RE: Dawkins in The Observer

From: Vincent Campbell (
Date: Mon Jan 07 2002 - 11:52:31 GMT

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    Subject: RE: Dawkins in The Observer
    Date: Mon, 7 Jan 2002 11:52:31 -0000 
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    Thanks Wade & Kenneth for this. I'd missed this one. A while ago I tried
    joining the National Secular Society (I believe they are called) whom
    Dawkins is a patron of and who campaign on this and related issues, but I
    never received the application form. I couldn't agree more with Dawkins
    here, and it frustrates me endlessly the way people talk about themselves
    and their children as being born a particular religion.

    Over the Christmas period a very interesting late night TV show was
    broadcast in which John McCarthy (one of the Brits held hostage in Beirut
    IIRC for several years in the late 80s) looked at the archaelogical evidence
    for claims of the bible- specifically the old testament. Amongst the
    interesting things the programme presented were a Moabite piece of writing
    claiming to have defeated the Israelites in a battle the bible claims the
    Israelites won, and even better (or worse, depending on your perspective)
    the interesting tidbit that Jerusalem was never capital of the ancient
    kingdom of Israel (it was in Judah, next door) and there was this
    interesting moment when McCarthy put it to an ancient historian that this
    meant that in effect Jerusalem as the captial of Israel didn't exist until
    the post-war modern state of Israel. The guy being interviewed, said yes
    matter-of-factly before doing a major double-take, and then laughing out
    loud at the potential consequences of such a situation.

    This is related (believe it or not) because some of the Israeli scholars on
    the programme talked about being born Jewish, and it narked me, as does
    every apparently intelligent, educated person who clings to the faith of
    their childhood indoctrination (or student/mid-life crisis induced second
    faith). For these historians and archaeologists, understanding better than
    most the complexity and ambiguity of historical events and our perception of
    them (or perhaps more accurately mis-perception of them), that many still
    cling to beliefs they should surely question much more comprehensively is
    frustrating. Still, not quite as confusing as those in the hard sciences
    who still have religious beliefs.

    Of course the crisis in British schools has to be met, as in the US, by
    anything other than public money. Alongside the new bastions of christian
    education, McDonald's High is not far off, and for many kids would probably
    be a good thing, cutting out the middle man between poor school performance
    and their Mcjob future. The frightening thing to me is that even the Labour
    government don't see anything wrong with corporate run schools. (I'm sure
    Richard B would send his kids to Microsoft High, in fact he probably


    > ----------
    > From: Wade T. Smith
    > Reply To:
    > Sent: Sunday, January 6, 2002 20:33 PM
    > To: Memetics Discussion List
    > Subject: Re: Dawkins in The Observer
    > Hi Kenneth Van Oost -
    > >In an open letter to Estelle Morris, Richard Dawkins calls on the
    > government
    > >to think again about funding yet more divisive faith schools.
    > ********
    > Children must choose their own beliefs
    > In an open letter to Estelle Morris, Richard Dawkins calls on the
    > Government to think again about funding yet more divisive faith schools
    > Sunday December 30, 2001 The Observer
    > Dear secretary of state,
    > The Government has decided, reasonably enough, that heredity is no basis
    > for membership of Parliament, and the hereditary peers are either gone or
    > on their way. Yet, in the very same year, you propose increasing the
    > number of faith schools. Having disavowed the hereditary principle for
    > membership of Parliament, you seem hell-bent on promoting the hereditary
    > principle for the transmission of beliefs and opinions. For that is
    > precisely what religions are: hereditary beliefs and opinions. To quote
    > the headline of a fine article in the Guardian last week by the Reverend
    > Don Cupitt: 'We need to make a clean break with heritage religion and
    > create something better suited to our own time.'
    > We vary in our opinions and our tastes, and it is one of our glories.
    > Some of us are left-wing, others right. Some are pro-euro, others anti-.
    > Some listen to Beethoven, others Armstrong. Some watch birds, others
    > collect stamps. It is only to be expected that our elders should
    > influence us in all such matters. All this is normal and praiseworthy.
    > In particular, it is normal and pleasing that parental impact should be
    > strong. I'm not talking particularly about genes, but about all the
    > influences that parents inevitably bring. It is to be expected that
    > cricketing fathers will bowl to their sons - or daughters - on the back
    > lawn, take them to Lords, and pass on their love of the game. There will
    > be some tendency for ornithologists to have bird-watching children,
    > bibliophiles book-loving children. Beliefs and tastes, political biases
    > and hobbies, these will tend, at least statistically, to pass
    > longitudinally down generations, and nobody would wish it otherwise.
    > But now we come to religion, and an extremely odd thing happens. Where we
    > might have said, 'knowing his father, I expect young Cowdrey will take up
    > cricket,' we emphatically do not say, 'With her devout Catholic parents,
    > I expect young Bernadette will take up Catholicism.' Instead we say,
    > without a moment's hesitation or a qualm of misgiving, 'Bernadette is a
    > Catholic'. We state it as simple fact even when she is far too young to
    > have developed a theological opinion of her own. In all other spheres, a
    > good school will encourage her to develop her own tastes and opinions,
    > her own skills, penchants and values. But when it comes to religion,
    > society meekly makes a clanging exception. We inexplicably accept that,
    > the day she is born, Bernadette has a label tied around her neck. This is
    > a Catholic baby.
    > That is a protestant baby. This is a Hindu baby. That is a Muslim baby.
    > This baby thinks there are many gods. That baby is adamant that there is
    > only one. But it is preposterous that we do this to children. They are
    > too young to know what they think. To slap a label on a child at birth -
    > to announce, in advance, as a matter of hereditary presumption if not
    > determinate certainty, an infant's opinions on the cosmos and creation,
    > on life and afterlives, on sexual ethics, abortion and euthanasia - is a
    > form of mental child abuse.
    > I do not believe it is possible to mount a decent defence against my
    > charge. Yet infant belief-labels are almost universally accepted. We
    > don't even think about it. Just in case any lingering doubt remains,
    > consider the following: This child is a Gramscian Marxist. That child is
    > a Trotskyite Syndicalist. This third child is a Wet Conservative. This
    > baby is a Keynesian. That baby is a Monetarist. This baby is an
    > ornithologist. Not, 'This baby is likely to become an ornithologist if
    > his father has anything to do with it.' That would be fine. But, 'this
    > baby is an ornithologist'? Unthinkable, isn't it? Yet, where religion is
    > concerned, you don't give it a second glance. Oh, and by the way, nobody,
    > least of all an atheist, ever talks about an 'atheist child'. Rightly so.
    > But why the double standard?
    > I presume you need no more convincing. For parents to influence their
    > children's opinions and beliefs is inevitable and proper. But to tie
    > labels to young children, which in effect presume and presuppose the
    > success of that parental influence, is wicked and indefensible. But, you
    > may soothingly say, don't worry, wait till they go to school, it'll be
    > fine. The children will be educated in a variety of opinions and beliefs,
    > they'll be taught to think for themselves, they'll make up their own
    > minds. Well, it would have been nice to think so.
    > But what do we do? We deliberately set up, and massively subsidise,
    > segregated faith schools. As if it were not enough that we fasten
    > belief-labels on babies at birth, those badges of mental apartheid are
    > now reinforced and refreshed. In their separate schools, children are
    > separately taught mutually incompatible beliefs.
    > 'Protestant children' go to the state-subsidised Protestant school. If
    > they are lucky, they won't actually be taught to hate Catholics, but I
    > wouldn't bank on it, especially in Northern Ireland. The best we can hope
    > for is that they will come out thinking only that there is something a
    > bit alien or odd about Catholics. 'Catholic children' go to the Catholic
    > school. Even if they are not taught to hate Protestants (again, don't
    > bank on it), and even if they don't have to run the gauntlet of hate in
    > the Ardoyne, we can be sure they won't be taught the same Irish history
    > as the 'Protestant children' down the street.
    > Secretary of state, even if I fail to convince you that opening new faith
    > schools is downright insane, may I at least plead for a
    > consciousness-raising exercise in your own department? Just as feminists
    > succeeded in making us wince when we hear 'he' where no sex is intended,
    > or 'man' for humanity, we need to raise our consciousness about the
    > faith-labelling of children.
    > Please, I beg you, strongly discourage the use, in all ministerial
    > documents and inter-departmental memos, of phrases that presume
    > theological opinions in children too young to have any. Please foster a
    > climate in which it becomes impossible to use a phrase like 'Catholic
    > children', 'Protestant children', 'Jewish children' or 'Muslim children'
    > without wincing. It only costs two words more to say, for instance,
    > 'children of Muslim parents' or 'children of Jewish parents'.
    > One of the more frightening aspects of human nature is a tendency to
    > gravitate towards 'Us' and against 'Them'. Worse, Us versus Them disputes
    > have a natural tendency to reach down the generations, leading to
    > vendettas of frightening historical tenacity. Where labels are not
    > provided to feed our natural divisiveness, we manufacture them. Children
    > separate out into gangs, often with distinguishing labels. In certain
    > districts of Los Angeles, a young person innocently sporting the wrong
    > brand of trainers is in danger of being shot. Experiments have been done
    > in which children, with no particular reason to sort themselves into
    > gangs, are provided with, say, green or blue labels. In short order,
    > enmities spring up between the greens and the blues: fierce loyalties to
    > one's own colour, vendettas against the other. These can become
    > surprisingly vicious.
    > That's what happens when you don't even try to segregate children. Now,
    > imagine that you deliberately stamp a green or a blue label on a child at
    > birth. Send this child to a blue school and that child to a green school.
    > Encourage green boys to assume that they will grow up to marry green
    > girls, while blue girls will marry blue boys. Take for granted that, the
    > moment they have a baby of their own, it too must have the same coloured
    > label tied around its neck. Passed on down the generations, what is all
    > that a recipe for? Do I need to spell it out?
    > The very idea of a faith school is as unjustifiable as the idea of a
    > hereditary House of Lords, and for the same reason. But hereditary peers,
    > though undemocratic and often mildly eccentric, are not dangerous. Faith
    > schools almost certainly are. There remains the pragmatic argument that,
    > notwithstanding the knockdown objection to the principle of faith
    > schools, they get good exam results. Well, maybe. If it is true, by all
    > means let's try to bottle the secret, and share it around. But, bottled
    > or not, careful analysis fails to uncover any real link with faith. The
    > ingredient in the bottle is a school ethos, which can take years to grow
    > and which, for reasons having no connection with religion, has become
    > built up in certain Church of England and Roman Catholic schools. A high
    > reputation, once built, is self-perpetuating, because ambitious,
    > education-loving parents gravitate towards it, even to the extent of
    > pretending to be churchgoers.
    > But in any case, where have we heard something like the pragmatic, 'exam
    > results' argument before? Yes, in the debate over the hereditary peers.
    > People were fond of saying that, no matter how undemocratic was the
    > principle of hereditary members of Parliament, they got results. Enough
    > aristocrats worked hard, some were real experts on fly fishing, or
    > windmills; some were doctors who had wise things to say about the health
    > service; many were farmers who could hold forth on foot and mouth or the
    > Common Agricultural Policy; and all of them preserved the decencies of
    > debate, unlike that rabble in the Commons. Undemocratic they may have
    > been, but they did a good job.
    > That argument cut no ice with the Government, and rightly so. If you
    > gather together a bunch of men of above average wealth and education,
    > raised in book-lined homes for many generations, it is hardly surprising
    > that some expertise and talent will surface. The pragmatic argument, that
    > hereditary peers do a good job, is on the slippery slope to 'say what you
    > like about Mussolini, at least he made the trains run on time'. There are
    > limits beyond which principle should not be dragged by pragmatism. The
    > Government reached that limit over the hereditary peers. The pragmatic
    > case in favour of faith schools is similar, but weaker. The principled
    > case against faith schools is similar, but stronger.
    > As for what is to be done, of course we don't want to destroy
    > institutions that are working well. The way to be fair to hitherto
    > unsupported denominations is not to give them their own sectarian
    > schools, but to remove the faith status of the existing schools (just as
    > the fair way to balance the bishops in the Lords is not to invite
    > mullahs, monsignors and rabbis to join them, but to throw the existing
    > bishops out). After everything we've been through this year, to persist
    > with financing segregated religion in sectarian schools is obstinate
    > madness.
    > Yours very sincerely,
    > Richard Dawkins
    > Charles Simonyi Professor
    > University of Oxford
    > ===============================================================
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