Thursday, May 25, 2006

Slippery Slopes

Heaven Can Wait :: Dissent Spring 2006 Issue

Feldman, a professor at the New York University School of Law, suggests that more religious activities and expressions of faith should be permitted in public institutions but that no public money should be used to support religious institutions. In other words, let public school prayer alone but don’t spend public money on religious charter schools. What Feldman fails to recognize is that the Christian right’s drive for more publicly enshrined religious expression is inseparable from its demand for public financing of explicitly religious activities: the first is a stalking horse for the second.

Feldman also espouses the peculiar idea that religious minorities should not be bothered by explicitly Christian activities in tax-supported venues, say, the recitation of a prayer before a football game or the use of school facilities for Bible classes. He argues (a quote Kazin cites approvingly) that “there is nothing shameful or inherently disadvantageous in being a religious minority, so long as that minority is not subject to coercion or discrimination.”

There is something bizarrely ahistorical about the eagerness of certain Jewish intellectuals to proclaim their lack of discomfort in the presence of Christian symbols in public institutions. Their great-grandparents from Minsk and Pinsk knew better: the hairs on the backs of their necks would have prickled when they were invited to join public school classmates in singing carols about the birth of the little Lord Jesus.

The problem with slippery slopes is that there's no a priori method for determining which way is down hill or where to draw the bright line and dig in. Slippery slope arguments per se aren't fallacious--the slippery slope fallacy consists in ignoring the empirical premises they require or failing to support these premises.

Does Feldman "fail to recognize" that school prayer and other trivial religious ceremonies and symbols are "inseparable" from fundamentalist Christian's drive to get public funding for more substantive religious projects or does he disagree about the tilt of the slope and the suitable place to draw the bright line? Even if members of the religious right regard school prayer and the like as a stalking horse for the establishment of religion in some genuinely objectionable sense it doesn't follow that it will in fact make that more likely. It's an empirical question whether permitting trivial symbols and ceremonies will make it more likely or less likely that the Christian right can get through its theocratic agenda, or whether it will simply have no effect. There is no a priori reason to hold that the connection between these inherently harmless practices and those that impose a burden on religious minorities is "inevitable."

It is also hard to understand why Jewish intellectuals', or any other non-Christians', lack of discomfort in the presence of Christian symbols is "bizarrely ahistorical." What is ahistorical if anything is the idea the US in the 21st Century is in relevant respects like Eastern Europe in the 19th. There are important empirical questions here that are fudged under the rhetoric. Why would the Jews of Minsk and Pinsk get nervous if they were invited to sing Christmas carols? Was their worry that the display of Christian symbols was the means to rally the troops for a pogrom? Was it that it was part of a larger program to indoctrinate and convert them? Were they worried that they would simply find all the stuff so attractive that even without any evangelistic campaign they would be won over? Assuming that the Minskites and Pinskites had reason to worry about all these things, do members of religious minorities or secularists in the US now have reason to worry about any of them?

I don't see any pogroms, crusades or inquisitions in the offing. As far as evangelism goes many fundamentalists do imagine that religious symbols and ceremonies work ex opera operato: they have the idea that mere exposure to religious stuff can magically effect conversions--or at least soften up prospects. However one would assume that non-Christians don't believe in the magical efficacy of religious stuff or worry that they will be brain-zapped if they sing Christmas carols or look at the cross atop Mt. Soledad.

Is the real worry that there's religious stuff that operates naturalistically on individual's aesthetic sensibilities? That would be my concern if I wanted to raise my kid secular or non-Christian. If however the aim is to protect impressionable youngsters from the lure of religion then secularist parents should be careful to avoid exposing them to the Bach B Minor Mass, Paradise Lost, the Metaphysical poets and all decent religious art and church architecture. It's the religious products that have aesthetic merit, presented as culture objects, that are the most tempting--not prayer in the schools or Jehovah's Witnesses at the door. But to protect kids from this you have to knock out a huge hunk of the choral repertoire, stop teaching European art history prior to the Renaissance and much of Renaissance art history as well, avoid quite a few major literary works and ignore ecclesiastical architecture.

Is there something I'm missing here? During the campaign to remove crucifixes from the classrooms at my place a number of years ago the argument was that non-Catholics, particularly religious minorities, were offended, hurt and even panicked by them. This seemed pretty far-fetched to me but if in fact, as some of my colleagues claimed, Jews and Muslims had an immediate visceral reaction with flashbacks of the Inquisition and Crusades that might be a reason to take them down, just as there would be reason--though not IMHO compelling reason--to keep my cats indoors if their shit offends my neighbor. But Jacoby's complaint is that religious minorities aren't offended. She thinks that they should be--and should campaign vigorously to get all religious stuff, especially Christian stuff, removed from the public square because she is convinced that public religious expression will "inevitably" start the slide to coercion and discrimination against religious minorities, the dominance of the Christian right and theocracy.

But, as I've written in the margins of innumerable blue books--"evidence for this? argument for this?"


Sanpete said...

Jacoby's piece reminds me of many I've read from angry secularists, loosely reasoned (as you point out) and only able to see the weaknesses of the other side. She exhibits what appears to be a faith just as naive and unfounded as that she looks down on. Take the idea that peace is the rational goal rather than its contrary. This obviously overlooks the desires for power and possessions and so on that lead to war and make it rational to those who initiate it. Just being rational (by any ordinary meaning) probably won't eliminate war. She complains of "many" liberals who have accepted the "right-wing" premise that there can be no morality without reference to religion (who are these many?). That's not true, of course: there can be morality without religion, but if she bothered to submit to rational scrutiny her own naive faith in reason as a basis for morality she would see that there seem to be severe disadvantages, as well as some advantages, of well founded secular morality, It's not at all obvious it's an improvement overall.

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