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Why Do We Have Public Education?
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John Wilkins stirred the pot over at ScienceBlogs by crapping on a talk by Richard Dawkins.

He seems to be mad at Dawkins for trying to change people's minds about religion. Among other things, Wilkins said:

In particular I was annoyed that those of us who do not condemn someone for holding religious beliefs were caricatured as "feeling good that someone has religion somewhere". Bullshit. That is not why we dislike the Us'n'Themism of TGD. We dislike it because no matter what other beliefs an intelligent person may hold, so long as they accept the importance of science and the need for a secular society, we simply do not care if they also like the taste of ear wax, having sex with trees, or believing in a deity or two. Way to go, Richard. Good bit of framing and parodying the opposition. Real rational.

I kind of want to pull way back and look at the very general issue here: To what extent should we care about what other people believe?

Wilkins says he doesn't care what other beliefs people hold as long as they accept the importance of science and the need for a secular society. But isn't there a correlation between people's views about religion and their acceptance of the importance of science and the need for a secular society? In my experience, the more religious a person is, the more they want their religion to spread and permeate the culture in which they live. They tend to identify with a "religious America", not a secular one.

And pulling back even further, why do we even bother with public education? If we really don't care what people believe, then why do we have any sorts of standards about what children are taught? And why does tax money go to teach it?

I have an idea: Because maybe what our fellow citizens believe actually impacts our lives. If you are an elderly single woman (with lots of cats) living in a society where people strongly and actively believe in witches, and that they should be burned if they're discovered...well, this might actually have an impact on your life, no?

There is the sense in which, as a collective group our individual welfare depends in large degree on the beliefs and behaviors of those around us. I would personally like to live in a society where there is valuation of science and evidence, where people are more likely to use rational explanations for things like disease and other natural phenomena. I think the less educated and less rational the members of my society are, the worse decisions they will tend to make as a democracy, and the less they will value the things Wilkins says he would like them to value.

If we really don't care what other people think, then tell me why we have public schools at all?

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