Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Is Teaching Evolution in Public Schools Advocating Atheism, Violating Seperation of Church and State?

The argument is simple enough. Evolution is a cornerstone of atheism. By teaching evolution in public schools, the state is promoting a religion, or establishing a state religion, which would violate the Constitution of the United States. This article sums up a common argument against the teaching of evolution in schools. While the author is from Canada, the same concerns exist here.

Is atheism a religion? Is any institution which is secular, also atheist?

Atheism is America is certainly a movement of sorts. There is no dogma with atheism, and there are different points of view, even from people who consider themselves activists. While that is true, there are some common traits I've seen from atheists who are out. Some are pompous and arrogant, unwilling to to listen to other points of view, and unwilling to work with others for common ground. Some have a keen eye for separation of church and state issues, dashing crosses off of water towers and highway memorials. Others are scientists, or teachers of science, and are concerned with teaching evolution while trying not to offend students whose religious beliefs are counter to it. Some are strong libertarians who want the government out of their life, and want to do what they please. There seems to be a minority of people who are interested in being an activist to promote positive atheism. These people are interested in fighting for humanist ethics and morals. They believe there are lots of silly parts of religion, i.e., the ancient traditions, the recitation of ancient texts, but are willing to work together with groups who support the same humanist principles they do, except for that whole bit about a deity. The concern is on making the world a better place for everyone, theist and non-theist alike. They applaud religious leaders who stand up for civil rights, who oppose war, actively help homelessness, support science education in schools, etc. The difficulty these atheists have trying to work with evangelical or fundamentalist groups who take scripture literally. There's a large silent majority who know the theory of evolution is scientifically verified, and so far explains our biology on Earth. How that evolution began is anyone's guess, until we start creating more artificial life in the lab, and have a better clue of the possibilities. How it started is irrelevant, but the evidence of the effects are there.

You can believe in a god, or many gods, and still agree with evolution. Because evolution is true does not mean there is no god. It may mean that Genesis is a nice story, but as relevant as other origin stories, like the Hmong origin story from Wikipedia:

According to Hmong tradition, a long time ago the rivers and ocean covered the Earth. A brother and sister were locked in a yellow wooden drum. The Sky People looked out and saw the Earth. Everything was dead. Only a yellow wooden drum was left on the water.

"Punch holes in the Earth so the water will drain away," said the King above the Sky.

The water went down. Finally, the drum bumped against the ground. The brother and sister came out of the drum and looked around. Everything was dead.

"Where are the people?" asked the sister.

But the brother had an idea. "All the people on Earth are gone. Marry me, we can have children."

"I can't marry you, we are brother and sister."

But he asked her again and again and she said, "No."

Finally the brother said, "Let's carry the grindstones up the hill and roll them into the valley. If the stones land on top of each other, then you shall marry me."

The sister rolled her stone and then, as soon as the brother rolled his stone he ran as fast as he could down the hill and stacked the stones on top of each other.

When the sister saw the stones she cried. Finally she said, "I will marry you, because it was meant to be."

A year later the wife gave birth to a baby, but the baby was not a real baby. It had no arms or legs. It was just round like a pumpkin. The husband cut it up and threw the pieces away. One piece fell on the garden and it became the "Vang" clan because "Vang" sounds like the word for "garden" in Hmong. One piece fell on the goat house. Some pieces fell on the leaves and grass and they became the other Hmong clans. The Nhia, Mhoua, Pao, Ho, Xiong, Vue, and so on.

The next morning the village was full of houses. Everyone came to the husband and wife and said, "Mother and father, come have breakfast with us."

The husband said to his wife, "I asked you to marry me because all the people on Earth were dead. Now these people are our family -- our sons and daughters."

Public schools in the US are secular. Law is secular, and our government is secular. This does not mean you can not hold your own religious beliefs, or hold none at all. Could this be what Sam Harris has been hinting at? Advocating to make education, law, and government the best they can be through reason and critical thought, without the need to reveal your theological beliefs would be more successful then coming out swinging as an atheist. Come out as a teacher, scientist, politician and use material reason to build your cases, and you will be successful, whether you are atheist, or not. That shouldn't matter. Atheism, or the New Atheist movement shouldn't be about gaining new members, or adding people to the team, it should be about ways to debate which use material evidence, which should be more convincing to a wider audience then reason based on faith. Consider the following example. A politician hears God tell him to end tyranny in a country, so this politician tries to make a case for military action, but his evidence isn't very strong, and some of it is biased. He knows this is the right thing to do, because God told him to do it. Why is this politician trying so hard to build up material evidence for military action? Because that is what the law demands, and it's most convincing. If this politician came out and made the case for military action because it's what God wanted this politician to do, even though the US has a majority Christian population, that reason alone isn't good enough to convince most people.

On the other hand, in ethical debates, for example, on stem cell research, should an atheist scientist come out and say, "There is no god, therefore there is no soul which enters the cell at fertilization, so an aborted fetus shouldn't be treated the same as a pregnancy carried to full term."? Are ethics always based on the status quo, on public opinion? If so, is it important to ask questions, philosophical questions, and have the debate, rather then accepting rules established by religious leaders, or even secular leaders?

So, in short, atheism isn't a religion, but that doesn't mean that activist members don't act like activist theists. Teaching evolution isn't promoting atheism. Just because education is secular, doesn't mean it's an atheist organization.

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