Dawkins stumped?

I’ve been watching the video of Richard Dawkins in Lynchburg, speaking at the Randolph-Macon Women’s College as part of his book tour. The Q&A session (video link) after his book reading is great fun. Students and staff from the nearby Liberty University, a fundamentalist Christian college, had come along to debate with him, so questions from them dominated the session. I think he dealt with them fairly convincingly.

There was one moment towards the end of the session when he seemed lost for words, which I found interesting. One woman (not from Liberty) asked him whether anger was a common feeling for people going through de-conversion. Dawkins was uncertain, and said he’d never considered it (he’d considered that people might be afraid when de-converting, but not angry). He threw the question open to the audience: “Is that a common experience?” “Yes!” “Anger against whom or what?” “Clergy people, authority figures” said one woman, clearly, above the clamour of other voices saying what I suppose were similar things. “Thank you, I have learned something this evening,” said Dawkins, and went on to say as much in his tour journal.

Dawkins isn’t the sort of atheist who’s angry with God for not existing, or with the church because the priest put the fear of hell into him, or whatever. His outspokenness is down to an impatience with people who just don’t get it, it’s not personal.

But the same cannot be said of every supporter of Dawkins on his shiny new website, as Maryhelena pointed out. She thought that Dawkins, lacking a psychological understanding of de-conversion, was possibly unleashing a destructive anger. She went to saying that it was counter-productive for a de-convert to be angry, as the decision to leave a religion is a philosophical one, and everyone is ultimately responsible for their own philosophical opinions. I replied saying that it wasn’t quite as bloodless as she’d made it sound, that I thought it was possible to attach some blame (negligence, mostly, rather than malice) to religious teachers, and that some amount of anger might actually lead to people doing useful things rather than just talking about it. Her response made more sense to me, since I agree it is counterproductive to become trapped in your anger, attractive though that can be.

I’m still left with the feeling that some negligence attaches to religious teachers, especially those who teach the young and impressionable (hey, who’s for a class action suit against CICCU?) But perhaps part of my feeling is a manifestation of the regret I feel that I didn’t think harder myself. In that case, I suppose, it should motivate me to continue to think, and to provoke others to do the same.

19 Comments on "Dawkins stumped?"

  1. Stephen here —

    I totally don’t get your point of view. Believers who teach children are doing something they genuinely believe is in the best interests of those children. And they’re teaching things they sincerely believe in themselves — not stuff they know to be false.

    Parents teach values to kids; schools socialize them. You probably teach things to kids, too, when you have the opportunity.

    Why get angry with religious folk who pass along their religion? That’s just a personal bias on your part.


        1. Sorry, I meant they shouldn’t be allowed to as part of the education framework (i.e. faith schools and the like). I’m not going to interfere with the free exchange of ideas…


          1. Re: Religious teaching

            I don’t get it. In the 21st century no-one makes the mistake any more of believing there’s such a thing as value-free or neutral teaching, or anything else much for that matter. Christians are rather highly represented in the teaching profession, so would you like

            a) To ban teachers holding a faith?
            b) To ban teachers holding a faith from talking about it?
            c) To ban teachers holding a faith from talking about it as something they believe?

            Now I realise we’re kind of heading down the (c) road, and IMO that’s just as damaging to children as anything you’ve been concerned by. Why not just put honesty high up the list of values in education?

            Or have I missed the point?


            1. Would you ban a racist/homophobic teacher from telling pupils their views in schools?

              If a teacher wanted to explain to their pupils that the great green fairy from outer space had created us all through the miracle of hyperspace, would that be ok with you?

              And I’m not for banning them talking about it _out of school hours_ – I’m against it being part of the curriculum. School is for teaching pupils things as close to facts as we can manage. Teaching religion has its place – as part of comparisons of the way that different cultures treat it, not as fact.


              1. With respect these aren’t remotely comparable.

                Christianity is an intellectually coherent religion that at the very least deserves study as a ‘world religion.’ As it happens, it is also the established religion, with HMQ the head of the CofE.

                If you are against it being taught, you would be best advised to lobby your MP, as unsurprisingly given the above it is part of a school’s responsibility.

                As for “not as fact” – well, unless it is presented as something which many believe to be fact, it would be educationally dishonest.

                The idea that school is for teaching facts sounds vagualy plausible, except most subjects are, er, subjective to a high degree. Should we only teach the history of science (which is fairly robustly provable)? Should we abandon teaching Newton’s Laws? Of course not. And as a parent I would be appalled if my children’s schools saw their responsibilities as narrowly as that phrase. Perhaps you meant it differently?

                I’m more puzzled than before!


                1. Christianity is an intellectually coherent religion

                  Sorry, you just lost me completely.

                  As for “not as fact” – well, unless it is presented as something which many believe to be fact, it would be educationally dishonest.

                  Presenting it as something many people believe is fine. Many people believe all sorts of nonsense, so that’s fine. Teaching it as, say, more factual than Islam, Buddhism or Scientology is what I’d object to.

                  Should we abandon teaching Newton’s Laws?
                  No, but they should be taught as what they are – models with predictive ability.


                  1. “Teaching [Christianity] as, say, more factual than Islam, Buddhism or Scientology is what I’d object to”

                    Hmmm. So you’re proposing that truth claims can’t be compared? Rather an unusual standpoint!

                    Your starting point seems to be belief in a godless cosmos. Why is that dogma to be privileged over its rivals? It has no greater evidential basis or higher intellectual standing. It may in fact be true or false – ‘nonsense’ in your terms. Atheism is a view with a relatively small following. The jury will be out on this for a long time to come!


                    1. My starting point is “Assume nothing for which there is no evidence.” I have seen no evidence for a creator of the cosmos, but I am open to some being produced.

                      I, personally, have no idea how the cosmos came into being, what came before, or even if that question is meaningful. I’d much rather that this was the answer given than one for which there is no evidence. If there is evidence for multiple alternatives, then let all those alternatives be presented equally.

                    2. Equally, that is, assuming the evidence is equal. Should there be more evidence for Christianity’s explanations than there is for Buddhism’s then that’s also fine by me.

                    3. So you’re proposing that truth claims can’t be compared?

                      I’d say attempting to rank religions this way within an RE lesson is a recipe for holy wars in the classroom. My perspective is that RE lessons should teach “Christians believe X, Buddhists believe Y” and so on.

                      If we’re talking about how we decide which religions we include in RE, I’d say that has to be about their impact on our culture rather than about their truth claims. So Christianity and Islam are in there (despite the fact that they’re both wrong, of course :-). It’s not the government’s or the school’s place to start ranking religions by which is more likely to be true. If there were a sizeable group of green fairy worshippers in the UK, their beliefs should be taught about in RE lessons.

                      Science lessons should be about stuff with an empirical basis and nothing else, simply because the non-empirical stuff is not science. That’s why teaching the Judeo-Christian creation myth in a science lesson is the wrong thing to do: it belongs in RE.

                    4. I second that. All of it.

                      And I’m of the view that the facts/values split in the West is dubious, so I don’t like argumentative moves that begin, “Just teach the facts!” All the same, preaching from the teacher’s desk is a severe discourtesy, to say the least. I think there’s room for a teacher not denying his/her own partisanship while still maintaining a classroom ethos of “We’re here to think critically, not just think certain thoughts deemed correct by society.”

                      I guess it gets messy when we start thinking of religion as all about religious ideas, and so needing to be presented as information first of all. That’s a misstep.

                    5. I guess it gets messy when we start thinking of religion as all about religious ideas, and so needing to be presented as information first of all. That’s a misstep.

                      But what else is an RE lesson to do? I’m assuming by religious ideas you mean the sort of thing I described (“Christians believe X, Buddhists believe Y”). A non-partisan RE lesson can’t teach the experience of being a Christian or a Buddhist.

    1. Hello Stephen (by the way, if you have access to something which provides you with an OpenID identity, like Typekey, say, you can use that to sign in to LiveJournal so your comments won’t appear quite as anonymous. I’m not sure whether wordpress.com itself supports OpenID).

      I accept that most believers sincerely believe, which is why I mentioned negligence and not malice. I am joking in my lawsuit idea, of course (although in the USA, I might get away with it I suppose :-). I am struggling with ideas about personal responsibility, the diminished responsibility of children or people who are otherwise vulnerable (the overseas students and people with low self-esteem of an earlier posting, say), and people’s right to bring up their kids their way.

      Anger is a common reaction among de-converts, as Dawkins discovered. That anger is often directed at the people who taught them Christianity, whether that is their parents, or other religious figures. I recognise that some of this anger is in fact anger at oneself projected outwards (“how could I have been so stupid? It can’t be me, it must be their fault”), but I think some of it is justified. When dealing with those whose responsibility is diminished, one ought to be very careful that what you tell them is backed by evidence, or at least, communicate some level of uncertainty along with the message. Merely saying that these people are sincere doesn’t completely absolve them, I think.


      1. [Sorry, I’ll try not to be annoying, and popping up responding to every post or response you’ve made over the last three months. That said, I think I’m a groupie.]

        I’m thinking a lot about this stuff since it’s become apparent how much my three-year old is engaging with the Bible stories she reads and the God-talk. I think that responsibility should indeed be weighed very very heavily.


  2. It’s all very well saying “Anger is unproductive in this case.” but people don’t work like that. People feel what they feel, and you can help them with it, but you can’t just tell them not to feel it.


  3. I just watched the video from Lynchburg, and was highly impressed. I regret my association with the LU side. That regret is overwhelmed, however, by amazament at Dawkins’ level of preparation and refusal to lose his temper or, indeed, to be dismissive.


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