Dawkins admits mistake, removes name from petition »« Bored gaming

Has Dawkins totally jumped the shark?

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.

Whoa.

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.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says

    I saw your comment over on Dawkins.net I’m a theist who favours the liberty of parents to teach their children what they want: but what really worries me is the idea that children raised in total ignorance of religion will be susceptible to the first religious snake oil salesman they come across. That would make converting people easier, but disturbs me deeply. Kids should learn about religions, all of them, and atheism, and be allowed to make free choice. I also strongly oppose any authoritarian imposition on parents right to raise their children as they please. Far too ‘Brave New World’ for me.I admire much about Richard Dawkins, but feel both his petitions need clarification. I like your strong and principled stand — good article.

  2. says

    Martin -Personaly, I find this very disturbing. I was finaly convinced that Dawkins is not the kind of nut that would espouse a belief in restricting parents from teaching their kids about religion, that he simply finds it repugnant. This was a bit of a slap from that.Anon -”Brave New World” did not restrict parenting – there are no longer parents, as such, in the Huxley’s novel (one of my absolute favorite novels btw). “1984″ would be a much better comparison. And so appropriate considering that this petition is going around in Britain and Orwell was British. Still, I agree 100% with the sentiment – I just have to succumb to my nit-pick nature.

  3. says

    I went to Dawkins’ webs site for a few minutes and could not find him referencing this petition.I think it unlikely he actually sign off on this crap but if he I predict he’ll be retracting shortly as the shit will hit fan. This petition is fascistic nonsense.

  4. Martin says

    The more I think about this petition, it occurs to me just what it is. It’s the religion equivalent of abstinence education.Here in the US, for those of you reading this from the UK and elsewhere, there’s been a movement by religious conservatives to reduce sex education in schools to a simple “don’t do it till you’re married” level of finger-wagging moral instruction.The idea is, I guess, that all you have to do to get teenagers not to have sex is to instruct them not to have sex. Voila! Teenage sex goes away.Likewise, the idea behind this petition seems to be that if you shelter children from religion during their formative years, then, when they’re mature grown-ups, they’ll have the intellect and education to look at it and realize what a load of tosh it all is, and throw it in the dumpster where it belongs, like leftover milk.Both notions are ludicrous in the extreme and reveal a failure to understand how human beings behave in reality.I’d offer a counter-petition to the one Dawkins is endorsing. Require all schoolchildren to take at least one year, preferably more, of comparative religion. Let them see firsthand how many different belief systems there are in the world, and how so many of them from foreign lands and ancient times that may seem silly at first are revealed, upon rational examination, to be not all that less silly than what you’re being brought up in right now.No one ever made bad decisions by being too well-educated. But all manner of bad decisions can be made by people who think that the best way to deal with dangerous ideas is to supress and hide them. On the contrary, subject them to the harshest light of scrutiny imaginable. The easiest way to see that the emperor has no clothes is to turn the spotlight right on him.

  5. Anonymous says

    How do you know this petition is from Dawkins? I am inclined to believe it is not, seeing as it is so hard to believe he would do such a thing, until I see proof.

  6. Anonymous says

    Despite my earlier comment, (I was the first commenter, the theist) and yes I believe objective religious education in all faiths and critical thinking an excellent idea, I do not believe for a second Prof. Dawkins is actually advocating restriction of parents rights to raise their children as they please, but more likely a removal of faith based teaching from the class room – calling for the end of the mandatory school prayer/collective worship we have in this country – though you can opt out. That in itself is not such a bad idea.The problem is I think the petition if badly worded. Clarification is required, not condemnation. And heck, this is coming from me, a Christian!

  7. Martin says

    To the second anonymous: Dawkins links to the petition (as well as another one, about disallowing government-funded religious schools, a much less problematic topic IMHO) on his home page here; it’s the third item down.Also, go to the petition itself, and you’ll see Dawkins’ signature is second on the list. The petition itself was created by one Jamie Wallis. I’m sorry if I was unclear in my post and gave people the impression that Dawkins was the author of the petition; he has only endorsed it. I have gone on to amend the original post to clarify this.To anonymous #2: the bad wording is why I’d like a clarification from Dawkins. Did Dawkins sign the petition because he genuinely felt it applied only to formal education and not to what parents do in terms of their own children’s religious instruction? I’d like to know, because I’d prefer to avoid any kind of a knee-jerk Brayton freakout just yet.

  8. [email protected] says

    I tend to agree with Mr. Dawkins on his support of this bill. Why should we as taxpayers pay money, For some most than likely Christian to teach religion? I just wonder how many children would ever pick up a Bible, as they grow older? But at least with this bill they would have a choice. I do not think the Government should have any powers over what a parent is allowed to teach their children though.

  9. says

    Does Dawkins have any idea what the words “free thought” mean? I thought he was more reasonable than Sam Harris (who explicitly has advocated killing people for their beliefs), but this makes me wonder.The petition regarding religious schools isn’t restricted to government-funded ones: It says: “We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Abolish all faith schools and prohibit the teaching of creationism and other religious mythology in all UK schools.” Calling such a prohibition “freedom of choice” demonstrates either gross ignorance of the English language or cynical dishonesty.

  10. Martin says

    Gary,I thought he was more reasonable than Sam Harris (who explicitly has advocated killing people for their beliefs)Where does Harris do this?

  11. says

    This is a far more complex issue than people seem to want to acknowledge. While I think Martin and I probably agree on many of the sub-issues, I find that I have some objections to a few of his points. I’ll hit those first and then give my quick (read: initial, unformulated) opinion.”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.”True, we’ve even allowed Christian Scientists to, essentially, kill their children by refusing medical treatment in the name of religious freedom – I just happen to think it’s wrong. I favor personal freedom, but your personal freedom stops where someone else’s begins – including a child. We frequently allow the government to step in to remove children from abusive homes – physical and mental abuse. While I’m not saying that all religious teaching is child abuse, I’m of the opinion that much of it is. I think the petition is a HUGE tactical mistake and that it is over-reaching and ill-defined…and I couldn’t support it. On the other hand, the thought behind the petition, that we should do whatever we reasonably can to discourage and eliminate the indoctrination of children – that I support, fully.”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?”I don’t think those are the examples that Dawkins would find analogous. The issue isn’t about “prohibiting children” it’s about prohibiting parents. We prohibit parents from abusing their children. For those, like Dawkins (and me to a lesser degree), who consider religious indoctrination (note that this doesn’t simply mean EXPOSURE to religious ideas – I strongly favor that) to be child abuse – it makes sense to work to stop it.”Does Dawkins think that freethought can only arise in a young mind if religion is kept away?”While I certainly can’t speak for him, I think the answer would be: no…but freethought is more likely to arise in a young mind free from religious indoctrination.”I was raised Christian,… Despite this youthful “indoctrination,” I emerged a freethinker and an atheist every bit as hardline as Dawkins. 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.”But we’re the exception, not the rule. (And, on a side note, I’m not sure that I was ever “really” a young-earther…but I was certainly about as close as you can come)Essentially, you’re implying that as long as people CAN escape from religious delusions, then it’s really not a big deal to indoctrinate kids. I’d point out that people can and do escape all sorts of abusive situations, be they cults or family – that doesn’t mean we just write it off as an essential freedom.”We’ve all seen how well laws banning kids from buying cigarettes have succeeded in eradicating teen smoking.”Again, these rules don’t prohibit kids from voluntarily practicing a religion, they prohibit parents from indoctrinating kids. Granted, I’m still opposed to the petition, but I certainly favor the ideas behind it.”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.”Agreed.Some final notes:We, as a society, tend to expose our children to ideas gradually. I think, though I’m not certain, that Dawkins point is that, as with sex education, children should be introduced to ideas when their minds are capable of understanding. I was taught about Jesus before I could walk and talk. Despite the fact that I managed to claw my way out of the religious mire (after 30 years), I find that to be immoral, and potentially abusive. A childs mind is like a ball of clay and you can mold it however you want.I don’t think my parents meant any harm. In fact, I’m certain that they meant only good and taught me what they believed to be true. I realize that most people raised religiously don’t suffer any serious effects. Most end up being Easter/Christmas Christians (or the religious equivalent in other faiths). So, in general, I’m not opposed to religious teaching – though I am opposed to religious indoctrination, and that’s a difference that may still be too difficult to define.Consider the White Separatists movement, specifically the musical group “Prussian Blue”. These two young girls have had their mind polluted with racist ideas and are singing about things that they barely understand – and have been doing so since before they really could have understood.While I can’t support this petition, and I’m not in favor of excessive intrusion into how parents raise children, I do think that it’s time to broaden the scope of that intrusion – just a bit. Perhaps a better plan would be to improve what we teach in schools and require to be taught in home schools. Flood them with the means to escape and it will make little difference what sort of religious training they’ve endured.-Matt

  12. Martin says

    True, we’ve even allowed Christian Scientists to, essentially, kill their children by refusing medical treatment in the name of religious freedom – I just happen to think it’s wrong. I favor personal freedom, but your personal freedom stops where someone else’s begins – including a child.I’m sure you’ll agree that reading a child Bible stories and denying them medical care so that they die are two vastly different things. The latter happens very rarely, and in any event, killing someone already falls under laws governing murder and manslaughter, so there really isn’t a comarison between the two.While I agree the sentiment behind the petition is a good idea — labeling children as belonging to a religion they are too young to understand — it is, again, not the kind of thing you can remedy through legislative fiat.Again, these rules don’t prohibit kids from voluntarily practicing a religion, they prohibit parents from indoctrinating kids. Granted, I’m still opposed to the petition, but I certainly favor the ideas behind it.But here’s the sticky point. If you live in a society that allows freedom of religion, how can you possibly say, “But don’t indoctrinate your kids now, they’re too young!” without intruding on that very free practice? Trying to draw an analogy to more obvious forms of child abuse — beating, neglect, rape, all that — is dubious at best. Most people would laugh at the idea that simply taking a child to Sunday School is remotely abusive, or even an act of indoctrination. People could more reliably argue that letting kids watch Spongebob Squarepants is abuse. And you cannot avoid running into that problem of intrusion again: “How dare you tell me what I can or can’t tell my kids.”Also, the whole”indoctrination” line has been used by creationists as well, in their attempts to get ID taught in schools. “They’re not exposing kids to other ideas, that’s indoctrination!” Granted, where science teaching is concerned, there’s the little matter of facts (evolution) versus fiction (creationism). But my point is that “indoctrination” is a very emotionally and politically loaded word that can be misused and misapplied easily. You’d have a hard time selling the public on the idea that saying prayers with their children at bedtime is any form of indoctrination. And as we both already agree, there’s no way for the law to step in on this without violating privacy and the sanctity of the home.A better method would be to improve children’s education through more exposure to comparative religion studies — which happens to be a position Dawkins does endorse.

  13. tracie harris says

    I pretty much agree with Matt. I also feel it took me far too long to free my mind from the fundamentalist religious shackles that held back my ability to think critically, logically, and intelligently. I still, to this day, wonder how much of how I think is the result of those fundamentalist ideas. I don’t see how I can ever be sure I’ve actually gotten it all out of my head.I do feel this is akin to other forms of child abuse. A child raised in a home with dysfunction can never really know on what levels that dysfunction is affecting his/her thoughts and actions as an adult. You may be free from the abuser–but what is left in your head? And if it starts in infancy, how do you judge what is really coming from “you” and what is coming from that early, dysfunctional learning?As an adult I believe it is my responsibility to cope with that now. And I fully believe my parents were trying to do what they believed was best for me–so I harbor no ill feelings toward them; I know my religious indoctrination was not an attempt to mess with my head. But it did.Meanwhile, when I see parents home-schooling in states with little or no oversight–such as Texas–I want to “save” those kids from a similar fate. I don’t want them to have to struggle through 20 years of trying to untangle the “delusions” they’ve had so deeply implanted into their heads that they don’t even know what thoughts are their own and what thoughts were seeded there before they were old enough to think for themselves.I totally agree that exposure and indoctrination are not the same. And I question the legality of, say, the Amish practice of stopping education before the high school years. Can a child so extremely sheltered and then pulled out of school somewhere in middle school really be called “equipped” to make a rational decision about what he/she believes? I have seen ex-Amish, and their stories aren’t pretty. Leaving is no picnic, and they’re ill-equipped to survive in the outside world once they do muster the strength to walk away.Religious parenting runs a gamut from “mostly harmless” to “abuse,” in my opinion. And our “hands off how you raise your kids” attitude should be examined in this regard. Calling it my “religion” is not free reign to do whatever I want to a child. And some of what is legally being done in the U.S. is not what I consider acceptable. Would I consider outlawing it? I’d have to see the proposal to answer that. But I certainly wouldn’t give a blanket “no.”

  14. says

    Agreed – again. Though I’ll address one question you asked?”But here’s the sticky point. If you live in a society that allows freedom of religion, how can you possibly say, “But don’t indoctrinate your kids now, they’re too young!” without intruding on that very free practice? “It wouldn’t be simple, but I see a distinct difference between a child being taught about religion, a child voluntarily participating in religious activities and a child which is forced (indoctrinated) into religious practice/observation etc.It really is a sticky wicket, which is why I think this petition puts the cart before the horse (at best) and is just fundamentally wrong (at the worst). The solution their advocating is impractical – and unreasonable – which is why I favor more positive, external approaches. :)

  15. Martin says

    It wouldn’t be simple, but I see a distinct difference between a child being taught about religion, a child voluntarily participating in religious activities and a child which is forced (indoctrinated) into religious practice/observation etc.Well, usually when the last happens, the parents have crossed the line into other things that are already crimes. See the whole Warren Jeffs scenario for that. To respond to a point both Matt and Tracie seem to be making: we already don’t live a culture where you can do “whatever you want” to your child and get away with it by calling it your religion. Again, see Warren Jeffs, as well as all the “faith healing” believing parents now cooling their asses in jail because they refused life saving medical care for their kids. It’s already true that if real physical harm comes to your child, you can’t plead “but it’s my religion” and walk home scot free. That’s what’s wrong with this petition. It makes no distinction between killing or hurting your child in the name of your god, and singing “Silent Night” around the Christmas tree.

  16. Anonymous says

    Somehow I am extracting a very different meaning from this same petition. As I read it, it proposes that no child be taught about religion by the state. Isn’t that what is meant by “regular”: regulated? Also, I see it proposing that no one be legally associated with any religion until they are sixteen, whereupon they may select their affiliation. The way I read it, it isn’t outrageous, as it makes no comment on what people do in the privacy of their home or church. Though, I would be upset if I interpreted it as most have.

  17. Martin says

    Well, “regular” instruction can very easily take place in the home, too. The petition, as it is, is too vaguely worded. Dawkins seems to agree now, as he’s backed off supporting it.

  18. says

    In the original post Martin said that it’s not unreasonable to assume people will be going to jail. It’s illegal to do 70 in a 60 zone, but you don’t go to jail for it. In fact, I think many infractions you just get a fine for it. But I can’t be sure about that.

  19. says

    Dawkins is not against education concerning religion, he is against the indoctrination and labeling of children according to any one religion. If you read his book the God Delusion, he makes it very clear that he considers the religious indoctrination of children to be one of the most dangerous things to the general well being of society at large. His arguments are very persuasive. The point of the petition is get people talking about just how dangerous religious indoctrination is.

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