Teachers Can't Criticize Creationism?

Noah's Ark with DinosaurI remember studying ancient Greek and Roman gods in high school. Everybody knew it was complete nonsense — those gods didn’t really exist — but it was interesting (or so we were told) because so much ancient literature revolved around those characters.

So if the teacher had made the comment that Greek mythical characters were “religious, superstitious nonsense” and had no basis in reality there would have been no problem.

But James Corbett said it about creationism in the classroom, and in March, he lost a 16-month legal battle, with the court concluding he violated the first amendment:

“Corbett states an unequivocal belief that Creationism is ‘superstitious nonsense,’” U.S. District Court Judge James Selna said in a 37-page ruling released from his Santa Ana courtroom. “The court cannot discern a legitimate secular purpose in this statement, even when considered in context.”

The establishment clause prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion” and has been interpreted by U.S. courts to also prohibit government employees from displaying religious hostility.

Creationism is religious, superstitious nonsense. It is not based on history or science, but on an ancient book. If children want to believe that, they can — but I think it’s a teacher’s role to show them that those beliefs do not have a basis in reality.

But was Mr. Corbett going over the line when he called it “religious, superstitious nonsense” — or was he simply stating a fact that should be protected under his 1st Amendment rights?

  • http://godless.biz/ Andrew Skegg

    James can demonstrate creationism IS superstitious. I do not think people should be persecuted for telling verifiable truth, no matter how unbearable it might be to some.

  • SeanHennessy

    I think he did cross a line. I think it would have been OK to say that creationism was a relgious belief. But calling it superstitious goes the extra step of eqating religion, with superstion. “Religious superstitious nonsense” makes this explicit.

    Which is a valid point of view, and would be pretty much my own point of view, but I don’t think it’s appropriate in the context of a teacher in a classroom.

    • Jabster

      So does this apply to all religions, all beliefs or just a certain sub-set?

    • Bender

      There is no “extra step”. Religion is superstition, whether religious people admit it or not. You can’t say black cats bringing bad luck is superstition, but a talking snake isn’t. Both are absurd, irrational beliefs.

      • SeanHennessy

        I think the big issue here is the specific use of the word ‘superstitious’. In the strict sense of the word any religion is, by definition, superstition. But it has a strongly perjorative sense, and so is a value judgment, of the sort that teachers should not be making in a classroom, one way or the other. A Christian teacher referring to Islam as superstition would be technically correct, but I think it’s pretty clear that it would be inappropriate.

        • Elemenope

          Since when should teachers not be making value judgments in the classroom?

          • SeanHennessy

            I should be specific – not about religion. Separation of church and state. If you can make a value judgement that religion is wrong, you can equally make one that it’s right.

            • Elemenope

              And…so…?

              If your teacher one day told you that what you believed was wrong, are you compelled to change your mind?

            • SeanHennessy

              Huh? So according to you it would be OK for a teacher to preach their own religion in the classroom, because I’m not obliged to change my views? The classroom is meant to be a religiously neutral venue, like a courtroom.

            • Elemenope

              There is a fair bit of distance between discussion and “preaching”. Preaching is not merely offering an opinion, or disparaging one. It is a concentrated effort to persuade regarding the truth of a belief structure, and elucidation of the details and consequences of that structure.

              For a teacher to offhandedly say “that’s superstitious garbage” or “non-believers behave like children” is not preaching; merely offering an opinion. It has to go a great deal further than that for it to become an encroachment into bona fide proselytism and sermonizing. A mere comment is unlikely to change someone’s beliefs, but a sustain sermon to a captive audience might.

    • Siberia

      Heh, the only difference between what he did and what someone teaching Greek lore did, is that creationism is in vogue now.

      It’s not dissimilar of Christians or whatever who laugh at the rituals/beliefs of Hindus because they’re “funny”, but get pissed off when you do the same thing to their traditions.

  • http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com James McGrath

    I think that the precise language used was the issue. If the teacher had said that “<iYoung-earth creationism has been scientifically proven beyond all reasonable doubt to make false claims about reality” the secular educational purpose of the statement, and its factuality, would have been beyon criticism. I also think the latter is more pedagogically beneficial, since it makes clear that the issue is science rather than merely opposition to someone’s religious views.

    On the other hand, at least the court confirmed once again that creationism isn’t science! ;-)

    • wintermute

      Agreed.

    • http://brgulker.wordpress.com brgulker

      I agree. The precise language used is the problem.

  • Bissrok

    I had a Greek mythology teacher that explained that, while they were polytheistic, now we know that’s there actually only one true god… And I suppose we figured that out when humans wrote a book about a thousand years after the Greeks started sacrificing lambs to Zeus, and this book was much, much more factual than the thousands of books that had been written by the Greeks and Romans (though it had a severe lack of sex and giant monsters)

    And I thought Creationists are trying to say that the theory doesn’t have any ties to religion, so how is this religious hostility? The theory could be used to suggest any supernatural being or beings created the earth and life as we know it, like a pack of unicorns for instance. And maybe he disrespected an established religion, but why are we forced to respect people that spend their lives worshiping and asking favors from invisible people?

  • Sundog

    Doesn’t matter if creationism is superstitious bull, it’s part of the belief system of some people. The constitution prohibits an establishment of religion, and that has been interpreted (correctly, in my opinion) to prohibit the discrimination against any religion. And when a teacher is teaching before a class, he is NOT speaking from his own mind and beliefs (which would be protected under the 1st) but as a government agent (in a public school, anyway.

    To show the facts that make YEC silly and stupid is to show the science that makes the world work. To impose one’s own opinions is another thing entirely.

    • Andy Smith

      Simply because it is part of a belief system should not protect it when it is superstitious nonsense. If the court has issue with his tone, then perhaps the legislature and courts should start criminalizing rudeness. One of the problems with educating the public about the shortcomings of creationism is that employees are not permitted to express the full extent of its shortcomings. Instead they are told to “respect the beliefs of others”, even when those beliefs are complete and utter nonsense. Why should we respect beliefs that have no basis in reality, especially in the classroom?

      • Sundog

        Because we want OUR beliefs respected, including in the classroom. The only difference between this and some teacher announcing as fact that “All Atheists will go to hell and be tortured forever” is that we agree with the guy in this case*. Remember, at this point, if it comes down to who’s position is the more popular, we lose.

        *Admittedly, we have evidence against YEC. They have faith. Both are very powerful.

        • Elemenope

          I personally want no beliefs (political, religious, historical, social) “respected” in the classroom. They should all be challenged; this is what a well-rounded education is all about. How else is a person to learn to think critically?

          • Sundog

            Fine. But this teacher did not challenge YEC; he outright dismissed it. NOT a position we want teaches to take, even if we basically agree.

            • Elemenope

              At that point, it is the duty of the student to speak up for their own beliefs if they feel challenged or offended.

            • Sundog

              There I can NOT agree. The Teacher-Student relationship is not an equal one; there is an imbalance of power.
              In such circumstance it is entirely reasonable that outside mediation of some type – here, the courts – be called in to deal with the situation.

            • Elemenope

              That’s *precisely* the point. There is a power imbalance, and that’s why it’s critical the discussion happens. Social ethics are learned by experience–literally, practice–and there is no safer place for a person to learn how to effectively challenge authority and speak truth to power than in a classroom. People do not just slide through school meek and mild and then magically on their eighteenth birthday become critical, thoughtful citizens. People are shaped by their experiences; if they never experience unfairness, abuse of power, spurious arguments from authority in the comparative safe environment of a classroom, and learn how to deal with such situations (especially when relatively powerless compared wit the person perpetrating the injustice) how can you ever expect them to stand up in the wider world when injustice and impunity reveal themselves, and they find themselves equally small when compared to an employer, a government, or a demagogue?

            • Sundog

              Through interaction with his PEERS. If we could ensure that the student’s challenge to the teacher’s position would lead to critical discussion, communication and learning, then I would agree, let the student put forth his position in challenge to the teacher’s. But it is expecting far too much for a student to be expected to do so when, all too likely, the result will be only further abuse of power, resulting in loss of grade, graduation and possibly desired future.
              What does such a student learn, when his actions and attempted actions are crushed beneath the heel of unassailable power, save not to try?

            • wintermute

              Fine. But this teacher did not challenge YEC; he outright dismissed it. NOT a position we want teaches to take, even if we basically agree.

              No, YEC can be safely dismissed on the evidence. Equally, if a student insists that 2+2=27, the teacher should not be required to prove the axioms of number theory before telling them that they’re wrong.

              The problem is that it was dismissed as superstitious nonsense, rather than unscientific nonsense, which is a matter of semantics rather than of policy.

            • Daniel Florien

              If a child says he can hurt people through voodoo, is the teacher not allowed to say that’s superstitious nonsense, because it might hurt dwa widdle gwuys feelings?

            • Sundog

              Dismissed upon the evidence, yes. But to dismiss WITHOUT the evidence is to preach from the pulpit, not to educate.

            • Sundog

              I don’t give a good goddamn about anybody’s feelings. I care about whether the teacher is following the laid out rules and laws of his profession.

    • Steve

      I’d love to see someone start a lawsuit against a teacher for calling the Greek gods myths. If the Christian creation story has to be respected, then all the other ones should be as well. We can’t very well promote the Christian version by calling all the other versions “myths”.

  • reckonr

    Had he been in a classroom full of fourth-graders and exclaimed that Santa Claus was superstitious nonsense, despite the fact that the claim is completely sound, all would agree he was offside.

    I was a history major. My professors always discussed religions, past and present, mythology, and cultural beliefs and customs with maturity and with the intent of provoking thoughtful discourse. The comment infused personal feelings and was inappropriate – he should be teaching them how to think, not what to think. Let the students come to their own conclusions about what is nonsense and what isn’t.

    • http://brgulker.wordpress.com brgulker

      he should be teaching them how to think, not what to think. Let the students come to their own conclusions about what is nonsense and what isn’t.

      That’s what I meant to say in my comments below, but didn’t do nearly as well as you did here.

      +1

    • Elemenope

      Sometimes encouraging actual probing discourse, especially about tightly-held or widely-held beliefs, requires some provocation. There is another line, between making a person uncomfortable so that there is a chance of self-analysis, and simply being insulting and cruel. Since we as a society have become so very uncomfortable with that line, we’ve simply retreated to a very safe, almost useless, “facts and figures” pedagogy with no structure or instruction for forming value judgments.

  • http://allthingssteve.com L. Jerome

    Sheeesh, I suppose I can understand a little slap on the wrist. Saying “nonsense” is a bit of an insult. While it may very well be nonsense (especially in the strictest sense of the word), it is inflammatory to use that sort of language – getting a rise out of the students.

    However, a legal precedent being set? Unreasonable. As other commenters have stated, if it were another religion, would it come to legalities or would the principal or whomever have a word with the teacher that he might want to use less derogatory language when referring to the religion of his students, their parents, and most people in the community?

    Side note – this was an Advanced Placement European History class. I’d love to be able to find out how this students belief system might change after he spends a few years in higher education. I’m guessing he may shift away from his parents if he continues to push for advanced academic work.

    Anyone else recognize a familiar story-line?

    • Roger

      Side note – this was an Advanced Placement European History class. I’d love to be able to find out how this students belief system might change after he spends a few years in higher education. I’m guessing he may shift away from his parents if he continues to push for advanced academic work.</cite?

      Don't hold your breath on that one. He'll likely either go to Jesusland University Bible College of Truthiness where his nonsense beliefs will not go challenged or he'll go to an actual university and be one of those kind of students who gets "offended" when the professor says anything that doesn’t square with his flat earth worldview. I think this ruling (if it stands) will only infuse him with a sense of moral superiority that will not likely be overcome by any college education.

  • Young Earth Atheist

    The positive from this is that Creationism was clearly considered a religious belief. It was not defended as science. Hopefully this can come up when somebody tries to argue that Creationism should be taught in science class.

  • Jer

    The problem is that he was a history teacher and they were discussing court cases revolving around teaching evolution in the classroom. He wasn’t teaching evolutionary biology at the time – he was teaching why the courts had decided that you could keep creationism out of the classroom while mandating that evolution be taught (because the first is a religious belief while the second is science).

    He probably WAS needlessly insulting given the situation that he was teaching in. I certainly wouldn’t want the reverse to be considered protected speech – having a fundamentalist history teacher talking about how the courts will support “materialistic/atheistic religion” but not their viewpoint of the “One True Faith” would have me screaming at a school board meeting myself.

    (Also stuff like this doesn’t help educate the kids anyway. Now, if he’d started the discussion with a rendition of the Greek creation story and asked if that should be taught in a science class before giving his superstitious nonsense insult I might applaud. That’s how you sow the seeds of critical thought – by drawing analogies to things that are ridiculous and letting the students draw their own conclusions. Insulting their religious beliefs outright is only going to get them to dig their heels in and shut you out. Getting them to draw the conclusions for themselves is how learning happens.)

  • http://brgulker.wordpress.com brgulker

    but I think it’s a teacher’s role to show them that those beliefs do not have a basis in reality.

    No. The job of a history teacher is to teach history, not to exact a religious or non-religious agenda on his/her students.

    Had he said something like “Creationism is a matter of religious belief and is not supported by the scientific evidence,” that would be on thing. However, his comments are not merely a comment about whether or not creationism is science but is rather a negative critique of religion in general as “superstitious nonsense.”

    In the classroom, the role of the teacher is to teach the subject matter at hand, not promote or dismiss religion.

    • Aor

      Only if that is applied to all religions equally. Since we do not expect a history teacher to hold back from calling the greek myths nonsense, we cannot honestly expect a different approach to a different religion.. just because it is yours, or closely related to yours, does not make it special.

      All religions, past or present or future, must be treated equally or there is a problem. Since the vast majority of people can agree that the vast majority of religions past and present are nonsense, the honest approach is to treat them all that way.

  • Elemenope

    I have a question. How are students to learn how to speak truth to power, or question authority, if authority is bland and presents nothing to push against?

    • http://brgulker.wordpress.com brgulker

      The question isn’t whether that type of thing should happen but when and where.

      In the US, public education is state-sponsored; so, in my mind, the church-state separation applies. Public education should not support or promote religion, but neither should it be anti-religion. It should, as much as is possible, be neutral. I don’t want our teachers pushing atheism on my children any more than you want our teachers pushing religion on yours.

      Higher education is a great place for those types of questions. As is the internet. As is the printed press. There are plenty of venues through which to explore ideas freely.

      • Elemenope

        I don’t want our teachers pushing atheism on my children any more than you want our teachers pushing religion on yours.

        I thought I was decently clear that I don’t really much mind teachers offering opinions about religion, either way, in the classroom; hence, a teacher offering an opinion that “atheism is silly” by itself would not much bother me. The only thing that would really irritate me is if the teacher disparaged my kid’s religious stance and he or she didn’t speak up for themselves, or just let the comment pass unchallenged. My kid, when I have one, may well embrace different beliefs than I do, and I certainly do not believe that the best way for him or her to develop those beliefs is in a bubble without questioning and without challenge. Out there in the world, he or she would run into many people who have different beliefs, some of whom will be vociferous or even aggressive about expressing them, and he or she should have some experience not only standing up for themselves, but also listening intently to things they disagree with and learning how to challenge respectfully and debate productively, even in a context where there is a power differential.

        Higher education is a great place for those types of questions. As is the internet. As is the printed press. There are plenty of venues through which to explore ideas freely.

        Not everyone has an opportunity to attend higher education, and not everyone even if the opportunity presents itself cares to. And while I love discussion on the Internet, it is a very poor substitute for the type of conversation I’m talking about, because there is nothing risked in that context by offering an opinion or making an argument. In the real world, doing those things, especially contrary to authority figures, has consequences as well as benefits, and learning that first-hand simply cannot be done on the tubes.

        • http://brgulker.wordpress.com brgulker

          I thought I was decently clear that I don’t really much mind teachers offering opinions about religion, either way, in the classroom; hence, a teacher offering an opinion that “atheism is silly” by itself would not much bother me.

          Gotcha. I guess I misunderstood you, then. But, I think I would probably disagree a little bit. Obviously, one can’t teach history or sociology, for example, without talking about religion in some way. Religion is a fact of history and an object of study for sociology, so it’s gonna come up. But I think it can be handled with an attempt an neutrality, at least from the teachers of the subject matter.

          Not everyone has an opportunity to attend higher education, and not everyone even if the opportunity presents itself cares to.

          I agree with all that you said here.

          What I don’t agree with is the assumption by some that if they can’t get it anywhere else, it should be part of public education. I think it’s more nuanced that that.

          • Elemenope

            I think it’s more nuanced that that.

            I agree that it is not simple. Above in another part of the thread I spoke if the thin line between challenging beliefs respectfully and being simply insulting. I think that the difficulty is the line is so thin, people in general are so sensitive, and the society so litigious, that as a practical matter it would be nearly impossible to employ what I am talking about in the current circumstances. There would need to be something of a cultural shift before people again accept open and subjective challenge in these contexts while preserving condemnation for unproductive insults.

            Namely, debate needs to become a means of education again, which means people need to grow up about being challenged, and certainly not sue at the drop of a hat when they feel themselves aggrieved by a person who has perhaps pushed the envelope slightly.

            • http://brgulker.wordpress.com brgulker

              Namely, debate needs to become a means of education again, which means people need to grow up about being challenged, and certainly not sue at the drop of a hat when they feel themselves aggrieved by a person who has perhaps pushed the envelope slightly.

              I don’t disagree.

              But, I’m not sure how much of a debate between a pupil and a middle/high school teacher is actually a debate, given the gap in knowledge and obvious power dynamic. I’m not saying teachers shouldn’t push, just questioning how effective such a “debate” might be.

            • Elemenope

              It’s a problem because people develop morally and socially at different rates just as they develop intellectually, and the point at which the possibility of productive conversation in the context of a classroom differs. I might point out that while not everyone in a given class may be capable of such an interchange, if there is even one the resulting conversation benefits all the students, not merely the teacher and the one student who questions him/her.

              I guess my only point is that it should be possible for such a conversation to occur without the looming threat of disciplinary action against the teacher for suggesting it. Will people misunderstand or even cross the line? Sure. But that happens now anyway. People have enough pride in their own beliefs and difficulty extracting their subjective viewpoint from whatever they wish to teach that on some level the bias is present anyway. I tend to think that the bias being explicit is healthier than it remaining unspoken.

            • http://brgulker.wordpress.com brgulker

              I also don’t think this particular scenario was a debate at all; from what I can gather, it was just a teacher shooting something down and dismissing it as superstition and nonsense.

            • Elemenope

              It takes two to debate, and at some point the kid should learn to stand up and challenge the teacher’s statement-by-fiat, at least demanding justification for the comment.

      • Siberia

        Don’t agree.

        I’ll agree that the method used was wrong. I’ll agree that he should have done it better. Possibly, rather than dismissing it off hand, he should have engaged the children in a debate about it. Say that some people think so, but he doesn’t, and why. I’ll extend the same courtesy to the religious people.

        But I don’t agree that children should be educated in a neutral no-tell environment. I’m a firm believer that children do so have the intelligence and discernment to question their beliefs, to be exposed to different beliefs, and that they should be taught to do so earlier. How else will they learn that there are other point of views in the world, if not in school? It’s not about pushing atheism or religion down anyone’s throat – it’s exposing children to realities that may not be otherwise exposed to. Not everyone is able to go for higher education, after all; why should those who cannot or would not be left out?

        • http://brgulker.wordpress.com brgulker

          Not everyone is able to go for higher education, after all; why should those who cannot or would not be left out?

          This is exactly the assumption I’m talking about above. If they can’t get it anywhere else, the government should do it.

          No offense, but I don’t buy the assumption — especially on matters of religion/non-religion. It’s not the role of the government, or a government-sponsored education, to promote/dissuade from religion/non-religion. The government’s default posture should be a-religion or neutrality.

          he should have engaged the children in a debate about it. Say that some people think so, but he doesn’t, and why. I’ll extend the same courtesy to the religious people.

          I think the power dynamic between a teacher and a pupil at that age is pretty big obstacle to a genuine debate. I wouldn’t say that it’s impossible, just unlikely.

          I’m a firm believer that children do so have the intelligence and discernment to question their beliefs, to be exposed to different beliefs, and that they should be taught to do so earlier. How else will they learn that there are other point of views in the world, if not in school?

          I agree that all those things are important; I don’t agree with you that teachers should be initiating it. That’s the role of family, friends, mentors, peers, etc., not government-funded schools and teachers.

          To me, it’s too slippery a slope. If we accept teachers who are going to promote the idea that religion is superstitious nonsense, then what would be the objection to teachers who want to promote the opposite? And why would that be desirable? Wouldn’t it just cause more problems than it would solve?

          • Question-I-thority

            If we accept teachers who are going to promote the idea that religion is superstitious nonsense, then what would be the objection to teachers who want to promote the opposite?

            If the teacher instead said something like, ‘Atheism promotes immorality”, the discussion here would probably have gone down a completely different, ‘how dare they’ path. But the questions Elemenope raises about the process of developing critical thinking including the ability to do so under duress are worth considering. It seems to me that our (American) public school system is not doing a good job in this area.

            When I was in high school during the height of the Viet Nam war my Civics teacher was fired when he had students read letters from war vets. Unfortunately for him, one of the letters contained the word ‘shit’ and for this he lost his job (technically). Without ever saying it, he was very liberal and anti-war and yet was fair to those of us with differing opinions. He was by far the the most engaging, interesting and yes, provocative teacher on campus.

            School administrations, like all institutions, tend to gather authoritarian personalities. This can lead to bland but safe environments for administrators and boring, uninspiring ones for students. Societies always have the push/pull of structured safely vs. risky exploration. Perhaps if students were given more structured space to argue out, defend and engage each other with controversial ideas we would all be better off. The art of civil discourse and the disciple of critical thinking are rather important in a democracy.

            • Question-I-thority

              Sorry, that’s “discipline” not “disciple” in the last sentence.

            • http://brgulker.wordpress.com brgulker

              The art of civil discourse and the disciple of critical thinking are rather important in a democracy.

              I don’t disagree at all. I simply question whether or not we really want to have explicitly pro-/anti- religious sentiments expressed by our teachers.

              ‘Atheism promotes immorality”, the discussion here would probably have gone down a completely different, ‘how dare they’ path

              Uh, ya think? :)

              Another instance of ingroup/outgroup, if you ask me.

              And really ironic that I’m the one defending separation of church and state, to boot.

            • Question-I-thority

              And really ironic that I’m the one defending separation of church and state, to boot.

              I noticed that too. :)

            • http://brgulker.wordpress.com brgulker

              When I was in high school during the height of the Viet Nam war my Civics teacher was fired when he had students read letters from war vets. Unfortunately for him, one of the letters contained the word ’shit’ and for this he lost his job (technically). Without ever saying it, he was very liberal and anti-war and yet was fair to those of us with differing opinions. He was by far the the most engaging, interesting and yes, provocative teacher on campus.

              That story reminds me of a Sociology teacher I had in high school. I grew up in a conservative town, and he came to very liberal sociological conclusions. But, he didn’t force them down any student’s throat; instead, he facilitated conversations, played devil’s advocate with anyone and everyone (so as to not single out a couple of the vocal atheists and a couple vocal Christians). I’m not opposed to that type of pedagogy in the least; I’m all for it.

              I just think it has to be done very carefully by mature, secure teachers who aren’t going to exact a non/religious agenda and is willing to let students think for themselves, however much they may disagree with their conclusions.

            • Elemenope

              I just think it has to be done very carefully by mature, secure teachers who aren’t going to exact a non/religious agenda and is willing to let students think for themselves, however much they may disagree with their conclusions.

              That’s the real trick, isn’t it? I have a sneaking, sinking suspicion that unfortunately most teachers are not interested or qualified or capable of holding such conversations effectively.

              I do think, however, that when it happens with disrespectful and/or just plain incompetent teachers it serves a different educational purpose. Perhaps not about the topic at hand, but an important one nonetheless.

            • http://brgulker.wordpress.com brgulker

              it serves a different educational purpose.

              That’s a good point.

          • Siberia

            No offense, but I don’t buy the assumption — especially on matters of religion/non-religion. It’s not the role of the government, or a government-sponsored education, to promote/dissuade from religion/non-religion. The government’s default posture should be a-religion or neutrality.

            That’s quite ironic of you to say, considering you yourself said that whenever you hear “take religion out of my government” you parse “take religious people out of my government”. So now people aren’t allowed to express their opinions because they are government employees?

            I’m not saying indoctrinate either way. I’m saying show there ARE other point of views and why people have different POVs. As I said, I’m not for “oh, religion is nonsense” brush of hand, but “some people are religious, some aren’t, some people believe this, some people believe that”. I frankly don’t see the harm in that; might even alleviate the absurdity of having people sneer at other’s beliefs because, lo and behold, they are perceived as silly or as nonsense by people who don’t understand them.

            Or maybe that’s because I’ve this crazy notion that teachers shouldn’t be there just to pass a bunch of lectures on scientific facts, history, whatever, but to teach their students how to think and be good citizens.

      • boomSLANG

        “It should, as much as is possible, be neutral. I don’t want our teachers pushing atheism….”

        It was my understanding that nonbelief in something *is* “neutral”—or, the default position. Remember, non-belief is not necessarily a stance that the “thing” in question does not/cannot exist— it’s simply lack of belief based on lack of evidence. Nonbelief in “God”/gods(A-theism), which would normally be passive, only becomes an active stance because people(Theists) insist that their respective deities exist. If the latter group did not do this, non-belief in “God”/gods(Atheism) would not even be necessary, and therefore, non-belief in deities would be a position of neutrality. I presume no one would mind if teachers said, “I don’t believe in leprechauns!!….that is superstitious nonsense!!” But of course, no one is going around insisting that leprechauns exist, hence, why there’s no need for teachers to say this, hence, why no one’s saying, “I think teachers should be neutral when it comes to leprechauns!!”

        Atheism is a response to Theism, just like a rabies vaccine is a repsonse to rabies.

        • http://brgulker.wordpress.com brgulker

          I see your point, but I thought I that what I was talking about was the type of sentiment that this teacher expressed, namely, that religion is “superstitious nonsense.”

          That’s not a passive or neutral sentiment; it’s an active one.

          • Elemenope

            Well, this leads to a somewhat tangential argument about whether religions should be considered holistically. After all, the teacher did not say that religion or Christianity was “superstitious nonsense”, but rather creationism. Is creationism severable from the wider religion(s) from which it sprang? I know many evolution-believing Christians who tend to think so.

            Is it possible to criticize a tradition or practice or belief in isolation from its wider fideistic context?

            • http://brgulker.wordpress.com brgulker

              Is creationism severable from the wider religion(s) from which it sprang? I know many evolution-believing Christians who tend to think so.

              Yes it is; I agree with them and you.

              But, I doubt that any of them would call creationism, “religious, superstitious nonsense.” Would you agree?

              It seems to me that both the choice of words and how they are linked together (religious and supserstitious as adjectives that modify nonsense) betrays a fundamental disdain for religion.

              Perhaps I’m reading into things, and maybe I’ll never know for sure if I am or not, but it seems to me that someone who’s neutral or friendly to Christianity wouldn’t use the phrase “religious, superstitious nonsense.” To me, that hints at a more general disdain for religion generally, not just creationism.

            • Elemenope

              I think you have a point that the adjective “religious” raises a legitimate question of disparagement (though it just as easily could have been meant merely as clarification of a classification; religious nonsense as opposed to, say, political nonsense). But superstitious is a word (and many more, much less kind) I have heard people, including Christians, use often when referring to creationism.

              My thing is, instead of the kid “courageously” suing the teacher, he could have taken up the issue with him right there, challenging the teacher’s characterization and making him defend his comment. That would have been both more courageous and more productive, IMO.

              More generally, I don’t generally believe that people have a sovereign right not to have their feelings hurt. If a person can show actual material *discrimination* (i.e. if they expressed some doctrine relevant to the wider context in a class and the teacher marked them down for that expression, or threw them out of class) then that’s another thing entirely. But merely a teacher or fellow student saying, in essence, “you know what, what you just said is pretty silly” should not be grounds for a lawsuit. I mean, if you do not defend your beliefs aloud, can they even really be called beliefs?

            • http://brgulker.wordpress.com brgulker

              My thing is, instead of the kid “courageously” suing the teacher, he could have taken up the issue with him right there, challenging the teacher’s characterization and making him defend his comment. That would have been both more courageous and more productive, IMO.

              Yes.

              More generally, I don’t generally believe that people have a sovereign right not to have their feelings hurt. If a person can show actual material *discrimination* …..

              And yes.

            • khal82

              As a high-school teacher (I teach English) in a conservative small city, I work diligently to encourage critical thinking because I believe it is the key to effective citizenship and a lifelong understanding of the real world. It is a tenuous dance from day to day as students discuss these issues (come in from Biology espousing, as indoctrinated, that evolution isn’t true, or real, or Christian,etc.). Many, if not most, of these kids are members of the most dominant evangelical churches and truly believe that all Christians believe the Bible literally. I had one student write in a short autobiographical essay that while she was Catholic, her friends were Christian – I was stunned, having been raised Catholic and presumed myself Christian, although atheist now. There are so many layers of unchallenged, assumptions in the way of their learning, many reinforced flagrantly by other teachers because that is the default, American point of view, that all I can do when asked my opinion is state general facts about religion and science, be honest but vague, encourage perspective beyond our enclave of conservative thinking, and cover my ass with the state standards and benchmarks that require that we teach critical thinking; I have to be careful that my language is not inflammatory or insulting and that I make them curious, help them realize that there are things they may not know yet that are very interesting and enlightening, and teach the subject in a way that presents mythology and archetypes with examples that reasonably include Christianity. I do not purposefully exclude it, and the ones with bright minds will see the connections, and can go on to learn and ask questions throughout their education and lives. My personal frustrations and anger at the judgmental bigotry they often espouse (again, I see past them to their parents) are addressed tactfully in terms of tolerance and understanding; again, that is within my job description and all of this is among my highest calling, I believe, as a teacher. I can be one of the adults who listens as well as talks and does not just dismiss or insult what they think; they realize they have a lot to learn, but assuming or telling them what they have been taught (and AP or not, they don’t know the distinctions as we do between Creationism, Christianity, etc.) by people who love them is just going to shut another door. Zeus knows it’s tempting to tell them exactly what I think, and their are certain students and discussions that facilitate a more earnest expression of my views (to a degree, because I need this job), but teaching is not about me, it’s about the students. I do the best I can, and I am sure that teacher was, too; it’s very hard, and ignorance wears you down and I am so sorry he paid that price. I can see it happening here, too.

            • Question-I-thority

              Thank you for your generous service to our community.

            • http://www.speaknowpeaceworks.wordpress.com Cheryl

              Hearty thanks from me as well. It must take a lot of fortitude to swim against the stream like that, and I admire your strength and integrity. You are doing a great service not just to your students, but to everyone else whose lives they will go on to affect, as adults.

        • boomSLANG

          I guess my point is/was, since no human being *knows* that an invisible, conscious being “created” everything, and since education is largely about obtaining *knowledge*, then educators should not have to be “as neutral as possible” just because some beliefs go hand-in-hand with religious convictions, which then become passed-off as “knowledge”. Yes, perhaps teachers can be more considerate/tactful when addressing these issues. Notwithstanding, a spade is a spade.

          • http://brgulker.wordpress.com brgulker

            I understand where you are coming from.

            In my mind, there’s a difference between a teacher saying,

            “I don’t believe in God,” or, “I don’t think there is a God,” or, “I don’t have any evidence for God,” or something along those lines.

            And,

            “____________ is religious, superstitious nonsense.”

            The former seems to communicate something like, “I don’t believe, but I’m not going to say you shouldn’t.” While the latter seems to communicate, “I don’t believe, and and you should either unless you want to believe nonsense.”

            In my view, the latter has no more place in our schools than creationism should have in biology textbooks.

            • Aor

              Again, you must apply that equally to all religions, past and present and even future. People can say that believing that breaking a mirror will cause years of bad luck is superstitious nonsense.. even if the person they are talking to happens to be part of some religion that believes it is true. A teacher can and should say that the belief that rainbows are a sign from some god is superstitious nonsense, and the religious beliefs of the person listening to that message are not justification for silencing that teacher. You don’t really want that teacher to say “I don’t believe rainbows are a sign from god, but you just go ahead if you feel like it” do you? How about “I don’t believe astrology is real, but you just go ahead”… remember, you have to take a general position that applies to all of these whacked out belief systems. The same position applied to the supernatural, in all cases. If you only want religions similar to yours to have this special treatment, then that is a problem.

              There are countless religions, and countless variations within those religions.. and it is not the responsibility of a teacher to bend to the will of every single religion that the human mind can come up with. There are consequences to believing silly things, and one of those consequences is that you will occasionally be told that your beliefs are nonsense. The solution isn’t to silence the teacher, it is to just stop believing in nonsense.

  • http://RantingRaving.wordpress.com Nikita

    I’ve been a student on the receiving end of this kind of teacher. At the time I was a complete bible-thumper and his insistence that only idiots are religious was extremely offensive. If he had found another way to teach his view point and explain to me WHY he didn’t believe instead of just telling his students that all believers are dumb I might have learned something from him. As a result of his attitude it took me longer to come out of my religious fog, people like him made me more hard headed when defending my own beliefs instead of teaching me to think logically and critically about the world.

    I feel now that this teacher failed in this opportunity to educate his students in the art of critical thinking and his attitude caused me to turn away from scientific thought.

    He made have had the right to state his feelings however he failed as a teacher in that moment.

  • http://hambydammit.wordpress.com Hambydammit

    Teachers have an obligation to tell their students when a particular religious claim is contrary to the science being taught in the classroom. Clearly, the teacher did his job with regard to creationism. It is bunk. It is unscientific, and it is disproven.

    To think that this tied up a courtroom for sixteen months trying to determine if the exact word usage was “discriminatory” against religion? For fuck’s sake. SCIENCE is discriminatory against religion, and it damn well should be. There are a lot of people who need to get their panties unbunched over things like this. I wouldn’t particularly like it if I went to a Sunday School class and the teacher spoke disparagingly about atheism, but that’s what church is for — promoting religion. School is for teaching science, and if a teacher lets his opinion of disproven religious bullshit show through, I’m sorry, but the poor little brainwashed theist students need to deal with it.

  • mahousniper

    I fully support this. The court was right. While I agree with the teacher completely, it’s true that calling creationism “superstitious nonsense” is a statement attacking a religious belief that many people adhere to. As a government employee, he does not have the right to publicly attack religion while on the job.

    As we’re quick to point out to religious folk who censor us, laws work both ways. A statement condemning an important part of a current religion has no place in our government and is just as bad as the prayer before congress or any of those other things we discuss here.

    • Baconsbud

      I do agree that he overstepped he rights here. What I am wondering should this also apply to what Senators and Representatives say? Does this mean that someone in a position of the government isn’t allowed to say that they are christians and that creationism is the truth? Can someone running for office in anyway promote his/her belief while campaigning?

    • Michael R

      I couldn’t disagree with you more. If calling creationism “superstitious nonsense” is “attacking a religious belief” and, thus, punishable by law, then what is atheism as a philosophy? Should all people who disagree with religion be prosecuted? Where do you draw the line between what is considered an attack and what is merely disagreement? Your assertion has dangerous consequences.

      • Baconsbud

        I think you are misunderstanding what the court is saying. It isn’t illegal for him to believe this but that in his position as a teacher, he isn’t allowed to side one way or the other on the isue of religion.

        • Daniel Florien

          The thing is, creationists insist it ISN’T religion, but about science. And thus we can dismiss it as nonsense. Right? ;)

          • mahousniper

            Michael, people are allowed to say or believe whatever they want. The problem is when a government employee (including teachers at public schools) does it, that’s a violation of church and state.

            Baconsbud, I think that congressmen and politicians shouldn’t be allowed to state things like “My policy is based on my religious beliefs.” Religion doesn’t have a place in politics, which needs to represent people of all religions, or no religion at all.

            Daniel, Intelligent Design isn’t religion, and therefore is allowed to be called nonsense by anyone! ;)

            • http://www.speaknowpeaceworks.wordpress.com Cheryl

              “I think that congressmen and politicians shouldn’t be allowed to state things like “My policy is based on my religious beliefs.” Religion doesn’t have a place in politics, which needs to represent people of all religions, or no religion at all.”

              I would rather they do say that, if it is the case, so I know who not to vote for!

            • Michael R

              If it’s a “violation of church and state”, by which I take you to mean a violation of the separation of church and state, for a government employee to express an opinion regarding religion, then the teaching of creationism in school is illegal.

        • wolf revels

          It is his job to teach the facts.the fact is, creationism is a myth.pure religious nonsense.He is not stating an opinion. if he were that would be different but The science he is paid to teach backs up his claim.hence it is not an opinion he is sharing but a fact that he is teaching

    • Aor

      By that reasoning, no teacher should be able to use the phrase ‘sacred cow’ while on the job.. because that implies that hinduism is nonsense. No teacher would be able to call the beliefs of the most whacked out cult nonsense… ever. And there are some damn whacked out cults in the world. This is where your position falls apart… it gives special treatment to certain religions, particularly those with significant public support. That would be against the law.

      As a government employee, he does not have the right to publicly attack religion while on the job.

      So if someone who believes that a child sacrifice is necessary in order to make the sun rise in the morning were offended by a teacher saying his beliefs were nonsense, you would keep support him in his fights to silence the teacher? That teacher wouldn’t have the right to say it was nonsense? You cannot have it both ways. Pick one position that applies to all religions, and stick to it. The position you have taken as of now is untenable.

  • CybrgnX

    Actually the teach here missed a great opportunity.
    He should have said ….
    “I cannot comment on that position because the radical religious will not allow me to talk about it.”
    Then when the students asked why, they could have a long debat about the surpression of reason and science.
    And instead of being punished for a rant , they would have a learning experience.

  • Michael R

    I don’t agree with the court’s ruling here, but there is a legal precedent that I thought may have applied to this case. Rosen v. United States (1896).

    “the Supreme Court adopted the same obscenity standard as had been articulated in a famous British case, Regina v. Hicklin. The Hicklin standard defined material as obscene if it tended “to deprave or corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.” Extend that to the spoken word in a classroom and voila.

  • khal82

    I would, also, feel entirely comfortable stating to the kids that creationism is NOT science because it fails the criteria of science, and that the science teacher must, as per HIS/or HER teaching requirements, teach the science curriculum per state standards and benchmarks. I would absolutely enter into a discussion along these lines because I always want the students to understand how education works, is purported to works, and discuss whether or not it is working for them, in their mind. They are engaged in this way. I would also absolutely clarify what the word “theory” means in terms of science rather than what they are using it for, and emphasis that we only have so much time in a day to teach the actual curriculum to make them educated, informed citizens, and that religion can be taught at home or church, or addressed in a sociology or mythology class – we could discuss why we could spend all class period in science going over every creation story from all sorts of cultures and time periods. Perspective, again, is essential.

    • khal82

      - and why thatdiscussion in science class would not be productive or meet standards. Also, correct “purported to work” not “works.”

  • wolf revels

    creationism is demonstrably a religious belief with no scientific basis in fact.If it is mentioned at all in a class room it should be for what it is SUPERSTITIOUS NONSENSE PERIOD

    • khal82

      Wolf, I agree with your sentiments; I do, however, teach in a world where even selecting a novel that one parent finds obscene (we went through this with The Chocolate War) and groups like Parents Against Bad Books will stop a syllabus and school system dead in its tracks forcing teachers to defend our professionalism and morality at any given moment. Creationism is a load of crap and ID is a disguise; religion is superstition and hurts children’s minds; but you pick your battles or you are out of there and one less person will advocate for reason – I push every chance I get, and I am pretty sneaky; I may get nailed one day by somebody, but I want to stay in there as long as I can. I don’t, however, want to get sued and lose everything. I am grateful for all the individuals and groups who speak for intellectual freedom and defend it, and I will do what I can where I am.

  • Dan L.

    Creationism is a tenet of fundamentalist Christianity, so the guy was definitely registering an opinion on religious belief. He could have factually stated something like “All available scientific evidence suggests that creationism is false,” and I think he would have gotten away with it. Clearly the preceding statement implies that creationism is “superstitious nonsense,” but it’s also perfectly reasonable to expect a public school teacher to refrain from expressing certain opinions on the job (remembering that it’s perfectly reasonable to challenge one’s student with facts all the same).

    Presumably, a Hindu student or Islamic student could have won such a suit if a teacher had said that the concept of karma or Mohammed’s ascent to heaven on a winged horse was superstitious nonsense. Although I kind of doubt it.

  • rodneyAnonymous

    Presumably, a Hindu student or Islamic student could have won such a suit if a teacher had said that the concept of karma or Mohammed’s ascent to heaven on a winged horse was superstitious nonsense. Although I kind of doubt it.

    Oh, I think definitely. The critical difference is whether anyone currently believes the mythology in question.

    …if the teacher had made the comment that Greek mythical characters were “religious, superstitious nonsense” and had no basis in reality there would have been no problem.

    Indeed! Why is The Iliad mythology and the Bible history?

  • Pingback: Lousy Canuck » The scary confluence of religious fervour and political brainwashing

  • Christopher Wing

    A lot of people are acting as if somehow religion is equal in value to science. It is not. Religion doesn’t cure cancer. Religion doesn’t feed people. Religion doesn’t create vaccines. If there are 2 opinions, both do not need to be right or respected. If one is demonstrable wrong (religion) it should be treated as such – wrong. And people who continue to be willfully ignorant should be treated as such.


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