Religious education, child abuse and responsible parental stewardship
April 24, 2013 — 7:01

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Religious Belief Teaching  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 23

[this is cross-posted at Newapps] Richard Dawkins has argued several times (e.g., here) that bringing up your child religiously is a form of child abuse. I think his argument that religious upbringing in general is child abuse has little merit (after all, Dawkins himself is the product of a traditional Anglican upbringing and calls himself – rather proudly – a cultural Anglican, hardly the victim of child abuse). However, his claim in the linked article is that parents who attempt to instill things like Young Earth Creationism (henceforth YEC) in their children are doing something wrong, or are somehow overstepping their role as parents. This question, I believe, is worthy of further attention.

Intuitively, it seems that fundamentalist Christians who teach their children that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, that humans and dinosaurs co-existed, and that the Earth was covered by a great flood are doing something morally problematic. On the other hand, it seems (again intuitively) that the liberal Protestant who teaches her child that God loves us or that Jesus died for our sins, and who also accepts the results of science and geology is not doing anything morally wrong. Or similarly, that the humanist parent who teaches her child that all religious beliefs are false, and that everything is material, is not doing anything wrong. Indeed, all forms of parenting will involve transmitting, or attempting to transmit one’s personal religious viewpoints (including the view that no religious beliefs are true); there is no viewpoint from nowhere in parenting. Dawkins’ idea that we can dispassionately teach our own children something about religion without any form of personal angle strikes me as highly unrealistic. 


But where can we draw the line? Under what circumstances does the transmission of religious beliefs count as a form of child mistreatment, to put it strongly? For clarity of discussion, I do not mean those aspects of religious education that involve, say, denying your child a vaccine or blood transfusion, but I want to focus on the transmission of beliefs alone.
An interesting model to consider the moral dimension of parenting is the stewardship model.

This model proposes that parents are not owners, but stewards, of their children. In a religious context, Christian parents are stewards of God’s creation (including the human beings they are parents to), and their task is to steward their children responsibly. Stewardship is aimed at helping the child flourish (as child and laying the foundations for flourishing in later life), specifically, providing them with knowledge and values that help them live well in society, as citizens and fellow human beings. In his book Wise Stewards: Philosophical Foundations of Christian Parenting, Austin outlines a Christian-inspired philosophical model of parenting. He contrasts this with the ownership model, which can lead to a form of absolutism over children (including, for instance, the right to give your child a weird name like Google). I think the stewardship model can also work for atheists, for instance, as parents we are stewards on behalf of the future self of the child.

Given this model, is it morally wrong to instill false religious beliefs? It seems unrealistic to say that instilling false beliefs tout court is wrong. For instance, you may unwittingly instill beliefs that are false, e.g., in the case where, say, theism is true, a humanist parent would be doing some wrong. That doesn’t seem to be intuitively correct. But even parents who are knowingly giving false information, e.g., “Santa will come and fill your stocking tonight”, aren’t obviously doing anything harmful. In the stewardship model, these transient Santa beliefs don’t seem to be psychologically harmful for the child in the long run, and most people seem perfectly happy to go instill Santa beliefs once they grow up in their own children.But instilling beliefs that will impede a child’s scientific literacy are a different matter – YEC clearly is such a set of beliefs. Teaching such beliefs may harm the child’s future capacity to flourish in a scientifically literate society.

There is another angle to consider the YEC parent from the perspective of stewardship. Under the ownership model, we own our children and we can do whatever we want (within limits of what the law permits), which includes coercing them into accepting our beliefs. In the stewardship model, in contrast, good stewards can attempt to instill beliefs they think are correct, but without trying to control their children’s minds. In the psychology of parenting, this is referred to as the distinction between an authoritative and an authoritarian parenting style (thanks to Gordon Ingram for the pointer, here is a relevant article).

Authoritative parenting means that the parent supervises and guides a child’s development, but at the same time leaves room for the child’s psychological autonomy, and has high acceptance of the child’s personality, interests etc. Authorative parenting has better outcomes on adolescent school achievements than authoritarian parenting or overtly permissive parenting. In authoritarian parenting, the parent tries to control every aspect of a child’s beliefs and personality, and does not accept it if the child does not conform to the parents expectations, whereas in permissive parenting, the parents do not provide any guidance (in the way of world views etc) at all, and let their children just do whatever they please. Also, authoritarian parents attempt to control the environment of the child so that she doesn’t get alternative views, in effect trying to shield their children from the views of others. In this view, a humanist parent who would punish her child for wanting to go to Sunday school would be authoritarian, as would be a fundamentalist parent who would punish her child for not believing in YEC.

So in this picture, it may still be morally acceptable to propose YEC as a worldview to the child, but only to the extent that they do not try to control their child’s beliefs through negative feedback, for instance, where the child gets punished for not believing in YEC  or when they try to excessively shield their child from alternative world views.
Unfortunately, authoritarianism correlates strongly with religious fundamentalism – not with religious belief per se (see e.g., this article), so the fundamentalist Christian is more likely to try to indoctrinate their children than, say, the liberal Protestant. But the problem here seems to be the restrictive parenting style, not the fact that those beliefs have religious content.

  • Kenny Pearce

    Helen, I think there is more than one issue here. The term ‘abuse’ suggests the sort of wrongdoing which the state ought to use force to prevent or, failing that, punish. If we take that as our definition of ‘abuse’ (parental wrongdoing which merits government intervention), then I think much of what we are talking about is wrongdoing which falls short of abuse.
    Because of the way children trust their parents (and the way students – even adult students! – trust their teachers) it seems to me that it is pretty clearly wrong for parents (teachers) to present to children (students) as fact anything they know, or ought to know, to be strongly opposed by the available evidence. (Everyone in the United States who can read English ought to know that YEC is strongly opposed by the available evidence.) I would not exempt Santa Clause (etc.) from this, but then I’m a Kantian. In any event, although I would hold that this is in all cases wrong, in my view it rises to the level of abuse only when either (a) the belief is being forced on the child in a way which is per se abusive (e.g. the child is being beaten), or (b) we can show that the belief is doing some serious damage to the child (much more serious than typical cases of false belief, e.g. Santa Clause).
    Now, part of the way Dawkins usually makes his case is to argue that belief in hell is psychologically damaging. If he’s right about that, that would fall under case (b), but I think that would be hard to show.
    I should note that I think pretty young children can grasp the difference between ‘this is the way things are!’ and ‘this is what I think, but it’s a difficult issue and many people disagree,’ and the latter line should probably be used more often than it is.

    April 24, 2013 — 11:36
  • Helen De Cruz

    Kenny: I charitably interpret child abuse as hyperbole for some serious wrongdoing, although Dawkins might actually mean child abuse. There is an interesting normative distinction – the parents know or ought to know YEC is wrong. The acceptance of evolutionary theory, however, is so low in the US that I wonder if we can impose such an epistemic obligation. Perhaps the education system is seriously failing to communicate scientific beliefs properly. Perhaps the Creationist lobby is just too powerful in the States, cleverly manipulating people to think that if the world is not 6000 years old, the authority of scripture falls and their faith is futile.
    I personally share your view of Santa (I have never taught my 9-y-old daughter that Santa is real, but instead have always told her he is an imaginary character that some kids believe in), for similar reasons as you. While not a strict Kantian, I feel uncomfortable deliberately lying to my child. But I agree with you that the damage, if there is any, is quite minor.
    I don’t think there is good evidence that belief in hell is damaging – the evidence about this is inconclusive. It seems to make people more anxious, but at the same time there is evidence that hell beliefs correlate with lower crime rates and more prosocial behavior, see and prompting hell beliefs in people makes them less likely to cheat
    So in light of that, I don’t think hell beliefs are on balance that damaging. Beliefs that repress sexuality, e.g., teaching that masturbation is sinful, strikes me as more psychologically damaging for growing kids who would (probably) engage in the practice at some point and feel guilty about it.

    April 24, 2013 — 14:31
  • Kenny Pearce

    Belief in human evolution is abominably low in the US. The polls that came up immediately on Google all asked specifically about human evolution. But you specified that we were talking about young earth creationism. I think the really decisive evidence for specifically human evolution (non-functional DNA shared by humans and other great apes, whose lack of function can be explained by a particular copying error at a particular point on the evolutionary tree) is much more difficult to understand and less widely known than the evidence for evolution generally, and for an old earth. So I am inclined to give a pass to people who haven’t studied a lot of biology and believe in an old earth with evolution of animals and special creation of humans. I don’t know how many of those people there are, vs. actual young earth types.
    I also made sure to say that they should have known that YEC was strongly opposed by the available evidence, rather than that they should have known it was false. I’m inclined to give some leeway to people who think “well, it’s strongly opposed to the evidence now, but future scientific research will eventually validate the Bible.” (I’ve talked to a lot of people who think this.) If someone thinks that, I think they are still doing something wrong to present YEC to their children as a certain truth, rather than merely their own opinion (or faith commitment), but this is a lot different than being in denial about the state of the evidence.

    April 24, 2013 — 14:51
  • I don’t know if the average American young earth creationist ought to know better.
    For how do *I* know that YEC is false? Well, I can give a bunch of the really strong pieces of scientific evidence (geology, fossils, stellar generations, etc.) Given this evidence, and given some very plausible philosophical assumptions about the uniformity of nature and the like, YEC is clearly false.
    But much of my knowledge of that evidence is in turn based on testimony that would be impugned if there were a vast scientific conspiracy to skew the data against YEC. I know enough of scientists to know that while there are occasional crooked scientists who fake data, there is enough love of truth and an enormous amount of personal eccentricities (this is important–if everybody thinks alike, it’s easier to have a conspiracy) to rule out such a conspiracy, even if (as is surely the case) there is a significant anti-supernaturalistic bias in the scientific community.
    *I* know this, because I’ve spent all my life hanging around where there are scientists, and so I know YEC is false. But the average American (or non-American?) just may not know enough of scientists to rule out such a conspiracy, especially given correct suspicions of an anti-supernaturalistic bias in the scientific community. Nor is the average American really in a position to see just have vast the conspiracy would need to be. One might be honestly mistaken that a few points of difference could explain all the evidence.

    April 24, 2013 — 15:07
  • As for “beliefs that repress sexuality”, of course there is the question of the truth and justification of these beliefs. If in fact masturbation is seriously wrong (as I argue in One Body), then guilt about it (as long as it’s in proportion to the degree of wrongness and culpability) is appropriate.

    April 24, 2013 — 15:10
  • I would like to shift the discussion a bit off of Christianity, to a different religious tradition. Although I fully recognize Christianity is what is primarily on Dawkins’s radar, perhaps this shift might spark some interesting intuitions. I’ve always been suspicious about Dawkins’ claim about religious upbringing and child abuse, because I share a common history of many aboriginal Canadians. Many aboriginal Canadians share a common experience, at some point in their familial history, with the atrocities of residential schools. The idea behind residential schools in Canada was to take small children from their homes and cultural affiliations (including their language, religious beliefs, cultural practices and tribal identities), with the goal of assimilating them with the rest of Canada (particularly white Canada). Anyone who has read anything about the assimilationist policy recognizes the moral repugnance of it. What resulted was a widespread loss of identity, loss of language, deaths, actual child abuse, and these things have been accredited with the radical social disparities between aboriginal people and the rest of the Canadian population (rampant poverty, higher suicide rates, greater health disparities, lower quality of life, and widespread addiction). Indeed, when one is prevented from a religious upbringing, based on this reality, I would suggest it is just as morally repugnant, if not more so, than the “abuse” Dawkins attempts to describe.
    I suspect something similar can be said about Native Americans and the colonialism that happened in America towards their aboriginal population.
    I wonder what Dawkins would say about this. Granted, he is from the UK and probably disconnected from these social histories. But to me, the social histories of native peoples, and their experience of forcibly being kept, discouraged, or shamed from educating their children in their cultural and religious traditions, seems to severely discredit Dawkins’s view about religious upbringing and child abuse or even a weaker claim that connects religious “education” with moral repugnance. What are all of your thoughts?

    April 24, 2013 — 22:06
  • Helen De Cruz

    Alex: This is an important issue. It turns out that trust in science is indeed a very important component of scientific literacy: The wide audience who do accept evolutionary theory and the like often do not understand it well (e.g., confusing natural selection with Lamarckism) but they have the correct beliefs because they trust scientists. In a Burgean externalist vein, we could say they have justified beliefs about the age of the Earth etc. because the beliefs of the scientists they trust are justified. On the other hand, people who do not trust scientists, by the same token, have unjustified beliefs. They rely on the testimony of people who deliberately distort and twist evidence as YEC lobbyists like Ken Ham are doing. Similarly, people who, say, deny vaccines to their kids because of an alleged link between vaccines and MMR have an unjustified belief because the research on which that is based is fraudulent and wrought with conflict of interest.
    Whether or not this trust issue gets YEC-promoting parents off the hook is another issue, which I find difficult to answer. Ought these parents know better? Given what we know about confirmation bias, people will tend to look for evidence that confirms their prior beliefs, so YEC-style “evidence” will be given more weight than scientific consensus. Also, the way Scripture is interpreted in US fundamentalist churches operates under a strong conflict model, where people feel they are forced to make a choice between their faith and science.

    April 25, 2013 — 3:26
  • Right:
    Trust in scientists is important here. Related to confirmation bias is also the fact that when it’s a question of deciding between trusting someone you know (say, your pastor) and someone you don’t know (say, a distant scientist), it can be more reasonable to trust the person you know, since you can evaluate that person’s character better.
    I am generally inclined to externalism about justification, but I think “ought know better” tracks internal stuff, not external stuff (tempting thought for me: internalism is about what’s reasonable to think while externalism is about justification). If I trust an untrustworthy person over a trustworthy one, but I have more evidence for the trustworthiness of the untrustworthy person, it may not be true to say that I ought to know better.
    The media may also bear a share of the blame. We keep on having reports of conflicting studies on various things, and few of them carry much in the way of the kinds of verbal markers scientists use to distinguish between levels of evidence. As a result, the public reasonably comes to think that scientific conclusions are constantly changing. Well, yes, there is constant change, but presumably most of the change is about speculations that the science wasn’t all that confident about in the first place, speculations very different from such firmly and multiply established claims as that the earth is billions of years old.
    We don’t want people to reject YEC due to a blind faith in science (nothing wrong with faith, but blind faith is something different). If they do that, it’s not clear that they will know YEC to be false. So I think a challenge for science education is to build a proper non-blind trust in science. One way is through personal contact with working scientists. Another way is by deeper epistemology, distinguishing the speculative from the firmly established. There is a difference between the theory that mild overweightness (by current US standards) increases lifespan and the theory that the moon is more than a mile in diameter.
    Yet another is by talking more about the social aspects of science, the number of eccentrics in the scientific community who help keep the others honest, the peer-review system, the institutional incentives (though there are also disincentives) for ground-breaking discoveries that overthrow existing theories, etc.

    April 25, 2013 — 7:54
  • Mike Austin

    First, I’d just like to say that I agree that the stewardship model does work for an atheist as well, not only insofar as the parent acts as a steward on behalf of the child’s future self, but also on behalf of the society in which that child will live as a citizen.
    Second, while I’ve expressed my own doubts about YEC and naturalistic evolution with my own children, I wonder how important one’s belief about YEC is as this relates to parents fulfilling their roles as stewards. This is not a rhetorical question, I’d like to hear what others think. I have in mind a case like this: Parents teach their children YEC, and the children accept it. This may hinder their scientific literacy, but let’s also assume they accept other deliverances of contemporary science (e.g. medical science) even if their beliefs in YEC and these other deliverances are not consistent. In what way is this a failure of parental stewardship? Presumably the child can grow up, have quality relationships with others, find a meaningful and worthwhile career, and enjoy the fruit of the sciences and religious faith in his or her daily life. So I’d like to hear about how it is that teaching one’s children YEC is serious enough to be labeled a failure of stewardship in this area.

    April 25, 2013 — 10:01
  • Dan Johnson

    To build on Alex’s last comment: much of pre-college science education in the U.S. seeks to establish just the sort of blind trust in the scientific establishment that Alex describes. And the trust that the schools often seek to teach is an unqualified blind trust of absolutely everything that “science says” via the media. Generally speaking, high schools teach the theories themselves without teaching much, if any, of the evidence for the theories. Teaching the evidence, after all, would require teaching the students how to evaluate evidence — and to think about what kinds of evidence might count against the theory, and why the evidence that some say counts against the theory shouldn’t count against the theory. That doesn’t happen in many high school classrooms; and much of the scientific establishment doesn’t want it to happen, because it would involve considering attempts to identify evidence against the various controversial scientific theories. I think many people involved in setting the agenda for science education like making the scientific establishment (which may be more about the media than actual scientists) a contemporary analogue of revelation from God: you should believe what it says just because it says so.
    This relates to a deeper problem — our high schools don’t teach our students how to actually think (evaluate evidence and the like); they are just taught to believe what other people (who presumably know how to think) have thought. But one application is that someone who is justifiably skeptical of the blind trust in whatever the scientific establishment says (as I am) is left without much evidence at all for the various scientific claims. That’s because we were never taught the evidence in such a way that we could competently evaluate it. We were just taught to believe the scientists whenever they tell us stuff. Once that goes, we are left without any reason to take the scientists seriously — because we were never taught the evidence on which they based their conclusions.
    I’m honestly in that position right now — I take myself to have quite a bit of reason to distrust any scientific claim that touches on anything that is religiously controversial. That’s because it seems to me that methodological naturalism is dominant in contemporary science, and so scientists are generally working from incomplete evidence, which means I can’t just take their word for it when they tell me their conclusions. And since I am not aware of or competent to evaluate the evidence myself, I am left with a kind of sweeping skepticism about science (or at least about any science that touches on anything religiously controversial). I don’t like the situation I’m in — I’d like to be able to just trust the scientists — but that does seem to me to be my situation.

    April 25, 2013 — 13:47
  • Kenny Pearce

    Dan – I’m extremely skeptical of your claim that much of the scientific establishment doesn’t want the evidence to be taught. One does frequently here objections from the scientific community when curriculum standards single out theories which are politically, but not scientifically, controversial, and say that we should teach the evidence pro and con regarding those theories (with the implication that it is not necessary to take the same approach to other theories). But the very same people who object in these cases are working to try to get students to better understand how science works across the board. The mainstream of the scientific establishment wants people to trust science on the basis of an understanding of where scientific claims come from. Of course, the lay person is not in a position to evaluate the evidence for each individual claim, but a high school graduate ought to be able to understand, in a general sort of way, how science works, and why we should take its procedures to be reliable. (That is, it ought to be possible to get our education system to the point where high school graduates can be expected to do this.)
    By the way, Helen and Alex, I concede that my initial statement was too strong in light of the abysmal state of science education in this country. However, I would still want to make the following claim: there is abundant, readily available evidence, understandable to a person of average intelligence and minimal education, for the claim that the earth looks old. I concede that the evidence for biological evolution is more complicated. I also never intended to suggest that people might not have reasons, which made some degree of internal sense, for thinking these appearances are misleading.

    April 25, 2013 — 15:25

    I don’t know that someone would have an intuition that teaching one’s children YEC is morally problematic. Perhaps someone might draw a conclusion that it’s wrong, though it wouldn’t be a moral problem for the parents, because presumably the reason they would teach such a thing is because they actually believe it’s true. You might think it’s problematic in the sense of being something false, but then the secularist who teaches that all religions are wrong is teaching something false also. Then there’s the question of the ramifications: all parents teach their children all sorts of wrong things, because parents are not infallible. It isn’t obvious that the idea of a young earth impedes scientific literacy, since there are many ways to believe in both. (Of course, that doesn’t mean that the majority of people who try to reconcile both sets of beliefs do so in an adequate or a sophisticated way.) But even if your thinking is all messed up when it comes to biological evolution, it doesn’t follow that you can’t do science at all. Or perhaps this even good for science, on the grounds that someone who reached adulthood and retained his belief in YEC would not have made a good scientist anyway.
    Kenny makes a good point about considering belief specifically in human evolution. Everybody does believe in “evolution” — that different breeds of dog evolved, for example, or even that dogs evolved from wolves. I don’t know what the distribution is of belief across different aspects of evolution, but the evolution of human beings from non-human animals is of course a special case. But more than different aspects of the extent and scope of evolution are issues like “directedness” (as in, some people will insist that biological evolution has to be completely “unguided”, etc.). When professional scientists say things like “science is incompatible with religion” or “special evolution disproves God”, then sincere Christians (and other theists) are quite right to conclude, “so much the worse for science”. That is, the argument is valid, even though it isn’t sound, because of the flawed premise. So at least some people are rejecting the standard story of special evolution precisely because they do trust scientists — that is, they believe that people who should know about science deem it incompatible with Christianity.
    I have a certain sympathy with the Dan’s point also. I don’t think it’s enough to justify widespread scepticism about science, but it does raise concerns about interpretations of science — which by definition is what the layman is working with. There is a certain hypocrisy in proclaiming that we have to defer to biologists’ claims about special evolution because they’re the experts, but not to theologians’ claims about the existence of God. Alex suggests that not everyone is in a position to reasonably know that some kind of conspiracy theory is not plausible… but then he also mention sexuality, which is an area where the “official” view of our culture is seriously and implausibly wrong. (It’s not a conspiracy — or rather, literally, it is a con-spiracy, a togetherness of spirit — it’s just not a secret conspiracy.) If the establishment can be so prominently wrong on matters of sexuality, or of money, etc., it’s hard to see why someone not involved with science might not believe something similar about the scientific establishment. (Alex also says the media may bear “a share of the blame”. I’d say they bear a lot of it!)

    April 25, 2013 — 23:38
  • Helen De Cruz

    Hi Dan: I am not sure whether giving equal time to evidence for and against a given theory is such a good idea in classrooms. In any case, the evidence for evolutionary theory is overwhelming. Also, students are often taught scientific theories that are no longer considered to be true, such as Newtonian physics. I am not saying that illustrative examples of how scientists use evidence are a bad thing – I think they are pedagogically valuable. I’m just skeptical of students’ ability to gauge, without any background training, raw evidence for themselves and then decide whether a theory can withstand scrutiny. So I see no problem in presenting some well-supported and accepted scientific theories as factual.
    What seems especially important is that students get acquainted with some good philosophy of science – what is the nature of science, how do scientists evaluate evidence etc. They have no idea how science works and they are then supposed to trust scientists. It is true that science is methodologically naturalistic, but I don’t think that makes it anti-religion. Of course the evidence with which scientists work is incomplete, this would even be the case if we lived in a naturalistic universe! That doesn’t mean the conclusions are untrustworthy.
    Taking Goldman’s work on expertise: if I cannot gauge the evidence for myself, how do I know which experts to trust? (say, for instance, in another controversial domain such as climate science). Even if I have no first-order evidence to believe that p on the basis of science, because I am not a trained scientist, I can have (second-order) reasons to trust a scientist who believes that p – for instance, academic credentials, the fact that this scientist’s theories lead to more fruitful predictions etc. So I think those second-order reasons can help me avoid the sweeping skepticism that I would otherwise feel, not being competent to gauge the first-order evidence for myself.
    Your evaluation of science also seems to assume a conflict model between science and religion. It’s true that some vocal evolutionary authors (such as Dawkins, before he turned his back entirely on actual scientific work and started doing humanist outreach exclusively) assume this model, but it has not been the dominant model of science and religion in the past. It assumes literalist interpretations of Scripture (which is fairly recent). In my philosophy of science classes, I have aimed to give students a different perspective (for instance, by acquainting them with Augustine’s On the literal meaning of Genesis), and it was an eye-opener for many of them.

    April 26, 2013 — 2:57
  • Heath White

    I was raised as a YEC but no longer believe it. I have a fine set of parents, and the suggestion that they engaged in some sort of child abuse, in teaching me what they believed, is absurd and offensive. They were doing the best they could.
    YECists are not skeptical of “science” generally. They do not have any trouble with the conservation of momentum or the periodic table of the elements. The problem comes when one source of authority, the science establishment, conflicts with another source of authority, the Bible and what we could call the fundamentalist theological establishment. Forced to choose on issues like evolution and the age of the earth, they go with the latter. This is because they trust the FTE more than the SE, though they are not eager to doubt either.
    Generally speaking, those who would accuse YECists of parental malpractice are no more sophisticated about the conflict between science and fundamentalist theology than the YECists themselves. (I would not pay any money at all for Dawkins’ biblical exegesis of anything, except perhaps for entertainment value.) It’s just that they trust the SE more than the FTE, because they mostly do not place any trust in the FTE at all. In the scientific case, their mistrust happens to be well-placed. On many other and more important matters—the existence of God, the resurrection of Jesus, the means of salvation, and so on—their mistrust is quite misplaced. (I might be willing to say that the evidence for at least the epistemic possibility of God’s existence is overwhelming; I do not however think atheist parents are abusing their children, though I wish they would rethink their position.)
    In my opinion, it is too much to ask ordinary people to rise to a level of sophistication where they are able to adjudicate disputes between conflicting experts or intelligently take sides on major epistemological questions. (When linguists and geneticists disagree about patterns of early human migration, nobody thinks laypeople should learn to evaluate the evidence themselves.) The solution lies in reforming the institutions, which is a job that can only be done by the insider experts. We need vocal, intelligent voices who understand enough about both science and theology to point out methodological errors and reform practice from within.

    April 26, 2013 — 7:59
  • No one

    I, too, was raised YEC. My Dad imparted the values of intellectual humility, curiosity, and scientific literacy. In my case, it was those very values that contributed to me re-assessing the evidence as I got older, and now I doubt YEC. (My Dad, too, took a look at additional data, especially on the theological side, and he now doubts YEC.)
    Did my dad abuse me as a child?
    I sympathize with Alex’s points about who to trust. A major source of my shift of viewpoint was the discovery of seemingly trustworthy scientists and theologians who reject YEC (plus evidence that adds up). (Incidentally, a similarly thing didn’t happen in my investigation of whether darwinian mechanisms *undercut* the case for design; quite the opposite… but that’s a different matter.)

    April 26, 2013 — 17:01
  • Helen De Cruz

    Hi Heath & Anonymous: Thanks for your responses – it’s interesting to hear people who were raised with YEC beliefs. Notice that I at no point am I endorsing Dawkins’ use of the word “abuse” for teaching children YEC. I do not think it is helpful at all in thinking about any form of transmission of beliefs in terms of abuse (unless perhaps in extreme cases, where this transmission is accompanied by severe bodily punishment if the child doesn’t accept the belief).
    So I’d rather look at the question in terms of harm and stewardship: a parent might be thinking that she is acting in the child’s best interests, but nevertheless harm her unintentionally.
    The question is, if we assume that YEC is false (which I assume it is), are parents who teach their children YEC being good and responsible stewards? I am inclined to think that children can be harmed by getting taught wrong beliefs. Especially the YEC movement (and creationism in general now) seems to be anti-science. They are not anti-gravity, or anti second law of thermodynamics, but they nevertheless instill a deep distrust in science that may impede children’s ability to become scientifically literate (given that children do sometimes change their minds as in the two testimonies above, it is clear this is not an insurmountable obstacle, but nevertheless, the fact that just under half of Americans are creationists seems to suggest that upbringing plays a pretty important role. This also has broader societal repercussions. However, as both of you point out, what if parents sincerely believe YEC is true, and place more trust in their pastors or other religious sources of authority than in science?

    April 26, 2013 — 17:14
  • No one

    Good points, Helen.
    For what it’s worth, I never got an anti-science impression from YEC literature (such as from AIG or Ken Ham). It was more a clash of values — anti-“godless scientific paradigm”…
    The deeper issues, it seems to me, have to do with the associated values, not the YEC itself. (I’d say the same for flat-earth-ers, about the relevance of the associated values, but I can’t speak from “insider” experience there!)

    April 26, 2013 — 17:52
  • LG

    Is there something like the converse of Dawkins’ problem as well? I agree with him that there are forms of religious exposure and influence at young ages that leave children in an ATC undesirable state (though to my eyes it’s extremely demeaning to actual victims of abuse to call this ‘child abuse’). But I also think it’s unfortunate when the existence of God and religious beliefs generally cannot be entertained as live options. Many people I speak with in academia seem psychologically incapable of taking belief in God seriously. Some of them seem genuinely sad about this, and view it as an undesirable consequence of their upbringing. This seems to me hardly less sad (at least intrinsically) than the sort of thing that can result from exposure to the wrong kinds of religious influences at young ages.
    In large part whether we ought to encourage religious beliefs in our children depends on whether or not religious beliefs are justified and/or true. But not entirely: even if I have knowledge of my religion’s claims, there is still the matter of how to respect the autonomy of my children, and to promote their own knowledge and understanding (not just true beliefs). I’m inclined to think that, even if religious folk know religious truths, there is good reason for them to encourage a healthy degree of skepticism and questioning in their children–enough to nudge their children toward critical reflection, while leaving intact their capacity for religious beliefs. Of course that is easier said than done!

    April 26, 2013 — 21:43
  • TheCounterMatter

    This is pretty simple, folks. YEC != child abuse. It doesn’t impair a child’s ability to grow and develop, and it doesn’t put the child in danger. YEC doesn’t make you smarter or stupider. It’s just a belief system. What is child abuse? Teaching your children to run around in the street or training them to eat lots of junk food. Richard Dawkins is just trolling when he says stuff like this.
    Science is a big topic, and it would be nice if schools could focus on the more “objective” portions of it (i.e. the portions you can demonstrate and repeat, such as chemistry, physics, etc.). The age of the earth will never be certain, because we cannot observe it. What you choose to believe is based on the assumptions that seem the most plausible to you (i.e. your best guess). Why do schools need to teach a belief system? It would be nice if people could learn discernment and come to their own beliefs instead of being told what to believe. Everyone needs a starting point, though. Why shouldn’t it come from your parents instead of the state or scientists?

    April 26, 2013 — 21:58
  • Helen:
    “I am inclined to think that children can be harmed by getting taught wrong beliefs”
    Of course, since it is intrinsically bad to believe a falsehood. 🙂
    “In my opinion, it is too much to ask ordinary people to rise to a level of sophistication where they are able to adjudicate disputes between conflicting experts or intelligently take sides on major epistemological questions.”
    That sounds exactly right.

    April 27, 2013 — 8:19
  • Kenny Pearce

    I think we need to be careful about standards of evaluation here. I agree with Alex that it is intrinsically bad to believe a falsehood, so every time a parent instills a false belief in a child, the parent is harming the child. But of course no parent who has ever lived has succeeded in avoiding instilling false beliefs. Furthermore, we all agree (as has been repeated several times) that it’s insane to suppose that, in ordinary cases, the harm here rises to the level of abuse. We’re talking, in most cases, about a pretty trivial harm. I think we all agree about that. So the question is, what do we mean when we are saying that the parent has done something wrong, or is criticizable?
    I say that in most cases the harm is pretty trivial. As many people have pointed out here, most mainstream Evangelicals are anti-evolution without having any kind of radical skepticism or hostility to science in general. (I too was taught YEC as a child – not by my parents, but by my church – and believed it for a time.) But there are certainly some fundamentalist communities where there are claims about science being an anti-Christian conspiracy or things like that. A child who was taught that might end up, e.g., having an extreme distrust of modern medicine (even if this wasn’t taught explicitly) and that could be a more serious harm.
    But in the normal case, it’s a rather trivial harm. Nevertheless, I still think that most versions of YOUNG EARTH creationism (as opposed to other forms of opposition to human evolution) are such that a person of average intelligence and minimal education should be able to recognize that there appear to be fairly serious problems, and I think that if you do recognize that about some of your views, then, even if it doesn’t lead you to reject those views, you ought not to present them as settled fact to a child who is old enough to understand that people disagree about these things.
    I do think that this can be a more serious harm when it’s is more widespread: when parents are dogmatically instilling in their children their controversial views on a wide variety of subjects without acknowledging the possibility of reasonable disagreement. I still don’t think that this will generally rise to the level of abuse, but I think it makes sense to be pretty critical of those parents.
    So in short, in the ordinary case, I think it’s a pretty trivial harm, of the sort that nearly every human parent probably does to their child at one time or another. And parents have bigger things to worry about than this. Nevertheless, I do think we should consider it an avoidable harm. (Again, I’m talking specifically about YOUNG EARTH views; I think the problems with old earth anti-evolution views are somewhat more complicated.) So the parents are criticizeable insofar as they are doing avoidable harm to their children, but the criticism should be moderated insofar as the harm is fairly trivial and they likely have more important things to worry about.

    April 27, 2013 — 12:03
  • Kenny Pearce

    Also, here’s another kind of harm the Christian should be especially concerned about. A great many people with very conservative Protestant upbringings end up with the idea that the viability of the Christian faith depends crucially on the falsity of evolution (or, for that matter, on a single author and an early date for each book of the Old Testament, on Solomon’s authorship of Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, etc.). These people often go to college, encounter evidence for evolution (or whatever) and abandon Christianity. If Christianity is true, then this is a very serious harm, and this harm is avoidable merely by admitting that there is room for disagreement among genuine, sincere Christians on the issue. (Fortunately, although not everyone in my community growing up agreed that there was room for such disagreement, the disagreement was actually present and I witnessed it; this made it a lot easier for my views to develop without abandoning Christianity.)
    Again, even from the beginning, what I’ve been arguing is that, in these cases, (1) the parents ought to be able to see that there is room for disagreement, and (2) if they do see that, then they have an obligation, when teaching children old enough to understand, to present their views in a way that respects that. (I agree with what I take to be LG’s point, that parents who teach their children atheism have this kind of obligation too.)

    April 27, 2013 — 12:45
  • Daniel Johnson

    Kenny, your last comment is particularly good. That’s the most significant danger of teaching YEC: when you teach it as if all the Christian faith goes out the window if it does. That is what can do really deep harm.
    Helen, my comment did not assume a conflict model of science and religion, because I deny that methodological naturalism is essential to science. I am assuming something like Plantinga’s critique of methodological naturalism, which is basically that from the perspective of a Christian methodological naturalism amounts to ignoring relevant evidence. But Plantinga’s Augustinian science would not have this limitation, and so would be free from the sorts of religion/science conflicts that arise from methodological naturalism. (See particularly Plantinga’s argument that Christians should be untroubled by the conclusions of higher biblical criticism — basically, biblical scholarship done assuming methodological naturalism. I am in enthusiastic agreement with his argument there.)
    Your point that we need not always teach the evidence for or against various scientific theories, even if true, just reinforces my point. When some of us (rightly, in my view) stop taking the scientists simply at their word about scientific claims that touch on controversial religious views and demand the actual evidence so that we might evaluate it for ourselves, we are often left without any evidence whatever for those scientific claims, because we were never taught the actual evidence. And most of us, especially those of us who are not academics, have more important things to do with our limited time than to go read up on the scientific evidence about such controversies.

    April 27, 2013 — 16:40
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