Divided by a common language: Richard Dawkins clarifies his position

Those of you who have been watching the blogs over the last few days know that a kerfluffle has gone on about Richard Dawkins’s position on religion and religious freedom. Basically, Dawkins signed this scary-sounding petition, it was linked from the Official Richard Dawkins website, an ID blog that likes to think the worst about Dawkins freaked out, Ed Brayton freaked out because the plain reading of the petition (to American ears; see below) seemed anti-civil liberties, then PZ Myers freaked out in reaction to Ed, etc., etc. PZ did helpfully get some clarification from Dawkins, who then retracted his signature of the petition, but the disavowal didn’t cover the issues of whether or not the government should prevent parents from giving their children religious instruction, leading to yet more thinking of the worst on the ID blogs and yet more confusion in the comments on the blogs of PZ and Ed.

Well, I know that it is far more fun to spend endless threads bickering about what Richard Dawkins probably meant and whether or not it is good or evil, but as PZ noted, it really is better to email the guy. We can’t blame Ed for not doing so, because the petition had a clear meaning on its face. But it seemed to me that the problem was that the petition meant very different things in British vs. American contexts. I sent my hypothesis to Dawkins and he has confirmed it; I comment a bit more at the bottom.

From: Richard Dawkins Subject: Re: Clarification on religion petition? Date: Sun, 31 Dec 2006 08:52:30 +0000 To: Nick Matzke matzkeATncseweb.org

On 31 Dec 2006, at 03:20, Nick Matzke wrote:

Dear Dr. Dawkins,

I have observed the kerfluffle surrounding the petition to the PM and your retraction of it on Ed Brayton’s blog. I think part of what is going on is that Americans interpret the petition language
as a proposed universal statue [sic – “statute”] statute applying even to private communications in the home, parents taking children to church, etc. – whereas the petition, although poorly worded, was actually aimed at restricting the British government’s promotion of religion in the government schools. The first would be a major violation of standard constitutional rights (in the U.S.) which makes people freak out; whereas the second is just a quite reasonable request to move the UK closer to the US position of strong church-state separation.

If you have half a second I would like to get your answer and post it on the Panda’s Thumb blog (www.pandasthumb.org). It may seem silly, but this would avoid endless misrepresentation of your views on this point by creationists and others. So here goes:

  1. Is my above understanding correct, i.e., that you read the petition in the second sense that I described?

Yes. In my all too cursory reading of the petition (if I had read the whole thing more carefully, I would have noticed the coercive phraseology and would not have signed it) I of course assumed that it referred to schools, not parents in the privacy of the home. I am sure that was also the intention of the petition organizer. The very idea of giving that control freak Tony Blair any more power over people than he already has appals me, and probably appals the author of the petition too. The problem in Britain is that Blair and his colleagues are hell bent on increasing the influence of religion in British schools. I want to reduce the power of religion in the schools. Blair wants to increase it. I now see that, since the petition lamentably failed to mention that it referred to schools, it can all too easily be read as an attempt to expand government power beyond the schools and into the home.

Incidentally, another reason why I would not have signed, if I had read the supporting statement as well as the petition itself, is that I am positively in favour of two aspects of religious education. I advocate teaching the Bible as literature. And I advocate teaching comparative religion as an important anthropological phenomenon. Schools should teach: ‘Christians believe X, Muslims believe Y, Buddhists believe Z.’ But a teacher should never say something like ‘You are a Christian child and we Christians believe . . .’

  1. Obviously you are opposed to theism and think it is harmful. But do you actually think it would be a good idea for a government to make it *illegal* for parents to teach their religion to their children? (e.g., taking them to church, sending them to Sunday school, giving them private religious instruction, etc.)

Of course I don’t think it would be a good idea. I am horrified by the thought. My entire campaign against the labelling of children (what the petition called ‘defining’ children) by the religion of their parents has been a campaign of CONSCIOUSNESS-RAISING. I want to educate people so that they flinch when they hear a phrase like ‘Catholic child’ or ‘Muslim child’ – just as feminists have taught us to wince when we hear ‘one man one vote’. But that is consciousness-raising, not legislation. No feminist that I would wish to know ever suggested a legal ban on masculine pronouns. And of course I don’t want to make it illegal to use religious labels for children. I want to raise consciousness, so that the phrase ‘Christian child’ sounds like a fingernail scraping on a blackboard. But if I dislike the use of religious words to label children, I dislike even more the idea that governments should police the words that anybody uses about anything. I don’t want a legal ban on the use of words like nigger and yid. I want people to feel ashamed of using them. Similarly, I want people to feel ashamed of using the phrase ‘Christian child’, but I don’t want to make it illegal to use it.

Also please let me know if I may post your answer on the Panda’s Thumb blog.

Yes, you may post this entire e-mail, and I hope you will include your own admirably clear introduction.

By the way, Ed Brayton himself made the same point very clearly during the exchanges on his blog:

“If the petition was specific to what could and could not be taught in government-fun [presumably government-run] and financed schools, I would absolutely be in favor of it. But the text never mentions schools or government indoctrination, it says that the government would make it illegal to “indoctrinate” any child, which would include their parents advocating and teaching their own religion as well. That is my objection to it. If it only dealt with what schools could teach, I would be all for it.”

Posted by: Ed Brayton December 30, 2006 01:07 PM

Bloody hell! All that storm in a teacup for nothing! If only the petition had been worded properly in the first place . . . And if only I had read it more carefully . . . And if only Brayton had read it more charitably . . . No wonder lawyers and diplomats need special training. I’m out of my depth here.

Richard Dawkins

Thanks so much for your time, Nick Matzke

So, hopefully that answers all of the outstanding questions about Richard Dawkins’s committment to religious freedom, and those who desire can get back to discussing his actual views on science and/or religion.

A final comment: It is commonly said that the U.S. and the U.K. are divided by a common language, and I think we have a strong case of that here, particularly with the legal/political context that can be put behind the very same words. To Americans, where there is no established church, and separation of church and state is rigorously maintained, any mention that indoctrinating or labeling children by their religion should be “illegal” seems like it must be advocating a massive intrusion of governmental power into the home. But in the UK, there is an established state church, religion is taught in the government schools, and, I gather, parents have to check boxes on tax forms and school forms to classify their children as Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, etc., and tax revenue and religion courses are alotted on this basis. Protesting this elaborate system of official government classification of children to the British Prime Minister is quite reasonable, particularly for a guy like Dawkins.

I think some cultural background that contributed to this confusion is found in the fact that Americans tend to be extremely litigious and view any particular activity as either (a) illegal and absolutely forbidden or (b) an absolute civil right and therefore completely without restriction of any sort. This is so natural that Americans don’t even realize that their way of thinking is peculiar unless they have spent a significant amount of time overseas.

Examples include:

* Private property: In the U.S., public land is public and private property is private and usually absolutely forbidden to the public. But in many other countries (like New Zealand and probably most of the British commonwealth) private land is often open to the public by default for hiking etc. It is quite clear that the British position is more rational and civilized, but for whatever reason Americans prefer to guard their private land with shotguns as if their lives depended on keeping everyone else off.

* Alcohol: In the U.S., alcohol is absolutely forbidden until the late age of 21, at which point you are suddenly given a license to get schnokered at will without restriction, which many people do. In many European countries, alcohol is served to teenagers in moderate amounts, and a culture of moderation limits binge drinking.

* Public/private schools: In the U.S., public schools are rigorously made to adhere to the Constitution and the state science standards, whereas private schools can usually teach whatever they want; other countries do things in very different ways.

* Finally, we have the religious establishment difference discussed above where the U.S. really is rather radical even compared with most other industrialized democracies (many of which have state churches and government-sponsored religious education).

For extra fun and confusion, in the U.K., the “private” “state” schools are run by the government and the “public” schools are privately funded. “Common language,” indeed.

(* Note: see comments for clarification on the not-so-clear terminology in various parts of the UK)