Okay, I’ve had a good night’s sleep, gotten a few morning errands done, and now I’m ready to sit down and hammer out my report about yesterday. The short version: a phenomenal and surprising success. If you had told me a scant four years ago that atheism would have such a high public profile, let alone that a prominent atheist scientist wouldn’t just be a guy who wrote books only grad students bought but be traveling around the country treated like a rock star, I wouldn’t have believed you. Dawkins’ wrote in The God Delusion that his primary goal was “consciousness raising,” and in that he’s been a runaway success.
To see all the photos I took of yesterday’s events, check my Flickr set here.
I. Book People
For me the day began at his signing at Book People, which was attended by close to 200 people at my best estimate. As I mentioned in the previous post, Dawkins read the new preface to the paperback edition of TGD, followed by a friendly Q&A and a book signing.
Tangent: While at Book People I bumped into Dr. James H. Dee, a retired professor and friend of CFI, who has written a number of guest editorials espousing atheist and secularist views for the Austin-American Statesman as well as essays for Free Inquiry. Dr. Dee is brilliant and always has interesting insights into religious belief — he tells me he’s preparing a book specifically on the afterlife, which ought to be interesting — but one area where he and I (not to mention he and Dawkins) disagree is on the importance of being up to date on cutting-edge theology for those who wish to critique religion. Dr. Dee is very critical of “The Four Horsemen,” as they call themselves, because none of them have this advanced scholarly knowledge of the most abstruse theological arguments and Biblical research he believes is vital.
I think Dr. Dee has a point, but I don’t think such knowledge is as essential as he thinks. At best, it would be an interesting exercise for someone who had the free time to blow on it. Dawkins has been critiqued, quite inanely, I think, for supposedly ignoring more “advanced” views of God and debunking only the most simplistic and crude forms of Christian belief out there.
What these critics, including Dr. Dee, miss, that I tried to point out, is that the elaborately arcane and abstruse God of the theologians isn’t the God that Jack and Jill Churchgoer worship. The overwhelming majority of rank-and-file Christians are no more well versed in the most obscure Biblical scholarship or cutting edge theological legerdemain than Dawkins. To most Christians, God is a grown-up version of Santa Claus; he knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness’ sake! If a lack of “sophisticated” theological expertise isn’t required for over 99.9% of the world’s Christians to feel they’re justified in believing in God, why should such knowledge be required for an atheist to declare he doesn’t believe in God? As Dawkins has said, why should you have to bone up on leprechaunology before deciding you don’t believe in leprechauns?
Dr. Dee thinks, with the increase in public awareness and acceptance of atheism in the post-God Delusion cultural climate, that atheists ought to throw the tent wider, so to speak. While guys like Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens can be, shall we say, popularizers of atheism and religious criticism, we ought to make room for those scholars who do keep up on more advanced theological thought, just to know what those arguments are and how to counter. While I still agree with Dawkins that most theology is little more than rhetorical smoke-and-mirrors, as most of it takes God’s existence as a given and goes from there as opposed to establishing God’s existence with hard evidence first, I think Dr. Dee’s got a good idea there. Maybe he can be that scholarly atheist writer, to produce the books that have the academic rigor critics of Dawkins think he lacks.
I know I’m running on about this conversation, but it was really interesting and, I think, relevant. One valid criticism Dr. Dee had of Dawkins, I think, is that when he interviewed Christian leaders like the disgraced Ted Haggard for his documentary The Root of All Evil? (a title chosen by the producers that Dawkins doesn’t like), he made the mistake of asking these guys questions pertaining to science. Dr. Dee thinks that if Dawkins were more versed in Biblical scholarship, to the extent of being able to read the earliest available versions of scriptures in their original languages (something Dr. Dee can do), then Dawkins could have called out these prominent Christians on the extent to which they were not only ignorant of things like science, but their own beliefs as well! It’s a compelling thought, I must admit.
II. The Lecture
I was advised to turn up on campus no later than 5:30, but traffic held me back until about 6:15. I was gobsmacked by the line. I knew it would be big, but damn!
If you know the UT campus, the following will have meaning for you. (If you don’t, just visualize a big-ass line of people.) The line wrapped itself around Hogg Auditorium, then flowed out and around the adjacent Undergraduate Library (UGL), spilled out onto the South Mall, and finally doubled back on itself, coming up alongside UGL once more. I’ve never seen anything like that on campus. I eventually found Matt D., got my reserve ticket, and ended up helping him and some of the Atheist Longhorns guys wrangle the line a little bit.
I must confess that I was a little disappointed that there weren’t any of the campus Christian groups putting in a visible appearance, clustering around Hogg handing out tracts and the like. Someone told me that a lot of them actually were there, but to attend the talk. To whatever degree there were Christian organizations and their members there, I wouldn’t know. If they came, they came to listen, not protest. That’s cool. (By contrast, when Dan Barker came to UT — to a much smaller reception, obviously — not long ago, Christian students turned up in force and bombarded him with as many challenging questions as they could think of.)
Once everyone finally filed in — with hundreds having to be turned away — Dawkins was introduced by one Dr. Buss (I think that was his name — I suck remembering names) to thunderous applause. But as there was some problem getting the Powerpoint projector to work properly, Dawkins actually began an impromptu Q&A to fill time while his assistants scrambled with cables behind the scenes. I liked the way that turned out, because it gave the whole lecture a more accessible feel. By interacting with the audience first, he established rapport with them right away, and never came across as the ivory-tower professor lecturing to the masses, as it were. (Maybe Dawkins is really only good at being “personable” before a large audience, but if it’s what works for him, fine.)
As expected, the lecture was a recap of most of the main points of TGD, primarily those parts of the book dealing with the harmful effects religion has on culture as a whole. But I was grateful the talk wasn’t just one big reading. Dawkins has truncated his book and created a real presentation out of it, accompanied by a slideshow both informative and humorous, and quite often sobering as well.
Just to touch on a couple of bits that stood out for me: One of the book’s efforts at consciousness raising is to question the privileged position religion has always held in culture. It’s been considered something that is above criticism. To express doubt about a person’s belief in this or that imaginary sky fairy is to be uncouth and ill-mannered in the extreme. You can tell a person their favorite band suck
s, and that their politics are full of shit, and even — in desperate situations — that their spouse is a gold-digging bitch or drunk abusive shitheel and they’d be better off alone. But don’t touch their religion! Why should this be? Why should religion deserve this privileged status among all of humanity’s ideas, especially as its ideas are usually the ones least supportable by rational argument and evidence?
If there’s one part in all of TGD that makes the steam erupt from Christians’ ears, it’s what Dawkins has to say about the religious indoctrination of children. The brutal fact is that the man is on point. Isn’t it interesting that most people almost always fall into the religion of their parents? And why should this be? Childhood indoctrination, pure and simple. But is this right? How can it be, any more than it could be right to indoctrinate a child too young to understand what they’re being taught into one or another political ideology?
And yet you’ll never see a Christian’s face turn redder than when Dawkins points out that’s there’s no such thing as a Christian child or a Muslim child, that all you can really say is that this is a child of Christian or Muslim (or whatever religion) parents. Dawkins presented a slide of three children taking part in a nativity play, that he clipped from some British newspaper. The children — each only 4 years old — are identified as Christian, Jewish and Muslim, and the original article, we were told, went on gushingly about how lovely it was that these little 4-year-olds from different faiths could come together in the same nativity play. Obviously it never occurred to the reporter to think that maybe those children weren’t aware — being 4 years old — that the fact they were from “different faiths” meant there was a presupposition they should reflexively hate each other. Or that what their “faiths” were even all about. After all, they’re 4 years old. Dawkins’ next slide showed the same caption, but he had replaced the names of the faiths with those of different political parties. Now the absurdity of the whole thing was clear as day.
If you wouldn’t identify a 4-year-old child as a Republican, or a Democrat, or a Socialist, or a Marxist, or an Objectivist, or a Libertarian, or even an atheist or agnostic, then how can it possibly make sense to identify them as Christian or Jewish or Muslim? How can a 4-year-old be expected to comprehend religion when they’re too young to comprehend politics or philosophy? You can’t. A 4-year-old is no more capable of being a “Christian child” than it is of being an “Objectivist child.” And here’s the part that makes Christians’ heads completely explode: to impose a belief on a child too young to understand that belief, Dawkins opines, is tantamount to child abuse.
That’s pretty heavy. But in principle, I agree. Now naturally, when people hear the word “abuse” in the first place, their immediate association is with physical abuse. And so you hear Christians time and again wail that Dawkins is comparing them to child beaters for taking their precious widdle babies to Sunday School. This is emphatically not what Dawkins means. He simply means that — intellectually, developmentally, psychologically — it is abusive to impose ideas and beliefs upon the mind of a person incapable of understanding what it is they are being told they must believe. A 4-year-old is not intellectually equipped to evaluate ideas critically, is not emotionally capable of standing up to parental authority, and not mature enough to make its own decisions. Given this fact, while parental guidance is necessary for the child in most things (basic care, really), when it comes to beliefs, imposing a religion upon them is as wrong as imposing a political ideology.
But is the use of the word “abuse” here too strong? I’ll grant, having been raised by Christian parents, that in most cases it may be, and that Dawkins’ use of the term may be overreaching. I think most parents just raise their children into their own religion because their religion is so woven into the very fabric of their lives it just doesn’t occur to them they shouldn’t. So in most cases, where I might differ from Dawkins is in preferring the word “negligence” to “abuse.” A parent who simply imposes their religion upon their very young children, but isn’t motivated by any sort of malice and are simply doing what they’re doing because they haven’t stopped to wonder even if it’s a thing they ought to be doing, is at most guilty of negligence. They may not be abusing their child by not letting them come to whatever religion they might choose (including, perhaps, none) in their own time. But they are being unfair to the child by forcing that decision on them when they’re too young to understand. Remember, I said in most cases.
In some cases, though, there is no denying that religious indoctrination of children is child abuse.
This photo shows Catholic children — ahem, children of Catholic parents — being escorted to school in Belfast by police, in order to protect them from being attacked by Protestants.
And yes, Dawkins is dead on when he says it’s also child abuse to scare the shit out of a kid and tell them they’ll burn forever in hell if they don’t love Jesus, too.
Frank Zappa, when he was alive, actually espoused a view similar to Dawkins vis-a-vis kids and religion. I remember a few years before he died, Zappa was interviewed on either The Today Show or Good Morning America, and the subject got around to his family; the Zappa family was always a very closely-knit unit. Zappa, warning the interviewer that she wasn’t going to like what he was about to say, gave his formula for raising perfect children: “Keep them away from religion…Choosing a religion is a very important decision, and a child should not have that decision forced on them when they haven’t got enough data to make their own choice.”
Personally I can’t see what it is that people find so appalling and horrible about this idea. It’s simply one that supports freedom of conscience, even for our society’s youngest members, and Dawkins just has the guts to criticize those parents who don’t allow their own children to develop their own freedom of conscience where religious belief is concerned.
But that ties back into his point about the privileged position religion holds in our culture, as this subject that is granted immunity from criticism. Most parents would probably object to the notion of indoctrinating children in some radical political fringe. But tell them they shouldn’t shove Jesus down their kids’ throats either, and suddenly you’re the asshole.
End of Part 1. This is taking longer than I thought, in and among all the other things I have to do today. But you know me: thorough. Or is that “long-winded”? Anyway, I’ll wrap up my report of the talk either late tonight or early in the morning. Go ahead and start commenting and Digging if you like.