Russell Blackford asked an important question on Jerry Coyne’s post on Andrew Brown and Michael Ruse:

It’s true that science teachers in public schools should not draw inferences, when talking to their students, about whether some scientific findings cast doubt on some religious positions. But is Brown really going to say that NO ONE should draw such inferences in public debate? That would go a long way towards putting philosophers of religion out of business. Does he really think that the whole question is one that should not be debated honestly in the public sphere?

Yes. Here is how he puts it:

Suppose we concede that the new atheists are right, and no true, honest scientist could be anything other than an atheist. If that is true, the teaching of science itself becomes unconstitutional. For it is every bit as illegal to promote atheism in American public schools as it is to promote religion…[T]he footnote on page four of Judge Selna’s ruling in the recent case of a science teacher censured for calling creationism “superstitious nonsense” in class makes this clear. He says The Supreme Court has found that

the State may not establish a “religion of secularism” in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion.” School Dist. of Abington Tp., Pa. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963). This is simply another way of saying that the state may not affirmatively show hostility to religion.

And Brown is indeed saying that no one should draw inferences about whether some scientific findings cast doubt on some religious positions in public debate because if people do then the teaching of science itself becomes unconstitutional, and Judge Selna said so.

The trouble with that, of course, is that Judge Selna was ruling on what can be said in the public school classroom, not in public debate in general. The quoted passage from Selna’s ruling doesn’t show what Brown wants it to show, but he thinks it does. That’s rather careless.

This is a big, and sloppy, mistake, and it matters because it seems to be at the heart of what Ruse and Brown keep insisting on. Judges are very likely to rule that atheism cannot be taught in public schools. It does not follow that judges are very, or at all, likely to rule that public discussion of the incompatibility between science and religion makes science a branch of atheism and therefore forbidden in the public schools. That outcome is in fact vanishingly unlikely. (One reason for that is simply that another important part of the First Amendment guarantees free speech, and judges are pretty well aware of that.

I suspect that Ruse has been making this claim because he enjoys irritating his colleagues. (He has said this freely many times.) I’m not sure why Brown is backing him up. Anyway – the claim is just nonsense, a kind of joke. It has no legs.

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