Wednesday, 10 November 2010

An atheist's defense of religious education for children....

The Sydney Morning Herald yesterday had an interesting article defending religious education (and opposing its substitution for ethics classes as is happening in NSW) for children, written from an atheist perspective.

The new vs the old atheism

It is written by someone from a Protestant background in a mixed marriage feeling under attack - attack not from his Catholic family-in-law and friends, but from Dawkinites:

"The attack comes from my fellow unbelievers, as if I have made human sacrifices of my children. How can you let them be indoctrinated? How can you send them to the church of Pell and Ratzinger? Do you want them infantilised by the mumbo-jumbo of miracles? Isn't this (to heed the call of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens), the time for us atheists to take a stand?"

The author, Malclom Knox, goes on to make a case for the default position being a Christian education partly so that children can have a sense of their cultural heritage, partly because of the morality the Church teaches, and partly so that children are in a genuine position to make their own decision about their spirituality.  All good reasons for a presumption in favour of a Catholic education.

Tolerance vs indifference

But the most compelling argument Mr Knox makes in terms of appealing to atheists, I think, is his argument in relation to tolerance:

"Without it, they can never be tolerant, only indifferent. As Hitchens reminds us, churches have been bastions of religious exclusivity and intolerance. [A Catholic would beg to differ!] But the great crimes of the 20th century were alliances of the fundamentalist few and the indifferent many. To profess a lack of interest in religion is not to tolerate it, or to live and let live. It is to allow religious debate to fall into the hands of the forcefully intolerant. This is how persecution takes place in liberal societies: when the majority's indifference cloaks itself as ''tolerance''. They're not the same thing.

Religion is not synonymous with ethics. The content of NSW's proposed schools ethics classes has been robustly debated. But to substitute ethics for scripture is akin to replacing food with vitamin pills. Biblical parables, or teachings from Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or any other religion, may contain ethical lessons. They may not. But they do much else besides. A secular, non-scriptural ethics syllabus should be available to parents who want to opt out of all religion; but as an atheist, I would like to see ethics classes taught in tandem with scripture."


One of the most common arguments of the Dawkinites is that religious education amounts to brainwashing.  Knox takes this on head first:

"Kids don't get indoctrinated that easily. If children's minds were putty, they would emerge into adulthood caring for the underdog, distrusting materialism, cherishing the environment and standing up against the corrupt. These (Judeo-Christian) precepts are embedded in pretty much all of the children's film, television and literature I've ever seen. Do children grow up to embrace those beliefs? The evidence suggests otherwise. If kids' morality is not indoctrinated by Hollywood, what hope does the church have?

I don't see a church trying to indoctrinate, at least not in the old-fashioned way. The priest who sermonises to my children reminds me of the Uniting Church ministers of my childhood: full of commonsense, non-dogmatic, more like a friendly uncle than James Joyce's town criers of the Catholic hell (''All the filth of the world, all the offal and scum of the world, shall run there as to a vast reeking sewer … ''). If the church is risking anything by dropping the hellfire, it's in not standing strongly for anything. That might not be the best thing for the church, but it is for my children." [Hmm.]

Please pray for the conversion of all brought up in mixed marriages and families antagonistic to the faith...

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