Friday, December 9, 2016

Reppert and the Principle of Charity

What would you think if a child brought home a report card with a B grade on it, and his father told him that he was stupid and he would never amount to anything?  I think many people would agree with me that the parent is being abusive, and that his behavior could potentially be damaging to the child, especially if that was part of a pattern that persisted throughout the son's childhood years.  What should we do about this parent?  Take the child away from him?  Lock him up in prison?  I don't think so.  The parent has broken no laws.  Some of us may not like the way he treats his child, but he is within his rights as a parent.

There are many kinds of child abuse.  They have various degrees of severity.  Some, but certainly not all, are sexual in nature.  Some inflict visible physical harm, while others may have a more subtle effect on the victim.  Some are illegal, and others aren't.  We may frown upon certain behaviors that we think are abusive, while others would disagree that they are abusive at all.  But it would be absurd to think that all kinds of child abuse, regardless of their severity, should be met with criminal punishment.

Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have spoken about certain kinds of religious practices that are abusive to children.  They include psychological and emotional abuse, as well as physical abuse and denial of vital medical treatments.  The more severe forms of religious child abuse may or may not be illegal, depending on which state you live in.  Some states allow religious practices, under the guise of religious freedom, that are revolting to even some of the most hard-core religionists.

Dawkins has discussed this issue in his book The God Delusion.  It is worth noting that the book goes to lengths to describe different kinds and severity of child abuse.  He says that certain religious teaching can be psychologically traumatic to a child, and describes instances where this is indeed the case.  He compares this to his own experience of sexual abuse at the hands of a teacher, which was uncomfortable, but didn't create a severe, long-lasting damaging effect on his psyche.  He argues that some religious teaching, such as instilling an intense fear of burning in hell, can be more traumatic to a child, and more and long-lasting than that.
But I think it can be plausibly argued that such a deeply held belief might cause a child more long-lasting mental trauma than the temporary embarrassment of mild physical abuse. - Dawkins
This is a reasonable argument.  Nevertheless, it serves as fodder for those who want to paint Dawkins in the most uncharitable light possible.

Articles like this one in The Daily Mail make no effort to convey a true sense of what Dawkins is actually arguing.  Instead, they focus on the sensational:  Religious teaching is worse than sexual abuse of a child.  And this is exactly the kind of mindless sensationalism we would expect to hear from The Daily Mail.

But there is a community of intellectual thinkers, known as philosophers, who are capable of understanding the argument and debating its merits without being distracted by sensationalism.  They use a long-standing principle in philosophy known as "charity", that entails interpretation of an argument in the most rational and persuasive light.  It is that charitable understanding of the argument that should be engaged and debated.  And that's what any decent philosopher would do.  Right?

Unless the philosopher is a confirmed Dawkins-hater.  Victor Reppert takes a Daily Mail approach to interpreting pretty much anything that Dawkins says.
One element of New Atheism that strikes me as aggressive is Dawkins' claim that religious believers who present their religious beliefs as true to their children are abusing them. Usually when people make charges of child abuse, they expect law enforcement to stop child abusers from continuing to do so, sometimes by removing the child from the home. Dawkins hasn't suggested that, but that seems an easy logical step. - Reppert
Victor makes no effort to distinguish between different forms and severities of child abuse, as Dawkins does.  Victor has no interest in debating the issue.  His goal is to make Dawkins out to be a monster who would suppress the religious rights of all believers.  Notice how he associates the term "child abuse" with the worst forms that should (rightly) be subject to action by law enforcement.  There are no shades of meaning in Victor's uncharitable interpretation.  There is no room for rational debate.  He's not saying that Dawkins wants to outlaw religious teaching, but he's just saying ...


  1. Pretty much so. Reppert has largely resorted to throwing out red meat of this sort fairly regularly to the bottomfeeders that circle his site. Then, when one is a purveyor of such perverse ideas how else is he able to maintain the interest of his shrinking readership?

    He long ago forfeited the intellectual highground of his academic training and the nature of his religious inculcation has largely reduced him to feeding the frenzied few their regular bowl of theologically-spiced gruel: "Do Christian views discriminate against gay people?" [Apparently no according to Reppert]; how about this old hackneyed trope: "The difference between ID and creationism" [as if any difference will be of any significance or practical value worthy of consideration]; "What is wrong with being a bigot?" [while ostensibly about cake decorators it is really about defending the indefensible in the guise of religious freedom, the 'trooth' of the bible against marriage equality for LGBTI and the special religious right to discriminate against them, against Muslims, against women's right to sovereignty over her own body, and a host of other increasingly anti-social views].

    Reppert's site reads as a re-run of old movies, a rehashing of tired and time-worn thoughts and ideas, a veritable smorgasbord of religious-daubed tropes that are, one-by-one, slowly and surely being interred as societies and communities develop and mature in an age of reason and knowledge.

    Whether he likes it or not, Reppert's perspectives are quietly and not so quietly being shelved into the history of inconsequent and irrelevant ideas, anachronisms in a modern forward-thinking and forward-looking world.

    Reppert makes Dawkins out to be a pariah, a nasty person who is against religion. And in doing so he is in complete and utter denial of the very long history of christian intolerance for, fanaticism against and dogmatic revanchism towards anything and all perceived as a threat to the hegemony of christian influence, be it social, cultural, behavioural, or scientific. Reppert's site represents the rump of society that continues to play out over the interweb today their somewhat forlorn reactionary attempt to shore up the leaky christian dike against the ineluctable tide of social change.

    1. And in doing so he is in complete and utter denial of the very long history of christian intolerance for, fanaticism against and dogmatic revanchism towards anything and all perceived as a threat to the hegemony of christian influence

      I think you hit the nail on the head. He fears that Dawkins' attitude is the same as that of the religionists. Here's an interesting case in Britain of religious beliefs superseding the rights of a father to teach his own child legitimate science.