Part II. Plantinga’s Proposal: What should be taught in State Schools?
After drawing the above conclusion, Plantinga asks what should be taught regarding origins in state schools? He suggests two answers; the first is to teach nothing on matters of origins,
One answer is to say: in a pluralistic society like ours, there is no fair way to teach anything about origins; hence public schools ought not to teach anything on that subject. They should instead stick to subjects where there isn't disagreement at the level of religious or comprehensive beliefs. This would be just a reflection of a more general difficulty in having public schools of our sort in a pluralistic society. Perhaps, when the citizens get together to found a system of education, what they discover is that there is too much diversity of opinion to make it feasible.
Plantinga notes that science, as currently practiced, respects a procedure known as methodological naturalism, “the policy of avoiding hypotheses that mention or refer to God or special acts on the part of God, or other supernatural phenomena, or hypotheses whose only support is the Bible, or some other alleged divine revelation.” While there is dispute over whether science should do this, as currently practised, science does involve commitment to methodological naturalism. This means that science operates with a particular epistemic base; while the epistemic base of science will include things such as logic, mathematics, various common-sense beliefs, there will be certain beliefs that will not go into the epistemic base for science (EBS) at least as currently practised, “Among these would be the belief that there is such a person as God, that God has created the world, and that God has created certain forms of life specially--human beings, perhaps, or the original forms of life, or for that matter sparrows and horses.”
Plantinga’s claim that evolution be taught conditionally then amounts to this: Evolution can be taught as the most probable theory relative to the current scientific epistemic base. This, he thinks, is uncontroversial and not likely to contradict anyone’s comprehensive beliefs; even a creationist, for example, can grant that, if one brackets various theological claims and operates on methodological naturalism then evolution is likely. What schools cannot do is teach that any particular epistemic base is the correct one to start from or that what follows from a particular epistemic base is true. Plantinga thinks that creationism could be taught in a similar conditional way in state schools.
Pennock’s Critique of Plantinga
Robert Pennock offers a critique of Plantinga’s position. Pennock contends that a rational person would not grant parents do not have the sort of prima facie rights Plantinga attributes to them. Instead, a rational person would advocate that evolution be taught as true and creationism or any other theological view be excluded from being taught in state schools. He offers two arguments for this conclusion; the first is that,
we all know parents who are bigots or ideologues and others who are simply narrow-minded or ignorant. … A good education may be a child’s only window to a clear picture of the world and to an open future. To agree to a basic right would be to close that window. This would be a serious harm for the children of such parents.
The second and more substantial argument is that accepting parental rights would “gut the curriculum of state schools.”Pennock notes,
… there are thousands of special interests groups that would use such a right to prohibit the teaching of specific facts or even whole subjects they objected to. One does not have to look far to find parents who would object to teaching about racial equality, the facts of reproductive health, or that even that the earth is round. Only the utterly trivial could have a chance of escaping the gag of basic rights. No rational person would agree to such a policy.
First, Pennock misconstrues Plantinga’s position. Plantinga’s view is that, “it is improper, unfair, to teach either creationism or evolution in the schools--that is so, at any rate for areas where a substantial proportion of the parents hold religious or comprehensive beliefs incompatible with either.” [Emphasis added] Consequently, it applies locally not globally. In a Native Indian reserve, for example, it would be unjust for state teaching of things that were contrary to the comprehensive beliefs of Native Indians. It would not follow, however, that one could not teach these things in a school in New York, for example, where there are hardly any Native Indians who continue to believe these cultural practices. Hence, the fact that almost everything is incompatible with someone's comprehensive beliefs is irrelevant. Schools do not have to accommodate the views of everyone; they only need to accommodate the views in their area.
Second, Plantinga stresses that parental rights are prima facie rights not absolute rights; they can be overridden in certain circumstances. Interestingly Plantinga alludes to one such circumstance in the very paper Pennock critiques,
Of course a basic right is a prima facie right… The majority might also insist on teaching the denial of certain comprehensive views, Nazism, for example, in which case the fair thing to do would be to exclude the Nazis from the contract (and also exclude them from the tax liability).
Third, suppose that Pennock is correct and there is too much disagreement over comprehensive views to have a state school system and also respect the rights Plantinga attributes to parents, does it follow that we should not respect parental rights? Not at all, an alternative is to not have state schools; Plantinga notes, “Perhaps, when the citizens get together to found a system of education, what they discover is that there is too much diversity of opinion to make it feasible.” An alternative could be to establish a network of private schools where parents could choose which school meets the needs of their children, basing their decisions in part on their comprehensive beliefs. Some private schools could teach evolution and others could choose not to and parents could choose which ones to send their children to.
In other words, if it is true that it is impossible to have a centralised state education system and accord parents prima facie rights of the sort Plantinga suggests, then that is an argument against having a centralised state education system. It is not, as Pennock suggests, a compelling argument against parental rights.
I conclude then that Plantinga’s position is defensible. Regardless of whether evolution is true or empirically founded it is unjust to teach the children of parents who have theological objections to evolution that it is true. State schools which have a sizeable clientele who hold such views should teach it only conditionally or not at all. Alternatively, the government should allow these people to opt out of state education and grant them a tax rebate.
 Alvin Plantinga “Creation and Evolution: A Modest Proposal” in Robert Pennock Ed Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological and Scientific Perspectives (Cambridge, The MIT Press - Bradford Books, 2001) 787.
 Ibid 789.
 Ibid 787.
 Ibid, 788.
 Alvin Plantinga “Methodological Naturalism?” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith49 (1997) 143-154; M Ruse “Methodological Naturalism Under Fire” South African Journal of Philosophy 24(1)(2005) 44-60.
 Plantinga “Creation and Evolution: A Modest Proposal” 788.
 Robert Pennock “Should Creationism Be Taught in Public Schools?” Science & Education 11(2) (2002) 111-133.
 Ibid 129.
 Ibid 128.
 Ibid 127.
 I am grateful to Alvin Plantinga for his helpful comments here.
 Plantinga “Creation and Evolution: A Modest Proposal” 786.
 Ibid 782.
 Alvin Plantinga suggested this example in correspondence
 Plantinga “Creation and Evolution: A Modest Proposal” 782.
 Ibid 787.
 Here again I am grateful to Alvin Plantinga for confirming this suggestion.
Evolution should not be taught in State Schools: A Defence of Plantinga Part I