Problems don’t imply their own solutions

The Andrew Brown discussion, or wrangle, raises an interesting issue – interesting and pervasive yet obscure. Much of the wrangle has been about whether Dawkins actually said or meant or both that parents who impose harmful beliefs on their children (what is meant by ‘harmful’ is of course part of the wrangle, I’ll get to that, be patient) should be forcibly removed by the state. Brown didn’t even bother to wrangle, he simply said that Dawkins had simply said that, which was and is not the case. Commenters have been wrangling about whether he meant it and if so how strongly (and about what beliefs are ‘harmful’). A strong claim that several people have made is that it’s mere evasion to claim that Dawkins did not say that and did not necessarily mean it either; that he presented a problem but did not say what the solution is. The strong claim is that to state the problem is to say what the solution is – that if the problem is as bad as Dawkins says it is then active intervention is required.

My claim is that that’s wrong. I think what’s going on here is that Dawkins is pointing out a very serious, even terrible, problem, but one that of its nature is very difficult if not impossible to solve without an unacceptable amount and kind of intrusion on people’s lives.

I put it this way in a comment over there: I think it’s fair to say that the really bad stuff is not universal and that it may well not be very common. But I think what Dawkins is saying in that chapter is that the really bad stuff is indeed that bad – and I think he’s right. One child (or adult) in agony because she believes a loved friend is in hell is very bad. It does not follow that the police should be called to arrest the child’s parents, nor does it follow that I’m claiming that. But that kind of agony is very bad – and I think Dawkins is absolutely right that people should worry about it as opposed to ignoring it or brushing it off as unimportant.

Since saying that I’ve looked for some stats, and I’m not so sure it is fair to say that belief in hell (which I consider the really bad stuff) may well not be very common. Unfortunately it is very common. This survey reports that 74.6% in the US believe in hell, and 58.3% in the UK. Maybe they all think that only other people go to hell, and maybe they’re cheerful or indifferent to that thought – but that is no help, is it, because that is still very bad stuff.

And that’s before we even get to other religious indoctrination, such as telling girls that they’re inferior, telling boys that girls are inferior, telling children that homosexuality is a ‘sin,’ telling children that they are ‘sinners,’ telling children that ‘sinners’ go to hell, and the like. That’s what I mean by ‘harmful’ – beliefs that poison children’s minds and make them afraid or cruel or both.

And, obviously enough, there is no quick and easy solution to this, because pretty much no one wants to run around listening in on what all parents tell their children, and no one would be able to even if lots of people did want to. It’s not the case that we think belief in hell is harmful and therefore the police should be called. I for one, and I imagine lots of other people too, think that belief in hell is harmful and there is very little that can be done about that.

The one thing that can be done is education – and that’s what Dawkins was doing on page 326. ‘Consciousness raising,’ he called it; same thing. That can be done without violating anyone’s rights, without installing bugs in every living room, without filling the prisons with naughty parents. It can’t always be done without a lot of argument and brawling, as in the Kitzmiller case, but it can be done without sending out the Gestapo.

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