Evidently Tolerance Has Its Limits

Those wishing to preserve the rightful place of religious thought in the public square lost a true champion with the passing of Richard John Neuhaus last year. Thankfully, First Things, the journal he founded and helmed until his death, continues to be a cogent advocate in that vitally important effort. Witness this item from the most recent issue’s “While We’re At It” feature, a compilation of brief notes and commentary*:

Middle School 51 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is regarded as one of the best schools in New York City. Andrea Peyser, the longtime New York Post columnist, reports that eighth graders at MS 51 are studying religion in English class. And the class hasn’t drawn the ire of such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Here’s why: A typewritten class handout headed “RELIGION” lists twenty quotations that express hostility toward religion. The first one, from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus states, “Religion is a disease, but a noble disease.” The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer adds, “Religion is the masterpieces of the art of animal training, for it trains people as to how they will think.” Another handout, “GOD,” asks students to ponder whether religion should be treated as poetry: that is, as something neither true nor false.

In her column Peyser asks what this antirelgious material has to do with a middle-school English course, and whether eighth graders are “too young to learn something more appropriate for a grad-school theological course.”

Lenore Berner, the school’s principal, explained to Peyser that the religion material was part of the philosophy unit within the English course. The principal assured Peyser, “We’re looking at both sides of the debates.” One parent reported that when he went to the school to speak to Rachel Rear, the teacher who drew up the handouts for the class, she “dug in.” She was challenging me. She wanted to get into a theological debate.”

Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State often claim that students in public schools are harmed—and have their First Amendment rights violated—when they are exposed to such religious material as a prayer at a graduation ceremony or a Christmas carol in a school concert. When students in public schools are exposed to antirelgious material, however, these groups tend to maintain that it’s just part of teaching students how to think for themselves, and religious people should be more tolerant and willing to listen to different points of view.

Without knowing more about the Middle School 51 situation, I really have no idea whether the curriculum was little more than a hack job on religion or truly presented to the kids in the interest of presenting both sides of the issue. The first alternative would of course be reprehensible. The second, while far better and certainly not indicating a lack of fairness, does raise the important question of who should be primary responsible for developing a middle-school student’s views about religion.

Still, the larger point of the First Things commentary needs to be underscored. If we’re truly interested in promoting tolerance in our schools and larger culture, why then is specifically religious speech and thought often aggressively attacked as out of bounds? Evidently tolerance has its limits.

Secularism claims to be neutral, and therefore capable of functioning as the gatekeeper of our public life. But as many have pointed out, it’s really nothing of the sort. At root, it remains one more competing worldview among many others.

To claim otherwise is to ignore the fact that secularism has its own version of the true, the good, and the beautiful. If that sounds suspiciously like something akin to a religious belief system, well, please pay no mind. And if its advocates function a bit like prophets and proselytizers, you’ll understand that’s purely coincidental. Everyone please keep moving. Nothing to see here.

*You need a subscription to view this article online. For those wishing to check out the free portions of the website, including its several blogs, you can begin here. Note that First Things is an ecumenical publication in nature, primarily driven from a Catholic perspective, but including Protestant as well as Jewish voices.

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