Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and the enfant terrible of religion, is at it again. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph for Monday 22 April, in a speech at the Chipping Norton Literary festival last weekend he told his listeners that he was “passionately against” the teaching of religion as fact. “I’m not against the teaching of religion” he stated; apparently what he dislikes intensely is “the indoctrination of religion”. The good professor thinks that “What a child should be taught is that religion exists; that some people believe this and some people believe that. What a child should never be taught is that you are a Catholic or Muslim child, therefore this is what you believe. That’s child abuse.”
He went on to say that “there is a distinction between fact and fiction”, agreeing that “there is value in teaching children about religion. You cannot really appreciate a lot of literature without knowing about religion. But we must not indoctrinate our children.”
I understand that Dawkins is a very good scientist. Scientists deal in facts as he likes to put it; they might start with a hypothesis which they then test, making experiments that lead to certain conclusions; these can be charted, measured, examined and the results laid out. Religious truths aren’t like that; you don’t “measure” the activity of prayer or its results – though you can witness how religious belief can change a person’s life for the better. It provides an inner light, or conscience (not to be demonstrated in a test tube) that informs moral decisions and behaviour. In other words, the inward life of faith and the actions that flow from it are simply of a different order from the intellectual processes involved in the study of science. They are not “fictions” merely because they don’t pass the laws of scientific scrutiny.
It has been said that Margaret Thatcher’s early training in chemistry gave her a love of facts. This might be true; but as Damian Thompson’s blog post on her Christian faith argues, her actions were also influenced by the Methodism of her childhood: for her, faith meant you should act in a certain way; Christian charity had to be seen in action, in acts of kindness towards others. Thatcher had to attend the Grantham Methodist chapel three times on a Sunday; she also accompanied her father during his lay-preaching activities. Certainly, in the Roberts household you could not have been a freethinker.
Dawkins would see all this as “indoctrination.” I would rather see it, not unlike in some ways the Catholic childhood I experienced, with its regular Mass-going, Benediction and the celebration of liturgical feasts, as parents wanting to impart to their child’s imagination and understanding the consciousness of a wise and loving creator personified in the Gospels by the life of Jesus. As you grow older, you either incorporate these realities and the doctrines that flow from them into your adult intelligence and understanding – or you are free to reject them.
“Indoctrination”, as Dawkins should know (if he were not so exercised by his antagonism towards religion and the publicity he receives whenever he pronounces on the subject) is not the same as forming a child’s mind and heart towards spiritual truths that will, one hopes, help to make him a better, more loving and self-sacrificial person; it is to brainwash him with a particular political ideology such as is evident in North Korea today or which was practised in Russia under the Soviet system. Indeed, indoctrination is the antithesis of Christian formation; it leads the mind, not to wonder, mystery, beauty or love, but to rigidity, mindless control, propaganda and slogans of hatred towards one’s enemies.