Bad science and religion

March 31, 2012 • 2:10 pm

by Greg Mayer

Michael Zimmerman, of the Clergy Letter Project, has written a piece at the Huffington Post attacking the Tennessee creationism bill, and earlier wrote there in support of an attempt to repeal a similar, already enacted, statute in Louisiana. Zimmerman stresses the importance of bringing the weight of scientists’ and teachers’ expertise to bear during the legislative process. This is, of course, a good thing. Jerry has noted Zimmerman’s failure to mention the impetus for the legislation: religion. Zimmerman refers to the legislation as promoting a “political rather than a scientific perspective”, and that’s true; but much more importantly, in understanding it’s context and legality, is that it’s promoting a religious perspective.

This is crucially important for an additional reason, not mentioned by Jerry, which is that the judicial (as opposed to the legislative) fight against creationism is based on the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. The Tennessee law seeks not just to promote bad science, or politicized science, but religion. This is crucial because bad or politicized science is not unconstitutional: it is merely unwise. In the legislative branch, both the argument against the wisdom of the legislation and its unconstitutionality can be used. But in court, there’s nothing unconstitutional (in general) about bad legislation; and while a judge might find a law to fly in the face of the facts, there’s nothing in the Constitution to bar the enactment of bad science. Such laws are struck down because they seek to establish a religion, which is unconstitutional.

I am familiar with only a very small part of Michael Zimmerman’s writings, and perhaps he does recognize that the “bad science” argument against creationism is at best incomplete. But I believe it’s crucially important to always have the establishment clause ready to hand.

12 thoughts on “Bad science and religion

  1. You are exactly right. Unless there is a constitutional issue involved, federal courts will stay out of state education standards. And the only constitutional issue is religion. The whole bad science argument is irrelevant.

    1. I wouldn’t say it is irrelevant. If there were a secular reason to teach that evolution was a weak theory then it would be constitutional.

      To use another example take Noah’s flood. If all the evidence wasn’t against a global flood, and there was evidence for one, then it could be taught. Now, you still couldn’t teach Noah (unless there was evidence for him too), but you could teach the global flood despite its religious implications.

      As I understand it, both pieces are necessary. It is precisely because the creationist claims are false that we can say the only reasons to teach them would be non-secular.

      1. I wouldn’t say it is irrelevant. If there were a secular reason to teach that evolution was a weak theory then it would be constitutional.

        A science teacher doesn’t need a secular reason, or any reason at all, to teach that evolution is a weak theory. If the teacher says, for instance, that fossils are frauds and scientific dating is all mixed up, he’s just a bad teacher, which is not against the law. If, however, he says that scientific dating is wrong because the world was created 6000 years ago, and fossils are frauds because humans came from Eden, then he’s promoting religion, which is against the law, and the school district can be sued. If evolution or global warming are denied but it can’t be shown that they were denied because of religion, or replaced with religion, then there is no legal case. It’s just bad teachers teaching bad science. Which is why I said the bad science is irrelevant.

        1. My point is simply that if the information the teacher is giving is true, then no amount religious motivation would matter. It would be legal to teach because, per the Lemon test, there would be a secular purpose for teaching it (that it happens to be true). So it does matter that it is bad science.

  2. You know, we should ‘teach the controversy’ of why scientists are against this proposed piece of legislation.

  3. The Establishment Clause in the First Amendment:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

    To outsiders and foreigners like myself, American constitutional debates are at times as baffling as they are fascinating.

    Greg, are you absolutely positive that SCOTUS, as presently composed and if worse came to worst, would unequivocally uphold ‘Everson v. Board of Education’ and ‘McCollum v. Board of Education’ in the sense then championed by Justice Hugo Black with regard to State, not just Federal, law?

    What’s the informed constitutional opinion around here?

    1. A series of Supreme Court decisions (including Everson) through the 20th century have held that the 14th Amendment’s due process clause, forbidding state’s from depriving people of their rights without due process, has extended Bill of Rights protections to states: states cannot deprive people of their Federal rights, one of which is to be free of an established religion. But, the Supreme Court can always overrule itself. Many states also bar establishment of religion in their own constitutions (the US amendment is based on Virginia’s), so even if the SC overturned it’s earlier decisions, the state establishment clauses would bar creationism in many places.

      It would be interesting to know what constitutional lawyers think, but of all the constitutional lawyers in the country, there are only nine of them whose opinions are worth anything.


      1. …and five of them are enough, at any time, to set the rules for all the others.
        A rather frightening prospect, given the selection process.

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