Pharyngula

An open letter to the Indiana legislature

The Indiana Senate has approved this bill:

The governing body of a school corporation may offer instruction on various theories of the origin of life. The curriculum for the course must include theories from multiple religions, which may include, but is not limited to, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Scientology.

I’ve heard a few complaints from Hoosiers about this, including teachers. One high school science teacher has asked me to post this open letter on the subject; they’ve asked that I not include their name, which is sad in itself. Not only is the legislature passing stupid laws, but the environment is so oppressive that the science teachers who are expected to implement it cannot speak out against it, for fear of losing their jobs. Indiana, you suck.

At least I don’t have to worry about the politicians of Indiana gunning for my job, so I can post this letter for my correspondent.

Honorable Representatives of the state of Indiana,

I am quite dismayed to learn of the passage of SB 89 which will give Indiana school boards the authority to require the teaching of various origin stories in public schools. There are several reasons I feel this is an inappropriate action for our state to take.

First, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in 1987 in Edwards v. Aguillard that balanced treatment of creationism and evolution violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Then in 2005 the U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania ruled against the inclusion of Intelligent Design in the science curriculum. As Judge Jones wrote, “To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions. The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy.” Now it appears that the citizens of Indiana are being poorly served. If this becomes law, our citizens will have to foot the bill for the lawsuits that will certainly ensue.

Second, I appreciate Indiana’s need to educate our citizens about the beliefs and cultures of our planet’s people. Our students would greatly benefit from learning about the multitude of worldviews that exist, in a philosophy or comparative religion class. Such understanding would make our citizens better prepared for international commerce and political discourse. I do not believe that SB 89 was introduced for this reason, however. The implication is that the introduction of various religious beliefs would take place in the science class room. As a biologist and science teacher, I understand the evidence for evolution is as strong as the evidence for any other theory we teach. I also understand that religious belief is based on faith, which by definition requires no evidence. I do not comprehend how exposing my students to ideas based, not on evidence, but faith could constitute good science education. When I read that this bill will allow school boards to require the teaching of “theories from multiple religions”, I interpret this to indicate that a school board may specify which religions may be taught. Two constitutes “multiple”, so if a school board so chose, they could require teachers to teach Christian and Jewish creation ideas only, which are essentially the same. This would not serve to enlighten students on the diversity of ideas, but to reinforce ideas that either they already hold or that they will find in conflict with their beliefs. In either case, it could set students at odds with each other, while not teaching any science at all.

If I am misinterpreting the spirit of this bill, please change the language to indicate that this is not to be applied to science classes, and/or specify which religions’ views must be taught if the local school board chooses to require this. In my opinion, if this is to be done in any way consistent with spirit of the Establishment Clause, all religious views must be taught. In this case, teachers will not be able to cover the state science standards in 180 days and also teach religion.

Third, the misunderstanding of the word theory in the bill is a sad indication of the ignorance of the authors. In science, the word “theory” does not mean an “idea”. A theory is an explanation for how something happens, based on a great deal of research which has been reviewed, published, tested, re-tested, accepted by most scientists in the field, and not yet disproven. No religion has a “theory” of the origins of life that meets the criteria we require to give an idea the full weight of the title “theory” in science. I would be happy to speak with any representative who would like to learn more about what the theory of evolution actually says and what evidence supports it.

Sincerely,

Indiana High School Science Teacher

(Also on FtB)