Sunday, November 28, 2004

freedom of-- or from?-- religion

Scott writes:

Hi Kevin,

Happy Thanksgiving from the USA!

I've got a religion versus establishment question for you. Please pardon my improper use of terminology, I'm out of my league here. But I would like your take on my basic question (the last line of this mail).

This week a San Francisco school principal said a teacher can't use documents in class which include reference to 'God' in them. In this case it was government documents such as [The Declaration of Independence].

Link to The Smoking Gun

Putting aside the issue of the teacher's previous questionable behavior and intent - is it possible to truly ban 'religion' in this case? The school wants to ban reference to 'God', and instead issue a decree that all students will follow the doctrine (and I believe 'religion') of "Anything But God".

Isn't the school's cry of "Anything But God" in-and-of-itself a 'religion'?


Scott's letter isn't concerned with the larger question of whether this story is bogus (see a liberal take here-- very interesting). Instead, his focus is on whether the "anything but God" refrain is itself somehow religious.

My instinct is to say it's not, because to me, a religious attitude entails some proper "disposition to the Real," as John Hick might put it (where Hick's Real refers to the nameless, ineffable ultimate reality that is mediated to us through personal experience and our culture milieu). Instead, "anything but God" is simply a reaction to the possibility of religious speech in the classroom.

I find such an attitude shamefully PC. Call me optimistic, but I think most public schools have a proper sense of boundaries when it comes to religious discourse. Most public schools do not advocate daily prayer in the classroom. Most biology classrooms teach the theory of evolution, and the ones that give air time to "creation science" do so without casting evolutionary theory aside. Yes, the name of God will be invoked at high school graduation ceremonies, but even here, this will often be watered down. When it's not, people notice, and they get angry-- as well they should! Example: I know that one girl from my high school alma mater, who graduated a few years after me, got into trouble for focusing too explicitly on God in her blatantly fundamentalist valedictory speech. Most high school communities have an innate common sense about how far you can push the religious envelope.

I also question the plausibility of completely eliminating religious speech from the public domain. As long as people both have religious convictions and live in a society that cherishes free speech, it's inevitable that folks will express themselves religiously. For me to say "Merry Christmas!" to someone at the workplace is not an act of oppression. The recipient of my well-wishes might not be a Christian, but surely they can make a distinction between a simple "Merry Christmas!" and the more sinister "Is the White Jeebus your personal lord and savior?" To study historical documents that mention God is to study history, not to proselytize. If people are serious about banning such documents, there's something seriously wrong with this picture. And if people are expected to keep their mouths shut about religious expression (as is apparently the case in France with regard to what a student can wear), then the "anything but God" wackos will have gained a huge victory.

Me, I'm a pluralist: I have no trouble hearing "Happy Hanukah!", nor do I mind being on the receiving end of a "Happy Kwanzaa!" I understand these utterances to be well-intended. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion, especially in the public domain, don't need to be mutually exclusive. Diversity should be valued by both liberals and conservatives, and we also need to trust that open, public debate about religious issues will keep society on the middle path, with religious sentiments being expressed, but not overbearingly so.

A linguistic note: we use the adverb "religiously" rather loosely to describe activities in which we participate with conviction, emotion, devotion, etc. For example, "I watch 'Friends' religiously." While I don't believe there exist any absolute boundaries between the sacred and the profane, I think it might be a little much to say that an anti-religious* mantra like "anything but God" is itself religious. It merely has certain superficial traits in common with a truly religious attitude.

Perhaps it's time to do a post on "What Religion Is." Hmmm. That's a post that might come under fire from all sorts of dissatisfied customers. Heh.

*"Anything but God" is anti-theistic in terms of how it's phrased, but the mantra arguably expresses a broader anti-religious sentiment, since the word "God" is a stand-in for all concepts of ultimate reality and the institutions devoted to those concepts.

I imagine some people might want to question whether "anything but God" is in fact anti-religious. "Maybe," such people would argue, "it simply expresses the wish to keep God in God's domain, which in America is not the public domain." The problem is this: the trend in the West is to privatize religion, i.e., to make it an increasingly private matter. Perhaps paradoxically, the only way to know someone's private convictions is for that person to express them somehow, in word and deed (say, by wishing someone a merry Christmas or by wearing a religious symbol). To my mind, such expression should be allowed, because if all external means of expressing religious convictions are disallowed, the only thing left is "thinking religiously while in public," whatever that might mean.

At the same time, I do think we need to keep an eye out for creeping theocracy. But we should go about this task openly, by the time-tested means of spirited discussion and debate. The way to deal with issues of religious expression is to view their resolution in terms of process, and not as a fixed end result. This question isn't going to go away, nor should it.


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