Liberal Secularism v. Illiberal Secularism: Why Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are Wrong to Hint That Perhaps the State Should Set Restrictions on Religious Child-Rearing

Late in 2007 Damon Linker, in the New Republic, had a great essay on the contemporary atheist movement, and it can still be read online here

The title of the essay is “Atheism’s Wrong Turn.”

For me, there are two “money quotes” in the essay.

Here’s the first one: 

To be liberal in the classical sense is to accept intellectual variety–and the social complexity that goes with it–as the ineradicable condition of a free society.

And here’s the second:

In the penultimate chapter of his best-selling book The God Delusion, biologist and world-renowned atheist Richard Dawkins presents his view of religious education, which he explains by way of an anecdote. Following a lecture in Dublin, he recalls, “I was asked what I thought about the widely publicized cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland. I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.” Lest his readers misunderstand him, or dismiss this rather shocking statement as mere off-the-cuff hyperbole, Dawkins goes on to clarify his position. “I am persuaded,” he explains, “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.”

Why Dawkins refuses to take this idea to its logical conclusion–to say that raising a child in a religious tradition, like other forms of child abuse, should be considered a crime punishable by the state–is a mystery, for it follows directly from the character of his atheism. And not just his. Over the past four years, several prominent atheists have made similarly inflammatory claims in a series of best-selling books. Philosopher Daniel Dennett shares Dawkins’s hostility to religious education, warning ominously in Breaking the Spell that “under the protective umbrellas of personal privacy and religious freedom there are widespread practices in which parents” harm their children by teaching them ignoble lies.

For me these two quotes set out the “faultline” between a liberal secularism and an illiberal secularism.

In reading Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, for example, I am with them on many points, until they hint that perhaps it is bad for religious parents to have substantial control over how they raise their children.

I think that in this area in particular, Dawkins and Dennett cross a line from liberalism to illiberalism, and the New Republic author is right to call them out on it.

The chance contingencies of being born in a particular place and time (Melborne, say, in 1959, or California in 1968 etc.) and the accidents of one’s life experiences (your parents are Buddhists; your father died in Vietnam; you were exposed to lead at a young age etc.) will color how you think about and respond to the world, and how you want to raise your own children to think about war, religion, and life in general.

For the state to step in forcibly, and try to socially engineer the multitude of contingencies that an individual life entails, with the purpose of directing the stream of society to a particular and singular goal, is a step away from freedom that I cannot support.

Anytime we start thinking of the state in terms of gardening or cleaning metaphors (as a collective device for weeding out or purifying something from society) we are heading for trouble. Although I’m an agnostic, and committed to the separation of church and state, I don’t think the world would be a better place if there were no Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, or Christians in the world, anymore than I think it would be a better world if we all just spoke English, and all other languages died out.

It is the diversity of narratives in the world that makes life crackle, and gives it nuance.

I just think that we are not acknowledging that all languages—whether one speaks “Feminism,” “Buddhism,” “Freudianism,” “Calvinism,” or “Dawkinism”—bring interesting ideas and insights to the collective table, and that to wish for the permanent elimination of one or another “language” is not a way for making a better society, but one that is actually intellectually impoverished.

Contending languages expose one another’s intellectual blind spots, and strengthens a society’s collective base of knowledge. I don’t look forward to a world free of Baptist churches anymore than I would look forward to a world free of books by Robert Ingersoll and Richard Dawkins. I don’t look forward to a world free of neo-conservative Republicans anymore than I look forward to a world free of postmodern pacifist Democrats.

My half-ass figurings out about the world don’t need to become a universal law that supercedes everybody else’s half-ass contingent figurings out.

We should want more crazy religions and wild intellectual theories in the world, not fewer. Our longing should be in the direction of freedom and diversity, and an insistence on free, unfettered speech. You should be able to worship Mohammad and raise your kids as Muslims, and you should be able to draw pictures of Mohammad, and mock religion, and teach your kids that religion is bullshit (if you want to).

And who would say that the Greek pantheon of gods isn’t a cool cultural and literary development in world history, and that the pagan gods don’t give us an interesting archetypal language, with insights into the human condition? Likewise, I think that Scientology, Mormonism, Islam, and Christianity gave the world weird languages, but I also think that they can be reflected upon and worked with. I also think that the children born to parents who speak one of these peculiar languages have been given a foil in which to intellectually wrestle with for the rest of their lives.

If many people never transcend the religion of their parents, it may be because the language works for them. It may also be because they were weak or stupid. But whatever the reason, I can’t help but paraphrase Blake:

Those whose desires or thoughts are restrained are weak enough to let their desires and thoughts be restrained.

People can fight their upbringing if they want to. They aren’t entirely helpless, and they don’t need the state to jump in and assist them at every turn.

Ayann Hersi Ali fought her way clear of her religious upbringing. And Voltaire fought his way clear of his religious environment. And when I was a teenager I fought my way clear of my fundamentalist Christian beliefs, fearing hell and the loss of family and friends every step of the way.

Not everybody has the energy or inclination to fight the bullshit in their lives. A lot of people make peace with their situations, and stay where they are. Let’s not pretend that the state can step in and make this part of life easier for everybody.

All of life is a struggle against a lot of bullshit, conceptual and otherwise. It’s not just a kid born to Amish parents who has to wrestle her way through a maze of illusions about the “real world,” it’s you and me too, everyday, because we are human and don’t see the world whole, but in part, and from a peculiar contingent moment in time and space.

Let’s not pretend that the state can save us, or kids who are homeschooled, from this part of life, by passing a law that makes everybody sit in on a compulsory comparative religion class, or by making everybody learn more evolution in high school biology classes.

Let’s try to keep the state more Lockean than Hobbesian. Let’s let freedom be first, not state coercion.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Liberal Secularism v. Illiberal Secularism: Why Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are Wrong to Hint That Perhaps the State Should Set Restrictions on Religious Child-Rearing

  1. Pingback: scientology beliefs | scientology beliefs

  2. Andrew Clunn says:

    Excellent article. Really, I agree entirely.

  3. Pingback: The Absent Minded Professor « Balustrade’s Blog

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