One of the chapters in Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (chapter 9) is problematic for me. It is the chapter titled, “Childhood, Abuse, and the Escape from Religion”, and leads off with this quote from Victor Hugo:
There is in every village a torch—the teacher: and an extinguisher—the clergyman.
And early on in the chapter Dawkins offers up a hilarious anecdote about Alfred Hitchcock’s response to seeing a priest leaning over a little boy on a sidewalk. Hitchcock (probably jokingly) remarked that it was the most terrifying sight he had ever seen, and that if he’d had the presence of mind at the time he would have put his head out the window of his car and shouted to the boy: RUN!
The gist of this anecdote—and the logical inference to be drawn from Dawkins’s chapter in general—is that mental and emotional child abuse is akin to physical child abuse. This is certainly true up to a point, but if taken to its logical conclusion it would seem to suggest that religious parents should, in fact, have little discretion over their childrens’ religious education.
Dawkins, in fact, often seems to veer into this position, suggesting that teaching a child that they are going to hell is a form of child abuse—and really, in the final analysis, shouldn’t be permitted.
I am of two minds about all of this. On the one hand, as a liberal, I don’t think that the State should be interfering with most parental prerogatives (except in extreme cases—as in physical child abuse). On the other hand, I think that Dawkins’s points concerning the mental and emotional abuse that can accompany religious education are compelling. In short, I don’t think that there is a larger principle that can help us square the fact that religious education is oftentimes mentally abusive and a purveyor of stupidity, and the other fact that pluralism and parental freedom are positive values that the State should interfere with only reluctantly. In other words, I think that Dawkins’s analysis of religious education is correct—but that liberalism and freedom demand that the State should exercise its powers with great reluctance when it comes to interfering with religious education.