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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