With the possible exception of Casey Luskin, no Discovery Institute fellow seems more eager to embarrass himself in public than Michael Egnor. Dr. Egnor’s recent “open letter” to the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology attacked the Society for its decision not to hold its 2011 conference in New Orleans in protest of that state's enactment of legislation designed to promote the teaching of creationism in government-sponsored schools. Egnor objected that the Society is acting unethically because “most Americans are creationists,” and for the Society to take a stand against creationism is a “demand for censorship.” Worse yet, their decision is a slap in the face of American taxpayers whose tax money funds so much scientific research. It’s hypocritical, he says, for scientists to take government funding while opposing the teaching of “creationism” (his word) in government schools. PZ Myers responded to this at his blog, and now Egnor has posted a reaction at the DI’s blog.
There are two points here that really must be made.
First, Dr. Egnor’s writing is the worst sort of demagoguery. Saying things like “the American public is Dr. Myers’ employer” and such—obviously that’s true, but it hardly answers Myers’ point, which was that “the people of Louisiana are a mix of the uninformed and the scientifically competent,” and that “when the government of the state promotes policies that are damaging to science, scientists have no choice but to reject them in any way they can.” This is a perfectly reasonable position, and not one that can be overcome by Egnor’s rather sad rhetoric. Not everybody is equally competent to know the difference between good science and bad, and even some medical doctors have been known to spread scientific nonsense. There is nothing undemocratic, let alone unethical, about scientists speaking out against bad science, no matter where that money comes from. On the contrary, what would be unethical would be for scientists to accept bad science as good in order to appease the source of their funding!
Second, Egnor describes evolutionary scientists as “parasites” because they are “atheist ideologues who despise the religious beliefs of ordinary Americans who pay their [i.e., the ideologues’] way.” But Egnor and other creationists can hardly point the finger at scientists for taking government money—it is they who have been trying to teach creationism to children in government-funded, government-operated schools! The Dover school district was a government-run school district. The Louisiana creationism law applies to schools funded by Louisiana taxpayers. The McLean case and other creationism cases in the past all involved creationists trying to propagate their religious viewpoint in government-run schools, in contradiction to the First Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids the government from establishing religion. As a libertarian and a so-called “Darwinist” (indeed, an “atheist ideologue who despises the religious beliefs of ordinary Americans”), I believe government should have no role in funding scientific research or educational institutions. But if government funding is a problem for scientists, it is a vastly worse problem for creationists!
For Egnor to complain that scientists are funded by the government is thus supremely ironic, since it is the creationsts’ attempt to teach religion in government-funded classrooms, in direct violation of the United States Constitution, that has brought on all of the litigation on this subject. If Dr. Egnor and his fellow creationists want to teach creationism in private schools, they certainly have the constitutional right to do so, and I don’t think scientists have said otherwise. The problem with creationism is precisely that creationists like Dr. Egnor want their religion to be taught in government classrooms.
The reason the First Amendment prohibits the use of government funding to propagate religious institutions is, as Thomas Jefferson said, that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical.” Yet it is the creationists, including Gov. Jindal, who are taking whatever steps they can to use taxpayer money to teach religion, including the creation of life through supernatural means, to the children of people who do not want to have their children taught these things, and do not want to pay for the propagation of those views. Egnor speaks of “denying other people the freedom to act in accordance with their own views of civic responsibility, which include the civic responsibility to establish educational policy for their own children in their own schools”—but that is just what creationists are doing when they seek to use government-operated schools to propagate religious viewpoints to other people’s children.
Perhaps Egnor does not take seriously the rights of us atheists who do not want our children taught religion, since we are outnumbered by the religious majority. But, as James Madison said, this “is to lift the evil at once and exhibit in its naked deformity the doctrine that religious truth is to be tested by numbers, or that the major sects have a right to govern the minor.”
As for the right of Americans to “establish educational policy for their own children in their own schools,” the American people have already done just this: they did so in the form of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, which together forbid the state from using taxpayer money to teach religion to schoolchildren. If Dr. Egnor wants to teach creationism in a privately operated classroom, by all means he may do so. But the Constitution places no specific limit against the use of taxpayer money to fund secular activities and the propagation of scientific facts—while it absolutely forbids the spending of taxpayer money for religious activities and the propagation of such religious viewpoints as creationism. Dr. Egnor may regard government funding of scientific research as objectionable (as do I, for no doubt very different reasons), but the use of government funding for the spreading of what Dr. Egnor himself calls creationism is clearly and absolutely prohibited by the Constitution of the United States.