Monday, March 10, 2008

The new atheism and the role of government

Reading some of the comments made in defense of people like Richard Dawkins on atheism and in doctination, my suspicion is that the best you can come up with on their behalf is that they don't have a well-thought-through position on the relation of church and state, or rather, the principles that would underlie a church-state separation doctrine. That's how you can get comments about child abuse and protecting children from in doctrination, or even proclaiming the death of God from the public school classroom.

But this isn't very good, is it? If you say you want the death of God proclaimed in the school classroom, then you can't complain about the establishment of religion by religionists, otherwise your commitment to the separation of church and state becomes selective and unprincipled. That's my point. When it comes to granting freedom, the test is always whether you are willing to grant freedom to the other guys.

I see no good reason why atheists should be able to avoid the mistakes religionists have made when they engaged in religious persecution. Why does unbelief provide any immunity? I don't get it. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition from unbelievers, but in people like Dawkins and Harris we can see lines of thought that lead to the thinking of Torquemada.

What if some Christian were to say "I look forward to the day when the Resurrection of Jesus will be proclaimed in every school classroom in America." Have even people like Falwell said that??

12 comments:

One Brow said...

If I'm not mistaken, Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens are all British, which means they don't come from a background that has the type of separation you will find in the USA. You might compare that to PZ Myers, an American who is every bit as passionate as Dawkins, but does not want atheism preached in the public schools.

mattghg said...

You are mistaken: Harris isn't British. And Hitchens has taken US citizenship now, so he should probably know better.

Roman Altshuler said...

Your argument treats this as a First Amendment issue, that is, as an issue of whether any particular belief system should be privileged. The answer to that question is "no." But I don't know if the "new atheists" treat it that way: for one thing, they would deny that atheism is just another kind of religious viewpoint. Rather, it is the default.

Atheism is the default position because, among other things, there are many different religions. Treating them all as equally irrelevant in education is the only way to avoid preaching one in particular. (In addition, in certain subjects, teaching a "religious position", e.g., intelligent design, simply involves failing to teach the subject in question.)

Ilíon said...

"Atheism is the default position because, ..."

After a time, such inanity is merely boring.

"Treating them all as equally irrelevant in education is the only way to avoid preaching one in particular."

Not at all.

Let's finally have a "Wall of Separation between School and State!"

One Brow said...

But I don't know if the "new atheists" treat it that way: for one thing, they would deny that atheism is just another kind of religious viewpoint. Rather, it is the default.

Even if that is correct, and I could see an argument that parentism (the belief that your parents are infallible) is the default as being more believable, I disagree that being "default" carries any special weight on what whould or should not be taught.

Further, atheism is not the rejection of all religions, just those religions which have a God or gods.

Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
Shouldn't religion be dealt with like any other science and ideology?

ilions responce is pointless- one brow brings up a good point. Being default doesn't carry any special weight (except in proving something) when it comes to teaching. And there are religions without gods (Note- strong atheism is rejection of gods). Which is where naturalism and rationalism come in. Or you could simply jump to antitheism.

However the easist way to deal with religion is to treat it like it really is- a combo ideology/science.

Anyone have a critism of that definition and solution?

Anonymous said...

If the new atheists actually said that and meant it, I agree with you on this Vic.

Roman Altshuler said...

Maybe I should add a note to my previous comment: I don't mean that atheism, as a positive view, should be doctrinally taught in schools. I mean that public education (and, I would argue, private education as well) should be methodologically atheistic: it should privilege evidence that is accessible to anyone over evidence based on faith.

It's true that some of the "new atheists" do urge teaching something like doctrinal atheism. But I think this is a stopgap measure: it's point is not to insist that atheism as a belief system is superior, but to counter some of the negative aspects of over-zealous religiosity.

Victor Reppert said...

John: So your defense of these guys is that they really don't mean what they say?

Ilíon said...

Ah, the famous "methodological" vs "philosophical" dichotomy.

And, since we are pretending that it really is possible to be (or teach as) a "methodological atheist" and not simultaneously be (or teach as) a "philosophical atheist," I am certain that no one at all will even think to object to some schools ... especially private schools ... teaching from a position of "methodological theism."

One Brow said...

And, since we are pretending that it really is possible to be (or teach as) a "methodological atheist" and not simultaneously be (or teach as) a "philosophical atheist,"

No need to pretend, I had two nuns teach me Physics and Advanced Biology in a methodlogically atheistic manner. I'm reasonably certain they were not both philosophical atheists.

I am certain that no one at all will even think to object to some schools ... especially private schools ... teaching from a position of "methodological theism."

I certainly hope you don't think that methodolocial atheism is a position in oppositon to methodological theism. The opposite practice of methodological theism would be mothodological anti-theism, and both should be rejected.

Anonymous said...

Vic, what I meant is that I haven't actually seen them say it in any context for me to judge whether they mean it. But if this is the case, then I agree with you.