The Wall Street Journal’s recent editorial has the bold title: “Public Schools Should Teach the Bible: Westerners cannot be considered literate without a basic knowledge of this foundational text. Rajiv Malhotra of the Huffington Post had a great response. His counter-argument revolves around the argument that while faith as a springboard for teaching morals could be a good idea, that preference for the Western Bible is not. Malhotra’s approach is a more worldly and open one than the suggestion initially put forth by Downey and Burnett in the Wall Street Journal.
This point-counterpoint between the publications makes perfect sense. The Wall Street Journal is the periodical of old, wealthy, white conservatives. The Huffington Post is it’s counterpart – the open, easily accessible, and internet-savvy product of baby boomer yuppies who think solutions can be fashioned out of eating at Whole Foods and teaching the Bhagavad Gita alongside the Bible in elementary school classrooms.
WSJ is the parent that tells you not to have a Facebook and get dressed for church. HuffPo is the mom who wears skinny jeans and holds meditation sessions in her living room, then opts to encourage your adolescent exploration by encouraging Facebook only to go on and create her own account and sending you a friend request.
What of the third perspective?
The evidence citing the wealth and opportunity gap between people over 55 and people under 35 has beenvery well documented since the financial collapse. The reasons have also been sufficiently figured out (hint: it’s the boomers’ fault). Good news though, the Millennials have proven themselves to be up to the task of not buckling under the weight of their parents’ inadequacies. Yes, don’t be fooled by our public idiots (yes hipsters I’m talking to you), we are already more frugal, innovative, driven, productive, and progressive than the Greatest Generation’s Great Failing Progeny.
In light of this, it is odd, insulting, and yet somehow completely unsurprising that the younger perspective on important issues continues to be ferreted out unless it’s an election year and someone needs the “youth turnout”. If we’re to inherit this quagmire of corruption and dysfunction, it seems important for us to have some publicized say on social and economic policy beyond parroting the hackneyed ideas from representatives of a generation that failed us. Sorry Arianna.
Let’s start with the issue of Bible and religion study in public schools.
It is a well-researched fact that the vast majority of Millennials are either secular, agnostic, or atheist so this third perspective won’t be much of a shock to anyone: religion should not be taught in school.
This isn’t because religion sucks or it’s “caused more deaths than all other forces on Earth since the dawn of human civilization combined maannn.” Not saying those things aren’t true but they are both a poor starting point for this conversation if any form of consensus is to ever be reached. So then why not religion in schools?
The chief arguments for teaching the Bible in schools are that it is a) the seminal and foundational text for the foundation of Western Civilization and b) the most effective and simple way to impart moral wisdom.
HuffPo’s Malhotra did a fairly nice job of disproving tenant A. However his response to contention B was simply that we should teach the texts of other religions in conjunction with the Bible to give children a holistic primer on morality as dictated by theism. This is nonsense.
Here is the case for complete secularism in public education –
Morality Does Not Rely on Religion
Morality does not require religion as a guide.
I don’t know about you, but it is simply not hard for me to imagine a society of people that has no religion but has a morality, as well as a legal system. The simple tenant of self-security dictates that people cannot live together without rules against killing, pillaging, and overt harm and it is just desirable for everyone for these dictations of reason to be legally enforced. This concept has been the driving force behind the idea of the social contract which is the central tenant of democracy.
Additionally, to state that religion is the guide to morality is to ignore the entire history of the study of ethics – one that has existed mind you since before the advent of any monotheistic religion and one that has evolved and flourished long after monotheism’s rise.
The debate between utilitarian and deontological ethics, a debate that has raged since Socrates, had been put forth and debated long before a single word of the Torah was written. Religion merely adopted utilitarianism and deontology (consequences and intention) in their texts. However those systems of thought, in and of themselves, are completely secular. The utilitarian outlook is a popular ethical position wherein the morally right action is defined as that action which effects the greatest amount of happiness or pleasure for the greatest number of people. It is non-transcendental, and makes no appeal outside human life, in particular not to religious considerations. This debate could be settled if the Bible of Koran had come along with a radically new way of approaching ethical dilemmas but appeals to authority, jealously, fear, utilitarian calculus, and bar-none ultimatums were all things previously implemented, discussed, and analyzed for centuries prior.
The issue this creates is that it puts the argument that religion is the guide to morality into a fatal double blind. Either one’s motives for following the moral word of god are A) moral motives, or B) not. If they are, then one is already equipped with moral motivations, and the introduction of god adds nothing extra. But if they are not moral motives, then they will be motives of such a kind that they cannot appropriately motivate morality at all. And so we reach the conclusion that any appeal to god in this connection either adds to nothing at all, or it adds the wrong sort of thing.
Of all the religious people I’ve spoken to in my lifetime, not one can answer this double-bind effectively without resorting to the claim that the faculties that allow us to make moral decisions are somehow implanted to us before birth by a god.
To this I retort with line of thinking that Socrates outlines in “Euthyphro’s Dilemma,” one of the earliest refutations of the idea that morality requires religion:
Theists say that ethics cannot do without religion because the very meaning of ‘good’ is nothing other than ‘what god approves’ or rather that any good we derive from reason is simply the implant of a higher power. Plato refuted a similar claim more than two thousand years ago by arguing that if the gods approve of some actions it must be because those actions are good, in which case it cannot be the gods’ approval that makes them good. The alternative view makes divine approval entirely arbitrary: if the gods had happened to approve of torture and disapprove of helping our neighbors, torture would have been good and helping our neighbors bad. Some modern theists have attempted to extricate themselves from this type of dilemma by maintaining that god is good and so could not possibly approve of torture; but these theists are caught in a trap of their own making, for what can they possibly mean by the assertion that god is good? That god is approved of by god?
Welcome to Tautology Club. We’re the best club in the world. Don’t ask why.
god Is Not A Necessary Nor Sufficient Condition To Being Good
The question of whether god is needed to be good does not even need to be answered — it needs to be rejected outright. Why? Because to suggest that one can’t be good without belief in god is not just an opinion nor is it an argument, it is a prejudice in the truest sense of the word. It may even be discrimination. Religion and morality are to be defined differently and have no definitional connections with each other. Conceptually and in principle, morality and a religious value system are two distinct kinds of value systems or action guides. Others share this view. Morality is not something intelligible only in the context of religion.
This is all to say that our knowledge of right and wrong is innate in us. Religion gets its morality from humans. We know that we can’t get along if we permit perjury, theft, murder, rape, all societies at all times, well before the advent of monarchies and certainly, have forbidden it. Socrates called his daemon, it was an inner voice that stopped him when he was trying to take advantage of someone. Why don’t we just assume that we do have some internal compass?
Religion is a Poor Moral Guide
Here’s where the “omg religion does horrible things!” argument comes into play a bit. Not to say that it is patently awful but only in that using religion as a guide for morality as opposed to reason and emotional intuition is almost a surefire way to fail.
Popular atheist author and biologist Richard Dawkins, writing in The God Delusion, has stated that religious people have committed a wide variety of acts and held certain beliefs through history that are considered today to be morally repugnant. He has stated that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis held broadly Christian religious beliefs that inspired the Holocaust on account of antisemitic doctrine, that Christians have traditionally imposed unfair restrictions on the legal and civil rights of women, and that Christians have endorsed and condoned slavery of some form or description throughout most of Christianity’s history. Dawkins insists that, since Jewish and Christian interpretations of the Bible have changed over the span of history so that what was formerly seen as permissible is now seen as impermissible, it is intellectually dishonest for them to believe theism provides an absolute moral foundation apart from secular intuition. In addition, he argued that since Christians and other religious groups do not acknowledge the binding authority of all parts of their holy texts (e.g., The books of Exodus and Leviticus state that those who work on the Sabbath and those caught performing acts of homosexuality, respectively, were to be put to death), they are already capable of distinguishing “right” from “wrong.”
Extending beyond Judeo-Christian dogma, Christopher Hitchens does an excellent job of extending these proofs of wayward moral compasses inherent in religious doctrine to Islam and even Buddhism and Hinduism along with many instances where the beliefs of those systems have brought violence and division to fruition.
A popular counter-point here is the notion that without God we are mindless beasts driven by our fallible irrationality and libidinal anarchy. The well-known quote from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov, “If God is dead, all is permitted,“ sums this sentiment up nicely, suggesting that non-believers would not hold moral lives without the possibility of punishment by a God. But I actually see the mirror image of a similar theme.
Take for example famous apologies by Christians who have “sinned” (such as Bill Clinton and the Reverend Jimmy Swaggart). The common theme is that they embolden some who take enormous risks for the thrill of a little immoral behavior through a simple message: their Lord will forgive them, if they only ask nicely enough when, or if, they are eventually caught. Point being, if you’re going to do something naughty, you’re going to do it, and all the theology, fear, and trembling in the world isn’t going to stop you. Some easily found surveys and sociological literature suggests that theists do no better than their secular counterparts in the percentage adhering to widely held moral standards (e.g., lying, theft and sexual infidelity).
One of the most popular ways religion ferrets out natural cause for morality is by pointing to non-human animals. Animals are simply seen as promiscuous, violent, and driven by the most base of instincts.
Cases can be seen everywhere in nature of animals exhibiting behavior we might classify as moral, obviously without religious directives to guide them. These include detailed studies of the complex systems of altruism and cooperation that operate among social insects and the posting of altruistic sentinels by some species of bird and mammal, who risk their own lives to warn the rest of the group of imminent danger.
Here’s where we wait for the religion person to say that those are instances of a being’s will to survival. Hold please while I page Dr. Darwin.
Additionally, sociologists have recently begun to pay more attention to the fact that some of the world’s most secular countries, such as those in Scandinavia, are among the least violent, best educated, and most likely to care for the poor.This is particularly interesting since now scientists are beginning to document that though religion may have benefits for the brain, so may secularism and Humanism.
Case in point: April 26, 2012. On this date the results of a study which tested their subjects’ pro-social sentiments were published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal in which non-religious people had higher scores showing that they were more inclined to show generosity in random acts of kindness, such as lending their possessions and offering a seat on a crowded bus or train. Religious people also had lower scores when it came to seeing how much compassion motivated participants to be charitable in other ways, such as in giving money or food to a homeless person and to non-believers.
The scientific (gasp) evidence doesn’t end there. Phil Zuckerman’s 2008 book, Society without God, notes that Denmark and Sweden, which are probably the least religious countries in the world, and possibly in the history of the world”, enjoy among the lowest violent crime rates in the world and the lowest levels of corruption in the world.Dozens of studies have been conducted on this topic since the twentieth century. A 2005 study by Gregory Paul published in the Journal of Religion and Society stated that, “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies,” and “In all secular developing democracies a centuries long-term trend has seen homicide rates drop to historical lows.” Curiouser and curiouser.
It’s An Issue of Marketing
The idea that people need god to be morally good is an extremely harmful, yet popular myth. It is a falsehood that persists because churches are currently much better at organizing people to do morally good work.
What is particularly pernicious about this myth is that it exploits a wonderful human trait: people want to be good. They want to lead good lives. So then along come religions that say ‘Well you can’t be good without God’ to convince people that they have to do this. That may be the main motivation for people to take religions seriously — to try to take religions seriously, to try and establish an allegiance to the church — because they want to lead good lives. They see their lives as a mission and religion is their conduit. Sometimes this can lead to lovely results such as the Home for the Dying and Destitute in Calcutta founded by Mother Teresa or it can lead to suicide bombings, rape, slavery, genocide, torture, and bigotry.
But telling this to a group of 50 year old churchgoers won’t work. It won’t even work on the liberal HuffPo crowd who only thinks bombarding kids with every religion is the answer.
No, the answer is more simple and less straining than that. Milennials are more open and secular because we grew up in an environment less strict and theistic than that of our parents. So maybe instead of reinstating the glory days of Bible study in public schools or implementing some hippie dream of doing Om chants one day and learning about Mohammed the next, let’s just stay the course. Keep religion out of schools.
Because if we can’t teach old dogs new tricks let’s just not teach those old tricks to the new dogs. Natural selection has a way of ferreting out a species’ unnecessary and harmful traits.
One can only hope..