Mar 03 2016
On February 29th Ken Ham posted on his Facebook page:
Intellectual child abuse: when kids are taught they’re just animals in an evolutionary process. This morning I taught kids the creation/gospel message!
The young people today in Alabama learned they’re not made in the image of an ape — they’re created in the image of God.
Ken Ham, as many likely know, is a young earth creationist. He believes in the literal truth of the Bible and therefore that the universe is 6,000 years old. This is an article of faith, but Ham also tries to support his faith with science, which means he gets the science entirely wrong. That’s what happens when you start with the answer and then work backwards.
The various aspects of evolutionary theory, on the other hand, are a matter of scientific consensus. They are the result of an open and transparent process of examining the evidence, conducting experiments, testing hypotheses, and engaging with a community of scientists who have worked out their answers over the last 150 years.
That is the process of science – that is what is and should be taught in science class.
What parents teach their children, however, is generally considered to be a private matter left up to the parents. This is one of those situations in which as a society we strike a balance between different ethical imperatives that often come into conflict.
On the one hand, we generally recognize that society has a responsibility to protect the innocent and defenseless. It is generally accepted that the state has a right to intervene if children are being physically abused or neglected. Parents do not have the right to starve their children to death, for example.
On the other hand, we also generally recognize the right for parents to raise their own children as they see fit, as long as they don’t abuse or neglect their children.
As is always the case when we have to draw lines at the intersection of different ethical principles, that line is going to be fuzzy (philosophers call this the demarcation problem).
Let’s take physical abuse, for example. If a child shows up at the hospital with a broken arm (caused by a parent), the law is pretty clear about that – this is abuse. What if a parent spanks a child on the bottom once with their open hand? Most people would not consider that child abuse and think that protective services need to be involved.
There is a smooth continuum between these two extremes, and no sharp line demarcating discipline from abuse.
The same is true of neglect. The state takes it as their responsibility to ensure that children are fed, clothed, sheltered, and educated and that they are kept safe. They can mandate child safety seats in cars, mandate that children get proper education, and that they receive medical attention as necessary (although even there we have some controversy).
However, while it may be optimal and there is even evidence that it affects life outcomes for children, the state does not mandate that homes have books in them, that parents read to their children every night, that they limit their TV watching, etc. In other words, the state does not legally enforce current opinions about parental best-practices.
Some, however, might consider it “intellectual child abuse” to raise a child in an intellectually impoverished environment. What lengths are we willing to go to in order to correct this, however? How much deference do we give parents in raising their own children?
This is a very emotional issue. Many of us have parental instincts that cringe at the very idea of a child being abused or neglected. Those same parental instincts, however, make us fiercely protective of our own parental rights. Imagine if the state required you to do something to your children that you fundamentally disagreed with.
Of course I think Ken Ham is objectively wrong. Evolution is the current scientific consensus. It should never be considered abuse to teach children what we think to be the truth (as part of a transparent process of due diligence). What Ham is essentially saying is that it is abuse to teach children something other than his personal religious views.
This is, of course, absurd (but then Ham was never known for his intellectual prowess).
Many people, however, have made the argument the other way. Richard Dawkins, for example, has argued that it is child abuse to indoctrinate children into a religious faith. He said:
‘What a child should never be taught is that you are a Catholic or Muslim child, therefore that is what you believe. That’s child abuse.’
I understand where he is coming from, but this view is highly problematic. By calling religious indoctrination abuse you are implying that there is cause for the state to act. Do we really want the government to be involved in deciding which world views parents are allowed to teach their children? (I am not claiming that Dawkins or anyone else is advocating for this, just that framing religious education as “abuse” has certain implications.)
We could also extend these arguments to teaching children to be racist, or even to believe in pseudoscience.
Obviously I disagree with indoctrinating children into hateful, regressive, pseudoscientific or unscientific belief systems. But I think that parental rights trump those concerns. As a society we just have to deal with the result. These children, at some point, with have to interface with the broader culture, and that is where other ideas have their chance to have an influence.
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