Should Biology Textbooks Include “Biblical Myth” Language?

April 12, 2010

Last week, we learned that a father in Tennessee is fighting to ban a high school biology textbook describing creationism as “the biblical myth that the universe was created by the Judeo-Christian God in 7 days.” Kurt Zimmermann charges that the book, "Asking About Life" is biased against Christianity because use of the word “myth” could “mislead, belittle and discourage students in believing in creationism and pointedly calls the Bible a myth.” Zimmerman recommends instead that “non-biased textbooks" be used. You can watch the (soft-ball) interview Zimmerman did with FOX News here.

Zimmerman seemingly has support from some on the six-member book reviewing committee who deemed certain material "questionable "; but that committee also concluded, using a different interpretation of the word "myth," that the book was "appropriate." Moreover, the local school board has tabled the issue for now, and it seems unlikely there will be changes. I am admittedly not an evolutionary biologist, but before dismissing the case out of hand, and/or reacting with the oft-heard "religious fundamentalists are at it again" -- as many of my secularist friends have -- let us weigh the issue against the backdrop of church-state separation in the U.S. Consider the following material from P.Z. Myers, which represents a commonly heard secularist response to these types of stories:

"[The statement is] not misleading at all, it doesn't belittle students except in the sense that students who believe something that is wrong will be faced with a direct statement that they are wrong, and I should hope schools would discourage people from believing in stupid and fallacious mush!"

Myers and I would likely agree that schools should teach our children how to think critically, and about what we know -- regardless of how that plays out for their beliefs. However, our government -- and thus our public schooling system -- is supposed to remain neutral on matters of religion. Federal and state governments cannot aid one religion, aid all religions, prefer one religion over another, or prefer non-religion to religion. This means that while I agree with Myers that the Biblical creation story is a "myth," the public school classroom doesn't seem to be the place where our message should be pushed. More specifically, the purpose of biology class is not to reject religious ideas; it is to inform students about biology*. There is no scientific reason for the textbook to discuss Christianity or label its creation story a "myth"; it has nothing to do with teaching the theory of evolution or biology generally. And While Zimmerman overstates his case to some degree -- the passage does not refer to the entire Bible as a "myth"-- directly rejecting specific stories in The Bible still shows preference.

Myers continues to write that this biology textbook "doesn't go as far as I'd like ... It would be nice if we did have a high school biology book that called all of Christianity and Judaism a collection of myths, but we don't. Yet." But I hope we never have a high school biology textbook that refers to our religious stories as myths. Science classrooms should teach science. Biology class should, at least on evolution, cover the work of Charles Darwin and other early scientists theorizing about evolution; it should tackle the meaning of the word "theory" in science; it should discuss the enormous advances in evolutionary biology since Darwin's time; it should talk about the multiple lines of evidence supporting the theory of evolution; and much, much more. By the end, there should be no doubt that evolution is as close to a fact as we have. Talk about discouraging students from believing in creationism...

Will this science-only approach negatively impact the quality of public school education? Myers seems to think so.

"You see, the only level of education we're allowed to raise children to is the Kurt Zimmerman level…which is a little scary. I was kind of hoping that sending my kids off to school would produce progeny who are smarter than me , and now I learn that they're only supposed to produce kids who are dumber than Kurt Zimmerman? How dismaying."

Why is it that our biology classes -- or even public schools generally -- must reject religious beliefs to really educate children? I think we will find that, even if decided that our children would be better off hearing critique of their parents' religious beliefs, this question is irrelevant, as according to our laws we cannot do such a thing, nor do I think it is appropriate as evidenced here. In turn, the answer seems to be that we should ensure our high school science teachers are instructing students on how to think like a scientist, and imparting to students the body of knowledge scientists have accrued (and that all of our teachers generally are doing similar in their respective fields). From there, the children take that knowledge as they will. At the same time, Richard Dawkins and other writers who have done a fabolous job popularizing scientific knowledge should continue to do what they do so that hopefully we can collectively accomplish the social and political change we need.

*It is important to note that creationism and related ideas like intelligent design do belong to the field of religion, not science; they are theology and philosophy ( bad theology and philosophy, but that's another matter). Hence, science cannot reject them in full -- for how does the scientist answer the claim that God made it look like there's been evolution, and that we are merely natural products, to test our faith? Or that God has been the hand behind the process of evolution? A scientist must here put on the philosopher's cap to continue.

--

Postscript: there have been some misunderstandings about my essay. This is a short attempt to clear them up.

1. “Context matters.” I agree. Someone has been good enough to find the entire textbook passage. Here it is:

“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.”

I don’t know how much the context proves my argument wrong. The textbook still refers to the Biblical creation story as a “myth.” Which brings us to ...

2. “The word ‘myth’ has different meanings.” It is true that the word “myth,” by reference to dictionary , does not necessarily imply falsity. However, I would argue that in everyday use, the word “myth” does indeed do that. I rarely hear the word “myth” used without it referring to a false story (usually from ancient thinking). In fact, if the textbook instead said “biblical account,” I wouldn’t have written this post (nor would we likely ever have heard of Kurt Zimmerman). But use of the word “myth” here seems to imply creationism is false. Now, I obviously think it is -- but remember my post held the case against the backdrop of church-state separation.

3. “You are defending creationism.” My endnote apparently got people thinking I was defending creationism, specifically on the grounds that science cannot fully refute it. The first thing to note here is that my post was specifically about the denial of creationism in the high school biology classroom . But to the point, I wrote that science is a tool with its limits, and that creationist arguments are fully responded to by reference to science (say, the age of Earth and universe) and philosophy (say, the nature of God). That science cannot fully answer every human argument is not a knock on science -- it’s an admission of its purview and of the need to realize nuance where it exists -- nor is it a defense of creationism. Now, I am admittedly not a philosopher of science, so I could be wrong about this distinction between science and philosophy (though I have reason to think otherwise ; also see the talk "Atheism, Science and Politics" ). But even if I'm wrong, that doesn’t mean I'm defending creationism.

4. “But creationists exist; the controversy must be covered.” The fact that the social controversy over creationism and evolution exists does not mean the biology textbooks should take up the debate. It might be meant for public schools generally -- in, for instance, a philosophy (or sociology) course -- but that’s a different conversation. Even if biology courses were going to teach background on the theory, as I would admit they probably should to some minor extent, then textbooks obviously have to acknowledge the existence of dissent. But I don’t see a church-state issue with merely mentioning that religion exists. Denying religious ideas is the step that puts us in a bind.

5. “Teaching facts is the same thing as denying falsities.” Some have argued that teaching 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; 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. The courts simply will not rule that biology classes are unconstitutional because they teach children about biology, no matter the implications of gained knowledge; but they will rule it unconstitutional if biology teachers or texts specifically criticize religious ideas in the biology classroom. This should be fine, too, as we do not need to deny religious ideas to teach our children about biology.

6. “Denying creationism is the same thing as denying 2+2=5.” I can’t imagine teachers have had to seriously entertain this argument, but suffice to say that the belief 2+2=5 is not a religious belief. Others have posited the geocentric argument. But again, geocentrism was not a specifically religious idea -- in fact, it originated with Aristotle and the ancient Greeks.

Comments:

#51 Daniel Schealler on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 5:08pm

@Michael (again, sorry)

Just as a point of clarification, how would you have reacted if the original quote had said this:

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 account 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.

I’d originally tried the word ‘story’ there, but the term story can also carry connotation of untruth such as when a parent reprimands a child to ‘Not tell stories’. I think ‘account’ is neutral enough. If there’s a better neutral term that could have been used, I’m open to hearing it.

With the above passage in mind, what would you think of the following two questions:
1) Is the above passage an appropriate inclusion in a biology textbook that discusses evolution?
2) Does the above passage violate the establishment clause of the American constitution?

#52 Michael De Dora on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 5:15pm

@Daniel,

If that’s what the book actually read, I wouldn’t see the issue. Biology teachers at some point probably should hit on historical background; and that passage would not in any way deny a religious idea.

#53 Daniel Schealler on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 5:19pm

That actually clears up a lot about your blog post. I’d suggest writing in a postscript to that effect. I can’t speak for everyone, but to me the inclusion of simple acknowledgement changes how I interpret the entire article.

#54 A. Noyd (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 5:53pm

Michael De Dora (#49)
“One imparts scientific knowledge. The other denies a religious idea. One is constitutional; the other is not.”

Is this your belief or are you trying to paraphrase how our government would approach the issue?  Because the scientific knowledge “denies” the religious idea simply by being true.  The only way to say that one is constitutional and the other isn’t requires we somehow ignore the law of non-contradiction.  I hope you can see the problem.

#55 Michael De Dora on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 5:55pm

Scientific knowledge denies many crazy ideas, A Noyd. There is no need for the high school biology teacher to actually go into denying all of them.

#56 Michael De Dora on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 5:59pm

Thanks, Daniel, I may do just that.

#57 Deen (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 6:09pm

Yes. One imparts scientific knowledge. The other denies a religious idea. One is constitutional; the other is not.

But the one implies the other! When science says that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, it already denies that the earth is 6000 years old, even if it doesn’t do so explicitly. Your logic really doesn’t compute for me at all. Are you saying that constitutionality depends on whether an argument is made explicitly or it’s only implied?

There is no reason for a high school biology teacher to get into denying specific religious ideas in a high school biology class.

So when a student makes the claim that the earth is 6000 years old instead of 4.5 billion years, a teacher can’t even comment, even though he can show scientifically that this claim is false?

I really don’t understand this. Maybe because it’s getting very late here. I’m off to bed.

#58 A. Noyd (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 6:23pm

Michael De Dora (#55)
“Scientific knowledge denies many crazy ideas, A Noyd. There is no need for the high school biology teacher to actually go into denying all of them.”

Well, then this hypothetical teacher can’t teach biology since biology itself denies religious ideas.  If the biology teacher teaches the science, and the science denies the religious ideas, it follows that the teacher must deny certain religious ideas.  She can’t avoid denying religious ideas without also avoiding teaching certain scientific facts.

#59 Michael De Dora on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 6:41pm

All,

If you’re interested in reading, I’ve added a postscript to my essay. It might help sort out some confusion.

#60 Daniel Schealler on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 6:42pm

@A. Noyd

Actually, that’s not quite it. Sorry if I’m stepping in, but here’s how I understand Michael’s position.

1) It’s constitutional for a science textbook to assert a scientifically proven fact about reality, regardless of whether or not that fact contradicts a religious opinion. Examples include; the earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old, humans and chimps descend from a common ancestor, the earth orbits the sun, etc.
2) It’s unconstitutional for a science textbook to specifically assert that a religious claim is wrong.

So positive statements about the state of science are okay, and may freely ignore religious concerns. But by Michael’s reasoning, negative comments that specifically mention religious claims are disallowed under the constitution.

I sympathize with you (A. Noyd) in that I think this is a bit nuts. I think that that specifically mentioning that a specific religious claim is wrong is frequently appropriate in science education…. But the nature of Michael’s argument isn’t about what’s sensible - it’s about what is or isn’t constitutional, which don’t necessarily mean the same thing.

#61 Geoffrey (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 7:25pm

There is no reason for a high school biology teacher to get into denying specific religious ideas in a high school biology class.

There is no reason for a high school math teacher to get into denying specific religious ideas like π = 3 in a high school math class.

#62 morisal (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 7:34pm

“Even if biology courses were going to teach background on the theory, as I would admit they probably should to some minor extent, then textbooks obviously have to acknowledge the existence of dissent. But I don’t see a church-state issue with merely mentioning that religion exists. Denying religious ideas is the step that puts us in a bind.”

Wow.

It’s OK to mention religion, but not to deny religious ideas?  In a science class?  Seriously?  Is CFI abandoning skeptical inquiry?

They should cover the background “to some minor extent”?  You know, one of the FIRST things one learns about evolution id the history of previous theories, including Aristotelian and Lamarckian evolutionary ideas (e.g., Scala Naturae).  Should that be ruled out as well as a fitting subject because it’s more background than students should know… or is this problem just with an explicitly religious idea?

Maybe Fox News can give you your old job back.

#63 Morbo (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 8:22pm

@Deen,
“Are you saying that it’s OK to teach people that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, but it’s wrong to teach them that the earth isn’t 6000 years old?”

@Michael De Dora,
“Yes. One imparts scientific knowledge. The other denies a religious idea. One is constitutional; the other is not. There is no reason for a high school biology teacher to get into denying specific religious ideas in a high school biology class.”

So I take it you are willing to apply this logic to all “specific religious ideas”?

#64 Roy Sablosky (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 8:23pm

I am deeply disappointed to see work such as this published under the auspices of the Center for Inquiry.

It is true enough that “our government … is supposed to remain neutral on matters of religion.” But to say that this implies that “Federal and state governments cannot … prefer non-religion to religion” is like saying that they are enjoined from preferring sense to nonsense, or honesty to fraud, or democracy to theocracy.

It’s not just wrong. It’s deeply misleading. Here’s why.

First, the word “prefer” is wrong. The constitution does not prefer secularism to religion, and government does not work by preferring one thing over another. Preferring is what people do, not governments. We allow people’s preferences to be arbitrary and unconstrained. The government is supposed to help us run a society that is fair for everyone no matter what their personal preferences are (within limits, of course). Some people prefer religion to atheism, and some prefer it the other way around. The government does not prefer, it legislates.

Second, there is an insidious misdirection in the construction of the sentence in which the word “prefer” occurs: “Federal and state governments cannot aid one religion, aid all religions, prefer one religion over another, or prefer non-religion to religion.” The statement is deliberately designed to cast “non-religion” as one of the varieties of religious belief (and therefore undeserving of special treatment compared to any other variety). But in the context of public policy, the word “secularism” would be much more appropriate than “non-religion”. And secularism is not a variety of religious belief. That is exactly what secularism is not.

The First Amendment dictates that the government of the United States be run on secular principles. This does indeed prohibit the use of religious propaganda for teaching materials. But science is not religious propaganda. Science is secular. It is not opposed to religion (though the religious often pretend to take it that way) but indifferent to it – necessarily, Constitutionally indifferent.

The Constitution does not forbid materials based on scientific truth; it demands them. Those who object to secular education for religious reasons have misunderstood the purpose of education, and indeed of civilization itself. This Tennessee parent has no ground for complaint. He could use some educating himself.

As could the bloggers who think he has a decent case. They’ve missed the point so completely, it’s not even funny.

#65 A. Noyd (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 8:57pm

Daniel Schealler (#60)
“Actually, that’s not quite it. Sorry if I’m stepping in, but here’s how I understand Michael’s position. ... But the nature of Michael’s argument isn’t about what’s sensible - it’s about what is or isn’t constitutional, which don’t necessarily mean the same thing. “

Note that in #54 I made a specific point of asking if De Dora was speaking for himself or trying to paraphrase the government’s position.  His reply made no indication he, himself, understood the absurdity.  While the government can indulge in absurdities to appease several groups at once, I don’t know that De Dora quite realizes the problem.

In the body of his article talks about teaching evolution as “discouraging students from believing in creationism…,” but he also says, “Why is it that our biology classes—or even public schools generally—must reject religious beliefs to really educate children? I think we will find that, even if decided that our children would be better off hearing critique of their parents’ religious beliefs, this question is irrelevant, as according to our laws we cannot do such a thing, nor do I think it is appropriate as evidenced here. [emphasis added]”  So he thinks it’s unconstitutional and personally objects to it.

His article takes issue with PZ fantasizing about biology textbooks that call religions what they are.  PZ wants the implict made explicit, and De Dora appears to oppose this.  But if he truly understands that a proper scientific education effectively denies certain religious beliefs, then does he honestly believe this sham neutrality he’s advocating is good for something beyond preventing religious parents from invoking the Establishment Clause?  Legal issues aside, what is inappropriate about an explicit approach?  How is there “no need for the high school biology teacher to actually go into denying” religious ideas when that’s what teaching biology requires?

As part of this, De Dora also says, “In turn, the answer seems to be that we should ensure our high school science teachers are instructing students on how to think like a scientist, and imparting to students the body of knowledge scientists have accrued…. From there, the children take that knowledge as they will.”  What’s his personal reason for demanding children apply scientific thinking to religious beliefs on their own time?  Since those beliefs can be a significant impediment in learning science, how is dismantling them directly inappropriate?

I can’t tell if he’s just failing to communicate what he finds inappropriate or if he doesn’t get how teaching a fact that contradicts/rejects/denies a religious belief is the equivalent of contradicting/rejecting/denying that religious belief.  Either way, De Dora’s position doesn’t add up.

#66 Dan J (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 9:36pm

Q: “Are you saying that it’s OK to teach people that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, but it’s wrong to teach them that the earth isn’t 6000 years old?”

Michael replied:
“Yes. One imparts scientific knowledge. The other denies a religious idea. One is constitutional; the other is not. There is no reason for a high school biology teacher to get into denying specific religious ideas in a high school biology class.”

Teaching that 4.5 billion years is the correct answer to the question, and that 6000 years is an incorrect answer is in no way denying specific religious ideas. It is the presentation of scientific facts in a science class.

I guess that in geometry class everything will be okay if I use the value of “3” for Pi, because that’s what it says in the Bible. My teacher better not say I’m wrong either, or my daddy will throw a hissy fit and scream about filing a law suit.

If you’d rather allow that 6000 years would be a valid answer on the test, and allow that religious answers from any other religious standpoint are valid, then we should get rid of public education and let the churches handle everything, because an education under those circumstances would mean absolutely nothing, one would equal two, and if I say things fall up, then they do.

#67 Michael De Dora on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 9:46pm

@Dan,

On the previous page, I posted that I would not accept creationist answers on biology tests.

#68 Dan J (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 9:58pm

Hi @Michael, and thanks for the quick reply.

I’m sorry that I missed your post on the previous page. Quite a popular conversation!

In a classroom situation, if a student proudly proclaims that the earth is merely 6000 years old, in what way is the instructor to reply that will not directly state that the student’s answer is wrong (in the purview of the science class)?

Factually incorrect information is incorrect, and needs to be pointed out as such.

How about introducing a science class at the beginning of the semester with something like this: “This is a science class, not a religion class. Any answers on tests or homework that disagree with the facts as presented in this classroom will be counted as incorrect. End of discussion.”

I find it very sad that we must go to such extremes to educate our children in an environment that stresses factual information, the scientific method, and critical thinking. The religious right seems to stop at nothing to attempt to force their indoctrination on future generations.

Thanks much for the conversation Michael.

#69 Michael De Dora on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 10:05pm

@Dan,

A statement like that might work, though it’d have to be carefully worded. Someone did ask me about this sort of situation in the comments to Ron Lindsay’s post, and we (Daniel S. above and I) came to this conclusion:

Student: “How old is the earth?”
Teacher: “Science tells us it is 4.5 billion years old.”
Student: “You mean it’s not 6,000 years old?”
Teacher: “Not according to the scientific evidence.”
Student: “But my religion tells me the earth is 6,000 years old.”
Teacher: “Well, that’s your religion, and this is the science classroom.”
Student: “But it can’t be both.”
Teacher: “That’s for you to decide - but remember that your exams are about what the science says, not about what you believe.”

What say you?

#70 Dan J (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 10:22pm

@Michael,
That sounds like a very appropriate exchange. The wording is definitely important.

Unfortunately, there will be those students who, having been coached for years by their zealous parents, will not let it lie there. For them, standard school disciplinary procedures for disruption of class would be my best guess as appropriate.

I don’t recall any specific instances of fervently religious students/parents loudly complaining about discipline under such circumstances. I wonder if that type of thing has happened or has hit the news?

#71 Daniel Schealler on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 11:11pm

@Dan J

The thing about separating church and state is that if a student of zealous parents does kick up a ruckus on religious grounds, the teacher can then just point to the establishment clause.

That’s the nature of the beast. The establishment clause cuts both ways. It’s annoying and stupid, and in this case I think it cuts directly against the grain of what an educator should be doing. My sympathies definitely lie with PZ.

Better is the enemy of best. I think that stating that religious claims have been proven wrong by science is the best option. But I also think that in this case, ‘best’ would be unachievable because it would open the door to religious interference in the classroom. Michael’s persuaded me that in this instance, ‘better’ - which is to say, keeping religion out of the classroom altogether - is the more pragmatic option.

That aside - in the specific case of the textbook quote in question, I’m very, very open to a legal argument for why that particular use of the word ‘myth’ is constitutional after all. It just seems so damn foolish.

#72 Francesco Orsenigo (Guest) on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 1:28am

@Michael De Dora:
“but why even mention that certain religious people think the world is 6,000 years old”

Because an alarming percentage of the US population holds this very belief.

#73 Alun Salt (Guest) on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 1:59am

One imparts scientific knowledge. The other denies a religious idea. One is constitutional; the other is not. There is no reason for a high school biology teacher to get into denying specific religious ideas in a high school biology class.

That suggests that, so long as I preface my exam paper with a short paragraph that the answers are part of my deeply held religious beliefs, I cannot get less than 100% in a test. Giving me less would be saying that the world isn’t 6000 years old. Solution #69 cannot work, because even if the questions in the exam are all phrased, “What does science say…” I can have a religious belief that science says X a la Answers in Genesis. It may be bad theology, but it would be religiously discriminatory to mark my theology in a science class. A religious movement that peddles ‘creation science’ is not going to conveniently subscribe to Gould’s NOMA model.

If we are serious about equal treatment of religion this whole ‘opening schools during a weekday’ idea has to go too doesn’t it? The break on Saturday and Sunday privileges Judeo-Christian belief - and the 7 day week is a Jewish religious cycle.

#74 Daniel Schealler on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 2:33am

@Alan Salt

That suggests that, so long as I preface my exam paper with a short paragraph that the answers are part of my deeply held religious beliefs, I cannot get less than 100% in a test.

Actually, no.

The exam would test your understanding of a given body of scientific knowledge. Your religious beliefs on the matter would remain irrelevant, which is the whole damn point.

Yes, it’s a completely nuts and intellectually dishonest compromise… But keeping religion out of the classroom is - unfortunately - a sword that cuts both ways.

#75 Alun Salt (Guest) on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 3:06am

@74 Daniel

That makes sense if you follow Gould’s NOMA model where science and religion are two distinct spheres, but if everyone did we wouldn’t be having this discussion. If I followed AiG’s brand of ‘Creation Science’ then your negative marking is a denial of my religious beliefs, exactly as De Jora Jr has said is not possible. On a practical level is this workable? The moon reflects light, it doesn’t shine. We can tell a 5 year old this, but if they respond, “So the Moon doesn’t have a light of its own?” can we reasonably expect them to grasp the NOMA concept when we refuse to so ‘No it doesn’t”?

I agree that religious beliefs should be irrelevant, but who gets to decide if they’re relevant? That’s a religious judgement. It doesn’t matter how reasonable and sensible you are if I have a pig-headed urge to ram religion into everything.

I’ve realised my comment on the week is a bit of a non-sequitur. These problems don’t isolate themselves inside the biology classroom. They also have implications for history, religious studies and beyond. They act across the whole organisation of the school. There are good reasons for closing schools on Saturdays and Sundays and not Mondays and Fridays as well, but you can’t make them without offering advantage to one set of religious beliefs over another. Otherwise we’re in the position that science lessons have to respect religions to an extent far beyond the rest of society.

If we’re going to be truly neutral then this neutrality has to extend to potential beliefs as well as current beliefs else we discriminate against emergent religions. Then things get very silly. De Dora Jr’s solution hold science classes to far stricter standards of neutrality than any other aspect of the education system, or any other branch of government.

I think a rational solution would be people have the right to religious beliefs, but they do not have the right to have those beliefs automatically respected. That would give you the basis to take what I think is your sensible position that religion should be irrelevant in science class. If people insist on bring religion into science, as creationists do, then there is no problem with rebutting those arguments. If someone says the Earth is 6,000 years old the answer is no.

#76 Stephen J. Levine (Guest) on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 6:21am

I would like to comment on “But creationists exist; the controversy must be covered”.

While there may be controversy on some of the details, there is no scientific controversy regarding the overall concept of evolution.  The data overwhelmingly support it and you can’t understand biology without it.

In chemistry, if a group wanted to teach that all matter is made of 4 basic elements: earth, air, fire and water, they would be looked upon as cranks and laughed out of the classroom.  That idea was discredited a long time ago.  Same with the phlogiston theory.  And also the same with Creationism.

Neither the earth, air, fire, water theory nor the phlogiston theory is given any time in a chemistry class.  Why, then, must creationism be given any time in a biology class.  To even mention it is to dignify it.

#77 Stephen J. Levine (Guest) on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 6:33am

I am doing this as a separate comment because I believe it is merited.

I am extremely troubled by comments calling for Mr. De Dora’s removal as executive director of the New York City branch of the Center for Inquiry for expressing an opinion that runs counter to what some consider orthodox opinion.  That REALLY bother’s me and its discussion needs to be more important than the issue of being discussed on this blog.  Inquiry is inquiry and, when one inquires, one may find answers one might not like.  And different people inquiring into the same things will come up with different interpretations and opinions.  Members of the Center for Inquiry insisting on an orthodox viewpoint defeat the whole purpose of group’s mission and themselves are a danger to free inquiry.  Please do not lose sight of that.  Orthodoxy opposing Orthodoxy is still Orthodoxy.

#78 Jean Kazez (Guest) on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 7:06am

Michael,

I agree. No religion in school also means no anti-religion.  Of course, teachers and textbooks can make statements that contradict religious beliefs.  However, it’s another matter entirely to directly confront religious beliefs.  If direct confrontation were permitted, it could be incessant. Chemistry teachers could not only teach the science that shows that transubstantiation is impossible, but outright tell students that Catholic ideas are nonsense.  Nutrition teachers could not only talk about the safety of consuming various foods, but tell Jewish students that the biblical food rules are groundless. This could go on all day. 

Then of course you’re going to also have religious teachers getting into the game, and there are a lot more of them.  One might present an area where science doesn’t have all the answers and explicitly notify atheist students that this is a difficulty for them.  All this confronting of religion (and non-religion) would give kids a heightened sense of religious identity, making them bond with coreligionists and distrust others, instead of leaving religion behind when they go to school.

The only really question here is whether calling the creation story a “myth” really is directly confrontatational.  Given the way the public understands that word, surely it is.  The passage could easily be reworded or maybe even better, just left out.

#79 Garbledina on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 7:47am

I have a couple of problems here that I still don’t see being cleared up. One is that the context in which this was used is important. It is one thing to just state blankly, “Oh, and by the way religion is a lie,” and quite another to reference an historical event that actually occurred. A lot of science textbooks lay out an historical foundation for their field. That the historical foundation of evolutionary science contains a conflict with religion is an unfortunate fact. I don’t believe that children should be sheltered from historical facts, uncomfortable though they may be. Again, that a case went to court that established that giving time to the “biblical myth” deserved equal time actually happened is a fact, and a relevant historical context.

Secondly, when the public decides to deviate from the “proper” use of a word, is it the responsibility of educators and textbooks to stop using them in their proper context? By this logic, we should demand that all biology textbooks stop referring to the “theory” of evolution because some people think that word means something that it doesn’t mean.

It seems to me that your commitment to being right about this issue has blunted your rationality just a little.

#80 dae (Guest) on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 8:06am

Is this a CFI site or the Templeton Foundation?

#81 Ophelia Benson on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 10:42am

“A lot of science textbooks lay out an historical foundation for their field.”

Exactly. I think this narrow version of what it is permissible to teach entails a serious gutting of any historical understanding of the development of science and of human thought and inquiry (CFI please note) generally. It’s history teachers as well as science teachers who would be limited by this standard.

#82 Matti K (Guest) on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 10:57am

@ 78 (Jean Kazez): “Chemistry teachers could not only teach the science that shows that transubstantiation is impossible, but outright tell students that Catholic ideas are nonsense.  Nutrition teachers could not only talk about the safety of consuming various foods, but tell Jewish students that the biblical food rules are groundless.”

I think Jean’s speculations would make sense if there would be die-hard catholics with distinct statements (in the journal “Answers in Hostia”?) about the chemical processes during transsubstantion.  The same would apply if fundamentalist rabbis’  would claim that the nutritional value (vitamins, minerals, residuals) of Kosher food is superior.  Since the religious people are not saying that the scientists have it wrong, there is no need for the scientists to comment about the religious value of food (incl. crackers and wine).

As Jean very well knows, the situation is quite different in the fields of evolutionary biology, geology, cosmology and even astronomy.  In these fields the collision between religious fundamentalists and scientists is inevitable. 

Nobody objects if a science teacher corrects common erroneus perceptions (= perceptions that have no scientific basis), as long as they are secular.  For example, there is no fallout if a teacher explicitly says that heavier objects do not fall faster than light objects.  However, for some reason even CFI atheists protest when a teacher tries to clear a common misconception by explicitly stating that the earth is not 6000 years old.

If american science teachers really have this kind of handcuffs, then we must all be very happy that astrology and homeopathy are not official religions in USA.

#83 Roy Sablosky (Guest) on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 11:07am

Student: “How old is the earth?”
Teacher: “Science tells us it is 4.5 billion years old.”
Student: “You mean it’s not 6,000 years old?”
Teacher: “Not according to the scientific evidence.”
Student: “But my religion tells me the earth is 6,000 years old.”
Teacher: “Well, that’s your religion, and this is the science classroom.”
Student: “But it can’t be both.”
Teacher: “That’s for you to decide - but remember that your exams are about what the science says, not about what you believe.”

This teacher sounds beautifully reasonable, but truth be told, she is misrepresenting the issue.

It isn’t just science that tells us the Earth is billions of years old. It’s everything around us. Everything we see and know implies that the Earth is inconceivably old. What is the evidence for 6,000 years? The biased, incoherent, self-contradictory narrative in a single book — as interpreted by a cadre of self-interested entrepreneurs.

It’s not just that “your exams are about what the science says” — it’s that life society and happiness depend on our knowing what is really there! That the Earth is 6,000 years old is best described not as a belief but as a lie. The object of telling people this is to inveigle them, to enchant them, to enslave them.

Here’s a more hopeful scenario.

Student: “How old is the earth?”
Teacher: “The current estimate is 4.5 billion years.”
Student: “You mean it’s not 6,000 years old?”
Teacher: “No. Where does this figure come from?”
Student: “My pastor.”
Teacher: “How did he come up with it?”
Student: “I don’t really know.”
Teacher: “Well, I have not seen any evidence for such a view. I predict that if you read the assigned chapter and do the lab on Thursday, you’ll know more about the age of the Earth than your pastor does.”

#84 Sophocles (Guest) on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 11:58am

Pedantic nonsense.  It’s a myth so call it a myth.

#85 Ophelia Benson on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 12:32pm

Student: “How old is the earth?”
Teacher: “Science tells us it is 4.5 billion years old.”
Student: “You mean it’s not 6,000 years old?”
Teacher: “Not according to the scientific evidence.”
Student: “But my religion tells me the earth is 6,000 years old.”
Teacher: “Well, that’s your religion, and this is the science classroom.”
Student: “But it can’t be both.”
Teacher: “That’s for you to decide - but remember that your exams are about what the science says, not about what you believe.”

What say you?

That that’s not teaching, it’s anti-teaching. It’s treating science as just a BoxO’Facts rather than a way of finding things out. It’s stunted, it’s impoverished, it’s mechanical, it’s squalid and utilitarian and bottomlessly depressing. It’s vulgar. It’s a terrible insult to any children who get that instead of the real thing.

#86 Jean Kazez (Guest) on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 2:49pm

Matti K. If a teacher say the universe is 14 billion years old, why does he or she need to point out that it is not 6000 year old? Don’t kids know from second grade math class that 14 billion does not equal 6000? 

As to how there’s no reason to worry about Protestant science teachers correcting the mistakes of Catholics and Jews (or whatever), I don’t see how you’re ruling this out.  Yes, there’s no serious science of transubstantiation or food categories, but there’s also no serious scientific theory that says the universe is 6000 years old.

#87 Jack Lewis on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 4:24pm

The bible story is a myth, that’s it that’s all.
Still it would have been interesting to see a larger context of the textbook quote.

>> One imparts scientific knowledge. The other denies a religious idea. One is constitutional; the other is not.<<
Complete BS, both statements carry the same meaning ergo they are either both constitutional or both unconstitutional.

>>  There is no reason for a high school biology teacher to get into denying specific religious ideas in a high school biology class.<<
There can be many reasons, it takes very little imagination to think of one… Say one of his student is arguing for the bible myth in class? You think that can’t possibly happen?

>> That science cannot fully answer every human argument is no knock on science.<<
Even as a knock it is pretty weak.
It’s a blanket statement lacking some explanation as to what kind of arguments can’t be answered (now or in the future) by reason.

#88 Jim Lippard (Guest) on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 4:34pm

Jack Lewis is mistaken if he thinks that “The earth is 4.5 billion years old” and “The earth is not 6,000 years old” “carry the same meaning.”

They clearly do not—they are not equivalent.  The former entails the latter but the latter does not entail the former.

I think Jean Kazez’s basic point in #78 is probably a correct understanding of what the law entails, and that the defense of “myth” as not entailing falsehood is the best legal defense.  I don’t think this single sentence is likely to merit a successful case of an establishment clause violation by this textbook, and I’ll be surprised if it proceeds to court.

Most of the comments I’ve been reading seem to be based on what people feel should be legitimate in school, without any regard to case law on the establishment clause or viewpoint discrimination.

#89 Ophelia Benson on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 5:45pm

True, but then De Dora’s post also seems to be a preference partly disguised as an issue of law, so the two have been sloshing back and forth most of the time.

#90 Matti K. (Guest) on Friday April 16, 2010 at 12:57am

JK @ 86: “As to how there’s no reason to worry about Protestant science teachers correcting the mistakes of Catholics and Jews (or whatever), I don’t see how you’re ruling this out.  Yes, there’s no serious science of transubstantiation or food categories, but there’s also no serious scientific theory that says the universe is 6000 years old.”

Common misconceptions are never the result of serious scientific work.  However, there are several journals and museums sprouting the idea of a young earth.  They claim to base their articles and exhibitions on serious scientific work and unfortunately, many laymen buy their bullshit.

I don’t understand how a teacher could get into problems when she/he says that “There exists a common and very unfortunate misconception that the earth is less than 10000 years old.  That cannot be true, because…”. 

Why on earth should a science teacher watch which words she/he uses to drive in the fact that the world is not young?  It is in no way a (scientifically) controversial matter.

#91 gray1 on Friday April 16, 2010 at 9:21am

That particular definition of “creationism” might nevertheless be improved upon somewhat as “biblical myth” differs greatly upon interpretation between various Christian, Islamic and even Jewish groups.  A faithfully ignorant adherence to “day” being deemed to mean a 24 hour period takes great liberty with what the bible actually describes very specifically as being only alternating periods of light and dark.  As an eskimo how many hours that amounts to and you might get yet another answer.

A 24 hour “day of creation” actually has only a relatively small following among bible believers, the rest of whom still do not hesitate to declare that God created everything and still does for that matter.  Creationism might therefore be properly termed in matters of degree and should certainly be categorized and limited to being a matter of faith as opposed to science.  Why piss off everyone at once?

#92 Paul Hands (Guest) on Friday April 16, 2010 at 10:19am

“Denying religious ideas is the step that puts us in a bind. “

No : passing off religious ideas as credible science with zero evidence is the step that puts us in a bind.

#93 Jon (Guest) on Friday April 16, 2010 at 11:46am

So what if I were to say that my grandfather died and came back to life a few days later. Shouldn’t a science teacher be allowed to refute my story even though it denies a similar biblical claim? I feel a little stupid just posing the question, but it seems an apt analogy to the 6000-year-old-earth example in the post.

#94 David Honig (Guest) on Friday April 16, 2010 at 12:12pm

The utter weakness of this argument is found in this mishandling of the word “myth” -

<<It is true that the word “myth,” by reference to dictionary , does not necessarily imply falsity. However, I would argue that in everyday use, the word “myth” does indeed do that. >>

This is a science textbook, not “everyday use.” Ergo, your entire argument is fatally flawed. You might as well argue the textbook may not refer to the “Theory of Gravity,” as “theory” has a different meaning in everday conversation than in science.

Face it, you are wrong. Having had it pointed out you were wrong, you fell back on “everyday use” to defend your flawed argument rather than simply saying “oops, sorry.”

#95 M. (Guest) on Friday April 16, 2010 at 12:52pm

Re: De Dora’s teacher-student dialogue.

I find it horrible, for two specific reasons.

The first is that the student is encouraged to not actually learn anything. “You can believe whatever you want, as long as you answer the question on the test appropriately” is the kind of thing we who are actually teaching have to fight all the time.

Not just in terms of evolution, or age of Earth, or things that clash with religion. This is a serious problem, where students do not treat knowledge as pertinent, but instead memorize facts as disposable bits to be inserted into blank spaces during tests.

To actually ENCOURAGE this behavior is…appalling. The SCIENCE teacher should encourage the students to keep holding utterly incorrect beliefs about the world, as long as they answer the test questions correctly?

If our goal is to actually teach the students something, instead of just showing them how to pass the tests, we have to get them to accept the information. Accepting the information that Earth is 4.5 billion years old implies rejection of the belief that it is 6000 years old.

The second reason is the sheer insensitivity. Ok, we respect our student’s beliefs so much, we have to treat him as an imbecile?

It is clear that the teacher is saying that the Earth is indeed 4.5 billion years old. It is clear that this means it is NOT 6k years old.

But we can’t say that openly? We have to couch it in language that implies that cognitive dissonance is ok, that somehow the student should be able to believe both concurrently?

No. We shouldn’t be insensitive or mocking, but we cannot be accepting of this kind of mental gymnastics. Therefore:

Student: But my pastor says it is 6000 years old.
Teacher: To the best of our knowledge, your pastor is wrong.

There.

#96 Ophelia Benson on Friday April 16, 2010 at 4:50pm

“the student is encouraged to not actually learn anything. “You can believe whatever you want, as long as you answer the question on the test appropriately” is the kind of thing we who are actually teaching have to fight all the time.”

Exactly. Thank you. That’s exactly why I said such harsh things about that dialogue on the previous page - I just think that’s a horrible thing to say. It degrades education, the student, the teacher - everything.

In fact it takes us right back to the “et tu CFI?” problem. This isn’t a matter of orthodoxy, no matter what Ron thinks. It is a matter of seeing De Dora’s claims as radically anti-learning, anti-thought, anti-intellectual, and anti-inquiry. Yes: I really do think that this kind of cowardly “just teach the facts and collect your paycheck” advice is repellent coming from CFI.

#97 Jim Lippard (Guest) on Friday April 16, 2010 at 5:56pm

Ophelia (#89):  I agree—it’s a huge failing of the original post that it wasn’t informed by establishment clause case law.  The post is clearly about what’s appropriate in a U.S. public school, as if the sentence in question had occurred in the textbook of a private school, I think most of us would agree that the parent’s complaint shouldn’t be taken seriously unless the school was a sectarian religious school with an extremely thin skin.  But such a school probably wouldn’t be teaching evolution in the first place (or they’d be using _Of Pandas and People_).

It’s as big a mistake for skeptics to make claims about legal positions without investigating the law as it is to make claims about paranormal claims without looking at the evidence, but it seems to happen all too frequently.

#98 Fat Steve on Friday April 16, 2010 at 9:19pm

I went to public school in New York City during the 1970’s and I recall a number of lessons and readings about Greek and Roman ‘mythology.’ Needless to say, nothing was taught of ‘religion.’ Growing up as I did, in an agnostic/Jewish home, I am much more au fait with the Greek myths than the Christian myths as written in the Bible, which I only know second hand from other books.

Maybe if it was acknowledged that the stories in the bible are merely myths, then we could have Bibles in classrooms without their being some sinister motive attached to it.  Not a single person in my class that read the Iliad believed it to be true…

#99 J. J. Ramsey (Guest) on Saturday April 17, 2010 at 5:35am

M: “The first is that the student is encouraged to not actually learn anything. ‘You can believe whatever you want, as long as you answer the question on the test appropriately’ is the kind of thing we who are actually teaching have to fight all the time.

“Not just in terms of evolution, or age of Earth, or things that clash with religion. This is a serious problem, where students do not treat knowledge as pertinent, but instead memorize facts as disposable bits to be inserted into blank spaces during tests.”

You are conflating two very different things. One is treating education as the mere memorization of bits of information, which is obviously bad. The other is allowing a student to disbelieve the class content so long as he or she understands it.

Suppose that the teacher not only states that scientific evidence points to the Earth being 4.5 billion years old, but shows how the evidence leading to that conclusion. The teacher then includes on the exam an essay question where the student is supposed to discuss how the evidence leads to the age of the Earth. Now as far as DeDora is concerned, that approach is perfectly allowable for a science class. The class material obviously contradicts certain religious claims, but it doesn’t explicitly call those claims out. (See point #5 on DeDora’s blog post.) That approach, though, is hardly just about the mere memorization of facts, yet a student can answer that essay question correctly without believing the answer that he or she gives. What is the teacher supposed to do? Read the student’s mind and dock off points for the student not agreeing with the answer that he or she wrote?

#100 Josh (Guest) on Saturday April 17, 2010 at 12:32pm

This has probably been pointed out already - but in case it hasn’t been:

Quoting Michael: “More specifically, the purpose of biology class is not to reject religious ideas; it is to inform students about biology”.

There are logical problems with this statement.

Informing students about biology (and about the scientific process generally), entails a rejection of specific religious ideas (such as the idea that the earth is 6000 years old, and that god created the whole of biological diversity).

Therefore, Michael’s statement above, which tries to logically decouple the rejection of specific religious ideas on the one hand from science education on the other, leads to a contradiction. Saying that these are two different things is a false dichotomy.

You cannot teach that biological diversity is explained by means of natural processes (most notably natural selection) without rejecting the specific religious claim that god created all of biological diversity.

Michaels’ desire to be diplomatic and peaceful in discussing these important matters is in good spirit, I have no doubt, but when our attempts to defend religious freedom leads us to go so far as to logically decouple the claims of religion from those of science so that they can never be at odds, I think we had better re-think our commitment to that kind of diplomacy. Exposing truth is more important than not hurting the feelings of religious people.

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