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Richard Dawkins and the Invisible Menace

Wednesday 25 August 2010, by Judy Harris

In Faith School Menace? Richard Dawkins sets out to ‘explore the balance of rights between a parent’s right to educate a child in their own faith and a child’s rights to determine their own beliefs and approach the world with a genuinely open mind’.

This ‘genuinely open mind’ is a cause for concern, if not outright guffawing. Can Richard Dawkins really imagine an approach to the world that exists outside of history, culture, gender, class, time? Oh yeah, that’s GOD! In a manner reminiscent of Francis Fukuyama, Dawkins seems to believe that the neoliberal freedoms of 21st century secular capitalism are something of a clean slate (or a white slab) upon which to dissect all the social/cultural/religious/political positions on offer. Slice ‘em and dice ‘em and see which one has the most evidence in its favour.

While not all evidence-based ontologies lead to Nazi death camps, Dawkins intentionally sets up a dangerous and false dichotomy between religious education and non-ideological secular education. Religious education is the process whereby religious ideology is ritualised and imprinted on impressionable young children who are denied access to the cognitive tools needed for critical (read: evidence-based) thinking. Secular-scientific education is the process by which children are taught to think critically, to question the premise that something is true because it ‘feels right’.

Apparently Dawkins wants children to think for themselves- to challenge tradition and authority. “The next time someone tells you something is true” he writes to his daughter “why not say to them ‘what kind of evidence is there for that’?” The lack of critical thinking occurring within this proselytizing of critical thinking is almost comical. Alongside a refusal to engage with the dangers of scientific rationality, Dawkins absolutely and completely fails (or refuses) to recognise the values and meanings violently instilled in children within a liberal democracy or within scientific discourse itself. Apparently faith schools manipulate and coerce children into internalising religious imperatives, while within secular-scientific (“ordinary”) education children are encouraged to develop the capacity to think critically and sceptically. There’s no indoctrination going on, just evidence-based ideas about individualism, private property, competition, gender, nationalism, work, economics, the state…

Dawkins is heart wrenchingly concerned that secular parents who send their children to religious schools are “unwittingly saddling their children with ways of thinking that are hard to shake off”. Who isn’t? Where can a child be educated to think critically about the history of the British empire or capitalism or gender? How about someone who isn’t so cool with the cult of the individual? Perhaps Dawkins would argue that the state would have no obligation to fund a school that would educate children to question its very existence. But isn’t he arguing for state funded education that encourages critical thinking and open mindedness?

The framing of the nature/nurture debate (the choice between realism/social construction) is a false choice that obscures much more complex and lively interactions that eviscerate the borders of each category. Relations between cells, landscapes, languages, bacteria, galaxies, histories etc etc constitute the world. Dawkins believes it is possible (and desirable) to extricate oneself from this liveliness, to transcend it in a blaze of enlightened scientific rationalism. The implications of this act are left unexplored, its virtue lies in the consumption of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. However, fundamentally the premise of Dawkins’ argument is disingenuous. Dawkins doesn’t care about challenging segregation or realising a pedagogy that instils critical thinking. All he wants is a world where scientific rationality reigns supreme. And he wants it really, really badly.

Forum posts

  • I agree with your point, but surely a secular education curriculum can be constantly debated, improved, criticised or revolutionised as opposed to a religious one, derived from fixed, arbitrary principles. So yes, at every level there is coercion and indoctrination but it is a question of degree. On the whole, Dawkins might not be the best spokesperson for his school of thought!
  • Great article, Joe’s too.

    Dawkin’s Science-ocracy would be HELL for me, I thought Science was well boring.

    The only bit I was a bit unsure about was:

    ’the values and meanings VIOLENTLY instilled in children within a liberal democracy or within scientific discourse itself.’

    Children already approach the world with a genuinely open mind. The first hurdle is their parents’ dictums, from religious views to BECAUSE I SAID SO. We cannot give children a choice in this, so schools, culture, the world(!) should not restrict possibilities of understanding and experience.

    The most harmful impact of capitalism is not its ideological influence on middle-income and affluent children - many demonstrate the freedom they have to go against its values - but the financial, physical, geographical limitations it imposes on those born into low or no income families. Of course its ideologies perpetuate its structure but that is not the same as a theocratic society that does not offer freedom to adhere to one’s own beliefs at any level of society.

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