Beyond Belief (Slight Reprise)

In lieu of an effortful post on cognitive science while I'm relaxing for the holidays, I thought I'd say a few things about religion and Dawkins again. If you hang around ScienceBlogs, you've probably noticed the spat between the two biggest (traffic-wise) SBers, PZ Myers and Ed Brayton. Ed criticized Dawkins for signing a petition that read:

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.

PZ then says, in essence, that Ed is just being dishonest, because he has it out for Dawkins. It turns out Dawkins hadn't really read the petition very closely at first, and once he did, he quickly denounced it. On this topic, I'll just summarize my comment at PZ's post. Since Dawkins has called religious indoctrination of children "child abuse," it's not unreasonable to assume that he would want it to be outlawed. In fact, unless he believes that child abuse should be legal, he should believe that it should be outlawed.

Anyway, I really wrote all that to write this. In order to get a specific Dawkins quote, I went back to the 2006 Beyond Belief talks. Then I got sucked in, and started watching them again. I was watching the discussion between Sam Harris and Scott Atran in Session 8, and became amazed at Harris' hang-up with the concept of "martyrdom," which he claims is not just exclusive to religion, but to a particular religion: Islam. Christians, atheists, and other non-Muslims today at least, don't take to martyrdom so well, Harris implies. I suppose this is yet another case where a little knowledge would go a long way for someone who's virulently anti-religion. At least, Harris wouldn't get hung up on the term "martyr," if he recognized that it's a pretty common concept that gets labeled all sorts of different things in different context, and in the last century, was pretty damn popular in Christian and Enlightenment nations in the 20th century. I'll give Harris a start on his path to a little knowledge with seven words: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

UPDATE: Over at Pandagon, Amanda has a very good post expanding on her comment to this post, and further discussing the "religious indoctrination is child abuse" frame. It's definitely worth a read.

She also comments on the Dawkins haters, of whom I am certainly one (as I think I've made pretty clear in past posts). I just wanted to note that my disgust at Dawkins' breed of atheism is largely a result of the ignorance -- of religion, philosophy, history, and even science -- that characterizes it. For Dawkins and his ilk, science, and a particular metaphysical and epistemological world-view (I'm so tempted to say metanarrative, but I'm refraining) has become as dogmatic as any religion, and they're incapable of seeing beyond it. I'm suspicious of any metanarr.... I mean, dogmatic world-view, be it the elevation of science to a position of epistemological supremacy or the belief in the inerrancy of religious writings, if it is treated as gospel.


More like this

I need details of this law against blasphemy. If "Begorrah!" and "Saints preserve us!" are outlawed, then Irish stereotypes will be utterly demolished. On the other hand, one Irish fellow I knew used the peculiar expression "fewkin'" as every other word…I presume charming references to sexual acts…
It's already got the fundamentalists up in arms. Apparently, one of them managed to read something outside the accepted cannon of Christ-like books and now they're all bothered about the December 7th release (see trailer) of the first installment of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy -…
Over at Huffington Post, Denis Alexander hawks his new book Biology and Ideology: From Descartes to Darwin, coedited by Ronald Numbers. It features an essay by Alister McGrath entitled, “Evolutionary Biology in Recent Atheist Apologetics.” McGrath, if you are unfamiliar with him, is a Christian…
Razib's post about The Economist's review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and the resulting comments got me thinking heavily on Dawkin's description of the religious indocrination of children as form of child abuse. In response to Razib's observations that "only in cases of clear and present…

I don't think it follows that because you believe that something is abuse that you think it should be criminal abuse. For instance, I think emotional abuse is common, but banning it is too much of a legal headache to consider.

"Child abuse" has a rather specific meaning in Western liberal society. Dawkins believes parents who merely label their children as members of a particular group should be held criminally negligent. He has officially lost it.

Sam Harris tends to get hung up on his crusade against Islam to the point of exclusivism. I agree, some of the things he says are rather silly (and outright disgusting at times, e.g., his Dershowitzian advocacy of torture).

Also, Chris, I will agree with Amanda. As I said on Pharyngula, in response to your comment:

"But I think Dawkins would say that philosophical principle is always 100% isomorphic to reality. If I could think of some perfect way to ban it with no authoritarian repercussions I would be all for it. I wholly reject the idea, advanced either implicitly or explicitly in this debate, that children are the property of their parents and thus de facto subject to whatever the parents wish to impose upon them."

Like I said, the cure has to be better than the disease.

Tyler, I think Amanda's right about child abuse. I hadn't really thought of that when I was writing this, but it's true, not all forms of child abuse can be illegal. Though I still think it's reasonable to assume that Dawkins might sign such a petition, based on his stated position, but it's not enough to assume that he should believe religious indoctrination should be outlawed.

I don't actually see most religious education, in the home, or in religious schools, as child abuse. It's no different, in my view, from any other form of cultural indoctrination, and cultural indoctrination is inevitable -- it's just a product of the way the human mind works. I'm all for better religious education, though, along with science and philosophical education. It'd be nice if children were exposed to a wide range of views from a very early age, and instead of teaching them what to believe, teaching them to think more rigorously so that they can better decide for themselves. Then again, I'm not sure most people really have any desire to decide for themselves.

On Harris, watching his Beyond Belief talks, I couldn't escape the feeling that the facts -- about Islam, terrorism, etc. -- simply can't be allowed to get in the way of his positions. When Atran describes Christian suicide bombers in the Palestinian territories, for example, his response is something like, "Oh, but..." without actually addressing reality. My Horace quote was meant to point out that "dying for one's country," which has tended to be treated as very honorable in the west for a long time, is no different, ultimately, from martyrdom for religion.

Plus, the quote always reminds me of one of my favorite poems, where you'll find the line:

Died some, pro patria,
non "dulce" not "et decor"...
walked eye-deep in hell
believing old men's lies, then unbelieving...

That, and another great poem from the same period:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud12
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest13
To children ardent14 for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

I guess I just never miss a chance to make an anti-war point.

It should be pointed out that Dawkin's equated religious indoctrination with child sexual abuse in his recent book (equating it the the Catholic Priests abuse specifically). In this context, assuming he believes it should be outlawed is not a huge jump of logic.

because the notion that coercion is the reward to parents for taking on the responsibility of child-rearing is a very patriarchal idea...With children, the burden is that your father gives you life, a home, etc. and you are obligated to wear your father�s name and obey his value system.

Well, my dad was raised Catholic and my mom, Jewish, and I am Jewish. By law, not "belief." Doesn't sound very patriarchal to me.

"you do have a responsibility to bring them up as civilized people, so you have an obligation to teach them values. It�s a tightrope walk for sure."

Yes a tightrope walk that Dawkins would turn into a paved parking lot.

But I think that labeling non-criminal child abuse by the word �abuse� is useful to persuade people not to do it. This whole situation with Dawkins� aggressive atheism that fascinates me is the way that people are just wildly overreacting to it."

I think this sums up what bugs me about Dawkins and his defenders. Regardless of his personal definition of "child abuse" he is obviously a provocateur. When people feel provoked, he and his defenders act surprised, indignant, amused or fascinated. His tactics remind me of those used by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to explain Iran's Holocaust cartoon contest or the more recent denial conference. And they're both belligerant equivocators.

I'm not a Dawkins hater. I think he gets too bad a rap. However he does seem amazingly adept at putting his foot in his mouth. I also think that his efforts typically hurt the ends he aims for rather than helping. He plays into the stereotypes of those who fear atheists quite a bit.

I also agree that all too often Dawkins plays on ignorance just as fundamentalists do. I'd respect him a great deal more if he was a little more careful in what he wrote. On the other hand I like Nietzsche who arguably isn't much better although who at least seems interesting whereas Dawkins isn't when he writes outside of biology. I'm not sure why that is.

Well, for one, Nietzsche was a much better writer. Plus, he always had really interesting insights, even when he played fast and loose with the facts, whereas Dawkins, when he talks about religion, tends to be doing little more than rehashing the sorts of things that 20-year old atheists have been saying for decades.