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Thursday, May 15, 2008

The atheist and the creationist: Can't they just get along?

Q: He has been asked by his church's school (where he is an active participant) to teach "young earth" creationism. Moreover, they want him to teach this in science class as the predominant theory of life on earth...

As my wife put it, we consider teaching young earth creationism (in any sense other than as a theology, if it must be taught at all) to be a form of child abuse. It seems bad enough that he has raised his two children with a belief system that he himself has acknowledged has serious holes in it, but it seems far worse that he is now thinking seriously about helping other children drink the Kool-Aid.

He repeatedly asks for my help in "weighing the evidence" and asks me not to judge him. The problem is that I am so blinded by anger and disappointment that he would even consider teaching, as science, such a blatantly anti-scientific concept

A: What would a true scientist do when confronted with this situation?... Would a true scientist experience revulsion and nausea at the scenes of our culture that you describe? Would a true scientist observe the teaching of mythology to children and label it child abuse? Would a true scientist refuse friendship with another person because that person engaged in the teaching of these strange and wondrous mythologies to children?

If a true scientist came upon a pre-modern culture living right in Manhattan, would he be revolted and nauseated? Would he claim that in transmitting its mythology to its children this pre-modern culture was committing child abuse?

... What is more important in a country, freedom of expression or the dissemination of correct views?... If what we value in our private lives is the dissemination of correct views, that is the value that is likely to take root in government. And that is the view that leads to tyranny, in my humble opinion.

Given this mystical, irrelevant and relativist fudge (considering that there was no refusal of friendship; that teaching pre-modern myths in a modern society would be considered irrevocably wrong; and that the view of tolerance here is very warped: there are very big differences between valuing the dissemination of correct views, condemning people who have incorrect views and using coercive power to force correct views upon others), the following comments were much more enlightening:

Allie_: Your nausea is there for a reason. It's the same thing as what he calls Grace, or conscience... How do people who truly believe in God dare to act like this? Don't they have any sense of shame?

lurker2209: It seems to be an easy answer. The Bible is right and the scientists are wrong and when you're outside science that's a very easy answer. But the further I got inside science the more I realized that evolution was not a conspiracy theory. Scientists love nothing more than proving other scientists wrong and if there was convincing evidence that evolution was a fatally flawed theory, someone would be digging it up in hopes of winning a noble prize! So do I believe in a God who created the world in one way and then left a bunch of confusing evidence to make everyone think he created it another way? What kind of weird deceptive God is that?

kuhnigget: What is more important in a country, freedom of expression or the dissemination of correct views?

What if one of the ways that "expression" took form was in the engineering of a bridge, say a new span across San Francisco Bay? And what if some Bible-literalist "scientist" decided to ignore reams of engineering data that suggest his load bearing steel isn't quite up to task and instead states unequivocally that his bridge won't collapse because his belief in it is strong enough to hold it up?

Would you drive across that bridge?

Allie_: There's a passage in one of the Epistles where Paul states in so many words that he's not speaking by inspiration, merely giving his own personal opinion since the church he's writing to asked for it. I pointed this passage out to a Fundie who had insisted that every word of the Bible was directly inspired by God. And he told me, in all seriousness, that Paul was mistaken when he said he wasn't speaking by inspiration, that he really was but didn't know it. So, wait, God inspired him to put a mistake in the infallible Bible? Isn't that, like, a paradox of the same sort as saying "This sentence is a lie"? Unfortunately the Fundie wasn't able to see a problem with his reasoning.

No, it's really not possible for rational humans to co-exist with Fundamentalists. Forcing oneself to believe a lie that one knows to be a lie is a cancer that rots the soul all through.

jebldmm: Let's say he wanted to teach children ...

...that 2 + 2 = 5. Would that be acceptable? Probably not. Yet there are no moral implications in that calculation. It's simply wrong. Now, throw in some morality. Should he be able to teach children that African's are not as intelligent as Europeans? Perhaps he should be able to teach them that genetics is a myth, and we all were brought by the stork. Or that AIDS is a disease only of gay men and is punishment from God.

Reality is Reality. Myth is Myth. Only the writer can decide where to draw the line, but it's wrong to teach children things that are undeniably not true.

KayWWW: Cary asked why we get upset at teaching children "colorful myths". If they were being taught as myths, I wouldn't mind. But they're being taught as science, and taught in place of real science based on evidence. It's no different than teaching kids that 2+2 is 5...

What it teaches these kids is, if there is physical evidence in front of you, and it doesn't fit with your belief system, then you should deny the physical evidence. Don't try to find the truth, or ask questions, or look for more evidence, because those things don't matter. All that matters is whether the "facts" correspond to what the Bible says. If the facts don't seem to fit, rearrange them until they do.

That's a mindset that goes far beyond evolutionary theory. And it goes against any definition of science. Of course, not every kid is going to swallow this view entirely, but if you're teaching science, you should at least try to teach the fundamentals of the scientific method - which is ask questions, look at the information, and figure out what's happening. Not, take the facts you like and fit them in with your belief system. I don't think you can call that "science".

domini: Trivializing abuse

Beating a child into the hospital is abuse. Starving them, leaving a small child alone unsupervised is abuse. Molesting a child is abuse. Teaching them creationism is NOT abuse. It's not right, but it's not abuse.

I know people who were abused. There are distinct issues and pain there. A child mistaught is a very different thing.

When you trivialize abuse, you look like a fanatic.

Allie_: There's abuse and there's abuse, domini. I know of a child who had lighter fluid poured over him and was set on fire. That he exists doesn't mean a child who was given a black eye wasn't abused. Shoplifting and murder are very different but both are "crimes." Calling shoplifting a crime doesn't trivialize murder.

Yes, knowingly teaching lies to children is a form of abuse.

sorenreport: LW could always quote the Dalai Lama . . .

Who wrote:

"If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview."

wildmarjoram: I didn't understand Cary's answer at all. We teach children about science because we're teaching them a process and a discipline for understanding the world. Science is a tool, or a toolbox. A way to approach questions in a way that allows us to find answers that can be verified and built upon to find other answers to new questions.

Science is not a belief system to be tossed into a hat and randomly drawn out interchangeably with santa claus and fairies.

... Let your friend know, once, preferably in a phone call, not in writing, what your thoughts are. And then don't be drawn any more. Respond with friendliness and flippancy, not with argument or critique after that.

lee_sf: The scientific creationism movement alleges to apply scientific principals to the argument and claim that young-earth teaching is correct and noble because it's scientifically valid. It's not- it's just bad, corrupted, incomplete science (I think destroying the reputation of science must be part of the point). You risk damaging someone's understanding of the rational scientific process, and impair their ability to make rational choices later, by teaching a fake science as the real thing.

J. Tarrou: I tolerate wrongheaded views like creationism by not going and burning their holders' houses down. The social contract doesn't ask anything further of me. I am not obliged to embrace it or to accommodate it in any way.

You ask why belief is different from skin color? I have a question of my own: Why are right-thinking, tolerant individuals repulsed by white supremacists? Surely those poor racists are just as oppressed by their own odious beliefs as brown-skinned people are by them! Beliefs can be demonstrably wrong, and moreover they can be harmful; skin color and other superficial human differences would be irrelevant but for the beliefs of people who erroneously attach importance to them. If sizable minority of people weren't getting their children the routine childhood vaccination schedule because their reading of the Great Sloth God's Book of Wisdom told them that disease was a curse from the Great Sloth and that to try to thwart the Great Sloth's will was blasphemy, would you be so understanding of their right to believe whatever the hell they wanted? Would a few yearly Mumps deaths be a reasonable cost to pay for tolerance?

... Some beliefs should be ridiculed. Simple as that. There's no love or engagement in it.

rayinkorea: As a person working in the sciences, it constantly amazes me how even people capable of distinguishing between fact and conjecture, evidence and myth still apply the logic of post-modern moral relativism to problems best suited for the cold reason of empiricism. Someone's feelings about a particular scientific concept are of absolutely no relevance in the science classroom, unless the topic becomes the ethics of science. You want to talk about the morality of animal experiments? Fine. Otherwise, it's facts, hypotheses, experimental tests, rinse, repeat.

Living overseas overseas for several years has led me to believe that this inability to not view everything as being relativistic is mostly an American disease. We've been trained for so long to talk about our feelings that we can't realize that, sometimes, that's not the topic. This is a big part of why the US has lost much of its lead in science fields. We don't prepare students to do science; instead we prepare them to discuss their feelings about science. In conclusion, I think actually the debate in the US about evolution is not interesting. It's actually shameful. Nobody else in the post-industrial world is engaged in such stupidity. This reminds me of the lead citrate hypothesis about the fall of Rome. (You know: the Romans used lead to make goblets [fact], then the wealthy started drinking orange juice [fact], which reacted with lead in the goblets to produce lead citrate [logical supposition supported by experimental evidence], which is a highly soluble neurotoxin. While it generally doesn't kill you, it does seriously impair brain function. Thus, Rome fell because its leaders drank themselves stupid [unprovable]. My question is, what the hell are we drinking?)

rayinkorea: If I say that Moby Dick is the greatest work of American fiction, you may disagree, put forward The Sound and the Fury and then we might calmly and logically discuss our difference of opinion. Because that's what they are, opinions. If however, I say that smoking cigarettes is bad for you, and someone else says that they're perfectly safe, I should not STFU and listen politely, because they're demonstratably wrong. That's what I mean when I say that post-modernist relativism is a disease affecting our society. Sometimes "opinions" are just stupidity, and it is sometimes necessary to fight against it. This is one such case.

kritireads: I am physically revolted by racist and imperialist beliefs and behaviors, for example, and I couldn't imagine having to listen to someone over and over say racist things and then ask me to help them work through my racism. What I would do with such a person, however, if I cared for them, would be to (a) kindly explain that I'm unable to talk with them about the topic because it's harmful to me, (b) explain what it is about what they're saying that's harming me, preferably by explaining as vividly as possible the experiences that led me to the beliefs I currently hold about race and racism, and (c) if possible, refer them to resources (like books) that I found helpful and meaningful, and to people who ARE willing and able to talk with them about the issue.

scslat: Geez, Cary. You really blew this one

You discuss the right for people to think whatever crazy things they want in their personal lives, and I generally agree. This sort of mythological diversity is at the core of our right to privacy. But once you cross over into inflicting those crazy views on kids who trust you and who have no ability to critically rebut your arguments, you cross the line. Young earth creationism is demonstrably wrong, and saddling some kid with these ideas will cripple him/her for a very long time (perhaps for a lifetime). All of modern medicine and biology rests firmly on the evolutionary model. It's far more elegant, instructive and beautiful than creationism can ever hope to be, and it actually reflects reality. The LW needs to follow his instincts and pull his friend back from the precipice before he spirals these poor students down from education to indoctrination in pure fantasy. I feel for those poor kids, even if they won't understand the damage done for many, many years.

Magritte's pipe: [I] agree with your post on the absurd application of moral-relativistic standards when discussing science. American education just operates in a different paradigm when it comes to science. Students are encouraged to categorically accept whatever they are taught rather than to question, understand or examine scientific concepts. Blindly accepting what they are taught lets students accept what others are taught and discuss feelings rather than trying to distinguish between knowledge and belief.

All of this begins in grade school. Take for example the comparison between the AP system and the IB system, which is the prevailing standard for top-notch secondary school curriculum in Europe and international schools elsewhere. In IB science classes, students need to design their own experiments and test a specific concept. They write exams graded by actual examiners where they have to explain theories and apply them to hypothetical situations. In AP, students are evaluated solely on a final, multiple-choice, standardized exam.

Until schools change the way they teach science and emphasize scientific reasoning and the methods in acquiring scientific knowledge, people will continue to argue that teaching creationism is valid.

Bollinl: But they will vote to fund science--or not

We live in a democracy, and those children will grow up to participate in the franchise. If they grow up believing that science is a fraud perpetrated by "them" on the "us" who have the God Given Truth, then they will vote against all sorts of candidates and issues where science is involved.

So, Cary, no--it's not all the same what they believe... I recently went on a dinosaur-themed field trip with my son's 2nd grade class, where dino fossils were handed around for the kids to feel. My son got into an argument about the bones with another boy, whose answer was "But that's not real, it's just science."

*That's* the outcome of teaching creationism/ID in church, much less church schools. Science =/= real. Science is a fraud. And when a kid like that grows up to vote--it's a bit scary. More than a bit scary.

cjackb: I almost appreciated what you've done here: thinking about fundamentalists as a primitive tribe. Fundamentalists have a word for your philosophy: moral relativism. In conceding that fundamentalists have their own definition of the word "science," and that this should be tolerated, you have conceded the Enlightenment principles that have done us very well for the past 400 years or so. Well, at least one of those principles -- the one that says, "People are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts."

lesleypalmer: I think the author of this essay is not only wrong, but fails to see that there is more at stake in this "difference of opinion". While he rhapsodizes about cultural plurality, the creationists are steadfast in their determination to drag this country backward into the 16th century. Creationists are not interested in discussions, respecting differences of opinion, or singing Kumbaya with people who do not believe as they do. They want to impose their will, their morality, their beliefs, and secure control of public policy in this country. This is facism in the making, under the guise of evangelical Christianity. The author might want us to just get along, but it is clear, at least in this author's estimation, that the radical Christian right will not stop with a mere rewriting of our educational textbooks.
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