Is encouraging critical thinking unconstitutional?

Original Article
A FEDERAL court in Atlanta, Ga., has ruled that a disclaimer placed by a Georgia school board in its science textbooks violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The sticker states: “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.”

If, like me, you missed the constitutional violation, let U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Cooper explain: “By denigrating evolution, the School Board appears to be endorsing the well-known prevailing alternative theory, creationism or variations thereof . . . .”

According to this reasoning, then, merely stating the unimpeachable fact that evolution is a theory and encouraging students to have an open mind, to study carefully and to critically consider the theory is “denigrating” evolution. This, in the court’s mind, is tantamount to “endorsing” creationism or variations thereof.

Judge Cooper continued with his explanation for finding an Establishment Clause violation: “evolution is more than a theory of origin in the context of science. To the contrary, evolution is the dominant scientific theory of origin accepted by the majority of scientists.”

Well, there we have it. Scientific “truth” by majority rule. Evolution is the dominant theory of origin, and no one is to have an open mind about it. If such thinking had prevailed in the 17th century, Galileo would be a mere footnote in history, and the Ptolemaic model of the universe rather than the Copernican model would have prevailed because, it was, by Judge Cooper’s reasoning, “accepted by the majority of scientists.”

The disclaimer’s origin is apparently linked to a group of Cobb County parents who are opposed to evolution on religious grounds. These parents, it seems, requested that a disclaimer be placed in the science textbooks. It may be that their objections are religiously based, but it is equally true that the language in the disclaimer suggests absolutely nothing about religion.

The court was concerned, however, that evolution was singled out by the sticker. I suspect that evolution was singled out because it is the only scientific theory whose adherents are utterly intolerant of criticism, and it is the only scientific theory taught in public schools as the gospel truth that no reasonable person could question. This is not only troubling for parents whose religion rejects the theory, but it is equally troubling from an academic, scientific, and intellectual perspective for obvious reasons.

Finally, the court saw another sinister reason for the sticker, stating: “An informed, reasonable observer would understand the School Board to be endorsing the viewpoint of Christian fundamentalists and creationists that evolution is a problematic theory lacking an adequate foundation.”

That statement speaks volumes about the federal judiciary’s unrelenting assault on all things Christian. Christian “fundamentalists” and “creationists” make for convenient whipping boys in lieu of reasoned analysis, even when they are calling for an open mind in scientific inquiry.

The theory of evolution has far too long been shielded from critical examination. The tired old tactic of shrieking “fundamentalist” or “creationist” every time a question about evolution arises is wearing thin. Dissenting voices in the scientific and academic communities are increasing in number despite tremendous institutional pressures to conform to the orthodoxy of philosophic naturalism.

Despite Judge Cooper’s assertion, critics of evolutionary theory include not only fundamentalists and creationists, but eminent scientists who subscribe to the intelligent design theory, prominent atheists, and, yes, even some scientists who are in the camp of Darwin but are nonetheless dissatisfied with its present condition.

Antony Flew, for example, the famous atheist and British philosopher, recently riled evolution’s high priests when he stated his new ideas had some similarity with American intelligent design theorists, who see evidence for a guiding force in the construction of the universe. Flew wrote that biologists’ investigation of DNA “has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce [life], that intelligence must have been involved.”

And, if the federal courts are listening, Antony Flew is “thinking of a God very different from the God of the Christian and far and away from the God of Islam.” In other words he is not a “Christian fundamentalist or creationist.”

It is troubling enough when the scientific community itself forecloses critical examination of its pet theory; it is positively frightening when the federal judiciary steps in to enforce that intolerance toward critical thinking and open inquiry in our public schools.

Students must be allowed to think for themselves about this important matter of life’s origin. Cobb County’s disclaimer was a welcome step in that direction. If the federal judiciary is really interested in academic and intellectual freedom as cases not involving “creationists” and “fundamentalists” would suggest, it is time for them to stop crusading against critical thinking simply because “fundamentalists” and “creationists” are for it.

Brian Fahling is a lawyer and policy analyst at the American Family Association Center for Law & Policy in Tupelo, Miss.