Friday, October 16, 2009

Reaching the Unreachable Children: An Open Letter to Richard Dawkins

Dear Dr. Dawkins,

I had the great privilege of attending your talk at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN on Monday the 12th. I am the co-founder and current President of the Society of Non-Theists, a student organization for atheists and agnostics at Purdue University (we forgive you for speaking at our rival). The God Delusion played a major part in encouraging me to be outspoken about my atheism, and I thank you for that. I was also incredibly excited to hear you speak about evolution, since I will be graduating this spring with degrees in Genetics and Evolutionary Biology and then starting my journey towards a PhD.

I am writing you because I was lucky enough to ask you a question in front of the audience, but you never answered. Here, to the best of my knowledge, is what I said:
"I had the misfortune of visiting the Creation Museum this summer. While there were many scary things there, the scariest was how it was full of children. When you see kids like this or those who are home schooled or going to religious school, they're effectively being brainwashed. Is there anything we can do to teach them science, or are they a lost cause?"
You replied that the topic of brainwashed children put a bee in your bonnet, and talked for quite a while about how inappropriate it is to label kids as "Christian children" or "Muslim children." You talked extensively about this topic in the God Delusion, and I agree completely. But because this is such an important topic, you seemingly got sidetracked and went on to the next question without answering mine. Some of my friends suggested that you sidestepped the question because you didn't have a good answer, but I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and blame forgetfulness.

Usually I wouldn't be so adamant about getting an answer, but as a freethinker and an evolutionary biologist, this question is particularly important to me. The cynic in me feels almost doomed when looking at these sheltered children. We all know how impressionable children are. A study by Randy Moore and Sehoya Cotner found that what students learned about evolution and creationism in high school was the most important factor in their future views on the subject. What young people are taught sticks, and it is very hard to undo such thorough brainwashing.

So what do we do?

We fight to keep creationism out of science classrooms in public schools, and we win our legal battles... but creationists just pull out their children. They sent them to private religious schools or homeschool them.

We promote evolution in museums across the country... but we can't forcibly take children there. Instead, creationists build their own "museum" full of propaganda and lies for the sole purpose of indoctrination.

We make science oriented tv shows... but we can't make them watch them. What would a creationist parent choose: Bill Nye (a personal favorite), or Veggietales? I know some religious families who don't even own televisions at all, for the fear that their children are exposed to the evils of the outside world.

We can make pro-science video games like Math Blasters or Number Munchers... but we can't make them play. The fact that I had such a hard time coming up with scientific video games isn't a good sign either - where are we in that market? Theists have Charlie Church Mouse Bible Adventure, Left Behind... what do we have? Spore? That attempted to be able evolution, but was effectively Intelligent Design - and still had angry theists calling it evil anti-creationism propaganda.

We write books upon books... but will they ever reach these children? When I heard you were writing a skeptical children's' book, I was excited and then sad. Creationist parents aren't going to buy that for their kids - its target audience is those who want to raise skeptical thinkers. Who knows if it would even be stocked in school libraries, or if a child would voluntarily choose it knowing his parent's beliefs. Who knows if that child is even allowed to voluntarily choose a book, what with their parents' constant surveillance. Look at Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, which actually included God and the supernatural, but was avidly boycotted because it spoke against dogmatism.

I guess I'm wondering if there's any hope at this point. Do we write these kids off as a lost cause? Should we focus our efforts on the fence sitters, the liberal theists, the people who sort of maybe accept evolution but with God's guidance or other types of woo? Or are we just missing some vital strategy, an approach we haven't tried yet? Short of kidnapping or mind control (neither of which I support*), I'm not sure what we could do. That's why I'm curious as to what you think - maybe with your experience, you're more creative than I am.

Thank you,

Jennifer McCreight


In all honestly, I doubt I'll get a response. Even if he wasn't currently flying around on a book tour, Richard Dawkins is a busy man and probably receives far too many emails every day...but it was worth a shot. Feel free to comment and add your two cents. Do you think there's a solution?

*I hate including such ridiculously obvious disclaimers, but creationists absolutely love quotemining sarcastic statements. Actually, they'll probably do it anyway. Oh well.


  1. As usual, a very spot-on piece, Jen. I also cannot think of those children in the clutches of dogma-infusing fundies without feeling at least a twinge of regret, sadness and helplessness. To be corrupted at such a young age, effectively killing any real chance of “rehabilitation” – it vexes me.

    I also doubt that Dawkins will see this letter, and much less respond to it; man must receive hundreds per day, he probably has time for a couple of them before he has to move on. I do also believe he quite simply went on a tangent and subsequently forgot the point of your original question; I’ve seen that happen, especially to me, very often. You know, that “Uh … what were we on about?” feeling.

    (FTR, I wouldn’t include the disclaimers, just to see those dishonest quote-miners’ heads explode.)

  2. Oh, and I forgot to add: I’ve reposted your open letter on my blog, for the sake of spreading such an important message.

  3. This is something that really concerns me. I'm Australian, but the fundies in your country seem to hold a lot of power. Its very important that they are stopped brainwashing their children. I've read the book 'American Fascists' by Chris Hedges and it really put into focus how crucial this issue is.

    The key is legislation. Your government must have a standardised curriculum for private and home schooled kids that must be covered in order to earn primary school certificates. In Australia, there are christian schools, but they have to run the standard curriculum regardless:

    "Regardless of whether a school is government or private, it is regulated by the same curriculum standards framework."

    This is the only way that you will influence children away from their parents and let them decide what they want with both arguments presented (one from home and one from school). You have to fight hard for it to come into play.

  4. Also, I wouldn't be addressing this letter to an atheist like Dawkins. Even if he did respond, he certainly isn't the person to get things rolling. He is too notorious, he won't be listened to. Better to put the words into someone's mouth who the religious don't find threatening.

    Personally, although I admire Dawkins's dedication to promoting atheism and his love for evolution, I really dislike his books. I did a review of the God Delusion here:

    I've often wondered why he is so loved amongst other atheists.

  5. Yeah. This is going to be absurdly hard to get going, really.

    The only problem with educational video games is that they're not even fun, Oregon Trail notwithstanding. It's like Christian music; it's very Christian, but calling it music is a stretch.

  6. I was a homeschool kid who found Dawkin's books in the local library. That is, when I'd learned some stuff in college about the Big Bang and was ready to learn about evolution. I mentioned this to RD at the book signing.

    I'm afraid I'm atypical though...

  7. He'll see this. Someone will send him the link.

    I think it's a matter of perception. I'm optimistic for the future of secularism.

    Religiosity is on the decline. There are more non religious people than ever before. It might get worse before it gets better sometimes (like the fundamentalism in the USA) but the trend is against religion.

    Human knowledge is cumulative. Someone with average intelligence today knows things that would blow Socrates' mind.

    Knowledge spreads and the net is a great way to do it.

    There are often posts on Reddit of people who read something or debated with someone on the net that got them thinking and led them to atheism.

    It might take another thousand years but I believe that humans will eventually shed religion.

  8. I suspect that the solution is going to be incremental, societal change. Gradually bring society around the skeptical ways of thinking, one book and one blog at a time. A lot of kids are going to fall through the net as it tightens, but eventually the system would work.

    Although a centralised curriculum would probably help- I'm not USian, and I had just assumed that homeschoolers were required to learn the same materials as kids in school. They don't? They should.

  9. An excellent letter. I hope he sees it, although frankly I find it hard to be optimistic.

  10. I think a part of the purpose of children's books like Dawkins's is to help prepare kids for dealing with their Christian peers... And regardless what Dawkins says, there is such a thing as a "Christian child;" Sunday Schools make darn sure of it. Children who go there, from age 3 up, are often told over and over how to witness to their friends in school. By making sure those friends are better educated, the nonreligious children have a way to respond.

    It may very well be that the best case scenario will end up being that the public schools, the public universities, the public discourse and society take a major secular turn, while the religious are increasingly ostricised until they're as reclusive as the Amish and just become irrelevant. It's already starting to happen, a little; for example, Christian conservatives can't win in the free marketplace of ideas on Wikipedia, so they make Conservapedia and go off to their own alternate reality away from the mainstream. Or take Godtube, because Youtube is just too secular.

    The more Christian parents have to shelter their children, the more they have to block out the real world, the more society's going to benefit from the removal of that element from the public schools and open society. If that sounds heartless, there is at least a silver lining for the child: someday, the child will grow up, will be part of the real world, and will have to admit that their parents really did shelter them from a heck of a lot. I have a friend right now in a Christian high school in South Carolina who, because of the free information on the internet, has ditched his religion intellectually and is just waiting to get out into college. I have a hunch that, the way things are going right now, that scenario is going to be more common.

    Or such is the hope, anyway. Sorry for rambling; let us know if he responds! :)

  11. jen, I think you gotta give those kids little bit more credit than assuming that they gonna be blindly brainwashed for the rest of their life. well okay I guess some of them might, but I think eventually they'll grow up and their parents arent gonna be completely in charge with what they are exposed to. just because theres a study that confirm at what age the kids are crucial to be taught evolution, doesnt mean that the kid cant change their mind later on if they werent exposed to evolution during school.
    I went to xian school and for a long time I thought genesis was literally true, but after a while I grow out of it when I was on my late twenties and end up despising the whole xianity alltogether. I grew out of it on my own through reading Dawkins book and other stuffs. Although I wish I grew out of it many years earlier, I have no ill feel toward my xian mom who forced me to go to sunday school every sunday that made me believe all those nonsense for so many years. This is probably one area I disagree with you and Dawkins when it came to the whole indoctrination for the children. I know you mean well, but unfortunately they are not your kids, thus I must say its none of your business, just like gay marriage are none of anyone goddamn business. I truly support to keep fighting creationism out of public school, but how the xians want to raise their kids are their rights. They tried to do what they think best for their children, out of love. I wouldnt want to meddle with how crazy xian raise their kids unless it breaks the law, just like I wouldnt want them to meddle with our life. yes, I know, we are right, and they are wrong, but unfortunately we shouldnt intrude their lives, Live and let live, keep the good work with the books, other stuff or the blog, and hope one they one of those kids will stumble on it or look for it when they start to doubt stuff. and I also agree that the middle ground are also the most potential audiences.

  12. I have to agree with the people on here who speak from personal experience that this kind of programming can be undone, I am also living proof of that. What changed for me was seeing the mountain of evidence for evolution, simply too much to deny.

    It's hard to say whether it's easier to reach them as children, before they've been completely brainwashed, or once they're adults, when they can think rationally and logically(if they ever do develop that ability). I really do feel for these kids, though, and it truly pisses me off that this goes on in such vast numbers here in the US.

  13. You brought up a very interesting problem of pro-science video games. I have a degree in computer engineering and work experiences in the IT (including product manager) and have been toying with the ideas of getting into the gaming industry. It seems to me that creating video games is one of the best ways to spread ideas. The catch is you'll have to make it interesting for people to keep playing. The trick is to tap into the inner desires of people's mind and satisfy those desires.

  14. Ugh, I'm so frustrated. Dawkins is apparently speaking at the Philadelphia Free Library on Thursday night. My parents live near Philadelphia; I do when on holiday but I'm currently in Pittsburgh and it's about 300 miles away. To make it even more ironic, they're coming up to visit me next weekend; why couldn't I have decided to visit them instead?

    This is probably the closest I'll be to being able to make it to a Dawkins event any time in the foreseeable future, also. How frustrating.

    It's very tempting to try to find a bus I can catch, skip all of my classes on Thursday and some on Friday and see if I can't make it. It's a bit unrealistic, though... and I probably won't be able to do it.

    If I were to go, do you think I should try to draw his attention to your letter if I get a chance to speak with him?

  15. “The Correct”

    Who am I?
    I am convinced of “the correct”
    I appeal to a book by a dead author that contains the definitive essence of “the correct.”
    I am also convinced of “the incorrect.”
    I believe that departure from “the correct” to “the incorrect” is dangerous to society.
    I know that if everybody accepted “the correct” the world would be a better place.
    I think that “the incorrect” is abject foolishness and wonder how anybody could accept it.
    I claim the evidence I see supports “the correct.”
    I am convinced that “the correct” matters and the “incorrect” is harmful.

    I proclaim “the correct.”
    I organize rallies to teach “the correct.”
    I write in blogs, articles, books to propagate “the correct.”
    I desire to influence legislation to be based upon “the correct.”
    I engage in apologetics for “the correct.”
    I engage in polemics against the “incorrect.”
    I try to free people from “the incorrect.”
    I support establishing institutions to study “the correct” and propagate it.
    I desire to perpetuate “the correct” to the next generation by teaching free thinking children how to think about “the correct.”
    I form communities of free thinkers to freely think about “the correct” explaining all.
    I fellowship in the community of these free thinkers to encourage one another to stay faithful to “the correct.”
    Who am I?

    Ken Ham?
    Richard Dawkins?
    In practice (not content), how different are individuals like these?

    If I am Ken Ham what in “the correct” necessitates my passion that “the correct” ultimately matters?

    If I am Richard Dawkins what in “the correct” necessitates my passion that “the correct” ultimately matters?

    Which one has “a correct” that necessitates his practice?

  16. False analogy, my friend. False analogy.

  17. Another great post Jen.

    To Anonymous:
    So, what are you getting at exactly? Both Dawkins and Ham offer a flavour of what you have outlined there, and since both are superficially indistinguishable (when looking purely at their actions rather than the evidence behind them as you state) we should throw both out of the window and not talk about it?

    I am having trouble working out exactly the use of what you wrote is, other than as an implicit justification for lazy people to not bother having a good think about such stuff.

  18. Fundamentalist christians believe in creation as strongly as you believe evolution.

    They want to control what your children are taught as much as you want to control what their children are taught.

    I don't want either one of you telling me what to teach my children.

    When they are adults they will figure out what they believe and will probably recover from my mistakes.

  19. I among the US homeschooling population which is non-religious and supports an educational enviroment which nurtures free-thinking. We do not follow a standardized curriculum, because we do not feel a curriculum designed to prepare workers for an industrialized economy is going to be of much use ten to fifteen years from now. Therefore I would strenously resist any further legislation of homeschooling, particularly at a Federal level. It is my responsibility to provide an education for my children, not the governments.

    I realize I am among the minority in the homeschooling community, particularly here in Georgia. We bump up against "religious" homeschoolers now and then, just as we bump up against religious public schoolers. The children of fundamentalist parents attending PS are just as "sheltered" as any homeschool child, if the school has been intimidated into eliminating all "controversial" material from its curriculum, including but not limited to evolution.

    Humans are resiliant creatures, and some day these kids, all kids, will become adults, and will have the opportunity to decide their own path. Some may choose to follow their parents, but I think many more will choose to make their own way, begin to use their own mind, open their own eyes, and realize that the reality they were taught may not be the only reality available to choose from. Just ask any adult who has chosen to leave behind their parents' faith in favor of their own faith or non-faith.


    Mom to three free thinking home learners

  20. @Anonymous, October 20, 3:36PM

    Good observation but that doesn't exhaust the meaning of "The Correct" parable. There is more to my story.

  21. Hi, Jen. Great post, as usual. One thing, though: is a hoax. If you read the last post carefully, it's one giant rickroll. Hilarious, but I just wanted to let you know.

  22. Both Anonymous posters (I believe there are two of you) are missing the point spectacularly, it seems to me.

    The issue isn't how strongly one believes something. Among other things, the issue is how well-justified those beliefs are.

    I shall quote Dawkins: "It is all too easy to mistake passion, which can change its mind, for fundamentalism, which never will... passion for passion, we are evenly matched. But to borrow an aphorism whose source I am unable to pin down, when two opposite points of view are expressed with equal force, the truth does not necessarily lie halfway between. It is possible for one side to be simply wrong, and that justifies passion on the other side."

    He goes on to say: "It is impossible to overstress the difference between such a passionate commitment to biblical fundamentals and the true scientist's equally passionate commitment to evidence. The scientist, however passionately he may believe in evolution, knows exactly what it would take to change his mind: evidence."

    It is an absurd misrepresentation of Dr. Dawkins' position to compare him to Ken Ham in any way.

  23. Wow! I admit that I'm not of your mindset. A couple of things I think you've missed in your assessment here of homeschooled and/or Christian children:

    1)Parents have the inalienable right to teach their children as they see fit. It is the law of our land, and you don't want to change it. If America started legislating how parents may or may not raise/teach their children, we quickly arrive at a place where NO parent, regardless of whom holds the superior ideology, has the freedom necessary to teach anything but what the powers that be dictate.

    2)How presumptuous of you to decide that you know best what these children should be taught! If you had the power, would you really forcibly bring all children to your evolution museums? Compel them to suffer for twelve years in an our impoverished public education system, just so they can be exposed to evolutionary theory? Talk about pathological narcissim!

    You argue for the chance to brainwash children on your terms, to supplant the "brainwashing" of their parents. You might take comfort in the removing of all references to God from public school curriculum. One thing you fail to recognize: you can't force a child to agree with what you are teaching, be you a parent or a teacher, regardless of the "rightness" of the theory under discussion.

    I'd love for you to read your blog from my perspective, as a mother of five children under the age of 9. Were I raging against atheism, bemoaning the fact that I can't erase your teaching and replace it with the "true ideology" of fill-in-the-blank, you might see your statements differently.

    As a mother, one teaches what she feels are life's most important lessons. Love, not ideology, is what matters the most. In my opinion, a loving mother teaches her children how to think for themselves. Regardless of how hard you try to present the world to your children through a filter of diversity, you still teach through your own filter of what diversity and openmindedness means.

  24. @Anonymous on post marked October 20, 2009 8:52 AM

    Fundamentalist christians believe in creation as strongly as you believe evolution.

    They want to control what your children are taught as much as you want to control what their children are taught.

    I don't want either one of you telling me what to teach my children.

    Point 1: I do not 'believe' in evolution. Don't bring a scientific theory that has stood up well to 150 years worth of scrutiny down to the level of having blind faith in an invisible sky fairy. It is very much not the case that evolutionary theory and creationism are both equal sides of a debate. One forms the basis of massive amounts biological and scientific endeavour and is an important part of a persons education if they were to become, say, a scientist or botanist when they grow up. The other is the angry reaction from a group of fundies who don't like the idea of not being special in the universe.

    Point 2: 'Controlling your children'? Don't be such an idiot. Are the accursed teachers at your school controlling the thoughts of your children when they teach them about the theory of gravity in Physics? How about algebra in Mathematics? Grammar in English? After all, there are many people in the world who don't speak English and would argue that, say, French is the best language. Listen up everyone! We must stop French teachers from trying to control our children!!!!!oneoneeleven!!

    Point 3: So what ARE you planning on doing? Keeping your children away from science classes (and other children who go to them and learn things) until they hit 18 and then send them out into the world all wide-eyed and innocent to start learning it then?

  25. @Anonymous on post October 20, 2009 10:01 PM

    There are also a couple of points you have missed as part of your mindset.

    You are completely correct in saying that parents have the right to teach their children what they see fit. That is not a free ticket, however. If I misused that freedom (consciously or not) to teach my kids how to pick the pockets of people as they shopped down the local supermarket, I would be in the wrong, even if I argued that it should be allowed because its what my parents taught me and they were doing it because they loved me and wanted me to survive in times when my funds were low.

    What people are arguing for on sites such as this, is not some oppressive regime to come in and say you can teach this, and you can't teach that. What IS being argued, however, is that what is taught in our schools is that which is based upon evidence. Everyone wants their children (and themselves) to be taught that which is the truth, or in situations such as the debate on evolution, the closest theory we can find to the truth [because *any* theory that goes to explain how things have got to this point is almost unproveable]. Evolutionary theory (as I said before) is a staple ingredient of scientific learning, especially in the fields of biology and botany, and is the best explanation we have found so far for how we (as in everything on the planet) have got to this point. It isnt a complete theory, and we may tweak it in years to come as we learn more about our existence. But the likelihood of it being revealed as 'wrong' (especially with respect to ID/Creationism) is virtually nil.

    Look at it this way. We reach the truth through evidence. That which cannot be backed by evidence cannot be the truth. Ask your local school's science teachers for evidence of evolution. Go to your local museum and ask the curator for evidence of evolution. Now go to your local creationist and ask them for evidence of creationism (and don't accept the bible as proof in itself).

    Love is the most important thing to teach your children. Independent thought comes a pretty good second. I would put a stable platform of knowledge of that which you know to be the truth as quite a high third. If you have decided creationism must be true, or at least evolution to be false, then feel free to exercise your right as a loving mother to harm your childs education and employment prospects.

    Oh, and your talk of 'evolution museums' (most people know them as 'museums') reveals your true leanings, your unbiased standpoint from both Ham and Dawkins has just fallen away.

  26. Author of “The Correct” says…

    “The Correct, Part 2”

    Who am I this time?
    I blog as if “the correct” is one.
    I discuss as if “the correct” is absolute.
    I argue as if the “the correct” is significant
    Hmm…I function as if absolute truth (“The correct”) and falsehood (“the incorrect”) exist AND matter (significance)!
    Who am I this time?

    Mcbender? (“The Correct”—empiricism)
    Fancyplants? (“The Correct”—empiricism)
    Mom of 5? (“The Correct”—Love, which is apparently not an ‘ideology’ itself?)
    Ken Ham? (“The Correct” –God )
    Dawkins? (“The Correct”—empiricism)

    Observation of this data: The evidence of Mcbender’s, Fancyplants’, Mom of 5 ‘s, Ken Ham, and Dawkins’ practice suggests that humans function as if there is an absolute “correct” that matters.

    Question 1: Why?
    Question 2: Which “correct” can account for this practice of humans?
    Question 3: Which “correct” necessitates its own ultimate significance?

  27. All opinions are not necessarily equal. This is what you're missing. It's not just important that somebody believes they're correct - there is such a thing as logical consistency, consistency with reality, etc.

    Two statements, even if they are both wrong, are not necessarily the same degree of wrong: it is wrong to say the Earth is a perfect sphere, and it is wrong to say that it is a flat disc, but it is significantly less correct to say that it is a disc than that it is a sphere.

    In a pedantic sense I might even be inclined to argue that there is no such thing as absolute correctness, merely better and better approximations thereof. However, if you know your calculus, take the limit as things tend to infinity and... where do we end up? That's what science is all about.

    To conflate this with "everybody thinks they're correct" is idiotic. Sorry, I'm not going to mince words.

    Douglas Adams: "I don't accept the currently fashionable assertion that any view is automatically as worthy of respect as any equal and opposite view. My view is that the moon is made of rock. If someone says to me 'Well, you haven't been there, have you? You haven't seen it for yourself, so my view that it is made of Norwegian beaver cheese is equally valid' - then I can't even be bothered to argue. There is such a thing as the burden of proof... I don't think the matter calls for even-handedness at all."

    I find that analogy always helps to put things into perspective.

  28. To the author of "The Correct"

    Your standpoint suffers because you claim that myself, Mcbender et al all refer to "The Correct" as some undeniable, concrete truth that is unwaverable and cannot be shifted from our minds. That is untrue, and how presumptuous of you to assume it is. As stated in my previous posts, the theory of evolution is evolving itself. It is not "The Correct", but more "The as near as we can figure to the correct given our worldly knowledge". If Ken Ham or any of the other Creationists were to present an alternate view of things that sat well with all the fossil/genetic evidence we have found out about this past century or so and made a convincing argument of it, then I would give their theory serious consideration. However, you'll find their explanations full of holes, usually relying on superstition, mislieading quotations and scare tactics (as they did with Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed)

    There is some "Correct" that matters; it matters because that "Correct" will represent the origin of being, and anyone who claims not to find that important is missing something fundamental in their view of life. Unfortunately we are millennia away from finding out such things for definite. In the meantime, we each have a brain, capable of learning huge amounts of things, so lets use it to find out and debate stuff.

    To answer your questions:
    Answer 1: Having hopefully answered the absolute part of this question for you, the reason for debating what "The Correct" is and why that is significant is because history is peppered with situations where humanity acted upon bad information and paid the price. The world is much better off when its populous is educated and smart, not living their lives through superstitions and unfounded beliefs. Compare the general state of health, happiness and well-being in some of the world's major countries and see how that tallies with things such as religious takeup, education levels, etc.

    Answer 2: Do you mean, which side of the fence is more responsible for passionate argument in its defence? I would plump for my side, (obviously), as at the end of the day if a creationist doesn't get through to their audience through preaching, they can just say 'well, I tried, but theyre going to hell for their lack of belief and i've got the golden ticket' (they dance a little jig to the last bit). If you mean, which side can cause a person to rise up and speak in its favour? Well, both, whether that is due to an upbringing in a highly theistic environment, or being given access to knowledge based upon fact. I know which one I'd want my kids to have, and I would guess yours too.

    Answer 3: That which is correct. It's a bit of a circular answer, I know, but falsehoods by definition do not warrant significance. So what we do as human beings is investigate things, it's part of our character to do so. Sometimes we debate these things when opinions differ and that is a GOOD THING. That which comes out on top is hopefully the truth. Knowledge and education help to inform people and increase the breadth of their world views. Hiding away from such things shrinks the world view of a person or community and allows ignorance, superstition, hate and eventually conflict to step in and take over.

    Now please answer a few of my questions:

    Question 1: Do you consider the origin of life to be something worth finding out about? If not, why not?
    Question 2: What have we learned as a result of reading "The Correct" parts 1 and 2, other than when people debate things they are doing it because they believe in what they are saying?
    Question 3: How does either side of the Dawkins/Ham debate become invalid because "The Correct" identifies that there are similarities in the way both sides are debated?
    Question 4: Would you consider someone who chooses to keep their kids education away from both sides of the debate to be beneficial or harmful to that child?

    Finally, apologies to Jen for taking up so much space on her blog. Maybe this conversation should be moved elsewhere.

  29. There will always be children that are sheltered from something that someone else thinks they should have access to. I'm not sure they should be considered a "lost cause", but I don't think parents should be forced curriculums when homeschooling.

    It would have been easy for me to avoid teaching my kids about religion or just going ahead and telling them it's all made up. I could probably keep that up until they were teenagers and started doing things on their own out in the world. It also would probably back fire in the end. Plenty of atheists say they came from deeply religious families, and they rebelled against it. I also know of a woman raised by atheist parents who tried so hard to knock religion that they ended up pushing her to creationism.

    My only suggestion would be to try to teach and model empathy towards people. Ideas can be challenged, but people who are empathetic will have open minds to hear different ideas. They might not change their opinions, but they will be more tolerant in the long run.

  30. Call me MomOfMany as it won't let me put in a name.

    Response to Fancypants on October 21, 2009 3:10 AM

    2) "control what your children are taught" not "Control my children". Your selective editing changes the entire meaning of the sentence.

    If it was mandated that evolution be taught in home schools then the state must test to make sure that I am teaching it. When will they give the test? What if I taught biology (or history in my case since I cover evolution in history) in 4th grade and the state wants to test in 6th grade. Then my child fails because they don't remember exactly the words that the test is asking for. I home educate so that I can teach my children evolution (not guaranteed that they will learn that in a school here in Texas), or math, or any other subject at my child's own learning rate. If I wanted to teach only what will be on the test then I'd send them to school.

    And when does the government ever stop at a nibble. Why not then test to make sure that I taught them whatever history program happens to be popular at the moment. Do I drop their extra math class so I can teach them Health Science this year because it is on the test? It is sad that some children’s curiosity will never be sparked to the wonder of the real world around them; but I violently oppose restricting the learning freedom of the majority just to make sure everyone is walking in lock-step.

    And, yes, children will grow up and if the worse thing that happens to them is that they don't learn about evolution (probably about one week of my entire public education) they will survive. In the meantime, my children are free to learn without the restriction of State tests.

    Remember that modern home education is VERY VERY NEW. The people teaching and inventing all the creation stuff WENT to public school.

  31. Author of “The Correct” says,

    Yes, Mcbender…well stated by Douglas Adams. His quote would be relevant if I have made some kind of suggestion that all claims of “the correct” are equally valid. But I have not. I have just juxtaposed individuals’ practices to show that they all operate in a similar fashion.

    In other words, all I have done (please take note Fancyplants) is observe evidence that human beings OPERATE instinctively as if there is a “correct” and it “matters.” -Whether it is Mcbender, Mom of Many, fancyplants, Ken Ham, or Richard Dawkins or me. Everyone here has operated precisely that way. That is one point of “The Correct, parts 1 & 2.” Now, what do we make of this seemingly universal phenomenon that everyone seems to operate as if there is “A Correct” and it does matter?

    Mcbender, since you know calculus and brought up “limits…”
    If f(x) = better and better approximations of correctness that matters
    Then the limit of f(x)as x goes to infinity is ???? (anyone???)
    --Absolute truth that is ultimately significant?
    Doesn’t the evidence suggest this?

    BTW Answers to Fancyplants: 1) Yes 2) See above 3) I have not claimed either Ham/Dawkins is invalid because of the similarities—not my point 4) I train my kids to think critically about all philosophies.

  32. I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to try to express your point more clearly.

    It seemed to me (and correct me if I'm wrong) that you were attempting to disparage Dawkins and empiricists by equating their "belief in the correct" or whatever you call it (I don't know that I agree with your phrasing; semantically it seems ambiguous) with Ham's "faith in the Bible". The implication of such a comparison is very clearly a "you're just as fundamentalist as the fundamentalists" type of thing, so if that's not what you're trying to say, I apologize for making that interpretation and repeat my request for clarification, because in that case many/most of my responses may not be relevant.

    If, instead, what you are trying to argue for is some kind of post-modernist "everything is wrong, we can't know anything, all truth is relative" type of position... well, I'd be happy to discuss that, although I'm honestly not sure how much I could say on the matter. It might be interesting.

  33. @MomOfMany

    Fair enough, I did rejig the words in your original text and that was in error and I apologise, it was not deliberate. However, replace 'controlling your children' with 'controlling the education of your children' and the point still stands.

    I'm not sure what you are getting at when you are talking about what your child will be tested on and when; you could apply that same argument to any learning subject. AFAIK (I don't live in America) evolutionary theory is taught as part of the standard curriculum in biology and history in all state schools, with no more special significance as any other aspect of the subjects. The reason Creationism/ID isnt is because the governing bodies have the brains to realise that without a sound body of evidence, it should be mentioned, but not taught. At least, I hope that's the case. The only place I would suspect that is not going to happen is a specialist faith school or home schooling when an anti-evolution standpoint is present.

    Not having to worry myself about whether sending my children to my local school will prejudice their learning or openmindedness, I don't have the standpoint with which to comment further on your particular situation, but I hope the time never comes for me to have to abandon the standard school education system because it has reached such a low quality as you seem to be suggesting.

  34. Author of “the Correct” says…

    Fair enough Mcbender. No more intentional semantic ambiguities.

    Dawkins functions as if there is a correct view of reality (atheistic/empiricism) and that this view matters (hence his passionate apologetics and polemics and propagation).

    Ham functions as if there is a correct view of reality (theistic) and that this view matters (hence his passionate apologetics and polemics and propagation.)

    Mom of Many functions as if there is a correct view of reality and that this view matters (hence her passionate apologetics and polemics).

    Mcbender, fancyplants, me function as if …….

    I am not inviting debate as to who is right or wrong at this point. I am drawing attention to the observation that all human beings instinctively function (and therefore implicitly acknowledge) that truth about reality (“The correct”) exists and that truth matters. Even the post-modernist who says “There is no truth” by his own statement makes a “truth claim” which in turns refutes his deluded statement. My point? There is truth and truth matters. EVERYBODY practically functions as if truth exists and it matters!

    Now, from your calculus limit illustration, we would anticipate then that there is ultimately an absolute truth/”correctness” about reality and it is ultimately significant (whether or not we fully know it now).
    Do you agree?

  35. Yes, I would agree with that statement, although I might not phrase it that way. I would probably phrase it as "the universe has properties which can in principle be determined" rather than "there is an absolute truth" because that phrasing is often ambiguous and is much easier to misinterpret. I'm an empiricist, hence my analogy of the limit.

    It's also good to see that we agree with respect to post-modernism.

    What I don't understand is why you're taking such extreme lengths to make what seems to me to be a pedantic argument. That's probably what led me to make the assumptions I did earlier - almost always when I encounter statements along these lines it either leads to "you're as fundamentalist as the fundamentalists", "you both believe you're right so neither of you are", post-modernism, etc; I'm having trouble seeing where you're trying to go.

  36. Author of "The Correct" says...

    Mcbender, have you have considered the second part of my point—not only is there absolute truth about reality but also that absolute truth ultimately matters or is significant? Specifically, have you considered my question about which “correct” has an internal logical consistency about it that warrants its adherents’ apologetics, polemics, and propagation?

    Let me illustrate. Since I alluded to Dawkins in my first post I will use him. Dawkins acts as if his assertions about reality (“the correct”) matter. Thus, he is on a campaign to persuade people. He is even agitated (“bee in the bonnet”) that children are being influenced to believe in the fairy tales of the misguided creationists. However, his self-described understanding of reality is one of the indifferent natural selection process that neither knows nor cares nor has any ultimate purpose or significance. If Dawkins were logically consistent, he should be as indifferent as the indifferent evolutionary process that produced him. But he is not indifferent. He, as all humans, functions as if there is absolute truth and this truth matters. My point? Dawkins description of indifferent reality (“the correct”) does not correspond with the evidence of his own “non-indifferent” acting and thinking (not to mention humanity’s innate concern that truth matters). So, when he engages in apologetics, polemics, and propagation to advance the truth as if truth matters, he is ultimately borrowing the theists’ worldview where purpose and significance exist. Even though he does not believe in the theistic worldview, he practically functions in this area as if the theistic worldview where “The Correct” matters is true. Thoughts? Still pedantic?

  37. Yes, I still think you're being pedantic, and that a substantial part of your argument hinges on semantics. However, I'll put all of that aside.

    First and foremost, while I am sure you already know this, I am not Richard Dawkins, and any arguments I make are mine rather than his even if they are in defence of his position. Now I'm the one being pedantic...

    I don't agree with your conclusion that believing something is important ("signficant") is necessarily borrowing concepts or worldview from theism.

    Here is what I would say, and while I suspect Dawkins would agree with me on many of these points I shan't presume to speak for him:

    Believing it is important to spread scientific knowledge (or, similarly, to reduce religious fanaticism) can be expressed ultimately as a utilitarian argument. In the case of reducing religious fanaticism this is fairly straightforward, as the many negative effects of (esp. fanatical) religion are well-documented and I do not think they bear repeating.

    In the case of promoting science, sceptical thinking and so on, a similar case can be made: I think I could plausibly argue that a greater proportion of the population understanding these things tends to improve the quality of life for society as a whole. I suppose I should note that it could be argued that it is not self-evident that that would be a good goal, and I'm not sure how I could explicitly justify my intuition that improving the overall quality of life for people is worth doing.

    There's also the argument (which Dawkins disparages as the "non-stick frying-pan approach") whereby one argues that scientific knowledge should be promoted because it offers explicit tangible benefits: as an engineer I think I may give that argument more weight than Dawkins, although I think his other points about aesthetic beauty also stand (i.e., we should promote these ideas because they fascinate us and we can derive enjoyment from them).

    I am convinced it is valuable to promote these ideas for these reasons, among others.

    I don't really see any similarity, aside from coincidental (in that both views lead to the impassioned promotion of certain ideas), between this and the theistic proposition that (in simplified form) whether or not one "believes" a certain statement about the world will have substantial physical repercussions to some part of oneself in some sort of afterlife.

    I see what you're trying to get at now, though; sorry I had to force you to explain it to me. I still think it's rubbish, but at least this is an interesting discussion :)

  38. Author of "The Correct" Says,

    Mcbender, you are an incredibly transparent atheist/empiricist when you acknowledge that you could not explicitly justify your intuition. I think that is admirable.

    I assume that because you cannot explicitly justify your intuition that improving the overall quality of life for people is worth doing, that you also cannot explicitly justify your intuition that reducing the negative impact of religious fanaticism is worth doing either. Right? Is this because there cannot be any justification for what is ultimately “positive/good” or “negative/bad?”

    If this is the case, could I ask you to consider the following evidence? Ham, Dawkins, you, and I operate intuitively to attempt the good (improving the quality of life) and to avoid the bad (decreasing the quality of life). Both Dawkins and Ham believe that if individuals adopted their belief system that life and the world would be “better”—quality of life would increase. Also, consider the evidence within you when you say that you have an “intuition” that increasing the quality of life is good and decreasing the quality of life is undesirable. The difference between Dawkins, Ham, you and others, functionally is not that “good” and “bad” don’t exist. The dispute is over the approximations of what practically is “good” and “bad.”

    In a previous post you rightly assert in regard to physical reality that we really are only getting better and better approximations of “the correct.” And, when thinking about the analogy of the calculus limit, we can conclude that there is an “absolute correct” about the physical reality. Why cannot the same analogy be used about “good” and “bad?” Why might you not apply the calculus limit illustration to the moral evidence as you have done to the physical evidence? If you did, would this not lead to the conclusion (in the limit) that there is an absolute moral "correct" just as there is an absolute physical "correct?" But currently we only have “approximations” of what is “good” and “bad.”

  39. No, I do not agree with you at all there, and I would quibble with your definition of "moral evidence". In fact, I don't really like to use the word "morality" at all, because it tends to assume an external source of cultural (or religious) mores; I think "ethics" is the proper term for what we might be discussing.

    I am not convinced that "an absolute morality" or "an absolute standard of good/bad or right/wrong" exists, nor frankly do I know what that would even mean. Nor would I apply my limiting argument here. Morality (or ethics) exists only in human brains, so far as we know. Human brains are a physical object and we know something (although not nearly enough!) about how they work.

    The vast majority of humans, though not all, will respond similarly to ethical questions even across cultures. That has been reliably demonstrated in various psychological experiments and I accept that conclusion; furthermore, it is easy to see how such built-in ethical intuitions could have conferred an evolutionary advantage on our ancestors.

    Of course, that's not the full story, as many of our ideas about ethics and morality are culturally transmitted rather than innate. If you've read "The God Delusion", you'll be familiar with Dawkins' term "the changing moral Zeitgeist" as referring to this.

    However, let's move on... I don't think that's really what you want to discuss.

    When you ask me to consider the "evidence within me"; evidence of what? I know that I'm human and I know how fallible humans are, so considering my own intuitions as evidence of anything would be absurd.

    The fact that many (perhaps most; perhaps all, although I'd shy from overgeneralisation) people have such intuitions is a phenomenon worth investigating, however - and such investigation has been done, as I briefly discussed above. There are two points to make here:

    First, those intuitions do not always agree. They very frequently do, but there is always variation. That is consistent with an evolutionary understanding; we wouldn't expect them to all be identical if that were the case, while if there were an externally imposed objective standard we might expect a great deal more consistency.

    Secondly, the fact that they do often agree does not necessitate an external standard on which they are based. Morality and ethics, whatever you want to call them, are simply rules our brains use to aid in decision-making.

    If we did not have brains, the concept of morality would not exist. That is very different from saying that, say, atoms objectively contain protons. If there were no humans, atoms would still be composed of protons. If there were no humans, there would be no morality.

    Now, does the fact that "good/bad" or "right/wrong" are simply labels built into my brain by evolution to expedite decision-making in an adaptive way stop me from using them? No, it does not, nor should it; it is often said that it is fallacious to derive an "ought" from an "is".

    It is difficult to justify statements about morality or ethics, statements about what "ought" to be true, precisely for this reason. I sometimes fall back the tautology that "suffering is suffering" in order to argue for minimising it, which isn't much of an argument. Perhaps a better, though still flawed, approach would be to make the "argument from empathy" (i.e., 'I know what it is like to suffer, and do not like it, therefore I would like suffering to be minimised'). This is a difficult subject, and I am not a moral philosopher, so I am incapable of arguing with proper rigour.

    I'm afraid that I may have rambled more than usual there, and my point may have been lost somewhere...

  40. Author of “The Correct” says,

    Mcbender my dialoguing friend,
    Yes, Mcbender it is me Brent Aucoin. When I observed that some non-theists were acting as if educating children against the misguided creationists and their fairy tales was nearly an ethical necessity, I was compelled to write “The Correct.” I wrote “The Correct” with intentional semantic ambiguity (as you observed) in order to invite comparison. Also, I wanted its form—“anonymous”—to match its initial function. In other words, I did not desire anybody to pre-judge “The Correct” based upon their knowledge of the author.

    My point was to begin pushing the limits of an atheistic empirical worldview. I was trying to demonstrate that this worldview does not have sufficient starting axioms to account for the significance that it adherents were ascribing to it. Propagating an atheistic empiricism while castigating the foolish creationists seems to become a crusade for the “good/correct” against the “evil/incorrect” as if there is good and evil and life ultimately matters!

    However, an atheistic empiricism does not have inherent mechanisms for ultimate good/evil or ultimate purpose/meaning/significance. If the cosmos is a result of the indifferent natural selection process that neither knows, nor cares, nor has any ultimate purpose or significance, then in theory, humans, should be as indifferent as the indifferent evolutionary process that produced them. But they/we are not indifferent in practice. Even atheistic empiricists function as if there is significance to life and good/evil exists despite their self described worldview. The atheistic worldview struggles to account for its adherents’ own practices.

    If I understand you correctly, you seemed to acknowledge this struggle in a very small way when you said that you could not justify your intuition that increasing the quality of life was a good goal. A common explanation for ethics in an atheistic worldview is that ethics are a social construct. However, adherents to atheism do not function in life as if good/evil is a social construct. The moment a thief steals an atheist’s ipod, the atheist will proclaim that the thief’s social construct of stealing is wrong. The atheist would not accept the view that the thief just had a different social construct ; ).

    Thus, based upon Ockham's Razor (to which you introduced me—“do not multiply entities beyond necessity”), I submit that we have arrived at a point where “multiplying entities” is necessary to account for the evidence.

    I know you probably still think my beliefs are not worthy of respect and rubbish : ) But you have handled yourself extremely admirably. The dialogue has been challenging and stimulating for me. I still hope we can meet sometime if you are in Lafayette, IN. But I think I detect some British influence in your writings so I suspect you are not local.

  41. Mr. Aucoin, next time I'd appreciate it if you would refrain from debate under false pretences. I understand what you were trying to do, and it was interesting, but... well, it's dishonest, and it oughtn't to be necessary to resort to that in order to get a point across (philosophically, I hasten to add, not ethically: the point ought to be able to stand on its own merits is what I mean by this).

    And no, I'm not local to you, so a meeting is out. I'm not quite as far away as you supposed, but it's still a few hundred miles.

    I'm going to have to offer you another long response, however, because you're continuing to misunderstand what I'm saying.

    Saying ethics are a social construct (which is not what I said, precisely; what I was arguing was that they're built up through evolution. I can understand now why you may have misinterpreted that) is not to say that they're meaningless.

    I suppose I ought to clarify something here. It is quite possible that there exists an objective foundation for some of the things we consider "ethics". Specifically, if you look at the mathematics of game theory, it is possible to notice that in certain situations there are patterns of behaviour that are optimal for all parties involved, and which conform to what we think of as "moral" or "ethical".

    Here's an old talk by Dawkins along those lines:

    That's simple mathematics, and it doesn't require an "external source" of the kind you want to suppose. I won't pretend that game theory covers all scenarios (it might, but I don't know enough to argue that), but I find it illustrative of the kinds of things we might want to look into.

    With respect to your example of the thief: it has to do with the functioning of society, not merely with "one person's different social construct". While it's not the best example of this, it's easy to see that society is more stable when such behaviour is punished, and that a stable society is more conducive to human survival and reproduction.

    I see no reason to inject the supernatural into all of this. It's perfectly comprehensible without it.

    Now, we've gotten sidetracked: we started off talking about certainty and understanding the universe and ended up stuck on the issue of morality. I'm not sure if this is what you intended from the beginning, but I suspect not.

    The point I want to make now is that even if you want to argue for some kind of "source" of morality, that does not necessitate that it is the kind of thing which you want me to concede. At the absolute maximum I might concede that we do not have a full understanding of where morality comes from, and that it's something worth investigating... but that doesn't require an entity of the type you want to suppose.

    It's Ockham's Razor again, which I think you misinterpreted (for clarification: the colloquial wording of it is usually "the simplest explanation that fits the facts is the most likely to be correct"; I think that's more ambiguous so I usually use the other form).

    Perhaps I'll have more to say later. I do enjoy these sort of conversations, even if I do think your beliefs are rubbish.

  42. Mcbender,
    I have enjoyed sparring with you both times we have met here on Jen’s blog. Thank you for entertaining my little thought experiment with “The Correct.” I will consider if I have been philosophically dishonest in any way (or “ethically” in my worldview—that is important enough to me that if I believe I acted wrong, I will make it right with you).

  43. I was raised in an extremely religious (Christian) household. When I was 9 I began to question everything that was told to me yet I still believed in it until I was 14. I had my doubts but I didn't say anything about it until I turned 16. I am 19 now and I am an atheist. These children are not lost causes at all. I dislike all religions. But I do think Christianity is somewhat more tolerant than Islam and Hunduism.

  44. At least according to my coffee mug purchased at Occam Church (wink), the original formulation of Occam's Razor is Frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora -- literally, "it were vain to do with many what can be done with few".

  45. "If the cosmos is a result of the indifferent natural selection process that neither knows, nor cares, nor has any ultimate purpose or significance, then in theory, humans, should be as indifferent as the indifferent evolutionary process that produced them."
    -- I don't see why that follows. That's like saying that because books are made from trees, they should be phototropic. Animals that care passionately about surviving, and whatever they fancy aids their survival, should survive more frequently than indifferent animals, no? So indifferent processes, which I agree have no ultimate purposes or opinions, can produce creatures that have far too many, why is this a problem?

    Perhaps another way of approaching Brent's question about why Dawkins and other atheists think truth matters is to turn it around and ask why most of us get angry at lies, ignorance and stupidity. Which most of us do, no? Whereas a true philosopher ought perhaps to be more detached.

    It is not always the case that people's ignorance and stupidity affect us, although one could make the Churchill-type collective-security argument that if the demented crackers are not stopped now, they will take to invading the civilised parts of the world.(#) But our aversion seems to go further than that. Perhaps it is a kind of evolved social immune response (especially to combat lying), so that extreme (and unhappy-making) indignation at the stupidity of people far, far away is analogous to an auto-immune disease?

    (#) The American creationists are busily and successfully preaching creationism in Turkey, and thereby helping to fuel radical Islamism there. Maybe in return they'll get development aid and benchmarking for the christianist version of al-Qaida?