Re: Dawkins in The Observer (forwarded from the Memetics List)

From: Joe Dees (
Date: Tue Jan 08 2002 - 00:06:24 MST

('binary' encoding is not supported, stored as-is) > Re: Dawkins in The ObserverDate: Sun, 6 Jan 2002 15:33:05 -0500
> "Wade T. Smith" <> "Memetics Discussion List" <>Reply-To:
>Hi Kenneth Van Oost -
>>In an open letter to Estelle Morris, Richard Dawkins calls on the government
>>to think again about funding yet more divisive faith schools.
>Children must choose their own beliefs
>In an open letter to Estelle Morris, Richard Dawkins calls on the
>Government to think again about funding yet more divisive faith schools
>Sunday December 30, 2001 The Observer
>Dear secretary of state,
>The Government has decided, reasonably enough, that heredity is no basis
>for membership of Parliament, and the hereditary peers are either gone or
>on their way. Yet, in the very same year, you propose increasing the
>number of faith schools. Having disavowed the hereditary principle for
>membership of Parliament, you seem hell-bent on promoting the hereditary
>principle for the transmission of beliefs and opinions. For that is
>precisely what religions are: hereditary beliefs and opinions. To quote
>the headline of a fine article in the Guardian last week by the Reverend
>Don Cupitt: 'We need to make a clean break with heritage religion and
>create something better suited to our own time.'
>We vary in our opinions and our tastes, and it is one of our glories.
>Some of us are left-wing, others right. Some are pro-euro, others anti-.
>Some listen to Beethoven, others Armstrong. Some watch birds, others
>collect stamps. It is only to be expected that our elders should
>influence us in all such matters. All this is normal and praiseworthy.
>In particular, it is normal and pleasing that parental impact should be
>strong. I'm not talking particularly about genes, but about all the
>influences that parents inevitably bring. It is to be expected that
>cricketing fathers will bowl to their sons - or daughters - on the back
>lawn, take them to Lords, and pass on their love of the game. There will
>be some tendency for ornithologists to have bird-watching children,
>bibliophiles book-loving children. Beliefs and tastes, political biases
>and hobbies, these will tend, at least statistically, to pass
>longitudinally down generations, and nobody would wish it otherwise.
>But now we come to religion, and an extremely odd thing happens. Where we
>might have said, 'knowing his father, I expect young Cowdrey will take up
>cricket,' we emphatically do not say, 'With her devout Catholic parents,
>I expect young Bernadette will take up Catholicism.' Instead we say,
>without a moment's hesitation or a qualm of misgiving, 'Bernadette is a
>Catholic'. We state it as simple fact even when she is far too young to
>have developed a theological opinion of her own. In all other spheres, a
>good school will encourage her to develop her own tastes and opinions,
>her own skills, penchants and values. But when it comes to religion,
>society meekly makes a clanging exception. We inexplicably accept that,
>the day she is born, Bernadette has a label tied around her neck. This is
>a Catholic baby.
>That is a protestant baby. This is a Hindu baby. That is a Muslim baby.
>This baby thinks there are many gods. That baby is adamant that there is
>only one. But it is preposterous that we do this to children. They are
>too young to know what they think. To slap a label on a child at birth -
>to announce, in advance, as a matter of hereditary presumption if not
>determinate certainty, an infant's opinions on the cosmos and creation,
>on life and afterlives, on sexual ethics, abortion and euthanasia - is a
>form of mental child abuse.
>I do not believe it is possible to mount a decent defence against my
>charge. Yet infant belief-labels are almost universally accepted. We
>don't even think about it. Just in case any lingering doubt remains,
>consider the following: This child is a Gramscian Marxist. That child is
>a Trotskyite Syndicalist. This third child is a Wet Conservative. This
>baby is a Keynesian. That baby is a Monetarist. This baby is an
>ornithologist. Not, 'This baby is likely to become an ornithologist if
>his father has anything to do with it.' That would be fine. But, 'this
>baby is an ornithologist'? Unthinkable, isn't it? Yet, where religion is
>concerned, you don't give it a second glance. Oh, and by the way, nobody,
>least of all an atheist, ever talks about an 'atheist child'. Rightly so.
>But why the double standard?
>I presume you need no more convincing. For parents to influence their
>children's opinions and beliefs is inevitable and proper. But to tie
>labels to young children, which in effect presume and presuppose the
>success of that parental influence, is wicked and indefensible. But, you
>may soothingly say, don't worry, wait till they go to school, it'll be
>fine. The children will be educated in a variety of opinions and beliefs,
>they'll be taught to think for themselves, they'll make up their own
>minds. Well, it would have been nice to think so.
>But what do we do? We deliberately set up, and massively subsidise,
>segregated faith schools. As if it were not enough that we fasten
>belief-labels on babies at birth, those badges of mental apartheid are
>now reinforced and refreshed. In their separate schools, children are
>separately taught mutually incompatible beliefs.
>'Protestant children' go to the state-subsidised Protestant school. If
>they are lucky, they won't actually be taught to hate Catholics, but I
>wouldn't bank on it, especially in Northern Ireland. The best we can hope
>for is that they will come out thinking only that there is something a
>bit alien or odd about Catholics. 'Catholic children' go to the Catholic
>school. Even if they are not taught to hate Protestants (again, don't
>bank on it), and even if they don't have to run the gauntlet of hate in
>the Ardoyne, we can be sure they won't be taught the same Irish history
>as the 'Protestant children' down the street.
>Secretary of state, even if I fail to convince you that opening new faith
>schools is downright insane, may I at least plead for a
>consciousness-raising exercise in your own department? Just as feminists
>succeeded in making us wince when we hear 'he' where no sex is intended,
>or 'man' for humanity, we need to raise our consciousness about the
>faith-labelling of children.
>Please, I beg you, strongly discourage the use, in all ministerial
>documents and inter-departmental memos, of phrases that presume
>theological opinions in children too young to have any. Please foster a
>climate in which it becomes impossible to use a phrase like 'Catholic
>children', 'Protestant children', 'Jewish children' or 'Muslim children'
>without wincing. It only costs two words more to say, for instance,
>'children of Muslim parents' or 'children of Jewish parents'.
>One of the more frightening aspects of human nature is a tendency to
>gravitate towards 'Us' and against 'Them'. Worse, Us versus Them disputes
>have a natural tendency to reach down the generations, leading to
>vendettas of frightening historical tenacity. Where labels are not
>provided to feed our natural divisiveness, we manufacture them. Children
>separate out into gangs, often with distinguishing labels. In certain
>districts of Los Angeles, a young person innocently sporting the wrong
>brand of trainers is in danger of being shot. Experiments have been done
>in which children, with no particular reason to sort themselves into
>gangs, are provided with, say, green or blue labels. In short order,
>enmities spring up between the greens and the blues: fierce loyalties to
>one's own colour, vendettas against the other. These can become
>surprisingly vicious.
>That's what happens when you don't even try to segregate children. Now,
>imagine that you deliberately stamp a green or a blue label on a child at
>birth. Send this child to a blue school and that child to a green school.
>Encourage green boys to assume that they will grow up to marry green
>girls, while blue girls will marry blue boys. Take for granted that, the
>moment they have a baby of their own, it too must have the same coloured
>label tied around its neck. Passed on down the generations, what is all
>that a recipe for? Do I need to spell it out?
>The very idea of a faith school is as unjustifiable as the idea of a
>hereditary House of Lords, and for the same reason. But hereditary peers,
>though undemocratic and often mildly eccentric, are not dangerous. Faith
>schools almost certainly are. There remains the pragmatic argument that,
>notwithstanding the knockdown objection to the principle of faith
>schools, they get good exam results. Well, maybe. If it is true, by all
>means let's try to bottle the secret, and share it around. But, bottled
>or not, careful analysis fails to uncover any real link with faith. The
>ingredient in the bottle is a school ethos, which can take years to grow
>and which, for reasons having no connection with religion, has become
>built up in certain Church of England and Roman Catholic schools. A high
>reputation, once built, is self-perpetuating, because ambitious,
>education-loving parents gravitate towards it, even to the extent of
>pretending to be churchgoers.
>But in any case, where have we heard something like the pragmatic, 'exam
>results' argument before? Yes, in the debate over the hereditary peers.
>People were fond of saying that, no matter how undemocratic was the
>principle of hereditary members of Parliament, they got results. Enough
>aristocrats worked hard, some were real experts on fly fishing, or
>windmills; some were doctors who had wise things to say about the health
>service; many were farmers who could hold forth on foot and mouth or the
>Common Agricultural Policy; and all of them preserved the decencies of
>debate, unlike that rabble in the Commons. Undemocratic they may have
>been, but they did a good job.
>That argument cut no ice with the Government, and rightly so. If you
>gather together a bunch of men of above average wealth and education,
>raised in book-lined homes for many generations, it is hardly surprising
>that some expertise and talent will surface. The pragmatic argument, that
>hereditary peers do a good job, is on the slippery slope to 'say what you
>like about Mussolini, at least he made the trains run on time'. There are
>limits beyond which principle should not be dragged by pragmatism. The
>Government reached that limit over the hereditary peers. The pragmatic
>case in favour of faith schools is similar, but weaker. The principled
>case against faith schools is similar, but stronger.
>As for what is to be done, of course we don't want to destroy
>institutions that are working well. The way to be fair to hitherto
>unsupported denominations is not to give them their own sectarian
>schools, but to remove the faith status of the existing schools (just as
>the fair way to balance the bishops in the Lords is not to invite
>mullahs, monsignors and rabbis to join them, but to throw the existing
>bishops out). After everything we've been through this year, to persist
>with financing segregated religion in sectarian schools is obstinate
>Yours very sincerely,
>Richard Dawkins
>Charles Simonyi Professor
>University of Oxford
>This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
>Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
>For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)

Looking for a book? Want a deal? No problem AddALL! compares book price at 41 online stores.

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Fri Nov 01 2002 - 13:37:33 MST