How many times have we heard people argue atheists don’t give to charity? Or that we fear death? Or that we’re just rebelling against God’s authority? Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk have heard those false claims many times before and they’ve responded to them (and several other nasty stereotypes) in their new book 50 Great Myths About Atheism (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013):
In the excerpt below (which has been adapted for this site), the authors respond to the myth that “Atheists want to ban teaching religion to children”:
Atheism does not commit anyone to an opinion as to whether, or how, religion should be taught to children. You won’t be surprised to learn that many atheists think that children should not be indoctrinated with the teachings of a particular religious system. A good example of this is Bill Nye, the popular US science educator. He made no secret of his view that while parents are entitled to their religious beliefs, it surely would be inappropriate to teach their children creationism in school. He said in an interview,
if parents want to deny evolution and live in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. We need people that can — we need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems. It’s just… really a hard thing. You know, in another couple of centuries that worldview, I’m sure, will be, it just won’t exist. There’s no evidence for it.
Teaching children creationism or other make-belief stories about God and the universe can be contrasted with teaching children about religion as a social phenomenon: children could learn in school about the different beliefs held by followers of the major religions of the world.
Richard Dawkins, perhaps, as we write, the world’s best-known outspoken atheist, is frequently accused of holding an extreme position on these issues. The position attributed to him is one in which teaching religious doctrines to children is child abuse and ought to be forbidden by law: thus, John C. Lennox writes casually that “Dawkins’ argument for banning the teaching of religion would logically lead even faster to banning the teaching of atheism,” since Lennox thinks that atheism has led to many atrocities. But when has Dawkins expressed, or argued for, such an unnuanced view?
Let’s get this as clear as we can. In The God Delusion, Dawkins states that his main purpose in the relevant chapter is to “question” the practice of labeling children “as possessors of beliefs that they are too young to have thought about.” On the same page, he does in fact call this “a form of child abuse.” In his view, we should ascribe belief systems to other people only after they are old enough to have made up their own minds. He then discusses “ordinary” forms of sexual and other physical abuse, but argues that terrorizing children with stories of Hell can sometimes be a worse form of psychological abuse than these (while observing, in fairness, that the Catholic Church does not make as much of Hell as it once did).
Dawkins goes on to make many interesting observations. For example, he spends several pages attacking the teaching of creationism in schools, and government support to schools that do this — while noting that many members of the clergy agree with his position — before he returns to the issue of “labeling” children. As to that, however, he ultimately asks no more than that we wince when we see or hear it. He does give historical examples where the specific content of someone’s religion made it harmful — as in one ancient cult which involved human sacrifice — but that is rather different from seeking to prohibit all efforts to teach religion to children. He concludes with a discussion of the importance of teaching the Bible as part of our inherited literary culture. In short, Dawkins has not argued that socializing a child into a religion is ipso facto child abuse, let alone that it should be prohibited. Thus the claim that Dawkins argues those things is a myth. He has, in fact, expressed far more nuanced, specific, and defensible views.
A. C. Grayling takes a harder line. He accepts that liberal political principles and the view that parents “have a right to determine their children’s faith and education” point to an acceptance of indoctrinating small children into their parents’ religious beliefs. But, he asks, might society actually have a duty to protect children from proselytization? He worries about children being taught what he regards as falsehoods, fantasies, and absurdities from an early age, and so being rendered incapable of challenging what they were taught. However, even Grayling’s discussion of these issues is inconclusive: he merely proposes that we consider the problem.
So Grayling, who appears more strict than Dawkins on this particular issue, does not simply claim that teaching religion to children should be banned. In fact, we are not aware of any high-profile atheist who takes such a strong position. It is simply not true that atheists qua atheists want to ban religious socialization by parents. Perhaps there are individuals who are committed to this approach, and whom we are overlooking, but to suggest that this is the usual view of high-profile atheists — let alone of atheists in general — is insupportable.
Related to this myth is what may be a separate one: that atheists wish to control the educational curriculum in order to brainwash children into their antireligious worldview: “They want to control school curricula so they can promote a secular ideology and undermine Christianity,” says Dinesh D’Souza.
D’Souza argues for this at length, but he offers little evidence. He thinks there is an equivalence between people who object to creationist theory and the like, because it is used to support religion, and people who want evolution taught because they regard it as antireligious. But the equivalence is a false one. The state should not be in the business of teaching a body of scientific findings either because they tend to support or because they tend to undermine religion. Those are, we submit, improper motives for officials and government agencies. State education systems should simply teach what is considered by scientists in the relevant fields to be accurate, central, up-to-date science. It is really not that difficult.
50 Great Myths About Atheism is available in bookstores and Amazon.
(Excerpt reprinted with permission of Wiley-Blackwell. Image via Jesus and Mo)