Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3 – Part 4
Forget the philosopher Weird Al Yankovic’s tales of an Amish paradise. Forget the Amish friendship bread. Nicholas Humphrey represents a very troubling trend amongst atheists to apply the most malicious and vicious of labels to those with whom they disagree as he states, amongst many other things, that “The Amish…survive only by kidnapping little children.”
The New Atheist sentiments of “religious” parents raising their children according to their “faith” as “child abusers” is no mere intellectual exercise or controversy stirring tactic; I have personally experienced the displeasure of having one of those militant activist atheists tell me to my face, “you abuse your children.” Of course, I invited them to notify the authorities, which they declined to do. Rather odd I thought; they know that I am a child abuser and are doing nothing about it—that makes them worse that I.
However, some atheists are pushing to make it so that they will someday be able to do something about it. Richard Dawkins envisages “society stepping in?” in hopes that his movements’ interference “might lead children to choose no religion at all.”
We will now cover a significant lecture on the subject by Nicholas Humphrey who is the School Professor at the London School of Economics and Professor of Psychology at the New School for Social Research.
This was an Oxford Amnesty Lecture of 1997 AD and has been alternately published as “What shall we tell the children?” and “What shall we tell the children?” (PDF, HTML).
In an illogical and falsely dichotomous manner Nicholas Humphrey manipulates his audience into accepting the vision of he, and cenobites like him, as arbiters of what will be allowable to be taught to your children.
His various references to “liberals” are in acknowledgment that he is well aware of his audience’s constituency. Thus, he is addressing what he hopes to be a sympathetic audience and seeks to placate any objections that they may have along the way.
In addressing Amnesty International he seeks to encourage them to not only seek to liberate people from physical bondage but from the bondage of children’s captivity to their parents. Children, he argues are to be inoculated against their parent’s “word-virus” or viral religious memes.
Should we then be fighting Amnesty's battle on this front too? Should we be campaigning for the rights of human beings to be protected from verbal oppression and manipulation? Do we need "word laws", just as all civilised societies have gun laws, licensing who should be allowed to use them in what circumstances? Should there be Geneva protocols establishing what kinds of speech act count as crimes against humanity?
He presupposes that the rhetorical answer is “no.” Perhaps in 1997 AD “hate-speech” was not as of yet inculcated into American society, and illegal in Canada, as it is today. In any regard, he seeks to rectify the answer by elucidating his purpose:
…we should try to make up for the harm that other people's words do, but not by censoring the words as such…it is the purpose of my lecture today to argue in one particular area just the opposite. To argue, in short, in favour of censorship, against freedom of expression, and to do so moreover in an area of life that has traditionally been regarded as sacrosanct.
I am talking about moral and religious education. And especially the education a child receives at home, where parents are allowed—even expected—to determine for their children what counts as truth and falsehood, right and wrong.
Children, I'll argue, have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people's bad ideas—no matter who these other people are. Parents, correspondingly, have no god-given licence to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose: no right to limit the horizons of their children's knowledge, to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma and superstition, or to insist they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith.
In short, children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense. And we as a society have a duty to protect them from it. So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible, or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children's teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.
That's the negative side of what I want to say. But there will be a positive side as well. If children have a right to be protected from false ideas, they have too a right to be succoured by the truth. And we as a society have a duty to provide it. Therefore we should feel as much obliged to pass on to our children the best scientific and philosophical understanding of the natural world—to teach, for example, the truths of evolution and cosmology, or the methods of rational analysis—as we already feel obliged to feed and shelter them. I don't suppose you'll doubt my good intentions here. Even so, I realise there may be many in this audience—especially the more liberal of you—who do not like the sound of this at all: neither the negative, nor still less the positive side of it.
We are instantly made to wonder just who will be the arbiter of what constitutes “bad ideas” and “nonsense.” We wonder if there really is no limiting “children's knowledge” (“Happy sixth birthday little Juanito! What? You want to learn about necrophilia. Sure, of course!”). And just what is “the truth”? Who doeth bequeath it?
We encounter what is perhaps the first of his very many manipulative dichotomies as he likens religious upbringing, the imparting of certain ideas, to physical mutilation:
Let's suppose we were talking not about children's minds but children's bodies. Suppose the issue were not who should control a child's intellectual development but who should control the development of her hands or feet . . . or genitalia. Let's suppose indeed that this is a lecture about female circumcision. And the issue is not whether anyone should be permitted to deny a girl knowledge of Darwin, but whether anyone should be permitted to deny her the uses of a clitoris.
And now here I am suggesting that it is a girl's right to be left intact, that parents have no right to mutilate their daughters to suit their own socio-sexual agenda, and that we as a society ought to prevent it. [ellipses in original]
There is quite a bit to state in this regard.
Primarily, Nicholas Humphrey knows that he is addressing a majority liberal audience and is thus, playing on the liberal instinct to recoil at the very thought of restricting sexuality in any way shape of form (with the most generic caveats against that which they personally find distasteful, of course). He seeks to liken physical mutilation to intellectual mutilation. While he is aware that in the one case he is dealing with irreparable damage and in the other with something that may be unlearned or augmented he will return to this fallacious likening nine times during the lecture (it is as if his notes stated, “Point weak here; mention female circumcision”).
Also, note that the term “female circumcision” is both ubiquitously employed and fallacious. It is supposed to be likened to male circumcision but is absolutely nothing like it.
Female “circumcision” is, as rightly stated above by Nicholas Humphrey, mutilation: it is the complete removal of the clitoris for the specific purpose of ensuring lifelong denial of sexual pleasure.
On the other hand, male circumcision is the removal of a little part of the penis’ foreskin which is not only very healthy but does not diminish sexual drive or pleasure.
Nicholas Humphrey has attempted to win his liberal audience to his side by going from recognizing that their natural reaction to his proposal of dictating child rearing is, shall we say; initially skittish, to getting them to be overcome with emotion for the, rightful, condemnation of child mutilation. This is a fallacious and yet very effecting tactic: he has won their empathy and having won their emotions their intellect is putty in his hands.