Should science class include religion?

A reader recently asked why Neil deGrasse Tyson said in a video interview that religion should not be allowed in the science classroom. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and hearing this charming and humorous astrophysicist, but of course I’ve no license to speak for him. I can, however, explain why his assertion is reasonable. The simple answer, of course, is that science isn’t religion, just as it is not English literature or algebra. But as you’d guess, there is more involved in this issue than simple separation of curricula.

The main reason is that religion and science are two very different ways of knowing. (They’re based on incompatible epistemologies.) To describe reality or determine truth, religion relies on faith, the testimony of authorities, and internal feelings. Science—the much younger discipline—relies on skepticism, rigorous precision, and evidence. Sometimes their separate results agree; sometimes they do not. Moreover, each can get things wrong, though science has a greater penchant for self-correction and more tolerance for disagreement.

Science is normally carried out using measurements as precise as instruments of the time allow, the testing of hypotheses, and verifying or discarding whole complex theories. (We normally think of science as proving this or that true. But a closer look reveals that science proceeds with rigorous attempts to prove hypotheses ITALuntrue.) Religion compels toward dogma and against blasphemy. Science compels toward proof and against unproven claims. Normally, religion’s beliefs are indoctrinated in youth, not discovered by adult skeptical rigor. Few scientists have burned other scientists at the stake or even condemned them to hell.

So while children in school (or church or family) can be taught religion and science, these are two separate things. Science tempered by religion is no longer science. But religion tempered by science is still religion, though of a less dogmatic, less supernatural, more liberal sort. Religions differ drastically, even belligerently. While the facts alleged by science are always in flux, it’s easy to characterize where they are at any given time. And there is nothing in science that corresponds to the splintered dogmas of religion. Consequently, a class can teach science without having to choose among different, possibly warring “denominations” of science. To teach religion requires choosing from among multiple belief systems in which people have passionate emotional investments.

There are, then, two problems with religion in the science classroom: First, doing so will almost certainly damage the integrity of science and dilute its special epistemic position in the world of fact-finding. Second, doing so requires the choice of which religion (or faction within a religion) to allow in. This latter challenge would be easy (though stultifying) if we had a state religion, for the choice would be made for us! But across the world and even in our one country, there are multiple religious identities. In the USA that healthy variety is due in part to our founders wise separation of church and state, protecting each from the other.

It is important to recognize that keeping religion out of science instruction—that is, allowing religion to have no bearing on the methods and findings of science—is not an attack on religion nor is it even a prejudicial comment on religion. The separation protects both, allowing religion to use whatever methods of knowing are chosen by its adherents, unconstrained by the rigorous rigidity of science . . . and allowing science to follow evidence wherever it leads, unconstrained by religious opposition and even charges of blasphemy.

I realize my comments overlook the impassioned desire of many religious people for public schools to reinforce their specific religion—if not even to teach it for them—to the exclusion of other religions and certainly to the exclusion of any scientific conclusions that contradict their own faith. (Governmental teaching of religion or promoting religion is an attack on religious freedom of students, as our founders recognized. Of course, teachers as individuals have the same freedom as everyone else, but while representing the state, there is no such right, for that would constitute a state endorsement of the teacher’s beliefs. In a number of recent court cases, teachers or schools have turned logic on its ear with the risible claim that teachers’ religious freedom includes promoting their religious beliefs to students!)

Teaching students any one religion in public schools—or any religion’s commentary on scientific findings—is tantamount to the government’s choosing not only religion over disbelief, but one religion over all others. That is an infringement on the religious freedom of all but the chosen faith.

If we as a people want our children to understand science, then we must teach them what science is and what it can mean in their occupational and personal lives. If individual families want their children to understand their religion, they have an opportunity to teach them what their specific religious faith is and what it can mean in their occupational and personal lives. Religious freedom is a precious right in modern countries, but it does not extend to subverting science.

[Comments on, challenges to, or requests about this or any other posting can be sent to johnjustthinking@bmi.net.]

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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