Citizens and the Secular

A little ways ago now, I had been discussing ‘freedom from secularism’ with one Citizen Tom. As the World Cup is moving into a slightly less-hectic (arguably more stressful, but less hectic, yes, I know that’s a little contradictory) phase, I have some time on my hands, to delve back into our little ‘debate’. I won’t be quoting the entirety of Tom’s reply, for it’s lengthy, but if you wish to read it, it’s here.

I suspect we have been talking past each other thus far, which sadly, is almost inevitable with opposing viewpoints on topics such as this, so we shall see how this next phase progresses. Where I am quoting Tom, his text will be in purple, for clarity.

Liberal Democrats use lots of words, but often they don’t seem to know what they mean. Read the First Amendment.

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.HTTPS://WWW.ARCHIVES.GOV/FOUNDING-DOCS/BILL-OF-RIGHTS-TRANSCRIPT#TOC-AMENDMENT-I

The so-called wall of separation between church and state is not in the Constitution (see WHY WE CANNOT SEPARATE STATE FROM CHURCH — A FEW MORE THOUGHTS). The Constitution does not prevent Christians from trying to influence the government as Christians. What the Constitution prohibits is the Federal Government from establishing a religion or preventing the People from exercising their religious beliefs. In fact, it is unconstitutional to silence people just because hearing them express their religious beliefs might offend us.

Tom’s not being silenced. Christians in general are not being silenced. Government-run education systems not influencing people religiously seems to be entirely in keeping with the First Amendment, as Tom views it. There are boundaries, because there always will be in life, as people also presumably have the right to not be religious, and to live their lives without undue religious interference.

I have condemned the government-run schools because I think these schools promote Secularism (indifference to a belief in God). I also don’t think most parents support the ideological beliefs that government-run school systems promote in the place of Christianity. Consider a couple of examples.

It is a good thing to teach children to respect and try to understand cultural heritage of other people. It is an entirely different thing to teach that all people have an equally good cultural heritage.

It is a good thing to teach children about environmental problems. It is not a good thing to make an apocalyptic religion out of environmentalism.

Should schools replace secular curriculums with religious ones, specifically Christian ones, as Tom seems to imply? Is that freedom of religion, or is that not really giving kids the opportunity to make up their minds? It seems Tom would seek to replace what he considers to be one form of indoctrination he disapproves of, with one he does approve of! As long as that indoctrination is about the ‘right’ belief system eh?

After all, that’s what Tom goes on to imply. ‘Not all people have an equally good heritage’. What’s a good heritage, and how should we teach that one heritage is better than another? Let me guess, Tom believes a good Christian heritage is worth more than an irreligious upbringing, and should carry more weight as a subject of education? Would he suggest that a Christian heritage is better than a Muslim one, or a Jewish one, and weight the education system thusly?

Likewise on the environment, I find his response… odd. Teaching reality is preferable to pretending everything is hunky-dory, and no, it’s not ‘making a religion’ out of it. The vast majority of scientists studying this very field (a 97% majority) have concluded that climate change is human-made, and very real. Am I to take their learned studies seriously, or abandon them, in favour of… what? Teaching children this reality is not a problem to me – it is the truth, as judged by many, many people who are far smarter than I am.

Therefore, I regard Berwick’s response as kind of funny.

The issue is giving parents, not churches, the power to decide the who, what, where, and how of their children’s education. Berwick’s reply is the usual red herring. I don’t have to prove that government-run education teaches things contrary to the beliefs of parents. All I have to do is point to the obvious. Parents, not government officials, have primary responsibility for the education of children. With the usual red herring, Berwick tried to avoid discussing the true issue, usurpation of parental authority by government officials.

Is anyone stopping Atheists from setting up non-profits to educate children in Atheism? No. However, since government-run schools already promote Secularism, setting up non-profit schools that promote Atheism would be somewhat redundant. That is why Atheists don’t want to both pay for these non-profits and taxes to support government-run schools.

Whereas the beliefs promoted by our government-run schools tend to be monolithic, there is little monolithic about US churches. Pick almost any issue, and we will find people who call themselves Christians on either side of it. In fact, Atheists often use the differences between Christians to condemn Christianity and promote Atheism. However, here Berwick needs a bogeyman. So, he speaks of US churches as a grave threat to Atheism, and he defends secularizing government-run schools because Christian churches supposedly don’t contribute their fair share in taxes. That’s a joke.

Parents have the freedom to send their children to faith schools, if they so desire. That faith schools are usually absurdly expensive is not the fault of the government, nor the parents who cannot afford to send them there. Parents can also home-school their children, if they so desire. They can also vote for local and state representatives that might more closely align with their view. Tom appears unhappy that parents have a choice, and would appear to want that choice to be more heavily skewed in favour of Christianity.

He also, yet again, conflates atheism with being a religion. Atheism and secularism aren’t subjects that get taught, and I believe Tom, deep-down, knows this, so I wish he would stop being obtuse on the matter. Schools aren’t teaching beliefs (well, state schools aren’t, faith schools though…). Schools provide facts. Schools aren’t skewed to any given religion. The students are free to attend churches, mosques, synagogues, or any religious institution of their choice, outside of school.

I wasn’t aware I suggest churches are a grave threat to atheism. I’d like to know precisely how Tom reaches that rather, um, imaginative conclusion. It is however, entirely true that churches do not contribute a great deal tax-wise, and even individuals can be exempt from tax. From the link:

The hashtag #TaxTheChurches began trending on Twitter in mid-July.

The spark was allegations about the wealth of celebrity pastor Joel Osteen. But it wasn’t the first time that “tax the churches” has circulated. In fact it is slogan that long predates social media – Frank Zappa was singing it back in 1981 and Mark Twain expressed similar sentiments many decades before that.

As a sociologist of religion, I’ve long been interested in why religious institutions are exempt from certain taxes and what that means in potential lost revenue for the U.S. In 2012, I examined this issue and estimated that in total, churches in the U.S. get out of paying around US$71 billion in taxes annually.

Auditing the house of God

Most religious organizations are exempt from a variety of taxes that individuals and businesses are required to pay, like income and property taxes. These exemptions began formally in 1913 at the federal level, though there is a much longer history of exempting charitable, educational, scientific and religious institutions from taxation.

It is important to note that faith organizations can be exempt from paying taxes solely based on their religious work, not for any other charitable endeavors. Churches and religious organizations – which the IRS loosely defines as entities organized for “religious purposes” or for “advancing religion” – are listed separately from other tax-exempt entities and charities and can be subject to different rules. Some religious congregations do engage in relief efforts for the poor and needy, but many do not. And of the ones that do, many give a very small amount of their revenue for such charitable purposes.

Additionally, unlike charities, churches and other places of worship are not required to report any financial information to the IRS. The IRS encourages churches to do so, but they are not required to. And it can be an onerous process for the IRS to gain approval to audit places of worship, requiring prior evidence of abuse of tax exemptions reported by a high-level Treasury employee.

There’s nothing ‘supposed’ about it Tom. Churches don’t contribute a great deal in terms of tax at all, yet we are led to believe that Christianity should have a major say in how those taxes are spent? Indeed, we are led to believe that Christianity should have (in the eyes of Tom, and people like him) more influence over the spending of tax dollars, than any other group!

Why doesn’t our government tax churches? That is not a mystery. When we give our government the power to tax something, we give it the power to destroy it. The power of taxation is no small matter. Why else would so many people give up half of what they make to the government, and that includes a great many people who attend Christian churches?

The clever weaselling of religious institutions doesn’t make it right. What to have influence over how taxes get spent, whilst not paying them? That’s called hypocrisy.

The issue is whether Berwick is aware of the issue?

Our government taxes us — takes our money away from us. Then our government offers us a “free” government-run education, and that fact is not relevant? Frankly, it is scary how utterly indifferent we can be to facts we don’t care to know about.

Oh I’m aware of the issues Tom. You have a choice. You can pay to send your kids to a faith school, but faith schools are expensive, despite churches not paying a lot of tax (you’d think they’d want to fund more private, faith-based education, but I guess these good followers of Jesus value their bank balances more than spreading the Word). Alternatively, you can send your kids to a state school, and complain (scaremonger) that they are being taught secularism and atheism, just because they (gasp!) are being taught facts. There’s nothing stopping any follower of any faith from involving their kids in religion outside of school, and given that churches are not in fact paying very much tax at all, it is hypocritical of such organisations to complain about how taxes get spent. Want a say? Contribute. Want to indoctrinate young minds into a specific belief system? Make it easier for kids to attend faith schools, instead of hoarding money. What would Jesus do?

When we put our children into an environment that actively works to exclude the discussion of religion, we teach them that the subject — God — has no importance. Nevertheless, what we believe about our reason for being has been part of the education of human beings for long as we know, and that does not change just because the government runs our education system. Politicians and unelected bureaucrats merely take it upon themselves to teach children what they should be doing with their lives.

Berwick’s statement apparently reflects his view of the USA as a citizen of the UK. From an outsider’s perspective, I suppose it does look like we don’t spend enough money on our schools. They don’t do a very good job, but we spend gobs of money on our schools. So why the bad job?

But secularism is not a subject in and of itself. It is merely the absence of religious discussion, and it is not specific to Christianity. Tom will find that the US education system is not biased towards or against any religion. Would he instead prefer equal time devoted to every faith out there, to give every child a balanced opportunity to pick whatever religion they so wanted? That obviously won’t work, it would take too long! What we ‘know’ about our reason for being changes depending upon which one of those beliefs we follow. What Christians ‘know’ is different to what Sikhs ‘know’, which is different to want Hindus ‘know’. You want God in schools and education? Are you going to be happy with every version of every god being taught? Or do you really want only one version of one religious narrative holding sway?

Also, I refer to my earlier links and details. Globally, the best education systems in the world are government-run systems. They aren’t run as ‘for profit’ organisations, and I believe that to be a good thing. Private options exist, as they do in the USA, but for all its flaws, the current US system is also far from the worst, it’s just that there are better systems, and they’re not run as businesses.

I’ll address one more element of Tom’s post…

Berwick’s post continues. He tries to justify aborting babies as if getting pregnant is the same as getting some kind of sexually transmitted disease, and abortion is just an ordinary and wholly appropriate medical treatment. Some of the things people say….

What Tom failed to address here, is that I highlighted the huge dangers to forcing children to have babies. He appears to have completely overlooked that portion of my post. Since he omitted mentioning it, I’ll mention it again:

Early childbirth is especially dangerous for adolescents and their infants. Compared to women between the ages of 20-35, pregnant women under 20 are at a greater risk for death and disease including bleeding during pregnancy, toxemia, hemorrhage, prolonged and difficult labor, severe anemia, and disability. Life-long social and economic disadvantages may be a consequence of teenage birth. Educational and career opportunities may be limited, as may be opportunities for marriage. Teen mothers tend to have larger completed family sizes, shorter birth intervals resulting in both poorer health status for the family, and a more severe level of poverty. The children also suffer; teens mothers have a higher incidence of low birth weight infants which is associated with birth injuries, serious childhood illness, and mental and physical disabilities.,%2C%20severe%20anemia%2C%20and%20disability.

Perhaps Tom would be so kind as to address this next time?

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