Friday, August 2, 2013

School Prayer Again: The Good Old Days and Other Fallacies

This morning I saw that a group called The American Family Association of Kentucky has an online petition to the governor of Kentucky, imploring him to return "God's protection to America" by "putting prayer back in the schools." At the top, it shows a pair of praying hands in front of the American flag, and says, "restore student religious liberty." It goes on to say:
Prayer was in our schools for over 200 years before the anti-God forces took it out in 1962. After prayer was removed from our schools, teen pregnancy went up 500%, STD’s went up 226%, violent crime went up 500% and SAT scores went down for 18 years in a row, opening the door for the AIDS epidemic and the drug culture.
I didn't wake up this morning thinking I would write another post about school prayer, but this survey got me thinking about some of the myths and fallacies I keep seeing that surround the issue, and I'm getting pretty tired of them.

The biggest myth (or lie, if you're more cynical) is that prayer was ever entirely taken out of schools. It wasn't. Official, school-sponsored prayer was taken out of schools (though not always successfully--I remember bowing down with all the other seventh grade football players to say the Lord's Prayer before games). Students are still free to pray as long as they aren't disrupting class or doing so as part of an official school function, like cheerleading or speaking at a graduation. School officials can pray, too, but if they want to stay within the law they need to do it silently and discreetly, so that it isn't a promotion of prayer. You can't outlaw silent prayer, and no sensible person wants to anyway.

I've noticed it's incredibly hard to get some people to acknowledge the distinction between "official school prayer" and "voluntary student prayer". It's an important one: the first is illegal, and the second is not. In fact, it's protected, as long as it's not disruptive. There's an inevitable tension in the 1st Amendment between the Establishment Clause, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" and the Free Exercise Clause: "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". In the case of government institutions and employees, free exercise is restricted, to keep from violating the Establishment Clause. That's why public schools and their employees can't officially support one religion over another. What they do on their own time is up to them.

Which brings us to another fallacy: that restricting official school prayer is a violation of "religious liberty", as the Kentucky petition claims. It isn't, or at least it isn't an unreasonable one. School officials and students acting in official school functions can't expect full religious liberty while they are acting on behalf of the school, because that violates the Establishment Clause. We're back to that official/voluntary distinction. In fact, official Christian school prayers would be a violation of religious liberty, because some non-Christian kids would be forced (or would feel intense pressure) to participate in the prayers of a religion they don't share. There's this strange idea on the religious right these days that religious liberty means being allowed to force others to conform to your religion. It doesn't--that's twisting the word "liberty" into something else entirely. In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Another one you hear a lot is that "God has been kicked out of schools." There's an idea in religious right circles that many of today's woes can be traced to the removal of official prayers from school in the early sixties. Those woes aren't just the result of kids not receiving religious instruction, according to this view. They also come from the fact that God has removed his protection from America, as the petition claims. The recent school shootings aren't just happening because the students don't know God. They are also happening because God is letting them happen, because we "kicked him out of the schools."

Now, I'm a little out of my theological depth here, I admit, but these sentiments don't seem to be giving God a whole lot of respect. If God is really omnipotent and omnipresent, as most Christians believe (I think), than it's impossible for mere humans to kick him out of anywhere. Of course, you could argue that the "kicking out" part is just a rhetorical flourish, and what's really happening is that God is simply deciding to leave the schools and withdraw his protection. As Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association (the same organization sponsoring the petition in Kentucky) put it when discussing why God let the Sandy Hook school shooting happen:
In 1962 we kicked prayer out of the schools. In 1963 we kicked God's word out of ours schools. In 1980 we kicked the Ten Commandments out of our schools. We've kicked God out of our public school system. And I think God would say to us, 'Hey, I'll be glad to protect your children, but you've got to invite me back into your world first. I'm not going to go where I'm not wanted. I am a gentleman."
So...God let a madman gun down little children because...he's a gentleman? Once again, I don't think the word "gentleman" is being used correctly here. This view paints a picture of God as being petty and vindictive, the kind of God who says, "If you don't base your government on one particular religion--conservative Christianity--then I will let terrible things happen to you and your children." Granted, that does resemble the vengeful and jealous God of the Old Testament. But happily, not all Christians see God in those terms anymore (some folks on the religious right seem to have never read the New Testament...except for Revelation, of course). 

But whether this view is true Christian doctrine or not, some of us in this country aren't Christians, and it's our country too. Personally, I think that if God exists at all, he probably doesn't have much to do with human affairs one way or the other, so the whole "God's protection" argument is a moot point. I don't think that's how the world works, and if it is, and God only protects countries with school-sponsored prayer, then he is a petty and callous deity, and certainly no gentleman. Is that a God worthy of worship? I don't think so.

Now, what about the quote from the petition that talks about the ills that have befallen America since "anti-God forces took it out in 1962"? First, that "anti-God forces" part is mostly wrong.  Engel v. Vitale, the court case in 1962 that made official school prayer illegal, was brought by a group of parents including "two Jews, an atheist, a Unitarian, and another Protestant." Only one of those people could possibly be considered "anti-God", though at most an atheist would be anti-religion, because you can't be against something you don't think exists. Maybe they're confusing that case with Murray v. Curtlett, the case that lead to Bible readings being outlawed in 1963. That's the one that involved the famous atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who was pretty anti-religion, and apparently not a very pleasant person. Many of the court cases that helped remove official religious observances from schools were brought by religious people, many of whom are quite passionate about separating church and state (religious people came up with the idea in the first place, after all). So, it isn't generally "anti-God" forces; it's "anti-official-sponsorship-of-religion" forces, which is a very different thing, and often quite pro-God. 

But what about the claims about teen pregnancy, STD's, and violent crime increasing after 1962? I'm not going to spend a bunch of time tracking the statistics down for Kentucky, but I wouldn't be surprised if they were partly accurate. Those things may have increased in the 60's. Society did see some upheavals then. But that doesn't mean the removal of official prayer from school caused those problems. Jumping to that conclusion is an elementary logical fallacy: the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (it means "after this, therefore because of this"). The fact that an event precedes another event doesn't mean it caused that event. My Dad is a veterinarian, who is always having people tell him that their pets got better because they dewormed them, even when the ailment had nothing to do with worms. He asks, "Did you ever have a flat tire the same day you went to the gas station? Did you decide that going to the gas station causes flats?" (See also "regression to the mean" and "correlation does not imply causation")

There are all kinds of things that might have caused increases in violence, teen pregnancy, etc. in the 60's, and the removal of school prayer is just one (rather remote) possibility. However, I can imagine that both the removal of school prayer and the increasing social ills could have been related to a general societal move away from traditional religious and moral values. That move did really get rolling in the sixties. It's true that belief and morality have grown more diverse in the United States in the last few decades. Some people are moving away from traditional religion, while others are embracing fundamentalism. I do believe it can be a dangerous time when people start questioning their old moral systems, because they may start abandoning rules that are there for very good reasons. That's one reason I write about ethics so much in this blog--people have to have some kind of moral framework that keeps them from doing hurtful things, and I'm trying to figure out what system might make sense, without relying on unproven supernatural claims. 

That's the thing--just because the removal of an old system of morality leads to problems, that doesn't mean the old system was right or good. And that brings me to the good old days. Lots of people, especially those on the religious right, look back wistfully at a glowing golden age when God was in charge and morals were morals. I heard someone recently longing for the time when "God was in the classroom, and there was a paddle in every teacher's desk". People look at "kids today" and shake their heads in despair. But there are some big problems with that view. For one thing, it's been around forever. Back around 700 BC, Hesiod lamented that "When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint." People have said the same things for at least 2700 years, and probably much longer, yet the world has never yet completely gone to hell in a handbasket (it's come close, maybe). Every generation has the rebellious kids and the more obedient kids. Admittedly, things today are a little unusual, because we have seen traditional Christianity lose more of its dominance over western culture. Many Americans, and far more Europeans, are now non-religious (and some of the least religious countries are some of the happiest on Earth). So yes, we are living in an unusually dynamic time, in a moral sense and in pretty much every other sense. 

But that doesn't mean there's no hope for the future, or that we should return to some imagined Golden Age. Things aren't that bad now, and that golden age wasn't so golden. Yes, violent crime started climbing in the 60's, and kept on climbing through the 80's...and then it started declining in the early 90's, and has ever since. We're not down to the levels of the early '60's yet, but we may get there. Most people think violence is increasing, but that's just an illusion based on the way the media plasters the juiciest atrocities across our TV screens day and night. As for teen pregnancy, I don't know about Kentucky, but across the United States, teen pregancy was at its highest in--get this--the fifties. It started declining right around the time prayer was removed from schools (and I won't claim causation) and has mostly declined since then. Sure, we've got some problems these days, but the news isn't all bad, despite what's on the news.

Besides, those good old days weren't all they're cracked up to be. Yesterday I was looking through some microfilms of the local paper (I live in south Louisiana) from 1965. There was an obituary for a black woman who had died at the age of 89. It was tucked at the bottom of the page, in a small section entitled "Negro news". Any article that mentioned a black person would pause to point out their race, as in, "John Doe, negro, was...". In 1965, local schools were separate and distinctly unequal, and the whole region was segregated. Blacks didn't have schools that went past the 8th grade until around 1950, and those schools opened months after the white schools, so that their students could keep working in the sugarcane fields. I read an account of this period by a woman who came home from Xavier University in New Orleans in the 50's and went to the library system (where I now work) to do some research. She didn't see a "Whites Only" sign, so she decided to risk going in. But she was told to go "her people's" library, which was a shelf full of books in the underfunded black high school. 

This doesn't sound like the good old days to me, and I know it doesn't to a black person. Back in the days when "God was in the schools", women and most minorities were treated as second-class citizens, and blacks especially suffered incredible indignities and injustices. But I'm not saying that's because God was in the schools back then. That's just the kind of dodgy reasoning I'm arguing against here. 


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