by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"In science, 'fact' can only mean 'confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.' I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms." ... ... Stephen Jay Gould.
Commentary of the Day - November 28, 2005: Another Shot Fired in the War Against Science.
A recent article by Becky Bartindale and Lisa Krieger in the San Jose Mercury News chronicles the latest assault by the religious right on the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Bartindale and Krieger's story describes the recent lawsuit by Jeanne Caldwell and her attorney husband Larry Caldwell, against two biologists from the University of California, Berkeley Museum of Paleontology who have developed an extensive web site that provides information about evolution for teachers as part of a web site that attempts to explain evolution to the general public.
Larry Caldwell is president and founder of an organization called "Quality Science Education for All", which says that its mission is "to secure and defend the right of all students in America to receive a quality science education. By 'Quality Science Education,' we mean a science education that exposes students to the scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory." It appears that they carry out this mission mostly by taking legal action against public entities in an attempt to change the way evolution is taught.
In this particular case the Jeanne Caldwell, in her lawsuit against the biologists and an official of the National Science Foundation -- which provided funding for the web site, claims that they have violated the "establishment clause" of the First Amendment by including the following statement on the site along with a link to a page at the National Center for Science Education web site that lists several religious organizations that find no incompatibility between religion and evolution. One section of the Berkeley web site discusses the many misconceptions that many people have about evolution including the following:Misconception: "Evolution and religion are incompatible."Although the IP would have changed one word in the second sentence of the last paragraph (so that it would read "... many religious groups ..." rather than "...most religious groups ..."), he can find nothing in that statement nor in the posting of a link to religious organizations that find no substantive conflict between religion and evolution that comes remotely close to violating the establishment clause of the Constitution. Legal precedent surrounding the establishment clause is extensive. Government agencies cannot establish a church, favor one religion over another, or force individuals to adopt any particular set of religious beliefs. Likewise, government funds cannot be used to promote one religious group over another, to provide religious indoctrination, or to aid activities that would create an excessive entanglement between government and religion.
Response: Religion and science (evolution) are very different things. In science, only natural causes are used to explain natural phenomena, while religion deals with beliefs that are beyond the natural world.
The misconception that one always has to choose between science and religion is incorrect. Of course, some religious beliefs explicitly contradict science (e.g., the belief that the world and all life on it was created in six literal days); however, most religious groups have no conflict with the theory of evolution or other scientific findings. In fact, many religious people, including theologians, feel that a deeper understanding of nature actually enriches their faith. Moreover, in the scientific community there are thousands of scientists who are devoutly religious and also accept evolution.
The web site statement and link merely state a fact; namely, that many religious groups and many very religious individuals, including many scientists, find no incompatibility between their particular religious views and the scientific facts of evolution. Now, of course, there are many religious groups and individuals who hold beliefs that are incompatible with biological evolution. But, that doesn't make evolution automatically incompatible with religion in general.
In the IP's view, the Caldwell's have little chance of prevailing in their lawsuit. As the Mercury News article states "The courts in many cases have said evolution is a scientific idea and there is no prohibition on the government teaching a scientific idea even if it conflicts with some ..... religious beliefs." But, the IP also believes that the real purpose of the lawsuit is not to win, but to harass those who teach about evolution, and in this case teach about evolution very effectively. By mounting a variety of legal challenges to the teaching of evolution, opponents hope to intimidate teachers so that we return to the days when evolution was hardly mentioned in high school biology textbooks and was barely mentioned in the classroom. The opponents, in the IP's view, are not motivated so much by a certainty in their own religious views as they are by the fear that evolution might actually be correct.