Category: Richard’s News

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.

Anne McElvoy and Jan Piotrowski ask one of the world’s best-known evolutionary biologists whether science can guide us through a turbulent world of post-truth. Can there really be an objective truth, or will our existing biases win out?

Richard Dawkins

24 Oct 2017


I had tweeted an invitation to attend lectures in various parts of Britain by Saba Douglas-Hamilton, who grew up among wild African elephants while her father, Iain Douglas-Hamilton was conducting his pioneering studies of their ecology and behaviour, and he and his wife Oria were fighting the poachers. Saba’s series of lectures is in aid of Save the Elephants, the charity founded by Iain, devoted to saving these magnificent animals from extinction ( Among the responses to my tweet, the following two caught my attention, partly because of their irrelevance






Replying to @RightWingRebel




This little exchange reminded me of how extremely strongly people can feel about abortion, on both sides of the argument. It is a subject whose importance has been inflated out of all sensible proportion. For many it is the dominant issue that sways their vote, eclipsing things that really matter such as defence policy, economics, social welfare, health care, poverty, global warming and, indeed, conservation.

I have redacted the name of the second tweeter because it seems to be her real name and I don’t wish to embarrass her. I have no such compunction with “RightWingRebel”, who hides behind a pseudonym. But both tweeters seem to me misguided.

I’ll briefly consider the second tweeter and her reply to RightWingRebel. Her argument is the commonest one offered by the pro-choice side. The embryo, she says, is “part of a woman’s body”? Well, it’s a point of view but not one likely to influence “pro-lifers.” They will simply disagree with her presumption, and the question cannot be settled by any objective test. It depends what we mean by “part of.” She’s right if we define an individual as that which is enclosed within one body. But if we define an individual in other ways, the embryo is most definitely a separate individual. Much better to oppose “RightWingRebel” and his type by deploying a different set of arguments which, it seems to me, nobody could thoughtfully disagree with.

So, let me turn to RightWingRebel’s reply to my tweet. It reeks of speciesism. An elephant is a mere “animal” while an unborn person is human. But the elephant has a highly developed nervous system and is beyond reasonable doubt capable of feeling pain. Indeed there is no reason to think an elephant feels pain any less acutely than adult humans do, let alone human embryos. There is even suggestive evidence that elephants feel grief, mourning the death of friends and relatives.

We don’t know whether human embryos can feel pain. But it’s safe to say an early embryo before the nervous system develops can no more feel pain than a pumpkin or a beetroot. If later embryos with nervous systems can suffer, the level of pain of which they are capable must be far less than that of a full-grown elephant with its massive brain. Presumably not even RightWingRebel thinks an embryo can mourn like an adult elephant; or like a human mother who had longed for a baby and is grief-stricken when she spontaneously miscarries, as happens distressingly often; or suffer like a woman forced to give birth to a baby that she never wanted.  

What other arguments might RightWingRebel, or someone of similar intellectual calibre, deploy? The embryo may not be capable of much yet, but it has potential. By killing it you are depriving a potential person of future life. Yes, and in exactly the same way a woman is depriving a potential person of future life every time she refuses unprotected sexual intercourse when fertile. So much for the “potential person” argument.

The “slippery slope” argument has a little more going for it. If we allow the killing of embryos, mightn’t some logic-chopper pop up and say the following: “The baby immediately after it is born is indistinguishable from immediately before it is born. So if you allow abortion, are we not on the slippery slope to infanticide?”

It isn’t hard to answer the slippery slope argument. Pro-choice advocates aren’t talking about late abortion. The question only arises if the life of a mother is imperilled and doctors have a straight choice between saving her and saving the baby. Only a more than usually dogmatic Roman Catholic would ask a doctor to kill a mother to save her baby. All decent people were shocked when, in 2012, Savita Halappanavar died in an Irish hospital because Catholic doctors refused her husband’s pleas to save her life by ending that of her baby (although they knew the baby was going to die anyway). Even the collective of Irish bishops had second thoughts in the wake of Savita Halappanavar’s tragic death.

By the way, Catholic insistence on “personhood” beginning at conception can be demolished by an amusing tease. Confront your Catholic bishop with a pair of identical twins (they split after conception, of course) and ask him which one got the soul: which twin is the “person”, which one the zombie.

The abortion issue bulks too large in many peoples’ minds. Voters have gone so far as to declare that the only reason they voted for an otherwise unconscionable candidate was his opposition to abortion. Otherwise decent people have gone so far as to murder a doctor because he performs abortions. Such murderers sincerely believe in their own righteousness. They go to their punishment rejoicing in the expectation of a great reward in heaven.

You can sort of see how these people could come to their warped conclusion. They honestly and sincerely believe that abortion is murder. The right way to answer them is not to say that a woman has a right to do what she likes to a part of her own body. They will simply deny the premise and accuse her of murder. The right response to people like “RightWingRebel” is show them they are being illogical, speciesist and – oh dear – really rather stupid.