More on “The Atheist, the Graduation, and the Prayer”

Damon Fowler, School Adminstrator-In-Training?

Either by design, bias, or because I was not sufficiently clear (always a distinct possibility), a lot of readers seem to have misunderstood the central principle in my post about Damon Fowler, the Louisiana high school senior who singled-handedly bluffed his school out of including a prayer in his graduation ceremonies. Let me clarify.

The post is only incidentally about atheism vs. religion. The ethical issue arose in that context, but it just as easily could have been raised in other circumstances. The ethical values involved here were prudence, tolerance, self-restraint, proportionality, consideration, generosity, and empathy. Fowler’s actions assumed that preventing what he believed was a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition on the government favoring one religious belief over another justified ignoring all of these. They don’t, and the same conclusion applies whether we are discussing a technical legal violation, a breaching of organizational rules, or personal misconduct.

Anyone who reads Ethics Alarms knows that I believe that the culture only becomes and stays ethical if all its participants accept the responsibility of flagging and, when necessary, condemning and stopping harmful societal conduct, as well as unethical personal conduct that will be toxic to society if it becomes the norm. Nevertheless, society becomes oppressive and intolerable if every single misstep, offense, violation, possible violation, arguable violation or mistaken judgment is cause for confrontation, conflict and policing, without regard for context and consequences. Indeed, much of the challenge in ethical analysis involves deciding what kind of misconduct matters, even once the question of whether something is misconduct has been settled.

The Daman Fowler matter is related to the ethical dilemma of “snitching.” Reporting misconduct by a co-worker, family member or friend requires a dispassionate calculation of utilitarian considerations. Reporting an isolated firing offense to management—say, borrowing and returning cash from the register— when you know it was an exception to a colleague’s usual conduct, that he won’t do it again, that he is a good worker and is supporting a sick wife and disabled child—may be consistent with the employee’s manual but also a despicable, and unethical act. Reporting the same conduct when you believe it will be repeated and the colleague has a gambling problem, in contrast, is probably the right thing to do. Mixed in to the decision-making process are confounding non-ethical considerations that you have an obligation to put aside. For example, If you dislike the first colleague, or want his job, it would be unethical to let those motives change your decision.

In the abstract, a violation of a law or breach of a constitutional limitation on the scope of government action triggers the duties of citizenship and requires that an individual give notice of the violation to the violator and if no action is taken, report to appropriate authorities. In life, however, that duty is tempered and limited by the circumstances. Is there real harm to an individual, the community, or society generally? Is the likely penalty out of proportion to the conduct? Will innocent parties be injured? What are the likely consequences of not reporting the conduct? Will a simple warning or admonition suffice to address the problem? How does the Golden Rule apply? Are the benefits of reporting clearly, or even arguably, greater than the costs? Can a just result be accomplished with minimum harm?

There are an infinite number of such decisions. For example:

•    You are aware that a neighbor, in a “three strikes” jurisdiction, has committed a crime such as having possession of a small amount of marijuana. If he is arrested and convicted, there is a mandatory sentence of 20 years. You are unshakably in favor of drug laws, and believe in strict enforcement. Do you call the police?

•    You live in a cul-de-sac with two other homes; one of the families is away. One night, your remaining neighbor hosts a graduation party for his teen-age daughter. Loud music is playing all night, and there is a lot of noise well past 11. You suspect that there is even some under-age drinking, but you are pretty sure you’re your neighbor will be getting all the kids home himself. The ruckus violates the town’s peace and quiet ordinance, and you could justifiably call the police and shut down the party. Do you?

•    Your neighbor has a teenage son. It is over the Christmas holidays, and the streets are deserted. He takes his son, who had just turned 15 and has no learner’s permit yet, for his first time behind the wheel, using the deserted back streets, including the one on which you live. Do you report him?

I believe that anyone who would report in any or all of these situations lacks basic ethical instincts, and has adopted a rigid, absolutist attitude toward conduct, rules and punishment. What Damon Foster did was in the same category, though he took pains to distinguish them by emphasizing his “stress” at having to tolerate a few minutes of prayer to a God he didn’t believe in. The result of his actions intimidating the school (and schools are extremely easy to intimidate) was to gratuitously ruin graduation for a large number of the families in the community.
Is it rational for the presence or absence of a prayer to make that big a difference to them? It doesn’t matter. Let’s assume the presence of the prayer was exactly as important to their enjoyment of graduation as the absence of it was important to Damon (though I am certain that in fact the prayer was far more important to them). He has a right to try to stop the prayer for his own comfort, but it would be fair, reasonable, considerate and tolerant not to do so, because he is only one, and the pain caused by his decision will be far more extensive.

Underlying his decision to threaten the school, I believe, was the typical atheist’s antipathy to religion and the religious. At some level, he shares the disrespect and contempt for his religious classmates and their families (as indeed, many of them feel contempt and disrespect for him, as a non-Christian) that the atheist community fosters. This is a bias, and a non-ethical consideration. The absence of empathy, respect, and or the feeling of an obligation of fairness took the Golden Rule out of the decision.

Meanwhile, has removal of the prayer improved anything? It is still a religious community, but now it is an angry religious community. If the town felt negatively toward atheists and non-Christians before, that feeling has only been exacerbated. Many families were upset, spoiling once-in-a-lifetime event that should only leave good memories. Was the cause of religious freedom advanced? I don’t see how. Would the presence of the prayer infringe on Damon’s rights in any genuine or tangible way? He was not pressured to join in; he only had to listen. In real terms, the harm to him was no more than the harm of having to listen to a typical, off-key student commencement musical soloist.

The only argument Damon has to counter the unnecessary harm done by his actions is absolutist: there is an absolute obligation never to accept or tolerate any infraction of law, rules, or ethics, no matter how technical, minor, fleeting, reasonable or harmless, and no matter how disproportional to the harm the consequences of reporting it might be.

 If he adopts that philosophy permanently, Damon Fowler will be the kind of person who lives to suppress and constrain the enjoyment of life by others. He may even become a school administrator, suspending, expelling or even arresting students for every possible no-tolerance offense, and giving out strict punishment regardless of the  circumstances. Prudence, tolerance, self-restraint, proportionality, consideration, generosity, and empathy. All in all, it’s better to practice these in high school than to enforce gray areas of constitutional law.

18 thoughts on “More on “The Atheist, the Graduation, and the Prayer”

      • In relation to atheists, it’s also often used by accomodationists to mean “Shut up. Don’t criticize religion.”

        I’m sure Chase wasn’t aware of that though.

      • Laura Schlesinger, not my favorite commentator (by a long shot), used to have a variant on that catchphrase, “Is this the hill I want to die on?” I agree that such phrases can, and have been, used to justify inaction when action is needed. But I find wisdom in them all the same. I have a life to lead, responsibilities to keep, obligations to be met. I cannot tackle every wrong in the world and sometimes, when circumstances seem to justify it, I will pass on a chance to possibly right, or at least mitigate, a percieved wrong. I say that with no particular pride, but no especial guilt either. If, on such occasions I was wrong, I believe that, ultimately, I will have to answer for that. But humility is a virtue, and part of humility is recognizing my limitations.

        • Dr. L’s quote is infinitely better than “pick your battles’ because it specifies criteria. How ironic that the hill she chose to die on was the right to quote “nigger” back to an African-American who used it herself, discussing the word itself without using it as an insult, and still getting run off her show for being a racist.

          Stupid hill.

  1. This situaion isn’t like teaching a kid to drive at 15, a chaperoned under age graduation party, or a third strike pot offense. None of those situations hurt anyone outside those desiring to partake. None of those are government actions.

    This is fighting against an overstepping of school and government power that affects the community of graduating seniors and their family, a captive audience.

    He has a right to try to stop the prayer for his own comfort, but it would be fair, reasonable, considerate and tolerant not to do so, because he is only one, and the pain caused by his decision will be far more extensive.

    He is only one who is speaking up. He is not the only one. We celebrate when our citizenry fights back against overstepping of government power…except when it involves relgion. Religion gets veto power, and that’s exactly what needs to be stood up against.

    Also, I’m not sure what pain could have been caused by his decision. What pain is there in not having a prayer?

    • I don’t disagree at all with the need to monitor encroaching religious pressures. This wasn’t the time or the place. The goal should be to minimize harm, not maximize it.

      The three examples went to the claims of He Who Shall Not Be Named that one has an obligation to protect one’s “rights.” The disturbed neighbor has a right to undisturbed sleep, but is a jerk to insist on it in this special instance.

      If I believed there was any genuine harm (“captive audience”? The whole ceremony is a bore—an audience submits to being captive, and there are all sorts of unpleasant experiences—the band, the lousy speeches, the endless trail of graduates you don’t give a damn about. A meaningless prayer? Peanuts.), I would concede that Damon’s actions are defensible, though I would still say they fail utilitarian standards.

      Your last sentence is fascinating. Religious people feel that God’s blessing is an essential part of any major beginning or life transition, and that the lack of it is problematical. Those feelings are real, even if you think they are misguided.

      • The three examples went to the claims of He Who Shall Not Be Named that one has an obligation to protect one’s “rights.” The disturbed neighbor has a right to undisturbed sleep, but is a jerk to insist on it in this special instance.

        I could see the disturbed neighbor having some rights (violated by other private citizens, not the government), but the other two cases?

        Again, this isn’t about Damon standing up for his rights. It’s about the (possible) willful neglect of the school to follow its responsibilities, in a way that Damon (and I, for that matter) find particularly dangerous.

        Your last sentence is fascinating. Religious people feel that God’s blessing is an essential part of any major beginning or life transition, and that the lack of it is problematical. Those feelings are real, even if you think they are misguided.

        And they can’t get that blessing themselves? Isn’t that what the first amendment is supposed to protect? Their ability to pray as they see fit with no involvement of a government entity?

        If the community demands the school sponsor their religious blessing, then it is even more important to stand up against. You’re defending the community’s right to have a theocracy… so long as most of the people want it. Also, it’s not a problem until someone complains. Then they are the problem.

        I’m against tyranny of the majority on principle. I think the ethical considerations rise above that level, not to that level.

      • I don’t think the disturbed neighbor would be a jerk for insisting on uninterrupted sleep. I think he’d be a jerk for threatening to involve the authorities before he even bothered to look for a conciliatory gesture toward the people who probably had never considered the idea that they were doing anything wrong.

    • tgt, you are of a kind with those in government whom you berate for overstepping their power. We are not wanting for politicians and bureaucrats who justify unpopular actions by reasoning that such actions are truly for our own good and we will come to appreciate them, eventually. Charles Cromwell was not a good man, IMHO, but even he could plead “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, consider that you may be wrong.”

      • I’m trying to take the point, but I can’t see it. We have set up boundaries, rules and regulations to keep government inside it’s defined parameters. Government, in my opinion, is a necessary evil.

        Here we have a case where individuals, that are (technically) part of the government, behaving in a way that violates our original constraints on government power. If we didn’t think communities and their officials wouldn’t try to force their religion on people, we could remove part of the first amendment without problem.

        I’m fighting for a limit on government power, and the freedom of the people to perform their religious actions (however stupid they are), so long as they do not involve the government in it. The politicians and bureaucrats you refer to would be trying to impose their will through governmental power to limit individual behavior. They are the absolute antithesis of what I am arguing for here.

        Do you see the difference?

        • tgt, my own take on government is that it is an occasionally useful ally, but never a friend, and I’d say that squares pretty well with your necessary evil descriptor. A tiny correction: Schools, and those who run them aren’t technically part of the government, they are part of the government, period.
          OK, on to your question. First the whole issue of school prayer. I don’t like prayer in the public schools. Sooner or later, those prayers come to reflect the style of prayer favored by whatever religion or denomination makes up the majority of those in the school and community. Yet, I work (cheerfully, willingly) in a school where every day, most assemblies, every faculty meeting, and even many classes, begin with an prayer. But it is a private school, specifically a Catholic school. Some of our students aren’t Catholic, and some in the school aren’t even believers. But they know that going in, and no one objects when a prayer is offered.
          But here, the dicussion is over a public school. As I said, I don’t generally like prayer in public schools. But, real world, it happens now and again. If a local public high school wants to begin a graduation ceremony with a prayer because the community expects it, I shrug. Like it or not, it really isn’t going to hurt anything. But, there are always a few non-believers who don’t want to sit patiently and quietly while the many pray. So, they get government to stop the many, and are not prepared to make any exceptions. (Courts are an arm of government, like it or not.) As I said, I’m all for limited government. So much so, that I don’t want to involve them in the resolution of every grievance. When that happens, too often, we end up with ham-handed, one-size-fits-all solutions that, ultimately, satisfy no one. Let ’em pray.

      • Oliver Cromwell. And he was “pleading” with political opposition, not contemplating his own fallibility. Absolutely every one of us makes decisions that are not sanctioned by the majority. (I’m guessing, for example, that you didn’t vote for both Bush and Obama, although presumably someone did.) More to the point, those bureaucrats and politicians are sometimes right… and sometimes wrong.

        • I’d actually feel better about messing up on Cromwell’s first name if I hadn’t known better. But I did. For reasons that aren’t important here, I’ve learned quite a bit about Cromwell over the years, and certainly know his name, both sides of it. But I was doing my reply at a time when a lot was going on and, topping it all off, had shortly before, been on the phone with a friend named, yes, Charles. Still it was an idiotic mistake., and I apologize. As to his quote, I perhaps would have been more accurate if I’d indicated that I was paraphrasing him. Cromwell was correct in what he was saying with those words, the problem was, as in so much else, he didn’t apply them to himself. Anyway, the sentiment seemed apt, so I went with it.

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