A member of the studio audience has asked that I comment on the Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life, a product of the World Atheist Conference: God and Politics.
Today: Proposition 11:
We support the right to secular education, and assert the need for education in critical thinking and the distinction between faith and reason as a guide to knowledge, and in the diversity of religious beliefs . We support the spirit of free inquiry and the teaching of science free from religious interference, and are opposed to indoctrination, religious or otherwise.
IndoctrinationTo start with, this part about being "opposed to indoctrination" is pure nonsense.
Not only am I not opposed to indoctrination, I hold that any parent not engaged in the indoctrination of their children is - and is creating - a social menace.
Think of the parent who tells you, “I am not going to indoctrinate my child to think that the Holocaust or racial slavery was wrong. I am going to stay silent on these matters, and let my child make up her own mind when she grows up whether other races are to be enslaved or exterminated. She should be free to make up her own mind."
We can similarly imagine a parent leaving it up to the child to decide to adopt kindness or cruelty, whether to embrace the saving of lives or the taking of life, or whether to deal with others honestly or to be malicious and deceitful.
Parents not only have a right, they have a duty to indoctrinate their children into those values that are essential for a civilized society.
Besides, indoctrination is not only a right and a duty, it is inevitable. It would actually make as much (or as little) sense for a parent to say that he is not going to indoctrinate his child as it would be to say, "I am opposed to teaching children any language. I think it is wrong for adults to impose their language on children. Instead, children should be raised in a language-neutral environment and then, when the child grows up, the child can decide for herself what language she is going to adopt."
Go ahead. Give it a shot. Let me know how it works out (though I think I can guess).
Children will be indoctrinated. That is how a child's brain works. If you are not doing the indoctrinating, then you are leaving it to somebody else.
Of course, endorsing the indoctrination of children into a language or into particular social norms is not the same as saying that all indoctrination is of like value. It is NOT the case that, "It does not matter what indoctrination you give to a child, as long as you are engaged in indoctrination."
Some subjects of indoctrination are better than others.
Having said that, it is also the case that we are never going to have perfect agreement over which indoctrinations are better and which are worse. While we may agree on some major values and concerns, disagreement on specifics is inevitable. What we need are a set of rules that will prevent these disagreements from erupting into civil unrest or, worse, civil war.
These are rules that allow for free and open debate where each can express their opinion on the proper limits of indoctrination without violence or threats of violence, and an agreement to abide by the results of peaceful methods for arbitrating disputes such as by ballot and by vote. We are to indoctrinate children against reaching for guns if a vote does not go their way, but instead to confine themselves to working within the political process to change society for the better.
The values to indoctrinate children into include the sentiment that they are to limit forms of persuasion to books, speeches, civil lawsuits, and political campaigns – and not to bullets or bombs except under the most extraordinary circumstances (e.g., those who use bullets and bombs against them).
Not only do parents have an obligation to indoctrinate children into these values, the state has a right and a duty to participate. The peace that is generated through these activities are a benefit to all, and as such they are something that all people have a right to implement through the actions of the state.
Quality education is a public good.
By this, I mean to say that public education is a good that provides benefits beyond those who are being educated to the public at large. My neighbor not only benefits from obtaining an education, but I also benefit from having an educated neighbor.
This means that education is subject to a free-rider problem. Since I benefit from having a neighbor who is educated, then perhaps I should be contributing a little to the cost of my neighbor's education. Otherwise, I am a free rider - obtaining benefits as a result of my neighbor's actions without paying for those benefits.
Because of free-riders, societies tend to under-fund those activities that generate these types of public goods. There is would be less education going on in a society with free riders then there would be in a society in which people who obtain the benefit pay those who, by educating themselves, provide a benefit.
Another service experiencing a free-rider problem include the military, where it is not possible to protect one house from enemy attack without protecting the house next door. Yet another service subject to free-riders is a system of police and courts. It is not possible to lock up a criminal so as to provide a benefit to those paying for the service that does not benefit all potential victims regardless of whether they pay.
Thus, education falls into the same general category as military and police protection as services where state involvement is necessary to capture the benefits otherwise lost through free-ridership.
This education is justified in virtue of its being a benefit to all. Thus, it should include indoctrination into those values mentioned above - values of freedom of speech, respect for others, and respect for the rule of law that are essential to maintaining a civilized society.
Education: The Diversity of Religious Beliefs
Ultimately, one of the goals of this education is to raise children into adults capable of living in peace with others. One of the essential tools for doing this would be to teach children about those "others" with whom they are to live in peace. The state has good reason to make it a required part of any education it pays for that those children are educated in "the diversity of religious (and non-religious) beliefs - at least those that are common within that society.
The best form of education on this topic, of course, is to actually have children interact with other children from different backgrounds. As such, the state has a good reason to demand that the education it pays for not only allows children to learn about other groups from books – effectively learning nothing more than the teachers’ (or the teachers’ employer’s) prejudices, but to actually require a certain amount of interaction with members of other groups.
Any school that limits its student body to children of a particular race, gender, or religion is a school that is teaching ignorance of those subgroups of the population not represented in its student body. Any school that teaches ignorance is a school that is not providing the type of education that states have (or, actually, the general citizenry of a state has) reason to pay for.
No matter how much book-reading one does, no matter how many diagrams a teacher puts on a blackboard, none of this is going to teach a child how to ride a bike. He will learn HOW to ride a bike by getting on a bike and riding it. Similarly, no amount of classroom lecture is going to teach a child HOW to live in peace with others. Learning how to live in peace with others requires the practice of interacting with others peacefully. One of the best places to learn this lesson is at a school with a diverse population of students.
If a school is limiting a child’s exposure to other types of citizens, then that school is neglecting an important interest of the government and, as such, fails to qualify for any legitimate expenditure of government money.
Education: Science and Critical Thinking
Science is the practice by which we come up with systems of thought that are capable of making accurate predictions of events in the observable world.
In raising children to become adults who are a benefit to the societies in which they live (and humanity in general), it is useful to raise them to understand and to put to good use these systems for making accurate predictions of events in the observable world.
It is difficult to understate the social utility of this skill.
Every one of our lives depends on this skill of making accurate predictions of events in the observable world. From predicting the paths of hurricanes and volcanic eruptions, to predicting the ability of certain architectural designs to withstand earthquake, to understanding the effects of certain chemicals on the human body, to locating and deflecting asteroids potentially aimed at Earth, each of us individually, and all of us collectively, depend on this skill for our survival.
This is what science classes are for.
If people become confused on this matter, then rename the science class as the "ever improving capability of making accurate predictions of events in the observable world" class and make its function explicit.
Anything that does not have a role to play in making increasingly accurate predictions of events in the real world has no place in a science class.
Prove that you have a way of making more accurate predictions of real-world events, and the doors of the science classroom are open to you.
However, if your systems are those that run independent of the observable universe - if it makes predictions that cannot be observed and makes no contribution to accurate predictions of what can be observed - then it has no place in the science classroom.
If you want to assert that there are ways of knowing other than science that are equally valid, I answer that there are also other classrooms in the school that you can present thim in. This classroom is for the ever improving methods for accurately predicting events in the observable universe.
So, the indoctrination of children will happen, and responsible parents (and a responsible government) see to the indoctrination of children into those values that are essential to maintaining a civilized society. This includes teaching them the wrongness of responding to words with violence, respect for the rule of law, how to get along with others who are different from them mostly by giving them opportunities to practice these skills, and the techniques the techniques for accurately predicting events in the real world that are essential in choosing right actions.
Proposition 1: We recognize the unlimited right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others.
Proposition 2: We submit that public policy should be informed by evidence and reason, not by dogma.
Proposition 3: We assert the need for a society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. History has shown that the most successful societies are the most secular.
Proposition 4: We assert that the only equitable system of government in a democratic society is based on secularism: state neutrality in matters of religion or belief, favoring none and discriminating against none.
Proposition 5: We assert that private conduct, which respects the rights of others should not be the subject of legal sanction or government concern.
Proposition 6: We affirm the right of believers and non-believers alike to participate in public life and their right to equality of treatment in the democratic process.
Proposition 7: We affirm the right to freedom of expression for all, subject to limitations only as prescribed in international law – laws which all governments should respect and enforce . We reject all blasphemy laws and restrictions on the right to criticize religion or nonreligious life stances.
Proposition 8: We assert the principle of one law for all, with no special treatment for minority communities, and no jurisdiction for religious courts for the settlement of civil matters or family disputes.
Proposition 9: We reject all discrimination in employment (other than for religious leaders) and the provision of social services on the grounds of race, religion or belief, gender, class, caste or sexual orientation.
Proposition 10: We reject any special consideration for religion in politics and public life, and oppose charitable, tax-free status and state grants for the promotion of any religion as inimical to the interests of non-believers and those of other faiths. We oppose state funding for faith schools.