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Facts Are NOT Anti-Religious

by Steven Novella, Aug 31 2009

In the small community of Sedalia Missouri there happens to be a substantial Krishna community. (I won’t get into the various names for specific Krishna religions, but will just refer to them as Krishna for simplicity.) Recently they took offense at the T-shirts worn by the local high school band. The theme was a trip to the moon and their shirts featured imagery from the Apollo moon landings.

The Krishnas took offense at this because, according to their Vedic scriptures, the moon landing was a hoax. Specifically it says that the moon is further away than the sun, and that in order for a human to exist on another world, they have to leave their body and adopt one made for that world. Therefore the astronauts could not have landed on the moon, and the moon landings must have been a hoax. Seriously – they really believe this.

But the issue here is that they complained about the T-shirts because they found it offensive to their religious beliefs. They argued that the school system is supposed to remain neutral with regard to religious beliefs, and that they violated this neutrality by endorsing the “controversial” Apollo moon landings.

The local paper reports:

Assistant Superintendent Brad Pollitt said complaints by parents made him take action.

“I made the decision to have the band members turn the shirts in after several concerned parents brought the shirts to my attention,” Pollitt said.

Regarding the theme of “Brass to the Moon” the paper further reports:

Pollitt said the district is required by law to remain neutral where religion is concerned.

“If the shirts had said ‘Brass Resurrections’ and had a picture of Jesus on the cross, we would have done the same thing,” he said.

And of course parents on both sides of the issue were found for juicy quotes.Parent Sherry Melby was quoted as saying:

“I was disappointed with the image on the shirt.” Melby said. “I don’t think the moon landings should be associated with our school.”

Meanwhile, parent Alena Hoeffling got it right:

“Whatever happened to the separation of church and state.”

OK – this story is not actually true. Well, parts of it are true. The Krishnas really do believe the moon landing was a hoax because it contradicts their interpretation of Vedic scripture and believe that their scripture is a more reliable guide to reality because it comes from god (sound familiar), while they denigrate materialist science as a “cheat”.

The story itself is true but it is about evolution, not the moon landing. The T-shirts had the theme – the “evolution of brass” and featured the iconic image of primates evolving toward homo sapiens (carrying brass instruments). Melby’s quote above should read: “I don’t think evolution should be associated with our school.”

But the analogy to Krishnas denying the moon landing is perfect. The only difference is that we live in a Christian dominated culture.

The major malfunction  in the reasoning of those parents who complained about the T-shirts, and the response of the school (who should not have caved to this pressure) is the equation of endorsing a scientific fact with being against a specific religious belief. Being neutral with regard to religion does not equate to avoiding scientific facts that some religious groups reject based upon their faith.

There is of course the practical issue that it would be absurd for the public schools to steer clear of every possible religious belief in a multi-cultural society, as my moon landing example demonstrates. Those who typically make the claim that science must avoid offending their religion, however, are usually only concerned about their religious beliefs. Christians in the US, for example, who make this claim also often claim that the US is a Christian nation, and therefore we must only respect Christian sensibilities – despite the Constitution’s rather specific prohibition.

But I am talking about the underlying philosophical position, not the hypocrisy or practicality of the issue. I am not what some might call an “accommodationist”  – arguing that science and religion are compatible if we would just water down science enough. Rather I argue that they occupy separate realms – or at least “faith” and science do. Religions trample on science all the time.

The way I read our Constitution is that the state must remain neutral with regard to faith-based beliefs. That does not mean the state must remain neutral with regard to purely secular conclusions. Science is a purely secular system – it is agnostic with respect to any non-falsifiable claim. Further, science is a system, and its conclusions need only be valid within the system of science. We as a society have chosen to support the system of science – through funding, institutions, and education. This largely stems from the recognition that societies which support scientific progress and education tend to thrive while those who do not stagnate and decline. This is increasingly true as science and technology dominate our civilization.

If the scientific process leads us to a specific scientific conclusion – such as the well-established fact that life on earth as it exists today is the product of organic evolution, or that Apollo astronauts landed on the moon – then that is a scientific conclusion, not a religious belief. Stating that, within the system of science, the process of science leads us to this specific conclusion is not the same thing as taking a stand with regard to any particular religious belief.

The religious in this country have the freedom to believe and preach whatever they want. But that does not extend to the right to censor other people from believing or preaching what they want. Or (relevant to this case) to censor the secular process of science whenever they decide it conflicts with their religious conviction.

Put more bluntly – if their religious beliefs conflict with the conclusions of science, that’s their problem. They can deal with the cognitive dissonance any way they like, but they cannot impose it upon secular society.

In this case, even though it was just about band T-shirts, the school system should have held the line, rather than cave to pressure. Some things are worth fighting for, even if they are inconvenient to the success of your high school brass band.

This issue crops up in other ways as well. Chris Cromer was fired as the Director of Science for the Texas Educational System because she passed on an e-mail announcing a lecture about evolution. This, her superiors argued, violated their neutrality policy regarding evolution and creationism. She is now suing. Her case was dismissed, but she is appealing. My hope is that this point will be decided at the Supreme Court level. Evolution is a scientific theory, creationism is a religious belief. Our public school systems teach science, and must remain neutral with regard to religion. That does not mean they must remain neutral with regard to a scientific theory. They can enthusiastically teach and promote the consensus of scientific opinion without violating the Constitutional ban on establishing a religion.

The public school system not only cannot, it should not steer clear of every possible religious belief, and even more so of an allegedly privileged religious belief – whether it’s Krishna or Christian.

42 Responses to “Facts Are NOT Anti-Religious”

  1. Jerad says:

    Clever approach Steve. I had read the story elsewhere already and your sham “intro” really brings the point home.

  2. CW says:

    Indeed. Now I have a perfect analogy-ruse in my arsenal to use the next time I debate with advocates for creationism in the classroom.

  3. TPR007 says:

    Nice article. Using an analogy like this really highlights how ridiculous ‘any’ religious belief is in the face of scientific proof to the contrary.

  4. Tuffgong says:

    To a major fan of comedy as a medium, seeing one of it’s principles in action is always a treat. That is one of juxtaposition to prove how ridiculous a point is. Of course it would require a delivery and performance on a stage in order to be comedically effective.

    I honestly believed the intro story because I wouldn’t put it wouldn’t seem that implausible that religious people are discrediting evidence based conclusions over faith-based ones. The presence of the moon landing hoax existing anyway is what sealed the deal.

    Of course it made every sense that it was a question of evolution and not the moon landing. I wasn’t really “shocked” but more “pleasantly suprised”.

    My first response was “A) 1st Amendment, B) It’s Science!”.

  5. Rev Matt says:

    Hah, I read this story first here and was very very confused at the references to Krishnas in rural Missouri. I’m pretty sure anyone who publicly identified as non-Christian in most parts of rural MO wouldn’t last long there (not necessarily be killed, but certainly aggressively encouraged to GTFO sooner rather than later). Excellent way of ‘framing’ the story. It’s almost like you’re trying to communicate science to the public or something ;)

  6. Brian says:

    I also found myself believing the intro. I suppose my expectations of the public have been so degraded that I’d believe any sort of nonsense if a religious group is involved. The general fear of offending the religious is so strong that administrators are happy to shrink away from any fight.

  7. bethany says:

    In my sophomore Biology class in high school, there was a girl who refused, based on her religious beliefs, to study evolution. My science teacher had a plan in place – every day in class, while we studied evolution, she was sent to the library. Instead of being tested on evolution and, for her grade, she had to compile a research paper – I think it was supposed to be 30 pages. Her entire grade was dependent on that research paper alone. Risky, but she took it on. I thought her foolish at the time, but, now, I admire her faith and her convictions in her faith. She never once said that evolution was wrong or bad, she just didn’t believe in it.

    I should mention, I went to school with Tom DeLay’s niece, in his Congressional district, so I believe that makes the story all that more remarkable. In light of this story, it shows the tolerability of a public school system to state that, while a student doesn’t believe in scientific theory based on his or her religion, he or she had to make an argument for his or her case, not just blindly believe, and not just blindly state opinions that contradict scientific fact.

    • Max says:

      Students are tested on science literacy, not beliefs. If the student refuses to study or be tested on one of the foundations of Biology, she flunks Biology. And if she refuses to study or be tested on the Periodic Table, she flunks Chemistry.

      • Biff says:

        It is the girls right to not believe in evolution. But she must fulfill the requirements of the class, which, after all, merely require her to study the scientific theory/model of evolution, not believe it. If she has a strong faith, studying what other people believe or feel are facts, should not hurt her faith.

    • Jim says:

      “I admire her faith and her convictions in her faith. She never once said that evolution was wrong or bad, she just didn’t believe in it.”
      Without getting into what it means to not “believe in” evolution when you refuse to study it and how that relates to whether it is “wrong or bad,” I’m curious why you would admire anyone refusing to learn the fundamentals of anything. That’s just a strange position to take. What if she had refused to learn to study trig because of “her faith and her convictions in her faith”? Or what about learning to read? Would that be admirable as well?

    • Cthandhs says:

      Why do so many people think adhering to “faith” in order to compound ignorance is a good thing. If I thought bathing was against my faith and refused to do it, people would think I was a nut job.

    • Dax says:

      Aligning with the other replies to this comment, I also want to say that it’s not a matter of believing or not believing in something. You either accept a scientific fact to be most likely true, or you believe in something on which basis you do not accept scientific fact. By positing that you either believe in a scientific fact or not makes it seem like science, which is evidence based, is just another believe, too.

    • Max says:

      In a comparative religion class, students are not expected to believe in every religion they study, but they’re still expected to study it.

  8. SeanJJordan says:

    I really like the analogy! Thanks, Steven. You’re on the ball, as always!

  9. To paraphrase Ettore Scola’s “a special day”, it’s not facts that are anti-religious, it’s religion that is anti-facts.

  10. James Ashley says:

    I like your analogy, but isn’t the moon-landing a historical fact while the ascent of man is a scientific one? There is a difference, is there not? And isn’t the confusion of scientific with historical facts one of the problems in the evolution debates?

    Biological evolution and speciation should be taught because it is a great scientific theory. Evolution deniers insist it shouldn’t be taught, whatever its scientific merits, because it isn’t historically true and no one can prove — they say — it’s facticity because no one was there to see it happen.

    • It is also a scientific fact in that you can point a laser beam to one of the landing sites and have it reflected back by a device that was left there by the astronauts (there was a fantastic Mythbusters episode on exactly that).

    • Jim says:

      That humanity had non-human ancestors is just as much an historical fact as is the moon landing.
      And, for the record, the “ascent of man” is not a fact at all, scientific, historic, or otherwise. Evolution has no direction, so there was no “ascent.”

  11. James – evolution in considered an historical science, and history itself can be a science. They both deal with establishing what happened in the past. Because the moon landings happened within living memory does not really change that, and of course history can deal with things that happened prior to anyone alive today.

    • James Ashley says:


      I think the power of your analogy depends on these being the same thing. But wouldn’t your definition of history make the term “pre-historic” rather non-sensical?

      That said, I’m really just parsing some finer points. I think your analogy is very persuasive. It just jars with my understanding of the relationship between science and theory.


      • Naraoia says:

        As I understand it, the “historic” in prehistoric refers to histories as in writings dealing with history, rather than history as in things that happened in the past.

  12. Brian M says:

    *packs the analogy in his anti-creationist battle tank arsenal*

    Great analogy. Really drives the point home.

  13. ketan says:

    Nice try, but I think this is unfair to Hinduism.

    I like the FSM theory but I can see how you here tried to be a bit more subtle…

  14. Hannah Orion says:

    My book Secular Truthfulness is an interpretation of metaphors used in the Bible. Jesus always spoke in parables because He did not want the lay person to know the true and secretive meanings of His teachings and his explanation of God and Heaven. By using parables and metaphors He was able to mask the real truth which was then hidden and remained so until now. Today we have a more scientific appreciation of what truth is or at least should be. These metaphores are in use from Genesis to Revelation, hence we can finally understand the meaning of stories such as Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and others. The book is very enlightening to those of us whether agnostic or atheist and who find the book’s viewpoint a refreshing change from fundamentalist doctrine so prevalent in our society. The book does not decry science or religion but instead bridges the gap between evolution and creation.

    • danekart says:

      So … if the bible contains many metaphors for scientific facts, perhaps you can tell us one of these metaphors which tells us something we do not already know. Like, for example, a more accurate value for the Fine Structure Constant, or whether the Higgs Boson exists – and if so, what is its energy level?


      Frankly, finding hidden meanings in scholarly texts is not at all an impressive feat. You can pick and choose known facts to fit the text. That’s what Nostradamus followers have been doing for years. Nostradamus’ writings predicted a lot of events … after the events happened. Vague phrases can be interpreted a variety of ways.

      I haven’t read your book, but it sounds about as useful as newspaper horoscopes.

    • mikekoz68 says:

      You can interpret any book to mean a number of things that doesn’t give any credibility to the book. I’ve read the bible and jesus’ parables and found them to be a digusting piece of garbage. I can find better metaphors from “The Cat in the Hat”

  15. I really like the analogy in this post. Thanks Steve! :)

  16. James Young says:

    Very well written and makes an excellent point. Thanks!

  17. MadScientist says:

    Ah, the usual case of “Oh no! Your science isn’t compatible with my religion! I will not tolerate any facts!”

  18. Terrific post, Steven! An excellent one to share with “live and let live” friends about the problems that can arise, and when it really isn’t a case of meeting in the middle.

  19. UNRR says:

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 9/1/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  20. MythologicalCreature says:

    Religious practices can have even greater effects than these examples. I attended high school with a bright, intelligent young woman who was, I believe, Mennonite. We never got to wish her a happy birthday when she turned 16. Legally, she was not required to attend school any longer and we never saw her again. As the saying goes, “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

  21. Heretic says:

    Brilliant! I loved it!

  22. moonflake says:

    From the linked article:

    “…since the moon has a particular standard of life and atmosphere, if one wants to travel there he has to adapt his material body to the conditions of that planet. Even on the earth planet these restrictions hold true. For example, a human being cannot possibly live in the water nor can a fish live on land. These are the rigid conditions of life, and any attempt to defy them is artificial and will fail.”

    I presume then that Krishnas believe that scuba divers and aquariums are also hoaxes?

  23. JonoC says:

    Even the most anti-religious science lecturer will tell you that the big bang theory and along with it evolution, are scientific theories, not fact. They’re the most sensible interpretation of the evidence we have at hand currently. Even when something is repeatedly empirically tested and observed to true in controlled situations, most respected scientists don’t use the word ‘proven’ lightly. At best, it’s a strongly supported hypothesis.

    Apparently ‘neutral’ has taken on the meaning of ‘dogmatically atheist’. Everyone interprets the evidence to a conclusion they prefer – it would be far more healthy to expose students to a variety of viewpoints, and equip them with skills de-construct the inevitably biased presentations of evidence from each perspective, in order to come to their own conclusions.

  24. tmac57 says:

    “Everyone interprets the evidence to a conclusion they prefer ”
    This may be true informally, but that is not ‘science’. In science , if the conclusion does not fit within the existing framework of science, you must either reject it, or rewrite all of the framework that it does not fit with, which rarely happens. If a student, after looking at all of the “variety of viewpoints” decides that the Earth is flat, or that manned space flight is impossible, or that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, do you think that its a good idea to say “well, okay, I guess that’s your preferred opinion”, or should they be given an ‘F’ grade in science class.

  25. gsingh says:

    Great post! I listen to the SGU regularly actually, so great content all around. It’s amazing to me how Dr. Novella can juggle so many things at once…

  26. brad says:

    On the title: “Facts are not anti religious”

    Since when?

  27. Jeshua says:

    Facts are indeed anti-religious. Why do you think the church worked so hard to suppress science and oppress scientists during the Middle Ages? The more we know about the natural world, the less anyone needs a “god of the gaps.”