Austin Cline at “About: Agnosticism/Atheism” had a pair of postings over the weekend whose proximity made them particularly interesting.
Post #1: Christians Shouldn’t Submit to Secular, Civil, Political Authority. This post concerned the attitude some Christians take on submission to government authority. The attitude is that if their brand of Christian were not allowed to dictate the rules governing society, they were not obligated to be members of that society.
Post #2: Caring for Others’ Feelings is Not an Atheist Trait, Austin discusses a comment a teacher made to a student (pseudonym, Possum #1) who told the teacher, “I think I am an atheist.” Possum #1 responded that the teacher told her that she could not be an atheist because atheists do not care about the feelings of others.
In a post that largely focused on anti-atheist bigotry, Cline included a section discussing a comment that the Possum #1’s parent should be ashamed to have a child who talks back to authority in this way. The commenter wrote:
If I had a daughter, she wouldn’t dare speak to an adult in the ways that Possums daughter speaks to adults. I do not tolerate insolense in my home. I would be ashamed of that essay.
These posts invite the question: What, is the proper level of respect that a person should give to authority?
A Demand for Discipline
I am going to start by giving this issue a little more context by saying that the teacher mentioned in Post #2 should be subject to official discipline. The act of demanding a formal apology on this matter will communicate the message that this is as bigoted a statement as a teacher can make – like telling a black student who has done a kind deed, “That is awfully white of you.” As such, it will communicate to others within earshot of this case that these types of attitudes are those of a person of low moral character – a person worthy of condemnation. Many of those who hear this message will be students, whose attitudes of right and wrong (whose desires and aversions) are still more malleable.
It is an important message to communicate and, as I have been arguing throughout this blog, an important way to communicate moral messages.
We must consider the way that bigotry works. People ‘interpret’ events consistent with their prejudices. A teacher who thinks that an atheist cannot consider the feelings of others is going to interpret the actions of any atheist student as one inconsistent with the idea of concern for others. An atheist and a Christian student performing identical acts will be treated differently when the teacher is incapable of interpreting an atheist’s actions as being motivated by concern for others. She will then communicate those attitudes to other students.
We have good reason to be concerned for the next student in this teacher’s class who writes or says, “I am an atheist,” rather than Possum #1’s comment that, “I think I am an atheist.”
Those who are unwilling to challenge these attitudes leave them in place to do their harm to the next generation of young minds, and the generation after that, perpetuating a culture in which atheists are the most hated group in America, incapable (for example) of holding public office and banished from holding positions as judges or other public officials.
Submission to Authority
On the question of submitting to authority, I would like to ask a hypothetical question of the woman who was “ashamed” of the essay.
What is the obligation of the student to respect an authority figure when that authority figure misbehaves? If a teacher touches the student inappropriately, where is there an obligation to submit to authority? If a teacher calls a student a nigger, what may we say about how the student may speak to such a teacher? If that student sees a teacher touch some other student inappropriately, or overhears the teacher telling somebody about the ‘niggers’ in her class, is it an act of insolence to protest?
The good student speaks stands up to those who are guilty of moral transgressions, even when those who transgress are members of an authority class. Indeed, particularly when those who transgress are members of an authority class – because those authority figures are teaching (by example) those same standards to others.
In fact, one of the most important lessons that a school can teach a student is the obligation to stand up to those who abuse their authority. The time that one is a student is the time in which responsible adults guide students in their moral development by praising those who do well in this regard and condemning those who do poorly. Doing poorly, in this context, means remaining passive in the face of injustice.
We can compare this commenter’s lesson to the lesson many people expect students to carry out of their American History class, regarding the revolutionary war. The dominant lesson of that period of history is that there are lines beyond which authority figures (the King of England) may not cross.
The first recourse of the moral individual when faced with an abuse of authority is to petition the institution of authority for a change in policy to correct for the injustice. Thus, the founding fathers first petitioned the King of England for a change in policy. The founding fathers also wrote into the Constitution that people have a right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
This is precisely what Possum #1 did. Her essay was such a petition. Her response was a bigoted, hateful slam that atheists (which, by the way, includes Possum’s own mother) inherently fail to consider the interests of others.
If injustice continues, the next step in an open society is to campaign for change. In a country that has procedures established for open debate and peaceful change, there is no call for violence. Thus, my paragraph above calling for an official reprimand (no teacher shall tell a student that their parents are inherently unkind in virtue of their religion) is in order.
This latter point reveals a distinction between the obligation to obey and the obligation to accept. In an open society, one may have an obligation to obey an unjust law until one can get it changed. However, the obligation to obey such a law is never to be confused with an obligation to accept it – an obligation never to question its justice, and to refrain from seeking changes and improvements in existing law.
Withdrawing from the School System
On the question of Christians withdrawing from the school system, these principles would suggest that they are within their rights to do so. They have a right to petition the government for grievances and to campaign for change and to engage in whatever peaceful, private actions are consistent with their views.
Cline correctly identifies a reason for concern. “The absence of exposure to children of other faiths, cultures, and beliefs would also have a detrimental impact on their development. Strict sectarian separation in the schools appears to have been a major contributor to violence in Ireland, for example.”
Actually, I would need a reference for the “appears to have been a major contributor to violence in Ireland” claim. However, more importantly, Cline did not address the type of response that these concerns warrant. Do they justify compelling these fundamentalists to send their children to public schools, or do they only justify efforts to persuade parents to do so – and condemning and criticizing those who do not?
I would argue for the latter. History tells us that we have difficulty knowing exactly which views should be taught. It is quite likely, for example, that Christian fundamentalists may feel the need to compel religious education on the basis that those who do not believe in God are a danger to others – because they lack any type of moral foundation. The view is bigoted, hate-mongering nonsense, but it is nonetheless popular nonsense.
A wise position to take is to allow individuals to choose their own paths, for themselves and their children, and to limit the allowable forms of persuasion to private words and deeds, rather than government compulsion.
Yes, there are limits to what we may compel parents to teach their children. Those who hold that the mental health of a child requires ritual beatings or rapes may be prohibited from doing so, and no claim that ‘we have the right to follow our religious practices” can save them. There is a presumption in favor of the parents. However, it is the same type of presumption used against criminals – a presumption of innocence unless proven guilty. We have more than enough evidence to prove guilty, and to prohibit, the types of child rearing that involve daily beatings and rapes. We do not have strong reason to prohibit the teaching of ideas we do not like.
However, the moral argument for freedom and against prohibition does not imply that it is wrong we must ‘tolerate’ in the sense of refusing to criticize those who teach their children superstitious nonsense. Private words and deeds of condemnation are perfectly legitimate. Children who are taught nonsense are being harmed, even if it is not a level of harm that demands state intervention.