By Robert Bernstein
Eugenie Scott – Why Creationism May Come Back to Our Schools – Humanist Society of Santa Barbara talk.
Humanist Society President Judy Flattery began her introduction by noting the relevance of this issue to the Affirmations of Humanism by Paul Kurtz. Four Affirmations are relevant:
• We are committed to the application of reason and science to the understanding of the universe and to the solving of human problems.
• We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence, to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms, and to look outside nature for salvation.
• We are committed to the principle of the separation of church and state.
• We are deeply concerned with the moral education of our children. We want to nourish reason and compassion.
Eugenie Scott was named one of the Scientific American 10, a select group of leaders in science, politics, business, and philanthropy, who are building a better future with their ingenious approaches to solving global problems.
Scott also received the first annual Stephen Jay Gould prize from the Society for the Study of Evolution, among many other prizes and awards.
Scott was the executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a nonprofit organization that seeks to keep evolution in the school curriculum, and to provide resources and accurate information about evolution.
Notably, Asteroid 249530 Eugeniescott was named for her!
Eugenie Scott began her talk noting that, while she was writing her talk, the New York Times published an article “How Montana Took a Hard Right Turn Toward Christian Nationalism”.
Montana Governor Gianforte belongs to Grace Bible Church in Bozeman that excludes women from leadership roles, rejects evolution and considers homosexuality a sin. He has contributed to the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum. Which promotes the idea that the entire universe was created in its present form a few thousand years ago.It has the second largest collection of dinosaur fossils in Montana. This fits with the Answers in Genesis (AIG) Creation Museum fake science museum in northern Kentucky. Complete with planetarium and petting zoo. AIG is also connected with the Ark Encounter replica of Noah’s Ark.
AIG plans to add a “Plagues of Egypt” amusement park ride! Really.
The Institute for Creation Research (ICR) in Dallas opened in 2019. They paid cash to build their museum. Wikipedia lists 13 Creation museums. These people have money.
But not many legislatures are trying to pass Creation legislation now. One notable exception is in Arkansas with HB 1701, 2021 that allows teaching Creationism in science class.
Antievolution has gone through three phases:
Ban, Balance, Belittle
The heyday of Ban was the Scopes Trial era 1919-1927. Remember that Scopes lost and that law was on the books in Tennessee until the 1970s.
Evolution quietly slipped out of the books. The Sputnik era of the late 50s and early 60s brought money into science education. Evolution reentered the science curriculum. But Arkansas still had Scopes era laws. Susan Epperson was the plaintiff to challenge the law. She thought it would be trivial, but it went to the Supreme Court! Fortunately, she won.
“Balance” was the idea that if you taught evolution, then you should also teach some form of creationism for “balance”.
The First Amendment has two clauses regarding religion: Establishment and Free Exercise. Teaching the Bible clearly violates the Establishment clause. This led in the early 60s to “Creation Science”.
Creation Science offered no evidence for Creation. Instead, they used a “contrived dualism” to argue that if evolution is wrong, then Creationism must be true. It was then a matter of creating doubt about evolution. The same strategy used by the tobacco industry and the fossil fuel industry to create the illusion of doubt where the science was solid.
In the 70s-80s many laws were introduced to teach Creation Science. But the 1987 Edwards v Aguillard Supreme Court decision struck this down.
The Creation crowd came back with “Intelligent Design” (ID). But ID is just a subset of Creation Science. It argues that some things are just too complex to have formed unless some intelligence designed them. Of course, that intelligence is the God of the Bible.
ID succeeded in the 1990s – 2000s. But Kitzmiller v Dover ended its reign. The Nova program “Judgment Day” covered this notable 2005 six week trial. Scott’s National Center for Science Education organization was one of the organizations on the side of the teachers, suing to end teaching ID. The Thomas More Law Center was on the other side.
Teaching bad science is not illegal. The Establishment Clause is the issue. They had to show that ID is about advocating religion. Which they did in multiple ways.
There have been no more Creation or ID lawsuits since Dover. But there is that 2021 Arkansas law.
By the mid 2000s there was a new strategy. In the 1987 Edwards case, Scalia wrote a dissent suggesting it was OK to teach evidence against evolution. Allowing the unscientific “contrived dualism” approach. The Institute for Creation Research seized on this opening. Which leads to the “Belittle” phase.
“Teach the Controversy” where there is no such controversy among actual scientists.
We may be on the precipice of a major change with the new right wing Supreme Court. Those on the right have argued that the Establishment Clause referred only to establishing a single state religion. Which gives primacy to the Free Exercise Clause.
Many decades of cases have dealt with the Establishment Clause:
School prayer. Religious displays. Funding of religion by the public in other ways. Textbooks for private schools. School buses for church schools. Curriculum content. Lemon v Kurtzman in 1971 established what came to be known as the “Lemon Test”. It was devised by Justice Brennan and had three parts. A government activity in question:
1) Must have a secular purpose
2) Must have a principal or primary effect that does not advance or inhibit religion
3) Cannot foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.
Most Lemon cases deal with Entanglement.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted in the case of Lynch v Donnelly that government endorsement sends a message that non-adherents to the religion are outsiders and adherents are insiders.
Creationism fails the Lemon test on multiple counts. It only needs to fail on one count.
Now we come to Kennedy v Bremerton. Bremerton is a city near Seattle. Joseph Kennedy was an assistant football coach at Bremerton High School. The work was part time and seasonal and he was not dependent on the income.
He would pray at the center of the field, at the 50-yard line, along with his students. He had been doing this for many years before the school board or the principal learned about it. It started with his watching the movie “Facing the Giants”. Kennedy promised God that he would pray, win or lose.
On September 11, 2015 the principal asked him to stop. The School District tried to work with him to find another time and place. He wanted to pray publicly. The District put him on paid administrative leave. The head coach resigned, fearing being shot by people in the stands.
Kennedy sued on free speech grounds. He lost at every round. Free speech does not apply when on a job. It went to the Supreme Court. Richard Katskee of Americans United for Separation of Church and State argued against Kennedy. The Court got facts wrong. Claiming Kennedy was fired. Gorsuch claimed Kennedy’s prayers were “private, personal and quiet”, which was totally untrue. Notably, when Kennedy was suspended, the students had no interest in praying on their own.
Justice Sotomayor included photos of the chaotic public prayer in her dissent; almost unheard of in Supreme Court cases. She noted that overruling Lemon calls into question decades of precedent.
Gorsuch appealed to “History and Tradition”. Utterly inappropriate. There were no public schools in the 1700s. And there was no evolution science then. Facts are essential for interpretation and the facts in Kennedy were ignored.
This change in the Supreme Court means that teaching Creationism in science classes may yet be approved there.
Attendees then had a chance to ask questions.
Judy Flattery asked what is to be done. Scott said that it all starts at the local school board. You have to nip it in the bud. It is not much of a problem in California as the State Legislature is unlikely to allow teaching Creationism in science classes.
Judy noted that we already have “Good News” clubs in our local schools. Scott noted that a student club that is student led is OK. Some schools have started Humanist clubs, which is one way to counter it.
It is hard to keep up, because local newspapers are dying. I will note that locally we have the Edhat News Service!
Daniel asked why there is so much money going to Creation museums. The answer: Museums really are popular. More Americans go to museums than to baseball games. Kids like dinosaurs!
Scott said it is unlikely in the US to have a national law on teaching evolution or Creationism. The US treats education as a state matter. But Scott also reminded us that she is not a lawyer!
Daniel also asked if other countries are having this battle. Scott said that the creationism/evolution controversy has indeed been “transplanted” from the US. In the 90s and 2000s people in the former Soviet Union wanted to learn English. US Christian missionaries smuggled the Creationism stuff in with teaching English.
There are strong evangelical movements growing in Brazil and the rest of Latin America.
But Putin is Russian Orthodox. This may not fit so well with these ideas of conservative Protestantism.
Judy Flattery asked about Islam. Scott noted there is no Muslim pope. Individual imams decide what are accepted beliefs, so there is much variation. Many Muslim scientists are fine with evolution. But some imams reject it because it conflicts with the Koran and Bible stories.
And she said that there is a strong anti-evolution movement in Iran. Mostly because evolution is seen as a symbol of the hated West!
As we think about these issues, I want to make the point that science matters. We are facing global threats from the Climate Crisis, running out of resources, pandemics and more.
For a democracy to face these challenges, we need people to understand basic facts about how old the Earth is, where our resources come from and how biological change and adaptation occur. Thanks to Eugenie Scott and others for fighting the good fight for keeping scientific disinformation out of our schools.
For more information about upcoming events with the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara or to become a member, please go to https://www.sbhumanists.org/