The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has dismissed a student's lawsuit against a high school history instructor who ridiculed creationism and religious fundamentalism in the classroom, the SF Chronicle reported this morning.
One of the comments in question involved calling a former teacher’s promotion of anti-evolutionary ideas "religious, superstitious nonsense."
A student sued, saying that the teacher’s comments violated the constitutional requirement of government neutrality because they were hostile toward religion. However, the court said that a public employee can only be sued for violating clearly established constitutional rights. In this case no constitutional rights were violated.
While children do have an educational right to not be directly insulted or belittled by adults in their schools, they do not have a constitutional right to be sheltered from hearing criticism of religious ideas in general. Furthermore, if they had such a right, it would necessarily come at the expense of teachers’ right to academic freedom and their ability to do their jobs.
Students come to school with a host of preconceived beliefs and modes of thought which are sometimes inaccurate and must be corrected in order for them to truly understand the required content of their classes. One of the least contentious examples of this can be seen in grammar and spelling mistakes. However, kids also come to school believing that people came from monkeys, which is simply not true, or that climate change is an unproven opinion. Many believe that scientific theories are just unproven opinions or hypotheses, when in fact they are explanations based on considerable evidence that has been repeatedly verified, about as close to a fact as you can get. Perhaps the most dangerous misconception expressed by students is the notion that science, itself, is just one of many equally valid methods for understanding nature.
Many of these misconceptions develop as kids hear them repeated over and over again at home, church and on television. For many children, a few hours a week in a science class is not sufficient to correct years of cultural, religious and familial influences that sometimes promote inaccurate beliefs. Yet if a teacher is to succeed in correcting these misconceptions, she must be able to confront the misconceptions and challenge them head on. Indeed, the court said "teachers must also be given leeway to challenge students to develop their critical thinking skills," (quoted in the Chron. article).
For example, in order to understand why science is not just one of many equally valid methods for understanding nature, it is helpful to distinguish scientific thinking from other forms of thinking, like religion. Scientific thought is rational and based on evidence, ideally derived from controlled experiments. Religious thought, in contrast, is based on faith which, by definition, is belief without (or despite) evidence. It is impossible to make accurate predictions about natural phenomena or to develop new medicines or technology by faith.
Simply by making this comparison, some students will feel insulted, as it challenges their faith in the supremacy of their religious ideas. I have had students complain when I have made such comparisons, even though I do it without ridiculing or poking fun at religion.
Likewise, when teaching evolution, it is necessary to provide evidence for the theory. For most parts of the theory, this is simple enough to do. For example, radiometric dating allows us to determine the age of the oldest rocks on Earth, which allows us to determine the age of the Earth.
To increase the chances that students will actually understand and remember this required content, it can be presented in juxtaposition to the creationist notion that the Earth is only 10,000 years old.
What is the evidence for this incorrect belief?
There is none. People who believe this do so based on their faith that biblical stories and the teachings of their religions are true. A book that lacks verifiable evidence or data from controlled experiments or compelling rational arguments is not evidence.
When the two explanations are juxtaposed, it should be clear to a rational, thinking person that the scientific explanation is the more compelling and believable explanation. In fact, the religious idea, that a supernatural being did 4.5 billion years’ worth of work in six days is absurd. A teacher does not have to call it “absurd” or ridicule this belief because the evidence speaks for itself. Nevertheless, simply presenting the evidence, particularly when juxtaposed with the creationist explanation, will be seen by some students as insulting to their religious ideas. And some, regardless of the skillfulness of the teacher, will continue to believe their absurdities.