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March 14, 2005

Use/Mention and the War on Secularism

Commenter Boethius asks: "Science classes might not need the story about "the two naked kids with the apple" but how about literature classes?"

This is actually something I've wondered about for a while. Suppose for a moment that some monolithic "The Left" and "The Right" got together, and The Left proposed a deal: Creationism/ID would be kept out of science curricula, but in exchange, every literature curriculum would be modified to include extensive study of the Bible. Personally, I'd be amenable to this. The Bible is, after all, probably the most important and influential text in the history of Western civilization. My preference would be for additional study of the Torah (i.e. not just the New Testament), Qur'an, and other religious texts, but let’s say for a moment that those aren’t dealbreakers. Would The Right take the deal?

My instinct is "No," and here’s why. I, like Ezra, am no Matt Yglesias. But I do dabble in enough philosophy to be familiar with something called the use/mention distinction, and I think something like it is at play here. Many religious conservatives - for example, the Ten Commandments display advocates - like to say that god is the source of our laws, values, and rights. With this, they justify injecting it into our schools and courthouses. But of course, this claim can’t be literally true. Personally, I’m an atheist-leaning agnostic. Can this mean I bear no rights? Am I just fortunate (a) that the government can’t tell I’m a non-believer, or (b) that god has seen fit to endow me with rights even though I don’t believe he’s there? Both of these propositions seem unreasonable, and neither seems like somethingthe state ought to be endorsing. At the same time, it does just seem objectively true that America’s legal system, and the values it relies on, have some major foundations in religious thought.

The disconnect here is this: The existence of religious roots in our laws and values is not a function of god, but a function of faith. They exist because the men who birthed our nation believed in a higher power, regardless of whether one actually exists. In other words, it is not god, but "god," that is at least partially the source of our laws and values. This distinction may seem trivial, but I think it holds the key to a lot of the conflict we see today between traditional religious values and traditional notions of secularism. One side wants to acknowledge the importance of god; the other side doesn’t. But can’t either side acknowledge the importance of faith? It seems like this reading could satisfy people on both sides who won’t take "ceremonial deism" for an answer.

- Daniel A. Munz

March 14, 2005 in Religion | Permalink

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Comments

Well I'm still recovering from the shock of seeing my name at the top of the page.

It's an interesting point you raised.

I think some religious people would be wary of extensive Bible study. Besides the most popular books - Genesis, Job, Psalms, Gospels, Acts there are some very strange things such as Ezekiel and Revelations.

I can't comment on the Torah and Koran as I have never read them.

Posted by: Boethius | Mar 14, 2005 9:01:25 PM

Suppose for a moment that some monolithic "The Left" and "The Right" got together, and The Left proposed a deal: Creationism/ID would be kept out of science curricula, but in exchange, every literature curriculum would be modified to include extensive study of the Bible.

Whose Bible though? That's the question that makes the matter a non-starter for any sort state-mandated religious curriculum. The reason why the theory of evolution is so vehemently opposed is because it contradicts the religious beliefs of Biblical literalists, and there would also be opposition to a non-literal reading of the Bible in said literature classes.

One person's faith via Biblical metaphor is another's Biblical fact, after all. The reason for our secular state isn't because the founding fathers wanted to promote secularism, it was to avoid the sort of sectarian violence they had noted throughout history when nation-states took religious sides.

Posted by: David W. | Mar 14, 2005 9:04:21 PM

if you're gonna teach the bible as literature, use the king james version. rich, rich prose. written in the same gestalt (if that's the correct use of the word) as wm. shakespeare.

btw, i'm just a regular old deist -- no ceremony here.

Posted by: harry near indy | Mar 14, 2005 9:07:58 PM

The Bible is full of history, metaphor, wisdom, and spiritual guideposts....if it was taught as a historical book, the Religious Right would be against it....if it was taught as a spiritual lesson, the secularists might take offense. So, I don't think the literature tack would work.

Interesting distinction between God and "God"....good thinking.

Posted by: Steve Mudge | Mar 14, 2005 10:27:53 PM

We read Job in my high school junior English class. It sparked some really good discussion.

Posted by: Kimmitt | Mar 14, 2005 11:37:50 PM

I can't comment on the Torah and Koran as I have never read them.

If you've read any part of Genesis or the others of the First Five, you've read part of the Torah. It's just the first five books of the Old Testament. (I've spent some time on road trips reading Leviticus, and that book is a trip.)

Posted by: Maureen | Mar 15, 2005 12:23:54 AM

We certainly read the Bible in AP World Lit, senior year, at my totally unremarkable suburban NJ HS. I think the teacher made some vague reference to why it was that we could read the Bible in class w/o it having any church/state conflicts, but aside from that, it was unremarkable.

Point being, I think the Left should jump at this offer, because it's not giving anything up!

Posted by: JRoth | Mar 15, 2005 11:22:58 AM

If it walks like a duck and looks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it's probably a duck. Any position that ritual prayer isn't just that because of location is going off half-quacked.

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Posted by: peter.w | Sep 15, 2007 5:14:20 AM

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