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Volume 17, Issue 5: Pat-Pat

Helping Dawkins

Douglas Jones

I'm so worried about Richard Dawkins' daughter, Juliet. I shake my head. Shake, shake. Why does he set himself up this way? Perhaps we can help. I've made similar gaffes. Christians are fairly good at driving their children away, but it breaks the heart to see secularists following the path. Here is some of what Richard wrote Juliet when she was just ten. Ten. He did sign it, "Your loving Daddy." That was good. Love is good. Just before that, though, he exhorted her, "Next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: `What kind of evidence is there for that?' And if they can't give you a good answer, I hope you'll think very carefully before you believe a word they say." Ugh, Dad, that sort of thing drives ten-year-olds into crisis. Believe me, I've tried like an idiot. They see right through. They're hypocrisy hounds. I can see Juliet's furrowed brow now. She's itching to ask for the lab reports; what concrete scientific evidence do you have for your question itself?—and for Reason, logic, math, the scientific method, critical values? Dad says, "Observation always lies at the back of it." Okay. Give the journal cites, then. Scientific journals only, please.

Intellectuals have such a hard time with kids. Authority and tradition barely hold their mask together. It must be especially tough for Dawkins, being Humanist of the Year 1996 and all, yet voted only the third top intellectual by Prospect Magazine (Nov. 2005). Does it make his mouth crooked to be beat out by that upstart Umberto Eco? Eco is so much more fun to say, though. Eco. That tilted my vote.
Dawkins seemingly held onto his letter until his daughter turned eighteen. Good move, Dad. Eighteen-year-olds are much slower, though comfortable with abstract sermons; ten-year-olds demand more imagination. This Dawkins family letter is now posted all over the internet for the whole world to examine—search for "Good and Bad Reasons for Believing." Perhaps Juliet still hasn't got it for some reason. Perhaps she's not online. We could intercept and fix it before Dad sinks himself.
He starts off on a weak footing, when in a preface to the letter, he concedes, "For most of her childhood, I unhappily saw her only for short periods of time, and it was not easy to talk about the important things of life." Oooh, bad start, Dad. Yellow lights blinking. Lots of ground to make up. It's a common rationalist affliction to believe that children will listen to serious, dogmatic, intellectual prose and ignore all our actions. Kids are too close to their bodies, though. They read our actions the way you read academic prose. Parse, parse, snip, hence. It's quite amazing to watch.
Dawkins goes on to announce himself an ardent (don't say dogmatic) opponent of indoctrinating children. Elsewhere, he calls Christian education "mental child abuse." In the preface to Juliet's letter, Dawkins says, "I had always been scrupulously careful to avoid the smallest suggestion of infant indoctrination, which I think is ultimately responsible for much of the evil in the world." Whoa, evil. Evil. Swinging around those bulky absolutes. Careful, there, Dad. You're still talking like a closet Christian, all this mummery about wickedness. Sounds a wee magical. Juliet is bound to cough a little. Lions and pythons and bats don't tend to talk that way. Maybe antelopes do. It's hard, though, for evolutionists to have the courage of their convictions when their own cubs are in view.
Then Dad waxes bitter about Juliet's upbringing, perhaps against some pesky aunt: "Others, less close to her, showed no such scruples [at avoiding indoctrination], which upset me, as I very much wanted her, as I want all children, to make up her own mind freely when she became old enough to do so. I would encourage her to think, without telling her what to think." If you read this quickly, it seems as if he wants "all children" to make up Juliet's mind. But there's a comma there. He wants her to do it herself— "think, without telling her what to think."
Still, Juliet can't avoid asking the obvious questions about this exhortation. It sticks out like a spear in the eye. I'm sure she'd speak softly. She'd ask what any eyelashed child would: "Daddy, how can you say you hate the evil of indoctrination but still impose on me epistemological individualism, a la Descartes? How is making each of us individual judges of all reality not a huge, unverifiable, unscientific claim? How is your imposition of individualism not already forcing me to think in secular categories?" Good questions, Juliet, I'd say. They rarely ask those sorts of questions in the science departments at Oxford. Most secularists can't even imagine what it would be like for individualism to be false. They think it's universal, common sense. When asked, they start talking the way Christians do about revelation—ultimate norms, inescapability, trust, practicality.
So how can we help Dawkins strengthen his letter to Juliet? Dad, you need to be honest. Kids hate hypocrisy. Stop pretending that you're not making huge, unverifiable authority claims. She can see through it. We all see through it, except anyone who writes for Free Inquiry. If you persist in your naivete, she might join us on the dark side.

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