Sunday, September 23, 2007

Religion and Education

Two days ago in Morality and Religious Culture I argued for a distinction between ‘morality’ (prescriptions that can be forced on everybody), and ‘religious culture’ (prescriptions peculiar to a religion that may not be legitimately forced on anybody).

Yesterday in Intolerable Religions, I used these concepts to define ‘intolerable religions’ – religions that do not warrant respect because they violate morality. That is, they call upon their followers to murder, rape, enslave, or otherwise do harm to others. I applied this distinction to the First Amendment and showed how the moral principle behind the Amendment says, “Congress shall pass no law respecting the establishment of religious culture or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Congress, of course, has every right to respect the establishment of morality – that is, to prohibit murder, rape, theft, slavery, lying, abuse, negligence, recklessness, and other actions where people may do harm to others.

Today, I would like to apply this distinction to the area where I first came up with this distinction about a week ago. I was reading the article, Same-sex talk in diversity video divides town” about a dispute over teaching diversity to children. That article contained the following:

“I think it’s the parents’ decision to decide to teach their children morality,” local parent Mike Quinn told NBC.

Imposing Morality in School

My immediate response was ‘nonsense’. It makes absolutely no sense for teachers to leave the schools to leave the teaching of morality to the parents. Schools need to impose certain standards of behavior on children in school or they would never be able to have a school.

If it is optional, if it is something that the parent can teach at home (or not), then it is not morality. It is something else. Let’s call it, ‘religious culture’.

Do not disrupt the class. Do not hit other students (or staff). Do not take what does not belong to you. Keep your promises. Do not lie. Wait your turn. These are all moral principles. These are principles describing what students ought and ought not to do. They define punishment for misbehavior and uses the concepts that punishment, where legitimate, must be deserved and just. The rules are supposed to apply toe everybody equally so that, if anybody gets special treatment, this is wrong and it, too, should be prohibited.

This is morality, and no school can run without it. Here, as I have been saying for the past two days, ‘morality’ is that which can be imposed on everybody regardless of what their religious beliefs are. No student can hit others or take what does not belong to them and claim, ‘religious discrimination’ if anybody tries to stop them. Legitimate religious practices do not include immoral practices such as these.

What schools do not have a right to impose students – what should be left up to the parents – is not ‘morality’ but ‘religious culture’. If there is a possibility of opting out of any rule, then we have quit talking about ‘morality’ and we started talking about ‘religious culture’ instead.

Some religions prohibit the eating of pork. Those students go to public school, where the school cafeteria serves pork, and other children eat it (as they are permitted to do). Parents who wish to teach a particular religious culture to their students have no right to demand that the school prohibit anything that is not a part of their culture. They need to figure out how to deal with the fact that they live among others who do not share their culture, and what to teach their children about those other cultures.

What the school needs to be teaching is that people have a moral obligation to live in peace with people of other cultures. The fact that the child next to you eats pork gives you no justification to try to do harm to him. The fact that the child next to you works on the Sabbath gives you no reason to interfere with his actions. Just because the child next to you lives with two parents who are both of the same gender gives you no reason to call for doing them harm.

All of these are actually quite equivalent on this model.

‘Immorality’ In the School

One popular area of protest is comes from parents who send their children to school, where they encounter others who do not share the same condemnation of homosexual acts, and some even have parents who are in homosexual relationships (or are in homosexual relationships themselves). Some religious parents find this intolerable, and insist that the school not say or do anything that can be taken as condoning homosexual relationships.

However, consider the parents who send their children to school, where they encounter others who do not share their views on the wrongness of eating pork, and some of them even eat pork. They talk openly about eating pork and speak as if there is nothing wrong with it. In fact, the school itself will sometimes serve pork in the school lunch. Imagine the parent protesting that this is ‘intolerable’ and who insists that the school not say or do anything that can be taken as condoning the eating of pork.

The proper response to such a parent is easy to see. “You, parents, have to decide how you are going to handle the fact that you live in a society where others do not share your religious prohibition on homosexual acts/eating pork. One of the places that your children are going to encounter people who do not share your religious culture is in the public school system. You are not going to turn the school into an instrument for enforcing your particular religious culture on others by making the school an instrument for condemning that which your religious culture condemns. That is not our job. Some people in this culture condone homosexual acts/the eating of pork. Live with it.”

A teacher or student should no more have to hide his or her homosexuality in school than they should be required to hide their hamburger from a Hindu, or female students should be required to hide their faces and bodies from Muslim students.

Teaching Religious Tolerance

One important implication of this is that children in public schools will learn a very important lesson. “These things over here are ‘morality’ – things that it makes sense to force on everybody, like prohibitions on murder, rape, and theft. Those things over there are ‘religious culture’ – things that are optional. And, more importantly, things that are not to be forced on everybody, because doing so is immoral.”

I suspect that a lot of religious parents would find this objectionable. This is because they have been raised in a tradition that takes their ‘religious culture’ to be morality and, as such, something that it is perfectly acceptable to force on others. Though we can listen to them scream when other people take a different ‘religious culture’ as ‘morality’ and tries to force it on them.

In fact, this is the very reason why people a couple of centuries ago decided to adopt rules against forcing religious culture on others or forcing others to give up their own religious culture. Because when two different religions take their ‘religious culture’ to be ‘morality’, and that which they can legitimately force on others, we end up with violent conflict – pretty much like we have today, and which we seem to be getting more and more of with each passing year.

We seem to have forgotten some of those lessons, and this lapse in memory is turning costly. We can teach that morality and religious culture are one and continue this endless conflict of people forcing their religious cultures on each other, or we can divorce religious culture from morality and allow people of different religious cultures to live side by side in peace.

From Where Comes Moral Rules?

A question may come up in a child’s mind, “How can we have moral rules that transcend moral culture?”

Is that really such a difficult question to answer? It does not take much to imagine what a school would be like without the rules properly called ‘morality’ rules that may be imposed on everybody regardless of their religion. It would not be hard to imagine a school without prohibitions on assaulting other students, lying, cheating, theft, and the like. Even an atheist would not want to go (or want their child to go) to such a school.

This shows the lie behind the common (bigoted, hate-mongering) claim that atheists have nothing to base morality on. They can base it on their own desire not to be (and not to have those they care about be) murdered, raped, robbed, lied to, cheated against, or otherwise harmed. The say some theists talk, one would think that a person who denies the existence of God becomes suddenly passively indifferent to having a knife shoved between his ribs or his checking account cleaned out.


So, then, when it comes to teaching morality in schools, we cannot have schools at all if we do not allow them to teach morality. There are limits to behavior that schools must impose on everyone (and everyone equally) for the school to run, and for the school to run well. One of those rules must include a prohibition on forcing ‘religious culture’ on others, and a condemnation of those who try.

To have peace in society, children need to learn that the student sitting next to them can have a different religious culture from theirs, and that is okay. Students taught to think that they have a right to call their religious culture ‘morality’ and force it on the students sitting next to them are going to grow up to be very poor neighbors and citizens.


Anonymous said...

You said
''They need to figure out how to deal with the fact that they live among others who do not share their culture, and what to teach their children about those other cultures."
Many of the people who complain about such things do so fromm the point of view of this is "our culture "and others should coform to it,rather than seeing all culturse as having having a common core with differing periferal aspects.

Kellygorski said...

Well said. I'm speechless (and that doesn't occur often)!