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.