Over at the Telegraph, American historian Tim Stanley has chided Richard Dawkins over his recent letter to the Times. Dawkins took issue with a line in an article that read “almost a tenth of babies born in England and Wales are Muslim.” In his letter, he suggested that it should have said that the babies are, “born to Muslim parents,” arguing that there’s no such thing as “Muslim babies”.
Tim Stanley is having none of it.
Richard Dawkins is just an Angry of Tunbridge Wells with a PhD. Let me define that. He is a prejudiced pedant who goes through newspapers looking for small things that irritate him greatly.
This sort of ignorant remark makes it quite obvious that Stanley has failed to comprehend what Dawkins has written. It’s even more obvious when you read his reasons for why Muslim babies really are Muslim babies.
Stanley’s first reason is “because that’s how Islam works.” He explains that Muslims believe all people are inherently Muslim and that…
This is common to most faiths, the hope that all humans belong to God whether they can truly comprehend Him or not. As a Catholic, I believe that Christ died for all of us – including children. Ergo, because the baby is a gift from God, because it has been baptised with water and because Jesus died for it – that baby is, in some way, a Christian.
It’s rather hard to read this passage without wanting to snort in derision. In the very last paragraph of the letter, Dawkins wrote that if ”the majority of babies grow up to share the religious opinions of their parents, that is a tendency to be noted and perhaps deplored, not prejudged by sloppy language.” In other words, Dawkins already understands the argument Stanley is making and thinks the situation is deplorable. It doesn’t matter what the parents believe. What matters is that the baby has yet to have any beliefs whatsoever and can’t be called a Muslim or a Christian. All Stanley has done here is state the obvious.
Dawkins talks about this at greater length in his book The God Delusion. It is precisely this idea that babies born to Muslim parents must be Muslim and those born to Christian parents must be Christian that is the problem.
The second reason Stanley gives is that “a Muslim baby is a Muslim baby because that’s how culture works.”
When a baby is born it inherits more than genes. For instance, we call it British, which by Dawkins’ logic is a silly thing to do. After all, it cannot possibly drink tea, hate the French or laugh at Carry On films. Yet by dint of its parents being British and living in Britain, it is British. Because it will be raised so, it will only become more British as it gets older.
Oy vey! It seems the good Dr. Stanley is claiming a baby is British if his parents drink tea and hate the French. I suppose that if you substitute coffee for the tea you’ll have an American baby instead. Yes, I believe Dawkins’ logic does imply that’s a silly thing to do.
Culture is learned as a child grows, not absorbed at birth. Moreover, simply living in Britain doesn’t make anyone, including babies, British. And I wasn’t aware that there were degrees of Britishness. I suppose, by that logic, that after 23 years of living in Korea, I must be more Korean than American by now, regardless of what my passport says.
The thing that makes a baby British, and I emphasize that we are talking about babies here, is its being born in the UK and one of its parents being either a British citizen or legally settled. It’s all about law. Culture has nothing to do with it. We are, of course, more lax outside of the courts in declaring who is a British baby and who is Korean, Chinese, German, American and so on. It all comes down to citizenship and/or ancestry, neither of which the baby could possibly have any say about.
Dr. Stanley is suffering from a severe bout of missing the point. The two reasons he puts forth are very much the reasons why we shouldn’t call babies Muslim or Christian or Buddhist. Babies don’t follow any sort of religion at all. They don’t have any sort of culture or political inclinations. All of these things are taught to them by the people who raise them. More importantly, this behavior helps perpetuate a system where children are brainwashed to adhere to the religious dogma of their parents. Children are often free to accept or reject certain aspects of their culture, such as having an inclination for tea or enjoying the sport of Cricket. They generally aren’t given that sort of leeway when it comes to religion.
Religion is not an immutable state. It’s not a condition of the skin, or a legal status granted automatically at birth. It’s an ideology and, in many cases, a way of life. It has far reaching consequences that can stretch from the cradle to the grave. When children are brainwashed from birth into the religion of their parents, it is extremely difficult not to be biased against other religions in later life, in one form or another. And I don’t mean that in the sense of hating or looking down on other religions (although, that’s part of it). I mean that once a child has mentally developed enough to comprehend the differences and choose between the dogmas of various religions, it’s too late. He or she has already been conditioned to follow one religion and one religion only. The freedom of choice was robbed from the child at birth.
Sure, some people break away. Some people convert, or become nonbelievers. But how many others have come to doubt the religion they were raised in and are afraid to come out with their feelings? How many face death or isolation for even hinting at rejecting the views of their family? How many were brainwashed into extremist views that will one day lead them to extremist acts? How many, if given a choice, would have followed a different religion or none at all? Take a look at the cult of Warren Jeffs, or the Phelps family and tell me how what they do to their children is any different from what millions of Christian families do around the world.
Religion is an ideology just as much as political persuasion is an ideology. It should not be normal that a baby is automatically branded with the religion of their parents at birth. As Dawkins says, you wouldn’t call the child of fiscally conservative parents a “fiscally conservative baby,” would you? Why should religion be any different?