Tuesday, February 05, 2008

On Scouts and Lies

Contributions to a stereotype are not tax deductible.

Yesterday, I read an article by Terry Sanderson, "Scouting Without God," requesting that the Scout Association make its religious oath optional. The line above came when I read some of the comments to this article – comments that effectively said, “There’s no reason for we atheists to request that this oath be made optional. We should just teach our children to lie. It’s the same thing we do with respect to faith schools here in England. We don’t need to change the rules. It is far better to embrace lies and deception as a way around them.”

I need to make it clear that the article and the comments concerned scouting in England, where parents do lie to get their children into government-funded religious schools and the scouts themselves receive public money.

One of the reasons why atheists were not permitted to testify in court, or to hold public office, and one of the major complaints we get today against atheists, is that they have no moral code. Unlike Christians (so the myth goes), atheists have no incentive to tell the truth when lies are more convenient. They have no fear of hell or damnation afterwards, so you can’t trust them.

In these comments, I found one example after another of people contributing to this stereotype.

As it happens my lad is a Cub, my oldest girl a Brownie, my middle girl a Rainbow - they have each made the promise, and none is religious, my son in particular has expressed pretty solid doubt about the god propaganda they get at school, but he's happy enough to go along with the pretence because he wants to be in Cubs.

Another commenter wrote:

Besides which, atheists and secularists can always lie when they take the oath. I believe that's how people get their kids into religious schools these days and if it's good enough for your kids' education then it's good enough for the Scouts too.

A third commenter wrote:

If you're an atheist and you really want your kid to become a Scout then just let them take the oath without meaning it. It worked for me.

So, go ahead, lie to get what you want. While we’re at it, we might as well also be teaching them to lie to get the job they want, lie to get elected into the positions they want, lie to others to get sex or to get them to contribute money. And while we are teaching our children to lie, we are teaching people everywhere to lie to our children, creating an environment for them in which they will need to deal with the deceptive manipulation of others.

I can easily imagine the Christian who thinks that no atheist can be trusted to tell the truth, that no atheist is moral (or is only accidentally moral because he has a false belief that there is a foundation for morality other than God) reading this and saying, “See! See! Truth, honesty, these things mean nothing to atheists. As soon as they see an advantage to lying, they are all over themselves defending the permissibility of lies.”

No, the proper defense is to condemn the culture that forces atheist parents into a dilemma where whatever they do is wrong. Parents have a moral obligation to their children – to their children’s welfare. Children need a good education and character-building experiences.

When the government establishes a set of rules whereby those who believe in God have easy access to these things, but those who do not have to undergo huge expense to get the same quality of education and experiences for their children, atheist parents are forced to either abandon their obligations to their children or abandon their obligations to the truth. This is a true moral dilemma.

It is a dilemma that is caused by unfair and discriminatory government rules.

Once again, I want to remind the reader here that I am writing about the situation in England, where religious schools and scouts receive public money. The atheist parents who are forced to undergo huge expense to get as good for their children are parents who are made poorer by the fact that they are also paying tax money to provide the children of religious parents with these opportunities.

A moral system either has everybody paying his own way, or nobody.

A moral system is not one that begins with a system of injustice, then seeks to alleviate its symptoms with a bout of lying. Defenders of the ‘injustice plus deception’ proposal are not only morally wrong, but they are announcing to the world that, in addition to their lack of belief in God, they have a lack of commitment to morality to go along with it.

This leads up to the issue of whether an organization that receives public money should be allowed to discriminate based on religious belief. The principle at play here is simple. An organization that receives government money is morally permitted to exclude those who provide that money (particularly insofar as they provide it while looking down the barrel of a gun) for reasons of merit or of compelling state interest.

Those who defend this system must either argue that atheists, insofar as they are atheists, do not merit a quality education or the types of character-building experiences that scouting provides. Or they must argue that some compelling state interest is served by denying atheists equal access to these education resources and character-building experiences.

Neither case can be made. In fact, only the worst form of bigot would think that there is any plausibility behind such a situation.

Another potential solution would be to allow secular parents to create a secular version of the scouts to provide character-building experiences. However, this means that the government must adopt some sort of principle of “separate but equal”. We tried that in America for nearly a century, where we segregated everything from our schools to seats on a bus, claiming that it is possible to give blacks and whites ‘separate but equal’ facilities.

Inevitably, prejudice destroys any possibility of separate but equal. Bigots inevitably demonstrate their ability to give advantages to their favored group and disadvantages to their unfavored group, while blinding themselves to this equality. There is no way that a sane person would look at the different facilities provided to blacks and whites in the days of segregation and think that this conformed to the principle ‘separate but equal’. They paid lip service to the principle while knowing full well that they were ignoring it, and that they wanted it that way.

We should expect the same thing if England should embrace ‘separate but equal’ scouting organizations (or schools, for that matter). Inequalities will creep in, and they will be ignored. The best way to prevent these inequalities from creeping in is to deny the practice of keeping these groups separate. Allow the atheist to go to the theist school, and the theist to go to the atheist school, and people will (at least to some degree) use this freedom to bring about more equality than we can hope to find in a system of enforced segregatin.

The other option, of course, is for these schools and organizations to refuse any further government money. Refusing government money the moral principle that no taxpayer may be excluded for any reason other than merit or a compelling state interest no longer applies – people can discriminate at will.

It would still be immoral for such a group to discriminate, by the way. It would simply be wrong to respond to this discrimination through violence. The issue here is the same as we deal with on issues of free speech. The right to freedom of the press does not imply that people may not be criticized or condemned for what they write – only that it is wrong to respond to them with violence. The right to freedom of assembly does not imply a freedom from condemnation for forming hate-groups. It only implies a freedom from violence for doing so.

And no person shall be required to pay tax money to support an organization that targets it with unprincipled and unfounded hate. Whereas the scouts (or religious schools) preach unreasoned hatred of certain groups, and those groups are groups that pay taxes, the government is acting immorally when it taxes the victims of bigotry and uses it to fund the bigotry that victimizes him. To the degree that faith-based schools and faith-based children’s organizations preach that atheist taxpayers are inherently immoral and not to be trusted, to that degree society itself is unjust and immoral to force the atheist to fund that message with its tax dollars.

In the mean time, let’s not be advocating that lying under oath is a perfectly legitimate atheist alternative to these types of situations.

Contributions to a stereotype are not tax deductible.

And for my American readers who think that going through the motions of saying the Pledge of Allegiance while mumbling the words ‘under God’ or substituting something else or leaving them out entirely, please note that this is actually rather juvenile nonsense. Imagine a jurist being sworn in to a jury with the other 11 members, mumbling or leaving out some words that he does not to follow, violating that oath, then claiming, “I actually left that part out, your honor. So, I’m not bound by that part of the oath.” Sorry, but if you go through the motions, you could be mumbling the lyrics to your favorite drinking song, going through the motions without protest binds you to the oath that was given.

Without an outright and public refusal, if you go through the motions, you are in fact pledging allegiance to one nation under God. If that is not, in fact, where your allegiance lies then your obligation is to make that refusal explicit and unambiguous.

Anything else is lying under oath. Lying under oath is not something that good people have reason to encourage or embrace.


Draven said...

Great post! I was a Boy Scout in the US, and truthfully I didn't even realize it was a Christian organization when I was young, and I hadn't even really considered the question of my own beliefs at the time.

I have small children and have considered that while it would be a benefit to them overall to belong to the scouts, I'm not comfortable with that. The scouts promote a world view in religion that I find unsupportable, and I don't want my children being required to recite pledges to god when they aren't even old enough to realize what that means.

I think I will probably end up finding or starting a group that does similar activities, but accepts children from any background. We could even do some study of comparative religions...bet you won't find anything like that in most scout troops.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I can't fathom atheists or anybody else who would advocate lying to get into an organization that practices discrimination against them. Being a lesbian atheist that means there are plenty of such groups and organizations that would try to exclude me. I'd much rather fight the system to make it inclusive (if it's tax-dollar supported) or tell them to flake off.

Ironically, I just blogged about the BSA and their bigotry against gays and atheists in the wake of a new book by TX governor Rick Perry. Gov. Perry can't seem to figure out why exclusion is a bad thing and that the ACLU doesn't hate Christians. But then he's a RRRW gasbag so why would he?

Christian said...

Very interesting. Just recently I've learnt that Barack Obama has been an atheist and later converted to Christianity. If you want to become President of the United States, you must be oath-fit, I suppose. After this post, his (re-)conversion makes sense to me.