How does Judge Overton understand religion? How does he understand science? Do you agree with his understanding of both? If so, why do you agree? If not, why do you disagree?
In this essay I will outline how I think Judge Overton understands both religion and science and why I believe his understanding is sound. I will do this within the context of Judge Overton's Memorandum Opinion of the McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education (1982)1. This court case determined Overton's decision to rule against Act 590 which was introduced in the state of Arkansas in 1981, with an agenda to provide a "Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science" in the public school system. Overton ruled against the Act based on it being in breach of the First Amendment which states there must be a separation of State and Religion. Overton found Act 590 was unable to achieve its attempt at providing a balanced treatment of creation science and evolution due to the fact creation science is overtly religious. In coming to his decision, I believe Overton shows great insight into both sides. The two 'sides' are 1) Religion – which includes the fundamentalist vision of Creation Science and, 2) Science – which offers a secular view of the origins of the world known as Evolution Theory.
Before discussing Overton's understanding, the first point is to clarify what is meant by both religion and science. Religion, as defined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics is: "A set of beliefs and practices, usually involving acknowledgment of a divine or higher being or power, by which people order the conduct of their lives both practically and in a moral sense."2 According to sciencecouncil.org the definition of science is "the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence."3 Using these definitions as background, I will now discuss creation science and why I think Overton has a good understanding of why it is religious and not scientific.
According to Creation Ministries International (CMI)4 – a non-profit Christian corporation consisting of a committee who hold Masters degrees or PhDs in science subjects including plant science and molecular biology – creationism is defined as belief in the following:
1) The formation of life, mankind and the universe as reported in the book of Genesis is factual and represents actual events. 2) The original life forms on earth, including man, were directly created by God and biological changes pertaining to natural selection are limited. 3) The Noachian Flood mentioned in Genesis is an actual historical event. As creation science relies on a belief in these three points, Overton is right to understand creation science as religious as opposed to scientific. It is interesting to note that the members of CMI hold degrees and doctorates in STEM subjects yet simultaneously believe in creationism. This potentially proves that religion and science can exist hand-in-hand and I would agree that on a personal level, one can both believe in God as creator and evolution as science. But in the context of Act 590, Overton remains clear as to the objective. Whatever a person believes outside of state affairs is their business, but what goes on under the remit of State Education must be kept separate from religious doctrine. A reason for this, as Overton notes in section 15 is that the First Amendment requires the State does not unintentionally favour one religion over another.
It is worth mentioning that creationism is not a new concept and is not exactly the same as creation science. Charles Darwin, who is known as the father of Evolution Theory was himself a creationist6 and while formulating this theory wrote about his religious dilemma in letters to his wife.7 The fact Darwin considered himself to be a creationist before coming to realise that plants and mammals were more likely the result of genetic variations is relevant because it helps further explain that there is a difference between religious and scientific views of creation, and how they are opposing matters. Although the theory of creationism was the predominant belief of Englishmen up until Darwin's Theory of Evolution, the term creation science was established by a group of religious fundamentalists in the 1960s. In Overton's reference to this, I believe he expertly comprehends the difference between creation theory and creation science. I feel it's also relevant to point out that Overton was a judge in the state of Arkansas, and according to the Pew Forum8, the population of Arkansas is 79% Christian so, although speculative, it's fair to assume Overton is Christian. Despite this, he observes that belief in a worldwide flood and that the earth was created from nothing, is a religious belief not a scientific theory. I find it admirable that a man who likely holds a belief in the Christian God is able to remain diplomatic in his breakdown of what makes science, science.
In contrast, Paul Ellwanger, one of the defendants, who was instrumental in getting Act 590 passed, used the Act to try and fulfill his religious fundamentalist worldview. Despite admitting in court that creation science is not science, Ellwanger used deceptive tactics in an attempt to whitewash the court. Again, Overton was able to clearly outline Ellwanger's deception and accuses him of being on a religious crusade. This seems fair as Ellwanger is not arguing the point of creationism as a general theory but is using the Act to wedge his view of religion into an otherwise secular schooling system. Overton's findings clearly show there is no balanced view possible when it comes to creation science. He states that Act 590 requests "balanced treatment" for both creation and evolution science but notes that upon close inspection of the terms, there is no way the Act can be mandated without religious education therefore the Act is "self-contradictory".
To further back up my belief that Overton understands both science and religion, in Section IV (A), Overton notes that creation science allows for only two possible explanations of the beginning of earth. One, that is in support of a creator, and another that rejects God in favour of evolution. Overton understands that there are multiple possible explanations for species variation, including alternative religious notions that allow for both God and evolution to exist simultaneously. In the same section, he outlines the way in which the defendants take any rejection of evolution theory to be evidence that supports creationism. Overton recognises that the rejection of one scientific theory does not automatically lend itself to another, despite the fact it might also disagree with the initially rejected theory. This again is proof he has an in-depth understanding of religion and science. Overton's understanding appears to follow logic and he maintains that in order for something to be considered scientific it must hold up against five basic principles which I will list below before explaining why I believe Overton's explanation of what makes something scientific is compelling. Overton says that in order for something to be science it must: 1) Pertain to Natural Law. 2) Be explainable. 3) Be "testable against the empirical world". 4) The conclusion must be tentative and not a final ruling. 5) Be falsifiable.
To explain Overton's first point, Natural Law is something that can be deduced independent of human will, society or beliefs. For example, in order to classify a domestic cat we can first determine it is a mammal because we can observe that cats are vertebrates and when young, suckle their mother's milk. We can then distinguish cats as feline based on the fact they have five toes on their front paws and four on their back paws. We can see they all have whiskers above the eyes and on the cheeks and have cushioned pads on their feet which have three lobes. I have provided an oversimplified version of a cat classification for the sake of space, coupled with the fact I am not a biology expert, but using this form of systemisation we are able to determine a cat from a fish irrespective of our upbringing or our beliefs. In basic terms, natural law and evolution theory simply require us to adhere to a specialised form of checklist. Conversely, in the case of creation science, Overton points out that the creation of the earth from nothing relies on a belief in a supernatural force and cannot be systematically reduced which means it cannot be classified as scientific.
An interesting point to note is that evolution theory, although scientific is still only a theory as it is technically unprovable due to the fact we can not go back in time and measure or test the actual beginnings of all species. However, as with the above mammal-feline-cat example, evolution theory, unlike creation science, holds up against scientific reason. By following the classification of Natural Law, what we can measure today can be reasonably assumed to follow a pattern that existed before we had the tests to prove it. For example, geological observations in various depths of the earth can be dated based on fossils, sediment lines and carbon9. Layers of the earth can be easily observed in places like The Grand Canyon and fossils found in the Grand Canyon can be dated as older or younger based on which layer of earth they are found. Fossils found in upper layers are said to be younger than fossils found in deeper layers. By referencing fossils of species that are known to be extinct, scientists have been able to determine, within parameters, the age of the land. This is not possible with creation science which wholly rests on what is said in The book of Genesis.
Overton's point of science being explainable rules out supernatural events such as the Noachian Flood in Genesis or the creation of earth from nothing. These events are not explainable and can be contradicted by evolution theory and our understanding of the age of the earth based on science. Again, creation science cannot be deemed scientific according to Overton's second evaluation point. Before entirely dismissing the notion of Noah's flood, there is some evidence that there may have been a large flood in the area now known as Iraq.10 However, by beholding their belief in a worldwide flood with no allowance of it being tested against empirical evidence – which is Overton's third proof of something being scientific – creation science is shown to be based on religious belief as opposed to science. Furthermore, if believers of creation science are not willing to accept evolution theory as even a possibility, they are by default saying that creation science is a final ruling, which as Overton states, excludes it from being called science. Lastly, for something to be falsifiable and therefore scientific, it must be left open to peer-review which can hold up, or be proven incorrect, when placed under scrutiny. Creation science presents itself as unquestionable which falls down when using Overton's classification of something scientific not claiming to be a final ruling. By not allowing itself to be put under scrutiny Overton is right to call creation science a religion.
To conclude, when dismantling Act 590, Judge Overton used a simple yet clear methodology for discerning what makes something religious vs what classifies it as scientific. Overton's five criteria for what makes something scientific doesn't reject religion, but most definitely distinguishes what is science from what is religion. When it comes to religion, he shows a depth of understanding that separates belief in a supernatural force from the classification and peer-review process of science. He never once undermines the defendants' religious beliefs which requires respectful comprehension of religion and faith. He also recognises the difference between general religion and fundamentalist beliefs, which in my opinion shows awareness of religion and the nuances that exist within that field. Overall, I agree with Overton's ruling against Act 590. Despite being a lapsed Catholic, I believe in my own version of God. However, I do not agree with secular schooling being fed religious ideas other than within the context of teaching all World Religions. Moreover, to defy well-proven theories such as that of evolution can be confusing and damaging for school children and it seems far better to maintain a separation of State and Church in order for people to make their own choice. I believe there are plenty of Christian schools that have the right to teach creationism but maintaining a secular schooling system is vital. State Education must remain objective and separate from dogmatic teachings in order to allow students with diverse religious beliefs to have access to non-specific religious education that can be received at full value. I wholeheartedly agree with Overton's ruling against Act 590 for these reasons.
3. McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education. (1982), January 5). Retrieved 4 June 2019 from The Talk Origins Archive website: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/mclean-v-arkansas.html
3. Nieminen, P., Ryokas, E., & Mustonen, A.-M. (2015). Experiential Thinking in Creationism – A Textual Analysis. PLoS ONE, 10(3). https://link-gale-com.ezproxy.une.edu.au/apps/doc/A425976505/AONE?u=dixson&sid=AONE&xid=64dcd4f3
1 McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education. (1982), January 5). Retrieved 4 June 2019 from The Talk Origins Archive website: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/mclean-v-arkansas.html 2 https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/0/775012ef0058a77dca25697e00184bdc?opendocument 3 https://sciencecouncil.org/about-science/our-definition-of-science/ 4 https://creation.com/what-we-believe 5McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education. (1982), January 5) 6https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-evolution-of-charles-darwin-110234034/ 7http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?viewtype=side&itemID=F1497&pageseq=1 8 https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/state/arkansas/ 9 https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/dating-rocks-and-fossils-using-geologic-methods-107924044/ 10 https://ncse.ngo/yes-noahs-flood-may-have-happened-not-over-whole-earth