First Amendment, Neutrality, Atheism, and Evolution

Hi @Patrick,

Dr. Haarsma on the other hand as head of a religious non-profit is not bound by such limitations. She can proclaim that God created the multiverse and she is protected as free speech. She is free to proclaim and I am free to bash her, mock her, challenge her. But I will fight for her right to say it freely and at the same time criticize it. Dr. Swamidass, as hopefully tenured Professor at a secular, government funded institution, has no such rights. As condition for his position (and funding) he gives up that right. He still has the right of religious expression privately but in no way can as a Government official show any preference of one religion over another and any preference of religion over non-religion. He must remain neutral.

Might I remind you that teachers are expected to remain politically neutral as well: a rule which is honored more in the breach than in the observance, as you well know. These days, professors who are neutral about President Trump are about as rare as leprechauns.

In any case, university students aren’t kids. They’re adults. There’s nothing to stop a professor from saying to students who happen to raise the subject of religion in class: “Personally, I happen to be a churchgoing Christian. Of course, students of all faiths and none are welcome at this university, and in this course. If you want to ask me about my personal beliefs, see me after the lesson.” That’s how we’d handle it in Australia, which is where I’m from. I can’t see the problem with that.

I might add that the right of free speech applies to all Americans, as per the First Amendment. No law can stop a professor from espousing and defending Christian beliefs on his own blog.

When I was doing Philosophy A01 at the Australian National University back in 1981, we had a visiting American professor who taught a course about the philosophy of mind. He was quite strident in his espousal of materialism and atheism. None of us got up and said, “You have no right to push your views on us.” That would have been childish. As the saying goes, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” If it’s OK for an atheist professor to defend materialism, why isn’t it OK for a Christian professor to defend theism?

On a personal note, I might relate that I visited the U.S.A. in 1994/95. I spent three months Greyhounding it around the country, and managed to visit 34 states during that period. (I was able to buy a 1-month Greyhound bus pass for just $419 back in those days, but you can’t buy it in the States. You meet some funny people on Greyhound buses, let me tell you.)

Anyway, during my travels around America, I decided to look up my cousin, who’s a movie producer. She took me out to dinner at a restaurant. I can remember that at the end of the meal, the waiter asked her if she had enjoyed her meal. My cousin replied that she liked the main course, but wasn’t too impressed with the tiramisu. My jaw dropped: we’d never say that in Australia, as we wouldn’t want to hurt the waiter’s feelings. My cousin set me straight: “This is America. You can say whatever you like, EXCEPT ‘I’m going to kill the President.’ That gets you ten years in jail.”

That was 23 years ago. How times have changed. Nowadays, there are 101 opinions which instantly render you a “deplorable” if you express them, while posting a tweet showing the President in the crosshairs of a gun sight (as Chris Cillizza did recently) is defended as courageous, in certain quarters. Very sad.

You can say God Bless You to a person after they sneeze and some one will say that you are pushing your religion on them.

I wonder if the people who complain about remarks like that would complain if the person saying “God bless you” were a Sikh. Just saying.


So Patrick… from your experience, are there Christians who bird-dog atheist professors’ weblogs, warning them of the dangers of the misuse of public funds? After all, the Consitution guarantees “freedom of religion,” not “freedom from religion.” We all know the signs of the times, but unwarranted intrusion, coercion and persecution from any camp in the free interchange of ideas in a democratic society ought not to take place unless the intended target advocates physical violence or social censure. Christians follow a figure Who both broke the rigid social censure rules of His time on earth, and put up with physical violence and social censure against Himself, in order to defuse and subvert the worst in human ideological movements. Gandhi cited Him as his inspiration, as did Solzhenitsyn, Mandela, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, and countless others. None of these were strangers to bare-knuckles politics. I’m wondering whether you, inadvertently, carry a caricature in your head about what “evangelicals” and Catholics stand for. I, for example, am an evangelical, and find much of what Trump does deplorable, while taking note of the occasional exception. Does that make me a “deplorable,” or isn’t even a malfunctioning clock correct twice a day? The line in the sand cuts both ways. Hope this clarifies. Glad you’re here.

In the US and in secular universities that receive US Government funding, the example you give above could be a problem for the Professor. It would be best for the Professor to say that discussion of religion is not part of this class. As for talking with a student about personal private beliefs outside of class, that is fraught with a multitude of potential problems.

First sentence is correct, second sentence may not be. It really depends on the agreement that the professor has with the university and how that university is entangled with government funding. It is a shifting line in what constitutes individual free speech and what constitutes speech as a Government official.

For example, a police chief going to Catholic mass on Sunday in his uniform coming off working the night shift. This would fall under individual free speech. However, a police chief going to an rousing Evangelical Church Rally with him speaking to the crowd in his police uniform. This would not be allowed under Establishment clause - as it gives the impressions that Government is endorsing Evangelical Christianity over other religions and non-believers.

We can’t conflate professors with government officials. Even if we receive government funding, we are not government officials. When I give a talk, no one is wondering if Im representing the government. Cultural expectations are such that no one even thinks that Im representing WUSTL either. Though, if I was Chancellor or Dean, that would probably change; I would be seen as representing WUSTL, but still not the government.

Yes, most if not all of the Christian right groups do it constantly over abortion, same sex marriage, birth control, sexual practices, even teaching yoga in the public schools.

  1. The Constitution guarantees individual freedom of thought. That is what freedom of religion means. I am free to have my religious non-beliefs and you are free to have your religious beliefs. And we are free to think about anything we would like to think about free from Government interference.

  2. The Constitution also guarantees that your Government is free from religion. The government must be neutral on religion. It can’t endorse one religion over another or any religion over no religion. This is the Establishment Clause.

It really is a gray area and where the battle lines are drawn. I don’t see it getting down and dirty at the individual professor level but I do see it getting to the University Administration level at both secular and religious institutions that accept government funding in the form of student loans. For example, now that SSM is legal across the country, can a university not allow a SSM couple to enroll and live on campus housing using Federal Student Loans? Most universities say yes while Liberty University says no way. Stay tuned for Supreme Court decision on that on. Bobby Jones University held out for over 30 years under the guise of Freedom of Religion before relenting and allowing racially mixed housing on campus. Let’s see what Liberty University does.

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Yes, the U.S. government must not use its powers to establish one religion over another. But, you are mistaken that atheism is not a religion. It is a religion that ultimizes the human self.

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Are you not defining secular humanism?

No, actually, I’m not.

@patrick will, I think, endorse the entire logic of this particular posting, while this analysis might disappoint @Guy_Coe:

I’m inclined to think that applying a definition of “religion” should be the kind of definition that pertains to deities, gods, divine entities and the like.

If a person rejects any of these ideas about “immortal beings”, this does not mean any philosophy or “ethic sets” that an atheist replaces religious ideas with becomes - - by default - - yet another religion.

Religion requires divine entities … or it’s not a religion.
“Secular Humanism” can exist within a religious perspective that includes Gods… or within perspectives that denies all gods.

Either way you look at it, Secular Humanism - - in and of itself - - is not a religion, nor can it be.

If we read the very first paragraph in the Wiki article, it seems most clear:

“Secular humanism is a philosophy or life stance that embraces human reason, ethics, social justice, and philosophical naturalism while specifically rejecting religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience, and superstition as the bases of morality and decision making. Secular humanism posits that human beings are capable of being ethical and moral without religion or a god. It does not, however, assume that humans are either inherently evil or innately good, nor does it present humans as being superior to nature.”

There’s nothing in Secular Humanism
- - “specifically rejecting religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience, and superstition” - -
as expressed in the English language, that allows for any notion that it can be a religion in and of itself.

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Anything you replace the very real God with becomes your idol, and thus you have a false religion. No deities necessary. Ask any true narcissist. Nope, George, can’t agree.

As a Bright, Freethinker, Secular Humanist, these are the priniciples that I try to live by:

Need to test beliefs – A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted by faith.

Reason, evidence, scientific method – A commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence and scientific method of inquiry in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.

Fulfillment, growth, creativity – A primary concern with fulfillment, growth and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.

Search for truth – A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.

This life – A concern for this life (as opposed to an afterlife) and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.

Ethics – A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.

Justice and fairness – an interest in securing justice and fairness in society and in eliminating discrimination and intolerance.

Building a better world – A conviction that with reason, an open exchange of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.


Naturally, this all depends on what you think is a reasonable application of English definitions.

And definitions can be anything you want them to be. I think even @Patrick would acknowledge that people can define all sorts of things in unusual ways. But, really, these definitions should have some reasonable basis in how the English language describes things.

In the interests of scientific precision … is it not rather self-serving to simply re-define religion as almost ANYTHING that might become a “fixed” idea in the hearts and minds of some humans … even when there is no deity or divine entity being contemplated at all?

We can all bandy around phrases like: “chess became his religion”… or “tennis became his religion” - - but these are figurative or poetic expressions. Unless the holder of these attitudes literally thinks there is a divine embodiment of “chess” as an immortal being … or that there is a “divine being that humans would call Tennis”… is it not just “an expression”?

If we champion the precision of Science, I don’t see any valid way to turn a fixation on a non-divine thing as a “religion”. Idols are things that humans believe are divine… or access the divine.

So to say that “money became his idol” or that “humanism became his idol” is also a figurative expression - - since, again, we rarely encounter someone who literally thinks “money” is a divinity, a god, a goddess or anything like what religion characteristically embraces.

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Nope. This is not a private definition; it is the biblical, theological definition. While some might use such phrases figuratively, and for fun, there’s another sense in which they might be true, as you admit.
If “Science” becomes a God-substitute, then you’re in the same boat (why would you capitalize that word?).
“The reverence of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.”


The problem with this approach, Guy, is that it creates a somewhat pernicious tautology - - more so than is usually the case for any regular use of dictionaries, lexicons and normal discourse.

As soon as an Atheist becomes a highly motivated Atheist … he is no longer an Atheist, because he now has a new divine being in his life. But this is a fraudulent analysis. He is an Atheist BECAUSE he has no divine being in his life.

Evangelicals are prone to this whole “Secularism has become his idol” rhetoric. But it is a sham. It is, like many Creationist inclinations, word-play to turn the meaning of words upside down… and to accomplish it, the meanings of TWO words have to be inversed:

An Idol is no longer an object believed to be a representation of an immortal entity … but becomes ANY “primary organizing factor” in a person’s life.

A religion is no longer someone’s devotion to divine being, but is the devotion to anything, whether it is a divine being or not.

As I have already admitted, people can contrive whatever definition they want - - but let’s also admit that a person cannot radically redefine a word and expect that other people are compelled to agree to it, or even use the re-engineered definition.

cc: @Patrick


Hi @Patrick,

You’re a secular humanist and an atheist. Fine. You don’t sound too keen on free speech or freedom of religion, judging from the following excerpt:

The Constitution guarantees individual freedom of thought. That is what freedom of religion means. I am free to have my religious non-beliefs and you are free to have your religious beliefs. And we are free to think about anything we would like to think about free from Government interference.

First of all, the phrase “freedom of thought” isn’t even in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press…

You also write:

In the US and in secular universities that receive US Government funding, the example you give above could be a problem for the Professor. It would be best for the Professor to say that discussion of religion is not part of this class. As for talking with a student about personal private beliefs outside of class, that is fraught with a multitude of potential problems.

If you can cite even a single Supreme Court decision which limits a professor’s right to express his/her religious views on campus, then I’d like to hear it. And you can chant the mantra, “non-establishment clause,” until you’re blue in the face, but the Supreme Court simply doesn’t agree with your interpretation of free speech.

It is a shifting line in what constitutes individual free speech and what constitutes speech as a Government official.

Has the Supreme Court further restricted government officials’ right to free speech in recent years? Don’t think so.

You might like to read this article I wrote for Uncommon Descent back in 2013:

The Freedom From Religion Foundation: Getting the Founding Fathers wrong

Scroll down to the end to read the section: “Is the American Constitution godless?”

And here’s another article I wrote for Uncommon Descent several years ago, which I would still endorse:

How FIRE can help in the fight for academic freedom on campus

Did you know that two-thirds of public universities and private colleges in the United States have official policies that clearly violate the First Amendment?

Are you aware that while the guarantees of the First Amendment do not cover private colleges, most private universities make explicit and extensive promises of free speech to their students, as well as academic freedom for their staff?

Do you realize that speech codes on a public university campus which prevent any form of “offensive speech,” “hate speech” or “bias speech,” contravene the First Amendment?

Are you aware that harassment policies at public universities frequently fall foul of the First Amendment, because they fail to meet the legally determined definition of “harassment”?

Do you realize that public universities whose policies prohibit speech that supposedly “incites” bad behavior, or is “provocative,” are also breaking the law, if their definitions of “incitement” and “provocation” are more restrictive than those applied by the Supreme Court to society at large, in its rulings?

Are you aware that policies which restrict gatherings and demonstrations to small, out-of-the-way corners of campus also violate the First Amendment, and that the same goes for demands by public universities that organizations which sponsor controversial speakers should pay extra for campus security?

Some readers may be thinking, “It’s all very well to point this out, but what can we do about it?” Get in touch with FIRE, that’s what you can do.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, is a nonprofit educational foundation based in Philadelphia. FIRE’s mission is to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience – the essential qualities of individual liberty and dignity. FIRE protects the unprotected and educates the public about the threats to these rights on our campuses and about the means to preserve them.

You might want to listen to what New Atheist Christopher Hitchens (d. 2011) had to say on the subject of free speech:

Hitchens was a decent human being, and I have a special place for him in my heart, even to this day.

Finally, you might also want to read what New Atheist and evolutionary biologist, Professor Jerry Coyne, has written on the subject of academic freedom and freedom of speech:

Free speech on campus in peril
FIRE, censorship, and the disturbing Constitutional ignorance of college students
Why Freedom of Speech?
The worst argument yet that speech can be “violence”: science can tell us which speech should be banned
Why speech isn’t violence



An atheist has, effectively, in his or her mind, set themselves up as their own divine being, answerable to no one or nothing outside themselves. That there are moral atheists is without question. There are atheists, who, according to this definition, are nevertheless, wonderful, giving people. But at the end of the day, there is no one to thank for a good day… other than their own wits. And to some extent, the people they have chosen to admire. This is the only life they’ll ever have, they think, and so, you gotta go for the gusto while you can. That’s all good and well, but somewhat devoid of permanent hope. Disagreements with others over “religion” are the biggest waste of time , since I’ve already decided there’s no compelling reasons or evidence for holding to any religious position. I’ve decided there are no deities in the universe, and so anyone who thinks differently is irrational, maybe fear-based, and frankly, maybe even dangerous. I’ve no doubt Patrick agrees with this. What I’m not sure is whether he has any answers to the question as to how a small band of illiterate, first-century Jews pulled off the "greatest hoax in history’ --the resurrection, and then were willing to die for a lie. The evidence against that fantasy of reconstructed history is so overwhelming you have to choose to remain willfully ignorant of the historical facts to hold onto atheism. That’s certainly a person’s right, but it’s a terribly blind academic choice, that some earnest research into the “enemy camp” could set right. I have a feeling that’s at least partly why Patrick wants to be here, though he’s free to deny it. At the end of the day, we’re all enriched by the interchange of ideas, and that makes it worth the time. Cheers!

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I am very keen on our American rights of free speech and freedom of religion. How you can say otherwise by any of my work or writings is beyond reproach.

Freedom of speech, religion, and press combined is referred to as Freedom of Thought or Freedom of Expression.

Try this one: Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962), was a landmark United States Supreme Court case that ruled it is unconstitutional for state officials (teachers and administrators) to compose an official school prayer and encourage its recitation in public schools.

Yes, it is unconstitutional for the U.S. government to establish a religion, as well as to prevent the free exercise thereof. The case you’re referring to, however hinged largely on the “state’s rights” issue, and is limited in its scope; there have been successful cases won limiting its overreach.

Yes, it certain has. Many rulings.

I admired Chris Hitchens, one of my favorites. I am a long time member of FFRF and work with them on many projects and financially support them as well. Same with Dr. Coyne. I am very much against Government censorship.