Friday, July 15, 2005

Education à la Carte

Atrios referred to a news article today about a Christian adoption agency which won't allow Catholics to adopt children because Catholic teachings don't agree with the agency's beliefs, and it reminded me of one of the biggest problems I see with the whole allowing religion in school thing. There's a reason why there are different dominations of Christianity, and it's because they don't agree on lots of things. And while many of these differences are simply historical, some are very real. Hell, perhaps this is the reason why JFK has been our only Catholic president, and even he had to promise to not be too Catholic. Catholics are by far the largest single domination, yet they've only produced one president out of forty-three. Maybe there's something about Catholicism that makes them bad politicians, but I suspect it's because of an underlying anti-Catholic bias among their fellow Christians.

And this is a huge point, and I don't understand why everyone doesn't see it immediately. Christians may be monotheistic, but they are not monolithic. There is a wide range of beliefs within that category, and even within the specific dominations themselves. Even Christians within the same church pew, or even the same family can have completely different ideas of what their god wants, and how they should live their lives. If you open up education to religious teachings, we'll open up a giant can of worms.

Teacher's Rights

And from my perspective as an atheist, I see atheists as being the least affected group of them all. We have no specific beliefs to offend against. We're just against the overall idea of religion in government, and insist that government schools take a neutral stance on the subject. But the religious folks have lots of individual beliefs, and history teaches us that they don't take kindly to opposing viewpoints. And everyone always focuses on the science angle, but why? There are lots of bigger problems involved if we allow religious teaching as being part of public schools. Religion undermines science, but if thrust into other subjects, it will undermine the religions themselves.

Just imagine a history class being taught by an old-school Catholic. They're covering Martin Luther and the Reformation, and the teacher is teaching all of the students about the infallibility of the Pope, and why Luther was a heretic who is now burning in Hell. And how the Reformation was the beginning of the end for mankind, and the reason why society is so immoral. And the classroom next to them has a Lutheran teaching about how evil and corrupt the Catholic Church was, and why it was necessary to destroy it.

Or it's health class, and the Baptist teaching health class is explaining why alcohol and dancing are "tools of the Devil", and how the students' parents will burn in Hell because they drink alcohol. And to be nondiscriminatory, such a law would also permit an atheist Social Studies teacher to openly denounce God, and use the Crusades and the Inquisition as perfect examples of why religion is dangerous (a belief I do not hold). Or a Muslim PE coach insists that all of the students will burn in Jahannam unless they convert to Islam and do fifteen push-ups. And all kinds of crazy crap, sure to outrage everyone. And none of this would have to be overt religion. It can all be seen as being part of the proper course curriculum.

And how could we stop this? If we don't draw an absolute line against all religion in public schools, it would be discriminatory to cherry-pick which religion is taught in which classroom. Why Creationism, but not Mormonism? There's plenty of history in The Book of Mormon, as well as in the regular bible and the Koran. Are you really going to tell that teacher that his history is wrong? Or refuse to hire certain teachers who want to push certain beliefs? Isn't that discriminatory, if you're allowing other religious teachings, like Creationism?

And we already know of at least one history teacher (a great link, btw) in California who believes that it was discriminatory for his school to stop him from teaching that our founding fathers wanted a Christian nation and other such nonsense. And many folks (Freeper Alert!) backed him up on this claim of discrimination. Though to be honest, they did the typical thing of distorting his actual actions, so that we can't know if they'd defend what he really did. Their support seems based on the idea that he was being stopped from handing out the Declaration of Independence because it had the word "God" in it; which wasn't even one of his offenses, and is absolutely preposterous. As usual, the culture wars are fueled more by distortion of facts, than differences of opinion.

And we always see this as a Christian versus Atheism kind of thing, but why? I'm fairly confident in saying that most Christians believe in evolution, and don't doubt it at all. And I suspect that many of them inherently understand the problem that I'm outlining. And this is one reason why the Christian fundamentalists who are trying to change this are keeping things to a generic Christian ideal; never getting into specifics. But why not? Are we going to have some federal oversight committee to determine which ideas are generic enough to all Christians, so as not to offend? Will it be done on a district by district case? And exactly how can we check each teacher to see if their beliefs were over the line? Where could the line be?

Generic, But Free

But even if we gave the extremist Christians what they want, which is a Christian-based education, how could they possibly agree as to what that means? Their religious beliefs are not interchangeable. The obvious solution is to insist on a generic education which does not push any beliefs. If someone wants their kid to have a specific religious belief taught at their school, then they can send their kid to their church's school and pay extra for it. But if they want to take advantage of the free non-religious education that the government provides, then they have to take what they get.

And how can they complain about free? I know that they like to pretend that their school taxes pay for their kid's education, but that is completely bogus. We pay school taxes whether or not we have kids, and it is intended to provide a basic education that society has deemed necessary for the benefit of society. And if anyone wants their kid to have something above that basic, generic education, they can pay for it themselves.

And it's not just education, this is how we do everything. If you want something more than the basic services, you pay for it yourself. Police protection not good enough? You hire your own security guards. Public swimming pool too filled with riff-raff? Join a country club, or dig a pool in your own yard. And if you want your kid to have a better education, or taught certain things, you send them to a private school yourself. You don't get a tax reduction because you hire rent-a-cops, or own your own pool. Or a voucher to reduce your country club fees. Society pays for basic services which we think are necessary to have the society that we want, and anything extra is paid for by the individuals. That just makes sense, and that's how education should work. You can get the free, generic education that the government provides, or you pay for the specialized education yourself. And nothing else would make any sense, or could be agreeable. As usual, the rhetoric sounds appealing, but the details are utterly unappetizing to most everyone.

I'm not sure if the religious leaders realize this, or if they're blinded by their own rhetoric; but the America they envision can never happen. Democracy works by taking an equal eye to all its citizens, not just the majority. And any serious examination of that majority will quickly show that it is comprised entirely of small minorities; each with different specific ideas of what America should be and how we should function. Which is why we use elected representatives to decide how our government should operate; rather than allowing representatives of certain majorities directly write the laws. A democracy is only as safe as its smallest minority, and a close examination will show that we're all a minority of one. Only by treating us equally do we bind together to form the powerful force known as democracy.

And for education, the "equal" treatment depends on a generic, non-religious standard which treats all beliefs equally. And that means restricting all beliefs. If that seems to benefit the atheists, that is only because the atheists have no beliefs to push, and are essentially non-partisan referees to the whole religion debate. But this isn't the Atheist System. This is democracy.

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