Does religious neutrality imply scientific neutrality?

The controversy over Governor General Julie Payette’s remarks to the Canadian Science Policy conference continues! Today it was reported that Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall has sent a letter to Payette in which he accuses her of suggesting that “it is simply risible some Canadians would subscribe to a view of creation that is rooted in the divine.” He then urges her “to avoid denigrating or mocking the many adherents of faiths that believe in a Creator” during any future visit to Saskatchewan.

Wall’s letter zeroes in on the portion of Payette’s remarks where she expressed dismay at the level of ignorance about scientific accounts of the origin and development of life. As I argued in my last post, there is no inherent contradiction between belief in a divine creator and belief in the claims of any of the natural sciences. Thus it cannot be true that Payette mocked or denigrated religious Canadians as such simply by virtue of mocking or denigrating those who do not accept evolutionary science. But some Canadians’ religious beliefs do directly contradict evolutionary science. Did Payette fail to accord their views the kind of respect they are entitled to expect from representatives of the state?

It is reasonable to expect the state to maintain strict neutrality on specifically religious matters. However, it is not reasonable to expect the state to maintain strict neutrality on all matters with which religions may be concerned. For example, a religion may preach that witches are servants of a supremely evil entity, but the state’s duty of neutrality is not violated if it prohibits the stoning of witches. The freedom to kill goes beyond the limits of any reasonable conception of religious liberty. To show that the state has violated liberal norms of religious neutrality, then, it is not sufficient to show that this or that conflict between state and religion has been resolved in the state’s favour.

This should come as welcome news to Brad Wall, because if it were not the case, he would be implicated in a far more profound violation of those norms. After all, evolutionary science is part of the public school curriculum. It is also taught in publicly funded postsecondary institutions. Even if a student sincerely believes in Young Earth Creationism as a matter of religious faith, they can expect to receive a failing grade for giving Young Earth Creationist answers to evolutionary science questions. If religious neutrality is violated any time a conflict between state and religion is resolved in the state’s favour, then the government of Saskatchewan violates religious neutrality any time it permits evolutionary science to be taught in public schools.

The state’s duty to maintain neutrality on religious matters does not extend to maintaining neutrality on matters of public safety, human rights, or scientific fact. The claim that natural processes are not sufficient to explain the origin and development of life is a claim about scientific fact. The state and its representatives are not obligated to be neutral about the truth of scientific claims. Moreover, insofar as the state is responsible for encouraging scientific education, it is obligated not to be neutral about the truth of this claim. As it turns out, the claim is false. The state is thus obligated to treat the claim as false. Payette can be reasonably criticized for the tone in which she made this point. But she cannot be reasonably criticized for treating false scientific claims as she is obligated to treat them.

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