Religious Beliefs Aren’t Special
Blogging about 120 miles away from me, in the Columbia office, fellow intern Audrey Spalding claims that we should offended by a Missouri superintendent’s decision to put a biblical quote at the bottom of his emails. Imagine for the moment that, instead of placing a religious quote at the bottom of his emails, the superintendent had a pet philosohpical quote with no religious relevance. For the sake of concreteness, consider this quote from David Hume:
Actions may be laudable or blameable; but they cannot be reasonable: Laudable or blameable, therefore, are not the same with reasonable or unreasonable. The merit and demerit of actions frequently contradict, and sometimes controul our natural propensities. But reason has no such influence. Moral distinctions, therefore, are not the offspring of reason. Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals.
— A Treatise of Human Nature, book 3, part 1, section 1
This quote is bound to be controversial. Other philosophers would surely disagree — e.g., Kant — and I’m sure the average Joe would take issue with calling morality “irrational” in any sense, which is essentially what Hume is doing. Should we be offended if a school superintendent includes this in his emails? I don’t see why. Sure, the belief is controversial, but we shouldn’t be offended by beliefs merely because they are controversial. There is nothing in the quote to suggest that people who believe otherwise are stupid, immoral, evil, or anything else of that nature.
Including the quote in emails may be motivated by a desire to convert others to the same belief. I have a hard time seeing how this is objectionable, though, considering that the purpose of schools is to do essentially the same thing. Do we not desire to convert children to the belief that 2 + 2 = 4? Perhaps it’s the desire to convert someone to this type of belief that is at issue. Perhaps moral issues should be left out of the classrooms, then. But, first of all, I don’t think a school can function without addressing moral issues. What are we doing when we tell kids that it is wrong to hit each other? Second of all, if this were the issue, it is relatively minor compared to other forms of ideological indoctrination happening inside the classroom.
The method of conversion isn’t objectionable, either. No one is forced to read the quote; they are merely given the opportunity to do so. The same can’t be said for ideological peddling, which goes on inside the classroom.
The only thing that seems to be different is that the superintendent’s quote refers to a deity, and my quote does not. Should it really be offensive to simply to hear about a deity?
Someone might argue that the Constitution has specific language regarding religion, but not regarding meta-ethics — and that is why religion is special. While completely true, this is irrelevant to the question of whether we should get offended about such a quote. This argument ignores the possibility that the Constitution simply got something wrong.
I agree that the superintendent shouldn’t have included the quote in his emails, but not because we should be offended, or because it is intrinsically immoral. The problem is that some people will be offended, which will only cause problems for the school district.