The God Delusion: Child Indoctrination and the Atheist’s Vanishing(?) Consolation 1

This is the final post in a series on The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. The previous post was The God Delusion: Are The Bible and Religion Poisons To Society? (Chapters 7 & 8).

After reading back through my previous post, one thing I want to emphasize is that I don’t disagree with everything Richard Dawkins says. Something that irks me when reading some Christian writers is that, when they review an atheist’s work, it usually comes across as a hit piece with an implication that everything they say is wrong and now must be rebutted. That mindset earlier in life, in fact, only added to my doubt as a Christian, since it seemed to betray close-mindedness. And yes, atheists also have a tendency to do this in the opposite direction as well. So let’s avoid that sort of behavior and acknowledge good ideas and good reasoning everywhere we see it, regardless of the source, and vice versa as well.

A Small Italian Boy vs. Fundamentalism

Richard Dawkins opens this chapter with a true story regarding a child named Edgardo Mortara in the nineteenth century Italy. Edgardo was ripped from his home by church authorities because he, a Jew, had been secretly baptized by his Christian nanny, and the church deemed it immoral that a “Christian” boy be raised by a Jewish family. The reason the nanny had baptized him was because he fell ill one day and she was afraid he would die and would therefore burn in hell forever since he had not been saved through baptism.

You might ask, why did a Jewish family have a Christian nanny in the first place, especially if this sort of thing was a potential risk? Well, it was convenient to have a gentile nanny, because they could do small tasks on the Sabbath, unlike a Jewish nanny of course.

Dawkins uses this story to highlight the various terrifying consequences of the uniquely religious mind, as he would put it. In particular, he points out the striking confidence the Catholic church seemed to have that they were protecting the child by stealing him away from his parents.

Indeed, one can only nod in agreement with Dawkins’ on the horrors of the way humans are susceptible to have our minds taken over by superstition and fundamentalism. 

So what do I, as a Christian, say in response? Well first, I think it highlights how much I hate all forms of fundamentalism, which I define as essentially having a set of beliefs (your fundamentals) that are absolutely unquestionable. All my beliefs about the world are open for questioning and correcting by my peers, and I think holding one’s beliefs that way protects one from the sort of dogmatic superstition described in Edgardo’s story. 

Secondly, in the end it simply matters if the “superstitious” belief is true or not. If it isn’t true, then you will be led astray due to having a false belief about the world, and probably even more astray than other types of beliefs since superstitious / religious beliefs usually have a vague nature about them, making it easier to get things wrong. However, if the belief is true, then you have access to a part of the world that others, who don’t believe, do not have access to. One would imagine that would make it easier to navigate the world in that case, not harder. So the truth value of the belief really does matter.

Childhood Indoctrination

A second major issue Dawkins brings up, and one that you can tell he cares deeply about, is the indoctrination of children into a religion. He argues we should teach the Bible as literature (as well as the Quran, and other religious texts) but only teach religion in a comparative religions sort of way, letting the child decide as they grow up what’s true.

In the end, I think he and I both agree that instructing a child how to think is one of the most crucial things to teach—to avoid close-mindedness, fundamentalism, and to stay curious.

However, I can’t agree with him that it’s wrong for religious parents to teach their children the tenets of their religion. Once again, the truth value of the religious belief matters here. If Christianity is actually true (for example), then how can parents justify holding back that information from their children, when it’s ultimately the most important information in the world (if it’s true)? 

As an analogy, a lot of political stances also are, like religious beliefs, highly debated and yet dearly held. Should we say then that parents can’t pass on any political beliefs to their children? That seems inordinately guarded. Instead, the parents should make sure to accompany the teaching of their political beliefs with the reasons why they hold them. They should also emphasize that they (the parents) are not in the end right about everything and should teach their children critical thinking skills in general so that they can develop and have thoughts and opinions of their own.

An Atheist Equivalent Of Consolation?

As Dawkins closes his book, he approaches the one topic that he admits is a challenge for naturalism to fill the gap that religion once held: consolation. His first comment is that, although religion might console, that does absolutely nothing to show that it’s true. And he is of course entirely right about this. Perhaps life is indeed meaningless, there is no God, no one is cosmically looking out for us, or anything like that. Just because that is an uncomfortable thought for many doesn’t mean it’s not true!

He mostly answers his question of the atheist’s consolation by deferring to his next topic, which is inspiration. On the way though, he pithily mentions that scientific medicine can also console as a replacement for the more immediate consoling effects that religion can provide. But I think it’s worth talking about consolation as such a little more.

To repeat, of course the fact that Christian belief can be quite consoling doesn’t mean it’s true. However, I think the fact that Christian belief can be so consoling, and fill a much needed “gap” in this way, is a valid emotional reason to investigate Christianity and see if it holds any water intellectually. Secondly, even though it’s only an emotional reason, it’s also possible to construct an argument that the fact that Christianity fits the gap so well is a pointer to its truth. There are a lot of varied religious beliefs out there, some strikingly different than the rest, and I believe a hallmark of Christianity’s truth is the fact that it can be very emotionally satisfying, and yet doesn’t hold back from the harder truths as well.

Let me give just one example. Christianity teaches that we are of infinite worth as creatures made in God’s image, and yet it has a stark view of the evils and selfishness that naturally lurk in our hearts. I think this rings more true than fluffy philosophies that emphasize our specialness and yet can’t explain the Hitlers of history on the one hand, or other philosophies that admit we are capable of mortal evils but also say we are merely highly evolved animals with no intrinsic meaning or value on the other.

In other words, not all of Christianity’s teachings are “comfy;” a significant portion are a bit of a wake up call. And yet, as Dawkins admits, so much of the ideas from Christianity (or other religions he has in mind) have immense consoling effects. 

A Foundation of Unyielding Despair

This brings me to my next point, which is that atheists try their hardest to build up a philosophy based on reason alone that inspires and ultimately consoles. That is a laudable goal. But when you remove God and ultimate significance from the equation, you quite easily end up with the sort of idea that Bertrand Russell (someone that Dawkins seems to admire) famously espoused in The Free Man’s Worship:

…Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

This view is praiseworthy for its honesty and its admirable effort to construct a form of hope on top of the foundation he lays out. But is it ultimately satisfying? Or does it leave one feeling like a foundational piece of life, one that brings hope and meaning and fulfillment, is now gone forever once you’ve fully swallowed this new worldview? …that something deep within us meant to resonate no longer has anything to resonate with?

And if the answer is yes, as it is for many, then that’s both an emotional argument to at least investigate the plausibility of a worldview like Christianity that does retain that fulfillment, and it’s also potentially an intellectual / philosophical argument as well for such a worldview, since it would seem quite odd that we evolved to be creatures to have this yearning and yet have no object for it. C.S. Lewis makes an argument along these lines in Mere Christianity; I tend to prefer more grounded arguments (see my previous posts in this series for some examples), but I don’t think his argument is without warrant.

Dawkins wraps up the book with a beautiful description of the wonders of science and the exciting journey we are on as we peel back layer after layer of the universe to more surprising and exhilarating discoveries. It’s a great read. But for me there is a lingering question about how much this awe of the universe can fill the hole-of-meaning described above that is normally filled by something like Christianity.

Wrapping Up The God Delusion

One thing that struck me during these chapters is how great a writer Dawkins is. He has some really choice sentences and thought-provoking ways of framing things while often also being quite humorous. You won’t be bored reading this book—that’s for sure.

As for an overall take on this book, I mostly will let my five entries in this series stand on their own. Dawkins makes plenty of good points that are well worth thinking about. However, a lot of much of what he says ends up targeting more fundamentalist-leaning views rather than a deeper, more well thought out faith. Finally, one would be sorely missing out if they only read a book like this and never read a nuanced, deep book on the other side, like Greg Boyd’s Letters From A Skeptic (just to give an example, and a very brief, readable one at that).

The longer I have lived in the land of dialogue between skeptics and believers the more important I think it is to truly read quality works from both sides (and don’t worry, skeptics, I’ve read many more atheist materials other than The God Delusion, which isn’t usually considered the high point of atheist literature). You must not only read it, but consider each point and ask, What if this is true? Dawkins illustrates this wonderfully by quoting Julia Sweeney from her show Letting Go of God and her description of trying on “not-believing-in-God” glasses and taking a look around at the world real quick to see what it’s like.

Yes, we have to “try on” different viewpoints if we truly want to call them properly evaluated. My most recent podcast episode is exactly about this and how we should do it at both the small, detailed level (“Does this article make a good point?”) to the larger ideas (“What if there actually is/isn’t a God?”). Truly trying on those “glasses” is a way to make use of our internal judgment-maker, which often evaluates things much better than a set of propositions floating around in our head mostly detached from anything else. We don’t need to immediately change views if that judgment surprises us, but it’s a good way to exercise our brains in ways it’s not comfortable with at the least.

Many skeptics loathe the fact that most Christians only read and listen to things that are within the Christian bubble. I often share in that concern. But in my experience, many skeptics—even the ones that started within the Christian faith—are not very aware of the deeper, more robust arguments for belief in Christianity. They perhaps left behind a “Sunday school”-type faith, which I also left behind, but never looked back to see if there existed something compelling beyond that, and deeper than that, within Christianity itself. Not only is that unfortunate since they might be “missing out,” but it also prevents them from better understanding where their fellow humans who are Christians are coming from. And I think more than ever we should try hard to understand the other side these days.

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