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Are children born atheists?

10 August 2012

Dispute: the story about a potential baptism in The Times last Friday

Dispute: the story about a potential baptism in The Times last Friday

THE most interesting story of the week was about the ten-year-old Jewish girl whose mother had applied for an injunction to stop her being baptised. It was reported by Martin Beckford in the Telegraph; also in The Times, where it was credited to Frances Gibb, the legal editor; and in the Daily Mail, where it was credited to Leon Watson. Since the Times and Mail stories were word-for-word identical in their first three paragraphs, we are dealing with a miracle of verbal inspiration unsurpassed since the translation of the Septuagint - un­less someone decided to brighten the agency copy with an in-house byline.

The underlying story was the same in all versions: a non-practising Jewish couple divorced. The husband converted to Chris­tianity, and on one of the weeks when he had custody of their daughter, he took her to an (unspecified) Evangelical meeting.

Beckford had the telling human detail that "He said his daughter told him on the way back from an evangelical Christian festival that she had 'experienced an encounter with God'. He added that he was initially sceptical as he thought she was just 'on a high'. The father also said he was 'unhappy' when the girl went behind his back to talk to a Sunday school teacher about being baptised."

This was as nothing to his unhappiness when the mother, without telling anyone, ap­plied for a court order forbidding the father from having her baptised or confirmed. This was backed by the grandparents and an un­identified rabbi. In Beckford's telling, Judge John Pratt gave these opinions both barrels of Mandy Rice-Davies:

"The girl's grandparents accused her father of forcing her to give up her Jewish heritage, while a rabbi told the court that it would be 'unnatural to their soul' to make a child change religion. The judge was scathing about these claims, saying that neither the mother nor the grandparents had made 'any real effort' to consider what was best for the girl while the rabbi's letter was made in 'inflammatory terms without any supporting evidence'.

"The judge said it was 'wholly wrong' for the mother to go to court without discussing it with the father or his priest."

This strikes me as a thoroughly pro-religious judgment, as well as a wise one. In particular, the rabbi's argument that it is "unnatural to the soul" to allow a child to change religion is identical in substance to the atheist argument that all religious instruction is "indoctrina­tion"; for the unstated premise of this is that all children are born atheists. A subtle detail, which was only in the PA copy, was that the judge felt that confirmation would have to wait until the child was 16, if she still wanted it, and if the mother was still opposed.

I am skipping the stories about God and sport, which I assume can be found on the sports pages. Instead, let's talk about the longest piece that I think I have ever read in a magazine: the concluding part of Perry Anderson's essay on Indian politics in The London Review of Books. This last part alone is 21,771 words, although the preceding two have been shorter. But it is worth reading it all.

Mr Anderson shows again and again that the emotional appeal of both Gandhi and Nehru was based on a sort of mystical Hindu reverence for an imagined India - no matter how their intellectual appeal might be based on secularism. This has not only excluded Muslims from much of Indian public life; it has underpinned Indian politics since 1947:

"The truly deep impediments to collective action, even within language communities, let alone across them, lay in the impassable trenches of the caste system. . . The role of caste in the political system would change, from the years after independence to the present. What would not change was its structural sig­nific-ance as the ultimate secret of Indian demo­cracy. Gandhi declared that caste alone had preserved Hinduism from disintegration. His judgment can be given a more con­temporary application. Caste is what preserved Hindu democracy from disintegration."

It would be an unusual 20,000-word essay that couldn't yield 800 words worth quoting, and there are many more than that here. I could have filled the whole column with quotations. But read it all, especially for the comparisons with Israel and Ireland, where, also, nominally secular independence movements gained their strength from a religious national identity.

"In each case, as the ruling party gradually lost its lustre, it was outflanked by a more ex­treme rival that had fewer inhibitions about appealing directly to the theological passions aroused by the original struggle: Fianna Fáil, Likud, BJP."

Mr Anderson wants to examine why the gen­uinely secular Left failed in all these coun­tries. On the way, he shows how little the great myth of the political dominance of secularism was anchored in fact, even when it was most power­ful. The countries where secularism did really triumph were those where nationalism had been discredited by defeat or pyrrhic victory.

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