Friday, 7 January 2011

Atheist school visits?

So an interesting question was posed on Facebook by a theistic neo-pagan pal; interesting enough, I thought, to be worthy of a relatively comprehensive response, so here it is.

The feint went thus:
To all my good atheist/Dawkins following/SitP friends out there, please indulge me, I am curious, if you were invited to go to a local school and do a talk on the subject would you accept?
and then after a number of responses from atheist/skeptics in the affirmative, the actual thrust of the argument:
"very interesting. I didn't really set a context but the question came up in a conversation the other day. Most people who share Dawkins view would be up in arms going bonkers if a priest came to give a talk at there local school, explaining and encouraging his religion.. yet most dedicated Athiests etc don't see any reason why they should not do so themselves. Is this not a touch... hypocritical?"
With the follow up, which I'm assuming was at least half in jest :
P.s. What do Athiests call a Devil's advocate?
In the interests of any easy win, I'll hit the postscript first; most of us call it a "Devil's advocate". By and large we're not so prissy as to reject accepted metaphorical language constructs, even when they originate from a now defunct role within the Catholic church. I don't hate the term, but I do hate how it's often used these days. I may elaborate on why in a later post, but for now let's get back to the meat.

I think in order to adequately talk about this topic it's important to get a bit of groundwork done; there are a number of points that need making clear up front.
  1. There is a bias toward faith, and particularly the Christian faith, both implicit and explicit in the state schooling of the UK.
  2. Atheism is not a faith-based position, nor is it a type of religion, nor is it a belief system. Flippantly "Atheism is a religion only in the same sense that baldness can be said to be a hair-colour"1
  3. It's by no means clear that all, or even most, atheists would be "up in arms" if a religious leader were to talk to a class, depending on the religious leader, in the right context. This appears to be a straw man.

a. The Faith Bias.
I shan't dwell too long on the tolerance of Faith schools, which have been shown to be divisive within society by perpetuating mistrust and intolerance, which would otherwise dissipate (and don't actually improve results by and large but achieve better results by the tighter selection criteria). I also shan't talk for too long about the idiotic new idea of academies, which allow religious organisations free reign with most of the syllabus. But it is worth talking about the mandatory requirement in state-funded schools (apart from the new academies), for a daily act of "collective worship...wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character". Now you may argue that parents may withdraw their children from such a practice, which is clearly an anachronism in a country where the majority now say they are not religious. However this would single out such children as different and expose them to ridicule, and additionally there is no mechanism for a child that is so inclined to opt out for themselves.
There is no mandated syllabus for religious education, so faith schools are free to teach only their brand of supernatural nonsense with no requirement even to tell pupils of any age that there are other religious viewpoints, let alone that it is perfectly normal to believe in no gods.
Religion gets a shoe-in at all state funded schools, faith schools and academies, an atheist speaker would go some tiny way to providing a little much needed balance. Is it hypocrisy to ask for a small redress of a significant imbalance? or to take the chance if it's offered?

b. Atheism is not a religion or faith-based position.
Atheist simply means "not a theist". A "theist" is a person who believes in the existence of god or gods, an "atheist" is simply someone who is not one of those people; a person who has no belief in a god or gods. This encompasses a pretty broad spectrum of positions including
  • most people who self-profess as agnostics: those who believe it is not possible to know for certain whether god exists, and IMHO those who either haven't yet thought about it hard enough, and those who are pretty sure there's no god, but are too chicken to state their opinion clearly.
  • people who don't actively believe in god but aren't really sure (see above)
  • those who think there's probably no god, but are open to further credible evidence (no, you can't reasonably call these people agnostics)
  • those who are certain there is no god, of whom there are very few; N.B. not even Dawkins puts himself in this category.
and all points in between. Being an atheist does not require the belief of anything that cannot be proven.
The hypocrisy charge won't stand, because it is not comparing like for like to consider a school visit from an atheist to that of a religious leader.

c. Are atheists really against religious people talking to schools?
Now I couldn't possibly accuse such an honest and genuine chap as our questioner of such tactics, but this statement seems akin to a theme/strategy often used by the religious where they say "atheists think this, and that's just stupid/hypocritical" when actually atheists don't really think that at all, and the accuser has either just assumed something without asking any atheists, have only asked one or two possibly unrepresentative or stupid ones, or is deliberately and deceitfully constructing a straw-man to poke sticks at. Let's be clear that it's very hard to say what all atheists believe, since they explicitly share nothing in common except the absence of belief in a deity; I can only tell you what I, and many eminent atheists such as Dawkins and particularly atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett believe. In his work "Breaking the Spell : Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" Dennett proposes that the key to eliminating, not all religion, but those forms of religion that are most toxic, is to ensure that a proper religious education is given to all children. By "toxic" he means those forms of fundamentalism that cause people to perform horrific acts like beating up homosexuals, practising genital mutilation, shooting abortion doctors, blowing themselves up or flying planes into buildings; and by "proper" he means religious education that teaches about all religions, the history of that religion, and what people of that religion believe. Of course, despite atheism not being a religion, the syllabus must also make it clear to the students that there are people who follow no faith. Crucially, no child should be allowed to be excluded from such learning; surely any religion worth its salt can stand up to its practitioners learning about others? He even goes as far as to say that it doesn't matter how it is taught: the teacher could say "this is what those idiot Muslims/Hindus/Jains/Neo-Pagans/atheists think, and we know they're wrong" as long as they also make it clear that they will be tested on their knowledge of the beliefs and practices, not on their opinions of them. I won't go into the reasons why Dr Dan thinks this will work, but suffice to say that this idea is endorsed by many athiests including Dawkins and representatives of the National Secular Society and British Humanist Association.
It is of course true that many atheists would get angry at the thought of certain religious dogmas being taught to children: that homosexuality or the use of condoms is a sin, that women are inferior to men, that women should be stoned to death for showing their hair among examples of religious twattery; but you would hope that atheists wouldn't be the only people to become annoyed at such idiocy. And, of course we reserve the right to ridicule even the most harmless religious nonsense, but object to them telling children that's what they believe? Probably not.

To summarise, I don't think it is true that atheists (at least not all atheists, or even the so called "new" atheist celebrities) would object to a religious person explaining to a school what it is they believe, as long they weren't preaching hate, and even if it were true, it's not comparing like for like to compare atheists with the faithful, and even if that were true, it would still not be hypocrisy for an atheist to agree to present their beliefs to a school, in fact it would be a much needed step toward redressing the balance.

1 Anyone know the original source of this quote? I'd love to know.

1 comment:

Timmeh! said...

Lord Bungle pointed me at this re the baldness quote:

cheers geezer.