“Jewish child”? “Muslim child”? “Christian child”?

Cultural Tradition has its place, but that place is not in factual education.

By Richard Dawkins

My oft-repeated (some might say too oft) point about the absurdity – indeed wickedness – of labelling children with the religion of their parents (“Would you speak of a ‘Postmodernist child’, or a ‘Gramscian Marxist child’?”) is usually effective. People nearly always get the point immediately, although whether their future consciousness is raised to the point of actually wincing, as I do, whenever they hear ‘Catholic child’ or ‘Muslim child’ is another matter. But there is one counter-argument that I often meet, and it sounds superficially plausible. It is my purpose here to deal with it.

The objectors I am speaking of often invoke the special case of Judaism, but the point can be made more generally. It is ridiculous and wrong, they say, to try to discourage parents from passing on their cultural traditions to their children. Language, accent, styles of dress, diet, mealtime habits, proverbs, poetic allusions, games, non-verbal signals or greetings such as head-shaking or nodding or social kissing, these are all culturally transmitted. Humanity would be the poorer if we lost them. Religion, so it is claimed, is just another member of the list.

I accept much of that and rejoice in the colourfully varying traditions of world cultures. But religion is not just another member of the list. It is completely different. Here’s why.

Religion makes truth claims about the real world.. This sets it apart from other traditions handed down, such as styles of dress and cookery. If a ‘Jewish child’ is labelled by a yarmulke on his head and peyot curls in front of his ears, that seems to me no more sinister than a culturally transmitted preference for cricket or baseball, or a habit of wearing a kilt and sporran rather than trousers (culturally transmitted body-mutilation of children is a very different matter). The problem arises when the ‘Jewish child’ (‘Muslim child’ etc) is assumed to hold, by virtue of his Jewishness (etc), a belief about some factual proposition: a proposition, say, about the age of the world, whose truth depends only upon evidence and is not culturally determined. Such faith-based beliefs about reality all too often actively contradict the evidence and therefore subvert genuine education.

There are legitimate and admirable respects in which people differ from one another by virtue of traditions, handed down through generations. Factual beliefs about the real world should not be among them. When you put it like that, I find it hard to imagine how any person of goodwill and intelligence could seriously disagree. Yet because it is usually not put like that, there are many people, even non-religious people of intelligence and goodwill, who have been duped into confusing the ‘cultural tradition’ side of religion with the ‘factual beliefs’ side. When such confusion flows from the labelling of children it is downright wicked.