Bribing to (dis)believe – How Dawkins is teaching children to “think for themselves”

Believe not in unicorns and receive a £10 note consecrated by Dawkins

Believe not in unicorns and receive a £10 note consecrated by Dawkins (image source: “Invisible Pink Unicorn”, Wikipedia)

Right after I published my previous post about how Dawkins is creating a cult of personality around himself and using it to scam his atheist followers, a friend of mine mentioned the following article “Richard Dawkins launches children’s summer camp for atheists,” which was published by The Telegraph in 2009. The article reported that Dawkins was setting up summer camps for children akin to those organized by churches and other religious organizations, which suggests that Dawkins “makes atheism look even more like the thing he is rallying against,” according to a spokesman of the Church of England commenting on Dawkins’ plans. This article confirms exactly what I have said in my previous post; atheism, especially the one preached by Dawkins is less the absence of religion and more an alternative religion.

What I find even more striking in this article is how this camp is going to “encourage children to think for themselves” according to Dawkins. The Telegraph reported that children at the camp were to be introduced to the “Invisible Unicorn Challenge,” in which they are told that the area around the camp is inhabited by two Unicorns, and then asked to “prove that the unicorns do not exist.”

So far so good; there is nothing wrong about giving children mental exercises, even when they are directed toward particular viewpoints. However, when you read in the article that children who succeed in this challenge—i.e. those who prove the non-existence of the unicorns—are rewarded with £10 notes signed by Dawkins, you pause and ask yourself two questions: First, are the children here being taught to “think for themselves” or “bribed” to think in a specific way? Second, aren’t the children here being taught to think of a normal person (assuming that in atheism all people are normal) like Dawkins in a way that is almost prophet-like?

If children were really to be taught to think for themselves, then, first, they shouldn’t receive material or non-material benefits for thinking in a specific way; second, they should be encouraged to give different opinions than the adults who are in positions of authority in relation to them, such as their parents, their supervisors at the camp, and, most importantly, the principal figure and ideologue of the organization taking care of their education. However, it is quite obvious that to think for themselves is not actually what Dawkins want to teach children, but to think like him, and, worse, to think very highly of him!

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4 thoughts on “Bribing to (dis)believe – How Dawkins is teaching children to “think for themselves”

  1. Actually, positive reinforcement, ie. being rewarded for some sort of behaviour, is an effective means of educating children. I have more of a problem with the wording of the challenge. I wouldn’t say “prove that x doesn’t exist,” I’d say “why do you think x exists or doesn’t exist,” then I’d ask them a series of questions to help them create the best argument possible.
    Why do people think that Dawkins is some sort of atheist prophet? Creating a community for ourselves isn’t about starting a religion, it’s about having a community. A lot of atheists have to hide their beliefs from the community they live in. Having a community where they can talk about their beliefs is freeing. We shouldn’t have to hide our beliefs in order to avoid “looking religious” to those who are looking for any excuse to say that we are trying to create our own religion.

  2. I agree with you hessianwithteeth that positive reinforcement is a common and legitimate practice in education. Surely all communities, religious or not, do that in order to educate their children in accordance with their beliefs. My problem is not with the practice itself, but by putting it under the banner of “encouraging children to think for themselves.” This is more about encouraging the children to learn the beliefs of their own group, which is in this case disbelief in supernatural beings.

    I don’t think critics who’re accusing Dawkins of acting like a Prophet do so only because he is trying to establish a community. If you look at the article I cited in my previous post, “The bizarre – and costly – cult of Richard Dawkins,” you see that the way Dawkins and some of his followers act give impression of something like a personality cult around himself.

    Please don’t take my criticisms of Dawkins as criticisms of all atheists. I understand the need for atheists to have communities and organizations representing them in order to defend their rights and live their lives openly in society, and I think they perfectly have the right to do so, as long as they do that in the name of plurality, tolerance, and respect for all other beliefs.

  3. softconfuciius says:

    Maybe that the report in The Telegraph has shortened the task given to the children. If he really should have asked them “to prove that the unicorns do not exist” it would have been an unsolvable problem, at least from the point of view of empirical sciences. As Karl Popper has made clear, it is impossible to empirically prove the nonexistence of anything. You can only get empirical data for things that exist, but not to have empirical evidence of something does not “prove” that it doesn’t exist. At any rate, the space and time in which something is declared to exist must be specified. “Around their tents” is not sufficiently specific. And of course, the implied idea to “prove” the nonexistence of God is completely wrong because God is by definition no physical object open to empirical observation.

    • I agree with you completely that proving the non-existence of something (whether an invisible unicorn or God) is empirically impossible. Perhaps the task should have been formulated in a way like: Is there a unicorn around the camp? Can you find any traces of it? Do you have any reason to believe it is there?

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