A little over a year ago I ran into the following news item from the land that gave us David Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment: http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/parents-outrage-extremist-religious-sect-2254926. I posted it on my Facebook page, thereby precipitating a winding, entertaining, and sometimes heated discussion with a Christian fundamentalist Facebook friend from England. His position is not uncommon, and certainly more prevalent in my country than in his, and for all I know there may be visitors to this blog who, like my friend, would find themselves in sympathy with the headmaster who allowed the proselytizing to take place. So I’d like to enlarge the scope of the conversation to include anyone here who’d care to chime in, with an especially warm invitation extended to any Christian fundamentalists who might happen to be lurking. (Whether you’ll bother to read a TLDR that raises troubling questions is itself a troubling question, of course; besides, in addition to hurling poison darts at your cherished beliefs, I tend to write in compound sentences and sprinkle my prose liberally with semicolons and parenthetical asides. I’m afraid people sometimes find me tedious.)
What’s at stake here is a principle that has come to define most of the Western world ever since the Enlightenment, and the consequent composition of the U.S. Constitution: a precious principle that has come under sustained attack during the past few decades by forces on the religious right, both in the U.S. and in a number of European countries. That principle is secularism. Fundamentalist Christians, I’m addressing you in the following paragraphs; atheists and others, I’d be honored to enjoy your company as well if you’re inclined to join me for the ride.
In the interest of helping you understand the position I take on this issue, I’ll ask you to consider the following (if you read the article I linked to above, you’ll understand that I’ve constructed an exact parallel with the soul-saving literature that was distributed at the school in question): suppose your child came home one afternoon carrying a book with a title like, “Why the Book of Mormon is True and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Is the Surest Way to Heaven,” which had been distributed that day to the students at his school. Or perhaps, “Why Islam Is True, the Qur’an Is the Word of God and All Unbelievers Are Destined for Hell.” Would you, committed to your Christian faith as you are, take offense at the proselytizing efforts that Mormons or Muslims had launched in your child’s school? Would you consider it acceptable that they were permitted to do that, or would you find it outrageous and impermissible, a breach of public trust? Would you acquiesce (however grudgingly) in such activities, or would you agitate to have them prohibited? If the latter is the case, then surely you understand why that prohibition should extend also to proselytizing by those who embrace the faith that you happen to espouse.
Let it be clearly understood that I do not advocate, and have never advocated, any kind of persecution aimed at believers of any faith. As an atheist who knows a thing or two about how religiously-endorsed, state-prosecuted persecution has worked throughout most of the Western world’s grim history, I’m also a deeply committed secularist, and the essence of secularism is the official tolerance of all faiths no matter how batshit crazy. My use of the colorful descriptor “batshit crazy,” by the way, is not an instance of intolerance. It’s simply my assessment of most religious claims, and I’m sure you’ll agree that I’m entitled to that assessment, in light of the fact that you no doubt find the Muslims’ claim that Mohammed ascended into heaven on a white horse to be just as batshit crazy as I find your belief that Elijah was carried there by a whirlwind.
Intolerance and scorn are two completely different things. Scorn is a personal attitude, held in reserve for ideas and people one finds ridiculous; intolerance, on the other hand, is an official position that comes into play when laws are passed circumscribing or prohibiting – i.e., not tolerating – people’s religious or political views or activities. I tolerate those views of which I am deeply scornful: that’s the law. The fact that I’m scornful of your beliefs does not mean that I am persecuting you.
I’ve never advocated intolerance of people’s religious or political views and never will; neither has any atheist I’ve ever met. I think quite a few fundamentalists who have a finely-calibrated persecution complex may have us atheists confused with certain religious zealots who most certainly have, from time to time, agitated for laws curtailing the rights of those whose beliefs happen not to map onto their own, and have even gone so far as to call for the levying of the death penalty against those who believe the wrong things, who worship the wrong gods. The only intolerance I advocate is the prohibition of proselytizing activities in publicly-funded forums such as educational institutions, i.e. the public schools of the United States of America. As a secularist, that’s where I draw the line. It’s also where the Constitution of my country draws the line.
Incidentally, the foregoing also sounds the death knell for crèches and Decalogue monuments on public property, and such witless slogans as “In God We Trust” printed on the only god most Americans really recognize and worship anyway. If you don’t understand this, you need to re-read the foregoing paragraphs – the ones you obviously didn’t bother to digest.
Religious proselytizing has no place in public education, not by anyone, not by any authority, not on any level. That’s why formal prayer in public schools can never be permitted: who gets to determine what prayers will be recited, and to which god’s ears they’ll be directed? The Christians? The Mormons? The Muslims? Who? What about the rights of those who don’t subscribe to the “dominant” faith? Those who don’t subscribe to any faith? Incidentally, the position I’ve just outlined is also endorsed by most Christians of my acquaintance. The only ones who seem to have a problem with it are fundamentalists – especially those so blinded by their convictions that they refuse to give any consideration to the scenario that I sketched in my third paragraph.
Now, I happen unparadoxically to think that not only are classes in comparative religion permissible in public institutions: they’re a very good idea. (I can’t think of a better way to get people started thinking critically about religion in general, including the one they happen to have been marinated in from birth.) But that’s not what was going on in the Scottish school described in the article I posted. A class in comparative religion is designed to examine a number of confessions objectively, comparing them point-by-point, without the endorsement (explicit or implicit) of any one of them as superior to – or more likely to be “true” than – any other. (On my view, the best teacher for such a class would probably be an atheist.)
I want to share with you a relevant anecdote that frankly costs me some pain in the telling. Even though I was the first person in my family to attend college, my mother was the first to graduate with a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate (owing to the fact that I took the “scenic route” through undergraduate school, shoehorning a four-year degree into eight years). Immediately after graduation, when she was in her early forties, she took a job at the elementary school in a small Arkansas town just a few miles down the road from where I’d grown up. She proceeded forthwith to proselytize for her religion, or, as she put it, “win her students’ souls to Christ.” There never lived a truer “true believer” than my mother, and she justified the daily Bible lessons she taught her second-graders with the claim that it was more important to guarantee her students a blissful eternity in heaven with Jesus, than it was to teach them their spelling, their grammar or their sums.
For reasons I’m not privy to, she didn’t last long at that school: after two years, her contract was not renewed. We never discussed it, so I don’t know what happened: by that point in my life, conversation between us had become somewhat awkward owing to my apostasy-in-progress. But I do know this: what she was doing at Hartman Elementary was not only inappropriate – it was unconstitutional. If she was fired on account of her proselytizing, she deserved to be. I’m saying this about someone I loved, and that’s not easy to do – but it’s the truth.
For all I care, Christians, Mormons, Muslims, Hassidic Jews, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, Branch Davidians and all the rest are welcome to indoctrinate their unfortunate offspring in whatever harebrained notions they subscribe to: that, for better or worse, is the prerogative of parents and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it – nor would I wish it otherwise: state control in matters of conscience is never to be preferred to individual liberty. But the public forum is also open to me, and my views are also going to be aired (including my view that religion is a mass delusion that’s done far more harm than good), and I’ll damn well try to talk your kids out of those harebrained views you’ve pumped their heads full of every chance I get. I value a secular Constitution that protects my right to make my views known without having to fear the rack or the thumbscrews for my heresy: that’s the beauty of secularism, and the smug, sanctimonious talking heads at Fox “News” can go fuck themselves.
I also recognize and honor the constitutionally-mandated limits of free speech, understanding where they apply to me as they do to others. As outspoken as I am elsewhere, I thus do not use my classroom to advocate for atheism: even though atheism is by no stretch of the imagination a “religion,” in this matter I treat it as if it were one; fair is fair. And I certainly am not going to tolerate the use of tax-supported forums such as my university or the public schools of my community for purposes of sectarian indoctrination; and I think anyone who attempts to do so should be given fair warning to cease and desist, and if they aren’t smart enough to back down then they need to face termination of their employment and a police escort off campus. That prohibition goes for prayers at Friday night football games as well. (“Lord, please protect our fine young men from injury tonight if it be thy will.” Well, isn’t that what helmets are for? For that matter, why put your fine young men out there in that gladiatorial arena in the first place? What kinds of “lessons in life” are you trying to teach them?)
I hope I’ve been clear about this. I’m not asking for special rights and privileges for non-believers, or agitating for restrictions on the religious freedoms of believers, as fundamentalist Christians so often accuse us atheists of doing. I do insist, however, that the wisdom of the secular-minded authors of my country’s Constitution be deferred to in such matters as the one under scrutiny here, and that the laws pertaining to separation of Church and State be respected – that you curriculum-corrupters back the hell off and keep your Bronze-Age fairy tales and your bullshit revisionist history to yourselves.
I gladly add my voice to the chorus of those who, over the past two and a half centuries, have clamored for a secularist position, consistently enforced, to be wholeheartedly embraced by civilized people everywhere (including Scotland, the birthplace of the Enlightenment and currently, it seems, the playground of the Alabama-based Church of Christ), especially in view of the currently rising tide of religious fundamentalism worldwide, with all its attendant perils. It’s the only safe, sane, fair, civilized way to go.