Tuesday, April 16, 2002

Just because

Steven Den Beste says he is an atheist. And in this post he notes that he has arrived at some moral principles that are consistent with religious teachings, but via his own path. He questions a post of Amy Welborn's about moral instruction.

I would probably be better described as agnostic than atheist, but my own path is probably much like SDB's. I don't like the idea of someone handing me stone tablets and being told to believe. But the longer I live I find that I keep winding up in the same places those stone tablets pointed me to all along.

A "because I said so" approach to teaching morality won't appeal to a lot of us. We insist on finding our own ways. We might even think ourselves sophisticated for questioning what we might dismiss as dogma. And later, many of us find as I do that accepting what we were taught would have saved us much grief.

Arguably those most in need of moral instruction are children. I contend that they must be taught morality dogmatically. What's the alternative? Raising moral imbeciles.

If you don't believe me, ask why we teach math the way we do. We could show kids the numbers and wait for them to derive addition and multiplication tables, or let them figure out long division on their own. But we know the kids are not equally talented in the relevant reasoning, and are likely to need the results of such reasoning long before they're capable of the reasoning themselves.

The morally unsophisticated among us, such as children, must be prepared to treat certain moral conclusions as settled fact until they have the intellectual tools and experience needed to finish deriving them on their own. They must understand that the adults aren't kidding when they say "some day you'll understand".

And those who object to dogmas must understand that others need it to get jumpstarted. Newbies need rules, and they shouldn't be encouraged to break them until they know them and why they're there. Only then are they prepared to give or receive the kinds of explanations SDB writes of in his post.

So for early instruction, there's nothing wrong with what SDB would call dogma. As he notes, the elders of a healthy faith ought to be able to explain their beliefs articulately. But for kids, dogma is desirable and necessary.

And I think it's sad that some will find this controversial.

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