“Dawkins’ actual objection, as quoted by Linker, is that it is abusive to inculcate children with the dreadful idea that if they die with the guilt of unshriven mortal sins on their souls, they will spend eternity in hell. As usual, Linker responds with high moral dudgeon before asking the simple and obvious question: Does Dawkins speak the truth? Unquestionably he does. Let’s see: Would it be a really bad thing to tell highly impressionable small children that there is an invisible being who is watching their every move and even reading their very thoughts and who will torture them in flames forever and ever if they do not confess every one of their ‘sins?’ Well, unlike Dr. James Dobson, I am not an expert in child psychology, but I’d have to say, just off the top of my head, that, yeah, it would be a pretty rotten thing to terrify a defenseless child with such disgusting superstitious horror stories.”
It’s a characteristic mark of Parsons’ intellectual frivolity that he can ignore so many obvious objections to his position.
i) There is no standard position, in Christian theology, regarding the eternal fate of children who die young. Catholicism has softened its traditional position. And Calvinism, which is often reviled as the harshest of all Christian theological traditions, has no uniform position on this issue. A number of conservative Christians, including some Calvinists, believe in universal infant salvation.
ii) Parsons is also using the “torture chamber” model of hell. But he doesn’t bother to exegete that model from Scripture, using the grammatico-historical method.
Instead, it’s like something Ingersoll would say. One atheist quoting another atheist as an authority on hell.
iii) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that some children go to hell when they die, what does that mean, exactly? Is a child who died in 1066 AD and went to hell still a child?
iv) Apropos (iii), the word “child” conjures up a mental image of a young, innocent human being. But suppose, for example, that Ted Bundy died at the age of 10, and went to hell. A case like that would put a very different “face” on infant damnation.
In the nature of the case, when a child dies young, we don’t know how he would have turned out. We don’t know what he was like as an adult, since he never he became an adult. We only know him as a child, not a grown-up.
v) For that matter, there are some people who embark on a course of evil at an early age, torturing cats and dogs.
vi) What is Parsons’ alternative? Does he think that all children who die young go to heaven? Not at all.
He thinks that when a boy or girl dies of, say, childhood leukemia, the mind expires with the body. No consciousness survives.
Now, would a child on his deathbed find that a very comforting thought? No. People can have different reasons for fearing death. Some fear death because they fear damnation. But others fear death because they fear oblivion.
Why do we even bother to treat children with cancer? Because we think there’s something tragic about a child who dies of cancer. That’s a bad thing to happen to a child.
Presumably, Mr. Parsons thinks that’s a bad thing, too. I assume that if he had a child with cancer, he would try to save his child through medical treatment.
When his dying child asks him what will happen when he dies, what does Parsons tell him? Does Parsons tell him the truth—as he sees it? Does he tell his child that he has no hope of survival? That he will die like a dog?
Or would that be a “pretty rotten thing” to tell a dying child? A “horrifying” thing to do to a dying child?
If he refuses to “terrify” the child by telling him the truth, does this mean he will tell the child a white lie?
vii) BTW, isn’t it overstated to suggest it’s always abusive to scare children? Aren’t there situations in which some children enjoy a good scare? Enjoy ghosts stories? Enjoy a ride on the roller coaster. Don’t boys like to frighten each other? Dare each other to visit the “haunted” house?
viii) Likewise, when we warn our children to avoid certain dangers, like not swimming in ponds with alligators, aren’t we scaring them? Indeed, isn’t that the point? To appeal to their natural sense of fear, their fear of death or injury, as a deterrent to foolhardy behavior?
ix) Why does Parsons even think it’s morally wrong to terrify children? What’s his ethical standard?
In another place, he offers the following:
“How should naturalists deal with the is/ought problem? There are two main options: subjectivism and naturalism. Subjectivists concede that facts cannot imply values and they hold that values are our invention; they express how we, individually or collectively, feel about things. The other alternative is naturalism. Naturalists hold that value is a natural property, one that supervenes on other natural properties.”
I don’t see that either option is very promising.
a) Would it be wrong to terrify a child merely because we “feel” it’s wrong? Wrong because it violates a set of values which we “invented”?
If that’s the criterion, why not invent a set of values in which it’s virtuous to terrify a child?
b) What about the other alternative? How does naturalistic ethics avoid the naturalistic fallacy? How does that resolve the is/ought problem? Doesn’t that simply restate the is/ought problem? Beg the very question at issue?
c) Moreover, even if we waive the naturalistic fallacy, to say that value is a natural property doesn’t offer any specific ethical guidance. It fails to identify what values are natural properties. Does scaring a child violate a natural value? Where’s the argument?
x) And even if, for the sake of argument, Parsons can ground objective morality on a secular footing, what makes him think, on a secular grounds, that a human being, like a child, is a bearer of human rights? From a secular standpoint, what is a human being? What is a child? Just a tenuous organization of matter. A collection of particles that form a fleeting physical object.
Indeed, from a secular standpoint, is it even possible to scare a child? Do children have real feelings? Or is that a throwback go folk psychology?