Children, religion, and distinguishing fact from fiction

prayOne of the less attractive traits of the non- (and especially, the anti-) religious is that we can sometimes allow confirmation bias to lead us into believing rather uncharitable claims regarding the role of religion in society, or the effect that a religious upbringing can have on children.

Confirmation bias – the tendency to favour information that confirms what you already believe and disfavour contrary evidence – is of course not unique to us heathens. It’s just that as one of them, I’m concerned about the bad PR we (hello, Prof. Dawkins!) sometimes generate. So, I’m inclined to be wary when I read headlines like this, in the HuffPo:

Children Exposed To Religion Have Difficulty Distinguishing Fact From Fiction, Study Finds

The headline creates the impression that children brought up in a religious environment might well think that Harry Potter is real, perhaps lives just up the street, and that maybe there’s a chance that you might become a wizard too if luck shines her light upon you.

What a popular website reports that a “study finds” isn’t always a neat fit to what the study actually says. So if you have access, I’d recommend that you read the paper by Corriveau, Chen and Harris yourself, or alternately at least read the more sober take on it that was published by Vox.

To briefly summarise, the paper describes how 5 and 6 year-old children from religious, parochial and secular backgrounds were presented with Biblical stories in original and modified (one including “magic” but no God; the other a realistic version) forms, and then asked to express a view on whether the protagonists were real or fictional.

Here’s one of the stories (the story of Joseph) in its three forms, quoted from the paper:

This is Joseph. Joseph was sent to a mean king in a land far away. However, God sent Joseph many dreams warning about terrible storms, and Joseph used those dreams to tell the king how to protect his kingdom from the storms. The king was so amazed by Joseph and they became friends.
This is Joseph. Joseph was sent to a mean king in a land far away where there were terrible storms. Joseph used his magical powers to see into the future, and told the king how to protect his kingdom from the storms. The king was so amazed by Joseph and they became friends.
This is Joseph. Joseph was sent to a mean king in a land far away where there were terrible storms. The king realized that Joseph was very good at looking at clouds and predicting when there would be rain. The king was so amazed by Joseph and they became friends.

Vox summarises the lead author’s response as follows:

What was most interesting to Corriveau, however, was how children classified the fantastical story: while secular children classified it as pretend 87 percent of the time, religious children only did so about 40 percent of the time. To Corriveau, this suggests that “religious children have a broader conception of what can actually happen.” In other words, she told me, “religious exposure may influence the way in which children mark the boundary between factual and fictional, allowing for a more likely suspension of disbelief.”

It’s not obviously true that having a broader conception of the range of possibilities is a bad thing – in fact, it seems rather banal to observe that one of the fun things about childhood is being able to engage in flights of fancy. I don’t have data on this, but I’d imagine that most of us did so to varying degrees.

Our imaginations might not have led us all to imagine the same sorts of things, but whatever it was that we imagined, those imaginings were not only enjoyable (well, leaving aside nightmares), but also conducive to creativity both then and in later life.

Fantasy, as with chemical substances, can be good or bad depending on the dose – it’s not yet a problem when we simply observe that 5 or 6 year-olds with exposure to religion are more credulous when hearing tales of people doing magical things. In fact, we can’t rule out the possibility that at that age, and depending on how it progresses, that it’s actually a good thing, and that it’s the secular children who are impoverished.

I’ve said this before, and while I know that many of my heathen friends and colleagues don’t agree, the majority of religiously-educated children who grow up to be religious adults don’t regard their religious texts as literally true. Even Dawkins’ (who has spoken of teaching kids they might go to hell as “child abuse“) own research suggests that to most Christians in the UK, the Bible hardly features in their lives at all, even as moral guidance never mind as a guide to reality.

In other words, we don’t have good reason (from this study) to say that because religiously-educated children are more credulous, we end up with defective adults. I’m not suggesting that it’s impossible that this is the case – just that we don’t yet know that it is.

Using studies like this to make claims like that is perhaps just as fantastical as the thing you’re objecting to – and more to the point, it’s an obnoxious thing to do.

Dawkins on “mild paedophilia”

RDRichard Dawkins has – again – demonstrated that he doesn’t know or doesn’t care about public relations. As I’ve argued before, the fact that you might be speaking the truth isn’t always the only relevant thing. Messages can get lost in their delivery, and in the perceptions of their audience – and we can therefore have a debate about the efficacy of a message that is, to some extent, separate from its truth-value.

The outrage on this occasion is his reference to “mild paedophilia” in an interview for The Times (paywalled), that was written up on Religion News Service and then (to my mind, at least) mischaracterised on Pharyngula (commenters, this is not a blog on which to rant about PZ, please – I think he’s being uncharitable in his interpretation of Dawkins, but Dawkins nevertheless said something very ill-advised and insensitive). [EDIT: here’s the full text, from the RDFS site.]

First, an important clarification: what Dawkins reports is not paedophilia, but child abuse. Paedophilia does not necessarily entail any physical contact, but simply the attraction – and many paedophiles hate the fact that they have this attraction at all. We all make it more difficult for them to get help through demonising paedophiles as child abusers.

Second, this is not a new story. At least, the fact that Dawkins was abused is not a new story. He’s referred to it in interviews, as well as in The God Delusion. His comment that “it is at least possible for psychological abuse of children to outclass physical abuse” has previously been the subject of willful misinterpretation by the physicist Peter Higgs, and others.

In this new interview, Dawkins repeats his claim that he doesn’t think he has suffered lasting harm, and suggests that neither would his peers have. That’s a problem already, of course, in that while he’s free to speak for himself, it’s rather risky – not to mention grossly insensitive, and likely harmful to some who do feel harmed – to assert that other victims of child abuse haven’t suffered harm. Then he says:

I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.

This is the key passage, in which Dawkins again says something which is arguably true, yet an utterly stupid – and pointless – thing to say. To my mind, what he’s trying to say is:

  • That child abusers were living in a culture and time where the wrongness of their actions wasn’t as obvious to them as it would be now.
  • That the victims of child abuse were living in a culture and time where the wrongness of what was being done to them wasn’t as obvious to them as it would be now.
  • Our understanding of what actors did and felt within a particular historical time and context must be informed by the norms applicable at the time.

The fact that child abuse (and racism, and sexism, etc.) were always wrong is a separate issue to how people felt about those things, and their awareness of the wrongfulness of those things. And, how people felt about things (in fact, how they perceive things today) will obviously have an effect on whether people feel harmed, abused or whatever the case might be. That’s all that Dawkins seems to be saying. And the fact that it will appear to be an insensitive thing to say doesn’t make him wrong on those facts. What makes him wrong is arguably that it’s an excessively, and unproductively, insensitive thing to say.

So it’s not fair, or accurate, to say (as PZ Myers does), that he “can think of some lasting harm [to Dawkins]: [Dawkins] seems to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children”. Not at all – this is a completely needless, and unfair, swipe at Dawkins, in that it asserts that he’s persistently, and currently, indifferent to the sexual abuse of children in general.

As discussed above, Dawkins thinks that some abuse, at a particular time, was not regarded as seriously (regardless of its actual seriousness) as it would be today. These are very different claims, and PZ Myers is simply picking the most uncharitable interpretation possible in order to discredit Dawkins.

Later in the post, PZ Myers says

We do not excuse harm to others because some prior barbaric age was indifferent to that harm. Furthermore, the excuse doesn’t even work: are we supposed to believe that a child-fondling teacher would have been permissible in the 1950s? Seriously? Was that ever socially acceptable? And even if it was, in some weird version of British history, it does not excuse it. It means British schools were vile nests of child abuse, just like Catholic churches.

Again, to call it an “excuse” creates the impression that Dawkins condones child abuse. And the use of the word “permissible” implies a binary state, where either all teachers are going around abusing children, then sharing tales over tea, or one where all abusers are caught and punished to the full extent of the law. It was never permissible, not even in the 1950s. Yet, it’s still possible that people didn’t report it as often, or follow up on it as often, or perceive it in the same ways then, as they do now.

This doesn’t alter the fact that it was wrong then, as it’s wrong now. It doesn’t “excuse” it, as per Myers’ words above. All that it does is explain that people might respond to it differently then than they do now.

Peter Higgs on the “fundamentalism” of Richard Dawkins

Originally published on SkepticInk.

Don't try this one: Professor Peter Higgs with a description of the Higgs model.Alok Jha, a science correspondent at The Guardian, has a column in which he reports that celebrated theoretical physicist Peter Higgs agrees with those who find Dawkins’ approach to criticising religion “embarrassing”. But in what should be embarrassing to a publication of The Guardian‘s reputation, Jha seems to simply swallow the fake controversy generated by the Daily Mail in the course of describing Higgs’ views.

Jha refers to the recent Al Jazeera interview with Dawkins, in which he’s (again) asked to clarify his remarks on the relative harms to children of sexual abuse versus the mental trauma of being led to believe in hell, eternal damnation and all that stuff. Well, Dawkins has posted the relevant extract from The God Delusion on his website, and anyone interested in the facts of the matter (rather than merely supporting their prejudices), can confirm that he uses an example to make the case that “it is at least possible for psychological abuse of children to outclass physical” abuse.

Now you might think even this insensitive or overstated. But it’s simply not true that he ever claimed that being taught about hell was always worse than all child abuse. As is often the case for all of us, he could have been clearer about what he meant and didn’t mean. At a time when the principle of charity seems forbidden to us, he probably should have been. But Jha demonstrates his prejudice in simply reporting the child abuse canard as fact in this column, and it’s thus little surprise to me that he doesn’t seem to bother to enquire as to whether Higgs backs his “fundamentalism” charge up with any evidence.

Higgs is quoted as saying:

What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are just not fundamentalists. Fundamentalism is another problem. I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind.

In what way, and of what sort of kind? We aren’t told, but I imagine that this is simply an instance of the propaganda campaign against so-called new atheism having met with another success. The claim that Dawkins is strident, shrill and so forth has become axiomatic through simple repetition, with few people bothering to make the distinction between “being discomfited by robust challenge” on the one hand and “those strident new atheists” on the other.

I do sometimes find the direct and robust challenge, as favoured by Dawkins, to sometimes be less effective than other approaches. As I argued in my review of Chris Stedman’s Faitheist, my preference is for the more subtle approach. But this doesn’t mean that Dawkins is doing anything wrong in being more assertive with his criticism of religion – and it certainly doesn’t make him a fundamentalist for doing so.

What Higgs gets right in the quote above is that those of us who criticise religion should be careful not to confuse the typical believer with fundamentalists. As Dawkins’ own research shows, the typical believer is nothing like a fundamentalist – in fact, she isn’t even much of a believer. But, until these believers who are not fundamentalists actually raise their voices to start saying “not in my name” to the nutjobs like Fred Phelps, can we really blame a Dawkins or whomever for stepping in to say what needs to be said?

The dangers of tolerance

As published in The Daily Maverick, a companion piece to my previous post entitled Suffer the little children (some overlapping content, sorry).

Julian Barnes’ novel “Nothing To Be Frightened Of” opens with the sentence “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him”. This echoes a question asked by Daniel Dennett in “Breaking The Spell” – that of whether we care more about being able to believe that our beliefs are true, or about those beliefs actually being true.

We might have rational doubts about all sorts of beliefs, yet still want them to be true. Or find value in living our lives under the assumption that they are true. It would be impossible – or at least exceedingly difficult – to live your life feeling that your job was meaningless, that you were not loved or that you had no free will and no actual soul, despite the fact that one or more of those statements may be true. We seem to seek out (and perhaps that indicates need) some transcendence or metaphysics in our lives.

But those desires and/or needs do not make their objects true or real. We need to bear in mind the possibility that certain beliefs serve a social or psychological function only, and that “belief in belief” may take us as far as we can go. In other words, that no value is added by insisting on the actual truth of some of our beliefs. In particular, we need to contemplate the possibility that treating some beliefs as literally true could be harmful, rather than neutral. Continue reading “The dangers of tolerance”

Suffer the little children

There are, of course, evil people in every organisation. Some school teachers, scout masters, etc. have abused children in the past (and are currently doing so), but that doesn’t yet tell us anything about those professions in general. We’d be indulging in the logical fallacy of guilt by association if we were to assume that “the Church” is evil or complicit because of the actions of a few members who have recently been all over the news for being all over the children who were in their “care”.

However, it’s in the Church’s response to these allegations that its moral character, rather than the moral character of the abusing priests, is revealed. And here’s where we have a problem. It should surely not be the case that wearing a funny hat grants you immunity from legal processes. Continue reading “Suffer the little children”

The Frontline Fellowship wants your kids

The most recent newsletter from Dr. Paintball Hammond recycles one of his articles from 2004, which claims that universities are “hijacking our youth“. At the end of another long year of teaching, involving having to confront plenty of mindless prejudice, fundamentalism of various sorts, and deep confusion on how to reach justified conclusions, it’s really quite gratifying to read that we’re apparently doing a fine job. According to Hammond, tertiary education manages to turn three-quarters of believers into sane people (well, to some extent at least): Continue reading “The Frontline Fellowship wants your kids”