Predictably, religious leaders in Kerala have got their knickers in a knot over the contents of a school textbook that apparently “tries to inject atheist values into young minds”. And why? Well, because the textbook 1) encourages children not to flaunt their religion anywhere, 2) asks rhetorical questions such as “which religion would be worst hit in the event of a drinking water crisis, epidemic or earthquake?”, and 3) includes a story about parents telling a school headmaster that their child will be allowed to choose his own religion when he grows up.
Personally I’m impressed by this textbook – it makes a heck of a lot more sense than most of the ones I grew up with (which admittedly isn’t saying much; I did Commerce and Accounts in 10+2). But I can’t understand what the protesters are so vigorously objecting to. Let’s momentarily forget the whole hyper-sensitive religious-irreligious divide and simply examine each point on its own merits.
Point one. I propose that it makes perfect sense to ask children not to go about flaunting their religion. Unless you’re a closet child-hater who wants to see younglings killing each other in riots (since we all know what the eventual consequences of flaunting can be). I say let the poor dears grow up, suffer through at least 12 years of formal education and then kill each other in riots. It should be an informed adult choice.
Point two. The implicit answer to the question asked in the textbook is that all religions would be equally badly hit in most such cases: natural calamities don’t make the distinctions that human beings do. In my view, the question is a sensitive and genuinely secular one that has the good sense to place basic humanity over religion. It’s also a fine counterpoint to the vile suggestions often made by people looking to promote their own agendas – that such-and-such disaster was “God’s way of punishing the wicked” (for more on that, see this post by Amit).
But point three is the one I’m most interested in. In The God Delusion, a book that is much more temperate and restrained in tone than its reputation suggests, the one time Richard Dawkins gets really angry is when he discusses the near-universal practice of labeling children with the religion of their parents; he points out that in an ideal world there would be no such thing as “a Christian child” or “a Hindu child”, just as there is no such thing as a Marxist or Libertarian child. The idea might instinctively make many people uncomfortable, but think about this: though most of us associate the term “child abuse” with sexual abuse or violence, it basically applies to any situation where children are attributed motivations or emotions (or expected to display behaviour) that they are too young to understand the implications of. Why should religion be given a green chit in this context?
(It’s important to note that in the story provided in the textbook, we are not told the child’s birth-religion. If it had been specified that he was from a Muslim or Hindu or Christian family, it would be possible to see the story as having a hidden, proselytizing agenda or displaying prejudice against a particular faith. But that isn’t the case here.)
Speaking pragmatically, I know that in the real world it’s futile to expect most parents to be so liberal – too many people want their children to be miniature versions of themselves, complete with all their beliefs and sacred cows neatly preserved and passed down till Kingdom (or Oblivion) Come. But I wish more parents – even the ones who shudder at the dirty word “atheist” – could see that there is merit in at least some atheist values.