This is an email I sent a few moments ago to Richard Dawkins. Much of the sentiment in it is a result this post by my friend Nick Matzke at the Panda’s Thumb and the more detailed and well considered response of Dr. Dawkins to his inquiries. I will post the full text of my email to Prof. Dawkins below the fold, which I hope will bring this whole thing to a close with some bit of grace and dignity.
I have many things to say to you in light of the controversies of the last couple of days and I hope you will accept them in the true manner they are intended, which I assure you is with great respect and sincerity. First, I want to thank you for your gracious replies to my postings in reaction to the petition about which so much has now been said; I only wiish now that Prof. Myers and I had behaved as graciously. Second, and more importantly I think, I want to thank you for so quickly recognizing the error of having signed that petition and for not being the ogre I had made you out to be in regard to what you and I both now agree to be its coercive and appalling nature. I believe that your response to my good friend Nick Matzke, which was much more detailed than the brief responses left on my blog, brings the whole controversy to and end. And frankly, I am really quite relieved to find out that you reject the kind of intrusion into individual families that I reject.
I am very passionate about civil liberties, as anyone who has read my writings over the years can tell you. I am a Jeffersonian to the core, meaning that I reject wholesale the notion that any government has the authority to police our thoughts or interfere in our lives without an absolutely clear warrant to protect another person against direct, tangible injury or deprivation of their equal rights. I have long been concerned with your statements about parental religious teaching (not teaching about religion in a comparative sense, but teaching their children that their religion is true or “indoctrinating” them) being tantamount to child abuse; child abuse is universally considered to be a moral evil and a justification for government intervention (as it should be, of course) and so calling it that, however justified you may think it is, will reasonably be viewed as a call for the government to intervene and decide what parents may and may not teach their children about their own religion.
The irony is that I only found out about the petition and your promotion of it in the process of defending you against the charge that you favored such coercive policies. An ID advocate accused you of that in a reply to me on another subject and I came to your defense, saying that despite your statements about parental religious instruction being child abuse, I had seen nothing at all to indicate that you would support coercive policies to end such a practice. My correspondent then provided a link to that petition whose text, I am glad you now recognize, goes far beyond regulating what government can and can’t do and implicates what parents and churches can and can’t teach to children as well. I really was taken aback by that, but in light of your prior statements regarding child abuse, which I already feared would be seen as a call for such laws, the only conclusion I could reach at that point was that you must, in fact, favor such government intervention.
As you recognized clearly in reply to Nick Matzke, such a law would be, to use the same words we both used, coercive, horrifying and appalling. Once I made that conclusion that you favored such a law, everything that followed was, again, quite reasonable; I truly do regard any advocacy of such a policy to be the equivalent of what the theocrats would do in requiring religious instruction if they had the power to do so. If I saw a petition claiming that not teaching one’s child Christianity was a form of child abuse and calling for the government to make it illegal not to do so, I would have an even more animated reaction, believe me. I sincerely believe such a policy to be a repressive, totalitarian measure and, despite my own personal lack of religious belief, I would fight against such a law as strongly, perhaps more so, as I fight today against creationism in all of its forms and against the oppression of gays and lesbians.
I simply cannot abide the thought of giving such power to any government, and I am glad to see that you are in full agreement with me on both the principled and practical objections to doing so. You say that you are “horrified by the thought” of having the government do so and I take you at your word. You also recognize the great practical danger in allowing the government to make such laws. As you would know probably more than most, atheists are an astonishingly unpopular group in much of the world, particularly here in the US. Numerous surveys have shown that atheists are the most maligned and distrusted group in the United States; give to government the power to decide what parents may and may not teach their children about religion and atheists will be the first ones in line for punishment. And though anti-atheist bias appears to be less of a problem in the UK, you do have a government that requires mandatory religious instruction in schools and has an official state church; I doubt the results there would be any better for atheists than they would be here. Like you, I am horrified by the thought of what would happen if any government has this particular authority.
Let me address, as well, a more general subject. You and I agree on a great many things and disagree on a few. We are both staunch defenders of evolution against the ignorant attacks of creationists of every stripe, but I genuinely do believe that your aggressive anti-theism makes it more difficult for those of us engaged in the daily fight to protect science education to make our case. I hope that you understand what I believe to be the single most important aspect of this dispute, which is that the vast, vast majority of those who reject evolution do so solely because they believe it disproves their religion. The average person knows as little about evolutionary biology as I know about Sumerian architecture, which is to say virtually nothing. The only thing they know, on an almost reactive level, is that evolution = no god = no morality. Now, I think it’s important to attack this misconception at the levels you do as well, by pointing out that atheism does not lead to immorality, and I make that argument loudly and often. But I assure you that for those of us “on the ground” in the battle, so to speak, every anti-theistic statement you make is amplified by our opponents and used as a sort of prophylactic to guard against the infiltration of not only evolution but of virtually all scientific thought.
I am in full agreement with Dr. Tyson, in his admonition to you at the recent Beyond Belief conference, that if you would just be more circumspect in your hostility toward religion, at least in regards to those who are largely on our side in the evolution conflict, it would help a great deal. I hope you will accept that criticism from me as graciously as you accepted it from him at the time ( and I say that with full recognition that I could also learn a thing or two about being more reserved and less bombastic from time to time). I can tell you with no hesitation that it would make my work in this regard a good deal easier and would help avoid the kinds of emotional distractions that are fed and amplified by the anti-evolution movement.
But having said all of that, I want to clear up what I think is a popular misconception. I’m quite sure that Prof. Myers believes, and I think many of my readers do as well, that I have some sort of general antipathy to you and your work. Let me put that myth to rest. In most ways, I am a great admirer of yours. You are a man of clear and extraordinary talents and I consider you one of the finest writers I’ve ever read. Your ability to explain how evolutionary theory works to a lay audience is all but unrivaled in the world, and for that we should all be, and I very much am, extremely grateful. You are also, as a science popularizer, one of the few who can do what Carl Sagan did so effectively: capture and express the romance, for lack of a better word, of science. The Blind Watchmaker is as good a popular treatment of evolution as has ever been written and it has had a huge influence on me since the day it was published. I am, in nearly all ways, a great admirer of yours and, frankly, my admiration of you has actually grown through this last little tempest because of the gracious way you handled it; I can only say now that I wish I had been as gracious myself, as I hope Prof. Myers does as well.
If I was uncharitable in my interpretations of your position, I do apologize for that. I am extremely relieved to find out that my conclusions, though logical and reasonable given the situation, were wrong and I am happy to welcome you back to what I consider the pro-Enlightenment side (a side you never really left except in my own mind, if only briefly). I thank you again for your gracious responses to both me and Nick Matzke. If, in the future, I have similar concerns I will, with your permission, seek out your reaction before venting mine.