Saturday, January 06, 2007

Prayer and Petitions

Darwin of DarwinCatholic has posted on a recent flap at ScienceBlogs. It seems that Richard Dawkins (tagged by Darwin in terms I wish I'd come up with as "the posterboy of trying to turn scientific conclusions into sweeping philosophical ones") had signed (then repudiated after unsurprising general outrage erupted) a petition to outlaw the religious indoctrination or identification of children under the age of sixteen in Britain. In other words, no teaching religion to children, and no identifying them as members of a given sect, until they are legally adults (most kids in Britain are heading into the workforce or job training at sixteen, unless they are getting ready for college.) This, assert the petitioners, will encourage "free thought," which sounds like a noble concept unless you've heard enough atheist dogma to recognize it as a euphemism for atheism.

I would be very much surprised if this petition got very far; most sensible people, to include probably the vast majority of the nonreligious among us, can spot the problems inherent right away. I know my Logic Early Warning System was going off like the neighbors' singularly irritating car alarm. As guardians of their children, parents have the right within reason to make decisions regarding their upbringing; take this away from one subset of the population and nobody's rights are safe. One nonreligious opponent aptly put it thus:
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.
Besides, as D reminded me, England has an established church and retains an official Defender of the Faith in the person of its monarch; unless Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth is prepared to shrug off that aspect of her position and go over completely to the other side it doesn't seem that such a ruling could legitimately be passed. But the petitioners weren't dissuaded from trying, even if one of the more high-profile ones did cut and run as soon as things got uncomfortable. And the thought that they might have concluded they had a shot at success, or at least at launching the idea as one worthy of serious discussion, is a bit disconcerting.

Assuming that the petitioners, or at least some among them, were absolutely serious about their proposal and actually did look to a time when every child would be shielded from religious influence, I proceeded to indulge in some idle musing on the eventual result of such a proposal's being enacted. It worked out something like this:

Problem 1: Define "religious teaching/indoctrination." If you tell your child there's a God, presumably that's religious indoctrination. What if you tell your child there is no God? You can't "prove" either viewpoint scientifiically, so what but a religious teaching could the latter be? Furthermore, is Santa Claus religious? How about the Tooth Fairy? Would she be Wiccan, or maybe Theosophist? What if it's a Tooth Mouse instead? Where does the Easter Bunny fit in? He's kinda between pagan and religious--there's the fertility rite aspect of the character, but then there's that unsettling rebirth and new life after the winter thing, too. If you read your kid the Narnia Chronicles, is that religious "indoctrination"? How about if you keep a Bible for your own reading but fail to keep it away from the kiddies? Are you required to lock it up or put it on a high shelf like girlie magazines or the bourbon? Is a crucifix on the wall or a concrete Madonna in the garden "indoctrination?" Will high school students be cleared to read Chaucer's "Miller's Tale," while the Prioress and Second Nun are kept off limits? What to do with the Nun's Priest,who is nominally a "religious" figure but whose lifestyle and tale are not? Will works of literature with Christ figures be banned from the classroom, or read but not discussed in those terms? Will high school students only be exposed to John Donne's dirty poems, skipping Death Be Not Proud and the like entirely?

Carried to its logical extreme, is it "religious indoctrination" to tell your four-year-old that it's wrong to hit his little sister and take the blocks away from her? That it's not nice to pull the dog's tail? If not, where are these constructs of right and wrong, nice and not nice, coming from? Who sets the standard? Why is that standard better than yours or mine? How exactly does this encourage free thinking?

Problem 2: Does a ban on religious "definition" of children mean that parents can't baptize their infants, that children old enough to know what's going on can't be baptized, or that nobody can be baptized before they are 16? Does it make any difference if the kid requests baptism? Can a terminally ill child request sacraments or prayer? Can he or she be told of belief in an afterlife? Is the government going to intervene if parents baptize or hold a religious service for a miscarried or deceased infant? Here I've spent pretty much my entire adult life being told the government has no standing to intrude in people's bedrooms (whether or not the bedroom is actually involved at the time,) and what comes around the bend but some of those same people proposing that the government intrude in my church and nursery?

Problem 3: Does this apply to citizens only, or is everybody on British soil going to be held to this standard? How will it be enforced? What will the penalties be for violations? Are parents going to get off with a fine, or get their kids taken away, or do jail time, for reading them some Bible stories? Will Wiccans be subject to the same penalties if they teach their beliefs to their children? How about Muslims? Going back to what I said under Prob. 1, will reading your kid Atlas Shrugged or the letters of Bertrand Russell also incur a penalty?

A bit rambling and downright silly in spots, I know, but since we've decided to entertain discussion on the subject I'd like to see some answers. Petitioners, think of it as warm-up for the rest of what you'll get thrown at you. If you're determined to launch a major social engineering project, you'd best be prepared to explain to the rest of us just how it's going to improve all our lives.

In pondering the mentality that leads to this sort of thinking, I idly mused my way into the thought that some of it might be influenced by current events. I don't know this to be the case, and I could well be barking up the wrong tree, but the thought occurred and I figured I'd float it. As I understand it, Christian churches in England right now suffer from pretty sparse attendance. While Christians are neither on the verge of extinction nor particularly given to going away quietly, and they could experience a resurgence, it seems odd that all these prominent antitheists could find a minority so threatening. On the other hand, mosques are multiplying. Given the "homegrown" terrorist incidents in Britain in recent years, might some of the signatories to this petition be concerned with the overrun of the country by radical Islamism, and the loss of English culture? If so, perhaps they feel the only fair way to address the problem is a blanket ban on all religion. This throws the baby out with the bathwater as far as I'm concerned as it assumes that the problem is religious belief and not a toxic ideology incorporating religious, political and cultural elements that are accepted by few others even within the same faith tradition.
Of course, all the good and noble aspects of religious belief--reverence, charity, piety, selflessness, and so on--get tossed out along with the source of the problem. I'm not betting on them being replaced by religion-free versions of same.

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