Pharyngula

Ed Brayton and Mike Gene have gone over the top in accusing Richard Dawkins of wanting to coerce the religious into giving up their beliefs; as is usual for Ed, he has no problem immediately comparing an atheist to R.J. Rushdooney and calling him a totalitarian, on the basis of a rather poorly written petition that Dawkins signed.

I must say, though, that this petition is certainly strange, and I don’t quite see how it could have gotten over a 1000 signatories. I sure don’t approve of it, although I can understand the motivation behind it.

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.

I was suspicious immediately. For one thing, Mike Gene pulls a bait-and-switch that Ed fell for without question: he claims that Dawkins endorsed this petition on his website. This is not true. There is a different petition from the same group that is endorsed at richarddawkins.net, which encourages the removal of government support for faith-based schools. There is no link anywhere on that site to the controversial petition (Wait—there is a single link without comment in a list of petitions; Mike Gene was not pulling a bait-and-switch, he was just elevating the significance of the link). When an ID creationist pulls something that sneaky, it’s a good idea to think twice.

For another, the first comment on that article is from Dawkins himself, saying “There is value in Religious Education, including Comparative Religion”. Hmmm…that outright contradicts the anti-indoctrination petition. Perhaps if Mike Gene or Ed Brayton had actually read a little farther they might have noticed a discrepancy with their uncharitable interpretation?

Now I also have the advantage of having actually read The God Delusion, which is a little unfair to Ed, who has not, yet is happy to condemn its author. I’ve also talked very briefly with Dawkins on this subject. I know that religious indoctrination is a major concern, and it is a serious problem with no practical resolution in sight. Dawkins discusses it in his book, and no, he does not propose policing religious people to make sure that they do not teach their children prayers at night. In fact, his specific proposal is to go the other way — to see that more comparative religion is taught.

A good case can indeed be made for the huge educational
benefits of teaching comparative religion. Certainly my own doubts
were first aroused, at the age of about nine, by the lesson (which
came not from school but from my parents) that the Christian
religion in which I was brought up was only one of many mutually
incompatible belief-systems. Religious apologists themselves realize
this and it often frightens them. After that nativity play story in the
Independent, not a single letter to the editor complained of
the religious labelling of the four-year-olds. The only negative letter
came from ‘The Campaign for Real Education’, whose spokesman,
Nick Seaton, said multi-faith religious education was extremely
dangerous because ‘Children these days are taught that all religions
are of equal worth, which means that their own has no special
value.’ Yes indeed; that is exactly what it means. Well might this
spokesman worry. On another occasion, the same individual said,
‘To present all faiths as equally valid is wrong. Everybody is entitled
to think their faith is superior to others, be they Hindus, Jews,
Muslims or Christians — otherwise what’s the point in having
faith?’

What indeed? And what transparent nonsense this is! These
faiths are mutually incompatible. Otherwise what is the point of
thinking your faith superior? Most of them, therefore, cannot be
‘superior to others’. Let children learn about different faiths, let
them notice their incompatibility, and let them draw their own con-
clusions 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.

It’s all very peculiar. What to do? The obvious thing: I wrote to Dawkins and told him that this particular petition was awfully sloppy and open to nefarious interpretation and asked if he really signed it.

His reply was that yes, he had signed it, but only because he had read just the short version, which mentions opposition to religious indoctrination, a position he shares. When informed of the full text, he agrees that it was a mistake and has asked to have his name removed from it. He has publicly disavowed the petition in a comment on Brayton’s site (yes, I can confirm that that actually is Dawkins), and has also deplored the further misquotation of his comments.

Simple summary: Richard Dawkins does not believe in coercing religious people, and he does not endorse any kind of totalitarian action to separate children from religious instruction. He also does not have horns and a forked tail. Some people, though, are awfully quick to use their ignorance to impose outrageous beliefs on the man.