Where’s the Harm in Teaching Creationism?

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?

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11 comments

  1. This makes me really wish Kitzmiller vs. Dover had been appealed. We need a federal ruling on this ID nonsense.

  2. Correction: …a Supreme Court ruling…

  3. We have one on creationism generally — that’s Epperson v. Arkansas. Though there is another one, too…

  4. Also, we can be fairly certain that Kitzmiller would’ve been affirmed on appeal, all the way up. The critical part of the decision is the factual finding that ID duplicates creationism, but slaps another label on it. Findings like that are reversible for clear error only, which is fairly hard to get (truuuuuust me). Of course, that certainty doesn’t translate to making it binding on any other jurisdictions :)

    1. Creationism / ID is exactly why I support a federal curriculum for public schools. It’s insanity.

  5. Gotchaye · ·

    My worry here is that the basic argument in your last two paragraphs (the “broader, more systemic danger”) seems to apply pretty well to teaching kids almost any sort of religion. Almost nobody is actually capable of defending their religion beliefs against serious challenge, and it seems overwhelmingly likely that most people believe what they believe just because they were raised that way. Your argument also doesn’t seem to depend on a distinction between schools and parents – it’s just as much an argument that parents shouldn’t themselves teach their kids creationism.

    I could be persuaded that it actually is wrong to teach children that God exists or that Jesus loves them (certainly I find kids’ sessions at churches really creepy), but I do think this argument is not going to be very persuasive to many religious people, except insofar as they’re already personally opposed to creationism and haven’t thought through the implications of the argument.

  6. Hmm. An interesting point. But the predicate to the danger of creationism is that it’s in tension with some objective truth. That’s the starting point for these problems. I strain to see the same with religion in general.

  7. Gotchaye · ·

    Was that so important to the second argument? Regardless of who’s right about religion, I think there’s pretty obviously something wrong in saying something like “my religion is true but that other religion is not”, at least in the way that most people think about the question. It’s not really about who happens to be correct, but about who is coming to conclusions in the way that they’re supposed to. It’s not really the teaching of bad facts as such that produces bad scientists; it’s the teaching of unscientific approaches to discovering facts. Squaring this circle is kind of the point of theology/apologetics, and the fact that asserting religious truth really does seem to be on-face contrary to accepted epistemology everywhere else is most of the reason why these fields get so complex and obscure.

    I think it’s hard to read religious scientists or skeptics talk about their faith without being very tempted to think that there’s some level of cognitive dissonance at work. I’m not here saying that that means that they’re wrong to be religious, or that there’s no way of being entirely consistent in being a religious scientist, but I think it’s pretty apparent that almost nobody succeeds at this.

  8. moriahbethany · ·

    We cannot start allowing things to be taught in our science classrooms that do not subscribe to the scientific method.

  9. moriahbethany · ·

    Texas is going to do it, change their curriculums I mean. Look it up, it’s scary.

  10. i believe that “religious scientist” is the quintessential oxymoron.

    have your faith, but teach fact.

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