Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Religion and child protection

It's not often that I agree, even a little, with right-wing nutjobs, but when it comes to religion and the protection of children, I have to agree, with some important reservations, with Don Boys'* article New Atheists Want to Remove Children from Your Home–or Worse!. Reading past some uncharitable and unnecessarily inflammatory asides, Boys to some extent grasps a key element of New Atheist thought. It is indeed true that we "want to remove children from the influence of parents, teachers, or preachers who teach the doctrine of Hell..."

*Boys claims a Ph.D., but it appears to be from Heritage Baptist University, which appears to be unaccredited by any established regional authority.

The New Atheists dispute almost every issue, and seeing extreme forms of the religious indoctrination of children as abusive is controversial among the Gnus, but Boys adequately substantiates that this position has real support. Boys quotes Perry Bulwer, who asserts that the indoctrination of some beliefs can be abusive:
The educational rights of children are also undermined when they are intellectually abused with biblical literalism, anti-science creationism or denied the right to attend university. ... Many fundamentalist and orthodox beliefs are highly detrimental to children’s minds.
Boys also quotes Nicholas Humphrey making the same point:
In short, children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense. And we as a society have a duty to protect them from it. So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible, or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children’s teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.
Boyd then turns to Richard Dawkins, mentioning that in The God Delusion, Dawkins asserts that teaching children the doctrine of Hell is abusive*, and quotes Dawkins from his essay, Religion's Real Child Abuse: "Priestly groping of child bodies is disgusting. But it may be less harmful in the long run than priestly subversion of child minds." Boys presents adequate evidence that considering some kinds of religious indoctrination of children is, if not widely-accepted doctrine, has real support in the New Atheist community.

*Boys seems to be accurately paraphrasing Dawkins in The God Delusion: "I am persuaded that the phrase 'child abuse' is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell" (358).

While accurately characterizing a real position, Boys also wants to conflate the position on child abuse with the Gnus' general opposition to religion. Boys cites American Atheists' Al Stefanelli, in "Taking The Gloves Off…: When Diplomacy Fails, It’s Time To Fight Using The Law," quoting Stefanelli as saying, "They don’t respond to lawsuits, letters, amicus briefs or other grass-roots campaigns and they must, must, must be eradicated." Boys is not being entirely honest here; he interprets "they" to mean "fundamentalist Christians", but Stefanelli specifically refers to "the underbelly of fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islam" which "does not operate in the legal system." Also, the context of the article makes it clear that Stefanelli is referring primarily to the eradication of "beliefs and doctrines", not people:
Intolerance toward beliefs and doctrines that serve only to promote hatred, bigotry and discrimination should be lauded, as should extremist points of view toward the eradication of these beliefs and doctrines.
Boys also quotes Daniel Dennett, in Darwin's Dangerous Idea:
The message is clear: those who will not accommodate, who will not temper, who insist on keeping only the purest and wildest strain of their heritage alive, we will be obliged, reluctantly, to cage or disarm, and we will do our best to disable the memes they fight for (516).
But Boys ignores Dennett's clear qualification, that we are "obliged ... to cage or disarm" only those religious people who go "beyond the pale" of civilized behavior:
Slavery is beyond the pale. Child abuse is beyond the pale. Discrimination is beyond the pale. The pronouncing of death sentences on those who blaspheme against a religion (complete with bounties or rewards for those who carry them out) is beyond the pale. It is not civilized, and it is owed no more respect in the name of religious freedom than any other incitement to cold-blooded murder (516-517).
Boys' only honest support for true eliminationism in New Atheist thought is Sam Harris' infamous quotation from The End of Faith that faced with a nuclear-armed Muslim state not deterred by certain retailiation, "the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own" (qtd. in Boys). But Harris is responding hyperbolically to an unlikely hypothetical, and he has also faced severe criticism from many published New Atheists and nearly uniform condemnation among the rank and file. While he is accurate that many New Atheists condemn certain forms of religious indoctrination as child abuse, Boys fails to link this specific condemnation to a more general attitude of eliminationism.

Another way to read this article is that Boys attempts to establish that atheists have the same attitude towards the teaching of any religious belief to children that they do specifically towards beliefs, such as Hell, that we consider definitely abusive. The full quotation, elided with ellipses above, is that atheists "want to remove children from the influence of parents, teachers, or preachers who teach the doctrine of Hell and the exclusive plan of salvation through Christ." [emphasis added] Note too his unqualified assertion that "Atheists hate religion and consider it child abuse." But, as shown above, all the cited commenters specifically qualify the beliefs and practices that they label as abusive to children. Atheists certainly consider all religion to be nonsense, but not all nonsense is abusive.

Let us grasp the nettle firmly, though: there are some beliefs, some of them religious, some not, that are so poisonous, so toxic, so damaging, that to indoctrinate children, who are in the near-absolute power of adults, be they teachers, priests, or, yes, even parents, to those beliefs constitutes child abuse. Because all children are the responsibility of every adult member of society, when we have good evidence that a child is being abused, we have a social obligation to stop that abuse. Furthermore, we have a positive obligation to prevent that abuse from occurring in the first place. We have at least a theoretical basis for advocating the removal of children from some homes they are being indoctrinated into some religious beliefs.

Theory is not practice, though*. There are some evils that cannot be coercively addressed, even in the best government. I do not, for example, see anything at all good about racist speech between adults. But sometimes the cure is worse than the disease; we must (legally) tolerate racist speech because no one and no group, even a majority of all but one, will suppress only bad speech; they will, rather, suppress speech contrary to their interests, and sometimes the interests of one can and does finally become the interests of all. I think the idea of actually removing children from homes on the basis of the teaching of belief is problematic, but it is problematic on this "second order" basis: not because these beliefs are not abusive and harmful, but because it may be impossible to just prevent the indoctrination of only harmful and abusive beliefs.

*Einstein supposedly said, "In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not."

Boys' argument is unfocused and distracted, so it's hard to rebut him directly at a deeper level. I suspect that Boys does not consider the indoctrination in children of the idea of Hell to be abusive. I suspect that he would say that our obligation to teach children what is true overrides our obligation not to terrorize them. The first obligation does override the second — we do, for example, need to teach our children to be afraid of traffic until they have the cognitive capacity to cross the street without being hit by a car — but this argument would work only if it were actually true that Hell existed. But Boys doesn't make that argument, and I don't think he can make it. Boys might believe that there's nothing abusive about terrorizing children in general — a lot of Christians have very weird attitudes about fear — but we cannot charitably attribute to him an attitude he does not explicitly declare. Boys does not seem to make any argument based on the direct merits of what he wants to teach children.

To bend over backwards to be charitable, Boys is, I think, trying the second-order effects argument: eliminating the indoctrination of specifically abusive beliefs in children would unacceptably compromise freedom of religion in general. His argument fails, though, because every author he cites explicitly qualifies his objections to specific beliefs, and only in the context of adults who have coercive authority over children. The qualifications are not just specific and narrow; they also fulfill, rather than undermine, the spirit of freedom of religion. In the sense of the legitimacy of coercion, the state is to the citizen as the parent is to the child; a prohibition on what the state may coerce, even with a democratic mandate, should extend to a prohibition on what the parent may coerce in a child. Boys fails to show otherwise; his only fundamental defense can be that religious freedom entails that any indoctrination of children must be permissible, at least if it conforms to his religion.

Even the most "militant" atheist advocates addressing the issue of religious belief as child abuse within the social, political process. To my knowledge, no atheist of any influence argues that religious belief as child abuse justifies illegal or extra-legal action. We do not want to act outside the law; we want to change the laws, using the existing social and political process to do so. This process requires debate, discussion, political action: all the messiness of human, secular, (more-or-less) democratic governance. To make the indoctrinating some religious belief to children illegal requires that we convince a majority of the people (or at least a majority of more-or-less democratically elected legislators) that these religious beliefs really are harmful to children, and that legally prohibiting these beliefs does not create more problems than it solves. If we cannot convince the majority, as well as fulfill all the institutional requirements, we will not prevail.

But overall, it is clear: Many atheists, myself included, believe that the indoctrination of some religious beliefs are actually abusive or unacceptably compromise children's rights to participate in civil society. While the second order effects are problematic, many atheists, myself included, believe that these effects can be adequately addressed. Many atheists, myself included, believe that we have a social obligation to protect the rights of all children. It therefore follows that we have a social obligation to advocate to make these abuses of children's rights illegal. Even if we fail, we should fail because we are unable to convince a majority; we should not fail because we are too fearful to express our opinion and make our argument. To try and fail is honorable; to fail to try is cowardice. But we are trying within the social process.

Boys, however, does not appear to consider the social process legitimate. Boys seems to have contempt for democracy itself. According to Boys,
America is in deep trouble especially when you realize there is still a fool on every corner, a clown in every public office, and every village has not one, but several idiots plus numerous tyrants, terrorists, thugs, and totalitarians lounging down at the American Angry Atheist Association. They are dangerous, duped, dopey and deluded people who might be helped if brains could be transplanted
It's uncertain what Boys is condemning here. One the one hand, how can a democracy (even a half-assed bourgeois "democratic" republic such as the United States) be in "deep trouble" because there is dissenting opinion? On the other hand, Boys apparently believes that not only are there a small minority of atheists around, but these atheists have the power to "get all the state or Federal laws passed they want." But to do so, even here, requires real popular support. Yes, the United States is run by the 1%, but they are not the atheist 1%, and even the 1% ignore popular opinion to their peril. Somehow, I suspect that Boys is not against government by an elite; he wishes instead, I suspect, that the elite not be the bourgeoisie but Christians like himself.

Boys wants the atheists to bring it on: "I simply accept [the New Atheists'] declaration of war. Although the New Atheists might be able to pass any law we want, "they will never take my visiting grandchildren no matter how many warrants they have." Not without a literal fight!" But Boys is wrong: there is no war between Christians and atheists. To have a war, you have to have a violent conflict between two parties, neither of whom recognize a common sovereign authority. Atheists (even revolutionaries such as myself) want to protect children from the worst of religious indoctrination within the sovereignty of the state. The war, if there is one, is between Christians like Boys and the state itself. Unfortunately, while it might be an uneven fight, I think the current government of the United States might be the underdog.

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