Life has been quite busy for me in 2006 – I took on quite a few responsibilities that expended all of my extra time, and so any thoughts I may have considered writing about got put on the backburner (and when that happens, they generally burn out and never get put down in writing). So Tim, here you go: a new thought.
For the past few months, I have been following the blogs Uncommon Descent and Telic Thoughts, and a hot topic as of late has been Richard Dawkins’ promotion and signing of a UK petition that reads the following:
We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Make it illegal to indoctrinate or define children by religion before the age of 16.
In order to encourage free thinking, children should not be subjected to any regular religious teaching or be allowed to be defined as belonging to a particular religious group based on the views of their parents or guardians. At the age of 16, as with other laws, they would then be considered old enough and educated enough to form their own opinion and follow any particular religion (or none at all) through free thought.
When I say that Dawkins was promoting this petition, I mean that until very recently (within 24 hours of this posting), Dawkins had a link to the online petition on the front page of his official website, along with another petition (which is still there at present) to abolish faith schools in the UK.
The reason it is no longer there is because of the repercussions in the blogosphere – Dawkins saw that people, especially American bloggers, saw this as an affront to religious freedom, and he then recanted on one of the blogs (but not anything on his official website [update: he has now posted Nick Matzke’s blog entry of their correspondence as the disclaimer, apparently]) that he hadn’t read the petition thoroughly and had signed it only reading that the petition wanted to stop parents labeling their children based on their own faith (e.g. a “Catholic child”), something that he has explicitly called child abuse.
Now this raises a very interesting issue – is either religious indoctrination or labeling a child by religion abuse? If so, why?
The telling part is that Dawkins doesn’t say why – he has been quoted often for calling that indoctrination of children for the more gruesome parts of religious doctrine (like the eternal punishment of sinners in hell), but he really hasn’t (as far as I’ve seen) explained what about calling a child “Christian” is a method of abuse. Certainly this is not just a moral claim (as one blogger claimed) but is also an empirical claim; when we say that locking a child up in a cage for hours on end is abuse, we generally can pull out some statistics, some case studies, something to make the case. If Dawkins has these facts, I haven’t seen him tout them, as for a man who is generally considered to be the preeminent ambassador of science and reason, you’d think that he’d be right on top of that.
I have my suspicions as to why we’re not seeing anything like this, though. For one, Dawkins has relied on anecdotes to assert that religious indoctrination has an adverse psychological affect on children, and anecdotes are convincing to those who already intuitively agree with the assertion. Say that poor little Sean in Ireland suffered profound grief and despair because his parish priest told him that unbelief results in the pain of hellfire, and those already internally convinced have their proof, while those who hold a reasonable degree of skepticism are left scratching their heads. For two, I’m about 99.9999…% sure that no such evidence exists. While I admit my own bias that religion itself does not cause psychological damage – perhaps on my own anecdotal case – the important part to this is that it is an extraordinary claim, and so the advocates of the “religious indoctrination is child abuse” stance have the burden of proof to show rationally why this is true. If they cannot do so, then we must of course abandon this proposition.
One final word – At the Beyond Belief conference at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA this past November, Dawkins brought this assertion forth again, and in a stunning show of reason, only a few people out of a mass of scientists, philosophers, and other thinkers questioned the assertion. One in particular, Melvin Konner (“Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology, Neuroscience, and Behavioral Biology at Emory University”, according to the Beyond Belief website), pointed out that Dawkins’ assertion of child abuse was in fact an abuse of the way we use language: that is, when we say a child is Catholic, we really mean that they are being raised in a Catholic environment, not that they adhere to the catechism and Catholic doctrine. Dawkins’ examples to establish the absurdity – for instance, calling a child Marxist – lacks this element, for there really is no such thing as a Marxist upbringing. In the discussions I have read and participated in surrounding the claim of child abuse and Dawkins’ request for an apology from Konner at the conference for a different point, very little has been said about this. Frankly, Konner is right, and Dawkins needs to drop this tactic. It is of course fully clear that he despises religion, but if he wishes to be a soundly rational thinker, he will have to do better than manipulating language and signing petitions he’s not even willing to read thoroughly.