Ask Surly Amy: Outnumbered Atheist

Ask Surly Amy

Dear Surly Amy,

I’m in a graduate class about educational rights worldwide, and one of our assignments was to review a proposal for an educational rights amendment, which included the notion that children have the right to be indoctrinated into a religion in public schools. I was outraged and when we discussed this in my class, I pointed out all the reasons this is just wrong. But much to my surprise, everyone else just jumped right into the yeah-I-suppose-he’s-right bandwagon. This week our assignment is to propose our own amendment. I don’t have to tell you what I chose to address. But this is a group task, it’s someone else’s job to decide what proposals make the cut, and I have little confidence that mine will get past the Scribe. I can’t in all conscience stand with my group if they chose to propose state funded indoctrination. So… WTF? What are these people thinking? Am I making too much of what is, at the end of the day, just homework? Should I simply state for the record that I disagree?

~Outnumbered Atheist

Yes, you should state for the record that you disagree.
Yes, you should speak up for what is right.
Yes, you should know that even though you are a minority you have all of us standing behind you and cheering you on.

That being said, if your proposal doesn’t make the cut and this project will affect your grade or will somehow change the course of your education or your potential for getting work outside of school then you should still participate in the project. We need educated graduates to stand and fight for atheist rights and the separation of church and state and what better place to learn to understand and to combat their arguments than from the inside.

Pay close attention. This is exactly the type of situation you will be faced with in the working world outside of school. Perhaps this project will give you some great insight in how to stop this sort of thing from happening in real life!

And you’re not outnumbered. We just aren’t in your class.

Got a question you would like some Surly-Skepchick advice on? Send it in! We won’t publish your real name, unless you want us to and creative pseudonyms get bonus points! Just use the contact link on the top left of the page.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. Amy’s advice is quite sound. Stand up for your ideas, and at the same time be careful and smart about it.
    As for arguments in support of your views, you might want to contrast the positions of the Founding fathers of the US, which have found an expression in the American Constitution, thus guaranteeing freedom of religion — versus those who ruled over countries where a given religion is on top, leaving people who worship another god as second-rate citizens. I’m sure you can find different examples that will touch the sensibilities of your fellow students – each one should be made to feel that this or that “mono-religious” country would be bad for her/him. And really only if there is no indoctrination, can people think for themselves.
    Keep up the good work, and good luck!

  2. Another possible tack is to use an absurd, yet still valid, example. If the group decides that, yes, it is okay to indoctrinate individuals into a religion in public school, then state, in no uncertain terms, that no one can complain if their children are indoctrinated into the religion of Thor or Zeus or (if you’re feeling especially plucky) Satan.

    This may generate some outrage, but it points out the inherent dangers of state-sponsored religious indoctrination. It’s only “good” if it’s your religion.

  3. To be indoctrinated is not a ‘right.’ The question is, does the child and the child’s parents have the right NOT to be indoctrinated? Take another tack:why should, say, Catholic children be taught a Protestant (or vice versa in a Catholic neighborhood) take on the bible. Who knows, if they actually confront THAT question, you might be able to ask why agnostic, atheist and religious dissenters’ children should be taught religion at all?

  4. I would point out that the Universal declaration of human rights doesn’t permit this either.

    Part of your grade cannot be contingent with you going along with bogus and crappy ideas. You need to absolutely stand your ground, even if it means a cut in grade (which could only happen at a really crappy class in a crappy school).

    If it does result in a cut in grade, then you have a whole other thing to raise high holy hell about. One that the rest of the skeptic community can help you on. ;)

    Maybe the point of the educational assignment is to see what people will do when they are called on to do illegal and bogus things.

  5. I would agree with all those that suggest arguments to bring up in opposition. If you feel that your group is tending towards a position you disagree with, bring up all the arguments against it as a devils advocate. Makes people think, show them a different viewpoint. However, at the end of the day, it is an assignment, which is an intellectual excercise for the purpose of education. If you can’t sway your group, after bringing up your points for consideration, treat it as if you were being assigned a debate position whose premise you don’t agree with. Knock it out of the park even if it is a bizzaro world reflection of what you actually believe, get a good grade, and move on to the so called “real world” with a better understanding of your opponents position, the better to obliterate it later.

  6. If it’s a “right”, can you choose not to take “advantage” of it?
    I mean, I have the right to, say, free expression so if for some reason I shouldn’t wish to express myself freely, nobody can make me.
    If not, I do suggest taking the proposition to its logical conclusion and demanding that american schoolchildren be indoctrinated into hindusim, islam or some other religion that the majority of your classmates aren’t likely to find agreeable.

  7. It’s not quite clear from the OP, but is it “the right to get religion class at school”? Because I’d say that, sure, you could look for teachers to teach the class, and parents who wanted their kids to take that class could sign them up, but at the same time, parents and/or kids who didn’t want to take the class could opt to take another class instead, or just go home.

    Of course, it makes you wonder why you’d want to have these classes be official curriculum? Would they be state sponsored? Would they count towards your final grade? It gets really tricky really fast. So the easiest thing is to just get rid of them altogether in order to make sure things don’t get too complicated.

    But from a religious freedom point of view, it’s not such an odd idea. Would you want to be able to teach Islam, Hinduism, etc… at an American school? Would you be allowed to use school facilities after hours? What abaout christians or jews in a middle eastern country? (Seeing how this is about worldwide educational rights it’s perhaps not such a far-out idea to allow religious freedom at school, especially in those countries where a religious class IS already a mandatory part of the curriculum anyway).

    Primarily, I’m just wondering if this isn’t another case of an atheist trying to kick up a stink motivated mostly by anti-christianity feelings rather than genuine religious liberty issues. Just because something mentions religion in general (not a specific religious subsect in particular) doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing, or pushing an agenda.

    Until “outnumbered atheist” clarifies the situation in less reactionary language (i.e. without using words like “indoctrination“), it’s unclear what his exact motives for causing a stir would be. I would advise against thumping your lack-of-a-bible at every conceivable opportunity, because as atheists we’re already getting enough flak when we’re adressing GENUINE religious agendas that we don’t need to go and fabricate our own controversies.

  8. .@exarch:
    ok, I wasn’t going to, but what the heck… Outnumbered Atheist speaking. I’m afraid I couldn’t be any clearer within the constraints of the character limit. But to clarify…
    The issue is not religious education as in taking a few courses in a particular religion. The issue that is being debated is letting any religious dogma dictate every aspect of a child’s education, anywhere there are enough parents who request it to justify a separate class, provided that the religious teachings involved don’t violate human rights (and the author qualifies this by giving racism or terrorism as examples of things that would not be allowed).

    Setting aside for a minute the issue of governments suddenly determining that some religions, or some aspects of religions, are more acceptable than others, this would still be an utter nightmare.
    In practice this would mean that US schools, if enough Islamic parents requested it, would have to follow the religious dictates of Islam in every aspect of the child’s education, from segregating the girls from the boys to actually censoring what content girls are allowed to learn.

    If you don’t want to call that indoctrination, please give me a better word and i’ll use it.

  9. hmmm, I’d say for both my daughters part of their 8th grade education was having people from various religious beliefs come in and talk about thier religion and answer questions. An atheist was also included. In the US we really don’t get the same exposure to various “gods” and beliefs. My friend Alvin from Singapore says “when I tell people I don’t believe in god they ask ‘which gods’?”
    The best part about having MANY different religions (Judaism, Buddhism, Sikh, Christian, Unitarian, and atheist among others) come to speak is no one religion really comes out the winner. In face, the atheist was the most popular speaker. (the Buddhist pissed some of the kids off when he told them a new car would only give them “temporary happiness”…ohhh don’t tell almost drivers that).

  10. @gwenwifar: I don’t think indoctrinate is strong enough a word for this. I think lots of commentators thought that you were overstating the situation, and responded on that basis.

    But it’s actually much worse than I imagined. I thought there might be a sectarian religious class, taught and approved by religious authorities, but offered in the school, using school facilities, possibly paid for by the local government. The school facilitating religious education, in other words. I have huge problems with that, but that’s nothing compared to the actual situation.

    What you seem to be describing is much worse. A full-blown, religious school system being run by the government, and paid for by the taxpayer. Who picks the teachers, the school personnel department, using civil service criteria, or the religious authorities by fiat? Who pays them? Who ensures they are following a curriculum that ensures they receive at least a minimal education in important subjects? (Oh, that’s right, no one.) Who ensures they aren’t being lied to and aren’t being taught obsolete or long-discredited theories (Lamarckism, phlogiston, the Ptolemaic system. etc.) Again, nobody. Very importantly, what happens to the kids who aren’t members of one of the locally predominate cults? Are they all jammed in together and get a “separate but equal” education? What if there aren’t enough of them to form classes? Like the one room school-house of the old West, the teacher may do his or her best to teach algebra to the teen-agers while teaching sums to the 6 year-olds, but these schools were *NOT* famous for their quality and rigor.

    Then there are the social issues. Kids would be isolated by their religious beliefs, outsiders would be completely isolated, and I don’t want to semi-Godwin myself by mentioning Columbine…

    The whole proposal seems thoroughly and completely unamerican, and should have not just the atheists and non-religious up in arms, but any religious group that might be a small minority in some areas. Preventing this sort of thing was the exact and explicit purpose of the establishment clause.

  11. @kittynh: We had a very similar sounding class in the seventh grade. It started out with Logic, syllogisms and all that, and the principles of critical thinking (Woot!), then history of philosophy, starting with the ancient Greeks and the various schools, up to modern philosophy (obviously a pretty shallow overview, since it was at a seventh grade level, but still it laid the groundwork.) This was followed by comparative religion. (This was about half the class time, since there was so much of it.) Starting with ancient mythology (Greek, Norse, Sumerian, Egyptian, etc.) and historical and remnant religions (such as Mithraism and Zoroastrianism), and followed by various modern religions (Abrahamic, Indian, various strains of Buddhism, etc.) – I used to know the difference between Sikhism and Jainism. I don’t think we touched at all on African or native American beliefs, but still it was a huge amount to cover and still one of my favorite classes ever. Unfortunately, this was an “honors” course, so most of the kids didn’t get to take it.

    I vaguely remember various religious leaders giving guest lectures (a Catholic priest, a rabbi, various Protestant ministers. Don’t remember any Muslims or Buddhists, though.) But that might actually have been a CCD (Catholic religious ed.) class!?

    Exposure to all this certainly didn’t make me any more religious in the end.

  12. @Buzz Parsec:
    It’s hard to find words to describe that proposal adequately. And I can’t understand how graduate level students can offer it even token support, because it was in the course materials. The only thing the author proposed to recommend this was religious freedom rights, and my first step was to immediately point out that freedom of thought is a human right, and that Articles 14 and 15 of the Convention for the Rights of the Child also grant them that right, as well as the right to seek and obtain information freely on any topic. Therefore, the proposal fundamentally violates human rights even above and beyond all you just pointed out.

    And frankly, religious freedom is a great thing, but in this case, it should be the religious freedom of the children we should be concerned about.

    As it turned out, despite the fact that no immediate support was forthcoming when we debated this as a class, now that the groups have made their proposals, all but 2 avoided the religion issue like the plague. Of the two that mentioned religion at all, one was to propose an opt-out kind of system by which religion still dictates education but parents and children can chose a secular education instead. The other was my group, and they actually, much to my surprise, include my proposal, which went something like:
    Children have the right to be educated in a neutral environment, free of indoctrination, where every religion is respected but none are allowed to dominate or limit freedom of thought. Access to education, educational materials or content cannot be abridged on religious grounds.

    So I guess I must have made an impression after all.

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