On more than one occasion, I’ve been asked, “Why the Establishment Clause?”
I read a brief article in Scientific American the other day about curling stones. With the Winter Olympics right around the corner, apparently the editors thought it would be interesting to cast a little light on one of the lesser-known sports, especially since that sport has a strong connection to geology. The central focus of curling is to sweep the ice so that a 44 pound rock goes where the players want it to go. Curling stones are made of granite, and, as it turns out, the best of the best stones come from an island off the coast of Scotland. The article goes on to explain why this granite from Scotland makes such good curling stones and how the granite came to be there (as with all granite, it was formed when magma intruded into the surrounding rock and cooled leaving the crystalline rock formation we know as granite). An interesting tidbit to be sure. And if you are keen on the extraordinary history of this planet, knowing about the origins of the curling stones might even give you a greater appreciation for a sport played on ice with brooms and rocks by people who often wear riotously colored pants. But you can only get there, if you are allowed to learn about science. If you are allowed to ask why curling stones from Ailsa Craig, Scotland are better than a stone that might come from somewhere else? (Its crystalline structure is exceptionally small and tightly interlocked, and is, therefore, highly water and breakage resistant.) And how long does it take for magma, for molten rock flowing through and into other rock (an intrusion) to cool and become granite? (It can take millions of years. The slower the cooling, the larger the crystals, so the Ailsa Craig stone with its smaller crystals cooled comparatively quickly after the intrusion formed the island 60 million years ago.) And why does granite sparkle in the light? (As magma cools, crystals form.) And why is it so hard? (Granite is made up of minerals, particularly quartz, which is an extremely hard mineral that doesn’t break down easily. All of the exposed granite we see formed deep underground, but as the surrounding rock eroded away over many millions of years, the hard, erosion-resistant granite was left behind). The answers to all of these questions depend upon an understanding of deep geologic time. You don’t have to be an expert, but you have to be able to accept some basic facts about the Earth. So you have to be allowed to learn about, explore and understand how immensely old the Earth is, and you can’t fear the consequences of asking these questions and following the answers wherever they may lead. Because it is this sense of excitement and commitment to questioning that leads to new discoveries, cures, solutions, and, yes, more questions. It is the freedom to learn that feeds the passion to learn more, and propels us forward as a civilization, as a community, and as a species toward a greater understanding of our world.
The Establishment Clause protects this freedom to learn by keeping religious dogma out of publicly funded entities like public schools and scientific research institutions. It protects those who want and need to learn, explore and discover from suffering the consequences of religious movements that have much to lose from people asking questions. Why the Establishment Clause? Because every landscape tells a piece of a story that is four and half billion years old. Because children who genuinely want to learn about dinosaurs should not to have their curiosity thwarted or mocked with fairy tales and misinformation. Because I have a dear friend whose life was saved by a stem-cell transplant. Because my mother had an aunt she never got to know because that aunt lived in a time when women were not allowed to make their own health care decisions and she died a young woman, full of promise unfulfilled, and we cannot go back to that time. Because people need to encounter the wonders of the natural world while confronting the very real dangers our activities pose to the planet’s continued existence as a viable home for us and all of the other inhabitants of Earth. Because in order to develop and act upon a deep-seated sense of responsibility for what happens to us, our children and all of the living things around us, we must be free to learn and research and ask why. We can’t find solutions if we don’t know what the problems are.