Why It’s Morally Wrong to Let a Student Believe in Creationism

Assume I were a professor that was tasked with teaching history to college students.  Now, let’s further suppose that during a classroom discussion I learned that one of my students believed that human societies came into being only a century ago and that humans were created by flying dragon gods.  Upon further examination of this student’s belief, let’s say that this student claimed that this belief came from a sacred religious text.  Do I, as a teacher, have a pedagogical responsibility to try and convince this student that this belief is mythical?  Do I have the right to tell this student that this is wrong?  For that matter, do I have the right to tell a student that anything is wrong?  Furthermore, would it be immoral of me to let this student go into the world without thinking critically about this belief?

There are some people that can stare at the picture of the bonobo above, believe in some objective science, and then still schizophrenically believe in creationism (of the anti-evolutionary variety).  These people suffer from cognitive dissonance and will do anything, logically inconsistent as it may be, to maintain their deep held belief in myth.  The famous paleobiologist, Stephen Jay Gould, had a doctoral student named Kurt Wise who famously suffered from cognitive dissonance.  Wise was a “young earth creationist” who did some pioneering work using statistical techniques to infer the period in which particular species lived (often millions of years ago).  Wise tried to reconcile what he knew objectively (through science) with his personal religious beliefs, but he found the two to be entirely logically inconsistent.  The comfortable warmth of religion ultimately proved to be more powerful than the coldness of reason and Wise somewhat famously said, “If all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist.  Here I must stand.”

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Philosophy professor, Peter Boghossian argues (in this controversial essay) that educators have a responsibility to repudiate false beliefs.  And I think he is absolutely correct.  In the article, Professor Boghossian tells the tale of a student who wrote the following on an exam:  “I wrote what I had to ‘agree’ with what was said in class, but in truth I believe ABSOLUTELY that there is an amazing, savior GOD, who created the universe, lives among us, and loves us more than anything. That is my ABSOLUTE, and no amount of ‘philosophy’ will change that.”

In the piece, Professor Boghossian asserts that he has an obligation to rid this student of beliefs that are false, like the belief in creationism (again, of the anti-evolution variety).  Two of the professor’s colleagues accused him of overstepping his bounds and abusing his authority, but I think they are on very weak grounds for making such a claim.  His detractors arguments could logically lead them down a rabbit hole that would make education, of any type, seem to be a product of unverifiable fiction.  Can we really know anything?  If not, how can we justify teaching anything?

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Here’s the reality: we humans don’t know much, but we do know some.  I think many people, rightly, question Professor Boghossian’s seeming epistemic arrogance (see this article by Paul Pardi), but it’s sometimes easier to attack a straw-man than it is the actual argument.  From what I can gather, Professor Boghossian is merely stating that part of being a good educator is to rid students of verifiable false beliefs.  This doesn’t, however, mean that an educator has a responsibility to rid a student of false beliefs through indocrtination.  If a professor were to let a student go out into the real world with the unchallenged belief that 2+2=5 or that humans were created by flying dragon gods, the professor would have failed to perform one of the fundamental duties of an educator.  If the professor turned a formerly ignorant and evangelical Christian into a questioning skeptic (even if they still believed in some mystical power), then this would be an example of successful educating.

My problem with the general attack against Professor Boghossian’s argument is as follows.  The fact that we don’t know everything about our existence doesn’t logically imply that we know nothing.  There are a great many things about the universe which are beyond our grasp at the moment. The key word, however, is at the moment (perhaps it will be forever, we simply don’t know).  At one point in time it was believed that the earth was flat. Now we know better. At one point in time, it was believed that humans descended from Adam and Eve (some still do).  Again, now we know better (we share more than 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees). As science advances we learn more and more about the world and our existence in it.  It’s perfectly reasonable to be skeptical of people who claim to know things they can’t possibly know (including militant atheists), but to say we don’t know anything is false.  The people who usually spout such non-sense implicitly use products in their daily existence that were created through verifiable human knowledge, but often conveniently overlook this salient fact.

Furthermore, I think it’s actually cruel to let people believe in goofy religions and ideas that are verifiable myths.  For example, many religious beliefs are not harmless (although some are actually harmless).  As such, I think it is morally wrong and inexcusable to avoid challenging religious beliefs that cause physical or psychological suffering in human-beings (forcing women to wrap themselves in bags comes to mind).

If a student believes something that is verifiable mythology, then I believe the educator has the right to label it is a such even if it makes the student uncomfortable. It would be inconsistent and irresponsible of a professor to teach a student that some ancient religions are mythology and that Christianity, Judaism, or Islam are not.  If educators are going to teach that some forms of religious beliefs are mythologies and others are not, this is wrong and terribly inconsistent.  If one is to be consistent and logical, then Norse mythology, Greek mythology, Chinese mythology, Christian mythology, Jewish mythology, and Islamic mythology should all be labeled as such or else they should all be taught as equally likely possibilities that have no grounding in any empirical evidence.  Clearly, I’m in favor of the former option.

Update:  Wikipedia co-founder and philosopher Larry Sanger responds to this piece here.

 

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7 Comments on “Why It’s Morally Wrong to Let a Student Believe in Creationism”

  1. […] changing student beliefs Print PDF I came across a very irritating post in the Coffee Theory blog by Greg Linster, and felt inspired to respond.  This began as a comment […]

  2. […] I posted an essay titled “Why It’s Morally Wrong to Let a Student Believe in Creationism“.  Larry Sanger responded with a thoughtful piece here.  In what follows, I respond to his […]

  3. J$ says:

    First, the standard clarifications for whenever we talk about Evolution vs. Creationism: Evolution says nothing about the origin of life. And we certainly don’t know enough to call “primordial soup” a fact, but we *do* have enough evidence to say that humans were not put on Earth as is, with only minor changes over time, like skin color, body hair, height, and fatties. It’s quite clear from studying DNA and even just looking at your freaking body that you come from something much more ancient and seemingly weird.

    It’s seemingly weird because the default is to exit the womb as a Creationist. That’s a much more intuitive (and comfortable) argument to the human brain than is the one Evolution advances.

    Moreover, Evolution is not just a take-it-or-leave-it sort of deal. It’s pretty pivotal if you hope to understand anything about the history of the Earth, and even to be able to explain pretty fundamental behaviors. You might be able to do some abstract math or philosophy without the Theory of Evolution, but for the most part you will be intellectually lame – and I mean that in all sincerity – without it.

    So I would be absolutely comfortable saying that failing to teach Evolution is a serious moral failure given the evidence we have. But watch as I sort of change my mind down below.

    That’s not your point. Your point is that the moral failure is in allowing erroneous beliefs to go unchallenged. 

    From a logical POV, I think you make a good (and controversial and compelling) point. 

    In general I avoid abstract topics about how to “fix” education or anything of the sort because I don’t like spending neurons on stuff I have no control over – and I don’t envision myself modifying any curriculums or even teaching any tots in the near future. But the question you raise is one that we are likely going to have to confront as regular, non-professorial humans, because if you have kids, for example, you’re going to have to decide when and to what extent you start challenging the pretty silly self-centric and intention-ful beliefs that they exit the womb with.

    It seems pretty common to teach your kids from the start that they are not, as they suspect, at the center of the Universe. Other kids have feelings, too, and are just as important (i.e., small and insignificant) as you are, so share your toys, dickface.

    Parents generally seem less comfortable challenging their kids’ beliefs about a friendly God who created a Universe full of intention. Maybe that’s because they want to, or do, believe it themselves.

    We never really shake the belief that we’re at the center of the Universe, do we? It’s a constant battle of the frontal lobe to get your ego away from the control panel. I’m still pretty sure, deep down, that I am the protagonist in the world’s story. I suspect that’s kind of how it is for perceiving the world as full of intention. I can intellectually acknowledge that my ancestor is a fish and that I live in an incidental universe – and believe me, I intellectually acknowledge it all the damn time – but it’s a constant battle to try to absorb that as an honest-to-God (pun sort of intended) fact. I’m still pretty sure, deep down, that there is a divine bearded man who wants me to ultimately be warm and safe and happy (after some inconvenient detours in plot, of course). 

    I guess my challenge to you, Greg, is this: What’s really the value in challenging beliefs that are very probably erroneous? Assuming that, miraculously, your challenge is not met by the resistance of the rather stubborn human brain, which categorically does not like to be told what to believe (and especially what not to believe), then what really have you accomplished? Seeing ourselves as protagonists in a Universe full of intention is an intellectual battle that we all face (or don’t). Point being that this is not the kind of knowledge that we inject into heads by discipline pump: It seems to me a very personal battle and one that doesn’t end. 

    Maybe more importantly, I think we need to ask why those beliefs are there in the first place. (Evolutionary question, right?) The beliefs seem pretty steadfast, so there probably is (or at very least was) a good reason for them. Maybe the “good” reason is that our nucleic acids have a job to do – namely, survive – and they need their host to be psychologically stable and comfortable enough to get on with life and go find a serviceable vagina.

    It comes down, as it usually does, to the question of What Do We Care About? Is it Truth? Is it Progress? Or is it Vagina? 

    I say that in half-jest, but to be perfectly sincere, I’m not sure that this is an intellectual battle worth fighting, because I’m not sure that Truth or Progress are goals that I care about in anything other than an armchair way.

    • Greg Linster says:

      Great comment — thanks for stopping by!

      1) You ask the following: “What’s really the value in challenging beliefs that are very probably erroneous?  Assuming that, miraculously, your challenge is not met by the resistance
      of the rather stubborn human brain, which categorically does not like
      to be told what to believe (and especially what not to believe), then
      what really have you accomplished?”

      One’s erroneous beliefs may not cause direct harm to other humans, but they certainly can cause indirect harm.  And this is a philosophical problem, right?  What I am getting at, essentially, is that religion has a funny way of leaking into politics.  Delusional religious beliefs often impose externalities on others through the political process.  Accordingly, someone’s erroneous beliefs have the potential to cause bad public policy decisions, which then can affect every member of a society. 

      What does the removal of erroneous beliefs accomplish?  The benefit, of course, is that the removal of erroneous beliefs ought to theoretically allow us to discuss political problems more frankly and get at better solutions.

      2) You ask: “It comes down, as it usually does, to the question of What Do We Care About? Is it Truth? Is it Progress? Or is it Vagina?

      As a vaporous transient consciousness in an incidental universe, I’m inclined to believe that perhaps it’s some combination of the three.  Personally, however, I’m interested in Truth because without Truth, we can’t even know if Progress is possible. 
      As entirely fallible human beings, I realize that our sexual drives probably distract us from both Truth and Progress.  In the evolutionary picture, discovering Truth is just not that important, getting laid is.  Being able to argue well, even for something that is absurd (e.g., religion), can definitely be explained by an evolutionary framework.  Have you ever heard of  Argumentative Theory?  If not, I suggest reading up on it.  It’s the most compelling explanation I’ve found as to why there is such a vast amount of stupidity in the world. 

         

  4. Quora says:

    In America’s religious war what bothers you the most about the other side (theists or skeptics)?…

    What bothers me most is that many theists seem to think that faith based claims should be treated on equal footing with logical and empirical based claims in public life. I believe that some methodologies used to arrive at conclusions are better than o…

  5. […] “Why It’s Morally Wrong To Let A Student Believe In Creationism“ […]

  6. […] written about this before (see my essay on “Why It’s Morally Wrong to Let a Student Believe in Creationism” and my post “A Response To Larry Sanger“).  I’d recommend skipping over […]


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