ability as a society to move forward.

#6 Simpleton on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 5:14pm


Religion should stay out of biology texts

#7 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 5:56am

I think you got it backwards, Biology MUST stay out of religion.  Whether or not a religion wants to include biology is an entirely different matter and isn’t the business of anyone uninvolved with that religion.

#8 Albert Rogers (Guest) on Saturday April 17, 2010 at 7:29am

It seems that the word deemed objectionable here is “myth”. I’d have the textbook (perhaps all science textbooks) start with a clear statement of the difference between scientific evidence and cultural beliefs.
I have a Hindu friend who holds that the Hindu myths are valuable, regardless of their lack of historical veracity. “Myth” need not be a derogatory word.

But the point is that “explanations” that have no more probative value than their existence in what ancient scribes wrote down, or oral tradition even, must always yield to actual experimental evidence and logical deductions therefrom.
T.H. Huxley’s “lay sermon”, delivered in St. Martin’s Hall on Sunday, January 7th, 1866, contains the following assertion:
“The improver of natural knowledge absolutely refuses to acknowledge authority, as such. For him, skepticism is the highest of duties; blind faith the one unpardonable sin.”

It can be found on the Internet, and is worth the trouble.

If I’m not mistaken, Huxley was speaking on the bicentennial of the founding of the Royal Society, as its President.

#9 James Forsberg (Guest) on Saturday April 17, 2010 at 4:03pm

As a biology teacher at a public high school, I have yet to encounter this as a serious problem.  I can understand both sides, but in teaching the science of evolution, I don’t think there really has a to be such a conflict.

I haven’t found it necessary at the high school level to openly call out religious views just to say that they’re wrong.  I think all that would accomplish is to make the quiet kid from a religious family feel alienated.

On the other hand, in the course of teaching the actual science behind evolution and geology, if ever a student asks a question about the idea of a 6000 year old earth I treat her like the intelligent young person that she is by explaining exactly what is known and why.  (FYI: it’s not just in textbooks, but virtually every decent educational video that I’ve seen which discusses the history of Darwin and the development of his ideas mentions the religious basis of the prevailing wisdom.)

Explain to these students that estimates like Archbishop Ussher’s were attempts by early thinkers to provide an evidence-based age of the earth, one that seemed reasonable at the time.  Explain that our standards of evidence and the tools available for exploring our world have improved over the years.  When the best evidence available was a reading of the genealogies found in ancient historical and religious texts, then it made sense to use them.  But now we know so much more about the world around us from the study of physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, etc, that our questions can be answered directly from multiple, independent lines of evidence.  How do know that this modern information is more reliable than ancient wisdom?  Well, now we’re talking science!  It’s ok to explain that when it comes to the natural world, knowledge claims derived from personal anecdotes, historical records, and traditional beliefs will never trump a well-designed experiment that can be repeated by any independent researcher.  Hopefully, this type of thinking will already have been established earlier in the school year while discussing the process of science.  When this is done in a knowledgeable, matter-of-fact, yet sensitive way, the findings and methods of science can be made more palatable and far less threatening.  It’s not necessary to hurt anyone’s feelings in the process.

As a teacher (and not just a “professor” who spews forth information), one must always ascertain and consider the students’ prior knowledge and frame of mind.  Not to do so is like talking to a brick wall; you may have given the most beautiful lecture in the world, but if the students have no context (or worse, they have a context that makes them suspicious), all your efforts are going nowhere.  If a student is truly stubborn on the issue, it does no good to be in their face to berate them or belittle them for being wrong.  But I’d say it’s ok to explain to them where the figure of 6000 years came from, and why all of the scientific evidence says something vastly different.  Leave it to them to decide which is more reasonable.  They’re smarter than we sometimes give them credit for being.

I agree that for any person today to insist that the earth is only 6000 years old is to ignore the last 400+ years of scientific progress.  To put it simply, today we know more about the world than people did in centuries past.  And it really is irrelevant whether or not that fact is inconvenient for certain religiously minded people.  The age of the earth and the evolution of life on it are empirically verifiable facts – which is exactly what we teach, what we MUST teach, in science class.

#10 Albert Rogers (Guest) on Saturday April 17, 2010 at 10:18pm

Dear Mr. Forsberg,
There’s an even more interesting computation than Archbishop Ussher’s.
The great physicist Lord Kelvin, professor of physics in Glasgow University, probably then the world’s greatest expert on thermodynamics, performed an impeccable and well-informed calculation of how long it would take the Earth after its dust cloud condensed into its original molten state to reach the temperatures measurable by heat gradients found in certain deep mine shafts.

His conclusion was that the Earth’s age was between 20 million and 100 million years! Much larger than the Archbishop’s computation, but far too small to account for calcium carbonate from the seabed forming the peaks of the Himalaya.

His available data did not include the existence of radioactivity, which is what still drives the tectonic forces.

#11 James Forsberg (Guest) on Sunday April 18, 2010 at 8:31am

@Albert Rogers,

Agreed, Kelvin’s calculations are also quite interesting and useful for historical reference (though 200+ years after Ussher).  It shows nicely how our standards of evidence have improved over the years, moving away from human-generated historical record and toward better and better empirical sources of data.  Now, of course, we can radiometrically date various isotopes in our oldest known rocks.  But Ussher and others are relevant because they show just how tenuous the 6000 year old figure actually is, the one which so many religious people cling to.  The bible never actually says how old the earth is, so I don’t see it as a fundamentally religious question.  It is an empirically relevant question whose answer should incorporate the best available empirical evidence.

#12 danceswithanxiety on Sunday April 18, 2010 at 1:14pm

John Shook: “The best way to prevent religion from getting into the classroom is to prevent it from getting into the classroom.”

Let me see if I understand the proposal.

The setting (I think you’ll recognize it): large numbers of students will enter the classroom believing that current biological science is a hotbed of controversy between “atheist materialist Darwinists” and “cool-headed ID theorists.” Many students will enter the classroom believing the latter and despising the former; their parents and church leaders will see it the same way.

As they page through the textbook, they see only the “Darwinist” view represented, and in abundance. They check the index for the leading lights of ID and creationism, but don’t find them. They check for “Genesis,” and again, no entries. They check for “creation,” and it, too, is absent. Indeed, the text contains not a single mention of anything they’d understand as “their side”—god, Jesus, Bible, scripture, etc.

So long as they also don’t find the word “myth” in the text, they’ll go merrily forward with the cirriculum as given, untroubled with the thought that their deeply-held convictions have been excluded or denigrated in an unfair, let alone unconstitutional, way. Their parents and church leaders will agree: “Yep, they didn’t call it a myth, so it’s A-OK with us.”

Is that about right?

Sorry, but this is absurd.

There has been so much back and forth over this. Might CFI get in touch with some legal scholars to address the actual language of the textbook and speak to whether it consititutes a breach of church-state separation as currently understood in the courts? I don’t think it does, but I recognize I am no scholar of constitutional law.

#14 Albert Rogers (Guest) on Monday April 26, 2010 at 5:40pm

There’s something worse than the opposition to Darwin’s explanation of evolution, and it’s even more widespread.
Any religion that believes in the power of prayer to alter the course of Nature is fostering a dangerous delusion, as even the 17th century’s Baruch Spinoza realized.
Even if there is exactly one Almighty God, the idea makes no sense. If Israel’s god overthrows the god of the Philistines, it is perfectly logical. But if Israel’s god is the One and Only, then He must have in the beginning established the principles of operation of the Universe, and if He sees fit to be pestered into breaking them, then He must have lost his Mind.

The majority of adherents of the three dominant monotheistic religions do not get this, and the Pope not too long ago reiterated his belief in “miracles” of the nature-violating kind.

But the whole of not only science, but of law and historical research, depends upon the impossibility of “miraculous” alterations to the evidence.

I will of course, like J.B.S. Haldane, abandon this opinion on the day that fossil rabbits are found in the pre-Cambrian strata with clear evidence of no human tampering other than by prayer.

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