Dawkins responds to his critics

Chidlren labels googleIn his speech at the AAI Convention (see video below) Richard Dawkins illustrated his comments on the injustice of labeling children with the religion of their parents using data from google searches. I have replicated similar searches here. Dawkins point is that it is inhumane to label children with a religion (e.g., Christian child, Muslim child, etc.) because they are not in a position to really consider what the beliefs are. We can easily see this if we label children as non-religious (e.g., atheist child, agnostic child, etc.) or politically (liberal child, conservative child, Marxist child, etc.).

The google search results, however, suggest that whereas political and non-religious people recognise the inhumanity of labeling their children in this manner, religions seem to have no qualms.

Distortions and misrepresentations

Dawkins spent much of his presentation dealing with the way that his comments have been misrepresented and distorted. Some of the distortions are maliciously dishonest, as in the videos (shown in the talk) altered to show Dawkins making statements he never did. Interestingly, these videos are commonly posted on Christian blogs.

Some other straw men Dawkins knocks down are:

“Religion should be kept out of school” – Dawkins believes teaching about religion is essential for our understanding of history, culture and literature. It also helps overcome prejudices if children learn about the beliefs of others. (Dawkins talked in more detail about teaching chidren without indoctrinating them in this video).

“Religion is the root of all evil” – No, it’s not the only motive for violence and war

“You shouldn’t make judgements about existence of a god without a thorough knowledge of theology” – Dawkins lampooned this position by talking about “thorology”, the study of the god Thor. “How can we decide on the existence or otherwise of Thor without a thorougth knowledge of thorology.”

“Religion has no value” – Dawkins believes that there is a lot in religion that can be appreciated at an aesthetic level – “Just don’t take it too seriously.”

A free ride for religion?

An important aspect stressed by Dawkins is that religion asks for a free ride. It asks that it should be respected and not exposed to the same critical assessments, standards of judgment or ridicule that are normal for other fields of human activity such as politics, sport and science. These are the standards that atheists are exposed to, and accept.

Perhaps this is why many theists see Dawkins as a threat and go out of their way to misrepresent and demonise him!

Richard Dawkins AAI presentation: Part 1 (45 min)

Richard Dawkins AAI presentation (Q&A): Part 2 (12 min)

See Also:
Teaching children without indoctrinating them

Related Articles:
Delusions about Dawkins
Lies and misinformation
Agnostics – what do they stand for?
Theology of the Emperor’s New Clothes
The Enemies of Reason
Richard Dawkins and the enemies of reason
Putting Dawkins in his place

4 responses to “Dawkins responds to his critics

  1. Just because there are a lot of hits for ‘Christian children’ and only a few for ‘conservative children’ does not mean that it is the religious who do the labelling. It could well be that the non-religious are just as willing to use the first term as the religious. While I agree with Dawkins that it isn’t right to classify children in such a way (I probably wouldn’t call it inhumane – that term is best left for greater injustices), I think it is important to understand why it is acceptable. I do not think it is a simple matter of religion being given a ‘free pass’. Rather, I suspect it has more to do with the community-forming aspect of religion, as discussed by Durkheim and D.S. Wilson. This means that the term ‘Christian children’ takes on an ambiguous meaning, both ‘children who are members of a community formed around Christian beliefs’ and ‘children who themselves espouse Christian beliefs and are willing to accept all of the resultant responsibilities’. The second meaning is, of course, the one to be objected to.
    It is interesting to consider how this works in the case of baptism. Baptism is usually performed within the first year of a child’s life and it symbolically brings the child into the community. This has both a social and a religious aspect and means that if that child grows up and decides that they do not believe in God they are forced to break away from a religion they never actually chose to join. In today’s pluralist society this does not necessarily mean breaking away from their original community but it would have done so in earlier times.
    The essential problem, then, that lies at the bottom of what Dawkins objects to is that community affiliation is often tied to religious affiliation. If this were not the case, it would be much easier for people, even religious ones, to accept that children should not be given religious labels. Unfortunately, if Wilson is right, the link between religion and community is very close meaning that the tendency to label children is tied to the core of what religion is about. This makes it less likely that a reasonable compromise will be reached in this respect.


  2. Dawkins is one of my heroes, but I think he is barking up the wrong tree. Christian and/or conservative parents know full well that their children will “carry” onward their beliefs and convictions and actually actively train them to do so. Also if there were to be objective teaching about religions in the schools it would be almost impossible to have unbiased teachers of the subject. Most teachers of the primary school level are heavily indoctrinated in Christianity themselves. Frequently having bibles in their desk at all times. It would be better for Dr. Dawkins to spend time devising other ways of getting children to learn objective thinking. The use of public media such as television, movies, children books can be an effective way to teach critical thinking in children. But of course it has to be clever. The Harry Potter series of books and movies is a prime example of this strategy. Many Christians forbade their children to either read the books or attend the movies. But the fact that millions and millions of children, and adults, read the books and attended the movies witness that this kind of outreach can be done.


  3. I agree, Konrad, that Dawkins’ characterisation is a bit extreme. As for the two meanings of the terms I was very conscious of the first (claiming beliefs by the child) in bringing up my own children. I did see it as very unjust to impose beliefs like that. I wince when I see religious groups using their children in door-knocking evangelisation or (as happened recently in NZ) holding placards advocating violent discipline of children in a demonstration.

    As for describing a tradition or groups. I can understand this (and I don’t think Dawkins acknowledges that use) but still find it inhumane for people to divide themselves into groups like this – it reminds me of the clans in Somalia that Ayaan Hirsi Ali talks about. I can remember as a child how children would “gang up” and attack catholic children, purely because they were identified as such. I suspect this is tied up with the human propensity to divide into “them” and “us”, with all the consequences which result form that. That’s in our nature and won’t change easily, but I think we can still advocate for a more reasoned approach to these sort of things.

    Passacaglia, I appreciate what you say. I think though there are some opportunities to make improvement. In New Zealand there is some current discussion of “Religious Instruction” and “teaching about religion” in schools. Even a section of the majority Christian group accepts the need to teach “comparative religion” – about religion – as a way of recognising the human rights of the minority religions (mainly Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim), and reducing inter-religious tension. This will, of course, be strongly resisted by many, or most, religious people who prefer to instruct (and impose) in the own religion. If there is a majority acceptance of the “comparative religion” approach this would be a great help – I would then advocate that the definitions be widened to include humanist and other non-religious belief systems.


  4. I’m very much in favour of Dennett’s proposal for teaching about religion in schools (He calls it the 4th ‘R’ – reading, riting, rithmatic and religion). He likens it to immunisation against potentially toxic ideas. I think though, that the subject should be called ‘belief’ rather than religion and this will allow the teaching of how beliefs come about and how critical thinking can be used to protect yourself from bad beliefs.

    Most Christians would agree that giving this kind of education to Muslim children would go a long way toward easing the rampantly destructive ideologies spreading in the Middle East. I’m guessing they wouldn’t be as keen to have their beliefs taught alongside other beliefs here in NZ but that is to be expected. All they have to do is see how their reaction exactly mirrors the reaction of a Muslim, Hindu, Jew, Buddhist or any number of other belief systems.

    If I had children I’d be very happy for them to learn about what other people believe and how beliefs can occur in the first place.

    I’m very excited about the new New Zealand curriculum – it’s a step in the right direction in my opinion.


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