One of the oddest things about the “new atheist” phenomenon, typified by the best-selling anti-theistic works of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, is that some of the most vituperative criticisms of these works have come, not from fundamentalist Bible-beaters, but from liberal, secular, intellectuals. For instance, last October, the Los Angeles Times published a sublimely silly op-ed by author and critic Lee Siegel, who decried the new atheist authors and accused them of opposing love, beauty, and art. He didn’t mention motherhood, baseball, and apple pie, but I’m sure he thinks that Harris et al. are against those too. Why such animus from those who would no sooner attend a prayer meeting or Bible study than they would be caught knocking back pork rinds and PBR at a NASCAR rally? The reason is that, in the eyes of these liberal critics, the truculent atheists have committed a sin much graver than being wrong. They have committed the sin that for many liberal intellectuals is the secular equivalent of blasphemy against the Holy Ghost: Insensitivity.
This was the charge that Washington Post columnist Nicholas Kristoff recently brought against his fellow liberals. He accuses liberals of deriding the beliefs of evangelicals, an attitude, he says, that is intrinsically repugnant, like making pejorative comments about someone’s race or sex. This, of course, is pluperfect nonsense. Criticizing beliefs is not at all the same as insulting someone’s race or sex. We are not responsible for our gender or ethnicity, but we largely are for our beliefs. As philosophers put it, we have “epistemic duties” to examine our beliefs critically in the light of the best available facts and the most solidly substantiated theories. When, therefore, somebody says something culpably and perversely ignorant (like, e.g., that the earth is only 6000 years old, or that homosexuality can be “cured,” or that the “rapture” is due any day now) then they deserve to be mocked.
A recent contribution to this bizarre literature of internecine condemnation is Damon Linker’s “Atheism’s Wrong Turn: Mindless Argument Found in Godless Books,” published last December 10 in the liberal (or formerly liberal) New Republic. In Linker’s inane article we see, once again, that the primary objections have to do with style not substance. Linker thinks that atheism is fine if it comports itself with fastidious academic detachment and deference. Properly buttoned-down atheism, what Linker calls “liberal atheism,” should proffer its claims tentatively and respectfully, without polemical tone or destructive intent. On the other hand, loud, in-your-face atheism, termed “ideological atheism” by Linker, is bad, springing from the illiberal legacy of Jacobinism and communism. Ivory-tower defenses of atheism in learned journals and academic books are OK, but not on the street corner. For Linker, atheism is like the topic of sex for Victorians; lest it offend, it may be discussed only in hushed tones behind closed doors.
According to Linker, those who seek to defend the secular politics of the Founding Fathers, are pursuing a liberal goal, but the “ideological” atheists pursue the illiberal goal of a secular society, one in which the American people have abandoned religion. According to Linker the essence of political liberalism is liberality, that is, generosity and openness:
To be liberal…is to accept intellectual variety—and the social complexity that goes with it—as the ineradicable condition of a free society. It is to accept, in other words, that, although I may settle the question of God to my personal satisfaction, it is highly unlikely that all of my fellow citizens will settle it in the same way—that differences in life experience, social class, intelligence, and the capacity for introspection will invariably prevent a free community from reaching unanimity about the fundamental mysteries of human existence, including God. Liberal atheists accept this situation; ideological atheists do not.
In short, Linker holds that the “ideological” atheists, by vigorously arguing that religious belief is deluded and deleterious are being ungenerous, intolerant of diversity, and, hence, illiberal. Once again, we see that insensitivity is the unpardonable sin.
Well, shouldn’t we tolerate and respect the convictions of others? Tolerate, yes; respect, not necessarily. There is nothing about being liberal that requires that we abstain from hurting people’s feelings. An ideally liberal society recognizes that people have a perfect right to believe and promulgate any doctrine, even if it is silly and dangerous, without fear of persecution or censorship. Yet a liberal society also recognizes the equally perfect right of people to criticize any and all such doctrines in ungentle terms. Indeed, rough-and-tumble polemics, and an absence of sacred cows, are hallmarks of an open society. Hence, however bumptious their rhetoric, angry atheists have a perfect right to express disdain for religion, and their exercise of that right in no way infringes or undermines liberal ideals—so long as they concede that religious people have an equal right to hold and express their views without interference.
But aren’t the angry atheists intolerant in attitude? Shouldn’t they recognize, as Linker eloquently proposes, that we all have to make our way through this vale of tears as best we can, and that, being but human, we will inevitably answer life’s biggest and most difficult questions in different ways? Aren’t they being just ungenerous and mean-spirited in their blanket condemnation of religion? Maybe (In fact, I think so), but to make these charges stick against Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins, Linker is going to have to discredit their claims and not just bemoan them. If religion were always as bad as they say, then it would deserve every bit of censure they dish out, and, without question, the world would be much, much better off if we were rid of it. If it is objectionable to say that all religion is bad, then it is objectionable because it is false, not because it is rude to say so. Hence, it will not do for Linker to perch on his high horse of sensitivity and castigate the “ideological” atheists for their supposedly bad attitude; he is going to actually have to deal with their arguments.
And those arguments deserve attention. Are the “ideological” atheists implacably hostile towards religion? Yes. Is their rhetoric often hyperbolic and offensive? Yes. Do they all too often wield a sledgehammer when a scalpel is needed? Yes. Do they often unfairly tar all believers with the same brush, from the mildest moderates to the most rabid fundamentalists? Yes. Does this mean that we can dismiss their arguments? No. For instance, the angry atheists point out that religion, particularly the locally favored flavor, is often the beneficiary of a double standard. Consider that when John McCain accepted the endorsement of Rev. John Hagee, a “Christian Zionist” extremist and premillenialist fantasist, liberal journalists, even those who pride themselves on playing “hardball,” tossed marshmallows until someone pointed out the duplicity. By contrast, had Barack Obama accepted the endorsement of Louis Farrakhan, the media punditry, liberal and conservative, would have been a festering boil of outrage. In America, the spontaneous reaction to the endorsement of a presidential candidate by a far-out Protestant fundamentalist (but not a Black Muslim) is to give a free pass.
An even more egregious example of how religion gets special kid-glove treatment occurred when the Danish newspaper published those now-infamous cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed in a restrained but critical manner to protest Islamist violence. When, of course, the Islamists reacted to this protest against their violence by committing acts of extreme violence, pundits asked us to try to “understand” Islamic outrage and urged us, Linker-like, not to employ our freedom of the press to provoke tender religious sensibilities. Is hatred and violence less odious if it issues from a religious source, so that it is illiberal and intolerant to criticize it when it does?
What about Christopher Hitchens’ claim that religion poisons everything? In god is not Great (the small case “g” in “god,” is, of course, an intentional diminishment), Hitchens recalls once hearing Israeli statesman Abba Eban discussing the perennial Israel/Palestine problem. Eban said that the salient fact about this conflict is that it admits of an easy and obvious solution (!). When two peoples of roughly the same size lay claim to the same patch of land, the obvious solution is two states side-by-side. Hitchens continues:
And so it would have been, decades ago, if messianic rabbis and mullahs and priests could have been kept out of it. But the exclusive claims to god-given authority, made by hysterical clerics on both sides and further stroked by Armageddon-minded Christians who hope to bring on the Apocalypse (preceded by the death or conversion of all Jews), have made the situation insufferable, and put the whole of humanity in the position of hostage to a quarrel that now features the threat of nuclear war. Religion poisons everything (pp. 24-25).
Everything? Well, an awful lot. In innumerable bad situations, if religion doesn’t create the bad situation it exacerbates it. Religion did not create the human impulse towards cruelty, but, as Bertrand Russell observed, it lends divine sanction to that impulse:
The harm that theology has done is not to create cruel impulses, but to give the sanction of what professes to be a lofty ethic, and to confer an apparently sacred character upon practices which have come down from more ignorant and barbarous ages (from Religion and Science, p. 106).
Don’t like Jews, Arabs, or gay people? Your religion can give you the pleasure of hating them with a clear conscience.
Is there a place for aggressive, in-your-face critique of religion? Yes, there is and always has been. Consider Thomas Paine’s rousing condemnation of Old Testament barbarism from The Age of Reason (1794):
When we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.
Wow! Nothing in Harris, Hitchens, Dennett, or Dawkins tops that!
David Hume is generally more restrained in tone (but the restraint itself was often ironic), yet in the concluding pages of his Natural History of Religion, he has some quite harsh things to say about the prevailing religious beliefs and practices. He begins with some boilerplate:
What a noble privilege is it of human reason to attain the knowledge of the Supreme Being; and, from the visible works of nature, be enabled to infer so sublime a principle as its supreme Creator.
Then he drives the dagger home:
But turn the reverse of the medal. Survey most nations and most ages. Examine the religious principles which have, in fact, prevailed in the world. You will scarcely be persuaded that they are anything but sick men’s dreams: Or perhaps will regard them as the playsome whimsies of monkeys in human shape, than the serious, positive, dogmatical asseverations of a being, who dignifies himself with the name of rational.
Again, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, or Dawkins would be proud to have authored these lines.
But, Linker might protest, Paine and Hume were not atheists. Paine was a deist, and whatever Hume was (an attenuated deist, according to some commentators), he denied the charge that he was an atheist. Paine and Hume therefore only held that some religion (nearly all, in Hume’s view) was bad, not all of it. However, by failing to effectively confront the substance of the arguments of Hitchens et al., Linker never makes clear why it is acceptable, even laudable, to condemn some, even most, religion, but grossly illiberal to reject it across the board.
By the way, after many years of watching and participating in debates about religion, I have never noticed that the rhetoric of believers contained much in the way of Christian charity towards atheists and other skeptics. Even in academic circles, scurrility sometimes creeps in. Consider John Beversluis, whose groundbreaking C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (1985; 2nd edition, 2007) was the first book-length, genuinely critical treatment of Lewis. Though Beversluis’s critique was a model of calm, dispassionate, and evenhanded analysis, some academic Lewis-lovers, apparently outraged at Beversluis’s sacrilege, fired off broadsides, even impugning his intellectual integrity. When you move out of the halls of academe and into the blogospere, things get a lot worse. A quick perusal of some “Christian” web sites and blogs reveals that there is a whole class of semi-educated, self-styled “apologists” whose maunderings are short on logic but long on invective and name-calling. What do Linker and his ilk recommend? That atheists turn the other cheek while Christians are allowed to be as nasty as they want to be?
What about Christian philosopher Vic Reppert’s charge (expressed in his commentary on Linker’s article on his Dangerous Idea blog) that Hitchens, et al. are the atheist equivalent of Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and the late Jerry Falwell? Like the religious right, he charges, the angry atheists have no respect for separation of church and state, but want to suppress religion with governmental power. Well, Harris really does attack the idea of religious tolerance. Would he favor, say, state-run reeducation camps for the religious? Should the public schools inculcate an atheistic and antireligious ideology? I see no evidence anywhere in The End of Faith that Harris would favor such measures. His call is for attitudes to change, especially the attitudes of liberals. Harris decries the sort of milk-and-water, namby-pamby “tolerance” of people like Linker, Kristoff, and Siegel. Harris would agree wholeheartedly with Karl Popper that in the open society we must be actively intolerant of the intolerant; we should oppose them by any means necessary—with words when they use words and with violence when they use violence. A bland, confused ideal of tolerance, that in the name of a fatuous sensitivity would wink at dangerous, intolerant, and irrational dogmas—just because they are “religious”—is in fact a profoundly illiberal ideal that militates against the open society.
What about Linker’s charge that Dawkins is unreasonable when he charges that a Catholic upbringing is a kind of child abuse, but then fails to take this thought to its logical conclusion by calling for the legal proscription of raising children within a religious tradition? Dawkins’ actual objection, as quoted by Linker, is that it is abusive to inculcate children with the dreadful idea that if they die with the guilt of unshriven mortal sins on their souls, they will spend eternity in hell. As usual, Linker responds with high moral dudgeon before asking the simple and obvious question: Does Dawkins speak the truth? Unquestionably he does. Let’s see: Would it be a really bad thing to tell highly impressionable small children that there is an invisible being who is watching their every move and even reading their very thoughts and who will torture them in flames forever and ever if they do not confess every one of their “sins?” Well, unlike Dr. James Dobson, I am not an expert in child psychology, but I’d have to say, just off the top of my head, that, yeah, it would be a pretty rotten thing to terrify a defenseless child with such disgusting superstitious horror stories. Is it illogical, nevertheless, to decline to seek legal sanction against those who do frighten small children with tales of the heavenly bogey-man? No, of course not. I think it is abusive for parents to raise their children to be Florida Gators fans, but I cannot see any way to make that a crime without also interfering with the sacred, inviolable right to raise your child to be a Georgia Bulldog. Seriously, legitimate privacy rights, which liberals like Linker should zealously defend, give parents a very wide latitude to raise their children as they see fit, and any attempt to cherry-pick all instances of psychological abuse, without seriously eroding those important rights, would obviously be a logical and legal impossibility. So we have no choice but to let some genuinely abusive things slide, as Linker surely recognizes.

I can respect those who straightforwardly disagree with the conclusions of the “new atheists,” though I think that many of these critiques, like Alister McGrath’s criticism of Dawkins, are only very partially successful. I cannot respect someone who is just shocked, shocked by what these horrible, horrible men are saying (though they largely agree with them in substance) and who get the vapors because of these atheists’ rude, crude style. One thing I haven’t mentioned is just how patronizing this attitude is. Are religious people hothouse flowers or like the proper young ladies of the 19th Century whose tender ears had to be protected from any suggestion of indelicacy or impropriety? Must liberals be their gallant guardians who rush to their defense when they are insulted by unbelieving boors? If, on the other hand, religious sensibilities really are that delicate, then tough shit. If religious people are going to ladle out the vitriol, as they so often do, then they have no right to complain if atheists spit some of it back into their eyes.

Interview with Prof. Axgrind
ISIS Violence IS Religious
Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience – Part 2
Evolution vs. The Argument from Providence
About Keith Parsons
  • Victor Reppert

    Keith: We’ve discussed this quite a bit over at my place. It is one thing to criticize critics of religion for excessive rhetoric and inadequate justification for the assertions they make. I think that case can be made against Dawkins and company.

    It is another thing to criticize them for being unduly harsh. Here it gets tricky. One should be entitled, it seems to me to attack real intellectual fraud in as harsh of terms as is necessary. However, if one is really making an intellectual fraud charge, or if one is accusing an opponent of being culpably wrong, one assumes a much higher burden of proof. I, for example, in one post, took my friend Dick Purtill to task because he challenged Dr. Beversluis’s intellectual integrity while at the same time misidentifiying the central claim of his chapter on A Grief Observed. The safest road is always civility, just because if you aren’t civil you’ve really got to prove it. If people like Dawkins were to take the sort of tone they take but provide careful analyses of the doctrines they criticize, taking the time and effort to get things right, I would think better of him than I do now.

    A third problem is if these New atheists” have actually advocated doing thing that undermine the principles underlying the separation of church and state. Did Harris say, or did not say, that the death of God should be taught in the public schools. I’m sorry, but can you imagine what would hit the fan if a Christian were to say that he wanted the Resurrection of Jesus preached in the public schools?

    Did Dawkins describe the education of children in a particular religion in a religious faith as child abuse, or did he just think that an upbringing that made undue use of the fear of hell is child abuse. From the quotes I have seen it looks like he thinks all religious upbringing, including the education of my own daughters as Christians, is abusive. Am I being unduly sensitive if I am not too happy with Dawkins for implying that my wife and I are child abusers?

    Did Dennett say that we shouldn’t let religious people teach falsehoods to children, such as teaching them to reject evolution? It’s one thing to teach evolution in the public schools, it’s another thing to tell parents that they can’t tell their kids that it’s all false. How would you enforce that sort of thing, without undercutting the foundations of the separation of church and state?

    In the “new atheist” literature they have gone beyond the sensible thing that one might say on these matters and have said things that to me undermine the underlying prinicple behind the doctrine of the separation of church and state. Maybe they didn’t mean it, but then I have to say that people need to pay attention to what they are saying, and what these claims imply.

    Of course vigorous critique and debate is never a bad thing. If the main problem with Dawkins et al is that they aren’t nice, that would be a minor problem. But I think they are open to more serious criticism than that on several fronts, including, I think, a rejection of the prinicples underlying the separation of church and state. If they don’t mean these things, they should be speak more carefully in the future.

  • Steven Carr

    Dawkins has a good piece of shtick in his lecture tour where he compares the language in his book with the language used in restaurant reviews.

    Let us hope Victor’s sensitive ears never hear some of the things people write about restaurants….

    If he is shocked by Dawkins ‘unduly harsh’ language, imagine how shocked he would be by those restaurant reviews.

    Would Victor claim that there is nothing wrong with white supremacists teaching children falsehoods about black people, or parents teaching their children that they are God’s chosen people?

  • Steven Carr

    Dawkins lives in a country where there is an established state religion, so what on earth is the point of claiming he undermines the principle of separation of church and state?

    Religious Education is *compulsory* in British schools, and laws are supposed to ensure that all children take part daily in Christian worship (a law which is widely ignored)

    And Dawkins is not allowed to say anything about this?

  • Victor Reppert

    Steven: I’m disappointed, but not surprised, to see that your reading comprehension has not improved over the last couple of years. I said:

    One should be entitled, it seems to me to attack real intellectual fraud in as harsh of terms as is necessary.

    So my complaint isn’t about his harshness per se. But if you combine harshness with being unfair, if you combine harshness with not taking the trouble to read what you opponent has said, then it’s all the worse.

    I would object myself to compulsory religious education in the public schools, which you could have surmised if you, well, read my comment. Of course Dawkins can complain about that; I would complain about it myself and I think, so would C. S. Lewis. My complaint is that some of the people in the New Atheist group start sounding like they want the government to actively support atheism. You can’t advocate that and at the same time object to such lovely institutions as prayer in public schools. If you subscribe to the thesis that whoever is in power gets to promote their own favorite beliefs in the area of religion (the thesis that got 1/3 of the population of Europe killed in the 17th Century), then you’re on the same page with Oliver Cromwell, Cotton Mather, and Charles V.

    In the Soviet Union they didn’t send believers to re-education camps, they just made sure that kids were taught Soviet atheism in the public school and prevented parents from teaching Christianity to children. The New Atheists at least sound as if they are suggesting the same idea. If they are saying that, they are making themselves hypocrites when the oppose the sort of joining of Church and State advocated by the Religious Right in America. If they’re not saying that, then they need to be a lot more careful about what they say.

  • Steven Carr

    So there is nothing whatever abusive about teaching your 5 year old child that he will go to Hell unless he accepts Jesus as his saviour?

  • Steven Carr

    ‘Did Dawkins describe the education of children in a particular religion in a religious faith as child abuse….’

    Dawkins claims that labelling little children as Muslim, Protestant or Catholic children is abuse, as abusive as saying that calling 4 year old children Republicans is abusive.

    Of course, Dawkins lives in a country where people have thrown things at children who went to the wrong school ie a Catholic or Protestant school.

    There are many such schools in Britain, and they breed divisiveness and mistrust.

    I don’t think Victor quite understands where Dawkins is coming from, just as I’m sure Dawkins is not as au fait with what counts as religion in schools in America.

  • Jim Lippard

    In my opinion, teaching children the doctrines of your own religious tradition as true is not child abuse.

    Teaching your children to behave like this, on the other hand, I think borders on child abuse:

    UK Channel 4 documentary, “Baby Bible Bashers”

  • Keith Parsons

    In my post I commented on Christian incivility towards atheists. Maybe Christians should remove the beams from their own eyes before presuming to lecture atheists about the motes in theirs. Check out some of the hysterical comments on Vic’s Dangerous Idea blog where he linked to my post here. I just love the way these guys prove my point for me.

  • Mike Darus

    Some of this discussion seems to argue about proper attitudes and what the rules should be about name-calling. The real problem is the high-handed use of the term “child abuse” in relation to religious education by parents of their children. The term, “child abuse” is essentially a legal term identifying some criminal activitiy. Even though the First Ammendment guarantees the free expression of religion, we know there is a limit to that freedom. There is certainly no implied freedom to abuse one’s children. Once the teaching of a falsehood is included in that legal definition, it would become the State’s duty to define truth in an effort to prosecute child abuse where it may be found. This effort would be the demise of separation of church and state. Please do not give this power to government. It has been badly abused in the past.

  • oli

    Just a few comments on the British state religion. I know that to Americans, who have a very rate rate of religious belief, this might sound odd, but the reality of the Church of England is very different to what you might assume. Britain has very low church attendance rates and is generally a very secular nation. British schools have religious education but this is academic examination of the worlds faiths. There is no sunday school kind of component to them and they certainly aren’t there to get children to follow any faith, even the countries official one.

    We do have some bishops sitting in the house of lords, this is a concern for many atheists and somewhat contentious.

    As for the substance of Dawkins and chums books, they really aren’t that false or extreme. Northern Ireland and some areas of Scotland (such as Glasgow) have seen horrific violence due to religions tensions between two different christian groups (catholics and protestants). Irelands problems were not started by religion but were certainly fueled by it. In Dublin, raising your child as a catholic didn’t just bring him up in a faith. It set him apart from the kids a few streets over and made him their enemy. Seeing images of Riot police protecting mothers walking their kids to school from members of a different faith is horrific and something that i don’t think Americans really understand too well.

  • Vanilla Gorilla

    Christianity and our Government tend to be well aligned in the area of rule of law.

    That is, both love their laws to the point that they cannot question them, and to question them is antagonizing to the point that all conversation within a social species needs to be cut off.

  • Victor Reppert

    If you really thought that people were going to hell unless they accepted Christ as their Savior, it would be abusive NOT to teach your children that. If there really is a hell, (which ex hypothesi you do believe), and you could have prevented them from being damned by warning them about the possiblity, and you didn’t warn them, and they then went to hell, wouldn’t you have failed as a parent?

  • Steven Carr

    And if you really did believe that Jews controlled the banking industry, and that black people were inferior, is it not reasonable to warn your children of the dangers?

  • exapologist

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • exapologist


    Why don’t you see that implication of the doctrine of hell (or at least a popular form of it) as a reductio of the doctrine? It’s on a par with Plantinga’s reply to the de jure objection to Christian theism.

  • Victor Reppert

    Any world view, except the sunniest forms of theistic universalism, I take it, commits you to unpleasant realities that you probably are not going to be too eager to teach to your children, and if you do teach them to your children, you would have to do so in a gingerly way, exercising a certain amount of caution in making sure that the teaching was done in an age-appropriate way.

    A Christian who taught the doctrine of hell to a five-year-old, or a Christian who used made a special effort to present the doctrine of hell in an especially terrifying way, with the intent of scaring the child into proper behavior, would be teaching the doctrine abusively. But an atheist who constantly emphasized to their children that their Christian schoolmates who hope for an eternal life in heaven are deluded, and that when you die you rot, rot, rot, would be teaching the atheist view of death in a way that seems to me abusive as well.

    If you had someone who, through no epistemic fault of their own but due to some unfortunate intellectual circumstances, came to hold that the Jews controlled the banking industry and that black people were inferior (Darwin seems to have held that latter belief), then one would have to teach those beliefs to one’s children in some sort of appropriate way.

    You can’t teach your children what you think isn’t true, you have to teach them what you think is true. That’s what makes this nonsense about “teaching falsehoods to children” nonsense. I have trouble believing that an educated person today could hold those kinds of beliefs without some sort of culpability, just as I am sure Dawkins doesn’t think that anybody could believe in the doctrine of everlasting punishment without some culpability.

  • exapologist

    It’s scary when people give up the obvious for the sake of the non-obvious.

    When rational people are confronted with a conflict between the more obvious and the less obvious, they reject the less obvious. So, for example, suppose I spot the following inconsistent set among my beliefs:

    1. Islam is the one true religion.
    2. If Islam is the one true religion, then it’s ok to make yourself into a suicide bomb and blow up civilians.
    3. It’s never ok to make yourself into a suicide bomb to blow up civilians.

    This is an inconsistent set. So, if I’m rational, I will reject one of these statements. Rationality not only requires that, but it also requires me to reject the least obvious before rejecting the more obvious. So (arguably) rejecting (1) to restore consistency is the most rational thing to do; rejecting (2) to restore consistency is the next most rational thing to do; and rejecting (3) to restore consistency is the least rational thing to to.

    It seems to me that you’re doing analogous to the “reject (3)” response here. But perhaps I’m mistaken. If so, I’d like to be disabused of my mistake.

  • Victor Reppert

    XP: I think you are conflating two issues. One is the question of whether any form of the doctrine of everlasting punishment is morally coherent. There are reasonable attempts to show that this doctrine is morally incoherent (Talbott’s, for example), and attempts to show that it is morally coherent (Lewis’s, or Jerry Walls’ for example). It’s a tough issue, but I don’t think that the discussion of teaching it to children adds anything to this debate.

    To make the case that parents are doing something wrong by teaching it, however, you have to maintain that everyone who accepts eternal punishment is being irrational and is at fault for thinking that.

    But what I can’t see is how, if we grant that the doctrine is held in a epistemically innocent way, we should then argue that somehow teaching the doctrine to children is immoral.

    Further, the evidence that sexual abuse of children traumatizes them for life is undeniable. The evidence people like Dawkins present for people being messed up by being taught the doctrine of everlasting punishment is anecdotal and weak. Dawkins should know that you can’t support a scientific claim with evidence like that. And where there are cases of that sort of thing, the problem is in the way the doctrine was presented, not the doctrine itself.

  • exapologist

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • exapologist

    Wait a minute. Let’s put to the side the issue of whether there is a coherent account of the moral acceptability of everlasting hell for the moment. I believe Dawkins’ remarks here concern parents teaching something like the “torture chamber” model of hell. When I went to church, which wasn’t so long ago, this view was pretty rampant. Furthermore, you’ve got to admit that it’s not uncommon for fundamentalist parents to teach their kids *that* view of hell, scaring the crap out of them. Now do you think it’s immoral to teach your kids about *that* view of hell?

    Let’s leave aside the issue of whether it should be illegal to harangue your kids with that sort of thing. Do you agree with Dawkins that parents who do this sort of thing deserve the ridicule and shaming he heaps on them?

  • Mike Darus

    Exapologist makes a good distinction between an ethical definition of child abuse and a criminal definition. Invoking fear in a child to mold their behavior will not meet the legal definition of criminal child abuse. The moral issue seems to be one of degrees. You want your child to have some fear of crossing the street or approaching a snarling stray dog. Fear is a good thing to discourage dangerous behaviors.

    In regards to a fear of Hell, the degree of fear that may meet the standard of unethical seems to be “scare the crap out of them.” The other standard offered so far is “age appropriate” descriptions.

    It seems clear to me that it cannot be considered ethically abusive for a parent whose world view includes a belief in divine justice to teach a child that Hell exists. As Victor stated, a parent who held this view and did not warnd his child of the danger would be in a greater ethical bind. I don’t agree with Victor that Talbott or anyone else has made the case that a belief in Hell is morally incoherant within a Christian world view.

    However, I would expect someone who does not share that world view; one who believes that Hell is a dangerous, manipulative myth is justified to object to its teachings. We would even expect that person to accuse that parent of unethical behavior in the teaching of a falsehood.

    What I do agree with Talbot (and, I think, Victor) is that this doctrine is a difficult one that should be approached with significant humility because of the paucity of biblical revelation on the subject. This is one doctrine that CS Lewis has been accused of unorthodoxy. He has some thoughtful twists of possible second chances and a self-imposed separation from God rather than an eternal torture/punishment. If find Lewis’ approach thoughtful and interesting but difficult to mesh with some Biblical statements.

    Regarding a criminal charge of child abuse for a parent (or Sunday School teacher) scaring children, significant imagination and hyperbole is required to reach that degree. The Arizona Revised Statutes definition is:
    “Serious emotional injury” means an injury that is diagnosed by a medical doctor or a psychologist and that does any one or a combination of the following:
    (a) Seriously impairs mental faculties.
    (b) Causes serious anxiety, depression, withdrawal or social dysfunction behavior to the extent that the child suffers dysfunction that requires treatment.

    That would be quite the scolding by a parent or a very interesting Sunday School lesson

  • Victor Reppert

    Well, again, I would have to know how the doctrine of hell is being taught. Iv most evangelical churches, even where fire and brimstone hell is taught, the escape route of accepting God’s grace through Jesus Christ is offered, so that at least you don’t have to worry about Christians. I’ve already conceded that teaching the doctrine of everlasting punishment in certain ways is damaging to children, but I think with the exception of some rare and extreme cases, Dawkins’ comparison to sexual abuse is not apt. Before I rejected exclusivism back in college I worried incessantly about my “unsaved” friends, and about how everyone could get a fair chance since, in some lives, the Gospel seems more attractive or even more available than in other lives.

    To sum up, there are problems in this area, but as usual Dawkins is going way over the top with his comparison to child sexual abuse.

  • Keith Parsons

    Is there a nice way to tell your children about hell? Well, I guess you can sugarcoat anything, even eternal damnation. You could tell your children that there is this bad, bad place where only the most evil and wicked people go when they die, but that good children who love Jesus will never go there.

    The problem, of course, is that people who tell their children about hell often want them to be afraid. There is simply no question that much of the aim of traditional moral education, by parents, teachers, and preachers was, and still is, to scare the hell out of kids. Consider, as a case in point, the lurid sermon preached to Stephen Daedalus and his classmates in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

    Vic thinks that such cases these days are rare and extreme. I bet that they are not. I bet that loads of people who get a religiously orthodox education in parochial or fundamentalist schools gave gotten sermons or lectures not too different. Is all religious education psychologically abusive? Of course not. Is much of it? Yep.

    Vic says that the dangers of religious indoctrination are anecdotal and weak. Not so. There are many studies that have documented the psychological damage that can be done by the religious indoctrination of children. I have a book titled “Religion can be Hazardous to Your Health,” published about 25 years ago, that summarized many of the findings up to that time. I’m sure that more recent studies could easily be adduced.

  • Victor Reppert

    I overstated my case when I said that psychological harm caused by “scaring the hell out of children” occurs only in rare and extreme cases. And Keith knows that I am not a fan of the doctrine of everlasting punishment as it is taught in many churches.

    Of course, religious upbringings of certain kinds can be harmful. Of course no one, I suppose, has done any studies on the harm done to children by those who dash the perfectly natural hopes of children for the future happy existence of departed loved ones. We start going onto tricky ground when we argue for or against some belief on the basis of the psychological help or harm it might do to someone.

    As for possible psychological harm done by religious upbringings, I think we are far from possessing a genuinely unbiased account of the effects of religious vs. non-religious upbringings. What I object to is the comparison between the harm done by sexual abuse with the harm done by teaching everlasting punishment. That, I maintain, is an absurd exaggeration. The typical Christian upbringing for a Christian child in a family that believes in the doctrine of everlasting punishment is not abusive in any way, shape of form.

    I don’t believe that the doctrine of hell as retribution is defensible, though I do think the doctrine of hell as the natural consequences of persistent disobedience has a chance of being plausible, cf. Lewis’s The Great Divorce and Jerry Walls’ The Logic of Damnation.

  • Keith Parsons

    Gasp! Vic and I might actually be on the cusp of agreement, at least on some points. I think we both agree that the dogmatic inculcation of any ideology, theist or atheist, is a bad thing. Eli S. Chesen, a psychiatrist and author of the book Religion May be Hazardous to Your Health says that religious indoctrination “…serves in many ways to impede the development of a flexible thinking process. This ultimately results in adult thinking that is rigid, confined and stereotyped.” No surprise there. Surely this applies whether the indoctrinated ideology is fundamentalist or feminist, Muslim or Maoist. Chesen says that the intense indoctrination of young children leaves them with a mental “filter” so that even as adults they will automatically filter and distort those aspects of reality that conflict with dogma. The “filter” is protected by a “fail-safe” mechanism, an automatic response to opposing views that dismisses them simply because they are “known” to be wrong.

    I saw such indoctrination in action on the ABC News a couple of nights ago. Some fundamentalist ignoramuses lead children on “Biblically correct” tours of the Denver Museum of Natural History. There they are told that everything they see in the museum displays is wrong and are spoon-fed mega doses of young earth creationism. For instance, they are told that the the earth is only 6000 years old, that dinosaurs were on the ark with Noah, and that T. rex was a harmless herbivore before the Fall of Adam and Eve. I hold, and I hope that Vic does too, that it is woefully wrong not only to teach children such wacky things, but to teach them that it is a religious duty to believe these ridiculous fairy tales. It is a terrible thing to do to a child to make him fear for his soul if he dares to entertain established scientific fact.

    Are the fundies in the museum guilty of child abuse? Vic and I are professional philosophers, so we could argue the semantics of “child abuse” until the proverbial cows came home. So let’s just ask: Is it a bad thing to stuff a child’s head with arrant nonsense and with irrational fears that could permanently impair his ability to think rationally? I hope that Vic agrees with me that it is bad. I think it is also obvious that such indoctrination is imposed on millions of children in this country. And somebody should be mad about it.

  • Victor Reppert

    Keith: Don’t look now, but we might actually agree on who should be favored to win the ASU-Georgia game this fall. (Based on the strength of the teams at the end of the season last year, it has to be GA, sad to say.)

  • Jim Lippard

    What about religious indoctrination of animals?

    I’ll come down on the “not abuse” side of this one.

  • Victor Reppert

    You have a duty as a parent to teach your children what you think is true, not what you think is false. Whatever goes wrong when a parent teaches Young Earth Creationism to a child goes wrong when someone comes to accept those beliefs, not in teaching the doctrine to one’s children. Creationists don’t think that what they are teaching is false, they think it’s true, otherwise they wouldn’t teach it.

    As a Christian I think it’s wrong to teach atheism to a child, since, on my view, it gets the wrong answer to the question of God. I also think it’s wrong to teach YEC to children because I don’t believe that, and I think it especially regrettable if the parent teaches the child that anyone who dissents from YEC is something less than a real Christian. It;s unfortunate that they hold those beliefs, but they still have a duty to be honest in teaching their children In most cases, however, a parent should not be shy about tell a child what they themselves believe.

    It’s wrong to teach dogmatic and narrow-minded Christianity to children, just as it’s wrong to teach dogmatic and narrow-minded atheism to children. In view Dawkins-style atheism is just another brand of fundamentalism. Anybody who thinks that nonbelievers have a monopoly on open-mindedness has beeen drinking Kool-Aid.

    I’ll stand by my basic claim: Dawkins’ comparison of religious upbringing to child sexual abuse is horrendously irresponsible. Even where teaching the doctrine of hell is concerned, you have to consider how it is done; what understanding of hell is presented and how the presentation is done. It can be harmful, but it need not be. No such distinctions need to be drawn in the case of child sexual abuse. We have solid documentation of the claim that however it is done, child sexual exploitation does grievous harm. Speculating about needed to protect children from religious “indoctrination” raises the automatic question as to who will do the protecting.

    We all want our children to get the “right” answers to the big question in life. We have to look closely at the concept of indoctrination. Parents will give the child a world-view which does give that child a set of control beliefs–I don’t see how that’s avoidable. But of course they’re bound to question those when they grow up.

  • Victor Reppert

    It should be pointed out that although Parsons refers to some psychological evidence that might support Dawkins’ claims about religious upbringing, Dawkins never makes any reference to any scientific studies on the matter. That’s a little weird, don’t you think, for someone who thinks you need testable scientific evidence for everything. In short, even if he’s right, he’s bullshitting. He is advancing a claim without anything close to adequate evidence. See this for some counter-evidence:

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