A few days back I criticized two posts at Cato’s blog, one about vouchers, the other an argument by Andrew Coulson about how we could end the wars over creationism. Coulson replied. In response to my observation that he tended to treat evolution as anti-religious, Coulson replies:
Evolution isn’t so much anti-religious as un-religious. While it is possible (indeed common) to simultaneously understand evolution and be religious, it is not necessary to be religious once you understand evolution. The existence of humanity can be explained by purely natural causes, so “God the Creator” becomes an extraneous assumption.
All of which is accurate, though some would quibble about the “extraneous” part. He is also correct that “learning about evolution thus leads at least some people find religion superfluous.” Just as some find ways to integrate evolution with their sense of the “God the Creator,” for instance by seeing natural processes as elucidated by science as God’s handiwork, some invoke Occam’s Razor and do without theistic religion.
This is all well and good. Neither claim is, or can be, justified by empirical data; they are not scientific claims, and should not be presented in a science class, while evolution should. Metaphysical claims are best left to individuals to sort out on their own, and certainly shouldn’t be imposed using government power. Over 10,000 members of the clergy have signed on with the Clergy Letter Project, and almost 600 churches will present the case for compatibility between science and religion this coming Sunday. That is where this debate should take place, not in schools that receive public funds.
Coulson accepts wholeheartedly the claim that teaching evolution in school means “the teaching of human origins as a purely natural process” (even though he earlier acknowledged that evolution does not deny a possible role for a deity in human origins). This is equivalent to saying that someone teaching about gravity is presenting a universe without God. It is wrong and silly, and is a common creationist misconception, as is Coulson’s odd equation between evolution and “human origins,” and his acceptance without comment of the argument that atheism is immoral. By accepting these creationist arguments and frames, he is able to conclude that “even though natural evolution is not intrinsically incompatible with faith, it is decidedly unpopular with many of the faithful,” and to argue against having evolution taught in science class. As I’ve pointed out, free speech and a free press are unpopular too, but that isn’t an argument against teaching them in schools. Indeed, it’s an argument for teaching better civics classes. The unpopularity of evolution is also evidence that we need better science teaching, not more ideological schools.
In the first piece, and in his second, he leans heavily on a framing of evolution as one creation story among others, and speaks about evolution almost exclusively as a story about “human origins.” There is a lot more to evolution than that, a lot more that kids in schools that don’t teach evolution miss out on.
The attitude that evolution is a metaphysical claim about human origins is also laced through his second response to me. In that piece, he equates teaching with the imposition of beliefs, and argues that “We’re not debating the merits of teaching evolution, we’re debating the merits of using the government’s monopoly on the use of force to compel its teaching.” He finds this objectionable because he claims that “Rosenau is saying that the government is in possession of absolute truth, acquired through science, and that it is the proper role of government to spread the Good Word. This is a government establishment of rational empiricist epistemology.” That is not actually what I’m saying, merely a repetition of the bogus creationist frames cited above.
Framing these sorts of debates is important, and Coulson clearly doesn’t like framing it around the validity of the science behind evolution.
If we talk about that, then the issue becomes not the teaching of evolution, but whether schools should be required to have science classes, and whether those science classes ought to teach science as it is practiced and understood by scientists. The issue then is not whether government has some “Good Word,” but a rather straightforward argument about the best way to understand the current state of scientific knowledge. By any standard, an accurate science class ought to present evolution, indeed ought to present more about evolution than most biology classes do.
This is why Coulson “had to correct [my] language.” Leaving the discussion in terms of “teaching” implies that teachers have some basis for teaching what they teach, while talking about “imposing” knowledge feels so … authoritarian.
The problem is, the world itself is constantly imposing itself on us. No matter how hard I try, my refusal to believe in gravity doesn’t stop it from pulling me and everyone else on this planet downward with the same exact force. It sucks, and we can whine about how nature is “compelling” this acceleration on us, but it doesn’t matter. Gravity happens, and so does evolution. That’s what science tells us, and it’s what a science class ought to present.
Coulson’s response is to shift the debate. First, by focusing on “human origins,” rather than on evolution as science. Second, by acting as if there is no objective basis for teaching one thing or another. He writes, in a page ripped from the pages of the Discovery Institute or the Institute for Creation Research:
The public schools, because they are constitutionally prohibited from proselytizing students, cannot teach anything but a naturalistic view of evolution. Hence, all American taxpayers are compelled to fund the teaching of a non-theistic account of human origins, at least to the extent human origins are taught at all.
Coulson is right that parents who teach their children about Genesis are not lying, and that they are resting on a different epistemology in doing so than when those parents teach about birds, bees, or the birds and bees. Those parents are lying when they tell their children that the science of evolution is false, when they teach that there is a scientific basis for claiming the Earth is 6,000 years old, or when they deny other evidence of the real world. Coulson’s relativism serves him poorly in this case.
And relativism is what we are facing here. If truth exists, and not just a bunch of separate and equally valid epistemologies, then the decision to teach evolution becomes not just some arbitrary imposition of “government truth,” but an accurate presentation of the empirical evidence. Scientists, science textbooks and science teachers recognize that science has limits, and biology class is not where we teach morals, nor is it an appropriate place to teach religious views. I’ve argued before that a mandatory comparative religion course would be a worthwhile addition to senior year, but there doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm for that. That is not relativism, it is a recognition that science, religion, philosophy and metaphysics are different things.
Saying that compelling the accurate teaching of biology is somehow equivalent to compelling the teaching of “a non-theistic account of human origins” is absurd. When we require gravity to be taught in physics classes, are “American taxpayers … compelled to fund the teaching of a non-theistic account of [falling]?” When we teach that Michaelangelo carved the Pieta, are “American taxpayers … compelled to fund the teaching of a non-theistic account of [sculpture] origins?” Is it “imposing” “government epistemology” to require that courses in American History teach that the Confederate States lost?
On the other hand, if truth really is relative to our own personal epistemologies, why bother with school at all? Sure, I think that 2+2 equals 4, but why should a college admissions officer or an employer discriminate against someone whose personal epistemology causes them to hold 2+2 to be 5 (for large values of 2)? Why is evolution the only area of science in which people object to the use of the scientific method as a tool for knowledge-gathering?
It would be low of me to equate Mr. Coulson’s suggestion to “separate but equal” schooling, especially since what bothers me is that he is treating people’s views of the world as if they were “separate but equal.” This was not his attitude earlier, when he observed that evolution is simply un-religious, and that it is common for people to integrate the two. By framing this around the question of human origins, and arguing that teaching anything about it imposes metaphysical claims on others, he has turned evolution and religion into competitors.
This is not a widespread attitude, as Mr. Coulson sometimes acknowledges. The Clergy Letter Project has signatures from 10,000 members of the clergy, and represents the views of many more, including most academic theologians, in writing this:
Within the community of Christian believers there are areas of dispute and disagreement, including the proper way to interpret Holy Scripture. While virtually all Christians take the Bible seriously and hold it to be authoritative in matters of faith and practice, the overwhelming majority do not read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook. Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible – the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark – convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.
We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris. We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.
This idea of “different, but complementary, forms of truth” is a far cry from Coulson’s “separate but equal” system, but it is far superior. In this system, epistemologies have limits, and thus complement one another. The world is what it is, and ignoring empirical evidence is absurd. Treating the world as if it can be ignored because you really, really believe something else is dangerous and harmful. We share a reality, and that places certain limits on what one can believe.
As the signers of the Clergy Letter and most (all?) philosophers of science emphasize, there are things science can’t study; questions about the metaphysical nature of the universe. Religion and irreligion offer a range of answers to those questions, and it is up to individuals how they integrate the two. The difference is that science deals with our shared reality, while religion and metaphysics deals ultimately with personal beliefs that cannot be tested. I can test hypotheses about the relationship between humans and chimpanzees, but I cannot test whether chimps or humans have souls. My metaphysical beliefs complement the empirical evidence to give me a broader understanding of the world than if I were only an empiricist.
Coulson’s accusation that I am advocating the imposition of “rational empiricist epistemology” is false. He is acting as if teaching evolution excludes any epistemology but scientific empiricism, but it clearly does not, nor would I want to impose that belief on anyone. Individuals are free to reject what they are taught, and are free to interpret our shared reality in many ways, but it is unfair to them to deny them access to the full range of current empirical knowledge. Nor am I “saying that the government is in possession of absolute truth, acquired through science.” Scientific knowledge is not absolute, nor is science the only way of gathering knowledge. I am saying that science is a process which allows us to test certain sorts of claims about the natural world, and when science has ruled out something as impossible, it is dishonest to use government money to impose that counterfactual on children.
Coulson has argued that he isn’t talking about using government money by attempting to distinguish between “personal tax credits” for private schools and cash payments from government coffers to those private schools. This is rubbish. Whether the government subsidizes private schools through tax credits or cash payments, the effect is the same. Accounting trickery doesn’t alter the implicit endorsement of the incorrect arguments against science.
Teaching creationism as science is bad policy, and is even worse policy when backed by tax dollars. It miseducates children and encourages divisive attitudes between people who accept scientific results and those who reject empirical evidence – divisions that Coulson is only too happy to play upon. Coulson gleefully circumvents the problems with imposing creationism on children by trying to make fine distinctions between different ways of funding school vouchers. Creationism is not science, evolution is. A complete science class must include the latter, and must not include the former. Anything else is lying, and forcing taxpayers to teach counterfactuals is improper.