18 November 2009

Atheist Buses and Religious Labels

Just reading the Guardian this morning I saw that the Atheist Bus campaign is moving to its second -- and apparently final -- phase. You remember the campaign, of course, where buses were festooned with large ads declaring 'There's probably no God. No stop worrying and enjoy your life.' I know, that slogan could do with a lot of unpacking, but then so could all the ones for, say, the Alpha Course, so I'll let it lie for now.

Anyway, phase two is, I gather, intended mainly as an attack on Faith schools, and is based around the slogan, 'Please don't label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself.' Apparently adults shouldn't tell children what to think; the irony of the slogan, supposedly voiced by a child, almost certainly being composed by an adult is difficult to ignore.

It seems to me that there are two major problems with this campaign, the first of which is that I'm not convinced its authors actually understand what religion is.

Take a look at the posters, and look at all the labels that the poster's backers have cited: Agnostic Child, Atheist Child, Scientologist Child, Mormon Child, Jehovah's Witness Child, Buddhist Child, Catholic Child, Protestant Child, Zoroastrian Child, Muslim Child, Sikh Child, Post-Modernist Child, Humanist Child, Anarchist Child, Libertarian Child, Conservative Child, Socialist Child, Capitalist Child, Marxist Child...

I think the point being made here is that all of these are, in the views of the poster's backers, belief systems, and that it's abhorrent to label children with beliefs held by their parents. Presumably if there were space we'd see such terms as Jewish Child, Hindu Child, Orthodox Child, Bahá'í Child, Wiccan Child, Rastafarian Child, Animist Child, Shintoist Child, Nationalist Child, Unionist Child, Fascist Child, Feminist Child, Pacifist Child, Modernist Child, Social Darwinist Child, Objectivist Child, Existentialist Child, Logical Positivist Child, and so forth.

The first questions we need to ask when looking at this sort of litany of belief-systems are whether it's a valid list, and where this whole anti-labelling mission comes from.

Because It's Always Fun to Quote Richard Dawkins
The intellectual underpinnings, and I use that phrase generously, of this thesis seem to lie in chapter nine of Professor Dawkins' lazy and ignorant The God Delusion. If I may quote:
'To put it another way, the idea that baptizing an unknowing, uncomprehending child can change him from one religion to another at a stroke seems absurd -- but it is surely not more absurd than labelling a tiny child as belonging to any particular religion in the first place. . . Even without physical abduction, isn't it always a form of child abuse to label children as possessors of beliefs that they are too young to have thought about? . . . Once, in the question time after a lecture in Dublin, I was asked what I thought about the widely publicized cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland. I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place. . . I think we should all wince when we hear a small child being labelled as belonging to some particular religion or another. Small children are too young to decide their views on the origins of the cosmos, of life, and of morals. The very sound of the phrase "Christian child" or "Muslim child" should grate like fingernails on a blackboard. . . Our society, including the non-religious sector, has accepted the preposterous idea that it is normal and right to indoctrinate tiny children in the religion of their parents, and to slap religious labels on them -- "Catholic child", "Protestant child", "Jewish child", "Muslim child", etc. -- although no comparable labels: no conservative children, no liberal children, no Republican children, no Democrat children. Please, please raise your consciousness about this, and raise the roof whenever you hear it happening. A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents.'

Sometimes Children Can See Shades of Grey...
Where do you start with this? Well, back when I started secondary school, my very first religion class began, once we'd settled down, with an open question to the class from our teacher: 'Can anyone here tell me what the word 'religion' means?' After an awkward silence, I put up a tentative hand, and ventured, 'The belief in and worship of a deity or deities.' That was chalked up on the board, and the discussion began.

Now, I'm not saying I'd quite stick with that definition now, but I think my twelve-year-old self was onto something significant in identifying religion as requiring both belief and worship. As a rule, religion's a matter of both creed and cult; it's about what you do just as much as it is what you think.

This, I think, is why people who describe atheism as a religion are essentially wrong; atheism may be a belief system, but it generally lacks a cultic element, save in regimes where race, nation, state, class, party, leader, or something else is deified.

And therein lies a huge part of the problem with this thesis. Religion is only partly about what you think, and is very much about what you do, whereas political ideologies and philosophical stances are at heart simply about what you think. As such, I think it's pretty easy to make the case that it's reasonable to describe children as Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and so forth, in a way that it's not reasonable to describe them as Conservative, Marxist, or Postmodernist.

In short, Dawkins' thesis, to which his acolytes and fellow-travellers have so unthinkingly signed up, is not so much incorrect as it is simply invalid. It's not even that he's comparing apples and oranges; he's comparing apples and tractors.

Post-Protestant Atheism in Action
Why might he be doing this? Well, part of the problem is that Professor Dawkins clearly retains a somewhat Protestant worldview; by his own terms a cultural Christian, he is, rather like Philip Pullman, an Anglican Atheist. Indeed, in the tail-end of his God Delusion chapter on 'religion as child abuse' he bangs on for a handful of pages about how great the King James Bible is, and how we should all be familiar with it as a literary reservoir.

Until the Printing Revolution and the Protestant Reformation, as Karen Armstrong has pointed out, religion was usually at least as much about orthopraxy as it was about orthodoxy. It was about doing -- whether in terms of rituals or ethics -- at least as much as it was about believing.

Religion changed, at least in Europe and the West, after Luther posted his theses and issued his battle-cries of 'faith alone' and 'scripture alone'. Out went prayers for the dead, clerical celibacy, pilgrimages, penance, Our Lord's command to commemorate him in the mass, and active participation in other sacraments as visible rites that make present divine grace. St James's emphasis on good works and compassion was nudged aside, and for many people the definition of a good Christian became someone who believed in Jesus and who read his or her Bible.

It's this essentially Protestant understanding of Christianity that nestles in the mind of Professor Dawkins, and indeed that leads blowhards like Christopher Hitchens to limit the term Christian to those who have read the New Testament, a criterion that would exclude most of history's Christians, most notably the Apostles.

Practising, not Professing
Religion, then, can be a practical thing, and this surely lies at the heart of the idea that a child who goes to Mass can be fairly described as a Catholic child, or a child who observes the Sabbath can be no less accurately described as a Jewish child, or a child who prays facing Mecca five times a day can be with equally good reason be described as a Muslim child. I can't help but think of how bemused the then unitarian G.K. Chesterton used to be when first getting to know the woman who would eventually become his wife:
'She practised gardening; in that curious Cockney culture she would have been quite ready to practise farming; and on the same perverse principle, she actually practised a religion. This was something utterly unaccountable both to me and to the whole fussy culture in which she lived. Any number of people proclaimed religions, chiefly oriental religions, analysed or argued about them; but that anybody could regard religion as a practical thing like gardening was something quite new to me and, to her neighbours, new and incomprehensible. She had been, by an accident, brought up in the school of an Anglo-Catholic convent; and to all that agnostic or mystic world, practising a religion was much more puzzling than professing it.'
This incomprehension surely lies behind Professor Dawkins' failure to grasp that terms such as 'Catholic child' and 'Jewish child' can be meaningful in a way that 'Marxist child' and 'Logical Positivist child' can not.

Not Just What You Do... But What You Are
Betraying his prejudices most thoroughly, though, is his dismissal to understand the Catholic -- and indeed Orthodox -- understanding of what happens at Baptism. Here he is:
'It was a central part of the Roman Catholic belief-system that, once a child had been baptized, however informally and clandestinely, that child was irrevocably transformed into a Christian. . . Amazingly, for a rite that could have such monumental significance for a whole extended family, the Catholic Church allowed (and still allows) anybody to baptize anybody else. The baptizer doesn't have to be a priest. Neither the child, nor the parents, nor anybody else has to consent to the baptism. Nothing need be signed. Nothing need be officially witnessed. All that is necessary is a splash of water, a few words, a helpless child, and a superstitious and catechistically brainwashed babysitter. . . the idea that baptizing an unknowing, uncomprehending child can change him from one religion to another seems absurd.'
Leaving aside his apparent failure to grasp that extraordinary baptisms ought only to be performed in situations of dire necessity, and his evident ignorance that the Church only regards such baptisms as efficacious if performed by someone who genuinely intends to perform what the Church performs when administering the sacrament, what's striking here is that he sees baptism as simply something that changes someone from one religion to another.

For Dawkins, as we've seen religions are simply belief-systems, and if we define them as such then it goes without saying that baptism has no real effect whatsoever: it's a washing of the head, not of the brain! The thing is, though, that they're rather more than that.

Catholics and Orthodox Christians see baptism as a sacrament that enacts an ontological change in the recipient. It is a mechanism by which, in the words of the Catechism, 'we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers into her mission.'

Baptism, then is a process of divine adoption, wherein we are reborn as sons of God, and as part of the Church that is the body of Christ. The word 'Christian', in its original form, basically means someone who belongs to Christ. It has, in its essential form, surprisingly little to do with belief. This shouldn't be surprising, given Christianity's Jewish ancestry. After all, what is a Jew?
'A Jew is any person whose mother was a Jew or any person who has gone through the formal process of conversion to Judaism. It is important to note that being a Jew has nothing to do with what you believe or what you do. A person born to non-Jewish parents who has not undergone the formal process of conversion but who believes everything that Orthodox Jews believe and observes every law and custom of Judaism is still a non-Jew, even in the eyes of the most liberal movements of Judaism, and a person born to a Jewish mother who is an atheist and never practices the Jewish religion is still a Jew, even in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox.'
Professor Dawkins, who has some interesting opinions about Jews, would doubtless dismiss this as nonsense, but that doesn't the change the fact that the traditional definition of Jewishness relates to what one is, rather than what one does, let alone what one thinks.

So much for labelling, anyway. That leaves the second big question, which concerns whether parents should be free to educate their children in accordance with their beliefs, or whether they should be compelled to educate them in accordance with, say, those of Professor Dawkins. I'll get into that in a day or two.


Anonymous said...

I heard Dawkins interviewed on the radio today about this poster campaign. He admitted there was no 'Jewish child' because Judaism was 'complicated' and 'cultural' and racial: being jewish did not imply belief in God.

But what amazes me is that in the next breath to explaining why there was no 'Jewish child' on the poster, Dawkins was quite happy to repeat his assersion that he is a 'cultural Christian' who is happy to sing Christmas carols.

Can any one else spot the hypocracy here, or is it just me?

Arthur said...

Thirsty Gargoyle wrote: "Baptism, then is a process of divine adoption, wherein we are reborn as sons of God, and as part of the Church that is the body of Christ. The word 'Christian', in its original form, basically means someone who belongs to Christ. It has, in its essential form, surprisingly little to do with belief"

I was baptised a Catholic as a baby. I had no say in the matter. But I don't "belong to Christ". I don't have any belief in such a concept. You might but into it, gargoyle, because you have belief. That's the difference and it all comes back to belief.

You criticise Dawkins for reducing the whole thing to superstitious belief, yet when you back up your claims that it is more than that, you resort to superstitious belief.

"Reborn as sons of God" indeed. Please be serious.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Are you saying that I believe this because I believe this? Really?

I don't think I've resorted to 'superstitious belief' at all. You seem to be saying that based on what I believe rather than based on why I believe, which I haven't gone into here.

(There's a massive substructure of argument to that, and last time I outlined it properly the whole thing took 85,000 words! And I did that without ever saying that it was a matter of faith.)

I'm never convinced about 'belief' as some kind of floaty thing that people have. I tend to think of it as an activity: it's something that we engage in, at least as much as it is something that we possess. It's an act of will, if you like.

Whether you belong to Christ is something neither of us really knows, of course. I believe you do, and you believe you don't. Our respective beliefs don't and can't affect the reality of the situation at all.

Regarding Dawkins, my point is that he misrepresents that which he opposes. It's absolutely fine to argue that Catholic belief is wrong, but it's either ignorant or dishonest to argue that Catholicism consists solely of belief. I don't think any religion does that.

Joyful Catholics said...

A *fine* post, Thirsty G. Delightful blog, as well.