Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Richard Dawkins and "Child Abuse"

After Richard Dawkins wrote his best-seller The God Delusion there has been a rash of backlash by many theists who misrepresent his position about religion and children and what Dawkins calls "child abuse."

Throughout the reviews I've written of the books that misrepresent his position I've tried my best to foil such propaganda. Of course, not that Dawkins' position needs to be defended necessarily because he succeeds in expressing his views so clearly. Unfortunately, despite Dawkins' clear language theists still cannot help themselves but take him out of context, allowing their own bigotry and dislike of Dawkins to rule over their more rational state of mind.

In The God Delusion, the very book these theists are arguing against, they often claim that Dawkins is comparing physical abuse to the mental abuse of telling children about hell, and since our culture takes children away from their parents for physical abuse, these people misinterpret Dawkins' message, and believe he wants to keep kids away from their parents if they're going to teach them religion! Nonsense!

The following are a few quotes from those who have spread this common misconception:

From The Truth Behind the New Atheism: Responding to the Emerging Challenges to God and Christianity, by David Marshall - “Dawkins admits his own intention to “focus on,” or intrude in, other peoples' families.” And, “Dawkins is more broad-minded: he thinks children have a right to be indoctrinated into thinking they're all evil, no matter what their parents say.”

From The Irrational Atheist: Dissecting the Unholy Trinity of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, by Vox Day - “While there is no evidence that being raised Catholic is more psychologically damaging than being sexually abused as a child, there is a great deal of evidence proving the opposite.”

From Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins' Case Against God, byScott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker - "Dawkins makes the charge of child abuse with all seriousness, and this brings him to wade into what even he regards as dangerous waters. If it is abuse, then shouldn't children be protected from their parents? Agreeing heartily with psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, Dawkins argues against the notion that parents have a right to educate their own children in their own faith, precisely because children have a right to be protected from harmful nonsense."

What all these quotes have in common is the same wrong-headed reasoning. Each of them have badly taken Richard Dawkins out of context.

Dawkins’ argument was that the fear of hell that is so often instilled in children at a young age is often harmful to a child and that labelling children with the religion of their parents (thus forcing them into a religious belief box and limiting their free choice about what to believe) is “abusive.” On Scienceblogs.com Dawkins himself commented with the following:

According to decrepitoldfool, I assert that 'teaching religion to children is child abuse'. That is false. I have never asserted anything of the kind. I have said that LABELLING children with the religion of their parents is child abuse. That is very different from teaching religion to children. As I said in The God Delusion, and as I repeated in my post above, I am IN FAVOUR of teaching comparative religion, and teaching the Bible as literature. What I am against is labelling a child a Catholic child, Muslim child etc. I am, of course, equally opposed to labelling a child an 'atheist child'.

Throughout The God Delusion Dawkins makes this so very clear the only way a theist could misinterpret Dawkins' message is purely because of cold, hard bias. Several of the ideas Dawkins expresses in the ninth chapter of The God Delusion are so very clear, the above misinterpretations should be very easily seen.

On page 315 Dawkins has just finished telling his readers of the story about Edgardo Mortara, a six-year old boy who was taken from his loving Jewish parents after being splashed with some water and told some supposedly magic words by his babysitter, and poof, the boy is transformed into a Christian, no longer fit to be raised by Jewish parents. Dawkins writes,

...[I]sn't it always a form of child abuse to label children as possessors of beliefs that they are too young to have thought about? Yet the practice continues to this day, almost entirely unquestioned.

On page 327 Dawkins expresses his views about how a child should be free to make up their own minds once they're old enough to understand:

I thank my own parents for taking the view that children should be taught not so much what to think as how to think. If, having been fairly and properly exposed to all the scientific evidence, they grow up and decide that the bible is literally true or that the movements of the planets rule their lives, that is their privilege. The important point is that it is their privilege to decide what they shall think, and not their parents' privilege to impose it by force majeure...truly moral guardianship shows itself in an honest attempt to second-guess what they would choose for themselves if they were old enough to do so" (emphasis in original).

Another example of Dawkins expressing this view is when he relates the story about a find by archaeologists of a young Inca girl who was a victim of a child sacrifice,

Humphrey's point - and mine - is that, regardless of whether she was a willing victim or not, there is strong reason to suppose that she would not have been willing if she had been in full possession of the facts. For example, suppose she had known that the sun is really a ball of hydrogen, hotter than a million degrees Kelvin, converting itself into helium by nuclear fusion, and that it originally formed from a disk of gas out of which the rest of the solar system, including Earth, also condensed...Presumably, then, she would not have worshiped it as a god, and this would have altered her perspective on being sacrificed to propitiate it.

Another example is the following. An Amish community had taken their children out of high school on religious grounds because they didn't want them to have any further education. Dawkins expresses his opinion on page 330:

Even if the children had been asked and had expressed a preference for the Amish religion, can we suppose that they would have done so if they had been educated and informed about the available alternatives?

On page 338 Dawkins speaks of his "consciousness-raising" attempts:

In an earlier chapter, I generalized the theme of 'consciousness-raising,' starting with the achievement of feminists in making us flinch when we hear a phrase like 'men of goodwill' instead of 'people of goodwill.' Here I want to raise consciousness in another way. I think we should all wince when we hear a small child being labeled as belonging to some particular religion or another. Small children are too young to decide their views on the origins of the cosmos, of life and of morals. The very sound of the phrase 'Christian child' or 'Muslim child' should grate like fingernails on a blackboard.

On page 339-340 he encourages his readers to raise others' consciousness when they hear others' speaking of a "Christian child," etc. and to "raise the roof whenever you hear it happening."

Afterwards he says, "This...would be an excellent piece of 'consciousness-raising' for the children themselves. A child who is told she is a 'child of Muslim parents' will immediately realize that religion is something for her to choose - or reject - when she becomes old enough to do so."

On page 340 Dawkins expresses his beliefs that children should be taught comparative religion; hardly the evil atheist so many ignorant Christian apologists make Dawkins out to be in claiming he doesn't want children learning about religion because they're all "evil."

Dawkins says,

A good case can indeed be made for the educational benefits of teaching comparative religion...Let children learn about different faiths, let them notice their incompatibility, and let them draw their own conclusions about the consequences of that incompatibility. As for whether any are 'valid', let them make up their own minds when they are old enough to do so.

Finally, near the end of the chapter, Dawkins expresses his thoughts about how the bible should be read for it's cultural significance:

The King James Bible of 1611 - the Authorized Version - includes passages of outstanding literary merit in its own right, for example the Song of Songs, and the sublime Ecclesiastes (which I am told is pretty good in the original Hebrew too). But the main reason the English Bible needs to be part of our education is that it is a major source book for literary culture. The same applies to the legends of the Greek and Roman gods, and we learn about them without being asked to believe in them.

On page 344 Dawkins concludes:

Let me not labour the point. I have probably said enough to convince at least my older readers that an atheistic world-view provides no justification for cutting the Bible, and other sacred books, out of our education. And of course we can retain a sentimental loyalty to the cultural and literary traditions of, say, Judaism, Anglicanism or Islam, and even participate in religious rituals such as marriages and funerals, without buying into the supernatural beliefs that historically went along with those traditions. We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage.

These quotes from The God Delusion should help to put a stop to the common demonizing of Dawkins and his views. However, despite these many quotes some still don’t get it.

In my many attempts to fix this distorted image that so many narrow-minded theists have spread about Dawkins' views I've debated several theists on this issue. During my research I came across an interview Richard Dawkins had given for The Guardian newspaper titled Darwin's child, with Simon Hattenstone, from from February 10, 2003:

Hattenstone: I tell him I've been thinking about his point that children should not be defined by religion, and that I have a solution. Why not ban religion till you're 18? I expect him to be delighted by my initiative, but he looks horrified.

Dawkins: Oh no. I don't want to lay down a law that says when you get a driving licence, you can call yourself anything you like. It's a consciousness-raising issue.

Hattenstone: What would [Dawkins] do if he had the powers of a dictator?

Dawkins: I think I would abolish schools which systematically inculcate sectarian beliefs.

Hattenstone: But you've still got parents infecting the kids with their dogma, I say, playing devil's chaplain.

Dawkins: Well, I wouldn't want to have the thought police going to people's homes, dictating what they teach their children. I don't want to be Big Brotherish. I would hate that.

During some of the discussions I’ve had about this issue, and after quoting the above interview where Dawkins explicitly says he would not want to keep parents from teaching their children religion, Christians have claimed that Dawkins gave his true intentions away because he said in the interview that he would “abolish schools which systematically inculcate sectarian beliefs.”

Curious what Dawkins may have meant by "sectarian" I went to the RichardDawkins.net website to the discussion forums there and I posted a question to Richard directly asking him about this interview. I received a few replies but one was especially helpful from a man who lives in England and he helped me to better understand the context in which Dawkins was speaking.

England does not have a separation of church and state and therefore there are many schools that are religious and teach the general curriculum along with the specific belief system of that particular school.

After looking at the links provided in the forum I found that these schools often cause a lot of intolerance between the children of different schools (in fact if memory serves these are the schools Dawkins refers to in his series The Root of All Evil?) and a majority of people in Britain dislike the schools. In one of the links provided at the RichardDawkins.net forum, it explained the situation there with the "faith schools" and how according to critics of the schools, they educate children separately which can lead to social and religious divisions.

Ultimately what Dawkins meant was not that he wanted to stop religious instruction, since he even said he would not want to stop parents from teaching their children religion, he just said he wanted to abolish the "faith schools" that are in England (assuming he had the hypothetical power of a dictator) which segregate children by religion and close them off to other points of view, and the religious indoctrination often causes tension between children of other faiths, creating unnecessary tension and intolerance (and in my opinion possible violence).

Another aspect of this issue is the political climate in Europe. According to the reports I was given it's been estimated that 80% of the population of Britain disapproves of faith schools because of the problems mentioned above. The National Secular Society had this to say on the subject:

School provides the best, and sometimes only, opportunity to teach tolerance, but only if children of all beliefs and cultures are educated together. The problems in Belfast, Bradford and elsewhere remind us how imperative this need is […]

It's clear that Dawkins is not some atheist who hates religion and wants to close religious schools. This is (or at least was at the time of the interview) a very heated topic where he lives where a majority agree that the schools tend to breed intolerance. So, given the power of a dictator (and taken in context) he is referring to Britain's "faith schools" and not banning religion outright or wanting to keep kids from learning religion, but expressing his frustrations (that the majority in Britain can sympathize with) about the divisiveness of those schools and how he would have them shut down.

Dawkins is clearly not speaking of the banning of religion, or the banning of the teaching of religion. He clearly expresses these views not only in his book but the above interview as well.

Before I end this post I’d also like to quote Dawkins from his book A Devil's Chaplain, where in chapter seven he has published a letter to his daughter about exactly this issue. His daughter was ten years old at the time and he tells her about "good" and "bad" reasons to believe things, and the difference between good and bad evidence and how to tell the difference.

Just as he expressed in The God Delusion, about how his parents taught him how to think, he is doing the same with his daughter. Here is the relavent passge from A Devil's Chaplain:

[...] It is not easy for you to do anything because you are only ten. But you could try this. Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: 'Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority or revelation?' And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: 'What kind of evidence is there for that? And if they can't give you a good answer, I hope you'll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.

After reading this passage did Dawkins tell his daughter that all religions were “evil?” That you shouldn’t believe? That religion was wrong? Of course not. He was introducing her to critical thinking skills so she could figure out the answer as to what she will believe on her own.

There isn't one shred of truth to those lies about Richard Dawkins telling parents not to teach their children religion. Now, it's just a question if these same people will once again gloss over the same quotes Dawkins used to express himself in the book they already claimed to have read or actually admit their bias.

In addition, this is another example of the undeserved respect religion gets from the majority of people. To most individuals it's commonly considered respectful to raise a child by allowing them to follow their heart and letting them choose their hobbies and not have the parents choose for them. It’s often considered good parenting to give children the freedom to experience all kinds of hobbies, and this should apply to ideas as well. If a parent forces his/her daughter to go to piano lesson seven though she doesn’t care for them, and if given a choice would choose something else, that's often considered bad parenting. But the same thing happens with religious beliefs and no one bats an eye.

As Dawkins has clearly expressed it's most respectful for a parent to allow their children to choose what they are to believe and this is no different then when parents chide other parents for making their children follow in their footsteps and no one sees that as threatening, but with religious beliefs they do, even though there really is no difference between these two ideas. It's just that religious beliefs are once again given a free pass from criticism and religious parents are allowed to force their beliefs on their children. If a parent forces their hobbies on their child, it's often considered wrong, so people must stop giving religion this very undeserved respect and we must "raise" parents' "consciousness" and allow all our children to choose their own path in life. This is truly all that Dawkins is asking for. Certainly not the banning of religion or the banning of the teaching religion to children, but respect for the childrens' minds.

Related Posts:

Richard Dawkins and "Child Abuse" Part 2
Richard Dawkins and "Child Abuse" Part 3