Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Facts are NOT Anti-Religious

by Steven Novella

In the small community of Sedalia Missouri there happens to be a substantial Krishna community. (I won’t get into the various names for specific Krishna religions, but will just refer to them as Krishna for simplicity.) Recently they took offense at the T-shirts worn by the local high school band. The theme was a trip to the moon and their shirts featured imagery from the Apollo moon landings.

The Krishnas took offense at this because, according to their Vedic scriptures, the moon landing was a hoax. Specifically it says that the moon is further away than the sun, and that in order for a human to exist on another world, they have to leave their body and adopt one made for that world. Therefore the astronauts could not have landed on the moon, and the moon landings must have been a hoax. Seriously – they really believe this.

But the issue here is that they complained about the T-shirts because they found it offensive to their religious beliefs. They argued that the school system is supposed to remain neutral with regard to religious beliefs, and that they violated this neutrality by endorsing the “controversial” Apollo moon landings.

The local paper reports:

Assistant Superintendent Brad Pollitt said complaints by parents made him take action.

“I made the decision to have the band members turn the shirts in after several concerned parents brought the shirts to my attention,” Pollitt said.

Regarding the theme of “Brass to the Moon” the paper further reports:

Pollitt said the district is required by law to remain neutral where religion is concerned.

“If the shirts had said ‘Brass Resurrections’ and had a picture of Jesus on the cross, we would have done the same thing,” he said.

And of course parents on both sides of the issue were found for juicy quotes.Parent Sherry Melby was quoted as saying:

“I was disappointed with the image on the shirt.” Melby said. “I don’t think the moon landings should be associated with our school.

Meanwhile, parent Alena Hoeffling got it right:

“Whatever happened to the separation of church and state.”

OK – this story is not actually true. Well, parts of it are true. The Krishnas really do believe the moon landing was a hoax because it contradicts their interpretation of Vedic scripture and believe that their scripture is a more reliable guide to reality because it comes from god (sound familiar), while they denigrate materialist science as a “cheat”.

The story itself is true but it is about evolution, not the moon landing. The T-shirts had the theme – the “evolution of brass” and featured the iconic image of primates evolving toward homo sapiens (carrying brass instruments). Melby’s quote above should read: “I don’t think evolution should be associated with our school.”

But the analogy to Krishnas denying the moon landing is perfect. The only difference is that we live in a Christian dominated culture.

The major malfunction in the reasoning of those parents who complained about the T-shirts, and the response of the school (who should not have caved to this pressure) is the equation of endorsing a scientific fact with being against a specific religious belief. Being neutral with regard to religion does not equate to avoiding scientific facts that some religious groups reject based upon their faith.

There is of course the practical issue that it would be absurd for the public schools to steer clear of every possible religious belief in a multi-cultural society, as my moon landing example demonstrates. Those who typically make the claim that science must avoid offending their religion, however, are usually only concerned about their religious beliefs. Christians in the US, for example, who make this claim also often claim that the US is a Christian nation, and therefore we must only respect Christian sensibilities – despite the Constitution’s rather specific prohibition.

But I am talking about the underlying philosophical position, not the hypocrisy or practicality of the issue. I am not what some might call an “accommodationist” – arguing that science and religion are compatible if we would just water down science enough. Rather I argue that they occupy separate realms – or at least “faith” and science do. Religions trample on science all the time.

The way I read our Constitution is that the state must remain neutral with regard to faith-based beliefs. That does not mean the state must remain neutral with regard to purely secular conclusions. Science is a purely secular system – it is agnostic with respect to any non-falsifiable claim. Further, science is a system, and its conclusions need only be valid within the system of science. We as a society have chosen to support the system of science – through funding, institutions, and education. This largely stems from the recognition that societies which support scientific progress and education tend to thrive while those who do not stagnate and decline. This is increasingly true as science and technology dominate our civilization.

If the scientific process leads us to a specific scientific conclusion – such as the well-established fact that life on earth as it exists today is the product of organic evolution, or that Apollo astronauts landed on the moon – then that is a scientific conclusion, not a religious belief. Stating that, within the system of science, the process of science leads us to this specific conclusion is not the same thing as taking a stand with regard to any particular religious belief.

The religious in this country have the freedom to believe and preach whatever they want. But that does not extend to the right to censor other people from believing or preaching what they want. Or (relevant to this case) to censor the secular process of science whenever they decide it conflicts with their religious conviction.

Put more bluntly – if their religious beliefs conflict with the conclusions of science, that’s their problem. They can deal with the cognitive dissonance any way they like, but they cannot impose it upon secular society.

In this case, even though it was just about band T-shirts, the school system should have held the line, rather than cave to pressure. Some things are worth fighting for, even if they are inconvenient to the success of your high school brass band.

This issue crops up in other ways as well. Chris Cromer was fired as the Director of Science for the Texas Educational System because she passed on an e-mail announcing a lecture about evolution. This, her superiors argued, violated their neutrality policy regarding evolution and creationism. She is now suing. Her case was dismissed, but she is appealing. My hope is that this point will be decided at the Supreme Court level. Evolution is a scientific theory, creationism is a religious belief. Our public school systems teach science, and must remain neutral with regard to religion. That does not mean they must remain neutral with regard to a scientific theory. They can enthusiastically teach and promote the consensus of scientific opinion without violating the Constitutional ban on establishing a religion.

The public school system not only cannot, it should not steer clear of every possible religious belief, and even more so of an allegedly privileged religious belief – whether it’s Krishna or Christian.

Republished from NeuroLogica Blog

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