I am troubled at the spread of a certain meme. It is hostile to liberty, yet seems to be fairly popular with those who in other respects defend freedom of speech and abhor State interference in personal relations. In the comments to this Samizdata post, a regular commenter here, ‘Mandrill’, expressed this particular meme unambiguously:
It should be illegal for any adult, parent or not, to indoctrinate any child in any religion, period. If they choose to follow one of the multitudinous superstitions which we’ve infected our intellects with once they’re an adult that’s their business, but to poison a child’s mind against reason from a very young age is, in my view, abuse and is something that stunts not only the intellectual growth of the child but that of the rest of humanity also. Just as much as genital mutilation (male or female) is.
That is all.
I have a few more examples that I have collected at the end of the post. Those quoted are not necessarily famous or influential, only those that I bestirred myself to note down or to find by casual googling. Trust me, there are plenty more out there. Feel free to add your own examples in comments. I would also welcome comments from anyone – such as Mandrill – who thinks this is a good meme.
Meanwhile let me speculate on how what I hold to be an insidious and bad meme is propagating itself with some success among them as should know better. Such qualities as ‘truth’ and ‘goodness’ and ‘internal consistency’ are often useful characteristics for a meme to have but are by no means essential to its success as a replicator.
1) Firstly, the ‘ban religion for children’ meme appeals by a having a spurious similarity to generally accepted ideas about when and whether sex should be prohibited. Most of us accept that consenting adults can do what they like, but children and mentally deficient people cannot give meaningful consent. My answer to that is sex is sex and talk is talk.
Campaign groups often try to ‘borrow’ some of the public willingness to abhor and forbid certain sexual acts and use it to get the public to abhor and forbid non-sexual acts of which the pusher disapproves. For instance, campaigners against smacking children often blur the boundaries between sexual and physical child abuse. In a loosely related way campaigners against rape sometimes blur the boundaries between forced sexual intercourse i.e. rape and the sort of ‘force’ involved in the use of emotional blackmail to get sex. I am sure that many of those who support banning parents from passing on their religion to their children are motivated by honest horror at real cruelties and crimes. Prominent among these must be the numerous incidences of child sexual abuse by clergy, Roman Catholic and others. Unfortunately fear of paedophilia has given rise to a tendency to view all interactions between adults and children as suspicious unless monitored by authority. I would argue that the record of ‘the authorities’ in such matters is yet worse. There have been several long running paedophile rings at children’s homes, for instance.
Ach, I have got distracted. I wanted to stick to saying why it is wrong to treat passing on one’s values as being, like sex, a matter that has an age of consent. At root, human affection is inseparable from living one’s values, religious or not. “I could not love you half so much loved I not honour more”. And since affection must be conveyed, the values must be conveyed. To do this all the time explicitly would make you a bore, if not a nutter, but in a sense all parenting is one life-long song of your values. You sing in the hope of an answering voice, not an echo. State interference in parenting is a smoke alarm set off by music.
2) A second reason for the appeal of the idea that religion should be banned for children is our old enemy, the argument that freedom is trumped or ‘balanced’ by some type of repression that can, with some twisting, also be portrayed as a freedom. Or even ‘true freedom’. Here is a perfect example from a comment by ‘Jason’ at the blog “Dispatches from the Culture Wars”:
We obviously already limit what parents may teach their children regarding religion, most obviously by exposing children to other teachings in schools, many of which may directly contradict what the parents teach while others undermine the parents’ teachings in more subtle ways. You don’t seem to be able to let go of this silly notion that any further intervention by the state in the education and raising of children, including their exposure to religious teachings, constitutes some kind of nightmarish Orwellian totalitarianism.
I am indeed unable to let go of this notion.
Furthermore, any serious ‘concept of freedom’ must consider the freedom of the child as well as the parent. And as I suggested in my last post, religious indoctrination may constitute a serious violation of the child’s freedom of thought as a form of brain-washing. If people are to be truly free to make religious choices, they cannot do so if they have been massively conditioned from birth to favor one religion over another, or to favor religion over alternative philosophies and belief systems.
The post to which this was a comment concerned an occasion when Richard Dawkins (who, by a coincidence less interesting than it seemed at first sight, was the man who originally coined the word meme and made the meme meme popular) first signed, then retracted his signature from, a petition to the government to “make it illegal to indoctrinate or define children by religion before the age of 16”.
In the kerfuffle that followed he made it clear that he rejected compulsion and admitted that he had dropped a clanger in ever signing this petition. However 2,242 other signatories did not. As I said, quite a popular meme. See the comments at ‘Dispatches’ and ‘The Panda’s Thumb’ for more supporters.
3) Possibly the ‘ban religion for children’ idea has a sort of attractively ironic similarity to the debates among various denominations of Christianity about whether infant baptism is valid. Many people who have rejected Christianity nonetheless retain a vague memory of such arguments.
4) Alas, the meme is no doubt also propagated by getting religious people like me riled to the extent that we write blog posts denouncing it. I just hope that I am doing it more harm than good.
5) This meme can also be assisted by protective coloration – or perhaps it could be called a form of neoteny – in the form of an assurance, which I do not say is insincere, that it is only a joke, a discussion-starter, or a playful hypothesis. Our meme seemed to be the cuckoo in the otherwise pro-freedom nest provided by this article by AC Grayling:
But that raises the second question. We do not like children being involved in either Mosley-like or religious activities of elective suffering, one reason being that we do not think they are in a position to give properly free and informed consent. This, in turn, raises the question of what else children should be protected from in the way of religious practice, or even doctrine: for psychological effects are every bit as real as physical ones.
One might think that teaching six-year-olds the Calvinistic dread of eternal torment in hellfire is as harmful as flagellation – the youths in the Manchester case began their self-flagellation in Pakistan at that age. But what about teaching children false or weird beliefs as fact?
Once one begins to ponder where these lines should be drawn, one has begun to ponder again that border between modern secular society and religion. In my view, leaving adults to do what they like in private – providing it does not harm the unconsenting – is the right course, but that includes acquiring religion too. Leave the children out of it, both the believing and flagellating, until they can make a free and informed decision for themselves.
It is not clear to me whether “leave the children out of it” is meant to be a recommendation to individual parents to change their behaviour or to lawmakers to change the laws. Ambiguity can be a successful ‘entryist’ strategy for a meme. It can help an otherwise unattractive meme to spread if it is camouflaged by the sub-meme – or “is associated with the fellow-meme” if you prefer; asking where one meme stops and another starts is like asking the length of a piece of string – that the unattractive meme is only a joke or a thought-experiment. The meme can thus be spread by those who would recoil from seriously advocating it.
In this Normblog post Norman Geras complained of lack of clarity in Professor Grayling’s article, as did I. By means of rhetorical questions concerning how such a ban would be implemented, Geras also explained why the idea is invasive of private space and incompatible with secular liberalism.
Here is another example of this meme spreading under the camouflage of being a joke. In a comment to a Guardian article by Madeleine Bunting (of whom I am not a fan) ‘Icerat’ commented: “Religion in any form whatsoever should be kept out of education. By force, if necessary”. Later he or she said it was a joke. Yet his or her comment got plenty of recommendations.
A few more entries from my meme-watcher’s notebook:
Example A: Comment by ‘CritKing’ to a Guardian article on faith schools by Polly Toynbee:
The only solution is to make it a cultural, and legal crime to inflict the disease of religion on a young mind.
By all means let people have their mental crutches, their bigotry, their superstitions… but brainwashing children, whether your own or those of others needs to be seen as the hideous crime that it is.
All religions know they are doomed unless they can mould the minds of those who do not have the developed intellect and experience to see through the lies. Inflicting religious doctrine and misery on a child should be filed in the same category as physical abuse.
Example B: Comment by ‘Morgoth’ to this Harry’s Place post about Michael Reiss being forced out of his job at the Royal Society
There is no place in education for superstition or fairy tales. If a child comes into school mouthing off fairy stories then the parents should be arrested for child abuse.
Example C: Comment by ‘PidlenBach’ to a Guardian article by Theo Hobson (another of my un-fave Comment is Free writers):
“No-one, however, has the right to tell their kids fundamentally untrue stories and pretend that they are the truth. Kids have rights, and one of them is the right to be told the truth by people that they trust.”
Several strands of anti-liberty arguments come together in this comment: the assumption that the speaker can determine truth and untruth for all, and the mangling of the term ‘right’ to include a right that could only be enforced by serious curtailment of the rights to privacy and free speech of both children and parents. Furthermore a key part of trusting someone is trusting them to tell you the truth as they perceive it: PidlenBach wishes to have children trust people who are in fact lying to them under threat of punishment.
Example D: The originator of the petition to make it “illegal to indoctrinate or define children by religion before the age of 16” (link above) added the following explanatory text to those contemplating signing:
In order to encourage free thinking, children should not be subjected to any regular religious teaching or be allowed to be defined as belonging to a particular religious group based on the views of their parents or guardians. At the age of 16, as with other laws, they would then be considered old enough and educated enough to form their own opinion and follow any particular religion (or none at all) through free thought.
Example E: Exposing Children To All Religion Is Abuse And Should Be Illegal. A discussion on the City Data forum.
Example F: Found somewhat late, this 1997 lecture by Nicholas Humphrey is probably the source of the meme, although its present run of success dates only from 2001. Mr Humphrey said:
Children, I’ll argue, have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people’s bad ideas – no matter who these other people are. Parents, correspondingly, have no God-given licence to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose: no right to limit the horizons of their children’s knowledge, to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma and superstition, or to insist they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith. In short, children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense, and we as a society have a duty to protect them from it. So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children’s teeth out or lock them in a dungeon
It is about as well argued as this case can be. This lecture is approvingly cited by many of those who say they fear a ‘Christianist’ or ‘Dominionist’ regime in America. Odd, therefore, that they do not foresee what will really happen. When I snatch the crown from the Archbishop’s hands and crown myself Most Christian Empress of the World, no liberty they prize will survive the hour. I will take the laws Humphrey once advocated, strike out the words “literal truth of the Bible” and replace them with “atheism” in my own Imperial hand. What, let the little ones be brought up to believe that life is meaningless and death the end merely because their wretched godless parents honestly believe it?