Enemies of creationism may be hindering science teachers

Adistrict court judge in southern California has ruled that a teacher who described creationism as "superstitious nonsense" was making a religious statement, which is impermissible in US public schools. On the face of it, this is completely absurd, even for southern California. Creationism is superstitious nonsense, and teachers should be able to say so. But when you look at the background, the case becomes in some respects less absurd, but also more threatening – especially for hardline rationalists such as Richard Dawkins, who would like to dismiss creationism as beneath contempt.

The first thing to say is that Judge James Selna seems, from his 37-page ruling, to be no friend of fundamentalists. Of the 20 complaints made against the teacher, James Corbett, he dismissed 19; many of them on the face of it much more anti-religious than calling creationism "superstitious nonsense". Second, the lawsuit was clearly a premeditated strike in the culture wars. Orange County, where Capistrano Valley high school is located, is one of the most conservative places in the US. Corbett had been involved in a controversy over John Peloza, a science teacher at the school who in 1994 sued his employers, demanding the right to teach creationism in his science classes. He lost.

Some fundamentalist parents were obviously out to get Corbett. His lessons were secretly recorded to compile evidence against him, and the words for which he has been found guilty were part of a discussion, or argument, about the earlier case: "I will not leave John Peloza alone to propagandise kids with this religious, superstitious nonsense," he said, and those were the words that Judge Selna has found unconstitutional.

Clearly, Corbett walked into a trap that had been dug specifically for him. The fundamentalist lawsuit demanded that he be sacked, rather than pay damages, though both the school and the judge rejected this demand.

From the material quoted in the judgment it does look as if Corbett was the kind of atheist concerned to eradicate religious belief; but you might argue that he was just trying to get students to think. He claimed to have been selectively quoted in some instances, but in any case we are up against one of the irregular verbs that make teaching difficult: "I make them think; you propagandise; he is trying to indoctrinate them."

None of this makes him a bad teacher, but that's not the question the court was answering. It was asked whether he was an unconstitutional teacher, violating the separation of church and state. As the judge said, this is "a legal question to be answered on the basis of judicial interpretation of social facts".

This is where we get to the nub of the judgment, and the thing that makes it so worrying for the future of science teaching in the US. After finding constitutional all kinds of anti-religious abuse such as "when you put on your Jesus goggles you can't see the truth", on the grounds that they could be parsed, in context, as not disapproving of religion, Judge Selna picked on the remark about evolution on the grounds that it "primarily sends a message of disapproval of religion or creationism. As discussed above, Corbett states an unequivocal belief that creationism is 'superstitious nonsense'. Corbett could have criticised Peloza for teaching religious views in class without disparaging those views."

Judge Selna is saying that creationism may not be taught in schools, because it is a religious doctrine; but – precisely because it's a religious doctrine – teachers may not say it is superstitious nonsense. Explicit hostility to religion on the part of government (including teachers in class in state schools) violates the first amendment just as much as promoting religion by creationism does.

Steve Newton at the California-based National Centre for Science Education (NCSE), which campaigns against creationism in schools says: "This is a very bizarre case. I am concerned about the chilling effect it will have on teachers hearing about it. Science teachers now are going to hear about this and think 'whoa, if you criticise creationism you'll get sued and you'll lose'. We haven't yet got a call from a science teacher. [But] this is potentially disastrous."

The case looks like a particular defeat for the NCSE, which has been fighting for years to establish in the public mind that evolution and religion are perfectly compatible. For its pains it has been reviled by hardliners – Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, and their follow­ers – as "accommodationist", "Neville-Chamberlain-atheist", and so on.

Dawkins recently mused on his blog about whether it wouldn't be better to treat the religious with "naked contempt"; Myers, perhaps the world's most influential science blogger, calls religion "one of the most corrupting and untrustworthy causes of all". All these men are biologists and enemies of creationism.

For all the hardliners, creationism is real religion (never mind what the Pope says about evolution), and religion exemplifies the superstitious irrationality, from which science is meant to deliver us. That certainly seems to be the line taken by Corbett in his lessons. But it turns out to be tactically disastrous in the struggle for real science teaching.

It is unconstitutional, Judge Selna points out in his ruling, to propagandise for atheism in US state schools. The result of this case, as the philosopher Michael Ruse has long warned, is that evolution becomes harder to teach, and creationism harder to mock, because ­science and atheism have become so entangled in the public mind.

Andrew Brown