Thursday, November 06, 2008
A New Voldemort?
Having polished off God, has Richard Dawkins decided to go after a much tougher opponent?
I would like to know whether there's any evidence that bringing children up to believe in spells and wizards and magic wands and things turning into other things — it is unscientific, I think it's antiscientific. Whether that has a pernicious effect, I don't know.
On a more serious note, I find this highly problematic:
Speaking recently at a conference of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, a group of Britons who have renounced Islam, Prof Dawkins said: "Do not ever call a child a Muslim child or a Christian child – that is a form of child abuse because a young child is too young to know what its views are about the cosmos or morality.
"It is evil to describe a child as a Muslim child or a Christian child. I think labelling children is child abuse and I think there is a very heavy issue, for example, about teaching about hell and torturing their minds with hell.
"It's a form of child abuse, even worse than physical child abuse. I wouldn't want to teach a young child, a terrifyingly young child, about hell when he dies, as it's as bad as many forms of physical abuse."
Worse, from my perspective as a lawyer, is the devaluation of the term "child abuse." Child abuse is a crime, for which the state has the right to punish parents, and others in loco parentis, most severely and for which the state can, and should, remove children from parental custody.
If, in fact, teaching children about a concept of hell (while also teaching them there is a way to escape such a fate) is "worse than physical child abuse," then where is the campaign to remove children from such an environment and punish the parents? If Dawkins is not willing to start such a campaign, then the use of the term is mere rhetoric.
But it is rhetoric with potentially tragic results.
The vast majority of Americans are religious. Even in the more secular states of Europe, I think it likely that the majority of the populace would find the notion that teaching children about hell, at least unaccompanied by actual attempts to terrify, is the moral and legal equivalent of physical abuse to be, at the very least, an overstatement.
The danger is, if the secular community becomes perceived as having a hysterical view that religion equals child abuse, local prosecutors, who are political animals, could be more reluctant to investigate and prosecute true cases of abuse that fly under the banner of religious belief. Of course, it can be objected that prosecutors tend not to do that now. But the danger resides in the marginal difference. If one child dies because one prosecutor, somewhere, is reluctant to become identified with an anti-religious viewpoint and fails to investigate what looks, at the time, like a borderline case, is that worth the satisfaction of delivering some rhetorical flourish?
Dawkins is certainly articulate and can make his case against religion clearly and forcefully without co-opting this legal terminology. I think he should.
Is fantasy escapism? Absolutely, but so is just about everything. Eventually we all will die, and none of this science stuff will mean much of anything to us. I say if you enjoy it, then read it!
To be fair, Dawkins was not suggesting that non-realist literature was harmful, he was just asking the question. However, I can't help but think that the question betrays a certain myopia.