How to respond to a nasty situation?

The principal of my religious school made a grossly biased speech that can essentially be called either a massive tumor of propaganda, or a massive tumor of atheist-bashing, skeptic-hating b.s. He basically insinuated that atheists were just uneducated people who are confused and are confusing other people by voicing their opinions to them. He even told a story about an atheist to get his point across. His story was, at the very least, totally dramatized. At the most, it was full of shit. Either way, it was absurdly offensive to myself and any other atheist in the room. The moral of his speech was, by the way, that atheists in the school should shut up and go to rabbis if they have an issue with the religion. They should not “confuse students with their questions”.

Is this “word-crime” (like thought-crime or thought police)? Is this teacher violating the students’ right to freedom of speech? Is it actually OK for this principal to stand up and say such things that if, it would be targeted at black people or women or Jews, would be considered racist, sexist, or anti-semetic?

Posted: April 5th 2009

flagellant www

Your question raises a series of points, each of which contributes to a realistic answer.

First of all, since you are at a religious school, you must, to some extent, expect it to promote its own agenda; you cannot expect it to educate you entirely according to your own opinions. My personal view is that no school should be based on any particular religion, whether or not it is private- or state-financed, but we have to consider the situation as it is, not as we’d like it to be.

From what I can gather, you are at a Jewish school. The idea of 'Jewishness’ causes me particular problems in that 'Jewish’ confuses two distinct and independent concepts: 'race’ and 'religion’. My personal opinion is that (religious) Judaism is very distinct from the notion of racial Jewishness although the two are often used interchangeably. For example, critics of Judaism are invariably described by Judaism’s apologists as 'racist’. Again, though, I think we have to deal with the situation as it is, not as we would like it to be. Personally, I point out the confusion whenever I can. Technically speaking, the term 'Semitic’ includes both Jews and Arabs and we should use the term to cover both groups, not one alone. That was certainly the case fifty years ago.

I think that confusing race and religion is evident from the way in which you compare your Principal’s expressed prejudices with comments on 'blacks’ (unchangeable), 'women’ (unchangeable), and Jews (anti-Semitic – not true if we’re talking in religious terms).

Many Jews think of themselves as secular, an indication that some, at least, recognize the distinction between race and religion: they reject the religion – only a matter of belief, and therefore open to change – but accept their racial inheritance, something impossible to change.
Prejudiced though he may be, any insult your Principal levels at you is only a criticism of your secular beliefs; it is not like criticizing you for having a black skin, is it? Do you see the difference?

So what can be done? Persuading your parents that you would like to attend a secular school is one option. Another might be to get them to take issue with your Principal on the grounds that he is peddling falsehoods, that he is ignorant, and using his position to air his prejudices. However, in this latter case, you would have some difficulty in making your case. It isn’t as though you are being physically abused.

I always think that one’s belief system should be analogous to support for a football team: they should each be equally open to question (and abuse). Factual inaccuracy is common in football criticism, but there’s little one can do about it; the same is true of belief criticism, too. However, to get the Principal to admit to his errors and prejudices publicly may be very difficult.

The most constructive thing you could do is use the incident to try to get the school to take a more objective view of religious differences and belief systems and make sure that all its teaching is factually based. (You should also bear in mind that atheism is not a religion: 'Atheism’ is a religion in the same way that 'bald’ is a hair colour.) I doubt if you would be able to make much progress but, if faced with dissent from some of his students, your Principal may be more circumspect in future. Against such an action, there is the near certainty that you would be regarded as a trouble-maker. After all, it’s very likely that the vast majority of students at your school are not concerned at the Principal’s 'atheist-bashing, sceptic-hating’.

Finally, rather than going to a rabbi, you should consult a secular Jewish organization. The Confederation of Secular Jewish Organizations may be able to point you in the right direction. It is possible that a bit more googling could find you someone to advise you more suitably or, perhaps, even intercede for you; yours cannot be a unique problem. You should be aware, though, that most secular Jews still cling to cultural activities with religious origins, and few of them seem willing to do battle with religious orthodoxy.

Posted: April 10th 2009

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George Ricker www

If you were in a public school, you would have some legal avenues open to you that are not available in the case of a private school. As I see it, you don’t have many good options.

You could sit down with the principal and explain your position and why you think his characterization of atheists was not just false but harmful. If you can get a group of like-minded students to join in, that would be even better. If the principal is open to rational discussion and a little constructive criticism, then you might get somewhere with that approach.

If other members of the student body are as upset by this as you appear to be, how about the parents? Perhaps you could enlist their aid as well. After all, a private school needs customers. If the principal jeopardizes the financial well-being of the school by making such remarks, then perhaps the people to whom he reports might step in as well.

Of course, you have to consider what impact your actions will have on your own future at the school. Will you be penalized for speaking out? Will it have an impact on your relations with other members of the faculty and so on.

Whatever you decide to do, remember that your chief concern right now is to get a good education.

Good luck with that.

Posted: April 6th 2009

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It seems that your principal is a coward because he chose a venue to make a vague, all inclusive boxing-in of outspoken atheists in the school instead of directly confronting them. (And if the atheist used as an example is a student, then the principle is even a greater coward).

You and any other atheist can make an appointment with the principal and clarify the situation by emphasizing that there is no sufficient evidence to take the faith leap and have god belief. Keep your cool—you may benefit from practicing what you will say before the appointment or even doing role playing with others with someone acting as the principal/Rabbi.

If you can round up several atheist students, it would be better than if you went on your own. However, it is perfectly feasible if you did go by yourself.

Explain that you (we) are not confused and are quite clear as to the basis for your (our) atheism. Continue to emphasize that it was offensive and belittling to you (us) that atheists were so grossly misrepresented and brushed aside. State that you (we) are a student(s) at that school and you (we) are sure that the principal would not want to make you (us) feel uncomfortable as he did. Explain that if atheists are uneducated, and if you (we) are an atheist(s), then he is essentially saying that his school is failing in its job! Also bring up that he could very well have just discussed the situation directly with you (us). Don’t refer to his actions as cowardly though! Just label them as inappropriate.

You can also do the same spiel with the Rabbi.

If you don’t speak up to the right people (the principal who made the slur, and the rabbi, who supposedly is the 'expert’ for handling such situations), then you are essentially not using the avenues open to present your case of dissatisfaction. Don’t compound the error of the principal who did not use the right venue (direct discussion with the atheist students and perhaps their parents) by going around, muttering to yourself what a jerk he is. He would like you to remain invisible, and if you speak up directly to him, then he will have a much harder time in making you and your atheism invisible.

If your efforts turn out not to provide the result that you want, then at least you have practiced on how to use the system to defend yourself. Keep in mind you will not be in that school forever. Focus on the most part of getting the best education you can.

Posted: April 6th 2009

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SmartLX www

Being anti-atheist is more like being anti-Semitic than being sexist or racist, because one actually has a chance of convincing people to stop being atheists. So there’s your analogy. If your principal (who I assume is Jewish if he pointed the students to rabbis) had a guest speaker who said that Jews are barking up the wrong tree, would he simply shout him down or would he pursue some legal retaliation? If the latter, then your principal is a hypocrite.

Since it’s obviously a private school, your principal is probably within his rights to verbally attack viewpoints contrary to the school’s core religion. Whether he has the right to sanction you for speaking out against it may depend on what country you’re in. Ask your local free speech organisations, like the ACLU in the USA.

Posted: April 5th 2009

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