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Posts Tagged ‘teaching of religion’

[Article written on June 10, 2008]

In Bled (Slovenia) I had the great honor to meet and discuss with Tom Christiano. In my talk (“Does Liberal Neutrality Require Epistemic Abstinence?”), I advocated a Rawlsian version of the “epistemic abstinence” theory, according to which we should not build the basic institutions of a liberal democratic society on “the truth” promoted by one of the competing comprehensive views of the good, but on an “overlapping consensus” over the basic political (not metaphysical) values. Now, Tom Christiano advocates the opposite view, according to which a decision is authoritative if it is the outcome of a fair, democratic decision making (the decision-making procedure must be publicly recognized as being fair, and it must take into consideration the interests of everyone involved) [of course, the outcome is limited by the constitutional provisions regarding the basic liberal rights].

But take the following example. In some modern, liberal democratic states there is pervasive disagreement regarding the teaching of evolutionism and creationism in public schools. The evolutionists want to take religion off the textbooks, whereas the creationists want the same thing in what concerns evolutionism. How can a liberal democratic state solve this problem? Let’s apply the two theories to this example.

According to my “soft epistemic abstinence” theory, the state should say to the contending parties: “I am a liberal democratic state, and I have to further equally the interests of both of you. My political concern is not the ‘truth’ each of you advocates, but the way in which you can all live peacefully, and the way in which you can all have the possibility to further your own interests. According to this goal, the solution is the following: evolutionism is to be taught in biology classes, and creationism is to be taught in religion (and history of religion) classes. In this way, you can all further your own interests, while respecting the others’ constitutional rights of furthering their own interests”.

According to Tom Christiano’s view, there should be public discussions about evolutionism and creationism. Everyone interested in this debate should have the right to say her own point of view. Then individuals are required to vote one of these three possibilities: a) only evolutionism should be taught in public schools; b) only creationism should be taught in public schools; c) both evolutionism and creationism should be taught in public schools. If the decision-making process is fair, publicly known and democratic, then the decision is authoritative.

Now, my problem with this view is the following. Suppose that, in a particular state (say, Romania) people vote that evolutionism must NOT be taught in public schools. According to Tom Christiano, if all the democratic requirements have been met, then this decision is authoritative. But I feel uneasy with this solution.

Tom (who thinks that creationism is a stupidity) had several answers. First, he said that in a liberal democratic state many of us feel uneasy with many decisions – but we still have to accept them, as long as they are the outcome of a democratic decision-making process. Then he thought again, and he asked me why the teaching of evolutionism in public schools, in a democratic state, should be regarded as necessary, as long as the citizens rejected it through a fair and democratic process. And then he thought again. His final answer was that the only way to save evolutionism in such a case is to declare that some basic scientific education (evolutionism included) is necessary for citizenship.

Moreover, He told me that my solution is not exactly neutral – but it is a triumph for evolutionism. This is so because my solution accepts the teaching of evolutionism in biology classes, but it sends creationism from scientific to religious textbooks – and this is not quite a neutral answer. On the contrary, it safeguards evolutionism, while at the same time it diminishes the importance of creationism.

The discussion was long enough and it was late – we didn’t finish it. But I have two answers to Tom Christiano’s ideas.

First, to declare some basic scientific knowledge as necessary for citizenship seems a very controversial idea. I’m not saying that it is impossible to defend it – I’m just saying that there is much to be said in its favor. Moreover, if we accept this proposal, I do not see any reason to reject other proposed requirements for citizenship – for example, some basic knowledge in religious matters, or some basic moral knowledge, and so on. There are good arguments for supporting such requirements, but I will not discuss them here. I would rather say that it seems to me hard to defend some basic scientific knowledge as a requirement for citizenship, while rejecting the same status to basic moral or religious knowledge. And if we accept all these requirements for citizenship – then Christiano’s outcome is the same with my proposal’s outcome: evolutionism and creationism should both be taught in public schools.

Second, I do not agree with Tom’s critique, according to which my proposal is not neutral – because it favors evolutionism, by making it the single theory taught in biology classes. First, I think that I can explain to creationists that they don’t really want to see their theory taught in biology classes: they don’t accept this kind of science, so they shouldn’t care about it. They can teach evolutionism in religious classes – however these classes might be called (why not a distinct class, of “creationist biology” – indeed, “what’s in a name?”). There is, of course, the problem of the status of these classes. But I think there could be ways of solving this problem. We can device different combinations between “obligatory”, “optional” and “facultative” classes for both biology and religion. So the problem of neutrality could be in principle solved.

I am happy to see that me and Tom Christiano both agree with the outcome (evolutionism and religion should be both taught in schools). It is true that we have different ways of reaching this conclusion. But the debate is not over yet – or so I hope.

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