Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Imposing The Truth

There was a flap of sorts over at ScienceBlogs over the holiday when it was pointed out by an anti-evolution advocate that Richard Dawkins (the posterboy of trying to turn scientific conclusions into sweeping philosophical ones) had signed a petition over in the UK (his home turf) saying:
We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Make it illegal to indoctrinate or define children by religion before the age of 16.
In order to encourage free thinking, children should not be subjected to any regular religious teaching or be allowed to be defined as belonging to a particular religious group based on the views of their parents or guardians. (NB: as a result of the flap, Dawkins eventually repudiated the petition.)
Now, a number of the better evolution advocates (Ed Brayton, specifically, in this case) over there have a strong libertarian streak, and none to impressed with this suggestion of governmental thought control. Here's what Ed (who is not religious) had to say:
Let me make this clear: no government has the authority to decide what views they may teach to their children. Indeed, I would argue that the absolute last thing that any atheist wants to do is to encourage government to take such authority, because believe me, it's a hell of a lot more likely that you're gonna find it illegal to teach your beliefs than it is to make it illegal to teach someone else's beliefs.

This proposal is every bit as noxious and totalitarian as a proposal from Christian reconstructionists that those who teach their children about witchcraft or atheism should be thrown in jail would be. Just imagine what you would have to do to actually enforce such a law. No one could take their children to church, which means you'd have to literally police the churches to make sure no children went in. Nor could they teach their children about religion at home, read the Bible with them, say prayers with them before they go to bed. The only way to enforce such a law would be to create a society that would make Orwell's 1984 seem optimistic by comparison.

As far as I'm concerned, this pretty much removes Dawkins from any discussion among reasonable people.
Many of Ed's commenters agreed with this, but others thought there was a fair degree of merit in the demand to ban religion:
As for the libertarian argument that "the government simply has no legitimate authority to make any such laws", it sure would, if religious indoctrination were considered child abuse as Dawkins argues. Parental rights do not extend to the right to physically or psychologically harm a child.
And from another commenter:
I've gotta agree with Dawkins on this one. As a person who was raised as a born-again Christian and who's mother was involved with very weird borderline cult churches, I was inflicted with what I now consider mental and emotional child abuse. I also lost my chance to get a good education, because I was so indoctrinated that I believed that formal education was a waste of time, I quite highschool with the permission of my mother and went to Bible school instead of college. Before my indoctrination, I would have gone to college and become a scientist. By the time I was able to fully extract myself from the religious indoctrination that I'd been brainwashed with, I was almost 30 years old. I believe I had some of the best years of my life stolen from me and I lost opportunitites that will never be regained. And, yes, I completely blame my mother for this. We get along now and are friends, but I won't forgive her for this and I don't believe I should. Any there are many children who suffer much more from more severe indoctrination than I did. I consider my case to be somewhat mild.

I do think the government should protect children from assinine actions of their parents. It is OK to forbid parents from physically abusing their children, but not from actions that stunt their mental and emotional growth?
What strikes me as interesting in all this is the way in which a number of the atheist (and I suspect in many cases fairly liberal) commenters are drawn to the same kind of desire to give right thinking the backing of the state that they decry in the much hated "middle ages" and other periods in which church and state were closely tied together. At the same time, it underlines the sense in which ia truly libertarian intellectual stance can be hard to maintain.

In general, we wish the best for others in our society, and as such we want them to understand the importance of good and true things, for their own good and the good of society as a whole. The libertarian ethos is often summed up with the "you're free to swing your fist until it comes in contact with someone else's face) but while it's easy to make calls regarding fists and faces, it can get a lot trickier when trying to decide where someone's liberty to live according to what they consider to be "the good" causes sufficient harm to themselves, their families or society that their actions should be curbed.

While I think there's a real world necessity of building certain areas of freedom to sin or believe wrongly into a society or polity (in order to make allowances for the difficulty of establishing societal agreement o what is "the good"), you can't have a society which is based only on freedoms without any obligations to a commonly assumed definition of truth.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for extracting those comments--I have gotten so tired of Dawkins and his claims that I don't even bother reading much of them, or those of his advocates, anymore.

As I was reading the comment from the former 'born-again Christian,' a thought crept into my mind: aren't we all indoctrinated into something? Didn't this guy just exchange the 'brainwashing' of fundamentalism for that of his current beliefs? It chills me that the advocates of banning religion from the public square are as blind to their own dogmatism as they are vehemently opposed to others'.

Anonymous said...

I hadn't heard of ScienceBlogs before, and enjoyed going exploring there after reading your post Darwin;-)

Dawkins has gone a long way towards convincing creationists they are 'right' to be anti-evolution.

(Don't want to sign in on new blogger in case it stops me commenting as it often has done lately on 'old' blogs!

DMinor said...

I wonder what the "Defender of the Faith" (i.e. the Queen) thought of Mr. Dawkins petition. While British society is very diverse, the UK still has an established church (Anglican) and, at least for now, a monarch who swears to uphold that church. I would assume then that Mr. Dawkins would want to do away with the monarchy too -- otherwise we have a government with a distinct conflict of interest.

Ok - being against the monarchy is not a punishable offense in the UK, so far as I know, but what of parliamentary democracy? Could a candidate for parliament invoke God in a speech or within earshot of the young ones and not be hauled before the magistrate? What about the campaign literature - if it invoked God or religous values would it require a plain brown wrapper?

I think for a model of how this might work, one might look at Saudi Arabia's treatment of non-Muslim philosopies/religions . . . .

Anonymous said...


I suspect that dear Dr. Dawkins hasn't thought through the implications of his petition. He's consumed with hate for religion, which blinds him to the consequences of his train of thought.

As an aside, I wonder if Dawkins, Harris, et al have realized how much like a certain character from a classic novel they are sounding:

"No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?"

CMinor said...

I contemplated a comment, but it got kinda long. I just made a post of it on my blog instead. Thought you might be interested, and of course comments/critiques are always welcome!