Life, the Universe, and Nothing

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Is it reasonable to believe there is a God?

Has science buried God?

The Australian City Bible Forum recently posted two video discussions about these questions between prominent science-atheist Lawrence Krauss and religious apologist William Lane Craig.

What they didn’t discuss is what should be included in public schools.  Surprisingly, in the end it is the arguments of Lawrence Krauss that suggest a sort of intellectual dictatorship in science classes, a stern refusal to consider the claims of dissent, even when that dissent represents a majority opinion.  Of course, that is exactly the accusation made by leading creationists.  I don’t buy those creationist arguments, but I do want to understand why we can insist that creationist students learn science the way we define it.

The two veteran debaters did not engage in a formal debate on these timeless questions.  Rather, the City Bible Forum offered a “conversation” between the two speakers.  Each speaker had fifteen minutes to lay out his ideas.  Then the two were open to questions.

The moderator called for a “respectful, intelligent discussion.”  To that end, the evangelical organization invited moderators of very different backgrounds.  For the first discussion, the CBF asked TV journalist Scott Stephens.  For the third, a local atheist academic, Graham Oppy.

For those of us interested in understanding the conservative influence of evangelical religion in American public life, the discussions are worth listening to in their entirety.

Here at ILYBYGTH, I don’t really care very much about the nature of science or religion.  I don’t care very much about whether or not the universe was created ex nihilo.  I don’t care—as Craig and Krauss debate—whether or not an infinitely good God can cause the murder of Canaanite children.  Such things are interesting, but they only make up the background, IMHO, for the really interesting questions.  For me, the rubber only hits the road when we get to discussions about the ways these issues influence real life; the ways such ideas change policy in places such as public schools.

For example, the discussions can help illuminate one of the most stubborn mysteries of American public education.  To folks like me it remains endlessly surprising that so many Americans support the use of religion in public school.  As readers are aware, majorities of Americans support the inclusion of creationism in public-school science classes.  Americans also often support the notion that prayer and Bible reading can be parts of a public-school experience.

The wide-ranging discussion between Drs. Krauss and Craig sheds some light on this head-scratcher.  In the first conversation, “Has Science Buried God?” Professor Krauss acknowledges that religious belief is the default psychological state for most people.  Krauss agrees that “we all want to believe.”  Such desires, Krauss argued, only demonstrate our own intellectual weakness and laziness, our willingness to accept the simple in favor of the true.  “We have to work hard,” Krauss admonished, “to overcome that desire to believe.”

Not surprisingly, Dr. Craig disagreed. But more interesting to me is that even Professor Krauss conceded that most people will tend toward religious thinking.  Though Krauss repeated his accusation that teaching young children religious ideas amounted to “child abuse,” he still acknowledged that such ideas made the most sense to the most people.

If that is indeed the case, if most people will tend toward religious explanations of life, then it should come as no surprise that they want to teach such religious explanations to their children in public schools.

Indeed, for folks aware of the sometimes-ugly history of American education, Professor Krauss’ position raises some difficult questions.  For example, ought public schools impose ideas on children if those ideas are inimical to those children’s families?  In the 19th century, educational leaders often argued that the King James Version of the Bible must be read in every public school, in spite of the objections of Catholic leaders.  Since the Bible was the truth, these schoolmen reasoned, every child must be forced to hear it.

Such reasoning does not acknowledge the legitimacy of dissent.  It does not recognize the “public” nature of public education.  In order to include the entire community, authentic public education would have to recognize the legitimacy of the beliefs of the community.

Professor Krauss, no doubt, would protest that science classes must teach science, not religion.  But, as he should also acknowledge, the boundaries of science have at times been difficult to define.

If, as I do, we still want to insist that public schools teach evolutionary science and not creationism, we are left with the sticky question: Who decides what is “science”?  A majority of mainstream scientists?  That, I’m guessing, is how scientists like Professor Krauss would argue.

How will that majority opinion protect the legitimate views of dissenters?

And if we want to rely on majority opinion, what about the much larger popular majority that wants creationism taught as science?

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6 Comments

  1. … the boundaries of science have at times been difficult to define.

    Do you believe that the boundaries of religion have been clearly defined?

    Reply
    • Not at all. Nor do I think that Professors Krauss or Craig would argue that religion’s boundaries are firm and impermeable.

      Reply
  2. Donna

     /  September 4, 2013

    Specifically, what is it that creationists are fighting to see taught in the science classroom, or just in schools in general? Besides any Bible reading or prayer.

    Reply
    • I think the most obvious thing creationists want to see in science classrooms is creationism. As you are well aware, there are enormous differences among creationists. Some folks advocate teaching students the weaknesses of evolutionary theory. Others advocate “two models.”

      Reply
  3. Donna

     /  September 5, 2013

    I guess what I meant was, is there some example of any details within these categories I can look at?

    Reply
    • How bout it, everyone? Can anyone direct us to specific curricula or proposed educational plans by creationists? My hunch is that organizations such as the Discovery Institute or the Institute for Creation Research might have suggested guides for teaching. Though I think the ICR studiously avoids suggesting creationist curricula for public schools. I can cite as one example the 1981 “Balanced-Treatment” Law from Arkansas. That Act required the following: “Balanced treatment of creation-science and evolution-science in public schools.”

      Reply

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