Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Belief, unbelief, and the establishment clause

It would be very odd if our government were to make it legal to practice any religion  you wanted to, so long as  you practiced one, but prohibited you from lacking any religion at all. So, freedom of religion includes freedom from religion. But does freedom from religion involve more that this? If so, what? 
Suppose a religious professor at a state college were to make it his goal to get as many students to believe  his religion as possible. There seem to be at least some things he could do (for example, making it clear that anyone who wrote a paper in opposition to his religious beliefs would almost certainly get a failing grade), that would give the student grounds for suing based on the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. 
Now, suppose an atheist professor were to make it his stated goal to get as many students to become atheists as possible.  Are there things he could do that would give a religious student grounds for suing based on the Establishment Clause? Or, since it's nonbelief instead of belief, that's different? 

12 comments:

John Moore said...

If an atheist teacher wanted to make his students become atheists, what could he do? The only thing consistent with atheism would be to ask questions, encourage students to think for themselves and then ask their own questions. There's nothing unconstitutional about that!

Atheism just means questioning. It's just lack of certainty.

By contrast, religion means passionate devotion to the revealed truth. People with such certainty often try to make others conform to their own religious truth. So the establishment clause basically says "Don't do that." And this means the very concept of "freedom of religion" is a rather atheistic kind of thing.

You can't use the establishment clause to stop a teacher from asking questions and thinking freely.

Callum said...

Obviously a mirror situation regarding failing grades would stand for an atheist professor.

Mr. Green said...

John Moore: Atheism just means questioning.

Huh. I looked it up, and it didn't say anything about questioning. I also looked up "questioning" and it didn't say "atheism", or anything even close.

By contrast, religion means passionate devotion to the revealed truth.

Er… I think you need a better dictionary.

So the establishment clause basically says "Don't do that."

Huh. A copy of the First Amendment might help too.

One Brow said...

I agree with Callum (and find John Moore's definitions to be inaccurate, as well). An atheist professor who said they any student who supported theism in an essay should be disciplined. Legally, the position of non-belief should not be favored over belief.

Note, this is different from being secular, which is refraining from mentioning religion at all. A professor who told student to keep all beliefs about religion, including the position of non-belief, out of their essays would not be actionable.

Ron said...

I’m a lawyer, and I think it’s relatively uncontroversial that if a professor disciplined students for advocating theism in papers, that would be clearly unconstitutional.

It would fail the Lemon test of Lemon v. Kurtzman because it would have the “primary effect of inhibiting religion.” It would fail the Endorsement Test of Lynch v. Donnelly because a reasonable religious person would see this as “convey[ing] a message of endorsement or disapproval of religion.” Further, even if atheism always not formally required to pass, the professor would still violate the coercion test of Lee v. Weismann because “the student is not free [to express theism] in any real sense of the term ‘voluntary,’ for [expressing theism] would require forfeiture of those intangible benefits which have motivated the student through youth and all her high school years.”

In law school we learned that there is a growing view among legal scholars that the Establishment Clause is somewhat incoherent. It presumes that there is a “neutral” handsodf standpoint does not endorse nor is contrary to any religious view but this is necessarily false. If the government EVER endorsed any positive teaching (which any college class MUST do) then but the law of boncontradiction, they must simultaneously disavow themselves of the contrary view. And there will always be a religion or metaphysical view that affirms that contrar view. For example, every astronomy 101 class requires students to disavow the teaching of fundamentalist versions Christianity, and from a straightforward application of at least the Coercion Tests, this is unconstitutional because it places serious pressure in fundamentalist Christians tobhide their views. But no Court would ever consider teaching basic astronomy to be unconstitutional. This tension arises from the mistake that there is a neutral ground the govt can take that affirms no metaphysical or religious views whatsoever.

bmiller said...

@Ron,

"In law school we learned that there is a growing view among legal scholars that the Establishment Clause is somewhat incoherent. It presumes that there is a “neutral” handsodf standpoint does not endorse nor is contrary to any religious view but this is necessarily false."

Is it considered incoherent because they are basing their conception of what a "neutral handsof standpoint" is considered acceptable for religious views now? Or what what was considered acceptable religious views from the framer's viewpoint?

For instance, certainly there is a law against murder in each state that is held to be constitutional. But would they argue that a cult that practices human sacrifice should be prohibited? Certainly it has been the precedence to prohibit that.

Is it only considered incoherent when discounting the framers "frame of reference"?

Joe Hinman said...

On a related note (belief) I am getting ready to post the God argument that Dr, Reppert put up here once, the transcendental signifies, this is a Prologomina.


Prologomina to God Argument

Joe Hinman said...

For example, every astronomy 101 class requires students to disavow the teaching of fundamentalist versions Christianity,


that's news to me, do you say that because some creationists want to re-wrote age of the earth? I think that is what makes a sect but a religion, the religion is Christianity and has nothing to say about astronomy. Creationism is a sect within that religion.

Victor Reppert said...

Couldn't the issue of astronomy teaching be resolved by saying that the teaching of astronomy requires the teaching of the content of science? Scientific views on astronomy only conflict with religion on the assumption of scientific realism, which is a philosophical position outside the scope of an astronomy class.

Ron said...

If the science teacher taught the content without specifying whether this content should be interpreted in a realist or instrumental manner, this could avoid some issues. However, they are surely religious sects and cults who would object to the very content itself, not merely the interpretation. Regardless of whether the teacher is adopting the “realist” very, the truer is still affirming that there are “facts” and “correct” answers, and this conflicts with various ultra liberal relativistic religious claims. Also, if someone believes that we live in a literal firmament and there are no other planets and the earth is flat, I don’t think the “content” of an astronomy class can be reconciled with their views simply by abandoning scientific realism. The content of modern astronomy is so at odds with those radical religious views that not even an instrumental or non realist interrogation can reconcile them.

Ron said...

If the science teacher taught the content without specifying whether this content should be interpreted in a realist or instrumental manner, this could avoid some issues. However, there are surely religious sects and cults that would object to the very content itself, not merely the interpretation. Regardless of whether the teacher is adopting the “realist” view, the teacher is still affirming that there are “facts” and “correct” answers, and this conflicts with various ultra liberal relativistic religious claims. Also, if someone believes that we live in a literal firmament and there are no other planets and the earth is flat, I don’t think the “content” of an astronomy class can be reconciled with their religious views simply by abandoning scientific realism. The content of modern astronomy is so at odds with those radical religious views that not even an instrumental or non realist interpretation can reconcile them.

Victor Reppert said...

It's always been interesting to me that fundamentalists protest against evolution, as if the only problem science presents for what I call lead-footed literalism about Genesis comes from biology. The conflict with astronomy strikes me as more severe and intractable if you want to defend a young earth. It is part of some religious views, I think that not only is creationism true, but "good" science shows it to be true.