Since Richard Dawkins withdrew his support for a petition to make religious upbringing illegal, many are now trying to make it look as if the petition was so out of tune with the rest of Dawkins' writings that only those with an irrational hatred of him could believe that he had truly endorsed it.
PZ Myers, for example, quotes from Dawkins' The God Delusion, where Dawkins voices his support for comparative religion, where children can learn about the "many mutually incompatible belief-systems." But that doesn't say anything about the right of parents to raise their children in a particular religion. And as I previously noted, in Dawkins' so-called retraction, he really only regrets signing the petition because it would have also made comparative religion classes illegal. He nowhere affirmed his support for the legal right of parents to give their children a religious upbringing.
In fact, anyone who has followed Dawkins' public statements on religion would have plenty of reasons to think that he would want religious upbringing made illegal. After all, this is a man that has referred to a Catholic upbringing as causing more harm than sexual abuse at the hands of a priest, and who thinks that merely talking about a "Catholic child" or a "Protestant child" is "a kind of child abuse". And in his newest book, The God Delusion, he repeats psychologist Nicholas Humphrey's demand that we should not "allow parents to teach their children to believe … in the literal truth of the Bible":
My colleague the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey used the "sticks and stones" proverb in introducing his Amnesty Lecture in Oxford in 1997. Humphrey began his lecture by arguing that the proverb is not always true, citing the case of Haitian Voodoo believers who die, apparently from some psychosomatic effect of terror, within days of having a malign "spell" cast upon them. He then asked whether Amnesty International, the beneficiary of the lecture series to which he was contributing, should campaign against hurtful or damaging speeches or publications. His answer was a resounding no to such censorship in general: "Freedom of speech is too precious a freedom to be meddled with." But he then went on to shock his liberal self by advocating one important exception: to argue in favour of censorship for the special case of children … "… 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." [pp. 325-326; thanks to Stephen E. Jones for finding and transcribing the quote for me.]
Another of those trying to make Dawkins look better is Nick Matzke, who has reposted his correspondence with Dawkins. Matzke explicitly asks him whether he wants to make it illegal for parents to teach their religion to their children. But once again, Dawkins completely evades that issue, instead talking about the "labelling of children":
Of course I don't think it would be a good idea. I am horrified by the thought. My entire campaign against the labelling of children (what the petition called 'defining' children) by the religion of their parents has been a campaign of CONSCIOUSNESS-RAISING. I want to educate people so that they flinch when they hear a phrase like 'Catholic child' or 'Muslim child' "“ just as feminists have taught us to wince when we hear 'one man one vote'. But that is consciousness-raising, not legislation. No feminist that I would wish to know ever suggested a legal ban on masculine pronouns. And of course I don't want to make it illegal to use religious labels for children. I want to raise consciousness, so that the phrase 'Christian child' sounds like a fingernail scraping on a blackboard. But if I dislike the use of religious words to label children, I dislike even more the idea that governments should police the words that anybody uses about anything. I don't want a legal ban on the use of words like nigger and yid. I want people to feel ashamed of using them. Similarly, I want people to feel ashamed of using the phrase 'Christian child', but I don't want to make it illegal to use it.
Dawkins' reply doesn't make any sense. If he really thinks that the "labelling of children" is child abuse (an accusation he repeated as late as yesterday), why wouldn't he want the government to stop it? Does he also think that government should stop prosecuting parents who knock their children's teeth out, instead relying on "consciousness-raising" to make people voluntarily stop doing it?
At the very least, this shows Dawkins to be a shallow thinker, who signs petitions and write books without thinking of the implications of his words. At the worst, it suggests that his "retraction" had more to the with political expediency than with personal conviction.