Saturday, January 15, 2005

The state and religion in the news

A news item about evolution in the New York Times that caught my attention was a ruling by a federal judge in Georgia that a sticker being attached to textbooks in schools by a Georgia country school board violated the First Amdendment. As you might have guessed, the sticker was only being attached to science textbooks and stated in part that "Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things."

Certainly there are those on the Right that are pissed about the ruling; one columnist has even suggested that the plaintiff's case was based on theophobia and suggested that the judge believed that (author's italics) "merely implying that there might be other theories to account for mankind's origins [establishes] a state-sponsored religion."

The decisive aspect of the case, in my mind, is mentioned in the New York Times article:
But [the judge] found that the effect of the sticker in singling out evolution, given the roots of the sticker and its language in religious challenges to evolution, was to convey a message of endorsement of religion. His 44-page order argued that any informed, reasonable person would know the religious controversy behind the sticker.
An insistence that theories be treated with scientific skepticism is certainly not an unreasonable position for a person to adopt. But this position of principled scientific skepticism about theory does not allow one to pick and choose those theories to which it can be applied, or the level of skepticism that is due to any given theory: either theory as such requires skepticism or some new distinction between theories must be given. Of course, one might argue that the theory of evolution deserves more critical examination than the mechanical theory of heat by virtue of less conclusive evidence being available to support the theory of evolutiom, but that goes beyond what the sticker in question states. Whether or not you believe that the sticker violates the First Amendment, don't be surprised that the judge picked up on this inconsistency as a basis for his ruling.

Another piece of news along a similar theme is athiest Michael Newdow's rejected lawsuit that a presidential inauguration prayer would be unconstitutional. I'm not sure that I would agree. As stated by the article, inauguration ceremonies have included Christain prayers since 1937, which is pretty much the definition of an "establishment" in the sense of a "settled arrangement". That is a pretty weak argument however, since a single instance of an atheist president opening his inauguration with the reading of a dramatic passage from "I, Robot" would eliminate this sense of inaugural prayer as an "establishment". The president also differs from other members of the government since he is invested with the executive power of the United States, which might include listening to a prayer every once in a while if that helps him do his job; the injunction that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" in the First Amendment might not be relevent in this case.


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