Public school teacher who called creationism 'superstitious nonsense' protected from lawsuit

“Aristotle … argued, you know, there sort of has to be a God. Of course that’s nonsense. I mean, that’s what you call deductive reasoning, you know. And you hear it all the time with people who say, ‘Well, if all this stuff that makes up the universe is here, something must have created it.’ Faulty logic. Very faulty logic. The other possibility is, it’s always been there.… Your call as to which one of those notions is scientific and which one is magic.... All I’m saying is that, you know, the people who want to make the argument that God did it, there is as much evidence that God did it as there is that there is a giant spaghetti monster living behind the moon who did it."

Those were the words of Dr. James Corbett, a history teacher at an Orange County, California public high school, in a 2007 lecture. His comments led to one of the student filing lawsuit claiming that Corbett violated the First Amendment's establishment clause pronouncing that the government must be neutral with regard to religion. Last week though, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the case. From The Christian Science Monitor:

As part of its ruling, the appeals court vacated a district judge’s earlier decision that the teacher, Dr. James Corbett, violated the establishment clause in a comment he made in class that creationism was “superstitious nonsense.”

The appeals court side-stepped the question of whether Dr. Corbett’s comment on creationism and other derogatory remarks about religious faith were unconstitutional. Instead, the panel concluded that since Corbett was entitled to qualified immunity it was not necessary for the appeals court to determine whether his comments actually violated the Constitution.

“In broaching controversial issues like religion, teachers must be sensitive to students’ personal beliefs and take care not to abuse their positions of authority,” Judge (Raymond) Fisher wrote.

“But teachers must also be given leeway to challenge students to foster critical thinking skills and develop their analytical abilities,” he said. “This balance is hard to achieve, and we must be careful not to curb intellectual freedom by imposing dogmatic restrictions.”

"US judges rule for teacher who called creationism 'superstitious nonsense'" (Thanks, Bob Pescovitz!)


  1. Aristotle made the argument that there had to be something causing causality, and decided there must be a prime mover. That’s far from Aristotle saying that there has to be a God.

    1. Exactly, Aristotle stopped at the “unmoved mover,” and any application of traits beyond that has no basis.

    2. Not very far though, not really very far at all. I’d say it’s actually a useful way, in one sentence or less, of saying that A thought this, and that thought evolved directly into what dogmatic Christians are claiming today. If you disagree, go get yourself a professorship and profess what you like. 

      1. Aristotle lived 4 centuries before Christ. The Christians were exposed to his works one thousand years after Christ, adopted th eparts they found usefl, and discarded the rest. “Direct” it most certainly isn’t.

        1. Aristotle lived 4 centuries before Christ. The Christians were exposed to his works one thousand years after Christ, adopted th eparts they found usefl, and discarded the rest. “Direct” it most certainly isn’t.

          Since Roman Catholicism is just the Roman State Cult repackaged, I’d say that they were aware of pre-Christian philosophy from the beginning. That and the fact that most of the founders of the pre-schism church were from the Greek world.

  2. This was already decided, in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District.

    Judge John E Jones III ( a GW Bush appointee) wrote in his decision,”Accordingly, we find that the secular purposes claimed by the Board amount to a pretext for the Board’s real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom, in violation of the Establishment Clause.”

    I fail to see how something that violates the Establishment Clause can violate the Establishment Clause.

    1. IANAL (and I haven’t read the case) but it looks like Kitzmiller is exactly the opposite case from this one.  Kitzmiller decided that teaching the so called Intelligent Design theory (with a textbook) is the same as teaching creationism (an obviously religious belief) and so violated the Establishment Clause. 

      Dr. Corbett said something in class that was an opinion and the court decided that it was protected speech for the reasons noted.  Now, had Dr. Corbett decided to teach the non-existence of a god using a Dawkins book as a text then they might have had a case — but he didn’t, and so they don’t. 

      1. The court did not decide that this was protected speech. Instead, they found that the teacher was immune from suit entirely in this case based on his public employment, not based on the content of his speech. The court simply did not decide the issue.

  3. The student is perfectly welcome to enroll in a parochial school for a completely one-sided opinion of his or her respective god.

    1. It’s the Flying Spaghetti Monster, that should give you plenty to google and find from there ;)

  4. Yes, “We must be careful” in how we think critically out loud, while dogmatists proselyting and regular misuse of the courts to protect their fragile egos is protected.
    FSM bless America

  5. “something must have created [the universe].’ […] The other possibility is, it’s always been there.”

    Why must these be the only two possibilities? I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to assume that a system of reasoning that works inside a given reality to conjecture about what lies outside that reality.

    Why would we assume that our rules about how things exist (either they do, or they don’t) are valid outside the system from which we infer these rules? The entire idea of ‘existence’ is a thing that is dependent upon the way we observe the universe to work, it is nonsensical to extend it to something ‘outside’ the universe (if there even is such a thing, again, the idea that stuff has to be made of other stuff, or be contained in other stuff is an observation we make from within the system, it doesn’t necessarily apply /to/ the system).

    1. Tell you what… go outside the system, take a good look around, and then report back what you find. Until then, all we have is just this reality to deal with, and all of your kvetching about the its nature does nothing to change anyone’s reasonable perception of it.

      1. Actually a good deal of scientific knowledge has been gained using apparatus that allows us to “see” beyond what our senses can tell us- telescopes, microscopes, cyclotrons, you get the idea. Codesuidae is asking the right questions. We should be prepared for the possibility that the universe isn’t all about us.

        Personally, I find the ideas that our species was made in the likeness of the creator of the universe, and that the world was put here as our dominion, for us to use up- comically egocentric.

        1. I have my own hypothesis (A word that seems to have been forgotten by many):
          I think the sun is alive…and is not only aware of us, but likes us silly humans.
          It’s not inconceivable that an energy pattern in some part of that massive ball of energy became self propagating in the sun’s long, long life.
          We’re an energy pattern, after all.

        2. It is also the height of arrogance and human folly to think that our puny little brains could ever begin to comprehend the wonders that comprise its existence. And yet the fact that we think on it and explore it is probably our greatest achievement.

          To lump it all into “God dunnit” is an insult.

        3. You know what’s sad? That xtians are following that whole dominion thing
          — instructions from 2000+ years ago, when the idea of real dominion
          over nature was absurd.

          That’s the true shame of fundamentalism: the worship of blindness.

    2. I also think there are more than those two possibilities. (One of which is not really an explanation, since having something precede the universe merely redefines “universe” to mean not-really-everything-after-all.) One possibility is that causality is not as global as we think it is, making “What caused the universe?” a wrong question.

    3. Well of course there are lots of other possibilities.   But at least he got “It’s always been the way it is now” as the correct null hypothesis, which so many people fail to do (including most people arguing in favor of evolution.)    Teaching that the world changes and how we know that and how we find out what kinds of changes have happened is really important for science education. 

      And Intelligent Design is a theory that evolution did happen, but it all happened one week in 4004BC and (depending on your school district) then stopped.   It’s usually taught in ways that fail to teach the scientific method or explore scientific techniques in fields such as geology and biology, and if anybody does use ID as a hypothesis that can be considered the way you consider other scientific hypotheses, anti-evolutionists tend to really freak out and sue people.

  6. For the record Dr. Corbett was a teacher at Capistrano Valley High School in Orange County, CA, not in San Francisco

  7. God gets described as “superstitious nonsense.” But superstring/multiverse is on the frontier of theoretical thinking. Poor God.

    1. Yeah, but there is reproducible, indirect evidence from which we can test and/or falsify the superstring and multiverse theories.  

      I have yet to hear any evidence at all for the existence of any divine being, apart from someone pointing to a book and saying ‘it says so in here, and I believe it’.

  8. A quibble with the headline: believing in God or a Prime Mover or what have you is not the same thing as being a creationist. A majority of Christians in this country believe in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Unfortunately, they are not as vociferous as the ones who don’t.

    1. If you’re speaking about the US – NO, a majority of Christians do not believe in evolution. Poll after poll over just the last decade show a significant majority of Christians in the US reject evolution, believing that ‘life was created pretty much in its current form sometime in the last 10,000 years’. If you think some ‘silent majority’ of US Christians believe in and support evolution, you’re living in a fantasy world.

      1. Terrifying. 

        Of course, the same populace believes in psychics, alien abductions, ghosts, and many other absurd things.

    2. Too bad. When science in public schools is being eviscerated by the influence of religious entities, any Christian that doesn’t speak up deserves to be lumped into the same group as the fundamentalists.

  9. Motti: Don’t try to frighten us with your sorcerer’s ways, Lord Vader. [Vader walks toward Motti, then slowly raises his hand] Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes [begins to sound strained] or given you clairvoyance enough to find the Rebels’ hidden fort- [grasps his throat as if he is being choked]Vader: I find your lack of faith disturbing.

    I guess what I am saying is until your religion can force choke me, I’m not going to worry about it overmuch. 

    1. His religion might get you riddled with bullets, which is a second best to force-choking.  So it must be eradicated nonetheless.

      1. Or kicked out of a university or fail to get state of the art medical treatment or lose your job or make you move because your kids are not getting educated.

        I’d take a good force choke over the above. At least I could lightsaber the bastard…

  10. Given this case as precident, then as long as you state whatever you state as an “opinion” then your are clear of the whole “church separation” stuff? So I can just preface everything with “this is my opinion” and then preach the truth of creation to a class of students? FANTASTIC!!!

    1. The court did not reach the First Amendment issue, so this case has no precedential value with regard to church/state separation.

  11. Hey Boingers, go read History of Western Philosophy! It’s far out how much Greek philosophy there is in Christianity.

  12. He wasn’t attacking religion… he railed against “Intelligent Design”. And ID is a scientific theory, not a religion – or so its proponents would have us believe… So thank you ID “scientists”, you just made it OK to trash God, umm, I mean, the-intellignet-designer-who-shalt-not-be-named, in class.

  13. Also, in a nutshell, we don’t know what gives rise to what.  We are locked in our perception.  Each individual locked in his or her perception.  Perceiving time and space essentially as linear or planar, rarely in three dimensions or four, and none beyond.

    There may as well be a god, or may as well not be.  We would not understand the difference either way.

    1. “Each individual locked in his or her perception.  Perceiving time and space essentially as linear or planar.”

      Indeed. Assuming we eventually produce creative, reasoning machines, it is interesting to think about how we might direct their efforts by choosing how their mental models represent the world.

      For example, where we typically have a semi-Euclidean, human-scale physical model of the world, and so intuitively think about the world in those terms, what kind of creative leaps might a reasoning machine make if it’s intuitive mental model of the world is based on our physics models? Special relativity would seem as natural to it as is the trajectory of a thrown rock to us. Perhaps it could more easily see the issues in the model, as did, e.g., Newton, and from there work out a more elegant description.

      1. Even further: what about a mind that has access to it’s own source code? If it conducted psychology experiments on its own kind and uncovered a cognitive bias, it could reach in and correct it in real time.

        1. From a fictional perspective: one wonders what sort of monster such a self-modifying machine might end up creating. Could such an intelligence start out as a benign research tool, but modify itself in ways that would allow it to remain functional and intelligent, but that would send it off on a path of evil?

          1. Of course it could. That’s why AI is so much harder than many of it’s proponents think.

            Even if it turns out to be someday “easy” to make thinking machines, the most important questions remains how to make them *friendly.* How do you design a *goal system* for such a machine that makes it choose to do what you want, *even after it begins upgrading itself.* Because an intelligent machine will try to upgrade itself, including upgrading it’s own goal system. This is like me trying to improve my moral reasoning skills as a way of strengthening my current preference for not murdering people. How do I ensure the resulting reasoning system will be better than what I have now, as evaluated by my current system?

            If you get it wrong, you very quickly end up with a Paperclip Maximizer or a grey goo scenario, or maybe machines harvesting your body in order to tile the galaxy with images of smiling faces.

        2. I’m not sure I’d be all that happy to have you ‘correct’ the (faulty) source code you’d uncovered by experiment. Even if I agree that it’s faulty (there’s the possibility that the source code’s provider is clever enough to deceive you and foil your investigations), I’d be worried about unanticipated side effects.

      2. What if the machine we design could suspend the normal rules of the universe to look for novel solutions to vexing problems, and then test those solutions against the “real state” of the universe and, hopefully, learn from that experience many times faster than we can?  Maybe it could show us a few things?

        1. “What if the machine we design could suspend the normal rules of the universe ”

          An interesting idea. If we had the technology to change the laws of physics, it seems we’d very quickly be approaching god status ourselves.

  14. I believe in “Last Thursdayism”, which is the belief that a god created the universe out of nothing last Thursday. All our memories, our records, and the seeming natural history of the whole world are just fanciful creations of this possibly capricious god. Therefore, history class violates my religion and I must be excused without repercussions for my graduation or I will sue.

      1. Specifically, just after lunch. The Tuesday Mid-Morningist sect is a cult and must be branded as heathens and shunned.

        Consult the Elders of The Village for the particulars.

        1. Heathens. Everybody knows the Universe and Everything In It  was created last Wednesday. We all know this because it is written in a very old book.

  15. I basically like this teacher’s comments and have no problem at all with him saying them in a classroom. I think he’d be a better teacher, though, if he’d gotten other students to say it, during an exchange in which other students aired other views on the subject. Student-centered teaching and all that, instead of teacher-centered.

  16. I believe Aristotle also said “it is a mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

  17. I think we can all agree he was in his right to say this. We can also agree that he is kind of a dick for saying something that can easily be taken offensively about a subject that most likely half of his students (at least) believe in. I mean…even if only one did, it’s still wrong.

    Respect others beliefs…in less its scientology. ^_^ shnoogans

  18. Art: Deep Space Homer was in 1994

    Seriously you guys, look into the influence of Greek philosophy on Christianity. Do you care about understanding this nutty pot pourri? Even if you don’t believe, it’s fricking fascinating. I use the word “fricking” advisedly.

  19. Interesting. I myself am a teacher. I have a very diverse set of students, some of whom have beliefs I utterly, completely disbelieve, and vehemently oppose. Nonetheless, I’m careful not to ridicule or insult any of them no matter what. Why? Well, I am the teacher and therefore in a greater position of power than my students. My words carry more weight. I wouldn’t want a student to self-censor around me for fear of being made fun of or getting a lower grade. I won’t say anything about their religious beliefs in a mean spirited way, but I’ll be honest if I’m asked my opinion. I don’t think a teacher should lose his or her job for something like this, but a word with an administrator about politeness wouldn’t have hurt. Express your opinions without being rude.

  20. The teacher is obviously an idiot. Aristotle defended causality. Religion and “superstitious” beliefs are largely a result of sociological and cultural pressures, and the children believe they chose it of their own volition. Those who are obstinate in the face of evidence are likely going to be a lot more obstinate if you shove it in their face. 

    Essentially if you want to be a pompous dickhead then by all means, but if you intend to teach; do so with gentility. 

  21. Obviously the teacher could’ve phrased that in a slightly better way. I just had an “Only in America” moment about a public high school student suing a teacher. Maybe one of the parents was a lawyer. “How was school today, honey?” “Terrible. Can Dad help me sue my teacher?”

  22. Huh…my old high school. Four years of watching Capo Valley sports suck the funding out of everything else was proof enough that there is no god. I hear they built a swimming pool after I left. Go cougars. Rah. Rah.

    /former Capo Valley band, choir, drama, art geek

  23. I know this doesn’t exactly pertain to this subject. I allways entertained the notion that Atheism and it various forms is a great place to start but just kind of bummer of a place to end.

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