Freedom From Religion?

As a nation we need to recognize the vast difference between religiously plural, and religiously empty, public spaces. The first is possible, the second an illusion.

On October 5th the New York Times covered a story from East Texas. It is about cheerleaders whose banners bear Biblical messages and their conflict with a school administration that fears displaying such banners is unconstitutional.

Four themes jump out of the story, and demonstrate (whatever the ultimate ruling in law) how strange American discourse on religious freedom has become. Supporting the school administrators is the newly formed Concerned East Texans for Separation of Church and State. Goading the administrators into taking such action is the Freedom From Religion Foundation, made up of “atheists and agnostics.” The Texas State Attorney General has offered to support the cheerleaders, and they have thousands of Facebook friends. Apparently the legal question turns on whether the banners are a form of coercive “prayer” somehow sponsored by the school district. And the reporter in the story was concerned to ask whether the cheerleaders were worried that their banners might offend a non-Christian.

Let’s take the separation of church and state first. Like many school organizations the cheerleaders depend on the school for a purpose and a place to do their thing, but they don’t receive either support or direction from its teachers and officials. So the question is whether they represent the establishment of religion or just another group exercising its right to free speech.

Let’s take the objections of atheists and agnostics first. They want freedom from religion, because any religion in a public space infringes on their right to non-religiousness. This is problematic in two ways. First because freedom from religion isn’t something guaranteed them by the constitution. And secondly because in fact emptying the public space of conventional religion simply fills it with a different kind of religion, whether it be humanism, atheism, or what might well be called scientism.

From an anthropological standpoint religions are sets of symbols that perpetuate a particular understanding of the world as a whole and the place of people in it. Sociologists might well add that in doing so religions perpetuate social structures and power differentials.

From either perspective humanism, atheism, scientism, and indeed consumerism are religions. They are means by which a certain understanding of the world as a whole and the place of humans in it are perpetuated, and in which social structures and power differentials are perpetuated. Anyone who doubts this merely needs to read the attacks by some scientists on all forms of non-scientific knowing in a university setting, and the ways in which scientists use these attacks to privilege their position and power in the same setting. Of course there are those in the humanities and social sciences who will do the same.

The problem is that any comprehensive worldview, conventionally religious or otherwise, excludes the possibility of other such worldviews simply by virtue of being comprehensive. Science can’t function without bracketing out other religious assumptions about the world. Neither can atheism. And of course neither can Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam.

This means that there can be no neutral, empty, public space. Efforts to free the public space from religion simply result in the covert importation of something equally, if less obviously religious.

Which brings us to whether expressions of religious conviction should be banned because they might offend others. This is surely the most nonsensical argument ever raised for banning religious symbols and speech in a public forum. Public discourse; political, religious, scientific, or otherwise would grind to a halt if the mere fact that it offended someone could result in having it banned. I personally can’t see a copy of People Magazine without being offended. More importantly we couldn’t have public religious discourse at all. All religions would have to vanish behind their walls to prepare eventual sectarian strife. Properly the question is whether some form of religious discourse effectively colonizes the public space and through intimidation makes other forms of religious discourse impossible. That does infringe freedom of religion.

Now this colonization of the public space is the ultimate aim of many Christians to be sure. They viciously attack politicians who fail to toe the “God bless America” line. The oppose the building of mosques and temples. And they assert that the US is a “Judeo-Christian nation” to justify their attempts to drive others from the public space. But the attacks of the atheist/humanist Freedom from Religion Foundation are similar. They have the same intention of colonizing the public space through the intimidation of those engaged in other forms of religious speech. We need to realize that these are two sides of the same anti-freedom coin, even if we disagree about who has more power to fulfill their agenda. Still, being the underdog doesn’t make you right.

Finally, we need to realize that public space isn’t necessarily government controlled space, nor should it be. Religious expression in public parks, public schools, public streets, and public buildings may need to be regulated by those government agencies charged with maintaining those spaces in terms of public safety. But as long as that regulation is aimed at insuring that these spaces are free and open for all religious expression then it is not the establishing of religion. Anyone in East Texas wants to stand down on a football field on Friday night with “inspirational” posters quoting the Qur’an, the Buddhist Sutras, the Jewish Scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, or for that matter the works of Carl Popper or Ayne Rand should be allowed to do so if there is real freedom in a public space.

Of course in that social setting they may well feel a little intimidated. But this is true of Democrats who put up yard signs in North Dallas or religious students who question the underlying philosophical assumptions of a university science department. (I’ve been there and there.) Feeling intimidated when you are a tiny minority is normal, but it doesn’t constitute an attack on your freedom of religion.

Positively what we need is a social agreement that public spaces should be religiously and culturally pluralistic. Instead of making false claims that “Judeo-Christian culture” has some privileged claim on the American public spaces, or the equally ridiculous claim that atheism and scientism are religiously neutral, we should insure that all viewpoints find a place in public spaces and public discourse. Around the world we have seen the results when once plural public spaces dissolve into warfare as sectarian interests seek to colonize them and exclude others. We can’t let that happen in our own country.

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