Tag Archives: Indoctrination

Russell XIII: Indoctrination Envy

brainwashAfter (not) giving an argument against the idea that justice will prevail, Russell touches on a tangent about why people believe in God:

Of course I know that the sort of intellectual arguments that I have been talking to you about are not what really moves people. What really moves people to believe in God is not any intellectual argument at all. Most people believe in God because they have been taught from early infancy to do it, and that is the main reason.

This is the oft repeated argument from indoctrination. A favorite argument among the New Atheists has been the idea that people believe in God for no other reason than that they were told this in childhood.

At this point, I think it has become clear that this argument is so beloved of those that use it because it allows them to explain why clearly intelligent people disagree with their position without admitting to the fact that there are good arguments on the theist’s side.

My main trouble with this isn’t that it is almost entirely fictitious (though it is), nor that it completely overlooks the very large end to which these same people have been indoctrinated into their own beliefs (though it does), but that “you’re indoctrinated” has become a common excuse to avoid seriously engaging with theists’ questions.

In fact, Richard Dawkins seems to have abandoned arguing with adults altogether. He refuses to debate not only William Lane Craig, but presumably anyone else described by the long list of reasons he gave for not debating Craig. Instead, he’s written a book promoting materialism to children. The American Humanist Association, likewise, has launched a website designed to inculcate children in an atheistic worldview.

When these same people are recommending that we use ridicule, sarcasm, and other playground tactics to “promote reason”, this sounds less like disgust with the idea that children are being indoctrinated and more like outrage that they are not the ones doing the indoctrinating.

Looking at their behavior, it is hard not to conclude that “the champions of reason” are interested in any means of promoting their agenda – save logical engagement with the relevant questions.

Why Russell was Wrong IX: Only Theists are Biased?

accusationThis next section struck me as more than a bit judgmental:

Now we reach one stage further in what I shall call the intellectual descent that the Theists have made in their argumentations, and we come to what are called the moral arguments for the existence of God. You all know, of course, that there used to be in the old days three intellectual arguments for the existence of God, all of which were disposed of by Immanuel Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason; but no sooner had he disposed of those arguments than he invented a new one, a moral argument, and that quite convinced him. He was like many people: in intellectual matters he was skeptical, but in moral matters he believed implicitly in the maxims that he had imbibed at his mother’s knee.

It seems very simplistic simply to say that Kant settled the matter of the old arguments once and for all. I know of no expert on Kant who would say that.

In fact, Russell presents an odd dichotomy where he seems to trust Kant far more than anyone else I’ve read when Kant happens to be arguing against theism, but dismisses him as blindly indoctrinated when he argues in favor of theism. One should definitely react to these kind of bold, partisan declarations with more than a touch of skepticism. Why should we reject Kant’s theism as bias, but not Russell’s atheism?

If it is an irritation that Russell offers no answer for this in his speech, it is a major problem that the New Atheists have not done so in years of campaigning. They seem to assume that political anger at fundamentalist churches (which I largely share, incidentally), the wish to appear “too intelligent” for religion, and the human tendency to jump on the bandwagon with movements proclaiming trendy values aren’t irrational reasons to become an atheist. But these are hardly the only irrational reasons why a young person might be tempted to become an angry anti-theist.

Christopher Hitchens, in fact, proudly admitted that he never doubted his atheism. He claimed to have “tried”, but held that the idea of theism seemed too ridiculous for him to even seriously consider. In a group of thoughtful people, such an admission would have come at a great cost to one’s intellectual credibility, but his fans didn’t hesitate in cheering his bold declaration of personal bias.

None of this is to suggest that we should make the same mistake in the opposite direction. There are many reasonable atheists in the world, and unreasonable theists. But what one cannot say, and what the New Atheists’ passionate, and generally incoherent, rantings have so thoroughly disproved, is this strange idea that atheism is somehow inherently a mark of freedom from biased thinking.

The Biases of “Them”

In the context of the religion debates, I think many of us are getting tired of the phrase “rebellion against God” and the term “indoctrination”.

These are, of course, the concepts by which Christians and atheists often explain how a group of otherwise intelligent people can disagree with them over something so “obvious”. The Christian insists that atheists would all see the evidence for God if only they could stomach the idea that they would need to submit to a higher authority. Likewise, the atheist insists that the Christian would reject God’s existence were it not for religious teaching received as a child.

The way in which these ideas are used to dismiss very important arguments on both sides destroys a great deal that we might learn from one another. At the very least, it destroys any real intellectual empathy.

This is not to say that the concepts are entirely vacuous. Personally, I expect that there is truth to both of them. People do tend to believe what we were taught as children, which (in modern culture) usually includes both the idea that God exists and that a monarch (even a divine one) is inherently a bad thing. So long as one realizes that this does nothing to prove or disprove God’s existence, these things are worth noting.

But the trouble is worse than ignorance. Rather, it seems that anyone who engages in this kind of thinking has to continually raise the stakes – to attribute more and more power to these tendencies in order to dismiss opposing arguments. Personally, I’ve seen very sophisticated philosophical positions waved away with a “that’s the power of indoctrination”, and don’t imagine that atheists have not seen the same from theists.

Where can this go, save to the point that any statement with which one disagrees is so categorized? It seems to me that the picture of humanity presented by this kind of thinking should leave one to wonder if rational faculties can be trusted at all.

Really, can those proclaiming that all arguments against God are the lies of Satan really believe that they are not themselves deceived? Can those who attribute all religious thinking to indoctrination believe that they have not been programmed in their own convictions about the nature of reality? Sociology tells us that none of us are objective – but these arguments grow out of the arrogant assumption that one’s own camp is largely immune to this fact. It is “they” who are deluded, who cannot see the “obvious” answer to the big questions of life.

It would be better, I think, to admit that our finite minds cannot claim to understand reality well enough that much of anything should be obvious. Many intelligent people can be found on all sides of this debate. This should humble us all, and make us wary.

Reality is, after all, far more mysterious than we tend to suppose. Whether you see this as the divine mystery (as I do), or imagine an incomprehensible (but still physical) material world, we should agree that glib comments cannot possibly contain an appropriate view of the matter.