Indoctrination Is Not Thinking For Yourself

Indoctrination Is Not Thinking For Yourself October 6, 2011

Over at Religion Dispatches, Paul Wallace has taken notice of Richard Dawkins’ idea for a “Think for Yourself Academy” for children.  Dawkins said in a NY Times interview that this academy “would not be a school for atheists.”

The idea horrifies him. A child should skip down an idiosyncratic intellectual path. “I am almost pathologically afraid of indoctrinating children,” he says.

Wallace can’t understand this at all:

And really, why not an atheist school? As Chris Mooney wrote over at Science Progress in response to the same Times profile: “Dawkins really, really, really thinks he’s right about things.” Assuming that’s the case, why not teach children the truth? I mean, if it’s true? Isn’t it good to know the truth, and isn’t it our duty to pass the truth on to our kids?

Yes, but apparently the greatest virtue—that children should not be indoctrinated—now trumps even the truth. This seems somehow wrong to me, and very un-Dawkins. What’s going on here?

He recalls his own indoctrination and the wonderfully open Catholic priest who supposedly invited him to think for himself about God.  He can’t fathom why Dawkins would oppose the same approach for atheism:

Dawkins’ distaste for an officially atheist academy may be mere iconoclasm. But maybe not. Maybe it’s closer to the truth to say he could never allow the kind of intellectual openness found routinely in parochial schools around the world.

…What many Catholics know, and what Richard Dawkins appears not to, is that the idea of children moving through life without serious intellectual and moral direction—in this insane world, of all places—is a terrible joke and a recipe for social catastrophe.

My wife and I are raising three Christian children. We take them to church at least twice a week. There, as at home, they are told exactly who they are, what exactly is expected of them, and why. We expect them to internalize this and come to see themselves as part of a story, a big beautiful story grounded in the reality and love of God.

He concludes by noting that his children can make up their own minds when they grow up, though he would be “saddened” if they left Christianity.

There are many so ways that Wallace just doesn’t get it.

First of all, his Catholic indoctrination was not about teaching him to think for himself.  He writes of “intellectual openness found routinely in parochial schools around the world”?  Really?  I’ve been intimately involved with quite a few parochial schools.  If I had to make a list of their qualities, “intellectual openness” wouldn’t even make the list.  If indeed, as he imagines, he was invited to deny the existence of God, it was only to open the door to more indoctrination.  And it clearly worked.

Secondly, no atheist (especially those who, like Dawkins, espouses secular humanism) believes in allowing children to go without “serious intellectual and moral direction.”  What we object to is attributing that direction to a supernatural force rather than to the application of sound, modern scientific and ethical thinking.

Finally, his expectations are that his children will internalize his “big beautiful” fairy tale about the origin of the world, the place of humanity and our responsibilities.  They are growing up knowing “what exactly is expected of them.”  That leaves very little room for rebellion.  And even if they should have their eyes opened, the pressure to conform will be overwhelming.

What Dawkins understands is that once children are exposed to what his new book call “the magic of reality,” it is very difficult for them to backslide into supernatural explanations.  I know something about indoctrination, having witnessed up close its effects on people I love.  Indoctrination places a premium on faith – even in the absurd – over and above any and all evidence to the contrary.

I am certain that Wallace’s children will be good Catholics.  They’ll probably be too scared, or too ignorant, not to be.


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