Guest article by Muhammad al-Hakeem, a writer in Egypt.
Lump it or like it, but atheists are quite good for the intellectual integrity of our species. Not only are they an indispensable component of its philosophical spectrum, but they also add sobering talking points to perennial debates on human social issues from their disparate perspective. I do not agree with Richard Dawkins that a world without religion is a better one (after John Lennon), or that the existence of God is an exactly scientific question whose answer is that it is improbable. How living organisms were created was the only thing I thought I could ever concur on with a twenty-first-century atheist. Well, times change, and so do people and their stances, although loathing pig-headed knuckleheads has and will remain my stance in the foreseeable future.
Headlines in 2013 of Dawkins’ raving about indoctrination of children as child abuse took me aback as little more than the delirium of an ageing New Atheist. What I read, however, in the preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion apropos of this matter, especially that I read it amid my quasi-crisis of faith, gave me pause for thought. “And I never tire of drawing attention to society’s tacit acceptance of the labelling of small children with the religious opinions of their parents,” wrote Dawkins. “Atheists need to raise their own consciousness of the anomaly: religious opinion is the one kind of parental opinion that—by almost universal consent—can be fastened upon children who are, in truth, too young to know what their opinion really is. There is no such thing as a Christian child: only a child of Christian parents. Seize every opportunity to ram it home.”
Indeed, the sheer absurdity of the idea of religiously affiliated children cannot be put bluntly enough, and is perhaps most salient in Egypt, a postcolonial Muslim-majority nation state bar none that is still in limbo between secularism and Islamic ruling and bent on maintaining its religious bipartisanship. Just because a baby came out of the birth canal of a Muslim female who had been impregnated by a Muslim male, “Islam” is put in its birth certificate and subsequent identity card as its “religion.” The azan is whispered into its ear and circumcision is done within seven days. The child will be inculcated with such convictions as that the world was created by one God, that a certain Arab man was His last prophet, and that the Quran is the final revelation. At least the first and last three chapters of the holy book, as well as certain moves to be done and phrases to be uttered five times a day and in the mosque on Friday, will be seared on its mind indefinitely. At school, the child will be taught a subject that answers to “Islamic religious upbringing.” (In my own case, one of the most grating, albeit laughable, things in this regard was Mum’s unhinged superstitious belief in the evil eye, to the extent that all my extended family are told that I have enrolled into the faculty of sciences instead of medical college, the most enviable mundane achievement in Egypt.)
Just because another baby, perhaps just a few metres away next door or at hospital, emerged from between the legs of a Christian female who had been fecundated by a Christian male, “Christianity” is put in its birth certificate and subsequent identity card as its “religion.” The baby is baptized and brought along to mass. The parents and the “Christian religious upbringing” subject will nag the child about its inherently sinful nature, asseverating that it can attain salvation only by believing in the Word who was made flesh 2000 years ago, and that the Arab prophet in whom its “Muslim” spars believe was a false one aided and abetted by Satan himself. If “Christian” schoolchildren are the minority in the class, they would be taken to another classroom come the period of “religious upbringing.” You might be wondering if I ever wondered about where they used to go at that time. Well, I remember asking one of them, who would have told me even whatever Christian theology they were learning from that book with him had it not been for a watchful teacher sworn to preserving Egypt’s religious stalemate.
In both cases, although the theory of evolution is taught without qualms in both national and foreign secondary schools (withstanding to this day the popular fairy tale that it has been discarded in the West but is somehow cleaved to only by Islamic countries), children are most probably instilled with visceral antipathy to an utterly parochial travesty of it. And that is to say nothing of the debacle that is the “religious upbringing” subject. Being a mandatory subject in all twelve school years that nonetheless does not share in the final total score, with an exam comprised chiefly of so-called common-knowledge questions answerable by anyone with a nodding acquaintance of standard Arabic, it need only be boned up on on the night before the exam. I am told the reason that it is never allocated marks in the total score is that the “Christian religious upbringing” subject is much easier than the “Islamic religious upbringing” one and thus yields unfairly more marks. Children are also barraged with platitudes about “national unity” every which way. I know; we are never short on inanity.
To paraphrase an interviewee on an Egyptian atheist online show I have been watching of late, parents pass on both their genes and their culture and beliefs to children. In Dawkins’ own terminology, parents disseminate both genes and memes. The word “meme” is extraordinarily apt even for the topic of religious indoctrination, considering that it comes from a Greek word meaning “that which is imitated.” Is it not irreverent that religious convictions be purveyed in this way? Minds are made up before there are minds to make up. And since we are citizens the paragon of postmodern, postcolonial, developing countries, we are wont to put our avaricious spin on indoctrination whereby the supposedly holistic religion is disconcertingly diluted to materialistic – I dare say pagan – propitiation of God in exchange for mundane wealth. In essence, Egyptians speak in religion, seldom about religion.
Now, I do not care about Dawkins. Most atheists wish the whole world became atheists and the battle against indoctrination is the first step in that transition. But he has got a point. That said, I do not buy into the atheist mantra that babies are born atheists. A newborn is no more atheist than a rock. Let your newborn grow alone on some far-flung island, then after fifteen years stop by to ask if he believes in God. If the experiment has been run well, he will most certainly ask back what you mean by God. Babies are obviously born ignorant of, and thus neutral on, almost everything intellectual, although we might say that we are all born with a natural desire for truth, which is not too far from the Islamic concept of the fitrah. In any case, one need not hold this ludicrous contention to show that religious indoctrination is wrong and unwholesome on several levels.
The paramount level is soteriological. Let us presume for a moment that Islam is the single true world view. Probably no more than 10% of the Christians who have not left religion behind altogether will ever bother to consider Islam, much less convert to it. We all know where the rest are headed.
Imagine a society where most Muslims are converts. Have you heard of any before? Yes, the nascent community of Prophet Muhammad and his companions in Makkah and Medina. The result, to my mind, would be both fewer apostates and fewer extremists on the one hand and more steadfast, willing Muslims on the other. Muslim society will once again abound with the loftiest minds in the world. God will be truly loved with all their hearts and all their minds, simply because minds have been left to rationally think about Him, and hearts have been free to emotionally pine for Him. How idyllic.
Putting the long-term merits aside, I have been involved in these discourses for long enough to be self-critical and ready to say “I do not know” when I ought to. Indeed, I believe my thesis does run foul of certain traditional Islamic injunctions in the Quran and Sunnah. I do not know how feasible my clamour against indoctrination really is and what parents are supposed to do in practice. Nor do I know how they are supposed to pass on morality without coating it in religious overtones. Considering that we are already in a Muslim society, can children still be told gruffly, for instance, about the cruciality of premarital chastity? Or should they come to that conclusion on their own? I do not know.
What I am already sure of is that, while it is certainly impossible for parents to completely conceal their religious convictions and practices, they should at least eschew hurling unjustified religious assertions at children in their formative years, i.e. until they are no longer copycats. The vacuous “religious upbringing” subject should be either scrapped or replaced by the more meaningful and edifying religious studies or comparative religion, in which they are taught a sizeable spectrum to critically and freely choose from. A detractor might say that parents are entitled to force whatever education they desire on their children, and might ask why I am singling out religious education. Well, it is one of the things laypeople differ on, while they never disagree on science or mathematics. Even in science, competing scientific models are taught, for example the punctuationist and gradualist models of evolution. Competing religious mindsets should likewise be accessible to everyone with a mature mind.