Richard Dawkins begins his famous 1991 essay “Viruses of the Mind” with the following words:
“A beautiful child close to me, six and the apple of her father’s eye, believes that Thomas the Tank Engine really exists. She believes in Father Christmas, and when she grows up her ambition is to be a tooth fairy. She and her school-friends believe the solemn words of respected adults that tooth fairies and Father Christmas really exist. This little girl is of an age to believe whatever you tell her. If you tell her about witches changing princes into frogs she will believe you. If you tell her that bad children roast forever in hell she will have nightmares. I have just discovered that without her father’s consent this sweet, trusting, gullible six-year-old is being sent, for weekly instruction, to a Roman Catholic nun. What chance has she?”
This passage raises at least three distinct issues. First, there is the issue of pedagogy and parental consent. Second, there is the issue of age-appropriate content. (Whatever you may think about the truth of the doctrine of eternal conscious torment, one can still ask about the appropriateness of teaching it to a six year old.) Finally, lingering behind the words of the passage we have the most decisive issue of all: should parents teach their children truth claims which Richard Dawkins believes to be the equivalent of belief in tooth fairies and Father Christmas, i.e. as obviously false and patently ridiculous?
Let’s keep that last issue in mind as we turn to chapter 8 of Dawkins’ book Climbing Mount Improbable which begins with Dawkins recalling an exchange with his six year old daughter Juliet. When she commented on the beautiful flowers by the side of the road, Dawkins was prompted to ask her what she believed wildflowers were for:
“She gave a very thoughtful answer. ‘Two things,’ she said. ‘To make the world pretty, and to help the bees make honey for us.’ I was touched by this and sorry I had to tell her it wasn’t true.”
In other words, this sweet, trusting, gullible six-year-old is being raised by a father who categorically rejects the presence of teleology in nature. Instead, he is instructing her in the doctrine that all the diversity of life is produced by blind cosmic forces.
What chance has she?