Respect Freedom of Conscience: Teach Science, Not Metaphysics

Ronald A. Lindsay

What Haley and McGowan advocate seems less like the future of secularism than like a betrayal of it.

Jeff Haley and Dale McGowan vigorously contend that public school educators should affirmatively teach there are “no gods, souls, or afterlife.” Of course, they recognize that their view of the appropriate curriculum for public schools has no chance of being adopted—now. But as “soon as a political majority no longer believes these things,” we can have Johnnie and Jane recite “There is no god” 100 times, while bobbing their heads back-and-forth in rhythm to the song “Imagine” in the Haley/McGowan version of a madrassa.

Put another way: while many secularists believe the words “under God” should be stricken from the Pledge of Allegiance, in contrast, Haley and McGowan apparently think the Pledge should be amended by adding the word not before “under God.”

The Haley/McGowan proposal is both a betrayal of the fundamental principles of secularism and highly impractical. Moreover, were it to be implemented it would harm rather than benefit the teaching of science.

As John Locke first argued, the state should confine itself to affairs of this world; civil authorities have no competence in metaphysical matters. Every person has the right to come to one’s own conclusions about gods without compulsion, prodding, or oversight by the state. It’s this rationale that secularists have long used to argue that public school educators should not introduce God, religious dogma, or religious exercises into the classroom. There’s no need for the God hypothesis to understand biology, chemistry, physics, or, for that matter, civics.

Haley and McGowan argue this is a misunderstanding of secularism. It’s just “legal sophistry,” and we can dispense with this sophistry once atheists achieve power and can dictate “the facts” to schoolchildren. To this, I can only say freedom of conscience is a core human right, and it’s beyond distressing when fellow nonbelievers show such little regard for it.

Turning to practicality, nowhere, either in their book or in their current essay, do Haley and McGowan provide specifics on how their “facts” about gods, the afterlife, and souls are to be incorporated into the typical public school curriculum. If there is no pedagogical need to assert that God exists while explaining evolution, there is also no pedagogical need to insist that God doesn’t exist while explaining evolution. God’s nonexistence doesn’t add one iota to the students’ understanding of evolution, organic chemistry, or quantum physics.

If one has difficulty discerning how God’s nonexistence is supposed to be incorporated into day-to-day science classes, one is completely baffled by the Haley/McGowan contention that public schools should also teach that heaven and hell don’t exist. What—is this part of a geography lecture?

But Haley and McGowan exclaim, “The state should teach all scientific truths to … all children, including the truth about souls and gods.” What scientific truths would these be? I recognize that many of my fellow atheists believe that science can disprove God’s existence. I beg to differ. Science can (and should) be taught without the God hypothesis, but that’s different from disproving God’s existence scientifically.

My sense is that Haley and McGowan operate with a concept of God that, admittedly, is still probably held by many naive believers. But that concept doesn’t correspond to the concept of God that many sophisticated believers hold, and the arguments these believers employ are not as easy to knock down as the claim that rain is Zeus urinating through a sieve.

Consider the expanding family of fine-tuning arguments. For a summary of some of these arguments, please consult the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/fine-tuning/). Do you understand these dense arguments? Do you think your average public school teacher understands these arguments sufficiently well to refute them? Do you want your teachers spending their time trying to master these arguments? I don’t, in part because it’s hard enough to get one’s science straight.

Proof of that last claim is conveniently found in the Haley/McGowan essay itself. These learned gentlemen list a number of assertions that they maintain are scientific truths, some of which they say are currently taught in schools. Number 5 of their list is the assertion “that humans evolved from apes and have no more divine qualities than chimpanzees.” To begin, I’m pretty sure the last part of that assertion is not taught in many public schools. Principled secular educators don’t get into discussions of “divine qualities.” But the more important point is that Haley and McGowan are just dead wrong, and embarrassingly so, when they unqualifiedly claim that “humans evolved from apes” is a scientific truth. Uh, no. This assertion, unfortunately, is based on a common misconception about evolution. It’s a misconception that plays right into the hands of creationists who, when they encounter this claim, understandably ask: “Then why are there still apes? Didn’t they catch the evolution bus?”

Humans did not evolve from apes. Humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor, splitting off from this common ancestor five to eight million years ago.

This is not a mere quibble. It’s important for understanding how evolution works, and the fact that Haley and McGowan are mistaken about this fundamental fact by itself shows the wisdom of having our public school teachers concentrate on science and forego delving into metaphysics.

Ronald A. Lindsay

Ronald A. Lindsay is the former president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. Currently, he is senior research fellow for CFI and adjunct professor of philosophy at Prince George’s Community College.


What Haley and McGowan advocate seems less like the future of secularism than like a betrayal of it. Jeff Haley and Dale McGowan vigorously contend that public school educators should affirmatively teach there are “no gods, souls, or afterlife.” Of course, they recognize that their view of the appropriate curriculum for public schools has no …

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