Do We Want Religion Taught in Our Schools?

Penn & Teller Creationism Bullshit

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Daniel C. Dennett has argued that religion should be taught in the public schools. What he proposes is that a teacher should first offer a balanced survey of the various religions and then have the freedom to argue for his particular religious, or non-religious viewpoint. His proposal is to introduce a reasonable discussion of religion into the public classrooms. I suspect the reason is because he thinks that in doing so our children will be introduced to other religious viewpoints, it will require students to actually think about and defend their views, and eventually it will produce doubt into these children who may only be hearing one particular viewpoint from their respective parents and churches. It's an interesting and intriguing proposal, which is what European public schools already allow.

In the Penn & Teller video Christians are arguing the same thing with respect to the evidence for creation over evolution. They want teachers to present both sides of the issue. They think Intelligent Design will win the argument. What do you think of these two proposals? Again, I'm intrigued by them both, primarily because I don't think religious viewpoints will win these debates.


John Shuck said...

Nice post, John. Thanks for that clip. I linked to you on my blog. I am curious if the school board has changed its position since then?

Vinny said...

Should we teach Holocaust denial to see if they find that convincing?

Anonymous said...

Vinny, maybe for Dennett it's a matter of strategy, since religion has been treated with kid gloves for far too long.

What exactly is wrong with informing youths that there are Holocaust deniers and how they argue? I heard a fascinating program on the infidel guy show about how the Flat Earth Society argues. One good reason not to bother with these ignorant ideas is that there are so many more valuable lessons to learn in the limited time a teacher has with his students.

But what about a teacher who espouses such views, then what? Well, first we shouldn't grant him a teacher's license!

The role of a teacher in our public schools is sort of problematic. There are socially left-wing and right-wing teachers. Should we allow them to express their personal views or should we censor them?

As far as creation science goes, that might be a different matter. Anyway, you make a good point.

Unknown said...

My road to Atheism actually came through a World Religions class. It got me on the road to wanting to teach the same subject. Luckily, my teacher was, for all intents and purposes, and atheist, who still participated in a light Buddhism, much like Sam Harris, who often speaks of meditation and spirituality, without invoking magical sky wizards.

You're right in mentioning that it could be a tactic because of religion's "no criticism" policy, and is a necessary first step. My girlfriend was an avowed souther baptist until she met me. She stressed that her church was filled with fragile people with fragile minds, which, as a defense mechanism, crawl into a tight roly-poly-esque ball when danger is imminent. Atheists scare them, and any blunt criticisms trigger the wall of idea seperation. Their whole lives are centered around ignoring evidence, so it takes a few clever tricks to get them thinking again.

Moving on, I tend to agree with Daniel here. As long as the subject is approached carefully, I think religious studies are important in terms of a historically and culturally-sound education. It needs to be stressed that none of this is based around any empirical evidence, and that, like most species, most religions over the years have died out, along with their gods.

We all know that the primary reason for an individual's particular religious faith is the faith of their parents, so they often have no exposure to any other takes on the same subject. When they realize, like I did, that everyone, everywhere, has a childish explanation for the wonders of the cosmos, it's possible that more than a few eyes could be opened.

zilch said...

Hmmm... that's a tough call. If many uninformed adults believe that ID has won the debate with evolution, why would schoolkids do any better? It depends upon how the material is presented.

The same is true of Holocaust denial: informing kids that it exists, and hos it works, could be a valuable lesson in critical thinking. But a debate between a Holocaust denier and a historian, just like a debate between an evolution denier and a biologist, might backfire, depending on the rhetorical skills of the debaters and the sophistication of the audience.

It might, at the very least, give students the impression that there is a real controversy here, which is of course exactly the tactic of the IDers, since they don't do any actual science to be peer-reviewed by actual scientists.

But pretending that no one believes in these various denials (strangely enough, evolution deniers are often also global-warming deniers and 9/11 troothers) is also not good. John Milton claimed that the truth would always out, but I'm not so sure.

Btw- my kids got exposed to religion in public schools here in Austria, with the result that both are atheists.

Anonymous said...

Matt and Zilch have supported Dennett I think, especially when Zilch said...

Btw- my kids got exposed to religion in public schools here in Austria, with the result that both are atheists.

Vinny said...

I support Dennett as well as long as ID is taught as religion or philosophy rather than science and Holocaust denial is taught as sociology or psychology rather than history.

Jason said...

This blog should be retitled "Criticizing Christianity" since actually debunking it seems to have fallen by the wayside. :)

Speedwell said...

This blog should be retitled "Criticizing Christianity" since actually debunking it seems to have fallen by the wayside. :)

Debunking something in print is not like a bed that gets unmade and has to be remade, or dishes that get dirty and need to be washed, Jason. If you are bored you should go read the archives.

Anonymous said...

Hi John,
my first reaction is to 'poo-poo' it out of hand, but in the right context it could be properly handled. I suggest three things.
in addition to generally accepted curriculum
- a mandatory comparative religion class.
- a mandatory debate class.
- One of the debate topics for every student should be to defend their faith against an antagonist.

the reason is
1. we should all be familiar with each others religions and cultures.
2. we should all learn how to rationally defend our ideas.

My hypothesis is that when people realize that they can be beat by their own strategy, then they will look for a better way to win, and since physical force is not an option, they will be forced to use the most successful method for gaining knowledge devised by man yet which is the scientific method.

And religion doesn't hold up under scientific scrutiny.

I guess I am saying I support it but with my usual caveat "it depends".

Anonymous said...

On more thing that is part of debate class is that you are assigned to argue for or against things you don't really believe in.

Such as having to defend the death penalty, or limiting voting to a category of people in a population. If a person of a religious persuasion were forced to defend another religious viewpoint, I guarantee it would be an eye-opener.

SadEvilTan said...

Quite fascinating 'Penn & Teller' film clip, the thing which struck me most about it though; when these "Creationists" with their 'pickled brains' are constantly trying to 'bamboozle' people with their 'pie in the sky' notions, -that God made the Earth few thousand years ago, & "Evolution" is just a "Theory"- which 'smacks in the eye' of total ignorance in my view, perhaps that's why they're always shoving it down their throats! Don't you feel as i do if these "creationist's" got a taste of their own medicine they would just 'implode & capitulate', along with their crackpot ideals to boot!....

Harry H. McCall said...

Well stated, Lee Randolph!

I fully agree. It’s when people are given the tools of knowledge on HOW to think and not told (as religion does, ie: dogma) on WHAT to think, that only then can progress be made as history (and Dennett’s book) proves.

Russ said...


I think it's important to note that in clarifying his proposal advocating the teaching of religion in public schools, as laid out in "Breaking the Spell", Dennett contrasted how he thought it would be realized in the public schools versus private / parochial / home schools. Your description here, "What he proposes is that a teacher should first offer a balanced survey of the various religions and then have the freedom to argue for his particular religious, or non-religious viewpoint," characterizes Dennett's basic view of how the non-public sectors would approach the topic, and, indeed, outlines the current state of affairs for the non-public student. For the public school circumstance, however, the quote above mischaracterizes how the teacher would be allowed to follow up the religion lessons.

Regarding public schools, Dennett suggests a religion cirruculum teaching only a core set of facts about the various religions. To him, the teacher in the public school setting presents a body of accepted factual data about various religions -- kosher means...; the Twelfth Imam is ...; Buddha was ...; Vishnu was born ... -- then, the teacher's job is done, and in accordance with the First Amendment, the teacher's personal views about religion are kept to himself. Dennett does not advocate for public school teachers being allowed to force their religious ideas on a classroom of vulnerable students under any circumstances. Dennett's idea does not require that the First Amendment's Establishment Clause be revoked to implement it.

In both the public and non-public spheres, Dennett proposes that a broad overview of many religions be presented. He does not suggest permitting coercive religious indoctrination by public school teachers.

On a personal note, while I think the spirit of the idea has merit -- show students that there is more than one religion in the world and that their myriad notions and conceptions run the gamut of human wishful thinking -- I don't think it is implementable. Why? Using Christianity as the example, but noting that the same holds true of essentially all religions, I don't think you could ever achieve a consensus among Christians concerning what constitutes a core of Christian belief. No matter what you taught as Christian doctrine, you would necessarily exclude millions of people calling themselves Christian.

Just as some critics of today's highest profile atheists -- Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Dennett -- look at the arguments they make and say, "That's not my religion," so, too, would most religious persons be able to look at the part of the public school cirruculum addressing their particular religion and say the same.

When thinking about evolution and id, one must realize that one of them, evolution, is a concrete reality well-supported by vast amounts of evidence along many converging lines from many scientific disciplines, and having great explanatory and predictive power, while the other, intelligent design, is an entirely contrived conception manifesting itself as a marketing campaign for a dolled-up Christian creationism by members of the Discovery Institute. ID has no substance, no truth, no validity. The DI dichotomy having evolution as one side and ID as the other is truly false and completely fabricated.

Even according to the DI's own Wedge Strategy documents, Intelligent Design is a restatement, repackaging and retelling of Christianity's creationism. Before science uncovered the existence of atoms, molecules, proteins, nucleic acids and the like, Christians claimed their God just blinked whole species into being. Ignorance of the natural world allowed this view to prevail for most of a couple millennia. Darwin and his intellectual descendents, however, have proven that that the species-blinking-God idea is completely wrong. The common man can read Darwin or Gould or Eldridge or Dawkins and reach the same conclusion. So, the DI has searched the scientific literature and found for themselves unexplored realms of the common man's ignorance where they can comfortably settle in: biochemistry and information theory. Ideas that are far enough removed from the everyday experience of life that the DI's claims can't be easily questioned by their own followers and those same ideas can only be refuted by persons who can be dismissed out-of-hand for unrelated reasons like arrogance, intellectual elitism, atheism, or being a member of a wrong Christianity.

The common man can reason along with Darwin, or other more contemporary evolutionary biologists, about observable inheritance in organisms, exponential population growth and natural selection, so the DI, like the Christian God, recedes into an ignorance-filled hole - another of those pesky gaps - this time of their own choosing, where their supporters will not be able to follow reasoning and evaluate arguments.

The silly DI-sponsored "debates" pitting evolution against ID, are Wedge Strategy propaganda pure and simple. For the DI target market, as well as the DI marketing team, any show-debate having an ID rep on one side and a scientist on the other, furthers the Wedge Strategy aims in at least two ways. First, it reinforces the false notion that ID is a legitimate scientific discipline worthy of serious consideration. Second, and what is likely even more important to the salesmen from the DI, it strengthens their engineered false dichotomy: the idea that evolution has exactly one recognized competitor, and ID is it. Of course, those hawking ID, also want their constituency to take from such public displays the idea that if one of these is not correct, then the other is, which justifies why the DI's efforts go exclusively into denigrating evolution.

Right now in the scientific community, there exists exactly one idea that allows us to think coherently about the past and present state of life on this planet: evolution. From the standpoint of science, there are not two sides to tell; there is one and only one. So the idea that science and biology teachers should "teach both sides" is a fraud.

What's more, among religious explanations for life yesterday and today, ID is but one of thousands. So, the DI claim that teachers should "teach both sides" is a religious fraud as well as a science fraud.

The nature of this fraud I think lends an elegance Dennett's proposal.

John, you said, "I don't think religious viewpoints will win these debates." Religion lacks any legitimacy or credibility in scientific discourse and they don't agree amongst themselves. To me, that there are a dozen or so versions of Christian creationism deserves a couple of raised eyebrows and at least a hearty chuckle. By itself this underscores how difficult resolving a Christian core would be - there isn't even agreement on how or when their creator created. Religions, of course, can never win arguments concerning the natural world since they are manufactured from the variegated whole cloth of human imagination, superstition, ignorance and perceptual shortcomings - different peoples, different imaginations, different religions and deities. The minions cling to the false promises of religion despite their having been proven dead wrong about statements of fact time and time again. Science, using the independent standard of the natural world as its measure of correctness and plying its rich tradition of annealing hypotheses in the white-hot forge of open exchange, will never lose such arguments over the long haul.

But, the DI does not pursue truth. They seek to hand down their own revelations of ID creationism to define truth. The marketing slogan "teach both sides" is a fraudulent appeal to our almost universal human sense of fairness. The marketing slogan "teach both sides" is intended to sway a largely uninformed public into allowing the science upon which modern life depends to be defined by the same traditions, revelations and authority that defines religion. Then, since science, too, will be manufactured from the variegated whole cloth of human imagination, superstition, ignorance and perceptual shortcomings we will be able to say different peoples, different imaginations, different religions and deities, and we can add different science.

B H said...

As I see it, it all depends on the context and methods employed. If ID was taught in a biology class as a scientific theory as confirmed through evidence as contemporary theories of evolution or abiogenesis, that would be wrong and doing the students a disservice. If the ID controversy was taught during a unit on the philosophy or sociology of science, that would be appropriate and I would personally be for it. I honestly think more state science curricula should devote an entire semester to the scientific method and how science works rather than the one- or two-day review that most school's provide each semester. I've taught lessons on media-literacy, and students gobble that stuff up. I imagine they would enjoy lessons that encouraged them to be little smart-asses about popular pseudosciences like immortality rings or homeopathy.

As for Dennet's plan for a change in religious studies: I think religion is one of the most fascinating aspects of the human condition. Any anthropology, history, psychology, or sociology class that didn't spend a lot of time on the subject would be ignoring a great deal of human experience. Quite a few high schools seem to offer religions of the world or religious history courses, but I agree with the others that these could go a lot further. Instead of memorizing the Ten Commandments, the Five Pillars, or the Four Noble Truths, I think students should study religion from a psychological or diachronic perspective with each unit driven by a thematic focus, not a "religion of the week" approach.

Mufasa said...

I noticed that the comment policy says that any comment that is disrespectful or harassing will be taken off. i find this particularly humorous, because the entire Penn&Teller show is called "bullshit" and directly insults believers in creationism. The entire episode consists of them mocking and ridiculing believers. Perhaps whoever reads this is familiar with the logical fallacy "ad hominem" or attacking the speaker.
That is all Penn&Teller do! They attack Christians, saying that creationism has no science. Maybe they should be reminded that evolution defies scientific laws, like the laws of biogenesis, law of kinds, and the second law of thermodynamics. Creationism corresponds just fine with all the laws of science, and not everyone believes in 6 day creation, some believe in the "Old Earth" theory, which suggests that each "day" in the Bible is a period of time, because the word "day" in Hebrew means "a set period of time." Even Darwin didnt even really his theory working out. Plus, its not even a theory, since it cannot be observed or tested. Evolution isnt "science" since its not even a theory. By their own definition evolution shouldnt be taught in schools!

Honestly, there is no harm in teaching creationism alongside evolution as a separate unit. There are plenty of scientific facts that can be supported by creationism, and there are plenty of holes and fallacies that arent discussed about evolution (especially "vestigial organs," because there is no such thing).
What is happening right now is that kids in public schools are being LIED to by teachers and their text books. Evolution is based on assumptions, and it takes more faith to believe in that than creation.

Mufasa said...

By teaching evolution alone in schools, the government is saying that all religious beliefs are wrong. I dont know of any teacher that presented evolution as really a theory, at least where i'm from. It is presented as fact, which is a slap in the face to anyone who is religious.

goprairie said...

Mufasa says: By teaching evolution alone in schools, the government is saying that all religious beliefs are wrong.

No, the government is not making any statement at all about religion by that. They are merely saying that evolution fits the criteria for science and religion does not belong in science class.

Mudafa says: I dont know of any teacher that presented evolution as really a theory, at least where i'm from. It is presented as fact, which is a slap in the face to anyone who is religious.

It is presented as a fact inthe way laymen use the term, just like it is presented that gravity is a fact. It is described as a theory in science class just the way gravity is decribed a theory. Yours is an attempt to mix common usage and scientific usage of terms. In the world of science, which is what schools teach, evolution IS regarded as the current facts of how thing got to be the way they are. Intelligent design or creationism or any other view does not meet the criteria for defining science and therefore do not get to be in science curriculum.

Unknown said...

"which is what European public schools already allow."

Hum, it's true that we like controversy in European schools, but we don't teach creationism.
I know nobody who believes in creationism in France, we are too rational people.