Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Response to "Should You Teach Religion to Your Kids?"

A colleague of mine gave me some really thoughtful feedback on my recent post, Should You Teach Religion to Your Kids?  Please see below for part of our exchange (his comments are in blue).

“You draw a parallel between broadly-accepted high-risk behaviors (not wearing a seat belt, drinking battery acid, and accepting strangers' candy) and personally-perceived ones (specified in religion).

 “These fit nicely together as things-a-parent-feels-comfortable-advising-her-kids-against but they're considerably distinct in degree of likely-to-harm-you: most all battery acid is surely bad, while only some strangers' candy may have attendant risk, and wearing a seat belt is a smart bet to protect against winning a long shot with a big, sad jackpot. (And yes, I'm blending if-then positivism and statistical probability here.)”

So far I agree, while adding that parents are expected to protect their children from all of these high-risk behaviors, however much they differ in terms of the likelihood of actual ensuing harm. 

“That a parent believes ill will befall a child who doesn't participate in the same religious tradition as she does is justified quite differently, though, no? At some level, this extension of paternalism is rooted in a different logic: not protection from demonstrated harm, but protection from a believed harm.”

To some extent, I think you’re correct. Most religious parents, today, seek to protect their children from a harm that they only believe in.  However, as a “mystically-inclined” Christian (I am, after all, Eastern Orthodox), I do believe that it’s possible to know of the danger, albeit in a way that doesn't necessarily demonstrate this truth to others.  Of course, whether the truth of a particular harm can be demonstrated to others isn’t necessary to justify protecting one’s children from such harm.  I can legitimately use force to prevent my child from delivering the paper to a person who I know through first-hand experience is a child molester, even if I can’t, at least at that particular moment, demonstrate that truth to others.  I can’t demonstrate that organic food is healthier than non-organic food (at least as far as Wikipedia is concerned, the science hasn’t settled this issue), but most people would recognize my right to act on my strong belief that it is healthier when I make decisions for my children on what to eat.

“_If_ Dawkins is raising a concern that some religious traditions inflict some inordinate harm (mental anguish, corporal punishment, enforced sacrifice) on children, then the idea that parents ought not be given free rein to "indoctrinate" would seem an appropriate extension of paternal protection--if we extend the concept of 'paternal' beyond immediate families.”

I definitely agree, although he doesn't seem to be as discriminating as you fortunately are.  Especially in Chapter 8 of The God Delusion, he regularly implicates moderate religion in all sorts of abuses inspired by fundamentalist religion, as the very title of the chapter makes clear (entitled, “What’s Wrong with Religion? Why be So Hostile?).  

There are many goals to which parents should aspire, even though the means with which they attempt to accomplish those goals are often ineffective and even harmful to their children.  But I don’t think teaching religion is necessarily unique in this regard.  Let’s say that in my effort to protect my child from the pernicious consequences of obesity, I inadvertently cause her to become anorexic.  In such cases, I clearly shouldn't be given free rein to protect her from what is otherwise considered a noble goal.

 “… are there religious groups who feel so threatened by Dawkins or others that refuting their claims is important business?”

I think so.  But, for me, the threat is not so much that Dawkins and others will expose the perceived idiocy of religion, per se, but that they will convince others that fundamentalist religion is a redundancy.