Friday, March 20, 2009


Of Spills and Beans

My, my! This is interesting.

Solving Light Books announced today that Don McLeroy, controversial Chair of the Texas State Board of Education, has recommended "Sowing Atheism" (ISBN: 978-0-9705438-5-1) by Robert Bowie Johnson, Jr., to other board members and to the general public. McLeroy's timely recommendation could influence the board's final decision on the science curriculum scheduled for March 27. The Texas decision will determine what is printed in science textbooks nationwide.

You can download Sowing Atheism here. As the blurb at the download site says:

Robert Bowie Johnson, Jr., who holds a general science degree from West Point, wrote SOWING ATHEISM in response to the book published by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in January of this year, Science, Evolution, and Creationism. The NAS sent its book to educators, school boards, and science teachers throughout the United States, falsely affirming that molecules-to-man evolution is a "fact" when in reality it does not even meet the minimum conditions for a valid theory.

Science, Evolution, and Creationism was the NAS's attempt to address the relationship between science and religion that has been criticized by some atheists for being too conciliatory to the latter. Be that as it may, if this "report" (more of a marketing ploy, I suspect) is true, it says much about the nature of McLeroy's position on the Texas science standards and his claim that he isn't seeking to have religion taught in the state's public schools. If he has recommended the book, it may well bear on any court challenge later on. Some quotes from Johnson's book:

[T]he NAS hierarchy, in order to bolster and "prove" its atheism, has constructed a closed, sacrosanct, counterfeit philosophy of science which completely eliminates the valid God hypothesis, along with any possibility of bringing it up again. (p. 12)

Science, Evolution, and Creationism is anything but an appeal to open-minded readers to use their powers of discernment to carefully consider the evidence. It is a cleverly disguised all-out, direct attack on the authority of the Word of God, and on all other challenges to their philosophical and religious dogma of evo-atheism (evolutionist atheism). (p. 13)

It continues, as far as a very quick skim reveals, in the same vein for another hundred pages or more. Included are the usual creationist talking points: the elitism of scientists, argumentums ad populum, and presuppositionalism. There is also a misunderstanding of what "separation of church and state" means, which may go a long way towards explaining McLeroy's claim not to be trying to have religion taught while still asserting that his amendment to the standards opens the door to the possibility that the universe was created by God:

Creationists do not want to bring religion into the classroom. With all the different sects of Christianity, some of them very strange, and all the other Creator-acknowledging religions, that would lead to chaos. Creationists simply want the God hypothesis brought back into the science classroom, and recognized for what it is—a scientifically valid hypothesis.

But, as Johnson himself admits through his presuppositionism, it is only "a scientifically valid hypothesis" if you assume a creator God in the first place, in particular because of "the Word of God":

Evidence is not the problem: it is the interpretation that causes the controversy. Creationism and evolution both interpret the structure and events of nature, representing opposite hypotheses with different assumptions. The creation hypothesis, or the God hypothesis, looks at the apparent design in nature, and says that this points to a Creator. The evolutionary hypothesis also sees the apparent design in nature, but says that this is illusory, and that all life can be explained chemically and materialistically (methodological materialism) without reference to a Creator.

As Justice Black pointed out over 60 years ago, the government cannot pass laws "which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another." Johnson implicitly acknowledges that there are religions that do not hold a belief in a creator God while, by definition, a belief in a creator God must be a religious belief. For government to endorse a belief in a creator God is necessarily to aid one group of religions over others and over disbelief. Science, by proceeding by methodological naturalism, does not do that. By eschewing supernatural explanations within its discipline, science leaves open the possibility that it will not detect supernatural causes.

Thus, the Establishment Clause is not violated by science, since Johnson and his ilk can still cling to their presuppositionalism and teach it where it belongs, along with all other religious beliefs, in their churches and homes.


Update: The Texas Freedom Network was already on this case and has had more time to peruse Johnson's book:

As bizzarre and abrasive as some of these ideas may be, clearly any yahoo with a half-baked idea can write and self-publish a book. That is not the important point here. The real issue is the inability of the chair of the Texas State Board of Education to distinguish between legitimate, mainstream science - as represented by the National Academy of Sciences - and a lone crackpot with an openly religious agenda.

I just went to to look at the reviews of this book. The two "most helpful" 5 star reviews are entertaining, but don't skip the 1 star reviews for more serious comments.

Tom S.
That's what we need more of in science education! How bonobo sex drains our precious bodily fluids!
When I was in public school I was taught that light always travels in a straight line. It was not called the "theory of light travel," it was taught as a law of physics. Now we know that is wrong. I'm not talking about the dark ages, or the world-is-flat era; I'm talking about teaching in the last half of the 20th century. Today we have people of science saying man-made global warming is a scientific fact. And there are scientist who disagree. And in the 1970's scientists said is was fact that there was man-made global cooling.

I don't think the theory of evolution is bullet proof. We talk about looking for the missing link between ape and man. But there should also be links between all other species, shouldn't there? If we all evolved from simple organisms, wouldn't that be true? There are hints of this in various fossil records, but it is mostly circumstantial.

But my real disagreement with some of this discussion is where it relies on "separation of church and state." That is a metaphor President Jefferson used in a letter, but it was never intended to explain the First Amendment totally. And, in fact, that is not how Jefferson typically characterized the Constitution. The University of Virginia has Jefferson's writing collected on their website. Many are organized by category. On the page of statements he made about the need for the Bill of Rights, you will find six references to "freedom of religion" but not even one to "separation of church and state."
(Jefferson on the Bill of Rights)

Our Founders who wrote the First Amendment did see the kind of separation in the words they drafted. John Adams, for example, said, "That [God] would smile on our colleges, academies, schools, and seminaries of learning, and make them nurseries of sound science, morals, and religion;"
(John Adams on Religion)

Now consider the actions of Jefferson. He was the first president (small "p") of the Washington, D.C. public schools. He required that the main sources for reading practice and discussion would be the Holy Bible and the Watts Hymnal.

One of our four founding documents according to the U.S. Code is our Declaration of Independence. That document declares that our rights are given to us by our Creator (not by government). Without recognition of creation by a creator, the basic premise of the Declaration is meaningless.

So make the arguments about proper curriculum, not about a "Constitution prohibition." The Constitution was not intended to control the states in such matters.
Dave, there is a lot of half-understood factoids in what you say about science that would take too long to untangle but the main point should be that scientists don't think the theory of evolution is bullet proof. That's why they keep testing it. But there is a point where, as Stephen Jay Gould said, it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent. Common descent is as confirmed as the "fact" that the Earth orbits the sun, rather than vice versa.

On the Constitution, the founders deliberately left it vague because they did not want to hogtie future generations who would be facing changed circumstances, one of which was the much less heterogeneous religious beliefs of Americans as we have now entered the 21st Century. They were comfortable with (often politically motivated and extremely vague -- i.e. "Nature's God") "public piety" without wanting the state mixing into sectarian beliefs. We need the more robust separation of church and state that they had the wisdom to allow for.

The Bill of Rights was extended to the states after a little thing called "the Civil War" and the 14th Amendment decided that individual rights took precedent over states rights.
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