In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins writes that “a Christian child” is nonexistent. As he puts it:
Atheists need to raise their own consciousness of the anomaly: religious opinion is the one kid of parental opinion that – by almost universal consent – can be fastened upon children who are, in truth, too young to know what their opinion really is. There is no such thing as a Christian child: only a child of Christian parents. Seize every opportunity to ram it home (18).
The obvious appeal of Dawkins’ point comes from the intuitive (and studied) power of “defaults.” For instance, participation rates in organ donation vary dramatically between countries, and one of the largest determining factors is whether or not becoming a donor is the default option. If you have to opt-in, participation rates are around 25%, as in the U.S. If you have to opt-out, participation rates are in the high 90s. It makes sense: we are creatures of habit who typically follow the path of least resistance.
In sum, Dawkins is shrewdly trying to change the basic societal understanding of children. Apparently, his hope is that turning religious belief from an “opt-out” to an “opt-in” choice will mean that religious participation will decline.
What’s interesting about his comment is that it reflects a naïveté about how Christians actually raise their children. For instance, the official doctrine and practice of the Southern Baptist Convention is that the children of Christian parents are not actually Christians until they profess faith for themselves and are baptized. As they explain on their website:
When a person is baptized as a baby, he/she has no knowledge of the Lord, repentance, salvation, discipleship, or any of the essentials related to following Him. This baptism may be meaningful to the family and may convey their deepest desire to dedicate that baby fully to the Lord, but because a baby cannot make such choices, baptism could not convey these essential truths directly associated with a believer’s baptism.
In other words, the baby is not considered to be a Christian until he or she grows up and decides to become a Christian. It sounds pretty similar to what Dawkins is saying. So perhaps we should read Dawkins as favoring believer’s baptism to infant baptism.
In any case, how’s this working out for the Southern Baptists? Well, with around 16,000,000 members, or 9,000,000 more members than they had in 1950, they are currently the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. It doesn’t seem that their attitude towards children has slowed their growth down in any measureable way.
But perhaps Dawkins wants to say, “even children who say some prayer and get dunked aren’t really Christian. You can’t really be a Christian until you’ve turned 25, earned a Ph.D., read The God Delusion, and somehow, still decided to believe in those crazy Christian fables.”
I don’t know if he would make that kind of rejoinder, but if he did, that would be ridiculous. We rightly give people the benefit of the doubt when they tell us their religious beliefs, just like we treat their other interests with respect. For instance, Terence Tao won a gold medal in the International Mathematical Olympiad when he was just 13. It is fair to say that, at such a young age (and before, as he prepared for the competition) he was a “young mathematician.” By contrast, it would make no sense to say, “no, math wasn’t a sincere interest of his until he got to college. Children are too young to know what their opinion is.” At this point in a child’s development, religion doesn’t get any kind of special pass, and to pretend it does is kind of silly.
But maybe Dawkins didn’t have the Southern Baptists in mind. Perhaps he was writing against those Christians who do believe that infants are Christians. Closer to his home, here’s how the Church of England website explains their beliefs:
Fourthly, the Bible as a whole tells us that the children of believers are themselves part of God’s family and therefore The Church of England feels that it is right that they should have the sign of belonging to the family just as Jewish boys in the Old Testament had the sign of circumcision (Genesis 17:9-14, Acts 2:39, 16:31, 1 Corinthians 7:14).
What right do they have to such a position? Well, as Christians, they have every right to believe the Bible is true, and as they interpret it, God does include the children of believers within His family. Therefore, baptizing these children to demonstrate that the church also welcomes these children into God’s family is a coherent, logical action, fully consistent with their Christian framework.
For Dawkins to argue otherwise is simply to beg the question against the truth of Christianity. If God has accepted these children into His family, then the church should certainly baptize them. If there is no God, then these children are obviously not part of the non-existent family of God, and whatever we call them, they are certainly not “Christians” in the sense that these churches mean by the word.
In other words, children obviously identify themselves and their beliefs in a wide variety of ways. To single out the religious affiliation of children as illegitimate or unwarranted is so obviously biased against religion that the whole attempt to do so becomes fairly amusing. Either Dawkins is begging the question, as with denominations that believe in infant baptism, or he is actually in agreement with Christians, as with denominations that hold to believer’s baptism. But even then, for children within those denominations, once those children have identified themselves as Christian, it is simply weird for Dawkins to argue “they didn’t really mean it” when we give children the benefit of the doubt in every other area of life.
As with the rest of The God Delusion, Dawkins’ unfamiliarity with Christian doctrine leads him to make some pretty strange arguments against Christianity. A basic understanding of how different denominations understand baptism and church membership could easily have led Dawkins to make a more nuanced and sensible point (e.g., perhaps he favors the attitude of Christians who practice believers’ baptism over those who practice infant baptism).