Archive for April, 2010
[This post originally appeared at my old blog on September 12, 2008. The original is here.]
Here is Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion:
If you were born in Arkansas and you think Christianity is true and Islam is false, knowing full well that you would think the opposite if you had been born in Afghanistan, you are the victim of childhood indoctrination.
Before we take this quote too seriously, we should consider the fact that this is the same Richard Dawkins who claimed that raising a child Catholic is worse than sexually abusing him. Credibility issues aside, what can we make of statements like the one above? This sort of reasoning is very prevalent in the writings of the new atheism of Dawkins, Harris, et al. But this is a typical Dawkinsian non-argument. There is no there there. What is the point of such statements other than to offer intellectual kudos to those who already disbelieve in any particular religion? Consider the following variation on the above quote:
If you were born in Arkansas and you think representative democracy is the best form of government and that Islamic theocracy is the worst, knowing full well that you would think the opposite if you had been born in Afghanistan, you are the victim of childhood indoctrination.
Or how about this one:
If you were born in 1980 and you think the world is round instead of flat, knowing full well that you would think the opposite if you had been born in 1089, you are the victim of childhood indoctrination.
If you can understand the silliness of the two latter statements, you should be able to understand the silliness of the first. You don’t necessarily judge an individual’s justification for her beliefs by the cultural soup from which those beliefs arise. Consider the following three facts:
(1) I live in a culture where a majority of the people believe Christianity is true.
(2) My parents taught me to believe that Christianity is true.
(3) I believe that Christianity is true.
(4) Aziz lives in a culture where a majority of the people believe that Islam is true.
(5) Aziz’ parents taught him to believe that Islam is true.
(6) Aziz believes that Islam is true.
Now, it’s obvious that facts (1)-(3) have no bearing on whether Christianity is true or not, just as (4)-(6) have no bearing on whether Islam is true or not. Let’s add one more fact to our list:
(7) If I had been born in Aziz’ family, I would have believed that Islam was true instead of Christianity.
Dawkins’ contention is that if I am aware that facts (1)-(7) are true, then I should conclude that I am a victim of “childhood indoctrination.”
But why? The circumstances under which I form a belief are different animals from the reasons I have for holding that belief. I suppose that by Dawkins using this sort of reasoning he means to hold up a simple truism: we shouldn’t believe something just because it is widely believed in our own culture. This is obvious, but trivial. Dawkins is attempting to twist this simple truism into some sort of cudgel against religious belief. But just because it is true that some religious people hold their beliefs because they were raised in a religious culture, and because they themselves have not done enough reflection to have good reasons for their beliefs, does not mean that all of them do. And just because some parents indoctrinate and propagandize their children into religious belief does not mean that all of them do. I think most religious parents attempt, to the best of their ability, to give their children good reasons for why they think their religious views are right and others are wrong. That some parents fail miserably at this task is probably a contributor to the apostasy rate of children of religious believers, but that too is a different discussion altogether.
Consider again my above variations on Dawkins’ statement. Suppose someone were to use my first hypothetical statement to mock Dawkins for believing that representative democracy is superior to Islamic theocracy. What would his response be? I think he would simply point out that representative democracy is the best form of government for Reason A, Reason B, Reason C, and so forth. If he is justified in doing this, why is the religious believer not justified in doing the same thing? Facts about what someone would believe in a possible world in which they were raised in a different culture are irrelevant to the justification for the beliefs they hold in this, the real world. If we were to adopt this sort of skepticism, then it wouldn’t just be religious beliefs that we would have to be skeptical about, but our moral beliefs, our political beliefs, and any other beliefs that fall short of being justified by naked logic or direct experience. Once again, for all his blustering and cuteness, the darling of the new atheists poses no convincing argument against the justification of religious belief. Dawkins always disappoints.