Worlds In Collision

There was a brief item in the Times today about a court ruling against one James Corbett, a California schoolteacher who, it was ruled, violated the Establishment Clause by dismissing creationism in class as “religious, superstitious nonsense”. This offended the sensibilities of a student of his, Chad Farnan, who sought legal remedy, and got it from judge James Selna, of the U. S. District Court, Central District of California.

I wonder what sort of precedent this will be. While creationism may or may not be, depending on your definition of the word, superstitious religious nonsense, it certainly qualifies as religious nonsense, and it is a pity that a schoolteacher, whose job it is to educate our children, can’t say so.

According to the article, prior decisions have interpreted the Establishment Clause as “prohibiting government employees from displaying religious hostility.” It does seem that Mr. Corbett had some (understandable) difficulty concealing his scorn for this bizarrely persistent mind-virus, and I wonder whether the ruling would have been the same if he had simply explained, in a matter-of-fact way, that creationism is an incorrect account of the history of life. If Mr. Corbett, who is a history teacher, just launched into an insulting screed apropos of nothing, I suppose the kid might have a case (and it seems he did).

But I wonder also if there is, in principle, any limitation on this view of religious protection. If a major religion made comparably daffy claims in other areas — if it were to insist that George Washington was Japanese, for instance, or that an iron bar will float in chicken soup, or that the sun rises each day in Ronkonkoma and sets in Easton, PA — would they have to be “respected” in this way too?


  1. The key phrase here is “a schoolteacher, whose job it is to educate our children” – so long as that holds, there will be conflicts over what gets taught. It is the *parents’* responsibility to educate their children, the teacher is just a hired hand. It’s hardly remarkable that religious parents object to the teaching of evolution to their children, and however much one believes that evolution is true, forcing it on children whose parents don’t want it taught to them is objectionable.

    I realize that one gets onto a slippery slope with this line of reasoning, but the problem is public education, and until that goes we’ll always have these conflicts.

    Posted May 6, 2009 at 10:16 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Yes, a bit of a slippery slope there, Dennis. You would do away with public education altogether?

    Posted May 6, 2009 at 10:23 am | Permalink
  3. In my ideal world, yes.

    Posted May 6, 2009 at 12:08 pm | Permalink
  4. Jack says

    A dismaying ruling. If the teacher had dismissed as superstitious nonsense, the belief that Zeus can cast thunderbolts down from the heavens and that he sired other gods by his sister Hera, he would not have been chastised. Had he dismissed as superstitious nonsense the belief that God appeared to Moses as a burning bush, he would have been chastised for religious discrimination. This is of course a double standard.

    But this is far worse. The propositions above are not testable. Yet, our teacher was chastised for dismissing as superstitious nonsense testable propositions which have soundly been refuted by any reasonable standard. What next? Really?

    Malcolm: I do recall your discussion of Chi. You may find this story on NPR interesting. I did. Specifically the section on The Love Study.

    After running 36 couples through this test, the researchers found that when one person focused his thoughts on his partner, the partner’s blood flow and perspiration dramatically changed within two seconds. The odds of this happening by chance were 1 in 11,000. Three dozen double blind, randomized studies by such institutions as the University of Washington and the University of Edinburgh have reported similar results.

    Posted May 22, 2009 at 5:17 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Jack. Yes, it seems that not all superstitious nonsense is created equal.

    And I will take a look at the story you link to.

    Posted May 22, 2009 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

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