Can We Teach People to Be Atheists?

What would the world’s smartest atheist do if he ruled the world?  Easy.  Teach young people to be atheists.

But Daniel Dennett recognizes that in the real world, teaching young people to be atheists would be “inhumane and ineffective.”  Dennett aired his views in a recent bit in Prospect Magazine.  Ideally, Dennett insisted, the only way to fix the planet would be to guarantee

high quality, non-ideological education for boys in girls in every community on the globe.  If we could just liberate the world’s children from illiteracy, ignorance, and superstition, their curiosity would lead them to solutions that were both locally informed and sensitive . . .

Sounds good, but as Dennett recognizes, the devil is always in the details.  As Dennett acknowledges, there is no way to impose the atheistic truth on people without generating overwhelming opposition.  Not that Dennett wouldn’t do it if he could.  If education could be injected like a vaccine, Dennett says, he’d be in favor of forcing it on people.  But it’s just not that easy.

Though Dennett talks sense, it’s difficult not to be creeped out by the iron fist Dennett prefers not to use.  Those who disagree with his notions of proper knowledge are politically powerful, he acknowledges.  But if it weren’t for that political power Dennett would prefer to see them purged of their “benighted attitudes.”  At some point in the enlightened future, Dennett implies, such people, the “Billions of people in the world [who] don’t see that yet,” will be somehow convinced to join the side of atheistic truth.

To be fair, though, the question lends itself to dreams of dictatorial ambition.  What would you do if you ruled the world?  Would you have the restraint that Dennett does?  Would you recognize that the solutions you’d want to impose on the world’s problems might just cause more problems?


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  1. Reblogged this on Out From Under the Umbrella and commented:
    Good points which fit quite nicely with the topic I’ve been exploring. Fundamentalist religions “inoculate” their children with their superstitious beliefs. Would the world be better off if we could do the same as atheists? I’m not so sure. However, I do think a more balanced approach and teaching our children about world religions would be a good starting point.

    • I’ve been saying the same thing about religious education. Students should be exposed to different ideas and beliefs about the world’s religions. Teaching students about them will surely help combat some of the fear of the “other guy” when they realize that people are basically the same around the world, they just view the spiritual aspect of humanity in different ways. In such courses, I’d include atheism, too, and the many ways it is expressed. Good comment.

      • I agree. A world religions class should be a core class – not just an elective. It would make a world of difference if we started seeing each other as human beings instead of dehumanizing each other as “groups”.

  2. Let’s take on the worst features of organized religion if we get the chance. Brilliant. With no nuns though, who will wield the rulers?

  3. If I ruled the world, I’d get together teams of people to try to solve its complex issues. I think collaboration is much better than conflict, because time is wasted in fighting. Surely there are people with great ideas on issues of poverty, hunger, illiteracy, etc..

  4. Donna

     /  March 1, 2014

    If I had to rule the world, the first thing I’d do is hide under a blanket and refuse to come out. I don’t want that kind of responsibility! 🙂

  5. Religious freedom is the best option. Some people seem to think that Christians want to force everyone to be a Christian, and atheists want to force everyone to be an atheist. Instead, I think all compassionate people can agree (whether they’re religious or nonreligious) that religion is a very important, personal choice. The only way to live in harmony is to offer freedom of religion for all people.
    If I were ruler of the world, I would make sure that everyone had good quality, evidence-based education. I would make sure people learned about other religions in the world, so they wouldn’t fall for a religious leader teaching “We are the only good people, and everyone else is a devil.” I would make sure people learned about magic tricks, like too many “holy men” in India use to appear supernatural.
    But I wouldn’t go from there to teaching that all religion is fake. I think when people have all the facts they can make their own good conclusions.

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