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November 21, 2004

secular humanism

Don Herzog: November 21, 2004

Is America succumbing to secular humanism?  And is secular humanism a(nother) religion?

Again I want to ask, what's the ism?  For sure, lots of pedagogy underplays or erases the role of religion.  A favorite example of mine is Washington's Farewell Address.  From grade school on, Americans learn that the grand old man counselled no entangling alliances in foreign policy.  As indeed he did.  But -- to overstate the point only slightly -- that's almost an afterthought in the speech.  Washington wonders whether the American republic can survive without staunch Christianity (read:  Protestantism).  He concedes there may be a few people (read:  Jefferson) who can be counted on to be virtuous without religion, but says that America must depend on Christianity.  That gets whitewashed out of the historical record.  It shouldn't be:  that's indefensible Orwellian Newspeak, every bit as unbelievable as the poster in my daughter's third-grade classroom that listed the four principles of the founding fathers.  The last on the list was "diversity."  Yeah sure.

Is secular humanism the principle that dictates, "no prayer in public schools"?  We don't -- and shouldn't -- follow quite that principle.  No one races over to stop the kids in the lunchroom from saying grace before they devour the soggy french fries.  And contrary to mythology, a mandated moment of silence at the beginning of the school day is perfectly constitutional, and should be.  (Alabama ran into trouble when they amended their existing "moment of silence" statute to make it clear that prayer was permissible.  The Court decided the legislature was doing a nudge-nudge-wink-nod routine to encourage or endorse prayer.)

But if the principle mandates that teachers or principals or school boards not encourage or require students to pray, it's a damned good one -- even though it outrages many.  It's open to two readings.  One: "prayer doesn't belong here."  Two:  "prayer is bad."  Liberals read it the first way, some evangelicals the second.  (Try comparing the rule, "no sex in school."  Or, "no using cellphones in school.")  Why?

For centuries, there have been two strands of liberalism.  One is frankly, violently, gleefully anti-clerical.  Diderot and Voltaire write this way, I suppose because of the whopping power and wealth of the Catholic Church in 18th-century France.  The other is absolutely respectful of religion but anguished about maintaining social order and civility after the Reformation.  No surprise, then, that some Americans hear echoes of the first tradition in such rules as "no prayer in schools," not least because some of us on the left are in fact anti-clerical, and stories about Rawlsian public reason and the like don't command wide allegiance or even comprehension.

We need to press the first reading of such rules as "no prayer in schools."  I suppose there's room to enlist Christians worried about the perils of Caesarism:  though the mainstream news media largely ignored them, many devoutly religious types were themselves outraged by talk of "flag desecration," not because it's all that awful to burn a flag or wear it on your butt, but because a flag is profane, not the sort of thing that can be desecrated.  But this will remain an uphill struggle, even though one well worth pursuing.


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Posted by: Realish

Some George Lakoff-style framing is in order here. I think the principle behind keeping prayer out of schools is one with which a broad swath of the population agrees, but "no prayer in schools" sounds flatly anti-prayer.

Of course, as all framing fans surely know by now, it's a lot easier to identify a bad one that think of a good one. How about "religious fairness"? To be fair to all religions would basically boil down to something as neutral as a moment of silence. Except oops, don't Muslims chant? But you know what I'm getting at.

Posted by: Realish | Dec 7, 2004 1:55:39 AM

Posted by: Petey

"Of course, as all framing fans surely know by now, it's a lot easier to identify a bad one that think of a good one."

Keep the government out of religion. Keep religion out of the government.

Posted by: Petey | Dec 7, 2004 8:36:16 AM

Posted by: SamChevre

One really good look at this question (and the previous one--"what does it mean that America is a Christian nation?") is Stephen Carter's book, The Culture of Disbelief.

Many of the ACLU's "separation of church and state" cases seem more anti-clerical than respectful; for example, the controversy over the LA county seal, and against Christmas celebrations in public schools.

Posted by: SamChevre | Dec 7, 2004 2:39:10 PM

Posted by: Ben Brumfield

I think that "anti-clericalism" isn't quite the correct term for what religious conservatives percieve as threatening from separation advocates. It's more like iconoclasm, both in the focus on monuments and symbols, and in the power dynamic of destruction intended to display the powerlessness of the religious.

Posted by: Ben Brumfield | Dec 8, 2004 3:07:04 PM

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce

Given that Washington himself was a deist who didn't believe in the resurrection, I think you should include him with Jefferson on this.

There's a lot more to this than simply whether a teacher can pray out loud or encourage students to pray. There's been a move from the ACLU and other groups not to allow extra-curricular religious groups to meet in schools or to offer a table at which those who are interested might pick up literature on that religious perspective. There's been opposition to groups who gather around the flagpole to pray before school once a year. I've even heard of a recent attempt by the state of Maryland to remove any references to God when talking about the historical Thanksgiving in the colonies.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | Dec 8, 2004 5:09:21 PM

Posted by: flag burning

Well, the only reason you'll ever see me burn a flag will be if a flag burning amendment gets passed.

Posted by: flag burning | Dec 14, 2004 7:27:17 PM

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