What’s the Matter with “Thoughts from Kansas”? (Part 1)

In a recent post, I argued that mandating the teaching evolution by government fiat is not only ineffective but illiberal, divisive, and counterproductive.

I always like to preface my comments on this subject with the disclaimer that I am a card-carrying evolutionist. Joshua Rosenau, a grad student in ecology and evolutionary biology who blogs at “Thoughts from Kansas,” is unconvinced. He writes that my “consistent treatment of evolution as if it were anti-religious by its nature suggests that [my] views are more… nuanced than [I’m] letting on.”

This comment is worth exploring. Let’s start with an excerpt from a recent interview with Richard Dawkins, one of the most influential evolutionary biologists of our time:

Terrence McNally: When and how did you become an atheist?

Richard Dawkins: I suppose it was discovering Darwinism. I was confirmed into the Church of England at the age of thirteen. I then got pretty skeptical about it, but retained some respect for the argument from Design – the argument that says living things look as though they’ve been designed, so they probably have been. I then learned the real scientific explanation for why they look as though they’ve been designed, and that was enough for me. I lost my religious faith pretty much then.

Evolution isn’t so much anti-religious as un-religious. While it is possible (indeed common) to simultaneously understand evolution and be religious, it is not necessary to be religious once you understand evolution. The existence of humanity can be explained by purely natural causes, so “God the Creator” becomes an extraneous assumption. And when hardcore empiricists come across an extraneous assumption, they, like Richard Dawkins, have a tendency to pull out Ockham’s razor and shave it off. (And if my own views on this subject are relevant: I liked Ockham’s razor so much, “I bought the company.”)

Learning about evolution thus leads at least some people find religion superfluous. But many believers see faith in God as crucial to individual morality and even to the survival of civilization, so naturally they are apprehensive about the teaching of human origins as a purely natural process. In fact, opposition to scientific materialism was the main motivation behind the creation of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture – the chief advocacy organization for “Intelligent Design” and “teaching the [purported] controversy” over evolution.

So, even though natural evolution is not intrinsically incompatible with faith, it is decidedly unpopular with many of the faithful.

That’s one important clarification out of the way. Here is another. Joshua characterizes my argument as follows: “his claim is that the only way to end the wars over creationism would be to let children learn whatever they want in schools that their parents pay with other people’s tax dollars.” That last bit is mistaken.

I am highly conscious of the social conflicts that arise when people are compelled to pay for instruction that violates their convictions – as paying for creationist schools would likely violate Joshua’s. In fact, that compulsion is one of the key causes of our never-ending battles over the content of public schooling. That was a central point of the paper by Neal McCluskey that launched this conversation.

Fortunately, there is a way to ensure universal school choice without forcing anyone to pay for instruction that offends their deeply held values: cut taxes on middle income families so they can spend more of their own money on their own kids’ education, and offer tax credits for donations to private scholarship granting organizations.

The tax cuts, or personal use tax credits, already exist in Illinois, though they are very limited in size. Essentially, parents who choose to shoulder the cost of their own children’s education would receive a dollar for dollar reduction in their state and local taxes, up to some pre-determined limit. This would put government and non-government schools on a more even financial playing field, and bring the option of independent schooling within easy reach of far more families.

But personal use tax credits can’t help low-income families that have little or no tax burden. To serve those families, tax credits would be offered to businesses and individuals who donate to private scholarship granting organizations (SGOs). Those organizations would, in turn, provide tuition assistance to low-income families. Such programs already exist in Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Florida, though they, too, are currently quite limited in scope.

Combining and expanding these two kinds of tax credit programs would ensure universal access to public and private schools of parents’ choosing, without forcing anyone to pay for schooling that violated their convictions. Taxpayers, not just parents, would have choice, since they could pick the SGO to which they made their donations (or choose not donate to such an organization at all). Pennsylvania has 42 SGOs, and Arizona has more than 140. It isn’t hard to find one consistent with your values, whatever those values happen to be.

I’ll respond to Joshua’s other thoughts from Kansas in a subsequent post.