Use/Mention and the War on Secularism

Commenter Boethius asks: "Science classes might not need the story about "the two naked kids with the apple" but how about literature classes?"

This is actually something I've wondered about for a while. Suppose
for a moment that some monolithic "The Left" and "The Right" got
together, and The Left proposed a deal: Creationism/ID would be kept
out of science curricula, but in exchange, every literature curriculum
would be modified to include extensive study of the Bible. Personally,
I'd be amenable to this. The Bible is, after all, probably the most
important and influential text in the history of Western civilization.
My preference would be for additional study of the Torah (i.e. not just
the New Testament), Qur'an, and other religious texts, but let’s say
for a moment that those aren’t dealbreakers. Would The Right take the
deal?

My instinct is "No," and here’s why. I, like Ezra, am no Matt Yglesias. But I do dabble in enough philosophy to be familiar with something called the use/mention distinction,
and I think something like it is at play here. Many religious
conservatives - for example, the Ten Commandments display advocates -
like to say that god is the source of our laws, values, and rights.
With this, they justify injecting it into our schools and courthouses.
But of course, this claim can’t be literally true. Personally, I’m an
atheist-leaning agnostic. Can this mean I bear no rights? Am I just
fortunate (a) that the government can’t tell I’m a non-believer, or (b)
that god has seen fit to endow me with rights even though I don’t
believe he’s there? Both of these propositions seem unreasonable, and
neither seems like somethingthe state ought to be endorsing. At the
same time, it does just seem objectively true that America’s legal
system, and the values it relies on, have some major foundations in
religious thought.

The disconnect here is this: The existence of religious roots in our
laws and values is not a function of god, but a function of faith. They exist because the men who birthed our nation believed in a higher power, regardless of whether one actually exists.
In other words, it is not god, but "god," that is at least partially the source of our
laws and values. This distinction may seem trivial, but I think it
holds the key to a lot of the conflict we see today between traditional
religious values and traditional notions of secularism. One side wants
to acknowledge the importance of god; the other side doesn’t. But can’t
either side acknowledge the importance of faith? It seems like this
reading could satisfy people on both sides who won’t take "ceremonial deism" for an answer.

- Daniel A. Munz

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