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Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Myth of Ideological Neutrality

Hmm ... which one is neutral?
I remember a time very, very long ago when this sort of thing may actually have gotten traction between my ears:

“As an open-minded nonreligious parent, it’s important to me that my daughter make up her own mind about what to believe — independent of me, independent of her grandparents, independent of her friends and neighbors. I want her to learn about various systems of belief, and about science and evidence, and then decide what seems right to her. If she changes her mind along the way, that’s fine! As long as it’s her own inquisitiveness and independent thought that prompts each change of heart.

You’re with me on this, right?”

No, but Wendy Thomas Russell is not alone in her desire to step back and avoid unduly influencing the way her child forms her beliefs about religion.

Her position is actually a very common one, and on its face may even appear more broadminded, more tolerant and fairer than the alternative. But let’s just parse her statement a bit and see how well it holds up.

I think there are a few unchallenged assumptions in Wendy’s thinking that don’t pass the sniff test:

ASSUMPTION #  It’s Possible to be “Nonreligious”

This is true, I suppose, if by “nonreligious” we mean no more than “I don’t attend church and I don’t think about God a lot”. What is impossible for a human being is to be without some view ABOUT religion. And Wendy Thomas Russell most definitely has a view about religion: she believes it is unimportant.

There is nothing objective, neutral or non-ideological about such a position. She has, to the extent she cares to, examined religion and concluded nothing of substance turns on what you believe about it. Her ideology is that ideology doesn’t matter. That may not be an ideology with a lot of content, but it’s definitely an ideological position. Almost surely Wendy believes one or more of: (i) God is not real; (ii) if he is, he cannot be known; (iii) his judgment is not inevitable; or (iv) if it is, she will either be found adequate to God’s standard or else such punishment as may result from his judgment will be sufficiently inconsequential that it doesn’t merit consideration in the here and now.

These are religious beliefs, even if Wendy does not call herself a religious person.

But if the Bible is correct, Wendy’s religious convictions couldn’t possibly be more wrong. If it turns out that it is indeed “appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment”, Wendy’s parenting in this area is going to look more than a little questionable.

ASSUMPTION #  It’s Possible to Make Up Your Mind Independently

Again, in one sense this is true. Each individual is ultimately responsible before God for what he or she chooses to believe. We must make the best choices from the options presented to us, or else keep searching for better ones. But Wendy seems convinced that so long as she, her parents, her friends and neighbours keep their grubby paws off her daughter, that somehow the poor girl will be free to form her conclusions entirely free from the influence of others.

That’s a spectacularly ignorant assumption. It takes for granted that Wendy’s daughter’s schoolteachers, peers and their parents are ideologically neutral (which we’ve already established is impossible). It takes for granted that the internet on which Wendy’s daughter does her homework, plays games and interacts with who-knows-who is ideologically neutral. It takes for granted that the books she reads, the movies she watches, the games she plays and the bits she overhears of what passes today for news reporting are also ideologically neutral.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

All that Wendy is accomplishing by backing away from consciously inculcating beliefs in her daughter is ensuring that she, her family and friends have no significant input into the way the next generation of the Russell family turns out; the other belief systems her daughter will inevitably encounter get to win by default.

If Wendy is really as nonreligious as she thinks she is, maybe that doesn’t matter to her. But I’m betting if it doesn’t now, it sure will later.

ASSUMPTION #  Science” and “Evidence” are Reliable Teachers

This Guardian article is an eye-opener for anyone who believes public pronouncements of scientific consensus remotely approximate truth. In principle, yes, science and evidence should guide us in the right direction. For most students though, “science” means “What my prof says about what some scientist said ten years ago about ‘X’ ”. The notion that most statements made under the banner of science are of roughly equal veracity (or that they are equally confirmed by testing and peer review, for that matter) may be widely accepted, but it is utterly false. To top it off, the science industry is so grossly politicized that it has become its own form of ideological programming rather than some neutral arbiter of truth.

It is not that science and evidence are in themselves unreliable, it is that the average person has little or no access to genuine science or to evidence that has not been pre-screened and pre-interpreted for them, with all counter-evidence conveniently suppressed. The conviction that what we have been taught in school is by definition “scientific” and therefore reliable is every bit as ideological and every bit as false as the belief in the idea of neutrality.

ASSUMPTION #  Inquisitiveness and Independent Thought are the Highest Values

Inquisitiveness is a great thing within reasonable limits, but there are areas of inquiry that are immensely unprofitable. There are things you can see but not un-see. Students of Wicca, for instance, put themselves in danger of contact with forces they cannot identify or understand, but which may wreak havoc in their lives.

Likewise, independent thought, as noted, is largely an illusory concept. Almost everything we believe is an idea recycled from somewhere and someone else. That doesn’t make such beliefs untrue; it does make them unoriginal.

Truly independent thought, if it could even be said to occur, is almost surely incorrect thought. I read about a man whose religion consists of a synthesis of Islam, Judaism and Christianity: a smorgasbord of beliefs selected primarily because they happen to appeal to him personally. His particular concatenation of ideas is unique, to be sure, but really reflects a different ideology: the belief that what seems right to me is the safest road. “There is a way that seems right to a man,” says the writer of Proverbs. We all know how that ends.

To value inquisitiveness and independent thought above all else is really to prize ignorance.

Exploding the Myth

In short, ideological neutrality is a myth, and one that can only be imagined by those who have not thought deeply about it. I have a feeling that parents like Wendy Thomas Russell who resort to it are really saying, “Sorry, but I’ve never bothered to figure out what matters in life, so I’ve got nothing of consequence to share with you. You’re on your own, kiddo”.

Beliefs firmly grounded in the truth of God that are carefully and regularly articulated and backed up by a life lived consistently are the single greatest legacy that can be passed to the next generation. At best, parents who abdicate that responsibility lack confidence in the truth they profess to believe.

At worst, they are either lazy or cowardly.

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