Dawkins admits mistake, removes name from petition

Richard Dawkins has admitted he erred in signing the controversial petition mentioned in the previous post, and in a comment on Ed Brayton’s blog, says the following:

I did sign the petition, but I hadn’t thought it through when I did so, and I now regret it. I have asked the organizer to remove my name. Unfortunately, it seems that the list has already gone off to Downing Street but the organizer, Jamie Wallis, has kindly asked their web manager to remove my name. I suspect that he himself may be having second thoughts about the wording, and I respect him for that. It isn’t always easy to get the exact wording right.

I signed it having read only the main petition: “We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to make it illegal to indoctrinate or define children by religion before the age of 16.” I regret to say that I did not notice the supporting statement with the heading, “More details from petition creator”: “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.” If I had read that, I certainly would not have signed the petition, because, as explained in The God Delusion, I am in favour of teaching the Bible as literature, and I am in favour of teaching comparative religion. In any case, like any decent liberal, I am opposed to the element of government coercion in the wording. Furthermore, the Prime Minister, thank goodness, does not have the power to ‘make’ anything ‘illegal’. Only parliament has the power to do that.

I signed the main petition, because I really am passionately opposed to DEFINING children by the religion of their parents (while ‘indoctrination’ is such a loaded word, nobody could be in favour of it). I was so delighted to hear of somebody else who cared about the defining or labelling of children by the religion of their parents (how would you react if you heard a child described as a ‘seclular humanist child’ or a ‘neo-conservative child’?) that I signed it without reading on and without thinking. Mea culpa.

So there we have it. Unlike creationists, Dr. Dawkins shows a scientist’s humility and willingness to admit to a mistake. I hope he is more circumspect in future about adding his name, and the considerable weight it carries, to anything that on the surface appears to support his views, before looking more deeply at its true ramifications.

PS: PZ Myers has spoken to Dawkins personally and confirmed it is Dawkins who commented at Brayton’s blog, and that Dawkins has in fact recanted.

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.


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.

Bored gaming

The demented duo, Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron, are at it again. I’ve already posted lengthy responses to their “Way of the Master” series, covering episodes on atheism and evolution — but it seems they haven’t bothered to read and learn.

Their latest endeavor is a new board game called “Intelligent Design versus Evolution”. According to Kirk Cameron,

We are very excited about this game because it presents both sides of the creation evolution argument, and in doing so, shows that the contemporary theory of evolution is perhaps the greatest hoax of modern times.

Which means that they haven’t actually presented both sides, they’ve simply presented their side along with their grossly misunderstood view of the actual science that supports evolution.

The goal of their game is to collect “brain cards” and the player with the most brain cards wins. The irony is so thick that the responses nearly write themselves…

Endorsing this brain trust is Ken Ham, the creationist responsible for www.AnswersInGenesis.com and quotes like:

I don’t use science to prove my religion. I use the Bible to build my science.

Evidently Dr. Dino is a little busy.

So it’s Monday

Evidently the Christians are having some major holiday today. To me, it’s a very quiet Monday. The weather’s pretty, though. Very nice change from the rains yesterday.

I don’t see any reason to treat December 25 any differently from any other day, whether for “cultural” reasons or any other. They’re all unique, you only live them once, so enjoy them as best you can!

When Christian belief is “deluded” to mainstream Christians

There’s been another ghastly incident of a zealously religious mother murdering her small children and saying God told her to, and this has sparked an interesting discussion on the ACA mailing list that I thought I’d hijack and migrate over here.

The ugly story in brief: Lashuan Harris, a young Oakland woman, believing she was under orders from God to deliver a human sacrifice, methodically flung her three kids, ranging in ages from 18 months to 6 years, into the freezing San Francisco Bay. Her counsel has pled not guilty by reason of insanity, which might seem entirely understandable (except for the “not guilty” part — I’ve always thought the plea should be “guilty but mentally impaired” or something) until you realize there’s this Bible story about a fellow named Abraham and his son Isaac. Evidently this kind of behavior is not unknown in the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, in the modern day California version of the story, it looks as if God forgot to give the kids a last minute stay of execution on the grounds his mother had passed some sort of sick loyalty test.

On the mailing list, the indefatigable Stephen Rogers — quite possibly making the Abraham/Isaac connection as well — asked if events like this weren’t enough to wake believers out of their trance and realize how morally reprehensible and deranged their belief system really is. I replied that most Christians will probably just dismiss such a quandary with remarks that the woman isn’t a True Christian™, or that she was just delusional and that God would never ask anyone to do such a thing, though he clearly did according to Genesis 22. Regular AE blog commenter Tracie Harris made a worthwhile point:

Everything I was ever taught about Xianity — when I was a Xian — would support her logic. These children are in heaven, according to most Xian doctrines. It’s funny to me that using Xian logic to ensure your children’s place in heaven is also labeled “delusion.”

Even if the woman is viewed as having committed a sin — according to Xian doctrine, she did send her kids to god/heaven (although she may pay with eternity in hell for herself — that would take a really loving Xian mom to sacrifice her eternal soul and exhibit such great faith to kill her own children to ensure they’re [sic] eternal happiness).

By calling her “deluded” in her logic, though, it’s no different than calling all Xians deluded. If she was deluded for thinking that killing her kids would send them to heaven/god, then I know a great number of deluded Xians who think exactly the same way — but who just wouldn’t kill their own kids to lock in their slots in heaven.

This distinction would seem to be the separator: the transition from belief into action. Consider: if a Christian would conclude that Lashuan Harris was delusional, and yet would still profess belief in the truth of the Abraham/Isaac story, a bevy of questions open up about how the believer can accurately make a moral judgment against what Harris did.

If one believes God really did order Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, can the believer really say for sure that God didn’t make a similar demand of Harris? A believer might say that it’s obvious God didn’t. After all, God spared Isaac at the last minute, so God’s basically a decent guy after all (unless you’re a Midianite, but that’s another story). As there was no last-minute reprieve for Harris’s kids, then QED, Harris couldn’t have been acting under orders from God, because God doesn’t ask people to kill their own children without stopping them in the nick of time to say he was only kidding.

But how could they know? And what if God hadn’t reprieved Isaac? What would the believer think of God’s little test of faith then? What would they think of Abraham, for committing the most abominable crime a parent can commit? Indeed, what do they think of Abraham now, for being willing to do it in the first place? Wouldn’t a more courageous parent have stood up to God and said, “What, kill my own son for you? Fuck off. If that’s the kind of test of faith I have to pass, I don’t need you.” Would a truly great God have punished Abraham for taking such a courageous stand of defiance, or recognized his courage and rewarded it? If God had smote him for it, wouldn’t that just make God a sick, petty, bloodthirsty tyrant? I mean, we’d be rightly disgusted if we knew someone like Saddam Hussein had been going around ordering men to murder their own sons to prove their loyalty to him. Indeed, we’d make that one more pretext — and actually a kinda justifiable one, for a change — for his overthrow. So why is such a demand acceptable coming from God? Is it just that God gets to obey a different set of rules? Now isn’t that “moral relativism”?…

And so on and so on. Stephen and Tracie, as usual, raise good points. While the expected reaction from mainstream Christians would be to brand Harris delusional, this is the sort of situation that a savvy atheist can use as a springboard to raise lots of questions about Christianity and belief in “Biblical morality” on a broad scale, and really force Christians to think about what they believe. “What if God spoke to you, clean and clear as he spoke to Abraham, demanding your child’s life? What would you do? Can you be sure God would never ask that of you?”

The sad truth is that it shouldn’t have to take the deaths of three innocent kids to make people investigate and question their choice to believe violent, morally dubious millennia-old fables and superstitions in the first place.

Reason’s Greetings

Happy Winter Solstice, everyone! Bummer to those of you being slammed by snowstorms, but in Austin today, the weather’s kind of pretty. 63° and mostly sunny.

In the comments, let’s hear a little about what you’d like to see 2007 bring. An end to the war in the mideast may be a little unrealistic, but perhaps we can hope for some positivity here at home.

Remembering Carl

When I was young(er), Carl Sagan was something of a cultural anomaly: a celebrity scientist. You didn’t see too many professional scientists representing on Johnny Carson and other mainstream media venues. Though I’m sure there were more, the only other scientist I can think of who was known by a large percentage of the public about 25 years ago would have been Isaac Asimov, and he was mostly known for his science fiction, actually a modest portion of his entire writing output.

To the young me, then as now a rabid fan of both science fiction and science fact, Carl’s particular expertise in astronomy meant that there was a sound field of study underlying the adventure stories that I embraced for my entertainment. It’s one thing to read a cool space opera by the likes of Gordon R. Dickson or Poul Anderson, and allow your imagination to soar as you dream about what it might actually be like to fly among the stars. But it’s another thing entirely to have a guy like Sagan who could bring you back down to earth with real science, but do so without losing any of that sense of wonder — if anything, enhancing that sense of wonder by letting you see that the real universe was just as wondrous, if not moreso, than how it appears in even the best science fiction.

But in the years prior to his death, I got introduced to another, even more intriguing subject by Carl: skepticism.

His book The Demon-Haunted World was not the first work of skepticism out there, but it was one of the bestselling ones, and it was the first one that I read. I was, by my mid-teens, already leaning towards a rejection of the religious beliefs I’d been raised with. But as a youth I had no sophisticated arguments with which to defend my skeptical views. Nor was I aware of the extent to which not only superstition and irrationalism thrive in all cultures, but the degree to these problems threaten science itself. I still can never understand why people will reject sound scientific facts supported by strong evidence, while freely and joyfully choosing to believe all manner of bizarre claims and requiring no evidence or proof at all to do so. But they do, and Carl’s book, with its remarkable, visually evocative title, brought the extent of the cultural crisis home to me. Our species is shrouded in darkness, a pall built up of centuries of accumulated superstition, fear, and gibberish. Science is there to light the way through this darkness toward understanding. And yet so many people find their darknesses comforting, and refuse even to look at the light.

I’m aware of the religious character of this metaphorical language, and I know Carl was too. That is, I think, why he used those images. In the hopes of penetrating the darkness of even one benighted True Believer, Carl understood the value of reaching them by speaking their language. It may have been a small effort; religiosity is as rampant today as ever and has more destructive power over people’s minds and lives than any time since the Dark Ages. (I can imagine how profoundly sad 9/11 would have made Carl.)

But even this small effort mattered, because I think The Demon-Haunted World helped pave the way for my generation of atheists and skeptics and freethinkers, to launch our own causes, and to realize it’s okay to speak your mind about these topics, and not let religion have a undeserved pass, simply because it’s religion, and “we just don’t talk about that kind of thing.” Finally, Carl’s work had a lot to do with creating a receptive marketplace in which books by atheist writers like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins could become bestsellers.

So on this tenth anniversary of Carl Sagan’s death, I just want to tell him: Thanks. Thank you very much. Your legacy of reason and humanism is greater than you’ll ever know, and it absolutely changed my life for the better.

(Posted as part of the Carl Sagan Memorial Blogathon.)