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Bus ads and raising children

As a follow up to the “There’s probably no God” bus ads, Richard Dawkins and his supporters have launched a new bus campaign in the UK which reads:

Please don’t label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself.

The following excerpt from a Guardian blog article explains how this new campaign came to be:

When … we asked how the extra funds [from the previous campaign] should be spent, one of the issues which came up repeatedly in the comments concerned the growth of of faith schools in the UK and the segregation of children according to their parents’ beliefs. Many of you felt strongly that children should be given the freedom to decide which belief system they wanted to belong to, if any, and that they should not have a religion decided for them.

The atheist campaign team shared this point of view. However, rather than using adverts to try and campaign politically, we thought it would be more beneficial to try and change the current public perception that it is acceptable to label children with a religion.

That said, while the bus ads don’t talk about faith-based schools, sites like atheistbus.org.uk (the “Official website of the Atheist Bus Campaign”) link through to a fund raising campaign, using the same branding as the new ads, to support the British Humanist Association’s efforts “to phase out state funded ‘faith’ schools.”

To the actual issue raised by the ads, I think this one line: “Let me grow up and choose for myself” summarizes their message well. In the context of the teachings of Dawkins, I’d say the issue isn’t as much one of labels as it is that we teach our children that what we believe is actually true.

I say this, at least in part, because Dawkins considers raising a child as a Christian to be child abuse. Of course, he has made clear that children should not be taken from religious parents as in the case of physical abuse; he just believes parents should not raise their child as if their worldview is correct. They shouldn’t teach their children that there is a knowable truth about religion or God and, most certainly, they mustn’t teach that God sets forth any obligations or requirements of them; let alone that he holds them responsible for their actions.

In more specific terms, to follow the biblical instructions on raising children (e.g., Deuteronomy 6:5-7, Ephesians 6:4) is, according to Dawkins and his supporters, morally wrong and tantamount to abuse.

However, you cannot raise a child without influencing their beliefs about God; to suggest you can (as the ads appear to) is simply false. Children will learn from your words, attitudes and actions whether you intend them to or not.

For example, to do as Dawkins wishes is to raise the child to believe that God, even if the parent may think he exists, has no bearing whatsoever on their life. It is to teach them that the very idea of God is unimportant and trivial. In other words, this is to raise a child as a practical atheist.

So, in reality, what Dawkins and his supporters want is for all children to be raised according to their worldview alone.

It would seem to me that the parents who would listen to such a message are likely already teaching their children that God is irrelevant through their own lives, even if their words say something else.

It’s the parents that truly believe, who don’t simply give mental ascent but who put an active trust in Christ and live our lives for him, who are really the ones they are concerned about. However it is that very real faith that they hold that makes them immune to the message of this campaign.

Perhaps for those Dawkins is simply hoping to make their chosen lifestyle even less socially acceptable than it currently is.

  • Not teaching children to believe in God and the stuff that comes with a religion is not the same as teaching atheism.

    It’s similar to not teaching your children a certain sport, let’s say baseball. It does not bias them against playing baseball when they are older.

    I also know of atheist parents whose child chose to convert to Christianity. Why isn’t the same possible for religious parents? Are they more apt to indoctrinate?

  • I guess my bottom line is that it is simply not possible for parents to avoid teaching their children something about God.

    Either through deliberate teaching or through omission children will be provided with a view about God. In cases where God is not a part of the family’s life or teaching, for example, the worldview given to the child is one which holds that God, if he exists, is not important (this is what I had termed practical atheism).

    Does this mean a child raised this way will not one day become a Christian, of course not. By the same token, raising a child with a Christian worldview does not mean they will not become an atheist one day.

    We have no choice but to give children a starting point. But, at some point as they grow older, they will come to a place in their lives where they will either affirm or reject parts, or even the whole, of the worldview they have inherited from their parents. They will then own that view as their own.

    I was simply arguing that it is foolish to believe that we can keep children in a state that would allow them to have a complete blank slate in this area until they are old enough to form a worldview of their own.

  • I don’t think Dawkins was arguing to keep children in that state of pure tabula rasa.

    He is against giving children a definite label (e.g. You are a Christian child) and a definite worldview (e.g. You believe X, Y, and Z). This is something I have heard him say and he did not go beyond that.

    So, I think your criticisms of Dawkins are unfounded because they are mischaracterizations of his position.

  • Thanks for your response … this has caused me to do more reading in an attempt to see if, or where, I’ve misunderstood the point of these ads.

    Dawkins speak as if, by teaching our children that what we believe is true, we can irreparably harm them and, in effect, are somehow strong-arming or forcing them into believing our beliefs. For example:

    “Religion is the one field in our culture about which it is absolutely accepted, without question – without even noticing how bizarre it is – that parents have a total and absolute say in what their children are going to be, how their children are going to be raised … Do you see what I mean about mental child abuse?”

    In other places, he speaks of the value of religious education, but (what I’ve seen at least) does not advocate teaching children that anything in this sphere is actually true, for example:

    “A good case can indeed be made for the educational benefits of teaching comparative religion…Let children learn about different faiths, let them notice their incompatibility, and let them draw their own conclusions about the consequences of that incompatibility. As for whether any are ‘valid’, let them make up their own minds when they are old enough to do so.”

    Needless to say, if I hold that one of those belief systems is true, I am not going to teach my child as if all choices were equal. I think this is where the disagreement is … not that religious thought is taught, but that a specific religious thought is taught as true.

    Now, if I teach my young child that my Christian faith is true, then in all likelihood my child will agree with me (early on daddy’s are assumed to know all by their kids). Since I identify myself as a Christian, my child will identify themselves as one too. When I call my kid a Christian then I am, in most cases, using a term they would use themselves. Even if I were to shed label’s altogether (if such a thing is possible), my child is still likely operate under my beliefs until they are older … regardless of the terminology I use. Kids, I notice, have a strong tendency to identify with the family group; “we are …” is a very common way in which they use labels.

    However, as can be easily seen, this isn’t really their faith yet, they’ve simply adopted my belief as their own. As they grow older, they will come to a point where they have to either make these beliefs their own or go in a different direction altogether. In any case they will be in a position to evaluate for themselves if the worldview they’ve been raised with is correct or not.

    The only way I can see for a child, to not identify as a Christian early on in life is to raise them in an environment where Christianity is not held and taught as true by their parents … basically an environment that teaches there are many different systems of religious and irreligious thought which, while worthy of the child’s ultimate consideration, have no real bearing on their life (or, alternatively are taught nothing at all with similar results).

    I see this as being a problem with the message “Please don’t label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself.” It seems to assume that it is possible for a child to hold no opinion about spiritual things until they are of a sufficient age to form their own worldview. I just do not see how this is possible.

  • I think all that you have said testifies to what I said in my first comment about religious parents being more apt to indoctrinate (for lack of a more subtle word).

  • If I understand you correctly, I think you may be right.

    I would also tend to think we are more likely to teach our kids more things in an explicit (as opposed to implicit) manner about our system of belief.

  • Mat

    I thought your post was quite hirioalus, Dale (and the cartoon was one that I liked.Anyway, I have sent your post off to the Jesus & Mo cartoonist suggesting it would make a good subject for a future cartoon. I think it would.Keep your eyes peeled. Ken