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Truth, Fear, and Fairy Tales

Three or so odd months after finishing my thesis, I still find myself perking up when I come across some headline or article discussing the latest bit of wisdom from the pen of Richard Dawkins. Apparently the good professor is now directing his attention toward children’s fairy tales and myths, hoping to uncover the pernicious effects on scientific rationality contained therein (h/t: First Things). Those familiar with Dawkins’s bestseller, The God Delusion, will notice some similar themes:

Prof Dawkins is targeting children as the audience of his next project because he believes they are being “abused” by being taught about religion at school…. 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 labeling 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.”

Richard Dawkins isn’t totally out to lunch here. I think that many children are subjected to some crazy theology from an early age and this does have lasting effects. I’m currently in the middle of Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness and last night I shuddered as I read one particularly chilling passage. The main character, Nomi Nickel, describes waking up at night and seeing Jesus standing with a baseball bat at the foot of her bed, getting read to “smash her head” because she had told a lie that day and forgotten to confess her sin. When kids walk around with ideas like that lodged in their head, the term “child-abuse” doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch…

But as usual, Dawkins’s “cure” seems just a bit drastic. The answer to the problem of contaminating the minds of children with horrid theology (or science fiction, fairy tales, mythology) is not to get rid of it all and replace it with “scientific rationality,” as Dawkins seems to recommend, but to teach better, more honest, and less fearful theology. Most of us would, I think, prefer treating the wound to amputating the limb, but Dawkins seems to see no other solution to the “problem” of non-empirical thinking than to just get rid of it.

The really ironic point—one that Dawkins seems almost oblivious to, at least based on what I’ve read—is that in declaring Christian, Muslim, Jewish (or any other religious) views about “the cosmos and morality” off limits to children, the child is not thereby given a blank-slate or an empty “cosmological/ethical container” until such time as they choose to fill it with the content of their preference. They are simply given a different ideological view (one among many) about the cosmos and morality—one more in line with Dawkins’s own views on the matter. At the end of the day, just as in The God Delusion, Dawkins is not really advocating keeping the minds of children genuinely open to the mysteries of the cosmos; he simply wants them to be open to the kinds of ideas that he is open to and closed to the ones that he has decided are silly and dangerous.

Having said that, I’m certainly not advocating a free-for-all, where kids are presented with as many weird and wonderful religio-metaphysical ideas as their parents can lay eyes upon. I think that parents have a responsibility to think hard about what they believe and to educate their children accordingly. I also think that one of the primary obligations of parenting is to teach children how to think. Children should absolutely be taught to critically evaluate ideas and practices, and to test their ideas with those around them. They should also be taught that the world and our place within it is complex and mysterious, and to at least be open to the possibility that what is true is not necessarily reducible to what can be delivered to us via the methods of science.

I am completely with Richard Dawkins in his distaste for fear as a pedagogical tool (in religious or secular contexts). But I hardly think the answer to the societal problems that Dawkins detects is excising anything with a hint of supernaturalism, magic, or mythology from the early years of children’s lives. Perhaps a sterile childhood of science and reason seems an appealing and politically benign option for the children of Richard Dawkins’s dream-world, but I suspect that most of us would rather keep our “fairy-tales” and embrace both the truth they contain and the means by which that truth is delivered.

20 Comments Post a comment
  1. This notion of freedom, of the ability to have ‘radical choice’ (Sartre), is indeed one of the most difficult positions of the humanist construction of the self. Even if the “cosmological/ethical container” could be constructed in such a way as to be empty (which is s highly suspect proposition) there is still the not inconsequential formulation of an ‘ethical container’ – the very existance of which precludes an ideological position. And to suggest as Dawkins does that religious paradigms are any more fairy tales than the ideological products of his scientific rationalism is quite a suspect position as well. And if teaching a ‘terrifyingly young child’ about hell is abuse would not the same be true about teaching a child about the ‘horrors’ of religious espousal.
    So then to our own carefully selected fariytales – just as you say
    But here is the question: how are we to determine what is ‘crazy theology’?

    October 27, 2008
  2. Hmm, well I guess the easy (and not terribly helpful) answer would be “theology that I don’t agree with.” What do you think?

    It’s obviously a huge question you’re asking, one that gets to the heart of what is true and how we can know it. At the very least, I think a good place to start would be to examine the “fruit” of this or that theology. I think that good theology should produce good people who make the world a better place. I realize this just begs the further question of “how do we determine what a “good person” looks like, but perhaps it’s not a bad first step nonetheless…

    October 27, 2008
  3. one person’s terrorist is anothers freedom fighter.
    From a functional perspective pluralism has moved from being a politcal policy to a national morality. If one identifies this shift as problematic (which I tend to do)– I wonder if the starting point that you suggested here might actually serve to reinforce those tendencies. I just think that agreement on what consitutes good fruit is a too highly contested project to achieve much sense of coherence. I think that it reinforces the notion that some objective standard of good exists that we can at minimum get close to.

    October 29, 2008
  4. I just think that agreement on what constitutes good fruit is a too highly contested project to achieve much sense of coherence.

    What less highly-contested project would you put in its place?

    I think that it reinforces the notion that some objective standard of good exists that we can at minimum get close to.

    Do you think that this is a notion that should not be reinforced? I happen to think that there is such a thing as objective good (however much we might struggle with describing the standard) and that it is our duty as human beings to “get close to.”

    October 29, 2008
  5. individuals are distinct in their formulation of what is good. finding agreement on what is it will inevitably result in the thinning of the essence of good. This is the ‘lowest common denominator’ problem of pluralism as a moral code. so if agreement reduces (i would argue) good to relative insignifcance. good serves little function for human intention and behaviour. Why would be bother to ‘get close to’ good when it could essentially mean very little if anything.
    I suppose that another option is to construct a concept of good that bears meaning for you(the individual) and take some reassurance that the concept you have constructed is at least vaguely reinforced by what you can percieve to be similar aproximations of the concept that others have arrived at as well. Clearly this concept is steeped with unreliabilities.

    whether there is a such a thing as objective good becomes largely irrelevant in the face of the problems of comparison and access. Close is just not good enough when the project is a comparitive one as you have pointed out. when we stack up our theology against another’s theology our proximity to what the actual concept of good is, is largely speculative and subjectively based. Who gets to claim a closer proximity?
    the other problematic is the failing of our human condition. How do we know (except through faith) that we have ‘locked on’ to the actual concept of good. Can objective good only ever exist beyond our grasp?

    October 30, 2008
  6. I’m not quite as pessimistic about pluralism and its effect on how we think about “the good.” I realize that pluralism makes us aware of differences but in my opinion these differences amount to little more than variations on the same thing. I’m not quite as inclined to consign us to the subjectivist, relativistic fog as you seem to be. I think that often what are held up to be genuine differing conceptions of “the good” evaporate under closer scrutiny. There are differing conceptions of how “the good” is to be attained, certainly, but I think that there is much more agreement than disagreement cross-culturally about what actually constitutes “the good.”

    In a sense, objective good exists beyond our grasp as a totality. But just because we can’t grasp it fully doesn’t mean we can’t work toward our conceptions of it, even as we work these conceptions out amongst each other (and test them in dialogue with others who might have differing emphases, etc). We may wish things were otherwise, but that’s the human condition. I don’t see a way around our limitations but I also don’t think this mean we’re totally helpless, individual islands lost in our own subjective, culturally, biologically, sociologically, determined consciousnesses. Humility is important to the whole project, but so is the conviction that moral truth really exist and we really can be closer or farther away from it.

    October 30, 2008
  7. I wear the relativist moniker like I would wear a speedo – uncomfortably. Not because the item of apparel does not accommodate the relevant contents but that wearing it is seen to be an indecent faux pas.
    But attaching a relativist and subjectivist categories is a little too easy. It also skirts the aspects of inquiry that I approached a response to your post in the first place.
    What is troublesome is not that Dawkins holds a particular (and ultimately personal) conviction about truth – it is his enterprise (intention) that forces us to consider the problematic. As intriguing as it would be to explore the rational essentials of truth and good and the possibilities thereof, we have to admit that such rhetoric is not adequate. This problem cannot be framed as struggle for a more accurate description of the essential (good, truth, love, etc). We must rather recognize the tools and consequences of power that is exercised in this type of problem.
    You and I don’t want our children educated in a school system designed by Dawkins because we would claim that such a system would limit our children’s ability to learn how to think. Such a system does that, we would claim, by placing ideological constraints on the developing child. In the end we would find it problematic that a child would not be able to fully investigate religious claims to truth and good. We would suggest a type of repression had occurred.
    But saying that this problem is essentially an epistemological one deflects the responsibility of the way our own parenting in a religious manner is a similar power play to the one that Dawkins proposes. Framing the problem as one of a contested proximity to the essential element is also complicated by the very notions you describe.
    If in determining ‘crazy theology’ it matters how close we are to an objectively good theology than these ‘variations on the same thing’ do count. If the largest part of the understanding of what good is – is largely held in common across the wide majority of people than it is precisely the minutia that makes a difference. And if we can agree on the limitation of human epistemology, then I think that we should also agree that the exercising of power and the locus of repression should be our central concerns rather than our attempt to claim these ever decreasing points of theological space.
    To me humility is more important than conviction because humility operates in the field of recognizing that facts are fashioned and are meaningful in their consequences. And that is exactly why we don’t want Dawkins to teach our kids Grade 5 Social Studies.

    October 31, 2008
  8. Your initial question was: “How do we determine what is ‘crazy theology.'”

    This necessarily leads to the realm of epistemology and ethics. To my knowledge, I’ve not claimed this is an exclusively epistemological issue – in fact my initial (admittedly partial) response could be interpreted as acknowledging that what we do is at least as (if not more) important than what we think.

    I haven’t meant to tar you unnecessarily with the “relativist” brush, but as I re-read your comments you seem highly suspicious of our ability to articulate anything resembling a coherent, broadly-applicable understanding of what is good or how we might decide that this or that theology is “crazy.” It’s entirely possible that I’m misunderstanding you (I admit, I’m having a hard time following your argument at times); if so, please correct me (use smaller words, if necessary).

    Back to the “crazy theology”…

    Most theists would, I submit, have some conception of God as both loving and just. So on the one extreme you have Jesus ready to bash a kid’s head on for some unconfessed sin; on the other, you have a God who accepts everything, and never holds anyone morally accountable. I would say that both of these theologies are “crazy” for a number of reasons – not least of which is the kind of ethics they imply and lead to. The ground in between is where conversation can take place and where conceptions can be more nuanced.

    I’m a pretty big believer in the fact that God has created human beings with a “moral compass” of some kind or another. We are created to be moral beings – all of us. Culture and biology obviously have a good deal to say in how this will be expressed, but I’m with C.S. Lewis – we have no more of an ability to come up with a genuinely new value than we are to invent a new primary colour.

    October 31, 2008
  9. how do we determine what is ‘crazy theology’?
    I can recognize how the answer to this question seems to lead “necessarily…to the realm of epistemology and ethics”. (I think it is ‘natural’ to frame the problem in this way since our cultural preoccupation with rational/dialectical is still strong)
    I’m not interested in disputing the existence of a moral compass in the human being. But just because it exists doesn’t mean that the compass works properly or points to the same North. I think we have to concede that much subjectivity is at work in this dillema. I think admitting that makes us humble as we attempt to outline the theological ground between and underneath us. I don’t think that this means that we should necessarily stop trying to describe our theology and compare it to others but I am not convinced that this should be our starting point or major emphasis.
    What I am wondering about in this exchange is whether the question (how do we determine what is ‘crazy theology’?)is better approached from an analysis of its reflections of power and control?
    I think that is why we do well to be suspicious of the ‘moral’ agenda of pluralism.
    Clearly those aforementioned speedos have cut the circulation to vital parts of my cerebral cortex – I was wearing them wrong… 🙂

    October 31, 2008
  10. Gregory House #

    Humility is an important quality—especially if you’re wrong a lot. . . . Of course, when you’re right, self-doubt doesn’t help anybody, does it?

    October 31, 2008
  11. you’re right!?!

    October 31, 2008
  12. Dale, you said:

    What I am wondering about in this exchange is whether the question (how do we determine what is ‘crazy theology’?)is better approached from an analysis of its reflections of power and control

    What do you think that framing the issue in this way contributes/changes?

    October 31, 2008
  13. Gregory (are you that cool doctor from the TV show?),

    I think your brief comment summarizes the central question that Dale and I have been dancing around for a while now. The question of how to balance the humility that is necessary with the conviction that there are truths out there that we can actually know is a tricky one indeed…

    October 31, 2008
  14. Gregory House #

    Obviously you did not watch the episode in which I uttered that glittering jewel of wisdom. If you had you could have avoided the above conversation and spent your time gaining more truisms from my TV show. The question is only tricky for those who don’t have an extreme confidence in their cognitive abilities. You two needless to say…

    November 1, 2008
  15. Ryan,
    I think that investigating and describing theologies in terms of the power they exercise and distribute gives us a better starting point because it reveals the way people and institutions use theology to advance control.
    So, for example, instead of evaluating the practice and doctrine of tongues as being Biblical or truthful – we investigate it in terms of how it is used to draw categories of in and out. And in exposing the lines of power we are better able to create a social/religious space that allows for a better theology. It’s a suggestion…
    Personally, I am working hard to erradicate the arrogance that has flowed out of convictions that I have held to far too strongly. I am repeatedly confronted with my own need of constant re-evaluating on so many positions/theologies. I don’t find it hard to push for ‘being right’ but approaching any aspect (of theology or whatever) with an acknowledgement of my own limitations and errors it a difficult stance to take. It is one that I wish to foster in my life since it is, what I believe, the only way to approach honest learning. But its not that I take a humble approach in order to position myself as superior but rather that I could bring honor to especially those positions and perspectives that have been underprivileged. I think Jesus was interested in the underprivileged position as well. And he was able to engage that position (and those people) not by compromising his gospel but by creating the political space to engage with this message. (woman at the well)
    As for Mr. House let me have the scalpel next time – then lets talk about who is right and who should be humble.

    November 1, 2008
  16. I agree with much of what you say here, Dale, but there is an implicit epistemology at work in this paradigm as well. It presupposes that power/control are to be viewed with suspicion. What you propose here only makes sense once you’ve already formulated reasonably clear conceptions on the legitimacy of power, its proper exercise, etc. The skeptic could still say, “well why that grid (power and control) and not another one? Who’s to say that might doesn’t make right?” And then we would be right back to questions of truth and how we can know it…

    Having said all of that, I absolutely agree with you about the underprivileged and Jesus’ preferential approach to them. I also absolutely agree that the humble approach is by far the best one – both as an acknowledgment that we see only partially and as a way of leaving space for genuine dialogue with those we disagree with.

    November 1, 2008
  17. at the risk of strapping on those darned speedos again…
    we could get into a protracted discussion that might poke away at question of what comes first belief or action. we could probably whittle it down to words themselves and ask whether they mean something first or are spoken first. That discussion would be far more entertaining in person. I would tend to recognize Althusser’s idea of interpellation as being something substantial to consider in that kind of discussion.
    I suppose it is difficult to address these types of questions without ‘resembling modernity’s positivities’ (Avery Gordon).
    But this has gone on long enough I suspect – unless of course Dr. House would care to lend me his scalpel.:)
    i suppose in the end the one slightly interesting tidbit that this discussion might reveal is how both modernist (my apologies if this is an inaccurate descriptor) and post-modernist perspectives find Dawkins problematic…

    November 1, 2008
  18. Hmmm… Well, I certainly wouldn’t consider myself “modernist” but I think you’re right – this would be a much more interesting and fruitful discussion in person and has probably gone on long enough. Thanks Dale!

    November 2, 2008
  19. Marvin Dueck #

    Hi Ryan,
    Hope all is well with you and yours. Been occasionally checking out your blog, particularly your responses to comments by Richard Dawkins, and the like. With your capacious thirst for knowledge and insatiable lust for print, I’m sure you’ve read the following, but thought I would send this to you on the off chance that you hadn’t. Note particularly the sentence in asterisks in paragraph 12 (my emphasis)

    I’m not suggesting that I promote this, or even espouse it, but from a humanistic standpoint it is somewhat difficult to find fault with its assertions. Anyway, food for thought – as if you don’t think enough. Hello to Naomi, and children, and we’ll see you when we see you.
    Take care,

    ATHEIST MANIFESTO Version 1.0.1

    Atheism favours our reconciliation with our own humanity by rejecting the alienation caused by baseless and dangerous beliefs. Despite its negative grammatical form, atheism is a positive force.

    We value reason, critical thinking, empiricism, science, knowledge and progress. Reason and cooperation are essential to meeting the challenges that confront humankind. We value the evidence of our senses and rely on what we can sense and measure in this natural world. We draw our conclusions based on the best evidence, and change our conclusions accordingly as new data become known. Our ethics and values are evidence-based. Ethics and morality evolve over time as we better understand our world and the consequences we cause in it.

    Science is the best tool we have for seeking truth and understanding our world. We value knowledge and we hold the endeavor to increase it as best we can, in order to pursue truths about our world, to be one of the noblest efforts one can make; and any and all efforts to stifle or denigrate knowledge and learning to be immoral. We believe in modernity and progress and the ability of humanity to develop a better world based on reason.

    We are convinced that human compassion and empathy are crucial to improving the human condition. Life is precious and has value, as this life is the only one we know that we and our fellow living beings will have. We hold that all people have the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and that all people are entitled to freedom of conscience. We support the values outlined in the International Convention of Human Rights as inalienable human rights. Freedom of conscience includes not only freedom of belief but also freedom of non-belief, the right to have no religion.

    We abandon all magical thinking, all infantile hopes in a salvation provided by gods or spirits originating in whatever illusory supernatural realm. We know that we human beings of this small planet must survive by our own wits and resources, however modest these may be. We are responsible for humane interaction with other people and other animals and for the preservation of our habitable planet.

    We are not pollyannas. We detest ignorance and the obscurantism which causes it. We hate censorship and the prohibition of free speech. We deplore the duplicity and credulity which many people display in their response to supernatural allegations. We reject narrow-mindedness and dogmatism, because they are incapable of adapting to progress or to new knowledge.

    We are materialists. We reject all belief in one or various gods or goddesses, in demons or angels, in agents whose alleged acts would be incompatible with our painstakingly acquired scientific knowledge, or in any other supernatural nonsense. Indeed, the so-called supernatural is an oxymoron, because if a “supernatural” phenomenon did in fact exist, it would thus be natural, i.e. part of the our observable natural world and subject to scientific inquiry.

    We are atheists. We also call ourselves humanists, freethinkers, skeptics or secularists, but we do not use these labels as cowardly euphemisms to mask our atheism. Atheism is not a system of beliefs, but rather the rejection of theistic systems. Atheism is the result of the rigorous application of doubt to theism.

    We are not agnostics. We know that the various theisms are baseless prescientific mythologies, inherited from antiquity, and that their falsehood is a certainty beyond all reasonable doubt.

    We are especially not deists. We know that the hypothesis of a creator, even one who never intervenes in the natural world after his/her/its hypothetical act of creation, is superfluous and has no scientific or moral value.

    We are moral and imperfect beings, responsible for ourselves, just like the humanity of which we are a part. We know that our moral sense is innate, a product of our biological and cultural evolution as human animals. We know too that to assign moral authority to a fictional deity alienates us from our own humanity, compromises our freedom, and robs us of our own responsibility. We know that any religious authority which has the pretention to speak for an illusory god abuses that authority.

    We are antitheist, antideist and antireligious. We are convinced that the free expression of ideas is necessary. To criticize religions is not only a right, it is a necessity. Of all supernatural or paranormal beliefs which infect human thought, the various theisms are among the most widespread and the most dangerous. We do not limit our criticism to fundamentalists or extremists. We also criticize religious tendencies considered “moderate” or “liberal”. All supernatural beliefs are irrational, while so-called “moderate” beliefs are just a somewhat lighter version of irrationality. ***All forms of religion, be they fundamentalist or liberal, have in common moral arrogance, the arbitrary nature of their supernatural beliefs, and an unhealthy attachment to religious authority and tradition at the expense of reason.***

    We promote secularism, that is, the complete separation between religion and State, and the expulsion of all partisan religion from public institutions. We are willing to work in coalition with any other association, even a religious one, which shares with us a clearly secular objective. But we will not sweeten or tone down our antireligious criticism in an effort to avoid offending whomever. We respect freedom of belief and non-belief, and we do so by promoting legal measures to guarantee that freedom, but we are not bound by any obligation to respect beliefs themselves.

    We are not religious, and we will not imitate those who are religious. We do not claim to be morally superior to believers. But, most importantly, neither are we morally inferior, because the religious prejudice which associates atheism with immorality or amorality is nothing but a dirty old lie which is promoted, self-servingly, by religious institutions and their allies. We know that atheism is beneficial, or at worst innocuous. We have no inclination to criminalize behaviour simply because we may find it ethically dubious; that is what fundamentalists do. The various theisms are morally repugnant ideologies, but we have neither the ability nor the desire to forbid their practice. Rather, we wish only to minimize the damage they do, so that the religious practice of some does not compromise the freedom of others.

    But what we know above all, is that all knowledge is incomplete and subject to revision. If a new phenomenon or a new technology or new data incompatible with our worldview should present itself, then we will study that novel discovery with an appropriate balance of open-mindedness and skepticism, and change our conception of the world if modification is justified.

    October 21, 2009
    • Hey Marvin, good to hear from you! Naomi and the kids are well, as I hope you and yours are also.

      I’ve come across variations of the Atheist Manifesto throughout my thesis research and since. As I read it again, I’m struck both by how much of it I agree with (I value reason, science, and evidence, and critical evaluation of religion; I’m against narrow-mindedness, and magical thinking) and by how many of these claims fall outside of what can be scientifically proven (do the signatories know that there is nothing beyond what can be apprehended by our five senses? How? Do they know that morality is fully explained by biological and cultural evolution? How? On what basis do they claim that atheism is “beneficial, or at worst innocuous?” Would people in Stalin’s Russia or Pol Pot’s Cambodia agree?).

      I think the part you highlighted is certainly interesting, although it seems to be quite a generalization. All forms of religion are characterized by moral arrogance? Really? I would certainly agree that many are, but there are many that are not as well. I’ve seen them. I’ve been a part their worship. All forms of religion are arbitrary in their supernatural beliefs? You’d think if people were into dreaming up arbitrary deities they would come up with something less complicated and more obviously useful than Jesus of Nazareth. All forms of religion bow to religious authority at the expense of reason? I’m religious and I like to think of myself as placing a high value on reason and on viewing religious authority with a certain amount of skepticism. So much of this statement just doesn’t fit with my own personal experience, and with the beliefs of many people that I know.

      I think there are many legitimate critiques in the Atheist Manifesto that need to be heeded by all thoughtful Christians, but it’s a bit tough to ferret them out amidst the mountain of angry rhetoric, sweeping generalizations, and historical naivete. At any rate, I continue to be interested by folks like Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris. I scanned a bit of Dawkins’s new book (The Greatest Show on Earth) last week in a bookstore. It looks like he’s not quite as angry as in The God Delusion, but there are certainly many similar themes…

      October 21, 2009

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