Richard Dawkins has been a huge hero to the atheist community for some time, not only for his years of tireless advocacy of science, but, most recently, for his work in bringing atheist views into the mainstream with his bestseller The God Delusion. But recently, his support of a rather alarming petition in his native England has disturbing implications.
The petition, authored by one Jamie Wallis using a service on the #10 Downing Street website that allows users to write their own petitions and gather signatures right there for the PM’s consideration, reads as follows:
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.
Let’s run through this.
The first and most obvious thing that comes to mind is that what the petition asks is something that in America is unequivocally unconstitutional: government intrusion in private religious practice. Ed Brayton, over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, has gone into outrage overload at this whole thing, declaring that “as far as I’m concerned, this pretty much removes Dawkins from any discussion among reasonable people.” He goes on to a laundry list of entirely valid criticisms.
This proposal is every bit as noxious and totalitarian as a proposal from Christian reconstructionists that those who teach their children about witchcraft or atheism should be thrown in jail would be. Just imagine what you would have to do to actually enforce such a law. No one could take their children to church, which means you’d have to literally police the churches to make sure no children went in. Nor could they teach their children about religion at home, read the Bible with them, say prayers with them before they go to bed. The only way to enforce such a law would be to create a society that would make Orwell’s 1984 seem optimistic by comparison.
In case the “thrown in jail” part sounds a little hyperbolic to you, recall that the petition itself uses the word “illegal,” and the general idea is that if someone does something illegal, then they’ve earned at the very least a citation and at worst imprisonment. Does Dawkins really want people to go to jail for taking their kids to Sunday School? Has he really gone that far over the top?
I ask this because, unlike Brayton, who tends to get reactionary and pissed off at the drop of a hat, I have the impression just based on my reading of Dawkins over the years that the man is at least sensible and rational enough to comprehend and even concede all of the points Brayton has raised in objection. He has never come across like 1984‘s O’Brien, nor even as someone inclined to shoot off his mouth carelessly like Elton John about banning religion utterly.
A law that tossed parents in jail because they told their kids about the baby Jesus would obviously be not only an egregious intrusion into the sanctity of the family and home, but a brand of thought crime so self-evidently absurd as to be beyond rational consideration. Is Dawkins perhaps thinking, Well, we prohibit children from drinking and driving and voting and going off to war until a certain age. Shouldn’t we consider religious indoctrination similarly risky and withhold it until the age of consent as well? Is he perhaps thinking of the way children in heavily religious, war-torn areas — such as Catholic-vs-Protestant Northern Ireland or Muslims-vs-Jews West Bank or Muslims-vs-Christians Sudan — are unfairly harmed and victimized by conflicts brought on by the warring faiths of their parents? While this is another reason to disdain religion, I hardly see how a law prohibiting religious exposure to minors will protect one from a stray .50-caliber round fired by some hopped-up asshole screaming “Allah akbar!”
I could go on. I will go on. Does Dawkins think that freethought can only arise in a young mind if religion is kept away? I was raised Christian, and many of my fellow heathens are surprised to hear I have quite fond memories of my adolescent churchgoing years — particularly the sleepover parties at the Tallowood Baptist Church rec center we called “lock-ins,” in which we 14-year-olds indulged in the rare prilivege of staying up all night. (And no, we weren’t preached to the whole time, it was pretty much lightly supervised. If anything, I remember myself and my friends sitting around talking about girls like any other 14-year-olds would do, and using naughty words while we did so.)
Despite this youthful “indoctrination,” I emerged a freethinker and an atheist every bit as hardline as Dawkins. Why is this? Because in addition to church there were other influences in my life — I was and still am a voracious and omnivorous reader — and I learned to question received wisdom and authoritarian declarations as a matter of course. It is very true that not all kids — few, even — have these options or would take them if they did. But is it the sort of situation that can be created by legal fiat? You’d have to be a blind fool to think so. We’ve all seen how well laws banning kids from buying cigarettes have succeeded in eradicating teen smoking.
Most other atheists have come from a religious tradition. Team member Matt Dillahunty has described himself as a former fundamentalist who was firmly on board the young-earth creationist train. A cohost I had for a few months on the AE TV show, David Clark, was a former seminarian who had even performed baptisms; before he moved from Austin he was leading a push to get a decalogue monument off the state capital lawn (it’s still there). Today, atheists all. Would keeping religion away from them as minors have made them any better or stronger in their atheism, more prepared to argue soundly and think rationally, than they are today?
I remember years ago watching Frank Zappa tell a TV interviewer that his formula for raising perfect children was to keep them away from religion. Children should not have such an important decision foisted upon them until they are old enough to comprehend what religions are all about, what they claim, and how to evaluate their claims. Only with age and intelligence can the choice of which religion to choose — including none at all — be made. It is, on balance, a sensible opinion.
But of course, Zappa did not and never would have advocated government enforcement of this idea. I’m baffled to see why Dawkins seems to endorse it. And so, as an admirer of Dawkins over the years (I’m not yet ready to write him off like Brayton), I want an explanation.
What exactly does Dawkins mean by this? Would he really wish such intrusion into the private lives of U.K. citizens? He must know that the Christians are going to go bugfuck over this; why would he hand them such a blatant and easy weapon? (Let’s take a quick bet on how many Christian blogs will not pass “go” and go directly to Godwin’s Law on this one.) And does he honestly think that, even if it were possible (how the hell do you keep religion away from kids when almost anywhere you look in London or any other British city or town you see steeples?), shielding children from religious exposure until their teens will do fuck-all to stem the tide of irrationalism, superstition, intolerance, ignorance, p
rejudice, and scientific illiteracy that religion propogates now? Can there be, lurking behind Dawkins’ calm demeanor and eminent rationalism, such naivety? It just doesn’t compute.
So I think he needs to get on his website and immediately post an editorial or something explaining why he endorses this petition, and what he thinks it means.
He especially owes this to those of us who are his supporters, but who also believe in freedom from government intrusion into private affairs, and who don’t think the cause of freethought — let alone its very definition — is at all served by laws allowing the government to tell you how you can or can’t raise your kids.