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Posted by on Jan 20, 2014 in Atheism, Featured, Religion | 8 comments

‘A Muslim baby’ is not ‘just how it works’

 

Tim Stanley has issued a rebuttal to Richard Dawkins’ contention that we ought not refer to babies as adherents of a particular religion, for example ‘Muslim baby’ or ‘Christian baby’. Dawkins’ reasoning is essentially that one’s religious label is a description of one’s beliefs. So, a ‘Christian x‘ is an that beliefs the fundamental tenets of Christianity. It is the same with some non-religious labels, like ‘conservative x‘. ‘Conservative’ in the general sense talks about political beliefs held at a given point in time. So “I was a conservative, but now I’m a radical socialist” means that at a point in the past, the speaker held certain beliefs that she has now replaced with other (possibly conflicting) beliefs.

Stanley puts forward two reasons to doubt Dawkins. First, “that’s how [the religion] works”. Since the various religious world-views involve seeing the children of adherents of the religion as adherents of the religion, then they’re adherents of the religion. Second, “that’s how culture works”. We’re happy to call the babies of British parents ‘British babies’, so likewise we should be happy to call the babies of Scientologist parents ‘Scientologist babies’.

Both of these reasons take the same form; “that’s just how we do things around here”, but let’s take each sub-reason in turn.

1) Yes, some religious doctrines, if true, would entail that children are members of their parents’ religion. Should the press assume the truth of a religion before reporting on it? I would say no. But rather than spending time arguing that point, let’s look at the story in Islam, as Stanley summarises:

[Muslims] think that all humans are innately Muslim and that life is a process of submitting to that state of grace.

 

This isn’t a mistake – to the best of my knowledge Stanley is right about ‘what Muslims believe’ (my scare-quotes acknowledge the huge generalisation). So, as all babies are ‘Muslim babies’, it trivially follows that babies of Muslim parents are ‘Muslim babies’. You’ve probably noticed the absurdity by now. If we are to accept Stanley’s reasoning, then we ought to start calling all babies ‘Muslim babies’, regardless of what their parents believe. Now, for many Muslims this might be acceptable, but to others this clearly won’t be, and the article in the Times about “a tenth of babies in England and Wales are Muslim” (the one that Dawkins was objecting to in his letter) should really be “every baby born in England and Wales and indeed on the planet Earth is a Muslim”!

[Edit: It also occurred to me that Stanley makes the same mistake with Christianity:

...because the baby is a gift from God, because it has been baptised with water and because Jesus died for it – that baby is, in some way, a Christian.

I'm not sure how necessary the baptism is. Presumably he would still consider non-baptised babies Christian babies if both parents are Christian, and a survey based on the parents' religion wouldn't be bothered to check that each so-called 'Christian baby' had received a baptism. So, since according to Stanley Jesus died for all babies, and all babies are a gift from God, all babies are 'Christian babies', not just those babies born to Christian parents. Stanley's argument leads to the absurd conclusion that all babies are both Muslim and Christian, mutatis mutandis with any other religion that wants to claim the newborn as adherents.  End edit.]

So Stanley’s first argument surely cannot be sound.

2) When I was born I was a British Muslim baby, and I attribute this to a combination of two factors. First, my parents are both British, and second, I was born in London. I suppose the second factor doesn’t matter all that much – if I was born in France, say, I would still consider myself just as British. I do of course acknowledge that there are other factors, and that even if both parents are not British, one can still be considered British.

The analogy between religion and nationality, however, is pretty flawed. How do I convert to a religion? Well the simplest way would just be to believe a few basic tenets of the religion. So if I want to convert to Christianity, I just need to ‘accept Jesus as my Lord and Saviour’ or something along those lines. If I do that, I’m a Christian. But suppose I’ve just been watching a bit of football and I really want to play for the Brazilian national team. To do that I need two things: silky skills and a reasonable claim on being Brazilian. I have the skills – at least in my imagination, but how can I become Brazilian? What do I need to believe? Well, there’s nothing at all that I can believe such that I would be reasonably considered Brazilian. I would have to do something like: live there for a certain length of time, pass some tests, sign some forms, and get myself a Brazilian passport. By this time I would be too old to keep up with Neymar & co.

Your religion, therefore, describes what you believe, since it is by virtue of your currently held beliefs that you convert or apostatise. Your nationality at birth is a product of your parents’ nationality, since that is ‘just how nationality works’.

Dawkins’ contention is therefore untroubled by Stanley’s rather weak objections. A baby is too young to know whether or not he or she is a Christian, a Muslim, an atheist, an Objectivist, a Branch Davidian, etc. Let’s wait until they tell us what their beliefs really are before we start slapping on labels.

 

  • SimonNorwich

    I think Tim Stanley actually understands all this. His article reeked of deliberate misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Dawkins’ point.

  • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

    I did feel that his argument was so poor that it was as if he thought “I want to object to Dawkins. Now, I’ll need to think of some reasons…”

  • SimonNorwich

    Exactly. What really annoys me is that the editors of these major news publications allow so many people to keep making the same poor arguments against the same man. I’ve no problem with people making original and intelligent arguments against Richard Dawkins or anyone else, but these arguments are tiresome and have been comprehensively refuted over and over again. Editors should be sharp enough to recognise that there is an agenda against Richard Dawkins that is purely spiteful.

  • kraut2

    “I’m
    not sure how necessary the baptism is. Presumably he would still
    consider non-baptised babies Christian babies if both parents are
    Christian”

    In catholicism unless you are baptized you are not a Christian and not saved by jesus.

    Until baptized you are still under the curse of original sin.

    http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s2c1a1.htm
    “1257 The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation.60 He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them.61
    Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has
    been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this
    sacrament.62 The Church does not know of any means other than
    Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she
    takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to
    see that all who can be baptized are “reborn of water and the Spirit.” God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments”

    “1261 As regards children who have died without Baptism,
    the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in
    her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires
    that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children
    which caused him to say: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder
    them,”64 allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation
    for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the
    Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through
    the gift of holy Baptism”

    Your salvation as an unbaptized child of catholic child rests with gods mercy.
    You are not a christian child until baptism.

  • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

    Isn’t “Catholic baby” just convenient shorthand for “a baby being raised from birth to believe the tenets and practice the rituals of Catholicism” rather than an affirmation that the baby actually believes something right now?

  • kraut2

    That is the meaning of catholic baby. You are now a member of the club. The baptism cleans you of the original sin, thereby assuring that the bay as an entity unlikely to have sinned can enter heaven if it dies as a baby.
    Even catholics do not belive a baby can believe anything.

  • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

    Doesn’t that undermine Dawkins’ argument, rooted as it is in the notion that “Catholic” means precisely the same thing when applied to babies as adults?

  • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

    Sure, but that assumes the truth of Catholicism. Dawkins was responding to a scientific-ish article about the proportion of babies born into Muslim families, that called them “Muslim babies”. Perhaps Muslims think so, but one shouldn’t assume the truth of Islam when writing a secular article.