September 28, 2005

Pity the Fat Mormon Kid

by PG

In a comment to this post, A. Rickey remarks, "Similarly, it springs to mind that you're worried about the veto of the angrier God, but not particularly concerned about the veto of the playground bully. If what you're really worried about playground harassment for kids who are different, is the problem really that we require kids to listen to 'under God,' or that we don't teach our children not to be playground bullies?" Implicit in such a question is another one: Why should we make a federal case out of religion, but not by other differences? After all, kids pick on each other all the time for a multitude of reasons, and there's no Constitutional right to bar schools from promoting being athletic or of a healthy weight, even though such an environment encourages harassment of the klutzy and genetically-obese.

However, there's good reason to find a school's promotion of religion to be particularly problematic, even if the fat Mormon kid actually gets teased more about his body than his spirit. I worry more about the pressures imposed by religious observance than those exacerbated by the dancing portion of the physical education class* because to some extent, we recognize a parental right to determine a child's upbringing, including religious inculcation. To put parents in a situation where they must send their children into a an environment of government-institutionalized hostility to the family's beliefs is a greater demand than the state should make. Though many people eventually alter their formal religious affiliation, a child should not be torn between the faith of his fathers and that of the local school board.

The obvious counter-argument is to claim that a government that does not permit the teaching of creationism or intelligent design is one of atheistic hostility to fundamentalist faith, but that assumes teachers will lay out evolutionary theory and say, "This proves that your parents are wrong." Should a child question a teacher about apparent incongruities between their religion and what is being taught, the teacher can say, "This is a scientific theory, it's not about religion." When further pressed, "If you find it is incompatible with your beliefs, you don't have to accept it personally, just learn the idea the same way the non-Protestants learn the plot of Paradise Lost without believing any of it."

A teacher will have much more difficulty explaining to a Mormon or Catholic child that an evangelical prayer that asks God to help the children see the light and become born again is in a different conceptual area than their own religion -- or that a daily pledge declaring this to be "one nation, under God" is not a denial of polytheistic or non-theistic beliefs. Evolution and Paradise Lost are taught so the children have the information; they can ignore its deeper meaning or go on to become biologists and apologists. Prayers and pledges are made in an attempt to affect the beliefs and attitudes of those who hear them, with an expectation of greater godliness. Paradoxically, only when no religious person bemoans the loss of a religious invocation as an indication of our godless society, can one say that the invocation is indeed merely traditional, ceremonial, solemnizing, rather than an intentional standing in the corners of streets to ratify a unified religiosity.

* I don't recall anyone's refusing to dance during my middle school PE courses, and I grew up among many Southern Baptists, so I'm pretty sure that the "no dancing" restriction is far outdated.

September 28, 2005 12:12 AM | TrackBack

I simply cannot believe your persistence in this, but it's amusing nonetheless. Are we in the serious contention that the words "under God" in the pledge of allegiance--not that most grade-school kids understand the term allegiance in any event--has ever caused a child of atheists or polytheists to come wandering back to their parents questioning their faith? If we were talking about a general prayer, I might have some sympathy, but you're telling me that two words in a pledge learned by rote are having that effect?

And why is a teacher going to have any greater problem explaining to a Mormon or an atheist that the pledge, which they have to hear, not speak, reflects the fact that our nation has certain historical roots? I really can't imagine the difficulty in giving such a speech, and it certainly shouldn't be outside the grasp of our primary school teachers.

(Whether a given evangelist who is a teacher will seize on the pledge to give an improper explanation is, of course, an open question. I put to you, however, that such a teacher has ample opportunity with or without two words in a daily recitation. Meanwhile, you quickly assume that a biology teacher will give your reasonable explanation to a questioning student. Thinking of the heat of atheist debate on evolution, why precisely do you expect atheist biology teachers are any less choleric about their beliefs? The problem in Santa Fe, after all, wasn't that the differences that would need to be explained to minority children were in some sense deeply beyond the ken of the teachers. It was that the teachers didn't want to explain.)

If you're going to tell me there's a massed exodus of Hindus from their religion, or that atheist-kiddies are signing up for Sunday school classes in droves down in Texas after listening to half-hearted mumblings in homeroom, then well, I'm all ears: tell me the stories. But otherwise, you're in full backpedal mode. First, we're supposed to pity the child of the godless for being picked on in the playground because he doesn't accept that we're "under God." Now we concede that this isn't really a problem--or at least not one likely to be found in or solved by rewriting the pledge--but we're supposed to put the two words on a par with the forced conversion of the Jews in Spain?

Any impartial observer--are there any left--will note how quickly any consequentialist argument about the pledge so quickly veers off of from a discussion of "under God" into the improbable consequences of other policies, slippery slopes that any sensible historian will see we're falling up.

Posted by: A. Rickey at September 28, 2005 02:18 AM

Is the Supreme Court pulling my leg?

"A teacher will have much more difficulty explaining to a Mormon or Catholic child that an evangelical prayer that asks God to help the children see the light and become born again is in a different conceptual area than their own religion -- or that a daily pledge declaring this to be "one nation, under God" is not a denial of polytheistic or non-theistic beliefs."

I'm Mormon, and I can't guess for my life how a mormon would need a teacher's explantion about an "evangelical prayer that asks God to help the children see the light and become born again". That doesn't sound to me like a "different conceptual area" from my own religion. English-speaking Mormons are raised on the King James Bible. I think someone's playing games with the truth here.

Posted by: Christian at March 22, 2006 02:38 AM

The point is that while scientific theory and personal religious belief can be separated plausibly, religion and religion cannot. This is why a school that teaches that evolution is the predominate theory of how we came to be is not necessarily hostile to, say, Southern Baptists, whereas a school that inculcates the belief that one must be born again to be saved is necessarily hostile to Mormons and Catholics.

Posted by: PG at March 22, 2006 03:04 AM
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