Monday, 29 June 2009

Atheist young pioneers?

To my mind, one of the most annoying clichés of our times is the claim that atheism has become a kind of ersatz religion, with secular "priests" - Richard Dawkins, AC Grayling - and doctrines as rigid as that of any religion. It usually goes along with the dismissal of leading non-believers as "fundamentalists" - which, apart from anything else, takes no account of the possibility that, for example, believers in natural selection might have perfectly good reasons - based on nothing more than the weight of scientific evidence - for believing what they believe. No, the mere strength of their conviction is enough to see them lumped in with the most bovine Creationist. And now, it seems, these blinkered rationalists are - gasp - coming for the kids. According to an editorial in yesterday's Sunday Times:


Richard Dawkins, champion of atheism and scourge of all things religious, has come up with a novel idea to wean our children away from God: summer camps for would-be little non-believers.


Untrue on all points. The summer camps being referred to are not Dawkins' idea; they are not novel - they have been running in the USA for more than a decade; they are not intended to "wean our children away from God" - a somewhat alarmist formulation - but to encourage them to think for themselves; and they are not "for would-be little non-believers".

In fact, all that has happened is that the author of The God Delusion has given his support and encouragement to the introduction from America of Camp Quest, in which children and teenagers are introduced to basic philosophical concepts as well as taking part in more traditional holiday activities such as canoeing. As Trina Hoakes puts it, "the purpose of the camp is to offer an alternative to religious summer camps where children can learn how to think rather than what to think". Summer camps are of course an American institution. My only acquaintance with them is from Addams Family Values - but if that film's satire of the suffocating cheeriness of such events is anywhere near the truth then Camp Quest looks like a most appealing alternative. Samantha Stein, a psychology graduate who is running the first such camp in Somerset next month, thought that British children should have the opportunity to take part.

According to Lois Rogers' report:

The emphasis on critical thinking is epitomised by a test called the Invisible Unicorn Challenge. Children will be told by camp leaders that the area around their tents is inhabited by two unicorns. The activities of these creatures, of which there will be no physical evidence, will be regularly discussed by organisers, yet the children will be asked to prove that the unicorns do not exist. Anyone who manages to prove this will win a £10 note - which features an image of Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory - signed by Dawkins, a former professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University.


(Someone should warn the professor that it is actually illegal to deface banknotes.)

One of the parents who has signed their children up for the course, Crispian Jago (an IT consultant, wouldn't you know), is quoted as saying: “I’m very keen on not indoctrinating them with religion or creeds. I would rather equip them with the tools to learn how to think, not what to think.”

It's hard to square such a clear statement with the Sunday Times' assertion that it is "a summer camp for atheists". So far as I can see, it isn't even a summer camp for the children of atheist parents, as Hemant Mehta describes it - though no doubt many of the parents sending their children to it will be rationalists of some sort. It isn't just atheists who should know how to think; nor is it only atheists who would like their children to think for themselves. Any child, of whatever background, would benefit from having some of the cobwebs cleared from their minds.

It hardly amounts to an atheist boot camp, even if, as the report states, "the youngsters’ mornings will be spent debunking supernatural phenomena such as the formation of crop circles and telepathy". I can't imagine devout Muslim or Christian parents having a problem with their children discovering - as if they didn't know already - that crop circles are actually made by people. Nevertheless, Rogers manages to make the camp sound like a comically sinister indoctrination facility. "Give Richard Dawkins a child for a week’s summer camp and he will try to give you an atheist for life" she writes - although, as I read it, Dawkins won't even be there. (Perhaps he'll drop by. I do hope so.) She also claims that "Instead of singing Kumbiya and other campfire favourites, they will sit around the embers belting out 'Imagine there’s no heaven . . . and no religion too'". I've no idea if that's true or whether she made it up - but I strongly suspect the latter.

Despite his minimal involvement in the project, this is now, in journalistic shorthand, Richard Dawkins' personal plan for turning out a generation of Mini-Me atheists. Which caricature, needless to say, has provoked much hostile comment. The Telegraph had a "spokesman for the Church of England" who - clearly relying on what he had been told by the reporter - opined that "in his imitation of the type of youth events that religious groups have been running for years, Dawkins makes atheism look even more like the thing he is rallying against." Yes indeed. He'll probably be swinging God-free incense around next.

And here's the soppy Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the Independent, objecting to the treatment of children by their parents as objects or accessories:

Within many religions, brainwashing starts young, so there is never a chance of dissent in later life. Four and five-year-olds are put into hijab these days, so they will never know anything else or ever rebel. Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews have become more ardently committed to the idea that the new generations have to be tightly watched and processed by their parents...


I completely agree, of course. As does Professor Dawkins.

What is just as worrying is that those who consider themselves to be modern rationalists are just as dogmatic and now going after the young. I hear Richard Dawkins is setting up a holiday summer camp to introduce eight to 17-year-olds to his fanatically held faith – atheism. If it were for 17 to 21-year-olds it would be fine. This seems to me no different from the religious zealots who want to get into susceptible, immature minds, raw material to be moulded by adults.


This is just hilarious - or it would be, if it weren't such a travesty. Does Yasmin seriously believe that anyone under seventeen is too young to learn how to think? Presumably not: she just hasn't bothered to find out the facts before squeezing out her indignation in print. As it happens, there's a whole chapter of The God Delusion devoted to the danger of indoctrinating children. Famously, Dawkins objects to applying religious labels to children: "a child is not a Christian child or a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents". He also writes:

I thank my own parents for taking the view that children should not be taught so much what to think as how to think. If, having been fairly and properly exposed to all the scientific evidence, they grow up and decide that the Bible is literally true or that the movements of the planets rule their lives, that is their privilege. The important point is that it is their privilege to decide what they shall think, and not their parents' privilege to impose it by force majeure. And this, of course, is especially important when we reflect that children become the parents of the next generation, in a position to pass on whatever indoctrination may have moulded them.


What the articles in the Times - and Yasmin Alibhai Brown's response to them - reflect is two common assumptions in the reporting of atheism: the pre-eminence of Richard Dawkins, and the assimilation of atheism to a religious belief. Of course Dawkins is Britain's, perhaps the world's, most visible atheist. But the author of The God Delusion is not some sort of atheist pope, personally directing the opinions and behaviour of non-believers everywhere - even if he occasionally gives the impression that he'd rather like to be. The latter fallacy - for there is clearly no such thing as an atheist "faith", and even humanism is a set of attitudes rather than a doctrinal position - has even been incorporated into law, as atheists are now protected against "religious discrimination".

The so-called "new atheists" - a better term would be "media atheists", since there's nothing whatever new in what they say - do not present the world with a coherent belief system. They merely share an opinion about the probable non-existence of a Supreme Being and (a rather different position) a dislike of organised religion. Of course, many atheists also believe in things - human responsibility, for example, or the scientific method, or that knowledge is better than ignorance. But they do not believe in such positive virtues in the same way that, for example, most Christians believe in the truth of the Resurrection. They believe that they are good, worthwhile things, or human achievements worth celebrating. The dynamic is fundamentally different from that of religious belief.

Nor do they believe in such things as atheists. It's perfectly possible to combine atheism with scepticism about science, pessimism about the human condition or even enthusiasm for religion as a mythic structure or mechanism of social control. Atheism is non-belief in God, period.

I'm not sure why atheism has come to be assimilated so much to religion. It may have something to do with the journalistic (and bureaucratic) desire to put things in neat little boxes, with atheism lumped in with religion for no better reason that both atheists and religious leaders have something to say about God. It may be one more consequence of the pernicious modern phenomenon of identity politics - which has led, for example, to the British Humanist Association claiming its share of the "faith" money doled out by the government. It may just be laziness, though.

I'm pleased to discover, via the BBC, that "after receiving hundreds of inquiries" the organisers of the camp are planning to expand the scheme beyond the original - and quickly sold-out - 24 places. Excellent. But why should kids have all the fun? There's at least as much need for thinking lessons among the adult population. Especially those that write for newspapers.