Saturday, August 27, 2011

Faith is Infantile

            Here is some more food for thought for the weekend. This was written based largely off the writings of Joanna and Alister McGrath in The Dawkins Delusion and Richard Dawkins The God Delusion.

            As anyone familiar with antireligious polemics knows, a recurring atheist criticism of religious belief is that it is infantile, a childish delusion which ought to have disappeared as humanity reaches its maturity. Throughout his career Richard Dawkins has developed a similar criticism, drawing on a longstanding atheist analogy. In earlier works he emphasized that belief in God is just like believing in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. “These are childish beliefs that are abandoned as soon as we are capable of evidence-based thinking. And so is God. It's obvious, isn't it?” As Dawkins pointed out in his "Thought for the Day" on BBC Radio in 2003, humanity "can leave the cry-baby phase, and finally come of age." This "infantile explanation" belongs to an earlier, superstitious era in the history of humanity. “We've outgrown it.”

Hmmm. Like many of Dawkins's analogies, this has been constructed with a specific agenda in mind; in this case, the ridiculing of religion. Yet the analogy is obviously flawed. How many people do you know who began to believe in Santa Claus in adulthood? Or who found belief in the Tooth Fairy consoling in old age? Those who use this infantile argument have to explain why so many people discover God in later life and certainly do not regard this as representing any kind of regression, perversion or degeneration. A good recent example is provided by Anthony Flew (born 1923), the noted atheist philosopher who started to believe in God in his eighties and wrote the book There is a God.

Yet The God Delusion is surely right to express concern about the indoctrination of children by their parents. “Innocent minds are corrupted by adults cramming their religious beliefs down their children's throats.” Dawkins argues that the biological process of natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents or elders tell them. This, he suggests, makes them prone to trust whatever a parent says; like Santa Claus. This is seen as one of the most significant factors involved in sustaining religious belief in the world, when it ought to have been wiped out ages ago. Break the cycle of the transmission of religious ideas, and that will put an end to this nonsense. Dawkins then goes on to suggest that bringing up children with religious tradition is a form of child abuse.

Having read the misrepresentations of religion that are such a depressing feature of The God Delusion, I fear that secularists would merely force their own dogmas down the throats of the same gullible children, who lack, as Dawkins rightly points out, the discriminatory capacities needed to evaluate the ideas. His whole approach sounds uncomfortably like the antireligious programs built into the education of Soviet children during the 1950s, based on mantras such as "Science has disproved religion!" "Religion is superstition!" and the like. Children need to be told, fairly and accurately, what Christianity actually teaches; rather than be subjected to the ridiculous misrepresentations of Christian theology that litter The God Delusion.
Dawkins quotes with approval the views of his friend Nicholas Humphrey, who suggests that parents should no more be allowed to teach children about the "literal truth of the Bible" than "to knock their children's teeth out." If Humphrey is consistent here, he should be equally outraged about those who peddle misrepresentations of religion as if they were the truth. Might he argue, I wonder, that parents who read The God Delusion aloud to their children were also committing child abuse? Or are you only abusive if you impose religious, but not antireligious, dogmas and delusions?

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