‘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 x 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.