Why It’s Morally Wrong to Let a Student Believe in CreationismPosted: December 5, 2011 | Author: Greg Linster | Filed under: Philosophy | 7 Comments »
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.”
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?
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.