Why Atheists should be Libertarians

Atheists and other supporters of evolution are understandably irritated that creationists want to have their ideas taught in science classes in public schools. The irritation is understandable because creationism cannot be science by definition because science is concerned with examining evidence obtained in the natural world, not the supernatural, which is a necessary ingredient in any creationist theory.

What is less understandable is why (some) atheists find it necessary to require the teaching of evolution – even in private schools – as was the case in the province of Quebec in 2007: http://www.lifesitenews.com/ldn/2007/aug/07081701.html

The story indicates that a Mennonite school in Quebec was told to comply with the provincial curriculum, which included sections on evolution and homosexuality that the school found objectionable. I don’t know what laws private schools or homeschoolers are under in the state of Iowa or anywhere else in the US, but apparently in Quebec all institions of education, public and private, must abide by the same curriculum.

The reason I bring up this story is because it occurs to me that many atheists would side with the state on this matter and require the Mennonites to teach the state-approved material, on the grounds that the children need to learn the things the state wants to teach them. My argument is that if what you want is for more people to accept evolution as fact or be more tolerant of homosexuals, which I think is what most atheists want, then these kinds of laws are in fact counterproductive to that end.

My logic is this: There will be a greater backlash against evolution or whatever it is you’re promoting if the people you’re trying to reach feel that it’s being forced upon them, which in this case it clearly is. Thoughtful Christians who may otherwise see the logic of evolution and adjust their religious views accordingly will be turned off by the tactics of evolutionists who evidently think the only way Christians will ever accept the theory is through coercion.

Additionally, the fact that the teaching of evolution is mandated will shift the debate away from the supporting science and to something altogether different such as freedom of conscience or freedom of choice, which the creationists can now rightly argue they do not have.

The solution to the problem then is to allow theists to teach their children whatever they want to. If it really is the case that evolution provides us with a better understanding of the world than does creationism, as I believe, then the theists will eventually reach this conclusion as well if they want their children to succeed in scientific endeavors where a knowledge of evolution is essential.

Therefore, atheists should support greater educational freedom on the grounds that it will make evolution more palatable to theists than through government mandate. Notice that it makes sense for atheists to adopt this position even if they care not at all about individual liberty.

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8 Responses to “Why Atheists should be Libertarians”

  1. E Says:

    Your discussion seems to conflate to points, each of which I may disagree with you.

    First there is the empirical claim. Your say: “There will be a greater backlash against evolution or whatever it is you’re promoting if the people you’re trying to reach feel that it’s being forced upon them.” But this is an empirical statement, which you summarily answer without inquiry into any sociological data. Backlash may be a factor to consider, but there are many other factors. Some people’s belief’s about evolution and homosexuality might be changed by exposure to knowledge about these concepts, which they would not otherwise choose to expose themselves to.

    But there also seems to be an underlying normative claim. Your conclusion does not seem limited in any way. Consider applying your same logic to public school integration. Should Brown v Board of Education have left the decision to local choice? It may be right to do something, independent of the empirical claim (especially where the answer to the empirical claim is uncertain).

  2. Andy Hallman Says:

    Thanks for the comments, E.

    What kind of sociological data do you want? If you follow the link to the story, the title is “Forced Education in Homosexuality and Evolution Leads to Exodus of Mennonites from Quebec.” I think it’s pretty clear that the coercive nature of the education is what gets under their skin more than anything.

    Also, I think one of the goals of atheists should be to encourage people to think for themselves and challenge established customs, beliefs and authority figures. Requiring everyone to learn the same kind of science for paternalistic reasons strikes me as the exact opposite of that.

    Regarding schools, I think public schools, because they are owned by everyone, should be open to everyone. I don’t think the government can tax someone to pay for a school and then forbid them from going there.

    However, I think that you should be able to give your private property to whomever you want, and likewise be able to withhold it from whomever you want on your own terms. That means that private schools should be allowed to set their own admissions criteria. I’d be in favor of changing whatever laws conflicted with those two ideas about school choice.

  3. E Says:

    I’m surprised at how much, for an atheist, you seem to rely on deontological ethics.

    To me, if forced education produces a better result than un-forced education, than I have no objection to forced education. The better result I posit might be obtained from forced education is that through knowledge and exposure to evolution and homosexuality, students will be more tolerant and intellectually/morally accommodating to these concepts. For example, although some people may have moved away, those that remained might have become more enlightened than the net of those which would have become enlightened though unforced educational choice. My claim is not this result will be produced, but merely that this is a plausible result, and that absent conclusive sociological data the choice between forced or unforced education should be reserved.

  4. Andy Hallman Says:

    I’m not a deontologist. I suppose I’m in favor of some brand of utilitarianism and I don’t think that contradicts anything I’ve written so far.

    What I had in mind when I wrote this post was a piece of advice for atheists who debate creationists on issues like evolution and how its taught in public or private schools. Generally, it’s a good idea to understand your opponents arguments so you know how to structure your own.

    It’s clear to me that one of the arguments of creationists is that they don’t like the paternalism of – in this case – the government of Quebec telling them what to teach their children. This of course has nothing to do with the truth of evolution but it is something they bring up anyway so it’s worth addressing. If Quebec were not doing what it is doing, then creationists would have one fewer complaint against evolutionists and also one fewer point with which to distract from the real discussion.

    So on the one hand the post was intended merely as a suggestion concerning debate tactics, assuming that there are creationists who can be persuaded through debate, and I think there are. Saying to them “We need to tell you what to teach because you’re too stupid to decide yourself” will probably not go over very well. That’s why I think the libertarian position should be preferred.

    To me, if forced education produces a better result than un-forced education, than I have no objection to forced education.

    That’s my position as well. But whether or not people have control over their own lives matters to me, so I would count that in the final “results”.

    My claim is not this result will be produced, but merely that this is a plausible result, and that absent conclusive sociological data the choice between forced or unforced education should be reserved.

    Here is anecdotal evidence that when the government controls the education, even an avowedly secular government, the government gets it wrong: http://www.skepdic.com/lysenko.html

    The link is about the approach to evolution and science generally under Stalin’s USSR, guided by the philosophy of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko. A quote from the article is illustrative:

    Under Lysenko’s guidance, science was guided not by the most likely theories, backed by appropriately controlled experiments, but by the desired ideology. Science was practiced in the service of the State, or more precisely, in the service of ideology. The results were predictable: the steady deterioration of Soviet biology.

    Granted, the Soviet Union was especially bad but do you know of a government on earth that makes decisions on purely scientific and not political grounds? Shouldn’t that be factored in before we put the state in charge of education?

  5. MrScarletW Says:

    Your articles are fascinating and I cannot wait to read more!

  6. Bob Says:

    Whose liberty is more important? The parents’ to choose what their kids learn, or the kids’ to have the ability to learn about a variety of interesting topics (and become well-educated citizens)? If a school does not teach any biology (i.e., biology with evolution), then the children who go there do not have the ability to take it.

    Now, as to whether private schools should be forced to teach it, I think I agree that it doesn’t make sense to force it directly. However, I do think it makes sense to require it for anything it is required knowledge for. Therefore, I think it makes sense to require the schools to list the curricula that differs from the regional standards on all transcripts.

    Then if someone from Religious Whacko High School, their application to the biology department at Stanford should say “DID NOT TAKE A BIOLOGY CLASS WITH EVOLUTION.”

    And as for the homosexuality issue, I think maybe I disagree with you. Acceptable sex education should be required for all children. If it is, then pregnancies could be reduced, children could avoid sexually transmitted diseases, etc. I would like to hear the benefits of not requiring it — the religious whacko parents will feel better on the inside? That’s special.

    I’m interested in reading more posts, though. Good stuff.

  7. Andy Hallman Says:

    Thanks for the response, Bob.

    Whose liberty is more important? The parents’ to choose what their kids learn, or the kids’ to have the ability to learn about a variety of interesting topics?

    I’m curious to know how the government is protecting the children’s liberty in this case. It seems that the government is not interested in their liberty as they are their beliefs about evolution, which I’ll grant you may be a legitimate concern but a different issue.

    Then if someone from Religious Whacko High School, their application to the biology department at Stanford should say “DID NOT TAKE A BIOLOGY CLASS WITH EVOLUTION.”

    I agree that a diploma from that kind of a school wouldn’t be worth very much if you wanted to go on to study biology in college. Maybe that’s not what they want. I don’t know what they want to get out of their education, but I’m reasonably confident that they have a better idea of whatever that is than I do, so I shouldn’t have the power to tell them to do otherwise.

    And as for the homosexuality issue, I think maybe I disagree with you. Acceptable sex education should be required for all children.

    I don’t know exactly what the Mennonites in Quebec are objecting to. I got the impression that they didn’t want homosexuality mentioned, or at least mentioned to very young children, but maybe they don’t mind if it’s mentioned as long as it’s taught to be “sinful.”

    I have to confess that I haven’t done extensive research into whether abstinence-only education is more effective at reducing STDs or pregnancies, but that wasn’t really the point of my post. I was merely commenting that forcing people to learn anything may cause them to recoil at whatever is being taught, and more strongly than they would otherwise, as evidenced by the way religious groups talk about these issues on their own websites.

  8. Angela Says:

    Andy,
    Just stopped by to say “hi” for now. I love the looks of this blog and the content. I only have a few minutes but I know I will enjoy coming here to read later on. This is the first time I have seen your blog. Great work adn wish you a great Summer. I am so sad that Alex isn’t coming home this Summer. ): Bye – Angela

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