Tuesday, March 23, 2004

NYT -- Mandatory public school theology

A New York Times columnists writes today about the importance of religion. He starts off discussing the civil rights movement:
Its leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., drew sustenance from a prophetic religious tradition, and took a much darker view of human nature. King wrote an important essay on Jeremiah, the "rebel prophet" who saw that his nation was in moral decline. ... Because the experiences of the Hebrew prophets had taught them to be pessimistic about humanity, the civil rights leaders knew they had to be spiritually aggressive if they wanted to get anything done. Chappell argues that the civil rights movement was not a political movement with a religious element. It was a religious movement with a political element. If you believe that the separation of church and state means that people should not bring their religious values into politics, then, if Chappell is right, you have to say goodbye to the civil rights movement. It would not have succeeded as a secular force.
I'm not sure how exactly to reconstruct the argument. It's a really bad argument if it looks like this: the leaders of the civil rights movement were religious, therefore it was a religious movement. A more likely and more charitable intended interpretation is this: insights from religious texts into human nature were vitally important to the civil rights movement, therefore it was a religious movement. It's a slightly better argument, but it's still invalid -- the (alleged) fact that reading the Bible helped people to understand human nature and more effectively change social policies doesn't make it a religious movement. I don't want to be arguing too much yet -- if the facts are right, which I'll assume they are, then this is an instance of religion affecting positive change in society. But the column continues:
Whether you believe in God or not, the Bible and commentaries on the Bible can be read as instructions about what human beings are like and how they are likely to behave. Moreover, this biblical wisdom is deeper and more accurate than the wisdom offered by the secular social sciences, which often treat human beings as soulless utility-maximizers, or as members of this or that demographic group or class. Whether the topic is welfare, education, the regulation of biotechnology or even the war on terrorism, biblical wisdom may offer something that secular thinking does not -- not pat answers, but a way to think about things. ... The lesson I draw from all this is that ... maybe theology should be mandatory [in public schools]. Students should be introduced to the prophets, to the Old and New Testaments, to the Koran, to a few of the commentators who argue about these texts.
Now this is just silly. Religious texts can provide valuable insights into human behavior, therefore they should be mandatory reading in public schools? LOTS of things can provide valuable insights into human behavior. Take away the religious claims and religious texts are (at best) good literature -- and there's lots of secular good literature too.

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