A Banner Day for Yoga but Not Satan in School

satanology

Two cases dance on the fence between a protected expression of religion, and a government endorsement of religion. One has to do with a school’s inclusion of yoga practice in the curriculum. The other surrounds controversy that erupted from a fake “Satanology” student club. Both demonstrate how the courts take religious establishment on a case-by-case basis.

Previous cases that have worked through the legality of religious displays on government property by arguing context. In short, it’s fine to display Santa or a nativity if Rudolph, Happy Holidays, or a Menorah is nearby. Display a nativity with “Happy Birthday Jesus” and it won’t be there for long. The Ten Commandments are acceptable as a general moral document on a courthouse. To convey a specific religious idea like God is the source of wisdom for government, again, it’s probably coming down. With that said, if your locality allows religious displays that have religious intent, the real problem comes when you forbid the presence of a competing religious display near it.

The first case asks when the practice of yoga is religious in its context and goals versus when it’s a secular practice adopted by Americans in general. When a California public school was given a grant to teach yoga to its students, conservative Christians challenged it as a religious practice. Those concerned Christian parents lawyered up, and the evangelical Alliance Defending Freedom took up the case. The court decided the case with a peculiar ruling saying that in the case of the class, yoga was not religious secular in nature. However, at the same time, yoga is indeed a religious practice. Light is both particle and wave; General Tso’s chicken is both Chinese food, and yet definitely not Chinese. Like displays of the Ten Commandments on public property, the context matters. Where students were practicing yoga and the purpose of it had nothing to do with its various religious purposes found in numerous traditions. A practice’s historical association with religion does not mean that the practice is inherently religious.

In the second case, an activist requested to post a banner for the “Church of Satanology and Satanic Activism” club along a fence on school grounds. This followed an English teacher at Boca Raton Middle school who erected a 10 foot pentagram display next to a nativity scene in a local park. The reason was not to begin an actual club, but to test the school’s approval of banners for an organization promoting Christianity. The location where the “Satanology” banner was to be placed was a place where churches and synagogues had posted their banners for a fee paid to the district. As soon as Chaz Stevens, an atheist activist, proposed the banner, the school instituted a ban on all banners until further notice. After pressure from the Freedom from Religion Foundation to change the policy permanently, the Palm Beach County School District capitulated. The site for Satanology is part of a campaign by The Religious Liberty Project which “is an advocacy organization dedicated to protecting and promoting freedom of speech and religion, especially the separation of Church and State.” The use of Satan as a polarizing figure to raise awareness on church/state entanglement is not new, but it is a recent strategy by secularists to clarify separation and how it is applied through the 1st Amendment norm.

The issue that connects both of these cases has to do with the ramifications of insisting on the superiority of one religion or group of religions over other faith claims in any context that is a publicly-funded entity. Evangelical legal groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom hide their true intent of reintroducing Christianity as a distinctly superior, American religion behind language of religious freedom. Would they not also seek to defend the equality of other religions’ not-specifically-Christian concerns? The evidence of their case load is an emphatic “no.”

Whenever an activist group insists on the superiority of its religion rooted in whatever jurisprudence that argues for that superiority, it opens up an interpretation of the 1st Amendment as protecting religions through “equal regard” in which religion is not given any particular favored position in these decisions, but it is neither viewed with any disproportionate contempt. As the demographics of society are trending less religious, the idea that religion ought to have some favored status according to the 1st Amendment could fall out of favor. This means that when activists encourage the debate now, they open up their own interests to a deeper secularizing effect in the future. They could allow people to enjoy local favoritism towards the dominant religion while they still can, but outside organizations such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation and Alliance Defending Freedom are on opposing missions to change the ways that the 1st Amendment is interpreted everywhere. So, before that happens small town America, please enjoy your live nativity this Christmas before the giant Baphomet statue comes to peer over your shoulders to judge whether you’ve been bad or good this year.

Reading Religion and American Education

religions_and_american_educationIt’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment when religion and schooling turned from a dance into a WWE match between mortal foes. Most may point to the “Scopes Monkey Trial” where local laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution were publicly questioned. Others may go back a bit further to the Harvard Presidency of Charles Eliot who eliminated compulsory chapel and instituted sweeping curriculum changes that are today observed across universities worldwide. Or, one might go back to the heyday of the Enlightenment itself where reason and observation began to push God out of the way as the necessary agent to understand the world and humanity’s place in it.

Regardless of where you locate the start of this conflict, the disciplines of science and philosophy, educating for professions rather than vocations, and the emergence of a truly public, state-sponsored education system have always created friction with proponents of the old curriculum that put the Bible and Christian devotion at the center of the curriculum. Today the ACLU, Freedom from Religion Foundation, American Humanist Association, Americans United for Separation of Church and State have been central to maintaining a strict interpretation of non-establishment of any kind of religion in public schools against organizations that promote a weakening of that “wall” from groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, American Center for Law and JusticeChristian Educators Association International, and other groups like conservative denominations and political action committees. Activism on both side of the issue has been gaining strength and financial resources in the past few decades. The legal rulings have favored those who argue for a stronger interpretation of the 1st Amendment keeping religion and state funded schooling as distinct and unrelated as possible. Yet the conflict persists unabated.

News about this tension pour in daily. Just this week there have been reports of schools whose doctrines are at odds with LGBT student rights. The voucher program promoted by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos may create constitutional problems not only with entanglement of state and religion, but with how religion impacts equal protection regarding admissions policies. Recently, Donald Trump said before the Faith & Freedom Coalition, “Schools should not be a place that drive out faith and religion, but that should welcome faith and religion with wide, open, beautiful arms.” One questions what faith he is talking about and how schools should practice that welcome. It’s a relevant question given his audience of conservative, evangelical Christians. Surely they would not applaud the wide welcome of Hinduism and Islam on equal footing with their own idea of Christianity, would they?

Legal issues abound with these ideas. But at the center of all of this are the students, our kids. What is school here to do for them and for society? What are kids supposed to learn before they get to college? At what point do federal and state funding of not only the public school system, but of the public tertiary education system get entangled? Where do Constitutional amendments start to conflict with each other and what has happened in the courts to sort these complicated issues out?

Part of my “research reboot” this summer is to take a step back, catch up on the latest research, and to sort through some of the older texts with fresh eyes – especially those that I have only read in part while working on my dissertation. The first of these that I am going to work through is Religion & American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma by Warren A. Nord. It was published in 1995 and while there have been titles since then which I will follow with, none of them go into the depth of this book from the time up until Nord wrote it. Sometimes you have to take a few steps back to put what comes next in context. My goal here is to offer a short post on each chapter in three sections which will sort of be a template for future books I go through.

  • The Gist – The main argument the author is making.
  • The Idea – I want to focus on one interesting idea that might be applicable more generally or might spark a research question.
  • The Relevance – This is the trickier part where I want to find a connection with what is in the text, especially since its older, with something happening today.

This is something I do through the typical research process anyway. I thought, hey, want not put it all here and if it is interesting to someone else, or if there are other ideas out there I have not seen in relation to it, sweet.

More to come.

Caught Between Should and Am: Fixing My Writing Problem

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Running and light

Ever since I finished my dissertation, almost 5 years ago, I have been caught in a weird head space where I haven’t figured out my identity as an academic, a professional, and even as a person. I’ve had a few starts on blogging that usually stops after a couple of months. I get distracted by something else and totally lose interest. Why?

At first I thought it had to do with marathon training. Doing this is so time consuming and tiring that I would usually post about starting the process and then do nothing until the result. The fiction that I convinced myself was true is that I can’t write and train at the same time. If I am going to perform at my job, maintain my relationships, and be mentally healthy, I can either run, or write. I have told myself this even though I knew it was total bullshit. Great writers all have parallel obsessive habits from drinking and smoking to running. Telling myself lies to avoid doing something is a deep-seated character flaw. I’ve learned much about how this mechanism works, but this time it had me caught. The real question is not why I stopped writing, but what I was avoiding.

It was last night when I was catching up on Supergirl that a little sisterly advice hit me that freshly out of the closet Alex Danvers gave her sister Kara (Supergirl):

Look… sometimes, you know, in our life, when one part is really confusing, we will pour way more attention than necessary into another.

I started running for very good reasons that still hold. It was to improve mental and physical health. It is still the single best tool I have in my toolkit to maintain mental and physical health and stability and I can’t ever see myself stopping. However, I have poured a lot into it. Challenges are really effective to have in front of you to stay motivated. But at what point do you become obsessed with it to the point that you are avoiding something else? I went from at most running one marathon a year, and last year that was enough. This year I am not only running two marathons, but running 2017 miles which is about 700 more than the previous year, and I want to train to get a Boston Qualifying time which would shave about 5% off of my finishing time this past May. Have I crossed the tipping point where running has gone from healthy activity to obsession I am using to avoid something? I might be there.

I have struggled with my identity as an academic and as a professional since finishing my dissertation in 2013. For a very long time, my religious identity as a person of faith was my central obsession academically, emotionally, and socially. At the time I gave that up, a story I have not yet fully told, running filled the void. I traded one preoccupation with another. But my life as an academic sat hollow. If faith is no longer what I want to be doing, what should I be doing?

I have this theory that confidence in what we do is not something we are born with, but something we learn over time. As we become more competent in something we become more confident in our abilities and that alone builds our desire and drive to do it more. So, if I could just find out what I should be doing and become more competent in it, then I would resolve my confusion.

Well, it didn’t work. The experiment failed because my fundamentals beliefs were wrong. I believed I needed to become competent in what I believed others wanted to read. I focused on what others might find helpful like focusing on life hacks and self-help that I think works. How about something in my professional field that others find interesting? What about lessons I have learned in life that others might find useful? After a few tries, I got bored and stopped. None of that was very fulfilling. That material is all out there written by people who are singularly passionate about it. I am not one of those people. The entire theory of becoming competent got derailed by the one thing that all of these ideas has in common: doing what I think I should do based on what I believe others want. It’s like all that advice from successful writers went right through my head – do what inspires you, not what you think will inspire others.

If I should’t do what I believe I should do, what is it that inspires me or consistently interests me? That’s the real question. My answer has been that no one is interested in any of the stuff that interests me, so who cares? Another lie. Keep running. Today I’d rather run on truth than the bullshit I tell myself. Walking the dog last night, after that little moment from a cheesy TV show that struck me, I found an answer. The question was how these things were related. And they absolutely are.

My academic interests have always been first, in how to teach the whole human subject based on an understanding that it is the relationship between teacher and student that is the most revolutionary and fundamental aspect of human learning and progress. The second is related to it. My dissertation focused on secularization and higher education which is tied to patterns of belief in American society, the policies that both respond to and shape those patterns, and how historians tell that story. Both of these are looking at the dynamic relationship between faith, belief, and knowledge in society and in the student.

My professional interests are about how we can help college and university teachers be better teachers. What habits, programs, and behaviors can we improve as teachers to help students learn more effectively? Right now this is about designing a program of teacher formation through critical reflection to find areas of improvement and to experiment with different online classroom behaviors to help students learn more effectively.

My personal interests have to do with the connection between physical and mental health and supporting pragmatic behaviors that help improve health with scientific evidence. I have many friends who have been in long term recovery from addiction who have thrown themselves into physical activity as an integral part of how they manage their sobriety. I know of runners and other athletes who have traded their obsession for drugs, sex, and body dysmorphia for clean living, even without the aid of prescription drugs.

How are these tied together? Anyone can look at these three areas and find things in common: human progress, the nature of belief, evidence-based living, etc. But those aren’t what hit me as interesting. Instead, it’s this idea:

I am fundamentally interested in how groups of people form relationships that support and cultivate healthy patterns of belief, knowing, and action, and in relationships and ideas that do exactly the opposite.

So… that’s what really interests me and the three ways I look at it. With that, it’s time to stop thinking about what I should write for an imagined group of others out there, and just do what I find interesting. Someone out there has to be interested in this stuff too, right?

Sickness and the School

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I set out to write a post every day this year. Then I got a nasty flu bug. For a couple of weeks I have been foggy, tired, and unwilling to probe my mind for an idea worth writing about. That’s because whatever resources I might normally use to think and write have been sucked up by resting and exhaustion. As a result, I’ve missed a few weeks already.

If there is one theme on my mind these days it is what it looks like if I understand the primary function of my body and brain as survival. How I learn, love, and relate to others is rooted in my primary instinct to survive in this world. If sickness does anything, it sends one’s focus inward. I become less observant and less aware of the things around me. This is partially out of a conscious choice. I need to do things like rest to get my body well. But I also think it is more of an automatic defense mechanism that sets in motion. When I’m sick, I’m less aware of the world outside of my body.

The self as an idea our brains create as part of the most complex set of mechanisms that work for the survival of an animal species becomes most clear when the human system is in danger. Whether it’s a flu, a home invader, losing a job, or breaking up with a lover, the shift of focus inward is both automatic and sudden. Maslow understood this in his famous hierarchy of needs.

If we are considering learning, until we meet the basic survival needs of a student, we cannot expect much in the way of mastery of much of anything. The same goes for the general health and progress of a society. We cannot expect hungry and insecure people to make much progress because all of their resources are being used to see that they will simply stay alive. If we are to make progress as a society, we must feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and heal the sick. To expect more out of people such as these is to demand that they go against their nature which is an affordance the privileged never have to imagine in their lives.

Winning is Not the Only Thing

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” – Vince Lombardi

America is addicted to winning.

Competition is king in the United States and fear is a tool used to gain advantage over another. It is symptomatic from news broadcasts to advertising to politics to healthcare. It’s keeping up with the Joneses or a getting a better deal on a product than someone else. Sports are only the obvious venue for the relentless drive to “be the best.” If you are not the best you are a loser or a second class citizen. You are entitled or desperate for handouts. You are merely siphoning the wealth of winners rather than pulling yourself up and “getting a job” as if that is the one solution to all of society’s ills. Just shut up and compete.

The pressure to be perfect and the shame of being left on the bench or on the losing team is intense and exhausting.

One McLean elementary school recently asked for a presentation on whether its students should take the SAT or ACT, college admissions tests at least seven years away. Bowers’s husband, Bruce, almost stopped coaching girls’ soccer because of the win-at-all-costs attitude. Some other parent-coaches, he says, would spend weekends going to games to identify the top players so they could try to recruit them. “It really meant something to them to have the cream of the crop and win,” he says. “And this wasn’t travel soccer. This was when the girls were 7 or 8.”

There are always losers and the left behind because we live in a society that values the zero sum game. We don’t value the tie game or the appreciation of a good match. If there is no winner then the game isn’t worth much. But even that’s not enough.

As much as we love winners, we also like to watch others lose. If we can’t root for someone we can always root against someone. We create celebrities only to tear them down; we absorb an endless stream of negative political ads and have a sick pleasure in watching those with plenty lose it all.

There is a serious disconnect. Schools and companies require people to work in teams and to have the social skills to be effective with others. We know that cooperation guarantees a better outcome for all parties involved. A little bit of sacrifice for the good of the community and the state goes a long way towards balancing the scales of justice. But it means either not being at the top of the pecking order or at the very least delaying it.

Having less means more happiness and more time to be with each other rather than fearing someone stealing our stuff or our freedom. Cooperation requires discipline, patience, prudence, and all of the basic virtues of working hard for our own happiness and the happiness of others. Wouldn’t it be great to live not in fear but with a little more faith in humanity?

Maybe Howard Beale was right. Maybe all of us have to get mad as hell, together, and not sit by, idly accepting the toll of human life and dignity that the unfettered drive to win exacts on our society.

Tom Corbett’s Insult to Public Education

The development of an educated public must never be allowed to take a back seat to making short-term profits. With a longer view, it is clear that education is a source of economic growth and so much more. “What people know matters” (Hanushek & Woessmann, 2010, p. 251).

Sadly, despite the impact of education and libraries on society and the economy, states continue to cut their funding. The conservative cry for less government and more local control could not be a more hollow sentiment given the lack of attention to local control itself.

In Pennsylvania, education is simply not a high priority. Overall, education funding will be increased a mere 3.22% and not in areas that suggest lasting improvement. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has increased funding for “Ready to Learn Block Grants” that are designed to stimulate student outcomes at the elementary level. These grants would also support teacher training in order meet grant objectives. However, that is only one data point among many in a budget that either decreases or flattens funding on numerous other programs.

  • Community college funding is set to go down .38%
  • Higher education funding will remain flat for the third year in a row.
  • Job training programs are being cut out of the budget – that is 8.5 million in funding towards these programs!
  • Library access funding is set to decrease by more than 8%.
  • Public library subsidies are only getting a paltry .93% increase after no increases in three years.

This is like leaving an $.80 tip for a $25 dinner. If you ask any server, that’s an insult.

The library in my own community of State College, PA is closed this week. It is closed to save money. I wrote a letter to our legislators who are in support of these cuts. I have copied that letter below. To write your own letter, please visit the Schlow Library website.

Expect more closings of public services and cuts to education programs. To say that Tom Corbett and his supporters undervalue the public trust of education is a sad understatement.

Tell our state government to wake up and fund public libraries!

Public and civic education used to be a unique element of American liberty. The library has been at the center of American life with the college and the religious community. Yet funding education in all of its forms seems to be an afterthought in this state government.

While industry is important in many respects, once the gas is used up, the jobs will disappear again and towns will shut down all over Pennsylvania. The rich will take their money and run. Companies investing in Pennsylvania will go back to Houston and overseas fat and happy. It has happened before; it will happen again.

Freedom is not built on global industry; it is built on public knowledge and trust. When we stop funding public education and community development, of which libraries are a central resource, our liberty is clipped at the root. This begs the question: What kind of liberty do our representatives espouse? Shall we defend carrying guns rather than books? True freedom begins in the mind and not in the holster or the bank account.

I cannot count the number of kids I see with books at the library. People like reading and learning. It is empowering and baptizes the imaginations to push thinking and doing. The library is a place where communities can thrive. My kids love that place. We go and there to read, then walk in town grabbing some water ice at Rita’s, or walk up to the Creamery. It is part of our culture. We represent one family along many others in this town who enjoy that outlet on a regular basis.

Stop defunding education in all of its forms. Stop defunding community development and civic engagement. Give us back our libraries and support our schools. It is these investments that will build deeper roots into the economic and community soil of this state.

Not supporting the collective education of the community is a disgrace to this nation and to the very notion of liberty to which all Americans are entitled. It is our right.

Sincerely,
Andrew Tatusko, Ph.D.

http://shutdown.schlowlibrary.org/

Are Natural Scientists Smarter and Therefore, Less Religious?

 

According to one study, the answer is yes.

In a survey of IQ measures in “elite” institutions, researchers argue that physical scientists (biology, physics, chemistry, etc.) have overall higher IQ’s than their social scientist counterparts. They then argue that the kind of reasoning in physical science is superior because of its reduced emotional influence.

“[Physical] scientists are overwhelmingly atheist,” Dutton said. “This is predicted by their high IQ, which allows you to rise above emotion and see through the fallacious, emotional arguments.” Arguments about God are all emotional arguments, he added.

There are very obvious problems in the research. First, it focuses on a particular sample of scholars where even if the data is true, science demands the method be tested to see if the conclusions are even valid. Second, the use of IQ as a measure of intelligence is suspect. Numerous papers have been published arguing the validity of IQ as a measure of intelligence or aptitude.

Finally, the claim that arguments about God are all emotional is made with no evidence to support it. It is hard to imagine that massive works of logic and reasoning about God such as St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, or Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, or the centuries of theological thinking are all emotional in nature. In fact, at one point theology was called “the mother of all sciences.” Therefore, this assumption perhaps reveals a hidden agenda that is ironically rooted in emotion. Similarly, Richard Dawkins likens theology to the study of leprechauns and that it has no business as a university discipline.

Research probes the truth, no matter how uncomfortable. It may be true that scholars of physical science have high IQ’s. However, it is an unscientific stretch to say that their reasoning is superior and such superior reasoning is why they are correlated with atheism. Good science means that we cannot confuse a correlation with causation. Thus, the research conducted here is unscientific and shoddy at best.