Thursday, January 15, 2009

More on teaching about wrong

A commenter who identifies himself or herself as Clutch responded to my post on teaching values without inclusion of religion. Part of the burden of the comment is to argue that one can "mention" God but cannot - and should not - inculcate religion.

I agree. But this doesn't resolve the problem. Current establishment clause doctrine does not merely prohibit proselytization but any speech that can be attributed to the state that, if we use the on-again, off-again Lemon test, inhibits or advances religion or, if we use Justice O'Connor's approach, "endorses" religion or ireligion.

It seems to me that, if government wants to address matters with which religion is concerned, a refusal to acknowledge the way in which the religious beliefs of its citizens relate to those matters is to inhibit religion or endorse irreligion. (You can argue that its not only by arguing that religious folks ought to buy into a public secularity that they do not, in fact, accept and which, scholars tell us, necessarily impacts theological formation.)

To do this - that is to introduce the notion that faith may bear upon, say, decisions about sexual conduct - is to run the risk, under current doctrine, of being seen as advancing or endorsing those religious views - even if one does not make any exclusive (or even nonexclusive) truth claims about them.

5 comments:

John Foust said...

Skip ahead a bit, brother. Can you give a hypothetical example of what a health teacher might specifically say during a discussion of sexuality that you believe would put them at "risk, under current doctrine, of being seen as advancing or endorsing those religions views"?

I've never had the impression that today's sex-ed teachers purposefully omit the fact that the views of many are shaped by their religion, no more than they would omit that many will also be shaped by their parents and family, by media, peer pressure or their natural inclinations.

Clutch said...

But this doesn't resolve the problem. Current establishment clause doctrine does not merely prohibit proselytization but any speech that can be attributed to the state that, if we use the on-again, off-again Lemon test, inhibits or advances religion or, if we use Justice O'Connor's approach, "endorses" religion or ireligion.

So what's the problem? Surely you can't be building up to the suggestion that, if a bunch of people interpret non-endorsement of their religion (or of its doctrines regarding some matter of public interest) as inhibition of their religion, then non-endorsement thereby becomes inhibition!

It seems to me that, if government wants to address matters with which religion is concerned, a refusal to acknowledge the way in which the religious beliefs of its citizens relate to those matters is to inhibit religion or endorse irreligion.

Good grief. You were building up to it after all.

In effect, then: Some religious folk (not all, of course) think that their religion, or some religion, is essential to morality. Therefore, failing to address morality religiously is to actively inhibit religion.

Sorry, but that's far more WTF than QED.

Things get even worse if we consider the inference from (1) to (2).

1. Government wants to address matters with which religion is concerned.
2. A refusal to acknowledge the way in which the religious beliefs of its citizens relate to those matters is to inhibit religion or endorse irreligion.

First, there's the apparently contagious McIlheran-style silly overstatement of "a refusal to acknowledge" -- a confabulation only two settings shy of delusion, frankly.

Then there's the casual allusion to "matters with which religion is concerned" -- the briefest reflection on which shows it to include not just (!) morality, but the mechanisms of biological speciation, the eating of shellfish, the interweaving of various fabrics, the chronologies of various historical records and dynasties, the interpretation of celestial mechanics, mechanisms of heredity, putative relations between Semitic populations and Amerindian populations, and, in a word, everything. Nothing constrains the range of "matters with which religion is concerned", not merely in principle but in fact.

Replacing the phrase "refusal to acknowledge", in order to make the presupposition that government actually does that closer to true -- with, say, the phrase "refusal to overtly inculcate/endorse" -- only highlights the failed implication here, by highlighting how strange (2) really is.

You can argue that its not only by arguing that religious folks ought to buy into a public secularity that they do not, in fact, accept...

Got an argument for this necessity claim?

Here's a thought: religious folks don't have to accept a secular understanding of anything; they just have to do what everyone else does, and accept that public discourse be framed in terms of the highest common factors underwriting a liberal democratic society. Government's demurring from endorsing aspects of religions that aren't included among those common factors hardly compels religious believers to regard the common factors that are included in their religion as if they were secular. Aren't we awash in rhetoric about how much of the common moral code really is Judeo-Christian in origin and expression?

It's a bit exotic to claim that, because only many elements of your religion's moral code are enshrined in law and public discourse, your religion's being inhibited and secularity's being forced down your throat.

Rick Esenberg said...

It's not that government hasn't endorsed religion, it's that it has endorsed some proposition that is inconsistent with religion. To answer John Foust's question, sex education that endorses the idea that the decision to have premarital sex is an individual one that is not governed by biblical morality or endorsement of the moral equivalence of same sex relationships to heterosexual ones would be seen as inhibition or nonendorsement of their religion by conservative evangelicals.

Is that a problem? Well, it is if you believe that the goal of nonestablishment is a neutrality that assures, in Justice O'Connor's words, that no be made to perceive themselves as disfavored members of the political community.

Clutch's thought that "religious folks don't have to accept a secular understanding of anything; they just have to do what everyone else does, and accept that public discourse be framed in terms of the highest common factors underwriting a liberal democratic society" is certainly one way out of this bind but it is, of course, inconsistent with current establishment clause doctrine and, in my judgment, would be live us with a thin and deracinated public discourse . There is nothing neutral about it and one might as readily say, as Justice Scalia does, that non-religious people should "do what every body else does" and recognize that nonexclusive endorsments of monotheism do not impinge upon their freedom to dissent or establish a religion.

My way out - something that I try to develop fully in my scholarship - is that this type of neutrality - since it cannot be achieved - ought not to be the goal.

Clutch said...

Clutch's thought that "religious folks don't have to accept a secular understanding of anything; they just have to do what everyone else does, and accept that public discourse be framed in terms of the highest common factors underwriting a liberal democratic society" is certainly one way out of this bind but it is, of course, inconsistent with current establishment clause doctrine

How is it inconsistent with the establishment clause, as generally understood, to suppose that the atheist and the Anglican can agree on the proposition that killing an innocent person is wrong, with the atheist accepting this on one grounds and the Anglican accepting it on other grounds? The Anglican is not enjoined to have a secular understanding of this proposition; and the atheist is not enjoined by government to accept any more explicitly religious proposition.

...and, in my judgment, would be live us with a thin and deracinated public discourse .

That can be your judgement all day, of course, yet it has nothing very obvious to recommend it. The only one who will find it deracinated will be the theist for whom merely having elements of her religious view enshrined in law, society, and public discourse is insufficient. For her, it's not enough that others accept that killing innocents is wrong -- government can tolerably be in the business of moreover urging on the citizenry that it's wrong because God told Moses so.

That any less religiously-fraught discourse would be "thin" is a palpably unreasonable claim. In my judgement.

There is nothing neutral about it
Obviously there is. One is not permitted to erase the neutral ground by being blind to it; rather notoriously, now, one cannot make "You're for us or you're for them" true merely by insisting on it, and attempts to do so tend to culminate in extremism and ignominy.

this type of neutrality - since it cannot be achieved - ought not to be the goal.

Since it manifestly can be achieved (or in any case approximated), it is a perfectly reasonable goal -- for anyone not committed to seeing government as the instrument of advancing religious views..

John Foust said...

It's not that government hasn't endorsed religion, it's that it has endorsed some proposition that is inconsistent with religion. To answer John Foust's question, sex education that endorses the idea that the decision to have premarital sex is an individual one that is not governed by biblical morality or endorsement of the moral equivalence of same sex relationships to heterosexual ones would be seen as inhibition or nonendorsement of their religion by conservative evangelicals.

I have to confess, the first thought that popped into my mind after reading this was something I'll steal from a recent episode of the Daily Show:

Do the unicorns talk in your world?

I'll keep it simple. Why is it government's job to endorse your religion?

Or maybe we can debate about the nature of "is". "The decision to have premarital sex is an individual one..." Teacher didn't say the Devil made you do it. (I presume we're talking about consensual sex here, and not the kind popularized by a slim fraction of premarital priests.) Teacher also didn't say you must not use religion to guide your decisions.

Again, I'd venture that all sex-ed teachers already state the simple fact that religion guides people's decisions about matters like sex. You disagree? Similarly, the social studies teachers admit the role of religion in history. Stating these facts in these situations doesn't disfavor or promote religion, does it?

But please, skip ahead, brother... tell me how a school might reasonably explain that the decision to have premarital sex is governed by Biblical morality but not any other religion's morality or the morality of the non-religious. Is "is" the same "is" that's used when Teacher says "The Earth is in orbit around the Sun"? What does Teacher say when Billy asks "Why?" three more times in succession?

Abstinence-based sex-ed is already required in Wis. Stat. 118.019. You're not content with "Just say 'no'"? You want to add "Or you are a sinner in the eyes of Jesus"?

Are you just looking for a little promotional time for local churches during the school day, similar to Wisconsin's requirement to teach elementary students about the dairy industry? This looks far more complicated than promoting the consumption of milk.