Sunday, December 31, 2006

Sunday Secularism Blogging

There's some interesting discussion burbling through the blogosphere about religious indoctrination, militant atheism, and the role of state and society in shaping the religious views of children. (I'll try not to link to Amanda Marcotte every single day, but this subject is too juicy to pass up.)

As a semi-militant atheist and the child of semi-militant atheists, I have complicated feelings about these issues.

I definitely agree with Amanda, PZ Myers, Dawkins, and all reasonable people that it would be a very bad idea for the government to enforce a ban on all religious indoctrination of children. Though I believe the world would be a much better place if no children were indoctrinated--and, more controversially, if there were no religions to indoctrinate them into in the first place--it would clearly be a bad idea for the government to intervene to accomplish this. To point out the least of the problems with this idea, the sort of state surveillance apparatus necessary for equal enforcement would be totally unworkable, which means that the law couldn't be applied equally, which would result in de facto religious discrimination. And its enforcement would literally require a Thought Police.

I do think that state (and private) schools ought to aggressively combat indoctrination to the extent they can, by exposing students to all the world's religions and forcing them to question whatever dogmatic opinions their parents foist upon them. Schools don't do enough about this, because they are afraid of parental outrage--and rightly so, unfortunately, given the political process whereby schools are organized and funded.

Two other interesting issues lie in the background here. One involves the nature of atheism and its appropriate expression. 1) Can atheism itself become a noxious dogma, with its own equally harmful form of indoctrination--is Richard Dawkins no better than James Dobson? 2) What does truly non-judgmental parenting look like? Can/should indoctrination of all forms be avoided entirely?

(Will write more! Have to leave work!)

UPDATE: Okay, so writing more didn't really work. I'll write more on the same subject later, I promise.

I do intend to make Sunday Secularism Blogging a regular feature, though. To the extent that anything can be regular in a life as chaotically structured as my own.


M.J. O'Brien said...

Indoctrination may not be inevitable, but influence is, and I'm not sure there's that much difference in the end. Even if you don't tell your kids there is no God, the fact that you scoff at the mention of God is going to rub off on them. (Which is precisely what happened to us.) I think the best a parent can do is teach their kids to be open-minded and find whatever works best for them, even if it doesn't line up with the beliefs of their parents (or lack thereof). --katy

M.J. O'Brien said...

Your first question is: "Can atheism itself become a noxious dogma, with its own equally harmful form of indoctrination--is Richard Dawkins no better than James Dobson?"

Atheism as political dogma came to power, on a grand scale, in the Soviet Union, China and elsewhere during the 20th century (and briefly during the French Revolution). The results were not encouraging, to say the least. The repressive behavior of those regimes has been exploited by those who claim that Christian values need to be strenghthened and extended into the rest of the world. But there's nothing intrinsically repressive or antidemocratic about atheism. It can exist comfortably with religious practices. In France, for example, 74% of respondents in a 2003 survey denied the existence of god or proclaimed themselves atheists. Many French, however, identified themselves "culturally" with Catholicism.

Separation of church and state is taken far more seriously in France than in the U.S. The French strictly limit public expressions of religious symbols, the source of much recent controversy among Muslims there. The French model of strict neutrality with respect to religion seems to be a better model than our own, which differs in practice from the plain language of the 1st Amendment.

And the second question: "What does truly non-judgmental parenting look like? Can/should indoctrination of all forms be avoided entirely?"

It seems to me that some "indoctrination" will occur no matter what, and (as you suggest) it's the role of the educational system to question (rather than promote) it. If parents step back and become "non-judgmental," then the popular culture will step in by promoting values and worldviews such as consumerism, American triumphalism and, for that matter, Christianity. Like the schools, parents should focus on education rather than producing clones who reflect their own worldview. "Education," in this context, means promoting a critical stance.

A final confession: as a parent, my assumption has been that a "critical stance" for my children will place them in approximately the same position that I'm in, philosophically speaking. I realize that's not necessarily the case, of course.

M.J. O'Brien said...

Note: The previous comment under the name "m.j. o'brien" comes from Mickey, the one for January 1st from Katy (as she notes at the end). We're two different people, in other words.