A friend of mine, who is not a Christian, was recommending The God Delusion to me the other day, and as it’s just come out in paperback I decided to pick up a copy. I expect it to be a fun, but completely enraging, read. (In return my friend has agreed to read Alister McGrath’s book Dawkins’ God, which I blogged on at some length last year. See this post and the links from it.)
Reading the preface, I can already see why so many people have raved about this book. Dawkins knows what he is doing, and for those who are receptive to his style (at least an equal number are repelled by it, even among atheists and agnostics) he is quite an effective propagandist.
Take, for example, his call for atheists to “mind their language” as regards describing children. Dawkins is insistent that one should never refer to a “Christian child” or a “Muslim child”, but a “child of Christian parents” or “child of Muslim parents”, since the child has not yet had an opportunity to make their own mind up and hence should not be labelled as if they had.
To his credit, Dawkins does not pretend that he is promoting neutral, unloaded language here. Rather, he is promoting language that he sees as favouring atheism, to replace language that he sees as favouring religion. Dawkins’ “child of [ ] parents” formula promotes an atheistic perspective in a number of ways.
First, it promotes a profoundly individualistic view of humanity. One of Margaret Thatcher’s most notorious (and, some would say, misunderstood) statements was:
“There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”
Dawkins goes even further: as far as religion is concerned there is no such thing as society, community or family. There are only individuals, standing naked and alone as they make their own individual decisions about the world. This, of course, tends to favour atheism, for which one of the central “myths” is that of the bold individual, courageously making their stand against the oppressive forces of religion that apparently permeate our society (ha! We wish!).
Second, Dawkins’ formula follows the atheist rhetoric of non-belief as the “neutral” option: that the basic stuff of humanity is non-religious, and then different religious beliefs are placed on that neutral base like the toppings on a pizza. Keep a child away from religion, so the argument goes, and you enable them to make their own evidence-based decision from a neutral and disinterested perspective. But in reality, there is no neutral position. Everyone starts from their own set of assumptions. What Dawkins wants is to ensure that as many children as possible start from his set of assumptions.
Third, from a specifically Christian point of view, Dawkins’ choice of language undermines what we believe about the nature of Christian belief. It encourages the view that being a Christian is principally about the decisions and commitments that we make as individuals. Since a child is too young to examine the evidence for Christianity and make their own mind up, a child cannot be a Christian.
Baptism, and particularly infant baptism, remind us that being a Christian is not principally about the commitments we make to God, but about the commitment that God makes to us. It is about God saying to us, whether we are old enough to understand it or not, “You are my dear, dear child. I am delighted with you” (to quote NT Wright’s delightful paraphrase of Mark 1:11).
A “Christian child” is not a Christian child because they have sat down with no prior commitments and made their own decision from a neutral point of view; nor because they have been so propagandised by their parents as to be incapable of making their own mind up, brainwashed from birth into a helpless dependency on religious belief. A Christian child is such because, in their baptism, God has declared to them that they are his dear, dear child, and he is delighted with them.
For all these reasons, Christians should remain clear that our children are “Christian children”, not because we refuse to teach them to think for themselves (quite the contrary), but because they are born into the life of the Christian community, the church, and because God has given them his promises in Christ through baptism.