December 30, 2006

Richard Dawkins and Petitions to the UK Government Concerning Religion

There is a bit of a flap over two petitions, one signed by Richard Dawkins and one not. The flap seems to have started with two interacting posts, one by Mike Gene on Telic Thoughts and the other by Ed Brayton on Dispatches from the Culture Wars. One petition seeks the removal of government support for faith-based schools. The words used in the petition are "Abolish all faith based schools." But remember in the UK such schools are publicly funded. I do not think this petition if enacted into law would do much more that make the UK like the US in this regard. But the wording is a little disconcerting to my American ear. This is one Dawkins signed. The other petition would . . . Well, here's is what it says,

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Make it illegal to indoctrinate or define children by religion before the age of 16.

This is further explained as meaning,

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. At the age of 16, as with other laws, they would then be considered old enough and educated enough to form their own opinion and follow any particular religion (or none at all) through free thought.

Dawkins has not signed this one. I find this petition not only goofy and dangerous but, if enacted into law, impossible to enforce. It should be noted that both the petitions are addressed to the UK government only and it is unlikely that either one of them will ever be reflected in law.

Several people have written thoughtful posts on this subject. I think PZ Myers who has discussed the issue of the indoctrination of children personally with Dawkins reflects what I think Dawkins said in The God Delusion and what I heard him say a couple of months ago at Cal Tech.

Richard Dawkins does not believe in coercing religious people, and he does not endorse any kind of totalitarian action to separate children from religious instruction.

Here is what Dawkins himself said on the subject,

The point is not to abolish Religions Education. There is value in Religious Education, including Comparative Religion (for anthropologists tell us that religion is a ubiquitous human universal) and the King James Bible as literature (there are so many allusions to it in Shakespeare and other English literature). What is wrong - - indeed, arguably a form of mental child abuse - - is INDOCRINATION of children into one particular faith, which they are informed is THEIR faith automatically inherited from their parents. [emphasis in original]

He does think that world religions should be taught. He also thinks that it is conscientiousness raising to correct people who identify children by their parents religion. But he does not think that any government should forbid it.

As I said in a comment on Chris Heard's Higgaion,

However, I don’t want any government drawing the line between what is and what is not child abuse in this area. I’m afraid I might wake up some morning and find out that the government thought not indoctrinating my children with the Cosmic Mysteries of Mithras or one of its competitors was child abuse.

But, at least the petition that Dawkins signed has nothing to do with this and if enacted would bring the UK closer to the way we deal with faith based schools here in the US.

Update: December 31, 2006

Apparently, Dawkins did sign the second petition but then, upon more careful reading, he asked that his name be removed from the list of signers. Nick Matzke at The Panda's Thumb has the story and Dawkins' explanation of what happened in Dawkins' own words.

The moral to the story: read before signing!

Posted by DuaneSmith at December 30, 2006 10:27 AM | Read more on Religion |

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Surely "Abolish all faith based schools." simply means "abolish" (do away with or something like that) "all faith based schools" not merely remove their government funding, but abolish them. It seems to me that to claim otherwise is at best naive, and at worst disingenuous.

I'd say that if removal of funding was the issue then the petition is badly worded, unless this clause is restricted clearly elsewhere in the text!

Posted by: tim bulkeley at January 4, 2007 10:28 AM

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