Friday, 5 October 2007

Jumping in with both feet

I had some fun in this post with Theo Hobson’s ludicrous over-reaction to Richard Dawkins’ call for an end to the religious indoctrination of children. But Dawkins’ campaign has also been the target of criticism from more thoughtful commentators. Norm, for example, detects a sinister undertone in his suggestion that freeing children from religious indoctrination should be a matter of public policy:

Apart from the fact that this has been tried, somewhere, without terribly good results, one might have thought that a secular rationalist would be unwilling to entertain such a notion. In any case, it isn't compatible with democratic liberalism to turn atheism into an official truth.

I'm not sure that Dawkins' actual words merit this kind of interpretation. Here's what he's quoted as saying in the article that Norm links to: 'I would free children from being indoctrinated with the religion of their parents or their community.' Maybe it's because I've just read his book, but I'm pretty sure that what Dawkins is referring to here is religious indoctrination in the education system, and specifically faith schools. I understand him as meaning that education should be faith-neutral and should introduce children to different ways of looking at the world rather than schooling them solely in the faith of their parents. Unlike Hobson, I don't think Dawkins is planning to interfere in some Orwellian way in the way that parents bring up their children, and unlike Norm I don't interpret him as calling for atheism to be take the place of religion as some kind of official public 'faith'.

However, I don't hold any particular brief for Dawkins and would suggest that he needs to be clearer about what he means, so as not to give fuel to the 'atheists-are-just-as-fundamentalist-as-those-they-oppose' lobby. Along similar lines, fellow-atheist Sam Harris has had this to say about the dangers inherent in promoting 'atheism':

Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn't really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as "non-racism" is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves.

Another problem is that in accepting a label, particularly the label of "atheist," it seems to me that we are consenting to be viewed as a cranky sub-culture. We are consenting to be viewed as a marginal interest group that meets in hotel ballrooms. I'm not saying that meetings like this aren't important. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think it was important. But I am saying that as a matter of philosophy we are guilty of confusion, and as a matter of strategy, we have walked into a trap. It is a trap that has been, in many cases, deliberately set for us. And we have jumped into it with both feet.

I'm not sure if this was meant as a criticism of Dawkins' current atheist crusade in the US, but the point he makes is a good one.

Finally, I'm one hundred per cent with Norm, and with Bob, in their distaste for the kneejerk conspiracy-theory leftism in this extract from Dawkins' Guardian interview:

When you think about how fantastically successful the Jewish lobby has been, though, in fact, they are less numerous I am told - religious Jews anyway - than atheists and [yet they] more or less monopolise American foreign policy as far as many people can see. So if atheists could achieve a small fraction of that influence, the world would be a better place.

If Dawkins wants to win acceptance for an open debate about the role of religion in public life, he needs to be more precise in his use of language, and to avoid crowd-pleasing remarks that risk alienating many of the atheists and secularists who should be his natural allies.

And see this post by Eve Garrard over at Normblog.

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