Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A Prohibition on Teaching Religion

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?

Absolutely not.

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.


Divided By Zer0 said...

Perhaps it should be considered a case of child abuse to prevent your child from learning truths? I mean, someone who keeps his child homeschooled and does not discuss anything science related for fear of creating doubts in his child's mind; who does not teach his child basic facts (like the fact that the earth is round and a few billion years old) and generally leaves his child in total ignorace, well, then he should be considered to be abusing his child in the same way that not teaching your child basic maths and writing should be considered abuse.
The question then is, taking into consideration that the more fundamentalist theism is, the more opposed to science it is: Where is the limit between "banning religion" and preventing child abuse.

I agree that it shouldn't be illegal to teach religion but I also believe that it should be illegal to keep your child ignorant.

Martin Freedman said...

Contrary to Dawkins, Dennett advocates teaching religion in school - making them learn the 4 Rs! Of course he wants to teach all religions and just the facts - warts and all :-) Whenever Dawkins comes up now on this religious education=child abuse objection I respond with Dennett's position - to which they have no reply except a disgruntled "I don't believe you" and then I can point them to my blog or the Beyond Belief talk.

As for teaching atheism in school without other religion I do not know of any atheist who advocates that and you are right it would not make sense.

There seem to be two ethical choices:
1. Teach all the facts of all religion (including humanism etc.)
2. Teach no religion (including atheism)

I think option 1 is better than 2 since with option 2 parents will still directly and via their places of worship likely (mis)educate their children on religion.

Anonymous said...

@martino - actually, Dawkins also holds exactly the same position as Dennett, it's just that many people perceive him as wanting to ban religion in schools. And as we know, perception is reality...

Dawkins, in TGD page 340: "Let children learn about different faiths, let them notice their incompatibility, and let them draw their own conclusions about the consequences of that incompatibility. As for whether any of them are 'valid', let them make up their own minds when they are old enough to do so."

And on page 344: "Let me not labour the point. I have probably said enough to convince at least my older readers that an atheistic world-view provides no justification for cutting the Bible, and other sacred books, out of our education."

CrypticLife said...

"have malicious intent or at least a disregard for the well-being of the child"

If that's your qualification for child abuse, what of parents (or, potentially, others) who think their child needs "a good smack on the ass" to be straightened out? Few would argue that this cannot be abusive, and many would argue that corporeal punishment at all is legally abuse.

Martin Freedman said...

@geoff: Thanks for this now you have given me an even better response to the complaint over Dawkins' child abuse metaphor

Martin Freedman said...

@alonzo"have malicious intent or at least a disregard for the well-being of the child"

@cryticlife:If that's your qualification for child abuse, what of parents (or, potentially, others) who think their child needs "a good smack on the ass" to be straightened out?
If there is no malicious intent and it is done for the regard of the child then it is not abuse.

@cryticlife:Few would argue that this cannot be abusive
This is the rub of course, how does one determine whether it is in fact abusive? The precautionary principle would ban all as abuse, it is simpler but maybe it disables thoughtful parents from giving guidance in a way so that when the child grows up they do not fall foul of the law? How do we empirically estimate this, there does seem to be a high correlation between banning corporal punishment in schools and the increase of juvenile ill health and criminality but that is just a correlation.

@cryticlife:and many would argue that corporeal punishment at all is legally abuse.
That is begging the question. You have brought up what should be legal not what is or is not legal. Argument can be used to decide what should be legal,but we need to see the actual argument to decide if it is sound and valid.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Divided by Zer0

I agree that there is a problem with keeping children ignorant. As I wrote in the post, a duty of schools and parents is to provide children with true useful beliefs and good desires.

The dispute arises not over this principle, but over which propositions are true and useful and which desires are good.

Geoff Coupe and martino

I am going to be covering Dennett's suggestion in the next installment of my Beyond Belief 2 weekend series - on Saturday. That was a part of his presentation.

Cryptic Life

Whether corporal punishment is harmful or not depends on empirical research into its effects. Whether corporal punishment is abuse or not depends on whether it is reasonable to believe that it is harmful.

If something is widely known to be useful - if the agent should have known that it was useful (a truly concerned agent would have known), then it can count as abuse as well.

However, when you live in a culture in which the vast majority of the people are telling you that teaching religion to your child is not harmful, that it is in fact beneficial, then it does not take an ounce of malicious intent of callous disregard for the welfare of a child to actually believe it. In fact, a person can believe it even though he cares a great deal about the welfare of the child.

That is why it does not count as abuse.

Even though it is harmful, not enough people are aware of this fact yet to have reason to condemn all who do not believe it.

Tilberian said...

As has been pointed out by others, the article basically presents a giant strawman of Dawkins' argument and the arguments of any atheist that I know. I guess I count as a new atheist since I have yet to hear anything from Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens or Harris that I disagree with. Nobody advocates outlawing religious training for kids nor is it the inevitable outcome of Dawkins' position that such teaching is child abuse. Feeding kids too much junk food might be child abuse, too, but reasonable people understand that not everything can be controlled by law and, yes, intent is an important component when determining criminal culpability. However, intent does not necessarily matter in whether or not something counts as abuse, only whether the abuse constitutes a crime. The position of most atheists, new and old, that I am aware of is that kids should be educated about all religions and that indoctrinating kids into a religion should be a social taboo rather than a matter of law.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

In this posting I was not interested in addressing the issue of whether the article correctly or incorrectly states the views of Dawkins or others.

I wanted to lay down an argument as to why, even though teaching religion to children is harmful, it is not a type of harm that should be addressed by making the act criminal. It is a form of harm best dealt with by persuading those involved to not do that which is harmful.

Anonymous said...

I think the important parts of Dawkins's child abuse metaphor are left out. He does not say that any teaching of religion is abuse. His claim is that the particular way that much religion is taught, with an emphasis on hell-fire and eternal damnation, causes serious psychological damage to many children. Imagine if a parent first showed a child an incredibly scary, gory, movie in which a child is tortured for some reason he doesn't understand. After the movie, the child asks the parent if that movie was true and could really happen, to him or his friends. The parent replies by saying, "Don't worry, you are totally safe as long as you do what God says. Unfortunately, your friend Joe doesn't believe in god, so yes, what happened in that movie is sure to happen to him eventually." The child proceeds to lie awake, crying in terror and remorse for his doomed friend. This sounds like a dramatization, but Dawkins (and I) have seen that kind of innocent terror in (or as) a child, and it, quite frankly, pisses us off. That is the the type of behavior that should be criminal. Not any religious instruction, but the kind that inflicts heavy emotional and psychological damage. That distinction would be up to a court to make, just as any other "emotional" child abuse case would be.

Anonymous said...

In the interest of keeping ourselves honest, I'd like to point out a bit of dishonesty in this thread. It's true that Dawkins has stated that a parent teaching their religion to their child shouldn't be criminalized, and the correct solution is simply teaching all religions in school, and putting social pressure on those who do teach religion to their children.

However it's been said here that he NEVER advocated criminalizing of parent-child-religious-instruction (PCRI for ease). This is not true. Dawkins has adjusted his position a few times on this subject. There was a brief period in which he said in no uncertain terms that this IS child-abuse without any caveats (which strongly implies it is/should be criminal), and once even signed a petition for the criminalization of PCRI in England (he withdrew his support soon after).

So yes, offically he holds the moderate position, and he usually has. But to say or imply he NEVER went overboard is a distortion of the truth.

Tilberian said...

Actually, if you read my comment you will see that it reads "nobody ADVOCATES outlawing teaching religion to kids" present tense. So the fact that Dawkins may once have put an ill-considered signature on a petition then changed his mind is hardly relevant.

anticant said...

The burning issue in the UK is whether 'faith schools' should be funded out of the public purse. As they are obviously socially divisive, the correct answer is 'No'.

Uber Miguel said...

Is it not correct that all publicly funded schools in the UK must teach about the major world religions? It seems disingenuous to refer to "faith schools" in a contrasting sense to other public schools that do not exist.

Also, it is disingenuous to propose that the source of social divisiveness is the funding of religious education - let alone blankly assert that social divisiveness is something that one should avoid at all other costs.

In other words, your claims are not quite as obvious as you suggest. You're going to have to provide a wee bit of supporting evidence and perhaps even an outline of your moral theory.

Gregorgorie said...

Your argument for why childhood indoctrination should not be considered child mental abuse is very flawed: "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 abuse factor has nothing to do with the intent of the agent; it has to do with the psychological consequences on the child. Childhood religious indoctrination creates severe psychological problems in children that often last their entire lives.

No matter how much a father loves his son, it's not okay for him to have sex with him. As a society we have decided that the psychological consequences of child sexual abuse are unacceptable, so we made a law against it and we frown upon it. Many believe that the psychological consequences of childhood religious indoctrination are much worse than those of child sexual abuse. Should we not do something about this?

I agree that we cannot legislate on what parents teach their children, but the government can at least do it's job by keeping church and state separate. for example: taking the religiosity out of our national anthem (Canada), taking in god we trust off of the money (USA). It can even take it a step further by not allowing private religious education (catholic school), not allowing public advertisements for religious things, not allowing children to attend sunday school, and keeping religion out of public schools, etc.

Just as butt sex with minors has proven to be harmful to children, so has religious indoctrination. They are both forms of abuse; one physical, one mental.

Anonymous said...

There is actually no real evidence that teaching religion to children harms them. In fact, studies that have shown a difference between children raised in a faith and those who have not been show the former to be better adjusted. That doesn't mean that parents should be forced to bring their children to church, but it does call into question the notion that religion harms children.