Ken Perrott, a kiwi blogger, recently made some critical comments about teaching creationism to children. Now, since he’s an atheist scientist, I expect him to be agin it; no one who believes evolution is likely to support teaching kids that mankind was created from the dust a few thousand years ago. “Those”, as he puts it, “who attack science today are basically trying to change reality—to fit their preconceived beliefs.” That’s an understandable perception of the situation. Wrong, but understandable. It isn’t really something worth writing an article about. But the reason I’m writing is because Ken then hops aboard the creaking and overused “child abuse” bandwagon, saying
But the sad thing is what this does to our children. When children are denied access to science, to an understanding of reality, that is immoral. Its a form of child abuse. We should think of this when we hear news of creationists attempts to introduce their material into New Zealand’s school science classes (see Culture wars come to New Zealand). And what about those children who are educated in ‘faith school’? Or those home educated? What guarantee is there that they are not being denied access to a good education in science?
This sort of rhetoric is pretty common from New Atheists, but I didn’t really expect it from Ken. He’s usually more fair-minded. It’s hard to believe that someone who claims the rational high ground can casually throw out the accusation of child abuse. But perhaps this just shows how easily “freethinkers” are influenced by, and indoctrinated in New Atheist dogma. In any case, I want to respond carefully, thoughtfully, and in some detail to this “child abuse” charge. I think that when it’s calmly and carefully examined, it reflects extremely poorly on the people who make it.
Defining the charges
According to Ken, “when children are denied access to science, to an understanding of reality, that is immoral. Its [sic] a form of child abuse.” I infer the following four premises from his statement:
- Having a right understanding of science is a necessary condition for having a right understanding of reality.
- Not teaching children a right understanding of reality is immoral.
- Therefore, not teaching children a right understanding of science is immoral.
- The kind of immorality involved is in the category of child abuse.
I don’t think any of these premises are unfairly stated. Indeed, I’ve been very conservative. In particular, premise (i) is quite weakly worded considering that Ken not only relates “science” to “an understanding of reality”, but—implicitly—to an exclusively correct understanding. I think it could very justly be reworded: “having a right understanding of science is a sufficient condition for having a right understanding of reality.” But often people state things more strongly than they might necessarily mean, and so I have taken the weaker interpretation here.
Responding to the charges
Each of these premises bear comment. I really will try to be brief, but if you want to get to the meat of the issue, skip right on down to item (iv).
i. Having a right understanding of science is a necessary condition for having a right understanding of reality
This premise raises an obvious question: which understanding of science is necessary for understanding reality? As scientists are so fond of pointing out, science is an ever-changing discipline. Theories which are accepted today are thrown out tomorrow and replaced with new ones which are thrown out in turn the next day. So off the bat, how can this premise be true? More problematically, though, as any good scientist will readily admit, science is always wrong. Einstein, for example, is famously quoted as saying about reality, “We know nothing about it at all. Our knowledge is but the knowledge of school children […] We shall know a little more than we do now. But the real nature of things—that we shall never know, never.”1
Given this, the most that can reasonably be claimed about science is that understanding it is necessary for understanding the latest scientific theories about reality; which is really saying nothing at all. It doesn’t speak to the success of science in actually understanding reality; nor to the importance of this in education.
And this being the case, premise (i) is manifestly untrue; and even any scientist worth his salt would rightly scoff at it. If reality is to be understood—actually understood—then science is not the tool to use. So this premise must, at the very least, be amended to say that a right understanding of science is a necessary condition for having an approximate understanding of reality. Even then, however, it must be pointed out that science is not, by any means, a sufficient condition for having an approximate understanding of reality—not if “reality” is taken to mean “everything which exists”. After all, if non-physical souls actually do exist, or if God exists, what can science say about these things? Nothing at all. And if science can say nothing at all about the matter of souls, or God, and if souls and God do exist, then science alone cannot by any means furnish us with even an approximate understanding of reality. A scientist would have to beg the question to make that claim.
ii. Not teaching children a right understanding of reality is immoral
Under a Christian worldview this charge could be defended—at least to a degree. The defense would look something like this:
- Understanding the gospel is a necessary condition for rightly understanding reality (because a right understanding of reality requires an understanding of God and our relationship to him).
- We are commanded to preach the gospel to everyone (Matthew 28:19–20), and especially to our children (Deuteronomy 6:7).
- It is immoral (ie, it is sin) to transgress the commands of God.
- Therefore, it is immoral to not preach the gospel to our children.
- Therefore, by implication, it is immoral to not teach our children (or any children for whom we are responsible) a right understanding of reality insomuch as that understanding is conveyed in the gospel.
Thus, from a Christian perspective, I am compelled to agree with (ii) to the extent that theological knowledge must be taught to children. Perhaps a case could be made that scientific knowledge must be taught also, but I can’t think how; so I leave it as an exercise for you, the reader.
But Ken is speaking atheistically, not as a Christian. And what grounds does an atheist have to say that something (anything) is immoral? What grounds does he have to say, in particular, that not teaching children an understanding of reality is immoral? Not that I don’t agree with him, but how can he justify his belief here, under an atheistic worldview? He can’t just assert that it’s immoral—he has to be able to show that he has grounds for his assertion. It must be congruent with the rest of what he believes. That’s a burden of proof that he has yet to take up, and without which his accusation is just so much hot air.
iii. Therefore, not teaching children a right understanding of science is immoral
I’ve largely dealt with this conclusion by exposing the complete lack of justification for the premises which lead to it. But notice what a strong, very broad claim it is. Anyone who doesn’t teach their children science (whether in person or by way of schooling) is a child abuser. That is no doubt easy for Ken to say, living in an affluent first world nation where education is taken for granted. But does he think it applies everywhere in the world? If not, why not? And does he think it applies through all of history? If not, why not?
Notice also that a Christian—even a Christian who is himself a scientist—cannot teach his children science in such a way that secular theories are undermined, because secular theories are a priori assumed to be right, and Christian theories (which contradict these) are wrong. So under Ken’s view, Russell Humphreys could not teach his children both big bang and white hole cosmology,2 and conclude that the white hole model must be closer to the truth. That would be so extremely immoral that it is best characterized as child abuse. To actually hold to anything other than a purely secular scientific view of the world, and to pass this on to your children, is child abuse. Since it’s absurd to think that any parent would teach his children that which he believes to be false, it follows that Ken must either think that non-materialists should never be allowed to have children; or at the very least that they should never be allowed to actually parent their children. That is how extreme the logical conclusion of Ken’s view is. Far more extreme than any kind of Christian fundamentalism. Manifestly, in the minds of people like Ken science is no less a fundamentalist religion than any other.
But even if a “right” understanding of science is taught to children, how much is enough? At what point of education have we satisfied our alleged moral obligation to teach science? Most children in New Zealand only learn science up until the age of about fifteen—and what they learn is hardly systematic or comprehensive. Are we, as a country, being grossly immoral by not teaching science better? Are we, as a nation, abusing our children? Should we be enforcing mandatory science education to a university level? And after that, what sort of moral obligation is passed on to children when they become old enough to learn for themselves? Are they acting unethically if they don’t continue to maintain their knowledge of new scientific theories? Are they abusing themselves? If my daughter has no interest in science and never learns anything about it after the age of fifteen, is some kind of immorality going on?
Lastly, is this ethical rule only applicable to science? What about music or math? Art or languages? Is it immoral to not teach those? If not, why not? If so, then all the same questions above apply.
iv. The kind of immorality involved is in the category of child abuse
This is really the crux of the matter. Let me expand on it a bit so that it’s quite clear what is being claimed.
Child abuse is emotional, physical, or sexual harm caused by maltreatment or neglect of a child.3 It is a serious crime. It is wrong—not merely in the sense that speeding on public roads is wrong, or stealing from work. Those are wrong, but not in the sense of being “evil” or “wicked” as people generally use those terms. You don’t go to jail for those sorts of crimes. But child abuse actually is evil. People who abuse children are considered sick; depraved. They go to jail for it.
So Ken is saying that when I teach my daughter at the age of, say, seven years that (a) the Bible is the infallible word of God; (b) that the soundest exegetical understanding of the book of Genesis is as historical narrative; and (c) that orthodox (secular) scientific theories of origins (including cosmological and biological theories) must therefore be mistaken—that I am actually abusing her in a wicked, criminal way, and that I ought to be incarcerated. It is as if I did not feed her and let her become emaciated. It’s as if I let her broken leg turn septic instead of taking her to a doctor. It’s as if I continually shouted obscenities at her, telling her that she’s ugly and fat and hateful and that I can’t stand the sight of her. It’s like me beating her with a hose, or perhaps raping her every now and again. That’s what child abuse is, after all: emotional, physical, or sexual maltreatment or neglect. So teaching my daughter that the Bible is the word of God, and that secular theories which contradict it must therefore be wrong, is in the same category as doing these things to her.
How can I respond to this? Instinctively, with a manly left hook. Failing that, I can only ask: Ken, are you truly that deeply lost in the pit of your self-made religion, worshiping science, that you cannot see the total idiocy of such an accusation? I’m not in favor of teaching children rubbish either. But I’m not going to stand up and say that atheists are child-abusers because they teach their kids nonsense like that there’s no immaterial soul. Or even that they are child abusers for teaching their children utter tripe, such as that Christian homeschoolers are all child abusers. That would just be stupid. It would be, in fact, slander. They’d be rightly not a little ticked off if some religious nutjob accused them of abusing their kids by teaching them what they believe to be true. So why do I need to stand here meekly while some non-religious nutjob accuses me of the same thing?
This is the sort of rhetoric typical of the New Atheists. It is deeply, deeply hypocritical. It is big on vitriol and emotion, but tiny on rational thought. It’s a sadly ironic accusation. Christians are supposed to be the close-minded, unreasoning bigots—but we aren’t the ones saying this sort of thing. We don’t just teach our children that science is sometimes wrong; we have reasons for teaching them this. For believing that the Bible is the word of God. If you doubt it, just look through some of the posts on this blog. Read my book. Read other Christian apologists or philosophers. Read Plantinga or Lewis or Aquinas. Are we also abusing our children when we teach them the arguments made by these great thinkers? What about when we teach them the arguments made by (let’s not mince words) morons like Dawkins and Dennett, and set them homeschool assignments in Year 7 to refute their jejune reasoning? You don’t have to agree with what we say, but what happened to that central sentiment of the Enlightenment: defending our right to say it? You’re turning into the very thing you claim to hate: extremists who believe that anyone who disagrees with you is not only wrong, not only irrational, not only dangerous, but criminal.
You’re turning into the medieval Catholic Church. Stop it before there’s another inquisition.
- Cited from Gordon Clark, Philosophy of Science and Belief in God (Trinity Foundation: 1996); pp viii–ix.
- Russell Humphreys, Starlight and Time: Solving the Puzzle of Distant Starlight in a Young Universe (USA: Master Books, 1994).
- See answers.com, ‘child abuse’ (http://www.answers.com/child%20abuse) for various definitions along these lines from a number of encyclopedias.