Ignorance Unto Death

It is a dilemma at the heart of Christian faith: To know or to obey? The original sin of Adam & Eve, after all, was to become as gods by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This week, a state supreme court judge in Oregon faced the unenviable task of ruling whether faithful people knew by faith or by fact. Not surprisingly, she punted. Especially in schools and universities, questions of knowledge and faith will continue to bedevil us all. I’m arguing in upcoming books that religious people deserve considerable wiggle room when it comes to requiring knowledge about evolution or US history, but it’s not impossible for policy-makers to be bolder than they have been.

What did you know? And when did you know it?

What did you know? And when did you know it?

In the Oregon case, two parents from a strict religious sect were convicted in 2011 in the death of their infant son David. The boy had been born prematurely. The parents did not call for medical help but rather treated David at home. After nine hours, David died. Were the parents criminally liable for their faith-based failure to get medical help?

Oregon Supreme Court Justice Virginia Linder recently said yes. Sort of.

For our purposes, the most intriguing elements of this case are the tangled web of meanings in this case surrounding faith and knowledge. If the parents “knowingly” allowed their baby to suffer from treatable ailments, according to Oregon law, then they are criminally liable. But they hoped to force the state to prove that they “knew” it. They hoped to force the government to prove that they must know something that they refused to know.

Justice Linder did not decide the big question. Instead, she noted that the parents defended their actions with a different set of knowledge claims. The parents said they did not know the baby was sick. They said he appeared healthy until the very last minute. Doctors disagreed. They said any reasonable person could have discerned that the baby was in severe medical crisis.

In other words, the parents did not claim that they “knew” their faith could save the baby. They said instead that they didn’t “know” he was so very sick. The parents DID insist that the state had to prove that they “knowingly” refused care to their baby. As Linder summarized,

At trial, defendants argued that, because they withheld medical treatment from David based on their religious beliefs, the Oregon Constitution requires the state to prove that they acted “knowingly”—that is, they knew that David would die if they relied on prayer alone and, despite that knowledge, failed to seek medical treatment for him.

Justice Linder affirmed earlier court decisions that the parents were guilty of criminal neglect for their actions. The state, she ruled, did not have to prove that they “knew” of the harm they caused. But she did not decide if the parents must have known something they refused to know.

The complexity of the case shows yet again the durability of questions of knowledge and faith. Can the government insist that parents provide medical care for their children? In Oregon, yes. But can the government insist that parents “knew” their child needed medical care? That is a far more difficult question, and one that this ruling painstakingly sidesteps.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, nowhere do these questions of faith and knowledge clash more regularly and predictably than in the area of education. Can the government require that students “know” evolution? …that kids “know” how to prevent sexual transmitted infections? …that kids “know” how the first humans came to North America?   Also, how have private schools and universities attempted to shield young people from these sorts of knowledge?

Alas, secular progressive types like me cannot relax and claim that public schools should always promote knowledge over ignorance. After all, I agree that certain types of knowledge are not appropriate for certain groups of students. For example, we should teach all children about horrifying historical episodes, such as lynching in the USA or the Holocaust.   But we should not expose young children to gruesome images of charred corpses, sexually mutilated before being lynched. At least, I don’t think we should.

Such images are true. People should know about them. But I do not think seven-year-old children should be exposed to that sort of knowledge. I agree that schools should work to keep young children ignorant about such knowledge, even though I acknowledge that it is true and important.

The difference, in other words, is not that conservative religious people want to keep knowledge from children, while progressive secular folks want to give knowledge to children. The difference is only in what sorts of knowledge we want to shield students from, and how.

As I argue in a chapter in an upcoming book about ignorance and education, we can see these questions starkly exposed in the history of curriculum for private conservative evangelical schools. I looked at US History textbooks produced by Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Book. In each case, from the 1980s to the end of the twentieth century, publishers made claims about historical knowledge in each succeeding edition that were farther and farther afield from mainstream historical thinking.

Know this, not that.

Know this, not that.

In a later edition, for example, a history textbook from A Beka explained that humanity expanded around the globe after the fall of the Tower of Babel. Obviously, that is a very different explanation from what kids would read in a mainstream textbook. Publishers like A Beka hoped to shield students from mainstream knowledge about history by replacing it with an alternate body of knowledge. These textbooks do not simply try to create ignorance by blocking knowledge, but rather try to foster ignorance about a certain sort of knowledge by producing a convincing set of alternate knowledge.

When it comes to evolution, too, questions of knowledge and belief quickly become tangled and tricky. I’m arguing in an upcoming book with co-author Harvey Siegel that students in public schools must be required to “know” evolution. But too many public-school enthusiasts, we argue, have a cavalier attitude about this sort of knowledge. Yes, students must “know” and “understand” the claims of evolutionary theory. But if they choose not to believe them, that is their business.

Perhaps an easier way to make the distinction is to say that public-school students can be required to “know about” evolution. They must be able to explain it correctly. They must be able to describe accurately its main points. But if they think it would harm their religious beliefs to say they “know” that humans evolved via natural selection, then they have the right to insist that they only “know about” it.

It’s not an easy distinction. Nor was it easy for Justice Linder to decide what to say about the Oregon case. Do parents have the right to their religious beliefs? Yes. Can they not know something that everyone else knows? Yes, certainly. Do they have the right to insist on that relative ignorance if it causes palpable harm to others? Not in Oregon.

But this ruling does not decide if the parents in this case “knew” that their faith would save Baby David. It only states that parents do not have the right to insist that the government prove that they knew it.

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  1. Agellius

     /  October 15, 2015

    “The difference, in other words, is not that conservative religious people want to keep knowledge from children, while progressive secular folks want to give knowledge to children. The difference is only in what sorts of knowledge we want to shield students from, and how.”

    Thank you!!

  2. The real “ignorance unto death” issue is climate change. Evolution is not nearly as consequential, but Creationists have played the “useful idiot” by helping foster a great deal of anti-intellectual, anti-science skepticism from the right. Even “moderate” fundamentalist/evangelical Americans, the “Intelligent Design” movement, and organizations like the John Templeton Foundation have funded and promoted climate change denial. As it comes out that Exxon proved and has secretly believed in climate change and its harsh consequences for decades, schools that dignify anti-reality and unreason as a “religious perspective” are helping to hasten our collective suicide.

    • No argument here. That sort of deliberate creation of doubt has a record in other tragic cases as well. As historian Robert Proctor documented, tobacco company executives paid for respectable studies to throw doubt on the health dangers of smoking. Literal ignorance unto death. To me, the more difficult issue to understand is cases like the textbooks described above, cases in which those peddling doubt really believe it themselves.

      • To what extent have you seen climate change denial treated like creationism in public schools? Is it an issue or just not nearly as common?

        I’m thinking these days that the Evangelical center feels really duped and lied to by movement conservatism, and as certain issues (gay marriage, the environment, some economic issues, racial justice) resolve into an accepted mainstream view even in Evangelical circles there will be more of a split in that culture and voting bloc.

        All these issues are related because the older conservative positions assume a kind of premodern or early modern theistic ontology that has its last holdouts in conservative Jewish, Christian and even Islamic natural law theory. These may seem like odd bedfellows but their common ground is Aristotle through Aquinas, Maimonedes, and Averroes. The Discovery Institute (Intelligent Design foundation) even had (has?) a Muslim researcher on board, IIRC.

      • The NCSE has linked the two issues of evolution and climate-change denialism.

    • Agellius

       /  October 20, 2015

      “schools that dignify anti-reality and unreason as a “religious perspective” are helping to hasten our collective suicide”

      Well, we claim to want freedom and democracy. That’s what it looks like. Take it or leave it.

      • I was specifically referring to climate change denial. That doesn’t seem to be a conservative Catholic issue, just as evolution denial isn’t either.

  3. Agellius

     /  October 20, 2015

    What, am I only allowed to speak on Catholic issues? : )

    I’m just saying, people have the right to be unreasonable in a democracy: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Right?

    Christians of varying stripes feel that our media and government and public schools “dignify anti-reality and unreason” constantly, and that this is “helping to hasten our collective suicide” as well. Welcome to our world.

    • I have plenty of experience with the anti-reality zones of the religious right. You do not have a problem, as a theist and Catholic, with an old earth, Adam and Eve as non-historical figures, and evolution as a biological process — correct? That’s my assumption because you’ve never indicated otherwise, and this is pretty normal thinking for Catholics of all kinds. I haven’t seen you mention climate change as something you disbelieve either, but that’s become more of a broadly “conservative” thing. Your usual axe grinding has to do with abortion and gay marriage, which you are alluding to now. Perhaps you should consider the “relativism” this implies — your views on some biological and theological matters (human origins) is deeply threatening to certain other Christians whose views on other biological and theological matters (human sexuality) are threatening to you. There is not a unifying “Christian” view by any means; it is simply the psychology and politics of reaction that unites a “Christian” voting bloc so it can be exploited.

      It isn’t unreasonable to define/interpret reality according to some type of personal+inherited cultural narratives. It is politically unreasonable and often morally wrong to do this in ways that come into violent, disordering conflict with other people in the same society. It is intellectually unreasonable to do this when there are adequate means of evaluating truth claims for their fidelity to reality. Since you feel beholden to a middle-modern dogmatization of certain Aristotelian Christian readings of the Bible and an ancient philosophical-theological heritage for your notion of “human nature” and “social norms” — rather than the facts and findings of several hard and social sciences — you are experiencing this conflict on the political level. If you expose yourself to it in the intellectual domain (hopefully by deeper reading than this blog) then you experience it on that level too. I think it’s possible to resolve both conflicts and remain an orthodox, even conservative Catholic or Protestant, but the Aristotelian metaphysical baggage has got to go. As Aladair MacIntyre has suggested, keep the Philosopher for ethics and maybe aesthetics, but not for human biology and law.

  4. Agellius

     /  October 20, 2015

    No problem with old earth. Evolution I’m openminded on. Not convinced that it explains everything it purports to explain, but I don’t have a problem with it being taught as the best available science currently. I don’t “disbelieve” climate change, but I’m not a zealous believer either. Assuming it’s true, I consider the best course to take in response, to be a prudential matter on which people of good will may disagree.

    I think there is a unified Christian view on a lot of things, but granted, there is not a unified Christian view in the arena of politics. This is because politics is not about revealed truth but the prudential application of principles to concrete situations, on which even Christians who agree theologically may disagree in good faith.

    Causing violence and disorder is generally against the law. If two sides clash in a violent and disorderly way, the one who physically instigates the violence and disorder is the one at fault. According to my understanding of the principles of liberal democracy, the law should take no notice of the “personal+inherited cultural narratives” of either side in the conflict. So long as one remains non-violent, one may be as unreasonable, politically or otherwise, as one wishes.

    I find no necessary conflict between my philosophy/theology and the findings of the “hard” sciences. My disagreements with modern science generally only occur where it crosses the boundary into philosophy/theology, where it has no business going.

    • When you position yourself that way minus the culture warring and BO stuff you sound a million times more reasonable than most of the vocal Evangelical right.

      Being such willing political tools has made religious and populist conservatives into reactionaries who are wasting a critical window of time in which environmental and immigration/racial/pluralism questions can be settled with a minimum of social disorder. Beyond that there is also a real question of the basis for justice (law and ethics) in a post-metaphysical materialist modernity where the loss of their historic, transcendent ground (some sort of Classical-Judaeo-Christian-Idealist framework) is ignored by too-comfortable secularists as long as the lights stay on and bungled by the religionists, especially those who are fairly sure the wheels will come off.

  5. Agellius

     /  October 20, 2015

    “Being such willing political tools has made religious and populist conservatives into reactionaries …”

    Isn’t there the possibility that they’re not tools, but believe what they say they believe?

    • It’s not religious beliefs or values that make the religious believer a tool but his belief that the Republicans have ever wished to advance those beliefs or values politically. The desire to align a political order with some notion of “the will of God” is a deeper problem — the premodern totalist equivalent of modern revolutionary ideologies.

      • Agellius

         /  October 20, 2015

        Who do you mean by “the Republicans”? Aren’t a lot of religious believers Republicans, and don’t they want to advance those beliefs or values politically? Granted, not all Republicans believe the same things, and granted, you have to compromise to get things done politically, such that no one gets everything he wants. In that sense, probably no one realistically ever thought that fundamentalist Protestants would get everything they wanted. But that doesn’t mean that they have had no real influence on the political process, just as true-blue leftists have gotten nowhere near everything they want, but nevertheless have certainly influenced the course of politics in the United States over the course of decades.

      • They have no coherent idea of what their beliefs and values are or how to advance them politically. other than trying to block what their adversaries advance. The whole “standing athwart history and screaming ‘stop!'” thing… Yes you can call throwing monkey wrenches into the works “influence”… it has effects.

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