Dembski links to a site called Origin of Life Fairness in Pubic Schools, which seems to be trying out a new argument against the teaching of evolution in public schools. I’ve heard various people use this argument in the past, but no one seriously propose this as a legal argument. It’s really quite laughable. Their argument goes like this:
A. The Supreme Court has said that atheism is a religion.
B. Evolution = atheism
C. Therefore it violates the establishment clause to teach evolution in schools.
Let’s quote them directly on the first claim:
The entire origin of life debate concerning what to teach in public schools has been turned upside down by a U.S. Appeals Court ruling that “Atheism is a religion” (Kaufman v. McCaughtry, 2005, a ruling not overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court). That court opinion defined “religion” and that definition can be found here.
First, a brief comment on the claim that the ruling was “not overturned by the Supreme Court”. The Supreme Court never heard the case, they denied cert. That means it applies only in the 7th circuit, not nationwide, but it does not mean that the Court endorsed the decision or would uphold it if they heard the case. The Court rejects cases for lots of different reasons. Now on to the substance of this claim. When you follow their link to the court’s alleged definition of religion, you find this:
(1) “we have suggested in the past that when a person sincerely holds beliefs dealing with issues of ultimate concern that for her occupy a place parallel to that filled by God in traditionally religious persons, these beliefs represent her religion”.
(2) “Atheism is, among other things, a school of thought that takes a position on religion, the existence and importance of a supreme being, and a code of ethics. As such we are satisfied it qualifies as Kaufman’s religion for purposes of the First Amendment claims he is attempting to raise”.
But this is claiming far too much from the ruling, and ignoring the clearly written caveats. The court did not say “atheism is a religion”, it said that for the purposes of equal protection when applying laws that benefit religious viewpoints, they should consider atheism equivalent to a religion. Here’s the context they left out of the first quote:
Without venturing too far into the realm of the philosophical, we have suggested in the past that when a person sincerely holds beliefs dealing with issues of “ultimate concern” that for her occupy a “place parallel to that filled by…God in traditionally religious persons,” those beliefs represent her religion. We have already indicated that atheism may be considered, in this specialized sense, a religion. See Reed v. Great Lakes Cos., 330 F.3d 931, 934(7th Cir. 2003) (“If we think of religion as taking a position on divinity, then atheism is indeed a form of religion.”) (references omitted).
They left out the fact that the court clearly said that it was defining atheism as equivalent to religion in this specialized sense, that is, in the sense that it deserves equal protection. The ruling also cites, for example, Court rulings that say that, for first amendment purposes, atheism is considered equivalent to religion in this specialized sense – the government can no more establish an officially atheistic state than they could establish an officially theistic one. Either would be a violation of the first amendment. But does that then mean that anything that is viewed as being “atheistic” by theists is therefore a religious belief? Of course not. But I’ll get to that later.
The second quote is even worse, as it is based not upon the court’s standards for what a religion is, but upon the administrative standards of the Wisconsin state prison system (the case involved whether prison officials, which were required by law to allow religious inmates to hold religious meetings and discussions, also had to allow atheist inmates to hold similar discussion groups). Here’s the full context:
It is also noteworthy that the administrative code governing Wisconsin prisons states that one factor the warden is prohibited from considering in deciding whether an inmate’s request to form a new religious group should be granted is “the absence from the beliefs of a concept of a supreme being.” See Wis. Admin. Code § DOC
309.61(d)(3), cited in Kaufman v. McCaughtry, 2004 WL 257133, at *9. Atheism is, among other things, a school of
thought that takes a position on religion, the existence and importance of a supreme being, and a code of ethics. As
such, we are satisfied that it qualifies as Kaufman’s religion for purposes of the First Amendment claims he is attempting to raise.
So note that the court is arguing that the prison violated its own standards for deciding whether to grant such inmate requests, and thus they conclude that the inmate’s atheism qualifies for the purposes of this claim. The court was very careful in its wording to make sure that everyone understood that it was defining lack of belief as equivalent to religious belief only for the purposes of applying the standards of equal protection and due proces, not in a philosophical sense. And this group is making it seem otherwise only by ignoring lots of important clauses in the text.
Most objective observers, after reading that definition and the definition of scientific theory provided by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Peloza v. Capistrano 1994, could (and should in our opinion) reasonably conclude the theory that “life began by accident”, also known as “abiogenesis”, is purely religious theory. Evolution becomes both scientific and religious theory (see scientific vs. religious theory).
If you follow the link to where they explain what the 9th circuit (why do they keep citing appeals court decisions rather than Supreme Court decisions?) defined as a “scientific theory”, you find this:
Scientific Theory (Peloza v. Capistrano, read section I.A.#3): is “based on the gathering and studying of data, and modification of new data”.
Now, if you go and read the Peloza ruling itself, you will see that they have once against yanked a quote out of context and missed the point of it completely. The court was not providing a definition for a scientific theory, it was merely stating that evolution is one. More importantly, the context shows that the court was explicitly rejecting the argument made by this group, which is obviously why they only provided one phrase without context. Here’s the whole paragraph:
Since the evolutionist theory is not a religion, to require an instructor to teach this theory is not a violation of the Establishment Clause…. Evolution is a scientific theory based on the gathering and studying of data, and modification of new data. It is an established scientific theory which is used as the basis for many areas of science. As scientific methods advance and become more accurate, the scientific community will revise the accepted theory to a more accurate explanation of life’s origins. Plaintiffs assertions that the teaching of evolution would be a violation of the Establishment Clause is unfounded.
Which means that they are in the bizarre position of taking one phrase out of context in one appellate decision from the 7th circuit, claiming that this statement “turned upside down” the entire legal dispute, then using it as the basis for an argument that the 9th circuit explicitly rejected in a case they also cite. The plaintiff in Peloza, ironically named Peloza, tried pretty much the same argument that this group is trying; it failed. That’s the sort of reasoning that would cause a con law professor much laughter while grading a paper.
Now let’s look at the second link they provide, to their discussion of scientific v religious theory. The first thing that jumps out is that the entire discussion is about abiogenesis, not evolution. The second is that their definitions are quite absurd. Here’s their definition of the “scientific theory of abiogenesis”:
The gathering and study of data that “could” lead a reasonable person to conclude that life may have began by accident.
But that is not the theory of abiogenesis at all. No abiogenesis researcher believes that life began “by accident”. Rather, they believe that life began as a result of the natural interplay of chemical forces under the laws of nature. They are setting up a rather obvious false dichotomy, whereby any event or process that is not directly guided by some intelligent force must be an “accident”. But no one would claim that hydrogen and oxygen binding together to form water happens “by accident”; rather, they would say that this process occurs because of the innate properties of those particular elements in most physical contexts. The same would be true of abiogenesis.
Here’s their definition of the “religious theory of abiogenesis”:
A theory dealing with an issue of ultimate concern (how life began), believed to be fact through sincere faith.
But scientists do not accept this through “faith”, at least not in the sense that religions use the word faith. This theory gives rise to hypotheses that are testable through science. And let’s bear in mind how abiogenesis is taught in schools. It is not taught as something that has been proven, but as an ongoing research project. No textbook says “this is how it happened”; the textbooks describe past hypotheses on abiogenesis that showed promise but didn’t get us all the way (Miller-Urey, for example) and describe current hypotheses. But no textbook declares that we know how it happened, simply because we don’t yet. We cannot have the same confidence in abiogenesis as we do, say, in common descent, but that does not make it a “religious theory”.
The traditional way of defining scientific theory, a way “dropped” by the courts, impacts evolution differently, look here to see how. Closed minds should avoid that page for fear of being opened up.
Or for fear of laughing so hard that one snorts soda through their nose. The argument behind that link is just plain bad. It says:
Most definitions of “scientific theory” include (1) it must be testable, and (2) involve reproducible results. The definition used by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has dropped that requirement. When testability and reproducible results “are” part of the definition of scientific theory, all origin of life theories, including evolution, can no longer be seen as scientific theory
This is absolutely absurd. As I showed above, the court in Peloza did not offer a definition of scientific theory, it merely said that evolution was one and that it was “based on the gathering and studying of data, and modification of new data.” It did not offer some new minimalist definition of science, for crying out loud. But even if this was a new definition of scientific theory, it would maintain the old standards. If a scientific theory is open to modification with new data, then it must also be testable and falsifiable. The gathering of new data acts as a test of earlier predictions derived from the theory.
To make a long story slightly longer, this group is peddling a huge pile of utter nonsense. This argument would get laughed out of a 2L class at law school, much less a Federal court. Thus, I’m hardly surprised that Dembski is promoting them.