In my last essay “A Rational Approach to Irrationality,” I argued that not all forms of religious criticism are equally effective. Judging from the comments and blog articles posted in response, I seem to have hit a nerve. The respected evolutionary biologist and blogger Jerry Coyne took me to task in his article, “Should religion get a pass?” because he interpreted my position as going soft on religion.
In all fairness to Coyne, I wasn’t clear as to where I stood on the issue of criticism of religion. So let me set the record straight here: my answer to Coyne’s question, “Should religion get a pass?”, is an emphatic no.
I suggested that attacks on religion may not be the most effective approach to protecting secular education. And I argued that verbal abuse may do more harm than good. That I oppose all criticism of religion is an easy, but incorrect, inference. I think critical discourse is a vitally important part of a healthy society; religion merits no exemption.
I’m not surprised that my article precipitated such a passionate response from atheists, since to many it seemed to support the widespread public attitude that religion is sacred territory, and criticism of any kind is akin to a personal attack.
Which raises the question, why is it that the general public seems to think that religion should get a pass, that any kind of criticism of religious beliefs is offensive? Maybe it's because religious people feel that their beliefs are as much a part of who they are as their race or their eye color; something they were born with and can’t change. This feeling probably isn't too far off- to some extent, religious faith is not a choice. Children are born into the religious world of their parents and after years of indoctrination, religious beliefs are not easily changed or abandoned.
The importance of early childhood education is recognized by both sides of the religious debate. This is evident in the Jesuit motto “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man”. The secular movement should adopt a similar motto.
The systematic indoctrination of children is unethical and must be stopped. Strictly speaking, religious freedom is a state protected right. But I think we can agree that freedom to choose a religion can be restricted in a more practical sense. For students at a religious school, the choice is free in a legal sense. It’s not a free choice in any practical sense, since all but one of the options have been obscured. If you are only exposed to one option, you don’t have a choice.
Criticism of religion is respectful of people’s freedom to choose. Presenting facts and arguments that people can use to draw their own conclusions doesn’t in any way restrict their freedom to do so. It informs the decision. It’s a good thing.
I think Richard Dawkins sets a great example. He doesn’t stoop to personal attacks. He isn’t gratuitously offensive in speech or in writing. His recent documentary “Faith School Menace?” draws attention to the rise of faith schools in the UK. It raises important questions, like what’s best for children and what rights should children have in determining their beliefs. I suggest we follow his lead, in both the way we treat people and what we focus on.
Jerry Coyne also sets a great example. In a review of Coyne’s book, Why Evolution is True, Publisher’s Weekly said this: “Additionally, although fully respectful of those who promote intelligent design and creationism, he uses the data at his disposal to demolish any thought that creationism is supported by the evidence while also explaining why those ideas fall outside the bounds of science.
Generally speaking, I think we should pay greater attention to strategy and tactics. More specifically, I think secular education should be our top priority. To this end, non-threatening persuasion tactics may be especially useful. It will be a long battle and we should identify of our most effective weapons.
Coyne closed his response to my essay with this statement: “In the end, the arguments to go easy on religion all boil down to this claim: it’s the most common form of superstition. It’s useless to attack it because it’s ubiquitous and entrenched, and we’ll only alienate people if we try. But I need hardly point out one lesson of history: the ubiquity of bad beliefs does not make them immune to change.” I agree wholeheartedly, and real change may begin when we are able to grant every child their right to an education free from religious indoctrination.