Tuesday 2 October 2007

Dawkins in call for ban on bedtime prayers shock horror!

The Guardian has really got it in for atheists.

After Bunting's dig at Dawkins last week, yesterday saw Pankaj Mishra produce an almost identical argument, to the effect that the Burmese monk-protestors have 'proved' that religion has a role in politics after all. There were the same put-downs of 'militant atheists' with their 'salon wisdom', and the same sneering at 'devotees of science and rationality' who 'call for a religion-free politics'. At least Mishra's paeon to the political virtues of Buddhism, unlike Bunting's, acknowledged its role in bolstering militarism and reactionary nationalism in Japan and Sri Lanka. But both articles gave the same impression of tilting at windmills: in this case the fiction that atheists and secularists want to exclude religion from public life, rather than simply maintain a healthy separation between politics and belief, and a level playing-field for belief and unbelief in a plural society.

There was more straw-man construction going on today over at Comment is Free, where Theo Hobson was laying into Richard Dawkins' campaign to coax American atheists out of the closet. Hobson seemed keen to show that his recent thoughtful assessment of secular liberalism in The Tablet was a momentary aberration, and that he'd returned to his former pugnacious pseudo-tabloid style. Absurdly, Hobson caricatures Dawkins' call for atheists to form themselves into a political lobby as a wish for 'non-believers to gain disproportionate influence over political affairs.' (An example of the rhetorical strategy that I described in this post as attributing the characteristics of your own side to your opponent, or getting your retaliation in first: who do you think is more likely to have a disproportionate influence on US politics, atheists or believers?)

Then there's Hobson's hysterical, not to say hilarious misreading of Dawkins' call for end to the religious indoctrination of children in the education system:

Atheists reply that there is nothing dangerous or sinister in the desire to see more rationality, less superstition. Really? Dawkins was asked what he hoped an atheist bloc in the US might achieve, and this is the first part of the answer he gave: "I would free children of being indoctrinated with the religion of their parents or their community." Is this not amazing? I have seldom read a sentence that has induced such a sharp shiver of revulsion. This man evidently dreams of a state in which it is illegal to take one's children to a place of worship, or to say prayers with them as one puts them to bed.

Do I overreact? What else does he mean by wanting to "free" children from a parent's ability to "indoctrinate" them? He wants a culture in which saying bedtime prayers is considered child abuse. Presumably in this bravely rationalised new world, atheist teachers will encourage children to inform on their parents.

Of course, Dawkins never said any such thing: he was talking about faith schools, stupid. This Orwellian nightmare is the product of Hobson's own fevered imagination. At this point his rhetoric shifts from straw-man building to irrational scare tactics.

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