Links and Comments: Religion and Government; Sophisticated Believers; Religious Indoctrination of Children

NY Times, Wajahat Ali: If Amy Coney Barrett Were Muslim, subtitled “It’s not hard to imagine how conservatives would smear her religious beliefs.”

For all that Christians complain that they are oppressed or victimized, in fact their religion so saturates American culture that they can’t see it, like fish being unaware of water. Case in point: Republican defenders of their latest Supreme Court justice nominee, a Catholic who has said the purpose of the law is to create the Kingdom of God, see nothing at all wrong with that. Yet suppose a candidate who was a devout Muslim claimed that Sharia was the ultimate goal of American jurisprudence. What would Republicans think of that, in this supposedly religiously neutral nation? I would think the two situations are equivalent; we should be equally worried by both.


I can’t help wondering: How would Republicans behave if Judge Barrett were a Democrat whose strongly held religious beliefs came from Islam instead of Catholicism?

… Like most Americans, I am worried that Judge Barrett will use her seat to advance an extreme agenda that will be detrimental to the interests of a majority of people in this country. We fear that, if confirmed, she’ll help the religious right drag equal rights and progress back 50 years.

One thing is certain: If the Notre Dame law professor and darling of the religious right were Muslim, she would have had a much harder time becoming a judge, let alone a Supreme Court justice.

A PolitiFact check about Coney Barrett’s comment tries to soften it by placing it in context. Well, maybe. But everyone knows the reason Amy Coney Barrett is getting confirmed as a justice, while Merrick Garland never got his chance, is precisely because Republicans want to role back Roe v. Wade, and are increasingly confidant that will get done.


Recalling my post of 30 Sept., Notes for the Book: Magical Thinking, Cognitive Dissonance, Group-Thinking, here is Jerry Coyne wondering along similar lines, What do “sophisticated” believers really believe?.

Why won’t scientists, for example, who claim to be Catholic, flat out say they believe in the literal Resurrection (or any of a number of other things)?


Now I have my theory about this, which is mine. It’s that this person really truly believed in the Resurrection, but wouldn’t admit it in public because it would make him look credulous and superstitious. It didn’t comport with his evidence-based attitude towards his scientific beliefs. And in that sense I take religious scientists’ frequent refusal to specify their beliefs as prima facie evidence of the incompatibility between science and religion. In other words, their taking the Theological Fifth is a sign of cognitive dissonance.  And this wasn’t the first religious scientist I’ve seen refuse to be specific about their beliefs.

Now most scientists, when asked if the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 are true, will say no, it’s all a metaphor. But that’s because science has disproved those bits of scripture, and scripture that’s disproven isn’t discarded but simply changes into metaphor.

I’ll add here that if they’re not willing to discuss their faith at all, even if you’re non-judgmental, it’s often a sign that they regard it as something shameful, like carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot. After all, two centuries ago no religionist was reticent to aver what they believed. Now, in the age of science, religions ask you to believe so much nonsense that, when you take it aboard, you have to keep it a secret.


Jerry Coyne also brings attention to a 1997 talk by neuropsychologist Nicholas Humphrey (by whom I’ve read a couple books: A History of the Mind, and Leaps of Faith, both read in 1996). The talk is about the religious indoctrination of children.

Coyne: A superb article against the religious indoctrination of children

Amnesty Lecture, Oxford, 21st February 1997


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.

That’s the negative side of what I want to say. But there will be a positive side as well. If children have a right to be protected from false ideas, they have too a right to be succoured [sic] by the truth. And we as a society have a duty to provide it. Therefore we should feel as much obliged to pass on to our children the best scientific and philosophical understanding of the natural world—to teach, for example, the truths of evolution and cosmology, or the methods of rational analysis—as we already feel obliged to feed and shelter them.

Coyne comments:

Humphrey’s lecture is especially good because (like Dawkins’s books) it anticipates and answers counterarguments. Don’t parents have a right to teach their children their own faith? Even if religion is based on false tenets, isn’t it good to teach children those tenets if it makes them happier? And so on. Humphrey then explains that religious indoctrination deprives the child of the right to hear about alternative beliefs and lifestyles, a form of learning that, if imparted, could give them richer and fuller lives. In other words, religious indoctrination is like a mental jail in which children don’t ever get out, never breathing the fresh air of Freedom to Explore.

At the end of his piece, Humphreys offers one solution: make sure that all children are given a thorough grounding in science in school. Learning to think scientifically, he avers, and learning how to give reasons for what one believes, and think critically, will inevitably make children question all beliefs and, if they decide to be religious, will at least expose them to a variety of religions rather than the one they would have been forced to adopt.

Of course, this will never happen. Preserving the faith is exactly why many parents shield their children from science, critical thinking, and other religions. Faith is a meme whose function results in its reproducing itself.

(Whereas, if any particular faith were true, and could be demonstrated to be true, why surely it could survive any amount of exposure to rival ideas.)

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