One should not teach false beliefs or bad desires to a child because, to the degree that one does so, one makes the child a threat to himself or herself and to others. To the degree that the teaching of any religion involves teaching false beliefs or bad desires, then children should not be taught to follow that religion.
This is Part Four in a series on the badness of teaching religion.
In Part 1, "Religion as Child Abuse", I argued that teaching religion to a child does not qualify as ‘abuse’ because it lacks a desire for, or an indifference towards, the harm inflicted on the student.
In Part 2, "Teaching Religion", I argued that teaching religion to a child is bad because (and insofar as) it involves teaching false beliefs, and that teaching false beliefs is bad. False beliefs cause people to make mistakes, and mistakes can often do a great deal of harm to the person who makes them, or to others.
In Part 3, "Religion and Bad Desires", I argued that teaching religion to a child is bad because (and insofar as) it involves giving the child bad desires. A bad desire will cause a child to act in ways that thwart his or her other desires, or act in ways that make the child a threat to the life, health, and well-being of others, or act so as to fulfill desires that can never be fulfilled thus wasting that person’s efforts and that person’s life.
So, teaching religion to children is a bad thing to do. So, what are we going to do to stop it?
The Fact of Conflicting Beliefs
There is nothing more obvious than the fact that every theist is going to protest that teaching religion does not involve teaching false beliefs or bad desires. In fact, the vast majority of them will likely assert that denying God involves teaching bad beliefs, that failure to teach piety is a moral crime against children, and that it is only through God that one can hope to have a meaningful life.
Even in the absence of these objections, even if nobody believed in God, we would still have a society in which different people believed different things, and where some of them believed that it is extremely important that everybody adopt their beliefs. We would likely still be at risk of war, not over conflicting religions, but still over conflicting ideologies.
We need institutions that will allow people with widely different beliefs to get along at least well enough to avoid a situation like we find in Baghdad today, or Darfur. We will need these institutions even in a world where nobody believes in God (so these are not institutions that religion makes it necessary for us to have). We need to apply these rules to all major differences in belief, including disagreements over the existence of a God.
Principles of Free Speech
On matters of belief, there shall be a strong presumption against the use of violence or threats of violence against those who hold to different beliefs. This is in spite of the fact that false beliefs and bad desires are harmful. ‘Violence’ here not only includes direct assaults against the life, body, and property of another person with an aim of causing harm. It also means ‘violence’ in the form of criminal penalties against expressing opinions that others do not like, or against rituals and practices that others do not like.
Instead, we are going to limit the set of allowable responses to other people’s beliefs to non-violent verbal responses and private actions. By ‘private actions’ I mean decisions over who to invite to a party, where to shop, what to buy, where to donate time or money, and what to watch, listen to, read, or look at.
The Limits of Freedom
I have spoken here of a strong presumption against private violence and criminal penalty. It is like the presumption used in a jury trial, where the accused is presumed innocent, and the burden of proof is on the prosecutor. If there is reasonable doubt, we should side with liberty and against violent interference. However, when there is reason to believe beyond reasonable doubt that significant harm will come from a belief or a practice, we may stand against it.
Imagine a person standing on the Mall in Washington DC with a nuclear bomb in a suitcase. He says that his God tells him to detonate the bomb. He protests that our Constitution guarantees him the free exercise of religion. The answer is that this right to the free exercise of religion is a presumption that can be overruled by clear evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual is not a significant threat to others. The bomber on the mall is a threat to others, and may that threat may be eliminated.
We can also clearly argue that the right to the free exercise of religion does not include the right to offer a child (or anybody, for that matter) as a live human sacrifice to some God. And no individual shall be able to get off of the hook for the rape of a child by saying that he received a message from God to do so.
There are going to have to be limits to the free exercise of religion. The greater the harm to others (in terms of certainty and degree) the stronger the reason for saying, “These religious practices, we cannot allow.
Institutions for Peaceful Resolution of Disagreements
There are going to be disagreements even over whether a practice is a sufficient threat to warrant criminal penalties. To prevent war and physical violence, we need a commitment to institutions where we will resolve these differences short of bloodshed - such as legislators and courts. Yet, even within these bodies, we need individuals bound to the presumption of freedom - a 'bill of rights' - otherwise oppressive legislation can be the pretext for civil war. It should not be considered sufficient to convince a mere majority that something is a bad idea before it is banned. The evidence must be of such quality that the vast majority of reasonable people cannot doubt it.
Yes, there is a risk that with any standard of interference in the beliefs and expressions of others that we risk banning truth and prohibiting innocent and harmless actions. It is also true that in any court of law that we risk convicting an innocent person. This does not give us an argument for closing down the criminal justice system, nor does it give us an argument for saying ‘everything is permissible’ in terms of the expressions (religious and otherwise), or 'anything may be prohibited' on the slightest expression of discomfort on the part of the majority against it. We cannot avoid the fact that there will areas of dispute. So, we must make sure that our institutions are those that can survive in the face of a sphere of dispute.
I think it is particularly important for atheists – particularly those atheists who are out in front of the camera – to state that they understand and respect these principles. In the words and writings of the most public atheists, I have yet to hear an argument that specifies the limits of freedom speech, freedom of religion, and the limits of violence. This, combined with the widespread public perception that atheists have no reason to recognize that there are moral limits to human action make it easy to generate fear of atheists precisely on these points that atheist spokesmen do not address.
The reason that some people use phrases such as ‘militant atheists’ or ‘atheist fundamentalist’ is because they seek to win political points by marketing in fear. These phrases are meant to convey the impression that atheists do not understand the proper limits on free expression, and are simply aching for an opportunity to turn military arms (militantism) or other forms of violence (fundamentalism) against believers. They are trying to claim that only believers understand the true limits of expression.
This is in spite of the fact that you will scarcely find a scripture that does not command and condone the wholesale slaughter of individuals whose only crime is holding beliefs contrary to one’s religion. This is in spite of the fact that almost all of the violence we see in the world today, where individuals are threatening real-world harms against those who do not share their beliefs, are cases in which the violence is done in the name of ‘defending’ some religion.
Those who are morally impaired hold that in a marketing campaign, the only thing that matters is perception. It does not matter whether it is true that atheists are militant. All that matters is the ability to generate the perception that atheists are militant. A useful lie is always to be preferred to a useless truth – and so it goes with those who speak of ‘militant’ and ‘fundamentalist’ atheists.
There are limits to what may be done to counter the teaching of religion to children. However, in recent history, the fault has fallen far on the side of doing too little than in doing too much. Tomorrow, I want to look at the other side of the coin – at the beliefs that have inspired people to do too little to counter the harms that are done, and the evils that people suffer, at the hands of those who teach religion to children.