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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Let's Just Do Algebra: Court Rules Teacher Can't Call Creationism "Superstitious Nonsense"

Guess that Establishment Clause cuts both ways: a federal judge in California ruled last week that Capistrano Valley High School AP history teacher James Corbett violated student Chad Farnan's First Amendment rights by calling creationism what it is—"religious, superstitious nonsense"—on class time.

Student Farnan had gone hunting for trouble, recording his teacher and including over 20 "objectionable" statements in the lawsuit. The judge ruled all but the one comment above were just fine under the Constitution. The following comments, ruled Judge James Selna, were just fine Constitutionally:
  1. "The Boy Scouts can't have it both ways. If they want to be an exclusive, Christian organization or an exclusive, God-fearing organization, then they can't receive any more support from the state, and shouldn't."
  2. "In the industrialized world the people least likely to go to church are the Swedes. The people in the industrialized world most likely to go to church are the Americans. America has the highest crime rate of all industrialized nations, and Sweden has the lowest. The next time somebody tells you religion is connected with morality, you might want to ask them about that."
  3. "Well, we know abstinence doesn't work. And we know one other thing, and that is, once people become sexually active, they often don't stop for, like, 40 or 50 years. I mean, generally, when you start you don't, like, have a conversion and try to become re-virginized, you know. It's not going to happen."
  4. "Conservatives don't want women to avoid pregnancies – that's interfering with God's work."
  5. "When you put on your Jesus glasses, you can't see the truth."
The judge also gave Corbett a pass on saying religion was "invented when the first con man met the first fool," saying Corbett may have been quoting Mark Twain.

But, as kids with an axe to grind and teachers know, if you throw enough spaghetti at the wall, something will stick. And that one comment about creationism stuck.

Now to be honest, I think the judge might have made the right call on the wrong issue. Creationism is superstitious nonsense, based on a fallacious reading of Scripture as a literal, chronological account of physical events. Most of the other comments he made have a reasonable amount of truth to them. His statement about crime rates and religion doesn't say any particular religion is wrong; it only makes a valid sociological point that we ccan't count on religion to fully counter our sinful ways. #4 gets iffy...or, more accurately, it's not iffy enough, overgeneralizing the political motives of conservatives. But it doesn't establish any religion or irreligion.

Where I'd drop the First Amendment hammer would be on quote #5, about the Jesus glasses. Of all the listed statements, that's the only one I see that cuts to the heart of religious doctrine. Plus, it's demonstrably false. My wife wears Jesus glasses, and she sees truth about as well as fallible humans can be expected to see it. Maybe the context of that comment could save it, but on its own, to make a blanket statement (in a public classroom, in front of litigious Orange County students) that following a particular prophet blinds you to truth is Constitutionally problematic.

Creationism is superstitious nonsense (cue Donald James Parker). Religion doesn't stop crime. Some people do get the prescription wrong on their Jesus glasses and see things a little screwy. I admire Mr. Corbett for fighting the (mostly) good fight in California's conservative enclave. But even this secular humanist can tell Mr. Corbett needs to loosen his own worldview glasses and give alternative worldviews some breathing space in the public classroom.


  1. Hrm, this ruling has another interesting implication. The judge has essentially decided that creationism is a religion as opposed to science.

    If creationism is a science, the teacher has every right to attack it as necessary since it's his job to educate. If it's a religion then it doesn't and should not even be discussed in a school.

    The fundie wackos didn't think their clever plan through well enough.

  2. "Creationism is superstitious nonsense, based on a fallacious reading of Scripture as a literal, chronological account of physical events."

    Cory, I believe you are correct. But I don't know it.

    "If creationism is ... a religion then it ... should not even be discussed in a school."

    Tony, In my opinion, all religious beliefs can and should be discussed in school (in social studies, not science classes), as long as the teacher doesn't assert that any such dogma is true or false.

  3. Is that a healthy Socratic wisdom this morning, Stan? :-)

    What if I test Mr. Corbett's statement this way: what if he had declared spontaneous generation to be "nonsense"? Is that an assertion of dogma or responsible teaching?

    I'm all for religious beliefs being discussed freely in school. I'm even willing to carve out space for teachers to discuss with students where they stand on controversial issues. I wonder: can teachers make clear the full context of their beliefs and actions (a good thing in most civil discourse) without threatening students' beliefs? Wow—phrase it this way: can a public school teacher use the First Amendment without violating the First Amendment?

  4. I must question why a history teacher is making such outlandish statements in history class. If teachers are not permitted to have a Bible on/in their desk or mention God in a positive light why should this teacher be allowed to vault onto his soapbox and blare out his biased and in some cases logically faulty opinions? However it should not require constitutional interpretation and legal jurisprudence to arrive at a solution to an issue like this. The local school districts should advise their staffs to refrain from making inflammatory comments. Teachers are paid to instruct in their subject matter – not cram their worldview, whatever it might be, down people’s throats. Even a spoonful of sugar doesn’t help that medicine go down.

    [ Creationism is superstitious nonsense (cue Donald James Parker). ] As a experienced thespian, I never miss a cue, Corey. First of all, you have to define Creationism. But no matter how you slice and dice it, the theory that God created the universe and everything in it – no matter what the details are behind that feat – an intelligent person can’t dismiss the hand of God as superstitious nonsense in the same vein as throwing salt over your shoulder or wearing your rabbit’s foot when you take the SAT test. Most of those simplistic little beliefs we label as superstition are void of any common sense, much less scientific evidence. Creationism is one of three explanations human entertain for the existence of everything. The explanation that everything just popped into existence on its own doesn’t seem to even fit within its own paradigm which states everything was created and is maintained by natural laws. One of the foundational laws of nature concerns the preservation of matter. Another, the law of biogenesis, states that life only comes from life. Both of those laws would have to be suspended at the beginning of both the universe and life. And where did the natural laws come from? Whether you opt for a special creation by a deity or latch unto the alternate theory that nothing produced everything, you have to believe in something outside of nature taking place. Natural laws were violated at some point in time. A creation story of a God overriding his own laws contains common sense. Believing that everything known and unknown to mankind sprung up without any designer seems to be fodder for loose cannons. Some rash and impetuous blogger might even label that to be superstitious nonsense.
    [ Religion doesn't stop crime. ] Define the term religion? A statement such as this one is analogous to saying fitness centers don’t prevent obesity. Having a membership at the gym never lowered anyone’s body fat. It is the disciplined application of rules governing the human body that get results. The same is true with religious doctrines. To make the statement that since more Americans go to church than any other nation and yet America has the highest crime rate is proof of the paucity of moral fiber included in a religious diet is skewed logic. A clever person can play some pretty tricky games with statistics. However Mr. Corbett needs to tie the crimes to church-going people to make this a relevant stat. And even if he could do that, the Christian message today is that going to church doesn’t make a person a Christian any more than going to the gym makes a person an athlete. I’m afraid there are a lot of people who fail to understand that Christianity does not consist solely of mouthing a few words of allegiance.
    [Some people do get the prescription wrong on their Jesus glasses and see things a little screwy. ] No one is questioning this statement, but the reverse is not necessarily true that people without Jesus glasses have twenty-twenty vision. And the qualifications of the optometrist who prescribed the Jesus glasses has to be taken into consideration. If his understanding of refractive correction of sight is skewed, the glasses prescribed will be as well. And then there are always people who get their glasses from Walmart without a prescription. The maze of theology is a very complex one. Dismissing the foundational account of creation as superstitious nonsense fails to showcase your intellectual prowess, Corey.
    [ I admire Mr. Corbett for fighting the (mostly) good fight in California's conservative enclave. But even this secular humanist can tell Mr. Corbett needs to loosen his own worldview glasses and give alternative worldviews some breathing space in the public classroom. ] Bravo! A voice of reason in the wilderness.

    Donald James Parker - author of All the Voices of the Wind

    PS: You might be mildly stimulated to peruse my Examiner column as I examine the world of Christianity. I will ruffle a few Christian feathers I'm afraid - along with the non-Christian ones.

  5. While I still maintain that Mr. Corbett appears to have crossed a line, Mr. Parker can always induce me to some good-hearted disagreement:

    "refrain from making inflammatory comments"—gotta be careful here. I assume you mean that proscription to apply only in the classroom, on school time, and not in the teacher's public activities. If my principal had issued such an edict, I'd also want a clear definition of exactly what he considered "inflammatory." I likely would want that policy defined with clear constitutional interpretation and legal jurisprudence. Sometimes good teaching calls for inflaming students' minds.

    "...a lot of people who fail to understand that Christianity does not consist solely of mouthing a few words of allegiance." True: and a lot of those people claim to be Christians. Mr Corbett wasn't playing "tricky games with statistics" here: he was pointing out that a nation where the majority professes religious faith doesn't necessarily have more moral people. Now if you'd like to refute that by claiming that your Christianity is better than everyone else's... well, I leave that for you slug out on your own.

  6. Definitely I was speaking of in the classroom. We do still live in a country where we have the freedom to express our opinions but a paid employee of the government has no right to use the time he is being paid to push his own agenda - whether it is Christian, humanist, atheist, or whateverist.

    As far as the numbers game - I'm definitely surprised I have to explain the fallacious logic to you. I'm simply saying that the statistics Mr. Corbett stated do not prove anything except that he has statistics. In order for this to be construed as evidence that goes beyond circumstantial - he'd have to show that it is the God fearing people in the US who are causing the high crime rate. His stats could be applied to Orientals. The number of Orientals in the US is vastly higher than Sweden so that must mean that the Oriental population is responsible for the high crime rate. Or Mexicans, or blacks. etc. Since a person can commit multiple crimes in a year, a small percentage of the population can make it appear that are more criminals through their ambitious activities. But just because the scenario is possible, doesn't mean that is the truth either. Anchoring the numbers to more concrete information is required to get a clear picture. People on the attack against another idea seldom take into consideration the need for a clear picture.

  7. [Always ironic to hear a creationist talk about circumstantial evidence...]

    No fallacy: Mr. Corbett makes a valid society-wide point. He's not accusing any specific Christian or Christian group of committing more crime non-Christians. He makes the perfectly valid point that having more citizens going to church does mean you'll see less crime. Evidently all the churchgoing in America isn't rubbing off on whatever tiny (godless?) minority is giving the rest of us decent Americans a bad name.

  8. Cory, who can expect morality to rub off on people because of church attendance. People that attend church are often lukewarm to the point of not truly embracing the teachings of Jesus. So the numbers here seem to be irrelevant without more evidence.

    Here's a link you might find interesting which touches a little on the original subject:


  9. So Don, are you saying there are more "real" Christians in Sweden?

    Let's remember, we're arguing over a statement the court did not rule on (leave it to creationists to focus on the tangential). But Corbett's point remains valid. Even if we accept your assertion that lots of churchgoers aren't really embracing Jesus (what? not embracing him the way you think they should? I'd like to hear what folks at your church think of that statement), is there any reason to think that statement is any less valid in Sweden?

    Let's not be silly: churchgoing is a pretty good way to "operationalize" the variable of religion. It's not perfect, but it should be similarly imperfect in the U.S. and Sweden. Religion suffuses American culture in a way it does not suffuse Swedish culture. And Sweden has less crime. The heightened presence of religion in our culture does not apparently lead to better behavior.

  10. crime, religion, Sweden...

    The only intelligent thing to say is: cum hoc ergo propter hoc

  11. Hang on to that Latin, David! We'd have an example of that fallacy if Corbett were arguing that religion causes crime. But in the sketchy example cited above, Corbett is not affirming any such resolution; he is negating someone else's resolution that "religion is connected with morality." We may continue to question how he operationalizes "religion" and "morality", but he still appears to offer a valid counterexample.

  12. Who thinks that religion cures crime? The one thing about Christianity that I am certain is true is the concept of original sin... that is, that human beings all fail to live up to their own moral standards. So if there is a lot of sinning in a given area, then perhaps we should expect there to be more churches... just like if there is a lot of sickness in a given area, you would expect to see more hospitals.

    Kind regards,

  13. Interesting, then, that Americans seem to act on their original sin more than folks in those secular countries.

    "Religion cures crime"? That doesn't appear to be the proposition Corbett is questioning. Corbett is questioning the more basic assumption, trumpeted by the likes of Bob Ellis, that religion is the only solid basis for a moral, peaceful society. That assumption is clearly contradicted by our moral and orderly Scandinavian friends and other more secular countries.

    Further reading:
    --Ruth Gledhill, "Societies Worse off 'When They Have God on Their Side,'" Times UK, 2005.09.25
    --Louis Bayard, "If McCain Wins, Should We All Move to Scandinavia?" Salon.com, 2008.10.22.
    --choice quote from Phil Zuckerman's book (reviewed by Bayard): "Religious faith—while admittedly widespread—is not natural or innate to the human condition. Nor is religion a necessary ingredient for a healthy, peaceful, prosperous, and ... deeply good society." (a bit less provocative than Corbett's phrasing, but still gets the job done.)

  14. Ok... so you're saying that it's actually Bob Ellis that is applying the cum hoc reasoning and that Gledhill, Bayard, and Zuckerman (and possibly Corbett... but we don't know for sure how his quote should be construed) are all calling Bob fallacious.

    Well, I'm on your side, because I think he is, too. At the risk of going all Montesquieu, my counter-theory would attempt to explain crime stats in America by differences in climate. You cannot live in Sweden (or Iceland, or Norway, or Canada, or the other super-high HDI countries) without enduring the winter... meaning that its citizens have to be industrious enough to afford a solid shelter and the heating bill.

    Contrast Jamaica, where you can sleep in a 3-sided lean-to smoking weed all day, engaging in panhandling and petty theft year round.

    Sweden, geographically, has no Jamaica-like area where vagrants can settle and breed. The US, on the other hand, has significant population centers in the South and on the coasts that never dip below freezing.

    I think if you contrast Sweden's crime stats to, say, the state of South Dakota you'll see a much closer comparison than if you compare Sweden to Florida or New Mexico.

    Or am I also engaging in cum hoc?

    Kind regards,

  15. I think you got it, David. In the one quote here, Corbett is not making an affirmative claim; he's offering a counterexample to other people's affirmative claim. And I don't see cum hoc immediately in what you are saying: you're offering a hypothesis to explain societal differences. I wonder: do crime rates in South Dakota fluctuate with the seasons?

  16. I had a hard time finding monthly stats for South Dakota (apparently our cops are too busy out busting bad guys and don't have time to collate statistics for egg heads), but Roseville, MN has an interesting page here:


    Not sure if the sample size is large enough to make solid conclusions, but apparently theft is generally higher in the summer (and in December when the thieves need Christmas gifts), but counterfeiting is a year-round crime. Other summer-time hobbies include vandalism and animal complaints.

    Kind regards,


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