The Right to Teach Creationism

The Colorado Freedom Report:  An independent journal of politics and culture.

The Colorado Freedom

The Right to Teach Creationism

by Ari Armstrong, January 4, 2005

Parents have a right to teach creationism to their children. They also have a right to contract with teachers and schools to teach creationism to their children.

Parents do not have the right to force people who disbelieve creationism to fund its propagation. Similarly, parents do not have the right to force people who disbelieve evolution to fund its propagation.

To force people to subsidize the teaching of either creationism or evolution is to violate their rights.

People have the right to use their minds, to earn wealth, and to use their wealth in accordance with their beliefs and values (provided that they don't initiate force or fraud and thereby violate the rights of others). A closely related right is the right of free expression. The right of free speech entails the right not to speak and not to financially support ideas one believes to be incorrect or offensive.

Unfortunately, American law on the matter is contradictory. It simultaneously requires the violation and protection of the right of free expression. It is no wonder, then, that the debate over the teaching of evolution versus creationism (a.k.a. "intelligent design") is the source of endless conflict.

Article II, Section 4, of Colorado's Constitution describes religious freedom: "The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination, shall forever hereafter be guaranteed; and no person shall be denied any civil or political right, privilege or capacity, on account of his opinions concerning religion; but the liberty of conscience hereby secured shall not be construed to dispense with oaths or affirmations, excuse acts of licentiousness or justify practices inconsistent with the good order, peace or safety of the state. No person shall be required to attend or support any ministry or place of worship, religious sect or denomination against his consent. Nor shall any preference be given by law to any religious denomination or mode of worship."

This passage disallows the use of public funds for the teaching of any variation of creationism, which is by its nature religious. However, the passage's support for "[t]he free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship" is also inconsistent with forcing those who believe in creationism to finance the teaching of evolution. Or might leftists argue that forcing people to finance the teaching of evolution is necessary for the "good order, peace and safety of the state?"

The section on religious freedom is not contradictory: it asserts the right of free belief and free expression for the religious and nonreligious alike. That is as it should be. But this is inconsistent with language elsewhere.

Article IX, Section 2 , of Colorado's Constitution pertains to the "Establishment and maintenance of public schools:" "The general assembly shall, as soon as practicable, provide for the establishment and maintenance of a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state, wherein all residents of the state, between the ages of six and twenty-one years, may be educated gratuitously. One or more public schools shall be maintained in each school district within the state, at least three months in each year; any school district failing to have such school shall not be entitled to receive any portion of the school fund for that year."

As an aside, two elements of this text are today superfluous. First, I've never heard of anybody 21 years old demanding a seat in a district's "free public school." Second, no district maintains a school for only three months a year.

It seems obvious that "a thorough and uniform system of free public schools" requires the teaching of biology, which requires the teaching of evolution. But of course "free" does not really mean "free;" it means funded by taxes collected by force. So the section on education seems to require that those who believe in creationism must fund the teaching of evolution in the public schools, but that's at odds with "[t]he free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship."

The annotations attempt to resolve this dilemma: "Individual taxpayers and [district board of education] directors have no property interest in school. The argument that the schoolhouse or some interest therein is the property of the directors or individual taxpayers and that by its transfer the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs as school directors or as individuals have been invaded is not sound... The individual taxpayers do not own the property nor have they any legal or equitable interest in it. Hazlet v. Gaunt..."

In other words, according to the courts, a person's rights of freedom of belief, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and freedom to acquire wealth are trumped by the state's ability to forcibly transfer wealth for the propagation of whatever ideas are deemed (by the courts, the legislature, and the boards of education) essential to "a thorough and uniform system of free public schools."

Or, people have rights, unless the state says they don't. And "public" schools certainly do not belong to the "public."

And yet the annotations also point to judges' squeamishness in using the physical coercion of the state to advance some ideology: "Broad reference to 'thorough and uniform system of free public schools' does not create a duty to teach morality in public schools. Skipworth v. Board of Educ..."

But this distinction between "morality" and all other subjects of education is untenable. Every subject, from biology to sex education to history to social studies, has a large and obvious moral dimension. Furthermore, the very art of teaching requires and propagates at least implicit moral views, such as the view that independent thinking and intellectual honesty are virtuous.

Usually, though, the popular debate references the First Amendment, not Colorado law. That Amendment, of course, states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech..." Presumably, the Fourteenth Amendment applies this protection to the state level. While the First Amendment clearly forbids the use of tax dollars to fund the teaching of creationism, it also forbids the use of tax dollars to fund the teaching of evolution, at least if we take "freedom of speech" seriously.

Of course, the same leftists who invoke the First Amendment to forbid the teaching of creationism in "public" schools neglect Article I, Section 8, and the Tenth Amendment, which clearly forbid national involvement in education. Those leftists also ignore the fact that "public" schools were instituted in America in large measure for overtly religious reasons. Sheldon Richman summarizes in Separating School and State, "The aim of the public schools at the macro, or social, level was the creation of a homogenous, national, Protestant culture..." (page 39)

So the laws governing "public" education are, by there very nature, contradictory. Because "public" schools demand the forcible redistribution of wealth, they necessarily entail the violation of people's rights of belief, property, and expression. By the standard of individual rights, there is no moral distinction between forcing people to subsidize the propagation of creationism on one hand or evolution on the other. People have the right to fund the propagation of whatever ideas they choose. Parents have the right to oversee the education of their children.

It is also the case that the establishment of religion is more clearly banned by American law than is the violation of property rights (as, indeed, the violation of property rights is positively demanded). So, arguably, the position that the teaching of creationism in "public" schools should be banned is on firmer legal footing than is the position that using tax dollars to teach evolution should be banned.

Regardless of the legal issues involved, it is also the case that creationism is not, objectively, part of science, while evolutionary theory is. Thus, creationism ought not be taught as science (or as a substitute for science) in schools, "public" or otherwise, or by parents, though obviously market schools and parents have a legal right to do so. (Creationism may be appropriately taught as mythology.)

Paul Campos disagrees. In his December 27 column for the Rocky Mountain News, he characterizes naturalistic explanations of the world as "metaphysical orthodoxy." Campos mocks the arguments against intelligent design: "Science has refuted theories such as intelligent design, because science is based on the postulate that theories such as intelligent design cannot be true." In answer to the claim that a scientific theory must be refutable, Campos writes, "[N]o scientific theory can be refuted from within the theory itself. Consider the theory of naturalism... Naturalism assumes that all events have natural causes. Is there any evidence that could refute this theory in the eyes of someone who adheres to it? Obviously not, since any evidence such a person examines will always and already be interpreted within a framework that excludes the possibility of a supernatural cause."

As I wrote previously, "Campos thus posits skepticism as the only alternative to divine truth."

And Campos's position is fundamentally one of skepticism, not religion. The truly religious do not regard their beliefs merely as some alternate "framework," as good (and as arbitrary) as any other. Campos's position is that theory necessarily colors one's beliefs about the world, and that theory is necessarily cut off in a fundamental sense from reality. Ultimately, Campos's view is subjectivist: the "framework" one adopts to explain the "ultimate" truths of the universe is a matter of arbitrary personal preference. That some devoted Christians have pointed appreciatively to Campos's writing merely demonstrates that, not only are religion and skepticism mutually reactionary, they are also mutually reinforcing.

Campos's central error is to treat naturalism as if it were merely an arbitrary "postulate" or "framework." According to this view, whether one believes in natural causal laws, scientific principles, and the ability of the reasoning mind to understand reality based on sense perception or, on the other hand, miraculous intervention, faith, and direct correspondence with God is merely a matter of arbitrary personal decision.

That people can, in principle, understand the universe through reason and the senses does not imply that they can understand everything at once about it. People are not omniscient. People used to attribute things like lightning, eclipses, earthquakes, diseases, and storms to divine intervention. Now we understand the naturalistic causes of those events. Before Darwin, evolution was very poorly understood, and, despite massive evidence compiled about evolution and improvements to the theory since Darwin, some aspects of it remain poorly understood (as Campos notes).

Yet, as Keith Lockitch notes in a lecture for the Ayn Rand Institute, the lack of an existing natural explanation for some phenomenon does not imply that a supernatural explanation is correct. Lack of a good naturalistic theory does not constitute evidence of the divine. It merely points to the need for more science.

A classic argument for design is that, if you come across a watch in a field, you will assume -- even know with certainty -- that the watch was created by an intelligent designer, and not produced by random events. So, by analogy, when we see even more complex organisms, we should assume that they, too, were created by a designer. However, we know that a watch was created by an intelligent designer for reasons other than its complexity. We have abundant evidence that people exist, that they make watches, that they use watches for particular purposes, and that watches do not have means of reproduction. On the other hand, we have absolutely no evidence that God exists and plenty of evidence that supports evolution. Complexity can arise either from a designer or from unplanned, natural processes, so the watch analogy simply doesn't hold. (When I eat a peach, I know with certainty that it was created, in part, by an intelligent designer, because peaches are produced by grafting mutated stems onto non-mutated roots. Again, the complexity isn't what informs me about the origins.)

What of Campos's claim about the alleged irrefutability of naturalism? All around us is abundant and overwhelming evidence that naturalism is true. When we push a billiard ball across a table, we expect it to move in accordance with the laws of physics. Billiard balls simply do not turn into magical fairies. Since the Age of Enlightenment, people have built airplanes, engines, rocket ships, computers, and on and on, all based on the laws discovered by science. While we read fables about burning bushes that talk, immaculate conception, and so forth, our day-to-day experience demonstrates the reality of natural, causal laws, and utterly fails to provide evidence of miraculous intervention. Alleged miracles are easily explained by naturalistic causes, and thus they do not pose serious problems for naturalism. Not a single reader of this article will seriously claim to have seen a billiard ball turn into a magical fairy, a man rise from the dead after three days, a supernatural entity visually appear, or any other event that would seriously call into question naturalism. Yet every reader in every conscious moment acquires broad evidence that the world operates by causal laws. Evidence of "spontaneous order" in various fields such as biology, ecology, and economics is also widespread. Moreover, the phenomenon of religion is readily explained through history, psychology and, more fundamentally, philosophy.

Yet there is an element of truth to Campos's claim, in that naturalism is based on the rational evaluation of evidence, in addition to the evidence itself. The idea of refutability as a standard is correct insofar as particular scientific theories about the world are open to verification or refutation by the evidence. For instance, if I say that two objects of unequal mass will, in a vacuum, fall side by side when released simultaneously, I can actually set up a vacuum and try it out.

Yet naturalism is not merely another theory about the world: it is the foundation of all scientific theories. Science is not merely a matter of applying statistical analysis to the data; it is the method of inductively discovering the causal laws of nature. (Leonard Peikoff offers an account of induction free from skeptical baggage in his discussion of disintegration, integration, and misintegration.) Moreover, science as method is based on fundamental (and irrefutable) philosophical principles. Supernaturalism is not merely an alternative "framework" to naturalism. As Peikoff writes in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (page 32), "A miracle is an action not possible to the entities involved by their nature; it would be a violation of identity... A consciousness transcending nature would be a faculty transcending organism and object. So far from being all-knowing, such a thing would have neither means nor content of perception; it would be nonconscious. Every argument commonly offered for the notion of god... clashes with the facts of reality and with the preconditions of thought... Any attempt to defend or define the supernatural must necessarily collapse in fallacies. There is no logic that will lead one from the facts of this world to a realm contradicting them; there is no concept formed by observation of nature that will serve to characterize its antithesis. Inference from the natural can lead only to more of the natural, i.e., to limited, finite entities acting and interacting in accordance with their identities... If one is to postulate a supernatural realm, one must turn aside from reason, eschew proofs, dispense with definitions, and rely instead on faith."

So, contrary to Campos's assertion, the naturalistic, scientific "framework" is not just some arbitrarily selected alternative to supernaturalism. Naturalism is instead implied by any knowledge of reality, and it is the foundation (at least implicitly) of all knowledge about reality. (Of course, this point doesn't imply than any particular scientist will avoid all confusion about the matter.)

Creationism, or "intelligent design" as it has been renamed, is not, then, merely some alternative scientific explanation about the world: it invokes the supernatural and thus undermines and contradicts science. Supernaturalism is the very essence of religion. "Intelligent design" implies an intelligent designer: i.e., a god (or group of gods). Thus, "intelligent design" is theology, not science.

The advocates of creationism do not merely assert that, for example, some alien race created life on Earth, for then the problem regresses, for who or what created the aliens? Creationism is fundamentally a supernatural theory, as Campos correctly notes.

The essence of science is to explain the (previously) unknown by natural theories. Benjamin Franklin, for example, "wrested the flash of lightning from heaven." In a work on theology, Andrew Dickson White notes that, as late as the 1700s, Christians "issued handbooks of prayers against bad weather." In previous centuries, bad weather was taken as a sign of witchcraft. Franklin overturned the "intelligent design" superstitions about lightning with his naturalistic explanations.

Of course, Franklin also believed "in one God, Creator of the universe," though he doubted the divinity of Jesus. (That "intelligent design" in no way entails Christianity doesn't seem to bother the conservative Christians who are the driving force behind "intelligent design.") Franklin died before Darwin was born. The fact that many scientists have professed religious beliefs does not change the fact that science is fundamentally the process of developing naturalistic explanations about the world, replacing mystical and supernatural explanations in the process. At least Christians ought not pretend that "intelligent design" is about anything other than religion.

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