Before continuing with Part 2 of my series on “The New Atheism,” I decided to instead write about my thoughts after watching a recent Anderson Cooper CNN special called “Bullying: No Escape.”
This special was about the alarming prevalence of bullying in high schools, including some high profile suicides in the U.S. that occurred recently, such as the tragic case of Phoebe Prince in Massachusetts.
For those of you who missed the program, it featured a number of high school age children who were bullied mercilessly by their peers. It also featured a group of professionally trained experts who discussed the issue from their own vantage points. Included in this discussion was a high school student who identified himself as a former bully, who explained the thought processes behind his bullying behavior.
It is important to note that the bullied children interviewed sensed a “lack of empathy” on the part of their peers, and that bystanders (even those who disagreed with the mistreatment of their classmates) were no better than the bullies by their inaction.
Most disturbing about the whole program were the allegations of an apparent lack of regard from school officials (i.e. teachers, principals, school board trustees, etc.) on the severity of the problems faced by students today, especially with the use of Facebook and other social media to exacerbate the problem. It’s all very sad, indeed.
I’m just old enough to be the father of such children and youth, so I’m particularly mindful of how differently they perceive and deal with bullying, peer pressure, and other social challenges in the age of the Internet, social media, and other technological advances that my generation never experienced when I was their age. Indeed, the level of social transformation due to technology between my time in high school and theirs is astounding, with very deep implications for the future. I think this is a key source of the fundamental sense of disconnection from peers and educators experienced by these children.
I contend that the disconnect is a generational one, whereby the older generation’s experience with bullying is—on average—much less severe than the children and youth of today. Furthermore, as pointed out by one of the professionals invited to speak on bullying, there’s a critical need for schools to instill students of today with a much deeper understanding of the consequences of their actions on others, especially given the sense that people can bully others with impunity using Facebook and other social media.
You may be asking yourself what any of this has to do with the “New Atheism” movement and its future implications. Well, in fact, I think it has everything to do with it. Let me explain.
Today, we have people like Richard Dawkins—motivated in large part by his own childhood experiences, as evidenced by statements made in The God Delusion—drawing the disturbing conclusion that teaching religion to children is a form of “child abuse.” He and other atheists have also made numerous claims suggesting that our sense of public morality is really the byproduct of “naturalistic processes,” and utterly dismiss the role of established world religions through the ages as agents for positive social change.
Apart from holding a very naïve interpretation of existing historical evidence to make this claim, I personally find that Dawkins’ claim of “child abuse” in teaching religion to children is both deeply offensive and potentially very dangerous. For Bahá’ís like myself ,and other sincerely religious people, it is patently obvious that world religions have played a fundamental role in laying the foundations for what we would call “moral truths,” such as the protection of life, preserving the dignity of others, not stealing from others, etc..
Bahá’ís strongly believe that moral education needs to be a fundamental part of every child’s life experience for the betterment of society for generations into the future. This is why Bahá’ís are strongly encouraged to have children’s classes—taught throughout the world—to promote moral education from preschool age onwards, such that when they become teenagers it is natural for them to behave honorably and to think of bullying others as intolerable.
What would most likely happen if Dawkins had his way and we did away with all religious education for children? Would the bullies who would otherwise torment Phoebe Prince suddenly become “more enlightened” and recognize the error of acting this way to another human being? I would expect that most reasonable people, religious or not, would reject this line of thinking.To me, it is impossible to seriously divorce long-standing teachings from recognized world religions from the moral standards that most reasonable people uphold today.
While any form of moral education is welcome, the suggestions made on the CNN special to teach about bullying prevention from a purely secular and materialistic basis—without proper acknowledgement of the spiritual nature of human beings—comes across to me as hollow, empty, and ultimately devoid of any transformative power.
Abdu’l-Bahá—the eldest son of Prophet-Founder Bahá’u’lláh and authorized head of the Baha’i world community during His lifetime—after his Father’s passing, made the following statements regarding children’s moral education:
“As to thy question regarding the education of children: it behoveth thee to nurture them at the breast of the love of God, and urge them onward to the things of the spirit, that they may turn their faces unto God; that their ways may conform to the rules of good conduct and their character be second to none; that they make their own all the graces and praiseworthy qualities of humankind; acquire a sound knowledge of the various branches of learning, so that from the very beginning of life they may become spiritual beings, dwellers in the Kingdom, enamoured of the sweet breaths of holiness, and may receive an education religious, spiritual, and of the Heavenly Realm. Verily will I call upon God to grant them a happy outcome in this.” — Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, p. 142.
“The instruction of these children is even as the work of a loving gardener who tendeth his young plants in the flowering fields of the All-Glorious. There is no doubt that it will yield the desired results; especially is this true of instruction as to Bahá’í obligations and Bahá’í conduct, for the little children must needs be made aware in their very heart and soul that Bahá’i’ is not just a name but a truth. Every child must be trained in the things of the spirit, so that he may embody all the virtues and become a source of glory to the Cause of God. Otherwise, the mere word ‘Bahá’í’, if it yield no fruit, will come to nothing. “Strive then to the best of thine ability to let these children know that a Bahá’í is one who embodieth all the perfections, that he must shine out like a lighted taper — not be darkness upon darkness and yet bear the name ‘Bahá’í’.” — Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, p. 143.
The ultimate point I gain from this CNN special on bullying is that this and related problems cannot ever be dealt with effectively in a piecemeal fashion. Furthermore, it only reinforces the point that progress will only occur once we acknowledge that human beings possess a spiritual nature that needs to be nurtured from early childhood in order for them to regard others with a sense of empathy, compassion, and respect.
Anything less than that will ultimately result in failure.