TGD – Chapter 9

Chapter 9 is titled “Childhood, Abuse and the Escape From Religion”. It’s a chapter I’ve somewhat been looking forward to both because Dawkins has referenced it a number of times in previous chapters and because having 3 children myself, I’m keenly aware of the importance of bringing one’s children up well and very protective of my right, and I do believe it is one of the most fundamental rights that exists, to raise my children as I see fit.

Dawkins starts off the chapter with the story of Edgardo Mortara. As Dawkins tells it, and I have no knowledge of these events but considering Dawkins track record of distorting events regarding religious people I wouldn’t be the least surprised if there’s more to the story than Dawkins suggests, Edgardo was a Jewish boy who was taken from parents when he was 6 by the government of the papal states (what is now Italy). The reason he was taken, according to Dawkins, was that he had been secretly baptized at some earlier point in his life. As Dawkins rightly points out, baptism is the defining sacrament of Christianity, and according to him the reason he was taken was that so now as a Christian he could receive a proper Christian education.

The story alone wouldn’t be too troubling to anyone if it were truly an isolated case, but according to Dawkins this was both a common practice at the time and in his words, “the attitudes of mind that it betrays are lamentably current, even though the practical details are not.” Dawkins uses this slight of hand all the time and it’s worth pointing out again that slight. He doesn’t suggest what “attitudes” he’s speaking of… is it just religious attitudes? Or is there some large scale Christian desire to kidnap children and educate them in the faith? Dawkins doesn’t say and I think it’s entirely intentional. He wants to let the mind think the latter without saying it explicitly or having to defend an outlandish claim like that.

Similarly, he suggests it was quite common at the time, but then points to the international uproar over this specific event, things that are nearly mutually exclusive. As with the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, we don’t talk much about specific cases because the issue is one of the magnitude of it. The same would have been true here if it were so common as Dawkins suggests. In fact, later in the chapter, long after he’s made the emotional point he’s after, concedes that “it is surprising that cases like Edgardo Mortara’s were not more common than they were.”

In either case, the key point is that Dawkins would have a hard time suggesting that there’s any significant movement anywhere in the Christian world to kidnap children from people who are going to raise their children in some other faith (including atheism).

Dawkins finishes up the section with an odd aside, suggesting that the parents of Edgardo were just as stupid because they didn’t “[accept] the priests’ entreaties and agreed to be baptised themselves.” He suggests that “a splash of water and a dozen meaningless words” were all that stood between them and their child and they were foolish to not do it “with their fingers crossed”. Seriously? Could you IMAGINE the uproar Dawkins would have if he were expected to be baptized to get some benefit? There is NO WAY this man would submit to “a splash of water and a dozen meaningless words” and he would starkly describe why he wouldn’t do it as a matter of principle.

The next section is titled “Physical and Mental Abuse” and it is mostly about Dawkins suggesting that raising one’s child in a specific faith is worse than a priest sexually molesting children. I wish I were making this up, but to quote him specifically so there’s no confusion on the matter: “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.” He even defends the Catholic Church who is being attacked by a bunch of vigilantes whereas any sane person, even us Catholics, know we deserve 95% of the criticism we’re getting and it’s extremely important that we stop it (which, at least here in the US, we have (annual cases of abuse in 1975: approx. 800. 2009: 6)).

He spends the rest of the section sharing excerpts of letters of people who were traumatized by their religious upbringing, specifically about hell and associated nightmares. Of course there’s no mention of the fact that tons of children have nightmares about all sorts of things, from finding out meat comes from animals to that when Uncle Bob dies that’s the end of his existence and he will be no more. (I personally know of a few cases of people who came to faith because of near panic over that realization of the atheist viewpoint). It matters not if it can be terrifying to a child, what matters is whether it is true.

The next two sections are titled “In Defense of Children” and “An Educational Scandal” and are the closest Dawkins comes to saying what he would suggest as an alternative to the religious and parental freedom to raise our children in the faith of our choosing. He starts out by attacking freedom of speech in this regard. Quoting Dr. Nicholas Humphrey, Dawkins suggests “In short, children have the right not to have their minds addled by nonsense, and we as a society have a duty to protect them from it.” It’s at this point Dawkins attempts to address the obvious objection to any of this. Who determines what is nonsense? His lone defense is that this is about “how” to think not “what”. If you’ve been reading the rest of these reviews, you’ll know how ridiculous of a claim that is. I’m quite confident that Dawkins wouldn’t limit himself to just teaching kids how to think and his very strong opinions would be front and center if he were setting the world wide curriculum of schools.

But beyond thinking that public schools shouldn’t be able to teach any religious principles, something he focuses on an example of in Britain in the “Scandal” section, Dawkins doesn’t suggest what kind of policy he’s actually after. Even though he makes it clear that children should be free of religious education “especially the education a child receives at home”, there’s no mention of what exactly the policy should be. Should the state be able to kidnap (term chosen based on the Edgardo story from earlier in the chapter) children from religious families to be brought up by the state? He doesn’t say. Or perhaps jailing those parents in the better solution? Fines? One can’t have a law without a punishment and I think Dawkins refuses to address the matter because he knows how crazy any suggestion would sound.

Overall, I think that Dawkins completely misunderstands the nature of freedom. I believe he thinks of it in terms of betterment of society because it allows people to challenge outmoded ideas that were prevalent to date. Beyond that, I think he sees it as a detriment. To some extent he’s right. Freedom, whether it be to raise a child as you wish or in some entirely different respect, has it’s problems. Everything from having the freedom to yell “FIRE” in a crowded movie theater to the freedom to have specifically disingenuous television ads, has certain negative affects on society. At the same time, a lack of freedom has tremendous downsides as well. It is the reality of these downsides, how quickly what seems like reasonable limitations on what one can say, do or think, can transform into a highly restrictive dictatorship, that has made western society so resistant to any significant restrictions, particularly on freedom of speech.

One need only look at Soviet Russia to see how this happens. What started as a way to free them from the supposedly repressive religious state quickly turned into a state where religion was effectively outlawed. And the way they did it was eerily similar to what Dawkins seems to be suggesting: compulsory state education free (really antagonistic to) of religion and making it illegal to share the faith with children until they’ve reached the age of reason. The result was that they became a totalitarian state that controlled far more than just religion, but matters across the board.

Are there people who abuse the freedom to raise their children in their ridiculous beliefs? Yes, there are, and Dawkins points to a few of them. However the cure to that disease is far worse than the illness. This is something that is a lesson the whole world has learned over the last 1000 years, even the Catholic Church who’s supposedly been the stick in the mud on the subject, but apparently something that Dawkins is at least somewhat oblivious to.

Dawkins wraps up the chapter with a section titled “Consciousness-raising Again” where he repeats his oft-stated mantra that kids should not be called “religious” but “children of religious” and then a section on his lone concession, that biblical literacy should be taught because of how important it is to understanding literature in the final section titled “Religious Education As A Part of Literary Culture”.

Overall, the chapter is a disappointment both because Dawkins effectively refuses to state what his solution to the “problem” is and that he’s mostly ranting against the most extreme example and not taking a more nuanced view of the realities of the situation.

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