Science and religion have long been at odds with one another, at least in the eyes of some. Throw a bit of politics into the mix and the situation gets really crazy.
The latest outbreak of weirdness has creationists arguing that a recent governmental ruling means that evolution should be banned from public schools! Yes, you read that correctly; banned from public schools.
These people seem neither to notice nor mind that the position they are promoting is more extreme than the law that was at the center of the Scopes Trial in 1925. That law, after all, only prohibited the teaching of human evolution.
They seem not to recognize the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court (finally) in 1968 in Epperson v. Arkansas overturned the Butler Amendment that Scopes was accused of violating.
It's worth reviewing the 1968 decision in the Epperson case since it was so very clear. Justice Abe Fortas, in overturning the Arkansas law, wrote,
The overriding fact is that Arkansas' law selects from the body of knowledge a particular segment which it proscribes for the sole reason that it is deemed to conflict with a particular religious doctrine; that is, with a particular interpretation of the Book of Genesis by a particular religious group.
He went on to say that "the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them."
But it appears that some now want to take us back even beyond where we were at the time of the Scopes Trial.
The precipitating event was a governmental brief arguing that Annie Laurie Gaylor, the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, is actually a religious leader and is, therefore, eligible to receive tax breaks available to leaders of organized religions.
As the Christian News pointed out, "when it comes to filing taxes, the IRS says atheist leaders are comparable to 'ministers of the gospel,' and deserve all the benefits given to actual clergy." Not surprisingly, Gaylor was not pleased by the position the government has taken. "She is now angry that the IRS considers her a religious leader. 'We are not ministers,' she argued. 'We are having to tell the government the obvious--we are not a church.'"
I don't want to discuss the logic that might lead one to believe that atheism is legally indistinguishable from a religion. Not only is that point a bit of a tangent for evolution's status in public schools, but, frankly, thinking about the topic gives me a headache!
Instead, let's look at where creationists have taken this argument.
But if the federal government is arguing that atheism is a religion, then how do they justify public schools teaching that there is no God - aka atheism. Science classes all across the country fight to prevent biblical creation from being taught because it is a religious view. Instead, they push evolution, which says there is no God and thus, according to the federal government, is a religion and therefore should not be allowed to be taught in public schools either. Christians around the nation need to jump on this precedent and fight to get evolution out of the public schools or force them to allow the teaching of both evolution and creationism side by side.
There are so many things so very wrong with this single paragraph, but let me focus just on the first part of the third sentence: "Instead, they push evolution, which says there is no God..."
Although creationists love to make this claim, evolution says absolutely no such thing. The theory of evolution describes a natural process through which hereditary changes are passed from parent to offspring, from generation to generation. Not only is there nothing controversial about evolutionary processes, they are regularly observed and measured in the laboratory and the field. No scientific manuscript discussing evolution, no biology textbook explaining evolution, argues that evolutionary theory makes any claims about the existence of any deity.
It's not only scientists who recognize this point. Thousands of religious leaders have come together via The Clergy Letter Project, an organization I founded, to assert that they are fully comfortable with the science of evolution and to state that it poses absolutely no challenges to their deeply held religious beliefs. Indeed, they make it absolutely clear that modern evolutionary theory should be taught in public schools "as a core component of human knowledge."
Let's return to the courts for a minute. When, in 1981, the state of Arkansas passed legislation that required evolution and creationism to be taught side by side, as is being recommended again by creationists, religious leaders from a host of denominations joined with educators and parents to fight the law. In his decision overturning the action of the state, federal district judge William R. Overton wrote, "it is clearly established in the case law, and perhaps also in common sense, that evolution is not a religion and that teaching evolution does not violate the Establishment Clause."
It is difficult to believe that creationists promoting the extreme positions outlined above are completely ignorant of modern science and legal precedent. Regardless of their level of knowledge or intent, however, it falls on the rest of us to speak up forcefully and regularly to ensure that the public recognizes just how extreme their positions are.
Failing to move beyond ignorance, willful or otherwise, poses great damage to both religion and science.