Richard Dawkins’ Atheist Academy of Unguided Truth

Last week the New York Times published a profile of evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins. It’s mostly light and chatty, a kind of review of Dawkins’ work to date. But right at the end it gets interesting. 

The occasion for the profile is the upcoming release of his children’s book, The Magic of Reality. Near the bottom of the last page the article reads: 

[Dawkins] wants to raise questions—Why is there a sun? What is an earthquake? What about rainbows?—and provide clever, rational answers. He has toyed with opening his own state-sponsored school, though under the British system he would have to come up with matching money. But it would not be a school for atheists. The idea horrifies him. A child should skip down an idiosyncratic intellectual path. “I am almost pathologically afraid of indoctrinating children,” he says. “It would be a ‘Think for Yourself Academy.’”

Dawkins is expanding on a point made in his 2006 bestseller, The God Delusion: There is no such thing as a Christian child, only a child of Christian parents. The same, Dawkins says, goes for all religious and political identities: There is no such thing as a Muslim child or a liberal child or a Tea Party child. 

He rightly points out that religious labels are commonly applied to children while the political ones are not; no one thinks twice when an infant, once baptized, is called a Christian child. This exasperates him. “The very sound of the phrase ‘Christian child’ or ‘Muslim child’ should grate like fingernails on a blackboard,” he writes.

Whatever one may make of this statement, it has the virtue of being consistent with his idea that what children need is a “Think for Yourself Academy.”

Can he really mean this? Does he really think that any child can stand above the fray of competing worldviews and let reason eliminate all but the best, like a cautious consumer?

And really, why not an atheist school? As Chris Mooney wrote over at Science Progress in response to the same Times profile: “Dawkins really, really, really thinks he’s right about things.” Assuming that’s the case, why not teach children the truth? I mean, if it’s true? Isn’t it good to know the truth, and isn’t it our duty to pass the truth on to our kids?

Yes, but apparently the greatest virtue—that children should not be indoctrinated—now trumps even the truth. This seems somehow wrong to me, and very un-Dawkins. What’s going on here?

Who Are You? Do You Believe in God? Why?

I was indoctrinated, among other places, at Marist School, a Catholic institution in Atlanta. Among the highlights of my years in that intellectual prison are: a course called “Biblical Archaeology,” in which the points of compliance and non-compliance between the biblical record and archaeology were pointed out; wide-ranging and fully scientific introductions to biological and cosmic evolution; and a Christian history course in which none of the horrors committed by the church, so thoroughly trumpeted by Dawkins and others, were skipped over or airbrushed.

Then there was the king daddy of them all: Father Cavanaugh’s philosophy class. He took us through all the well-worn arguments for the existence of God: the ontological, the cosmological, the teleological. Also arguments against the existence of any God, given the wretched state of affairs down here on planet Earth, who could simultaneously be omniscient, omnipotent, and all-loving. I don’t remember the details.  

What I do remember are his questions, which cut through all the higher philosophical claptrap and jangled our nerves. He would look directly into our eyes and ask in his soft Irish accent, Who are you? Do you believe in God? Why? Do you believe in God because your mother believes in God? Why do you believe God loves you? Do you believe God loves you because your priest told you so? And so on. 

These were not cheap shots. He was serious. He loved us, he loved his job, and his questions were troubling. Some students wept. At which point he would offer Kleenexes. It was in Fr. Cavanaugh’s class that I began to see that all true education is intensely personal.

Dawkins’ distaste for an officially atheist academy may be mere iconoclasm. But maybe not. Maybe it’s closer to the truth to say he could never allow the kind of intellectual openness found routinely in parochial schools around the world. 

Imagine it! Who are you? Do you disbelieve in God? Why? Do you disbelieve in God because your mother disbelieves in God? Do you believe there’s no God because smart people told you so? Precisely what God do you not believe in? Might there be another you could believe in?, etc.

What many Catholics know, and what Richard Dawkins appears not to, is that the idea of children moving through life without serious intellectual and moral direction—in this insane world, of all places—is a terrible joke and a recipe for social catastrophe.

My wife and I are raising three Christian children. We take them to church at least twice a week. There, as at home, they are told exactly who they are, what exactly is expected of them, and why. We expect them to internalize this and come to see themselves as part of a story, a big beautiful story grounded in the reality and love of God.

We even expect them to believe it for a while. Then we expect them to question Christianity in their own ways, as they should. They may embrace it, owning it finally. They may reject it. That would sadden us. But if they do, they will at least have the singular pleasure of knowing exactly what it is they are rejecting. 

You’d think Richard Dawkins—of all people—would wish the same pleasure for the graduates of his would-be academy.