Ken Perrott, a kiwi blogger, recently made some critical comments about teaching creationism to children. Since he’s an atheist scientist, I naturally 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 who attack science today,” as he puts it, “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 then he 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?
It’s hard to believe that someone who claims the rational high ground can casually throw out the accusation of child abuse. Indeed, I’d say holding such a view is a form of mental retardation. That’s the rhetorical level we’re playing at. How easily “freethinkers” are influenced by, and indoctrinated in New Atheist dogma.
Let us suppose that atheism is true. Secular science is accurate in all its fundamentals. And, somehow, morality still works even though we are nothing but matter in motion. What, then, should we make of Ken’s position?
Not teaching children a right understanding of science is immoral?
We’ll start with the lesser claim that undergirds the actual charge of child abuse. Notice what a very strong and broad claim it is. Anyone who doesn’t teach their children science (whether in person or by way of schooling) is a child abuser. 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, [ Russell Humphreys, Starlight and Time: Solving the Puzzle of Distant Starlight in a Young Universe (USA: Master Books, 1994).] 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.
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.
The kind of immorality involved is 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.
To teach one’s child creationism is equivalent to inflicting physical or emotional mistreatment or injury on him purposely or through negligence. [ Abuse in Merriam-Webster Online Law Dictionary.] It is a serious crime. It is wrong—not merely in the sense that flipping the bird to someone who cuts you off in traffic is wrong, or stealing pencils 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, in fact, be slander.
You’d rightly be not a little ticked off if some religious nutjob accused you of abusing your kids by teaching them what you 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 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.