Re: Dawkins in The Observer (forwarded from the Memetics List)

From: Joe Dees (
Date: Tue Jan 08 2002 - 07:06:02 GMT

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    > Re: Dawkins in The ObserverDate: Sun, 6 Jan 2002 15:33:05 -0500
    > "Wade T. Smith" <> "Memetics Discussion List" <>Reply-To:
    >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
    >Yours very sincerely,
    >Richard Dawkins
    >Charles Simonyi Professor
    >University of Oxford
    >This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    >Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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    This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
    For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)

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