WACO — Thanks to a nearly $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), public school teachers, and ordinary citizens, are now able to access online a generally helpful guide to evolutionary theory. Called Understanding Evolution: An Evolution Website for Teachers, it is the result of a collaboration between the National Center for Science Education, a private organization, and the University of California Museum for Paleontology. The guide is published on the UC Berkeley server. However, because the NSF is an agency of the federal government, and because UC Berkeley is a state actor, there is a portion of the guide that should attract the attention of those who believe that the government should not be in the business of teaching that a particular theological point of view is the correct one.
Under a section called “Misconceptions,” the site offers to its target audience — public school science instructors — the “correct” way to understand the relationship between religion and evolutionary theory. Although you can read the whole thing for yourself, the following quotes should give you the gist of the lesson:
Religion and science (evolution) are very different things. In science (as in science class), only natural causes are used to explain natural phenomena, while religion deals with beliefs that are beyond the natural world.
Science is about figuring out how things work and relies on empirical knowledge, not faith.
[A] debate pitting a scientific concept against a religious belief has no place in a science class and misleadingly suggests that a “choice” between the two must be made.
Sometimes called the separate realms approach, it, of course, is one of many ways to understand the relationship between science and religion. Defended by some of the leading academic lights in this area of study, it claims that science and religion can never in principle offer contrary accounts of the same phenomenon. But, as one would guess, there are other approaches that challenge this understanding. Consider just two examples.
Christian Philosopher J. P. Moreland, in his book, Christianity and the Nature of Science: A Philosophical Investigation (Baker Books, 1989) offers one account that is embraced by some, but by no means all, philosophers of science and philosophers of religion. It is, however, contrary to the one found in Understanding Evolution. Moreland argues that the deliverances of “science” may in principle conflict with Christian truth claims especially on issues like the beginning of the universe, the nature of human beings, and the status of non-empirical knowledge. So, for Moreland, because Christianity is a robust intellectual tradition that makes truth-claims about our knowledge of the real world, it is possible that the deliverances of “science” may count either against or for the plausibility of certain Christian beliefs.
The atheist biologist P. Z. Myers takes a similar position, though concludes that some claims of religious faith have been falsified by science. Writes Professor Myers, referring to the lesson on science and religion in Understanding Evolution: “These are awful answers, reminiscent of that horrible book of mushy-headed thinking by the late Stephen J. Gould, Rocks of Ages. While it is true that many scientists have no difficulty at all reconciling science with their personal religion, their religion may be more of a nature-worshipping pantheism, a roughly formulated deism or unitarianism, or involvement in an organized religion that takes a hands-off attitude towards more worldly matters.”
Clearly UC Berkeley and the NCSE are suggesting that the positions of Professors Moreland and Myers, and those serious people who agree with them, are mistaken in their understanding of the relationship between religion and science. If so, then NCSE and state-actor UC Berkeley, both having received federal funds specifically for the project that produced this guide, are in fact offering a lesson on the nature of religious knowledge and its epistemological status in relation to science. The lesson is instructing public school teachers that there is a correct view on the matter and that they should impart this view to their students. Although the NCSE announces on its website that it “is not affiliated with any religious organization or belief,” it produced and promotes, with tax dollars, a guide that offers as correct a particular understanding of the nature of religious belief.
But this seems inconsistent with the contemporary Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence. First, it appears to violate the Court’s rule against the government assessing the truth of a religion or the interpretation of doctrines and creeds. (See U.S. v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78  and Hernandez v. Commissioner, 490 U.S. 680, 699 )
Second, it seems to violate the Court’s endorsement test. The concern of this test is whether the disputed activity suggests “a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.” (Lynch v. Donnelly 465 U.S. 668, 688  [O’Connor, J., concurring]. Clearly, the NCSE guide is doing just that, for it states that those — like Moreland and Myers — who believe that sometimes the deliverances of science touch on theological questions — that sometimes one may have to choose between “science” and “religion” — embrace a “misconception” that “is divisive.” The Understanding Evolution page that offers this judgment includes a link to an NCSE page that contains links to religious groups that affirm a theological point of view consistent with what the guide is teaching. The message is clear: those who do not adhere to the guide’s view of religion and science are unfavored outsiders who hold views contrary to the beliefs of the religious authorities judged acceptable by the NCSE.
Third, in Epperson v. Arkansas (1968) the Supreme Court held that the “government…must be neutral in matters of religious theory, doctrine, and practice. It may not be hostile to any religion or to the advocacy of nonreligion; and it may not aid, foster, or promote one religion or religious theory against another or even against the militant opposite. The First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.” (393 U.S. 97, 103-04  [note omitted]). Thus, the guide seems to violate the neutrality test. For it is advocating, aiding, fostering, and promoting a disputed theory about the nature of religious knowledge as the “correct ” way to think of the relationship between science and religion. And it is doing so on the server of a state actor with the assistance of federal money.
If the separation of church and state means anything, it must at least mean that the government should not be in the business of directly funding the propagation of one view as the acceptable theological opinion on any matter.
Francis J. Beckwith is Associate Director of the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, and Associate Professor of Church-State Studies, Baylor University. His website is francisbeckwith.com and he is a contributor to the weblog www.moteworthy.com. His most recent book is Law, Darwinism, and Public Education (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).