Sunday, April 25, 2010

sheltering children from reality

I often wonder what it must be like for someone who believes in a traditional religious account of existence to see a picture like this. It's the Hubble Ultra Deep Field exposure, a picture of the sky about the size of a crater on the moon, taken over the course of 11.3 days of viewing time. It reveals about 10,000 galaxies, the very first to emerge after the Big Bang which occurred 14 billion years ago. It suggests a universe so vast and ancient that it renders the human scale of space and time utterly insignificant by comparison.

I thought of this today having read this article in Wired about a school district which would not allow its third, fourth, and fifth graders to learn about the theory of evolution.
“While evolution is a robust scientific theory, it is a philosophically unsatisfactory explanation for the diversity of life. I could anticipate that a number of our parents might object to this topic,” wrote Ribbens. “It is not appropriate to have [Darwin's] work or the theory part of the TAG program since the topic is not age appropriate.”

Ribbens explained further, “Evolution touches on a core belief — Do we share common ancestry with other living organisms? What does it mean to be a human being? I don’t believe that this core belief is one in which you want to debate with children or their parents, and I know personally that I would be challenged in leading a 10-year-old through this sort of discussion while maintaining the appropriate sensitivity to a family’s religious beliefs or traditions.”
I fail to see what is special about the theory of evolution in this regard. There are thousands of religions in existence, all of which have different accounts of the creation. Some of them have tens of millions of adherents. Why some people believe in the Christian version is an accident of where they happened to be born. This challenges the Bible-centric view of the world, so clearly children should be taught that these cultures don't exist. Furthermore, if it's true that the earth goes around the sun, it's rather strange that we don't see the stars move. That would only happen if the universe visible to the naked eye is already unimaginably vast—far greater in extent than seems necessary to a Christian account of the world and hence a deep challenge to it. Better to protect children from the view that the earth goes around the sun, then. And naturally there's no way to teach children about rocks without also bringing in the processes that form them. Since the amount of time those processes take is longer than that allowed in the creation story, better to just ignore rocks as well.

The fact is that there's no way to think about the world even a little bit and not contradict the traditional religious account of it. Even the most moderate, open-minded, liberal Christians have to engage in mental gymnastics to preserve the bare rudiments of their belief in the face of the world. So my point is that there's nothing you can do from the point of view of a science educator (or likely any educator) to keep from challenging traditional religious beliefs. I think evolution is especially threatening because the implications for human behavior and morals are more immediate as compared with, for example, the fact that there are 7 with 22 zeros after it stars in the observable universe, and many many more planets besides. But almost anywhere you look, be it your neighbors down the street (if you don't live in a culturally and ethnically uniform suburb), or the stars in the sky, there is a challenge to the traditional religious view of the world.

The individual quoted is clearly right in one respect: it's about the meaningfulness or lack thereof of human existence. There's a specter of nihilism behind it. And there's probably racism and patriarchy behind it, too, because let's face it, while those two trends and extreme religiosity do not always go hand in hand, they often do. But that's all the more reason that children need to be exposed to these problems at an early age. They need to develop the right sorts of reflexes toward the world, so that they take the problem as part of the furniture of the universe, something to be dealt with constructively, and not something to try to ignore or just react emotionally and defensively to.

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