No Freedom from Religion

My last blog got a lot of response from atheists who felt I had misunderstood them, and misunderstood the law. Four things seemed to emerge in their responses (although not all responded in the same way.) I’ll list them and you can check my accuracy:

1. atheism is not a religion. It is the denial that a god or gods exist, or it is the absence of a religion.

2. courts have already established the limits of freedom of expression vis-a-vis public speech in domains under the control of public schools, and the cheerleaders mentioned in the story are clearly violating those rulings.

3. there should be public spaces where nobody is confronted by an offensive, coercive religious message. (Just what these spaces are is the subject of number 2.)

4. This is all perfectly clear, and anyone who doubts it is disingenuous or ignorant.

The first of these three depends on your definition of religion and that would take us deeply into the business and conflicts in the current state of the religious studies field. Provisionally let’s accept the atheists self-representation that atheism is not a religion. In public discourse we do have a right to define ourselves.

Not being a lawyer myself I’ll leave number 2 to the courts. And number 3? Well I wish this were the case, I just don’t think it usually is, and I don’t think courts can change this state of affairs.

But I don’ accept number 4. The point of my blog wasn’t cheerleaders. It was that our present public discourse around freedom of religion is deeply confused. And part of that confusion comes about because we imagine that there is some public space (be it geographical or social) that is or could be religion free, or religiously neutral.

In fact every public space (geographical or social) is shaped by its cultural environment. And that cultural environment in turn is both based on and projects ideas about the whole of reality and the human place in it. It is a religious environment, even if that religion is the vague civil religion of an overtly religiously pluralistic state like the United States or the determined a-theism of a science lab.

High School football games are a good example of civil religion. At every level, from the way stadiums are built, to the concepts of linear progress in the game, to the highly different roles of men and women, to the presence of rules and multiple referees, to the spectators, cheers, and announcers a football game is a ritual re-enactment of the fundamental presuppositions of American culture: its understanding of the world we live in, and its understanding of what makes a person a human, a hero, or a villain. A good portion of that civil religion resonates with American Protestantism, but it is not the same thing.

The same thing is true of a public park, even absent people. The landscaping, the various functional areas, the location in the larger city are all manifestations of American civil religion, as is the very concept of a public park. And parks are different in cultures with a different civil religion.

There is, of course, a difference between a football game and a park. The former is highly coercive from an emotional standpoint. Everything from the cheerleaders, to the band, to the announcers, to the colorful uniforms, to the mascots is intended to draw both participants and spectators emotionally into the religious world of football. The language of spirit – school spirit, team spirit, and even being filled with spirit is ubiquitous. (Do schools still hold “spirit rallies?” Or have they replaced the overtly religious word with its civic substitute “pep?” It really doesn’t matter, either refers to an invisible motivator and bond linking those who have it with a higher purpose.) God or gods are everywhere in football, they just aren’t named.

Now one may object that football scarcely measures up to a religion. The vast majority of those who participate have much larger principles and purposes than it represents. And this is correct. Football is merely a sect within the larger American civil religion. Those attending a football game are not unlike the Chinese religionist who, while being Buddhist, still attends occasionally to the idols of other useful gods. And could it be seen as just entertainment? Certainly, but it seems to me that folks who paint themselves green in 20 degree weather and wear giant foam wedges of cheese on their heads are engaged in more than entertainment.

The science lab is equally religious, although more covertly so. Those who work in it, assuming they are motivated by more than just getting paid, believe that their work has meaning. And this in turn involves placing their work in some larger context – usually the search for truth (which is a pretty large context.) Truth is itself an abstract concept, something not overtly available for scientific examination. It is a philosophical concept, a reference to something transcendent, a goal that in its entirety is beyond the limits of finite human knowing. Very much like God.

Of course a scientist, like a football fan, may say no to this expansion of the game being played in the lab. “I just want to understand how the neural structure of flatworms arises and causes their unique behavior patterns in certain changing environments. I’m just curious. I’m not interested in “Truth” as a philosophical or metaphysical goal.” And that is fine; an authentic personal statement. But it is hard to read any contemporary scientific accounts, or work in a university and read its PR,  without seeing that the individual pursuit of curiosity takes place within a much larger cultural context and its valuation of the truth. Universities don’t thrown hundreds of millions of dollars after the pursuit of dark matter so that smart people can satisfy their curiosity. Nor do they do so in the hope of technological byproducts. They do it because universities are interested in the Truth. The laypeople in the labs may be pursuing short-term goals at their individual altars, but the priests in charge of the temple are certainly aware that there are bigger things at stake.

And all those scientists spending their time attacking religion? Dawkings, Krauss, etc? They understand that their real rivals aren’t scientist with different projects or theories. Their rivals are those who believe that there are alternative ways of seeking the one thing that underlies their whole endeavor – the search for Truth.

This why our discourse is confused, and really isn’t clarified by court orders about explicit religious messages. Religion permeates our public spaces, including schools. Indeed the institution of the public school, with it rituals and realms of discourse, is fundamentally religious. It just isn’t identified with a particular conventional religion. It is so strongly rooted in Western culture in the way it conceptualizes knowledge that the dominant religions of the West are deeply present, not to mention the civil religion of the state that sponsors it. One group that has recognized this is the Jehovah’s witnesses, who perceive that the required pledge of allegiance to the flag is an act of idolatrous worship within the American civil religion.

In saying that religion permeates our public spaces I’m not arguing against the wise constitutional provision against the government establishment of religion. What I want to point out is that freedom of conscience, religion, and expression are the absolutely necessary compliment to forbidding the government to establish religion. Precisely because the public space will always fill with the civil religion (often covertly smuggling in the religion of the majority as well) other voices must be allowed an explicit place.

And religious people, or those who regard themselves as non-religious, have a responsibility to insure that this public space is and remains religiously plural. This alone will keep it from being colonized (covertly or overtly) by a single conventional or non-conventional religion. And this alone will keep all the different religions in a state of discourse with one another that mitigates against religious violence.

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