Bear with me.
For a moment, imagine away the First Amendment. There’s no legal barrier to creationism, and permitting its teaching won’t necessarily imply an erosion of any other legal barriers. Is this video still worrying?
There are a couple ways of getting to yes. First (and most obviously), by arguing First Amendment values, even in the Amendment’s absence. Teaching creationism implies Christian creationism, implies actual indoctrination, and an exclusionary message directed at all non-Christians. In the sense that ideological coercion is a normative wrong, on its own, presenting some harm distinct from coercing someone to learn something True and Valuable, it’s also bad in that sense. Let’s assume away this problem, too: this is a classroom in some small-town caricature of “The Bible Belt.” There are no non-Christians, and the town in which this school is teaching creationism is, in fact, so ideologically uniform that all of the kids will go home to parents and families who will, with one voice, reinforce the “literal” creation myth. Assume away a pluralist society and the most compelling justification for the First Amendment vanishes too.
There’s still some harm in that the students here are being affirmatively miseducated. Creationism isn’t an issue: it’s a way of looking at the world, a rejection of empiricism in favor of dogmatism. In the creationist classroom, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution, are both dead (watch the video again to see what I mean: the arguments against evolution are all incredulity, not actual reason). If secondary education creates any permanent imprint whatsoever on a student’s eventual beliefs, this ought to be enough: teaching bad science to our children means a choice between either fewer scientists, or more bad scientists in the new generation. Is that enough?
I’d like to argue for a broader, more systemic danger. A student who is taught creationism in secondary school, and accepts it as true, will eventually be challenged to defend it. If the challenge is halfway competent, the student will be forced to choose between conceding defeat, or reinforcing their belief system, which will require reconciling some degree of cognitive dissonance, or somehow de-legitimizing the threatening viewpoint.
What’s that struggle look like? Here, it helps to have some experience with the standard creationist arguments. The true apologist — who deploys sophisticated arguments in defense of creationism, some of which aren’t obviously false (think, “The half life of carbon changes!”) — is rare. Most, fed by the generic culture war narrative, will fall back on a distrust of earned knowledge and “elites,” or assert the absoluteness of Biblical infallibility. Neither response is healthy for a democratic society. The former tends to undermine self-governance, because democracy requires an educated populace, one that responds to ideas on the merits, not by questioning whether their opponents are “real Americans,” and one that otherwise understands that the division of labor is not in tension with principles of equality. Scientists are better at science than non-scientists; that’s all there is to it. And the latter puts theocracy and specific religiosity over the “civic religion” of republicanism, undercutting the necessary virtue of pluralism and trending away from other bedrock principles like due process, and equal protection. Creationism may not be so bad on its own, but its teaching implies its perpetuation, which in turn implies a host of undesirable support structures.
At least, that’s how I see it. Is there any merit to any of this?