Cato's Coulson on Creationism

i-574c7d8e11a06dda4a3f9e3585d98b48-pc280194_1.jpgA 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.


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My challenge to you is simply this: why use tax money to fund education at all? Why not make it private, and (at most) provide subsidies for those too poor to pay for their children's education? This is what we do with most other aspects of welfare. This would allow dissenters to choose for themselves, and then the products of that educational choice (the children) will succeed or fail. They will be thereby reproducing themselves in society, while those (in aggregate, of course individuals will vary) who are educated in a way that leads to failure will tend to reproduce their views less. Maybe it wouldn't work, but at least it is a principled way to use taxpayer's dollars. As it is, I am required by law to fund a religious point of view I find to be abominable. The fact that you do not believe it (evolution) is a religious point of view does not change my conscience, and is therefore irrelevant. Do you respect me, as a fellow citizen, enough not to tax me to fund your point of view? If you do not sir, then we do not have Republic, we have fascism.

Sorry for posting again, but I wanted to add one thought. I try to be fair-minded about this whole "pay for what you're morally opposed to" thing, so I wanted to say that I don't believe people should be taxed to fund wars they don't agree with either. What recourse does a citizen really have if he or she disagrees with the war in Iraq? The practical answer is "none." But what if you could withhold the percentage of your Federal taxes that would've gone to support the Dept. of Defense? Pay-as-you-go is a great way to keep from forcing ALL of us to fund things we find immoral.

Toby, evolution is not religion, it is science. Mixing the two up for rhetorical purpose is not an honest way to argue. If you actually want to make that claim, you'll have to justify it somehow. Science is not "a point of view," it is a process for testing claims about the world. That too is an important distinction.

Reality is not a point of view, and evolution really does happen. Furthermore, knowledge is not genetic, so the idea that we should inflict ignorance on children as some sort of experiment in the natural selection of ideas is absolutely meaningless. Children of creationist parents can learn about evolution, and non-creationist parents can have creationist children.

As for why I oppose vouchers or privatizing public education, start with my previous post on vouchers. Most communities cannot sustain multiple parallel school systems. Closing public schools and requiring private education would not lead to multiple competing schools with slightly different approaches, it would lead to a monopoly by one school that would almost surely provide an inaccurate science education.

It isn't like what you propose hasn't been tried. When all education was privately run, most people did not get any education at all. Providing public education ensures that everyone gets the same start in life, and minimizes the extent to which people are trapped in poverty for generations (though the system could be made much fairer).

Study after study shows that education is a silver bullet. Balkanizing the system and trapping poorer people in poorer schools will return us to the highly stratified society of the 19th century. As it is, people who really object to their children getting a science education can choose to home-school or pay for private school, and some do. Others just decide to present their case against science at home when the time comes. Destroying public education solves no problem and creates many.

I started out wanting to become a scientist - a geneticist to be precise - and found the lab wasn't for me. I ended up with a degree in religious studies and a Master of Divinity. I get disgusted when people presume that religion and science ask/answer the same questions. My faith is secure and was secure through all the time I spent studying science because one asks the question of how the world works and the other why the world is. Purpose and function both provide truths and answers, but to confuse the two is to confuse the truth of what they are and what they can do.

Josh, you are writing very good essays. You ought to consider having a quiet chat with Dr Free-Ride about switching schools.

The 'Human origins' aspect is interesting to me because it reads, to my understanding, that the two of you are writing of slightly different ideas.

Coulson may be specifically referring to the 'placement' (for lack of better word) of modern humans on earth by a deity. Not initial development of life on earth.

I've occasionally seen this argument before. The idea that evolution explains the development of all other life on earth, but doesn't explain how humanity developed. After all we are so different than any other animal on earth. (Like hell we are.)

This make 'human origins' a seperate question than abiogenesis.

Of course, evolutionary theory does provide an unmiraculous explaination for 'human origins'. In fact, evolutionary theory clearly states that there is an demonstratable chain of organisms leading to humanity.

So there is a definite conflict between the two ideas of a deity placed humanity and the evolution of species resulting in humanity (for no specific reason).

Flex, I think you may be right, but if so, it just means that Coulson is misunderstanding the issue. Schools that teach that humans poofed into existence do not usually present evolution even to the extent that they might cover antibiotic resistance or the basis in common descent for applying research in non-human organisms to humans.

I doubt that they present a comprehensive account of natural selection, mutation, genetic drift and gene flow, and merely omit any discussion of how those factors might have influenced humans. People who oppose teaching evolution generally oppose teaching it at all.

"Human origins" in evolutionary biology would be an instance of cladogenesis (speciation), while it would be magic in the strictest of creationist interpretations (interestingly, many of the witnesses at the Kansas Kangaroo Kourt wouldn't comment on their beliefs about human origins).

Theistic evolutionists would argue that cladogenesis by natural processes is the means by which their deity created humans, merging the two accounts without requiring anyone to reject one or the other. They become complementary to one another.

Thanks Josh,

I'm aware of the distiction between many (although probably not all) of the different creationist ideas. In fact I was reflecting the other day that it's kind of amazing that there are so many different versions of creationism with such wide gaps between them, yet while there are debates within evolutionary studies there is a general agreement on the concept of evolution.

I've not directly seen any school which teach that humans poofed into existance, but if they do exist I suspect that you are correct. I wouldn't expect them to cover even the basics of evolutionary theory.

Yet, I have uncovered in my conversations with various co-workers, the belief that science is right about evolution in general, but humans are special so they claim evolutionary theory does not apply to them. I suspect this is more an aspect of wishful thinking rather than a clear understanding of evolution. It seems to be a fairly common trait among us that we all like to think we are special, whether it be our persons, our families, our state, our nation, our planet, or our deity.

So, these people are not petitioning their children's biology class to prevent the teaching of evolution, but are willing to entertain the idea that there are alternative explainations which make humanity special. They are not against teaching evolution, they are rational enough to see the benefits that the study of evolution has provided. They can see that evolutionary theory explains much of the phenomena in the world, it just doesn't apply to their species.

Of course, as you say, theistic evolutionists are not in conflict with evolutionary theory. There doesn't need to be any conflict between evolutionary theory and faith.

Re Toby Wilson

I think that what Mr. Wilson proposes is a good idea. Unfortunately, he doesn't go far enough. Why use tax money to support police and fire departments. Let the people who require their services pay for them. After all, most people never need the services of police and fire departments so why should they pay for them? I think his idea relative to the military also doesn't go far enough. In addition to allowing people a veto over whether their tax money should be used to support the military services, why not privatize the military. After all, if privatized schools are more cost effective then government schools, wouldn't the same logic apply to the military?

Flex, I think you are right that a lot of people distinguish between human evolution the broader principle of common descent. The same distinction you describe shows up in polling on evolution, where more people endorse the concept that all animals share a common ancestor than endorse the idea that humans share a common ancestor with other apes. I think it's the Harris Poll that asks that series of questions.

I don't know of any public schools that teach the poof theory of human origins, but there are plenty of private schools that do.