Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Andrew Brown speaks nonsensically about faith schools

Updated (see bottom)

This is an old article, but my recent post about faith schools brought it to mind and I read it again to remind myself how idiotic it was. Andrew Brown writes various untrue and nonsensical things on CiF.

Richard Dawkins on Mumsnet came up with a remark to silence all his critics: "What have you read of mine that makes you think I have a skewed agenda?" It certainly left me opening and shutting my mouth like a breathless goldfish.

With all that flapping of the mouth, you’d have thought something might have come out.  For example, he could have answered the question.  He doesn’t.  If it was such a preposterous statement, you’d think an example would come pretty easily.  Naturally, Brown leaves out all mention of context.  Someone commented to Dawkins that he or she wouldn’t want to see an atheist school: “I want my children to learn to evaluate evidence and form conclusions, of course, but not from people such as yourself with such a skewed agenda.”  Dawkins’ answer as quoted by Brown agrees wholeheartedly with the evidence and conclusions part but asks the questioner to justify the accusation that his agenda is skewed in this respect.  In other words, he’s saying that he doesn’t want to start an atheist school.  If he were going to start a school it would be secular, place high value on evidence and critical thinking, but would not evangelise atheism.  Nothing he’s written suggests that he wants to evangelise atheism in schools.  Brown pretends not to notice this nuance.  In fact, he goes further than omitting context, choosing instead to present the quote in an almost completely made-up false context.  Dawkins didn’t make this remark to silence anyone, let alone ‘all his critics’.  In claiming he did, Brown is trying to paint Dawkins as claiming he’s entirely impartial on every issue, which of course he’s never done.

But Brown does like playing games with language:

It is from [Mumsnet] that the story has come forth that he wants to start an atheist school. Whether that will actually happen is another thing. But it is in any case revealing of his reasoning.

The story does indeed come from the thread Brown links to.  But Dawkins never says he wants to start an atheist school.  So how can it be revealing of his reasoning?  Notice that Brown doesn’t actually state explicitly the lie that Dawkins wants to start an atheist school, but he sure as hell implies it and it’s plainly his attention to lead readers to believe that untruth.

Next, Brown quotes Dawkins again:

"That's a good point. I believe this is putting parental rights above children's rights."

and responds:

It is impossible to read this as meaning anything but that children have a right to be educated as Richard Dawkins thinks fit, but not as their parents do.

I find it rather hard to read all that into Dawkins’ statement.  It seems pretty straightforward to me as read, without Brown’s imaginative embellishment.  The issue is that if parents send their children to schools to be indoctrinated, their rights are being placed over those of the child.  This is a fact.  An argument might be made that the parents’ rights should trump the child’s on this matter.  Dawkins (and I) would make the counter-argument that indoctrination is deeply unethical and children ought to have the right to not have it done to them.  This is not an issue of Richard Dawkins’ ego or even his wanting to decide what children should be taught.  It’s an issue of children’s rights, which is something worthy of discussion, not of outright smarmy dismissal by the intellectually feeble.  Brown somehow turns the possession of an opinion by Dawkins into a demand that all children be taught according to his whim.  This kind of monstrous hyperbole is quite indicative of Brown’s writing.

[Dawkins] alluded several times in the threat [sic] to the sufferings of atheist parents forced to send their children to faith schools:

"Is it better to stand by one's principles or be hypocritical in order to provide the best option? What a horrible dilemma to be forced into."

But apparently this doesn't apply if your principles are religious ones, because then your children have a right to be educated as atheists.

What Dawkins was actually saying is that he sympathises with atheist parents who send their children to a religious school if it happens to be better than the local secular alternative.  They want the best for their kids and who can blame them for hypocritically pretending to be religious?  Brown’s distortion is….bewildering.  Dawkins says no such thing.  Brown’s conclusion doesn’t even follow in any coherent way from what Dawkins does say.  What doesn’t apply?  It isn’t at all clear.  Perhaps Brown is saying that it would also be a horrible dilemma if religious parents were forced to pretend to be atheists in order to get their children into a better school.  I entirely agree and - I strongly suspect – so would Dawkins.  But let us just remember that Dawkins has not proposed an atheist school.  He hasn’t even proposed a secular school.  Someone asked him if he might be tempted to start one and he called it an interesting idea, clearly and plainly stressing the secular angle rather than the atheist.  Could you imagine such a school refusing to accept children of religious parents?  What would be the point?  The only suggestion that this is what Dawkins advocates comes from Brown, who has made it up.

Of course, the Dawkins position here is purely a matter of assertion. It's impossible to imagine anything that might qualify as evidence for the view that it is okay for atheists to discriminate against parents who have particular religious beliefs, while it is very wrong for believers to do so.

This is not Dawkins’ position.  Nor is it mine.  But it’s not very difficult to imagine what that evidence might look like.  Evidence that children were harmed in some way by religious indoctrination would qualify, for example.  I’m not saying that evidence exists, although it wouldn’t surprise me.  I’m just pointing out another of Brown’s obvious, odious little tricks: for the second time, he has stated as ‘impossible’ something that is plainly not only possible but laughably easy.  If the reader doesn’t think very hard about it, she might be bamboozled into thinking that such evidence is impossible.  And all of this is wrapped up in a false statement about what Dawkins advocates!

But "evidence", tends to be defined backwards in these polemics – in other words, he starts from the axiom that there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of God, (implied here in his remark that "Every atheist I know would change their mind in a heartbeat if any evidence appeared in favour of religious belief") and then find meanings for the term that fit this use. This is of course the same trick as defining faith as belief without evidence and then using this definition as proof that faith is irrational.

The statement that there’s no evidence for god is not an axiom, it’s a conclusion.  All Brown has to do to show that it’s false is to show us some evidence.  Nobody has ever been able to do so.  But what evidence is Brown even talking about here?  The evidence he demands above (that it’s OK for atheists to discriminate against religious parents in the matter of school admissions but not the other way around)?  We don’t need any such evidence because nobody is making that claim anyway, least of all Dawkins.  Or has he segued into talking about evidence that god exists?  It’s unclear, but then so is the reasoning behind his accusation that Dawkins defines evidence ‘backwards’. 

By contrast, Dawkins is perfectly clear about what he means by evidence.  He means it in the same way virtually all scientists mean it: observations in the context of a hypothesis.  To find evidence of god, you’d first need to construct a well-formed hypothesis, which would include a definition of what observations would constitute evidence for and against it that specific hypothesis.  There’s no ‘backwards definition’ here, that’s simply what evidence means.  And defining faith as belief without evidence (or more properly, belief that doesn’t rely on evidence) is not so much of a trick as the actual definition of that word.  It’s how it’s used by practically everyone, believer or otherwise.  Complex epistemological arguments aside, believing things for no good reason is irrational.  No linguistic trick here and a hypocritical accusation from Brown, who uses such tricks constantly. 

If that sounds unfair, consider the uses of "evidence" in his discussion of education here:

"Children should be taught to ask for evidence, to be sceptical, critical, open-minded. If children understand that beliefs should be substantiated with evidence, as opposed to tradition, authority, revelation or faith, they will automatically work out for themselves that they are atheists."

It's clear here that Dawkins is starting from the definition that "evidence" is what can't justify a belief in God, whereas "tradition, authority, revelation, and faith" have all been used to justify religious belief, so they must be bad.

Notice the scare quotes around ‘evidence’, which are only there to further falsely imply Dawkins’ misuse of what the word means.

Brown’s analysis of this straightforward statement is astonishing.  Dawkins isn’t defining evidence as that which cannot justify a belief in god.  He’s saying that – as a matter of fact – there isn’t any evidence (as the term is commonly used by scientists) of a god.  Therefore, if someone were to properly understand how evidence works, then she’d be very unlikely to believe in god.  This is because things like tradition, authority, revelation and faith do not constitute evidence.  This is not because Dawkins defines it that way, it’s because they cannot reliably be used to indicate truth.  Dawkins doesn’t say that these things are ‘bad’, just that they can’t be used as evidence for the existence of god.  Authority figures can be dishonest or mistaken.  There are incompatible religious traditions which cannot possibly all be true, so how can tradition be relied upon to reveal truth?  Revelation cannot be distinguished from delusion.  The existence of faith doesn’t imply belief either: all sorts of people have had faith in untrue things and the incompatibility of religion argument again applies.  This discounts those things from being evidence for god because they are almost wholly objective.

But the idea that you can separate a respect for evidence from a respect for tradition and authority doesn't survive a moment's reflection on the ways that children actually learn. That's true whether or not God exists.

Is isn’t ought.  We’re all susceptible to fooling ourselves and being fooled by others, especially authority figures.  We can’t use things like tradition and authority to determine that we’re not being fooled.  That’s why we need evidence.  If we teach children to properly understand evidence and critical thinking, they’ll have the tools they need to test whether or not they are being fooled.  They might not use these tools or they might use them poorly, but I’d rather they had them to hand than not.

To be sceptical, critical, and open-minded are all mental, and even moral disciplines. Obviously, all education in any schools, should try to produce such children. But these skills don't come naturally. Indeed, Dawkins, in other moods, will emphasise the utter lack of these skills in small children. So how are they learned? If you want to teach children to be sceptical, critical, and open-minded, you have to start from authority and induct them into a tradition where these things are valued.

What such a child would need is an environment in which the tools of critical thinking can be learned, tested and practiced.  If you want to insist that this implies authority and tradition then be my guest but don’t suggest that authority and tradition are good reasons to believe in god.  Nobody’s saying that these things aren’t important (least of all Dawkins, an educator), just that they aren’t always appropriate.  In particular – and this is what Dawkins is saying – they are not appropriate ways of finding out the truth about things like god.  Brown carries on in this mode for a couple more paragraphs, batting at strawmen of his own fevered imagining. 

It’s amusing but uninteresting (and unsurprising) that Brown emphasises from Dawkins’ list of bad reasons to believe things only ‘authority’ and ‘tradition’.  These are the ones that will appeal most to right-wing readers and Brown’s baseless and idiotic accusation that Dawkins somehow opposes these things will be enough to seal Dawkins’ infamy in many people’s minds.

The entire article is as incoherent as it is dishonest.  Brown repeatedly puts words into Dawkins’ mouth and flails at strawmen.  If you examine the text in any detail, it’s quite difficult to know what – if any – argument he’s actually making at any particular point.  There are some interesting things to be said about faith schools and interesting debate to be had on a potential atheist school or critical thinking school.  Brown raises none of these.  His intention was to construct an elaborate ad hominem attack on Richard Dawkins, who has never  expressed a wish to start an atheist school, as Brown knows perfectly well.  Mission (clumsily and incoherently) accomplished, I guess.

Brown should apologise to Dawkins for lying about him; the public for misinforming them; and me for subjecting me to this fatuous drivel.


Brown’s repeated claim of Dawkins’ supposed intention to open an atheist school is a more egregious lie than I had realised.  He quotes Dawkins (see above) saying that if children are taught about evidence, they’ll work atheism out for themselves.  When copying that text, Brown somehow failed to notice the text that surrounded it, in which Dawkins states his position with perfect clarity.  Surely Brown could not have copied the bit of text he quotes without seeing the rest (emphasis mine)?

many people have asked about atheist schools including Cauliffe. DoubtUnites - I look forward to receiving your children's letters. Thank you for suggesting that I should start an atheist free school. I like the idea very much, although I would prefer to call it a free-thinking free school. I would never want to indoctrinate children in atheism, any more than in religion. Instead, children should be taught to ask for evidence, to be sceptical, critical, open-minded. If children understand that beliefs should be substantiated with evidence, as opposed to tradition, authority, revelation or faith, they will automatically work out for themselves that they are atheists. I would also teach comparative religion, and teach it properly without any bias towards particular religions, and including historically important but dead religions, such as those of ancient Greece and the Norse gods, if only because these, like the Abrahamic scriptures, are important for understanding English literature and European history.

Andrew Brown, you’re a lying arsehole.

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