An article in the National Post raises an important question about the goals of the ‘new Atheism’. It focuses specifically on the fact that Dawkins claims that teaching certain religious beliefs to children amount to ‘child abuse’. With this in mind, the author asks:
Why Dawkins refuses to take this idea to its logical conclusion -- to say that raising a child in a religious tradition, like other forms of child abuse, should be considered a crime punishable by the state -- is a mystery, for it follows directly from the character of his atheism.
I actually do not know how Dawkins (or the other ‘new athists’) would answer this question. Their rhetoric at times seems to advocate a policy of banning any mention of a god in the presence of a child until that child reaches a sufficiently mature age. Nor am I particularly concerned with what their answer is. I am more concerned with what the answer to this question should be.
I need to begin by reminding the reader that I reject the proposition that teaching religion to a child is ‘child abuse’. In order for actions towards a child to count as abuse, the agent must have malicious intent or at least a disregard for the well-being of the child. The person who cares for the child’s well-being, but nonetheless does harm, has made a tragic mistake, but has not committed any form of abuse.
Having said that, teaching religion to a child is certainly harmful in two major ways.
The first is that it deprives the child of the opportunity to obtain things of real value. Religious claims are false, and the values that they hold up are as imaginary as the gods they worship. A life of real meaning and realizing states of real value simply is not possible for an agent who is trapped in the pursuit of fictional meaning and imaginary value.
The second is that, while we seek to fulfill the more and stronger of our desires, we choose those actions that would fulfill the more and stronger of our desires given our beliefs. False beliefs cause people to fail to realize states in which the things that they desire are realized. We can see this in the person who wants to be healthy, but who believes that illness is caused by a rejection of God. He decides to fight off an infection with prayer rather than antibiotics, and he dies. False beliefs, in this case, not only prevented this agent from living a good life. It prevented the agent from living at all.
So, giving children false beliefs harms them in two ways. It gives children imaginary values that can never be realized, so it causes the child to grow up wasting his life. Even to the degree that the child has values that he can realize he may fail to do so because false religious beliefs prevent him from recognizing the best means to those ends.
This harm done to children does not, however, does not come from a malicious intent or disregard for the welfare of the child. Those parents and teachers are often very much interested in the welfare of the child. Only, they suffer from one of the two flaws of religion mentioned above – because of their beliefs, they fail to help the child adopt real-world values and deprives the child of the tools that would help to realize the real-world values he does have.
Given that this behavior is harmful to children, should we use the force of law to punish people who engage in this sort of behavior?
The principle that I have defended throughout this blog is that the only legitimate response to words are words and private actions, and the only legitimate response to a political campaign is a counter-campaign. False beliefs should never be met with violence. They should be met with a determined effort to demonstrate to others that those beliefs are false.
The argument for this traces its roots back to the heart of the enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote that to impose beliefs on others through force of arms “makes half of the world hypocrites and the other half fools.” The fools are those who think that they can change beliefs through force of arms. The hypocrites are those who claim to believe what they are being told to believe in order to avoid the violence that the fools would otherwise visit upon them.
John Stuart Mill argued for the opposite of using force of arms to impose beliefs on others. Mill argued that if there were ever a belief held with such a certainty in a society that nobody would ever dispute it, that we should appoint people to defend the indefensible. Otherwise, the idea becomes stagnate. We lose our full understanding and appreciation of a truth if we are not constantly engaged in a struggle to explain how it is true against challengers.
The point of both of these positions is that the best way to defeat a set of false beliefs is not through force of arms (or force of law), but through a vigorous effort to explain why those beliefs are false – to convince others that no lover of truth would embrace such beliefs.
Even when it comes to preventing parents from doing harm to children by teaching those children false beliefs and imaginary values, the correct response is never to use the force of law, but to use the force of reason instead.
We do recognize that one form of child abuse is to neglect to provide the child with an education. A child who grows up unable to read, write, do basic math, or understand the fundamental facts of the world in which we live, will not have the tools he needs to run his own life, and is also not of much use to others. Particularly in a democracy, where the people choose their leaders, we must be concerned that the people are well enough educated that they can do a good job of choosing those leaders.
Now, we get to the question of education.
A major purpose of the school system is to provide children with true (and useful) beliefs and good desires. In fact, children need true beliefs in order to live a quality life, as I argued above. They also need good desires so as not to be a threat to others, and need others to have good desires so that they are not a threat to him.
At the same time, we will never have universal agreement on what counts as true beliefs or good desires. So, the question of what to teach children is always going to be a political issue – something that we must work out through public debate and compromise. We must go with a common consensus on what counts as true belief or good desire. This is not because the majority is always right (they very often are not). It is because there is no better option.
In some cases, we have found it necessary to adopt the position that the government will not teach particular propositions to children – even if they are true – because the proposition concerns a subject over which people tend to get violent. The ‘separation of church and state’ is only required because of a long and dark history of violence when church and state do not remain separate. If people with religious differences of opinion could learn to settle their differences by peaceful means – through institutions like those that scientists use, for example – there would be no need to separate church from state, any more than there is a need to separate science from state.
So, we have reached a political compromise that says, “Thou shalt not use public schools and public dollars to try to convert my child to your religion.”
This principle, by the way, is completely ignored when it comes to atheists in this country. Adding ‘under God’ to the pledge and changing the national motto to ‘In God We Trust’ were done precisely in violation of this principle – done precisely to promote a belief in God over other beliefs, and to make children feel uncomfortable with considering other options. Fortunately, atheists have had a tendency to prefer reasoned discussion to force of arms when they are threatened, so this particular violation has not lead (and, with continued strong moral commitments on the part of atheists, will not lead) to violent confrontations.
The idea that these atheists who are protesting these violations to the limits on government power are ‘militant’ is just another piece of evidence that the dominant Christian culture in this country is a culture of lies, sophistry, and bearing false witness for political purposes. The fact of the matter is that, in spite of the fact that the Christian culture continually violates the peace treaty between religions, the atheist culture has refused to break the peace.
I urge that they continue to do so, even though this incentivizes the Christian culture into greater and greater breaches of the terms of that agreement.
There is, then, no call for laws declaring the teaching of religious beliefs to children to be a type of abuse punishable by law. It simply is not permissible to respond to words with violence. The best way to respond to harms done to children in the form of false beliefs and bad desires is to counter those harms with a campaign to promote truth and good desires – and to promote them in ways that children can understand.
Because teaching religion to children does harm, the degree to which individuals are concerned with preventing harm to children will be measured by the degree to which they are willing to contribute to a campaign to present children with true beliefs and good desires in ways the child can understand and accept. It is blatantly inconsistent to complain that it is bad to teach religion to children, and yet not be willing to take action to prevent this harm in morally permissible ways.
The religious community will not like this. As they have demonstrated with the movie, “The Golden Compass” they recognize that the best defense that they have when it comes to teaching their attitudes to children is to enforce a child’s ignorance of alternative views. So, instead of meeting the movie The Golden Compass with arguments explaining the problems with the ideas presented, they organize a boycott. They run at full speed away from a policy of debate and discussion and directly into a policy of enforced ignorance.
The original question concerns whether we should make the teaching of religion to children punishable by law, in virtue of the fact that it is harmful to children. We should not. Even if the children adopt atheism under such a system, they will not understand it. They will not know why it is better than competing ideas unless and until they have been presented with those competing ideas and come to understand why they are inferior. This cannot be done by making the teaching of competing ideas illegal. This can only be done in an environment where people are free to offer those competing ideas, so that they can just as freely be refuted.
In other words, this doctrine of making it illegal to teach religion to children is exactly the type of ‘enforced ignorance’ that many religious figures feel they have reason to fear, because it is a policy that where, as illustrated with their reaction to The Golden Compass, they are eager to embrace. Whereas, the morally better way would be to allow children to be exposed to competing ideas, and then to help the children to understand what is wrong with those ideas.
This is not at all an unreasonable strategy. We can expect that a great many theists have a stronger love for their children (who exist) than for their God (who does not). Insofar as they care for their children, they have reason to take seriously the claim that they are doing harm, and to stop. This is the strategy to use - one in which they choose to comply, and to do so because they understand the harm that is otherwise done, and they care to prevent it.