Teachers Accused Of Bullying Atheist Colleague

South Florida News reports:

The district is looking into whether the women at Ely High School tried to bully the counterpart into becoming a believer.

“The students whom I interviewed said that’s absolutely untrue,” said Fort Lauderdale attorney Johnny McCray, who represents both teachers, Leslie Rainer and Djuna Robinson. He says the two didn’t have any holy water.

McCray says the teacher was talking to students about religion when one student said, “someone needs to get some holy water and sprinkle her with holy water,” according to the attorney.

That’s when McCray says Rainer found a bottle of perfume just for fun, but never sprinkled that on the teacher.

They say the teachers may be fired if the allegations are true.  Based on the facts presented by the teachers’ own lawyer, it seems to me that they acted quite obnoxiously as religious bullies.  I do not know the law on this at all, but if the facts are as presented, then firing these teachers strikes me as an extreme response.  For firing to be the correct consequence here, this has to be shown to be the latest in a pattern of harassing behavior that has been actively hindering the atheist teacher’s abilities to perform her  job or it has to be shown that this bullying was part of a larger, generally hostile and psychologically tormenting work environment for her, about which he or she had complained before.  I do not know how the law actually reads on this, but that’s the most reasonable and free speech affirming  test to apply.

The first amendment means we can sometimes be obnoxious and antagonistic with each other some times.  And if people cannot engage each other on religion, even using mocking and teasing, etc., then the cocoons by which people seek to protect themselves from criticism only get that much more solid.  Atheists need a right to blaspheme and religious people need a right to be obnoxious to us in kind.  (In fact, even the religious need the right to “blaspheme” or else each religion would have to be shut down automatically since each holds some views that at least some other religions would take to be blasphemous.)  There are constructive possibilities for people to develop in mind and character even through such antagonistic behavior and certainly in passionate, confrontational debate that risks making people uncomfortable.

Of course, I empathize with the atheist having to deal with obnoxious treatment and mild bullying, but I don’t think she deserves legal protection from unpleasant challenges, any more than the religious do.  She needs strength of argument, strength of character, and strength of witty comebacks in return.  She needs a stronger atheist community of solidarity and comfortable identity formation.

But atheists who play a victim card over minor incivilities such as this one are doing the cause of challenging religion no favor insofar as they perpetuate the notion that free speech can be curtailed wherever it’s deemed an even slightly offensive or disrespectful challenge to someone’s beliefs or opinions.  Too many religious people are trying to abuse the genuine right to civil respect in such a way as to make it a shield against all criticism and offense whatsoever.  The cause of opposing religion and of advancing the rights, the ethics, and the ideas of atheists requires adhering to secularist ideals of freedom of speech as paramount over personal sensitivities legally.

And even socially it does us no good to encourage (legally non-binding) social norms of hyper-sensitivity that discourage all philosophical conflicts that make people even minimally uncomfortable.  Clamp downs on debate and non-violent, non-disruptive mockery only protect a minority to an extent and ultimately redound to the majority’s favor insofar as they insulate the reigning paradigms of the majority from vigorous challenge from the minority.  The majority therefore retains all of its machinery for propaganda in its favor and has the ability to shut down dissent as “uncivil”.  In this way the minority’s protection from outright challenge and mockery also serves as a quarantine that prevents its ideas from spreading.

For all these reasons, atheists should be on the side of wider latitudes in laws and in social norms for vigorous debate and non-violent mockery for the sake of more rigorous and unavoidable philosophical engagement, through which we should be confident that the superior strength of our arguments will vindicate our ideas and our approach to thinking and earn us genuine respect on that account.

Below is a terrific video from bewarethelizards42 on the theme of the victim card, which I mostly agree with, though I think some of her points could be made a bit more carefully.  In particular she could be a bit more cognizant of the fact that often genuine victims are dismissed for playing “the victim card” as part of a knee jerk attitude that refuses to take responsibility for hurting others unjustifiably.  In other words, for every instance in which you have someone falsely playing a victim, you have another in which you have someone blaming a victim, and we ultimately need discussions about both problems which account for the reality of the other.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.