A recent article by Michael Stone argues that teaching children that the Earth is merely 6,000 years old constitutes a form of child abuse. Now, don’t get me wrong—young Earth creationism is a cancer on Western civilization. It has retarded scientific progress in the United States as a whole generation is raised in ignorance of the foundational cornerstone of biology. But even so, teaching creationism to children is hardly child abuse.
Why would anyone argue that teaching creationism to kids is child abuse? Well, perhaps teaching any falsehoods to a child is to inflict some kind of harm. After all, if a child is routinely taught to believe things that are untrue, this would severely inhibit the cognitive and practical abilities of that child. If a child were taught that train tracks are fun to play on, that child would not make it past adolescence. Is that what is going on here? Is teaching children creationism a form of abuse because it inhibits their potential for growth?
I don’t think this kind of claim is going to fly. A principle that restricts the teaching of falsehoods tout court is obviously too restrictive. If it were true that teaching children falsehoods was a form of child abuse, then no doubt every parent abuses their child every day. Although I am fairly confident about many of my beliefs, I have been wrong often enough in the past to know that I will probably be wrong in the future. I once thought that Louis C.K. was an all-round good bloke. I was wrong. I once thought that Samoa used the New Zealand dollar. I was wrong again. I once thought that crab sticks were made from seaweed. On all these occasions I had been confident of my belief right up until the moment that I learnt of its falsity. For this reason, I have to assume that I routinely tell my children all kinds of “facts” about the natural world, about proper nutrition, about sleep cycles, about cosmology, about economics, about cooking etc. which may easily turn out to be false. If teaching falsehoods to children is child abuse, then call me a child abuser.
In the article I mentioned earlier, Stone seems to think that teaching falsehoods to children is only part of the reason that creationism is child abuse. He adds, however, that creationists routinely deny their children an education in order to teach creationism. He says for example:
Every child deserves an education. However, many children in the U.S. and around the world are denied an education in the name of religious superstition. In the U.S. some children are denied a science education because they are being home-schooled or attend Christian schools that fail to teach the facts of basic biology, like evolution.
Thus, the creationist is not a child abuser merely for teaching creationism, but for denying the child ready access to a proper education in geology and biology. It’s not what the creationist does to the child that matters, it’s what the creationist doesn’t do. The creationist doesn’t provide access to a science education grounded in our best current scientific knowledge. The creationist censors the information available to the child.
This second principle is much better than the first. For although I probably teach my children falsehoods every day, I nevertheless allow them access to contrary beliefs from knowledge communities outside of my own. I might tell my children, mistakenly, that crab sticks are made from seaweed, but I don’t stop them from learning anything about crab sticks. I don’t read through their internet browsing histories, checking for any “crab stick” related google searches. I don’t avoid taking them to the fish and chip shop, in case they ask the manager what crab sticks are made from. All in all, I am happy for my children to investigate the question of what crab sticks are made from, when (or if) they ever decide to investigate.
Many creationist parents, I think it is fair to say, are fundamentalist Christians who would search through their children’s browsing history, who would avoid taking their children to a museum, and who would restrict evolution-related material from their children’s eyes. These parents are, in this respect, abusing their children. But this is not the same thing as “teaching creationism”.
Indeed, it is important to remember that the popularity of creationism in the modern era is mostly a response to the emergence of evolutionary theory and the increasing prominence of evolutionary explanations in all fields of human understanding. Modern creationism is largely a vanguard action against the ascendance of Darwin. Without a growing public understanding of evolution, the development of a new generation of creationists and “intelligent design” proponents would not have occurred.
And herein lies the problem: creationist textbooks, lectures, monographs and blogs are explicit in their denouncement of evolution. They are filled to the brim with diatribes against evolution. They moan that evolution leaves no room for a soul, no room for hope, no room for redemption. The mechanism of evolution is argued to be insufficient to account for the complexity of eyes, immune systems and bacterial flagella. Indeed, arguments “supporting” intelligent design theory usually do no more than pick holes (real or imagined) in evolutionary theory. Darwin is often (mis)quoted (out of context), and hoaxes (such as the Piltdown Man) are lauded as paradigmatic examples of evolutionists behaving badly.
The point of all this is that creationists routinely expose their children to evolutionary theory. Indeed, they are forced to expose their children to evolution in their never-ending quest to defeat it. They do not pretend there is no such thing as evolutionary theory. They do not sweep it under the rug. On the contrary, they argue that it is real, that is is dangerous, and that if anyone believes it they must be crazy.
Creationism is wrong. Teaching it to children is idiotic. But creationists are typically compelled to inform their children about evolution by sheer necessity, as evolution is the very devil they wish to destroy. Although I have no doubt that, generally, children raised by fundamentalist Christians will be abused in many ways, being taught creationism is not one of those ways.