Why school led prayer is wrong

This post comes from my perspective as an educator, and also as a frequent unwilling participant in publicly led prayers. There are two simple reasons why institutionally directed prayer is wrong: equal rights and individual privacy. We often hear about the equal rights aspect, but I think the invasion of privacy is more powerful and more troubling. When Kevin Lowery, principle of Lebanon High School in Missouri, led a prayer at the school’s graduation ceremony, he did more than alienate a few non-Christian students and parents. He faced those students and their parents with an awkward choice: they could either bow their heads in grudging compliance with Mr. Lowery’s religious exercise and join in the subsequent applause, or they could stand visibly apart from the crowd and thereby out themselves as detractors. This presents the non-Christians (or non-participating Christians) with a crisis in which they must either go against their consciences, or be spotlighted as outsiders. That is coercive and it is wrong.

Suppose that instead of praying, Mr. Lowery had asked all the Christians in the room to stand. Suppose he had asked all the non-Christians to stand. How about just they Muslims or the Jews? How about all the Atheists? These would be pretty intrusive requests, but leading a prayer from the pulpit is no different. It is extremely easy to sort out who is from who isn’t by watching what people do when the praying starts. It may be the case that many evangelical Christians enjoy having their religious views exposed as publicly as possible, but most people prefer to keep their views and affiliations quiet, and they shouldn’t need to give any reason for exercising their own privacy.

Atheist advocate Jerry Coyne has been heavily pursuing this matter at Lebanon high school, and has received many responses from people on “both” sides of the issue. One of the first responses Coyne received was from a school board member, Mr. Kim Light, who asked: “My question is whether or not this is funded and/or supported by the University of Chicago and is this YouTube viewing conducted using university resources and conducted during time that could be used for instructional or research time.”

Mr. Light’s “question” was in fact a thinly veiled threat, probing at the blurry line that separates academic freedom from (potentially) objectionable outside interests. Mr. Kim’s threatening stance is not uncommon coming from those who want to constrain the speech of university professors. Here is my response to that kind of threat: I am knowingly and deliberately writing this post during “business hours” from my university office, using my university computer while sitting on my university chair. The purpose of this post is to give a message to any of my students or colleagues who may be reading: I respect your religious privacy and autonomy. I will not ever force you to publicly expose your religious views in any university function. I will not ever impose a religious exercise on you or on the members of any captive audience. If you have special needs associated with your religious views, I will make an effort (within reason) to discretely accommodate those needs.

I feel it is important for all educators to acknowledge that their students and peers comprise a diverse population, and we have a professional obligation to be neutral in all respects except for scholarly performance and professional conduct. If a student wants to approach me about religion, then we can have a free discussion. If a student wants to say a quiet personal prayer before an exam, that’s their prerogative (luckily I’m an Atheist or else I might consider that to be cheating). But I understand it is not my place to corner people into a religiously themed exercise.

This isn’t a hard concept at all.

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The Noble Jerry Coyne

ImageJerry Coyne, a prominent “New Atheist” and author of the popular book Why Evolution is True, is seriously immersing himself in theology by studying Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Coyne is in the vanguard of “evangelizing” Atheists, who are often criticized for not sufficiently understanding the positions of sophisticated, modern theologians. By taking time to study and respond to these ivory tower materials, Coyne shows that he’s a genuine class act. I want to applaud his decision, as it presents a positive contrast to the Courtier’s Reply position — in essence, “I don’t have to study something if I already know it’s false” — that has been creeping like a nasty weed through Atheist circles. It’s nice to see someone taking the high road of intellectual engagement.

 

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Is this scientism?

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Is there science happening here? I need a biologist to tell me.

PZ Myers and Laurence Moran say “Physicians and engineers are not scientists” (a point argued with, I think, malicious intent). Meanwhile Jerry Coyne and others think that car mechanics and plumbers are doing “science, broadly construed.” Sam Harris and Steven Pinker suggest (or at least imply) that scientists will ultimately overtake the humanities; Massimo Pigliucci has strenuously critiqued this latter view, calling it “scientism.”

This debate revolves around a basic rhetorical fallacy: the claim that “scientists” have a unique legitimacy attached to their beliefs, together with a claim of demarcational privilege to decide who is and isn’t a scientist. The arational imposition of intellectual privilege is, I think, the essence of the fuzzily defined “scientism” that non-scientists find threatening. It’s threatening because it is a threat. It attacks the legitimacy of entire classes of scholarship, and the Myers/Moran attack on engineers is one example.

This style of argument is used to de-legitimize a perceived opponent, or (as in Pigliucci’s case) to defend the legitimacy of his own profession. Such defenses are, according to Coyne, “defensive” — check out Coyne’s reaction to a historian who proposed that scientists might benefit from studying history. To paraphrase his position: we (scientists) don’t need you (non-scientists), you need us. On this level, the debate has nothing to do with science or the quality of ideas; instead it is a purely sophistic (and egoistic) effort to disqualify others.

I’ll pause now to remind the reader that I’m an engineer. Speaking as an engineer, I think there is a clear distinction between engineering and science: engineers have to actually get things right or they may suffer immediate economic, functional or ethical consequences. Scientists, on the other hand, have to pass their work through a process of critical review by their peers. The latter process is important to the long-term filtering of ideas, but peer review doesn’t have the same falsifying power as a collapsing bridge, an exploding boiler, a crashing train, a killer radiation leak or a misfired missile. So if we’re talking about legitimacy, I’d sooner trust the beliefs of a randomly selected engineer over those of a random scientist.

But Moran and Myers think engineers are something less. They are annoyed by Ken Ham’s claim that creationists can be successful in scientific careers, something that was argued during the Bill Nye / Ken Ham debate. They are so annoyed by the creationists that they are willing to degrade entire classes of scholars in order to win a fake point.

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I’m with Massimo

Screen Shot 2014-02-09 at 11.15.18 AMMassimo Pigliucci has taken a lot of heat for his criticisms of “new Atheists.” Pigliucci accuses NAs of being overconfident scientists who tread naively onto philosophical turf. I’m inclined to agree with him: NA’s are sometimes loudly making basic errors, inappropriately associating their views with “science,” and are sometimes making sophisticated excuses to rationalize their lack of rigor. For those who hope to have correct beliefs, a more cautious approach is warranted.

A few weeks ago, Jerry Coyne published a critique on his blog directed at an essay that Pigliucci published last September, titled “New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement.” Among the various blogs I read, I’ve generally found Pigliucci’s blog, Rationally Speaking, to be one of the most intellectually satisfying. But Coyne disagrees, saying:

I’ve been put off by [Massimo’s] arrogance, attack-dogishness (if you want a strident atheist, look no further than Massimo), and his repeated criticisms of New Atheists because We Don’t Know Enough Philosophy. (If you substituted “Theology” for “Philosophy” there, you’d pretty much have Terry Eagleton).

The parenthetical phrase made me wince, since it alludes to the Courtier’s Reply argument that can be used as a sophistic excuse for lack of rigor. It is also pretty rude to equate the professional discipline of philosophy with that of theology, which Coyne believes is utterly vacuous. Later in the same post, Coyne made another alarming remark:

Note to readers: when you see the word “nuanced” used in criticism of atheism, run!

This sounds juvenile to me. All mature fields have nuances — “minor distinctions; subtlety or fine detail” — and you can’t just barge into an established field without carefully navigating those nuances. But that’s exactly how NA scientists sometimes sound when they make overreaching philosophical pronouncements.

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Ken Ham: making a new generation of Atheists

Bill Nye vs Ken Ham, Feb 4, 2014In just a few days, Bill Nye will go head-to-head with creationist Ken Ham in a debate that has generated a lot of controversy in the online skeptical community. Many are concerned that this debate will attract attention and confer an appearance of legitimacy on Ken Ham’s organization, Answers in Genesis, and its fundamentalist ideas. But I want people to pay more attention, to think harder about this debate, so that they can realize the degree to which biblical creationism is a despicable fraud.

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Respecting the sacred

Screen Shot 2013-12-24 at 1.27.47 AMThe Hopi Tribe has been arguing for the return of artifacts considered sacred to their traditional religion. A coalition of tribes has also been fighting to constrain land use in an Arizona mountain range considered to be sacred land. What accommodations are appropriate for respecting these religious traditions?

Although I am an Atheist, I do not support gratuitous insults to rituals and traditions that are deemed sacred. As I see it, most Atheists are interested in two things: 1) Intellectual defense of science and a skeptical epistemology (usually empiricist); and 2) Eliminating institutions of religious privilege through secular activism. The concept of privilege is especially relevant for the situation of indigenous populations like the Hopi, who fell victim to colonization by outsiders who were mostly Christian. Since I am also descended from the colonizing group, I’m conscious of the need to tread lightly on matters of tribal religion.

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Santa, Jesus and dinosaurs

Father Christmas rides a goat

Father Christmas rides a goat

A friend of mine once shared her “skeptic origin story,” which also happens to be an amazing Christmas story. I’ll have to paraphrase the story from memory:

When I found out that Santa Claus wasn’t real, I couldn’t believe so many people had been lying to me. I immediately stopped believing in God, Jesus and dinosaurs. They all sounded like made-up fantasies told by the same people who lied about Santa. I eventually started believing in dinosaurs again.

This story is both funny and thought provoking. On one hand, it exposes the plain similarity between religious knowledge and the Santa myth — the latter being a ubiquitous lie in which nearly everyone knowingly participates. On the other hand, it highlights a continual challenge for skeptically minded people: where do I draw the boundaries of my skepticism? This is sort of the amateur version of the demarcation problem: where are the lines that separate (1) total junk; (2) reasonable but wrong beliefs; and (3) questionable topics that warrant further study?

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