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We don’t need no thought control August 28, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Freedom, Religion.
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In the short documentary “Faith School Menace?” Richard Dawkins takes a close look at “faith schools” in Britain — one third of British state-funded schools are officially affiliated with a religion. Segregating schoolchildren by the religion of their parents is considered natural in our society, although it should be quite obvious how divisive such segregation is: how it fosters an “us versus them” mentality, how it reinforces sectarian differences and conflicts, and inculcates them into the next generation. In Israel, for example, most children from Jewish families probably don’t know by name a single child from a Muslim family, although Muslims constitute a significant percentage of the population.

Why in the world shouldn’t our children spend their formative years in an environment where they will meet (and even befriend) children from all segments of the society they live in? Wouldn’t that be a tremendous aid in combating xenophobia and prejudice, and in promoting tolerance and coexistence? Ah, but such a scheme might interfere with parents’ intentions of bringing up their children into a particular worldview with no outside influence, and, as Dawkins is told again and again, parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit. But is this right absolute? Dawkins says:

The problem with rights is that there are conflicts between opposing rights. . . . In the case of education, children have rights as well as parents. Children have the right not to be indoctrinated, not to have their parents’ beliefs forced down their throat, but to make up their own mind after a proper, balanced education.

Parents do not have the right to keep their child blindfolded or locked up in his room; that would violate the child’s rights. When the rights of parents and children collide, the presumption is naturally in favor of the children, who are the weaker, more vulnerable party: they cannot stand up for themselves, so the state must stand up for them. There is no excuse for taking advantage of the power parents have over their children in order to instill in them an unquestioning faith in their parents’ worldview, while excluding all others. (This becomes quite obvious when you replace religion with some secular ideology, like Marxism, as in my parable.) The purpose of schools is not merely to infuse children with the beliefs of the previous generation; the point of education is to teach children how to think critically and draw conclusions on their own, based on good evidence and argument. Teaching one religion as the gospel truth while ignoring the existence of any others is antithetical to that goal.

Sadly, I don’t see “faith schools” going away any time soon. In the meantime, however, philosopher Daniel Dennett has presented a practical proposal which could be implemented almost immediately:

What do we teach [people] until they are informed enough and mature enough to decide for themselves? We teach them about all the world’s religions, in a matter-of-fact, historically and biologically informed way, the same way we teach them about geography and history and arithmetic.

This mandatory religious education would include no value judgments, only non-controversial facts: creeds and customs, prohibitions and rituals, texts and music and history. As long as you teach them this, Dennett says, you may teach your children whatever religious doctrines you like. Ironically, some people have accused Dennett’s proposal of being “fascistic” or “totalitarian,” when in fact it is practically libertarian:

How much more freedom could one want? The freedom to lie to your children? The freedom to keep them ignorant? You don’t own your children, like slaves, and you have no right to disable them with ignorance. You do have an obligation to let them have the mutual knowledge that is available to every other child, as a normal part of growing up in a free society.

Dennett argues that merely exposing children to the things that other people believe will inoculate them against the more toxic strains of religion. The best protection against destructive ideology is open discussion and the free flow of ideas. As a public health measure, it’s important that

the devout of all faiths should face the challenge of making sure their creed is worthy enough, attractive and plausible and meaningful enough, to withstand the temptations of its competitors. If you have to hoodwink — or blindfold — your children to ensure that they confirm their faith when they are adults, your faith ought to go extinct.

It’s true that under Dennett’s system, parents may have to deal with questions they would rather not have to answer (“Why don’t we believe in Vishnu, Mommy?”), but that is actually a good thing. Too many harmful dogmas persist through the ages because no one is ever required to present a reasonable argument in their defense. Parents have no right to constrain the minds of their children in order to accommodate their own intellectual laziness. Occasionally, a child’s question might even cause her parents to rethink their own beliefs — and what could be more wonderful than that?

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