Giles County Press Release

In June, members of the Freethinkers at Virginia Tech visited Giles County to hear the School Board’s decision on whether to post the display, which included nine documents central to U.S. legal history together with the Ten Commandments. This was a revision of an earlier display taken down at threat of lawsuit. We expressed our opposition to its posting and our support for the continued separation of church and state.

Today we reaffirm this stance: The display in Narrows High School is unconstitutional. The display surrounds a millennia-old document drafted in the Middle East with documents written on this continent, within several centuries, that were directly inspirational to the legal framework of the United States. Surrounding the Ten Commandments with such documents serves only to confuse and cheapen both Mosaic scripture and U.S. heritage. Furthermore, as evidenced by the religious upheaval surrounding this case and the statements of many of the community members involved — particularly those of Reverend Shahn Wilburn, who donated the original display — the display’s original intent was to promote a specific religious viewpoint within Giles County public schools. Judging by the nature of the uproar following its removal, this intent has not changed.

We must protect every citizen’s right to religious freedom, regardless of beliefs or of lack of belief. There is no way for our government to protect this right while simultaneously promoting one religion over others. The posting of the Ten Commandments by public school administrators — in their official capacity — has the effect of promoting a Judeo-Christian worldview and undermines the rights — including the right to an unimpeded education — of those who do not share it. It is especially important that students are protected from such endorsements of religion by local, state, or federal authorities, because such endorsements encourage discrimination against those who dissent. This occurs despite the good intentions of these authorities.

The Freethinkers at Virginia Tech urge the community and the court to keep the facts of this case and the laws pertaining to them foremost, and not to allow the vocally overwhelming local opinion that church and state should converge to cloud the issue. While we are all entitled to our opinions and beliefs, it is imperative that we not permit a tyranny of the majority to suppress any minority, and that this nation’s founding principles be respected.

We say again: We stand with the Constitution, with the ACLU, with Doe 1 and Doe 2, and with every citizen of Giles County who does not want religion imposed upon them. We hope that this case is resolved in keeping with our national ideals and with minimum cost to everyone involved, especially emotional, financial, and educational costs to the students and families of Giles County.

An Atheist Goes to a Cru Meeting

(reposted from Et Ratio)

Last Thursday (September 15th, 2011), I attended my first Cru meeting. For those not in the know, Cru is what was formerly known as “Campus Crusade for Christ”. They’re an interdenominational, conservative Evangelical, youth ministry that operates on many college campuses across the country. To their credit, they’re actually one of the largest Christian organizations in the US. Being a Northern bred, scientifically minded, atheistic liberal, I fully expected to witness an entirely different culture — and therefore was looking forward to the experience with excitement and anticipation.

Before I went, I had joked with my friends that I would approach the Cru members like the anthropologist I had recently witnessed approach a remote New Guinea tribe in a documentary. I have to say that I was not disappointed, and, despite having no formal training in anthropology, it was easy enough to make some rudimentary anthropological observations (having said that, this is not meant to be a serious dissertation on the anthropology or sociology of youth evangelical groups.)

One of the most glaring things that stood out to me was the repeated reinforcement of the male archetype. I would have thought that on a modern college campus, traditional gender roles would be more deliberately eschewed in the name of gender equality.

To partly explain the prevalence of the male archetype and the associated sexism, one of my friends has pointed out to me psychological research indicating that conservatives tend to prefer traditional roles and to dislike new experiences (I don’t think it a stretch to think that most of the members of Cru hail from conservative denominations.) Citing the research of both himself and colleagues (in particular, Robert McCrae), in his Ted talk, psychologist Jonathon Haidt states: “It really is a fact that liberals are much higher than conservatives on a major personality trait called openness to experience. People who are high in openness to experience just crave novelty, variety, diversity, new ideas, travel. People low on it like things that are familiar, that are safe and dependable.” In the case of the Cru meeting, the religious authority was reinforcing traditional gender roles which were already accepted by the audience in attendance. Had they presented a different view on gender, the resulting cognitive dissonance would likely have turned away a large number of their members.

I’m sure that the reader is interested in an explicit description of what I observed, and how I came to the conclusion that the male archetype was ever-present. Lucky for that reader, I took elaborate and detailed notes.

The meeting was in a large auditorium on the second floor of Squires, one of the main student activities buildings on the VT campus. Arriving, I met my friend Zack on the first floor, in part so that we could meet away from the crowd that was accumulating on the second. After chatting for a few minutes, the two of us moved upstairs at around 7:54 pm. I noted that there was a large mass of people that had condensed around the doors of the auditorium. We got in line with a massive throng of smiling Christians, merrily grasping their bibles.

I noted that the doors were already open despite it only being six minutes early. Discussing this with Zack, he told me that people usually start to arrive around fifteen minutes early. As we walked in, I noticed the casual dress of the students around me. They were dressed casually like the undergraduates that I teach. I was probably the best dressed person there, with my button down shirt tucked into dress slacks. This was contrary to my expectations; I had thought that a conservative religious event would attract people who were dressed, well, conservatively. Despite the divine commands ordered in the books they hold close to them (and their likely literalistic interpretation of the text it contained), there were several people who were dressed less than modestly (at least by Puritanical standards. Personally, I couldn’t have cared less what they were wearing.) I saw girls wearing leggings and jeggings — but more on that later.

As we walked into the auditorium, we had to pass through an entranceway that involved a double set of doors. Having passed the first set of doors, you entered a darkened room where you could not yet see past the second set of doors. We were immersed in a massive horde of people. We moved slowly, shuffling. My heart began to race with anticipation. There was music playing, but not the kind of church music I had heard in dimly remembered church services from my youth or Unitarian Universalist meetings that I had attended. This was contemporary music, with a deep rumbling bass. The passage here was hugely dramatic, and I had no question as to why this particular venue had been chosen for their event. Even the entrance reinforced deep, visceral feelings. It felt important, but youthful, like we were entering a rock concert with deep social implications. To the believers all around me, this was their moment to rejoice in their beliefs, and we were entering the ritual.

“My heart is already pounding,” I told Zack. He smiled back politely; I don’t know if he could feel the drama that I felt in that space.

When we got inside, Zack turned to me like a guide and said, “Make sure you smile. It’s very important.” Indeed, there were people smiling all around. To the believers, this was a happy place. But even more so, smiling itself is a way of reinforcing emotions. You see people who are smiling, and your mirror neurons start firing off; your own happiness is reinforced and you smile back. Furthermore, by smiling yourself, you become happy (there is psychological research to support the notion that merely smiling can make you happy; conversely, merely frowning can make you upset or sad.) I should make pains to note here that the same phenomenon is useful for promoting group cohesion at any group or social event, and that people are prone to do this collectively and without realising it (for some of the empirical research on this subject, see here and here.)

The room was a large, stylish auditorium designed for general student use. At the front of the room was a large screen with text — “Cru” — projected on to it. The front of the room was decorated like a concert, with electric guitars, large speakers, a full drum set, and so forth. Milling around the instruments was the group of people who are apparently the Cru band, getting ready to perform.

After we sat down, Zack turned to me and told me that he didn’t quite understand why people had brought their Bibles. On the two other occasions that he had been, no one had read from the Bibles. It would later turn out that, on this occasion, they would be reading from the Bible, but there didn’t appear to be any way to know that in advance (maybe it’s announced on the VT Cru list server.) Regardless, I can only speculate as to why this behavior appeared.

The lights were dimmed, and the show began (in much the style of concerts I’ve attended.) There were two modern Christian songs, in the style of adult contemporary, played at the beginning. There was a brief prayer in between. I hastily jotted down that there was a lot of repetitive lyrics in the songs, and the audience was expected to both stand and to sing along. The lyrics were tremendously simplistic; no deep theological or philosophical messages to be seen here. There was an emphasis on repeating the same simple formula over and over again, to further emphasize the same words.

Through out the night, I jotted down certain key words that I heard emphasized in the presentation. Words like “honor”, “praise”, and so on. There was an emphasis, sometimes implied but often explicit, on the giving up of one’s will. I was reminded that this is ubiquitous in the kind of religious practices that appear in nation-states throughout the world; for example, the word “Islam”, in Arabic, means “submission” (as in the submission of one’s will to Allah.) There was no independent thought here. There was no consideration of the message, or internalization of the content. No, one simply grasped the message and repeated it back as song lyrics. The entire audience collectively was expected to act in accordance, at the grave cost of social ostracisation if one did not. It didn’t even matter if you understood the song lyrics — you just repeat them.

On the VT Cru website’s “Statement of Faith“, one reads: “The Lord Jesus Christ commanded all believers to proclaim the Gospel throughout the world and to disciple men of every nation. The fulfillment of that Great Commission requires that all worldly and personal ambitions be subordinated to a total commitment to ‘Him who loved us and gave Himself for us.’” Subordinated indeed.

After the two songs, a presenter of some sort walked out with a microphone and stated that they were going to give an example against passivity. Frankly, I still don’t understand what this passivity doctrine was supposed to be, because they never explained it. I think that the message was that people should not be passive in spreading the Gospel; rather, they should be intensely aggressive at reaching out and converting. From what I gather, Zack came to the same conclusion.

To do their demonstration, they assembled two stacks of large cardboard boxes (greater than 6 feet tall) at the front of the room. These were dubbed the “towers of passivity”. The announcer said that they were going to crown the most aggressive man in the room (yes, announcer. I use that word to distinguish this first speaker from the pastor who spoke later.) He said specifically that if you knew a guy who likes to take his anger out by smashing things in his dorm room, that was the kind of guy they wanted up there. It was announced that only two men would be selected.

There was a mad dash to the front of the room by several stereotypical college aged men. Had this been an earlier decade, they could have easily fit right into John Landis’ Animal House.

There were two that were selected, and the other men who had tried to run up to the stage were declared to not be sufficiently manly. Two did make it, by the names of Frankie and Tyler, and the announcer said that these two individuals were going to literally pwn their respective towers of passivity (yes, he used that bit of Internet slang.) But first, they were told that they had to verbally demoralize the two boxes (but not in those words of course.)

But it wasn’t enough to verbally abuse the box towers — that would be too “girly” and no testosterone filled raging male wants that. Next, they had to destroy them physically.

They cued the music, and to more cheers from the audience, one of the most egregious testosterone filled displays began in front of me. The two men wildly thrashed and tore at the boxes, jumping into the air, and — without a better way in which to describe it — acting quite brutish. I remember thinking that they looked like rampaging gorillas. The two men were told to “fully recognize your assertion”.

Now, I want to make a few comments here before I continue. There can be no doubt that this works to reinforce certain male stereotypes; that it’s bad to be a weak man, that being sufficiently male means being the largest, most aggressive, most assertive individual in the room. Furthermore, that women cannot perform this function and that men who fail to live up to this archetype are simply effeminate men who need to be socially rejected. By having the entire audience cheer for this, it helps to further reinforce this entire message (at great social cost to doing something as bold as abstaining from cheering, let alone disagreeing with the proceedings.)

Furthermore, it does absolutely nothing to teach about how to win people over to your point of view. People disagree with you? Thrash them like a wild gorilla so that they recognize the force of your assertion. Or something like that — again, they never really explained what they were actually trying to say.

And now, after having fully destroyed the boxes, they were told to rebuild their boxes towers. But this, too, was competitive. The two young men started destroying and stealing from each other’s partially reconstructed towers, much to the wild amusement of the audience.

Perhaps, the message here was to tear people down, and then rebuild them in the name of Christianity. That’s a common trick used by missionaries used in remote cultures; first, tear them down, and then rebuild them, tricking them into thinking that the only way they can actually succeed is by being Christians. The ex-missionary Daniel Everett explains this early in his book “Don’t Sleep; There Are Snakes”.

After some amount of time, the passivity demonstration was ended. The announcer said that they would then crown the “manliest man in the room” (despite the earlier pronouncement that this was going to be crowning the most assertive man in the room. I suppose that under their world view these two positions are not distinct.) But again, the reinforcement of social hierarchy based on male dominance, and the attainment of the status of alpha male based on the assertion of violence.

Afterwards (and without any explanation of the passivity “example”) the announcer went into a Power-Point show on announcements. There was an emphasis on events for the freshmen. One was the Freshmen Snooza-Palooza, which was an event in which freshmen girls slept over at the houses of senior girls (though no corresponding event for men; again, the social divisioning of the two sexes. There’s no shortage of girls at these events either, so it’s not analogous to organizations which create special events in order to retain female membership.) There was going to be a Freshmen Tailgate, which was tied to the Freshmen bible study groups (which presumably reinforces membership in a Bible Study group, or, for upper class-men, involvement as Bible Study group leaders, the two groups to which the event was restricted.) They announced that you can text VTCru to 75572 (in case you were interested) to get on their e-mail list server.

Finally, the announcements were completed, and a girl named Elizabeth was called up to give her “testimony”. I was expecting to see an episode of “witnessing”. “Witnessing” is something which I had never in fact seen myself and which would have been fascinating to me. Much to my disappointment, her “testimony” merely constituted an advertisement of the upcoming Fall retreat, and how much she had enjoyed it when she had gone. It was a surprisingly non-religious description, and could have described her visit to any such event whether associated with a religious organization or not. She appeared nervous, and often said “um” as she spoke. What was interesting was that she commented on how going to the event “made Cru feel smaller”. Presumably, the event had promoted group unity and feelings of belonging.

This episode made me wonder if all announcements were called “testimonies”.

It was then announced that Jeff would be speaking. I don’t know who Jeff was, but I assume that he was the local pastor. There was a tremendous collective clapping from the audience as he approached the stage. Unlike the other clapping that had occurred, this clapping was done in unison — everyone keeping the same time. The audience also emitted some kind of howling noise that I found difficult to identify.

I’m not going to describe all of Jeff’s sermon, because it was quite long and I have extensive notes on it. However, briefly, the sermon was on the distinction between inward and outward beauty. He indicated that inward beauty points to the majesty of the Lord, or some such, and that we should not be concerned so much with outward appearances. Regardless, he was apparently concerned with outward appearances, enough so to talk at length about what people should and should not wear. I should point out that before he went into that particular diatribe, he first covered a lot of other ground. One that’s worth mentioning was his emphasis on the proper use of words that began the sermon — a topic that I had earlier discussed at length with the Freethinkers group. Zack gave me a knowing smile. Some other points in the Sermon I thought were interesting:

*After eliciting an answer from the audience, he stated explicitly: “When in doubt, say Jesus”. Again, the giving up of one’s will to answer creatively.
*That Jesus was manly and good looking — again, we see this male archetype popping up (and, actually, in stark contrast to the figure appearing in scripture. Jesus was famously reported to have said that the “meek shall inherit the Earth”.)
*He also stated: “If you have not trusted in Him, then you will never know true Beauty.” Presumably, this implies that any non-believers simply don’t know what true beauty is and wouldn’t understand.
*That true beauty is found in Jesus’ suffering and torturing on the cross (with a gruesome description of that event.)
*Talks about Mathew 23, and says, “If you think Jesus was just a little church boy, this will mess with your mind.”
*That the true aim of man is to “glorify God” and that “the Creator has created us to tell others how beautiful He is” (makes God sound pretty narcissistic, doesn’t it?)

Finally, he turned to that message about what people wear. He was going to address first the men in the audience and then the women. To the men, he said that they should not expect women to always dress a certain way. If they do, they need to “go see Jesus”. Not that the message here is actually about what the women wear (or male expectations of what they wear.) After a long diatribe to the men on their expectations for female attire, he mentioned, in only a few sentences as if it was an afterthought, that men should keep their boxers in their pants. Then, he turned to the women. He stated that he two daughters — one was eight and the other six — and he has had conversations with them about female modesty. He talked specifically about “what is proper for women who profess godliness”. He spoke for a rather long time (over ten minutes) on the topic of female modesty.

Notice what happened here. He turned to the men and discussed what women should wear. Then turned to the women and discussed what women should wear. He never really addressed the men, except as an afterthought. Furthermore, when addressing the men, he was truly addressing male stereotypes about what women wear, as if men had control over what their female friends and companions chose to clothe themselves with. Why not call attention to the expectations that women have for male clothing? Again, it’s the presumed asymmetry between the sexes, reinforcing traditional gender roles.

I noted, with a smile, that there were two girls sitting in front of me. One was wearing jeggings. They gave each other awkward glances as Jeff stated specifically that leggings and jeggings were not suitable attire.

The meeting concluded with three songs, beginning with a quote from Psalms. Again, we were socially expected to rise from our seats and sing along to the songs. A scattering of people rose their hands in the air as the song played. Honestly, the music was deeply moving, particularly if you ignored what the lyrics were altogether and just said them, submitting to the mood that held sway over the room.

For the VT Cru website, click here.

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I have serious misgivings over private schools, which strike me as exemplarily libertarian and intrinsically disposed toward widening the opportunity gap. Furthermore, i have dire concerns over the proliferation of religious schools, which introduce the added effect of confounding wealth, privilege, and influence with Christianity, pseudoscience, and authoritarianism. Let me, at the outset, set aside these concerns and affirm that no structural restrictions should be in place against the founding of private Christian schools, and that the burden of averting their spread rests with the adequate funding and management of public educational institutions, hence ultimately with us.

I therefore wish to raise no objection to Charnika Elliott’s newly opened Noah–Christian Academy. The Valleys are ripe with well-(enough)-to-do isolationist Christian parents that should keep the academy funded for several years (although — as Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett have argued, albeit orthogonally to one another — one of the best catalysts against organized religion may be institutionalized religious education).

What everyone should object to is what passed for a hearty endorsement of Elliott’s character and devotion (to her students, presumably, as well as to her god) at the outset of the article:

When she was a third-grade teacher at Roanoke’s Forest Park Elementary School, Charnika Elliott would play gospel music softly in her classroom. She’d pull aside students who shared her religious faith and quietly pray when no one else was around.

(Note for the record that Forest Park Academy is a program of Roanoke City Public Schools.) An array of infringements upon personal liberty are compactified into this portrait. To identify some, consider the following flowchart for an arbitrary student’s reaction:

Granted, this comes not from my familiarity with RCPS but from my own brittle memories of high school and beyond. I also don’t mean to suggest that RCPS is rampant with such incidents (and friends suggest that it is not). Still, the situation is illustrative of Christian privilege, particularly by its tone. What would happen if a Muslim teacher decided to pull students aside during the class to perform salah (which, depending on the time of day, she might consider compulsory)? How would students react? I have a guess:

Such a teacher might better be reprimanded or required to attend some sort of diversity workshop . . . but would anyone be surprised at her being terminated outright? Back to the article, consider this introduction:

When she was a third-grade teacher at Roanoke’s Forest Park Elementary School, Charnika Elbaz would play anasheed softly in her classroom. She’d pull aside students who shared her Muslim faith and quietly perform salah when no one else was around.

Is it even conceivable that such a paragraph would lead into such a delightful, supportive story in the RT as the one above?

Elliott appears to be an enthusiastic, engaging teacher whose students come to school rapt with anticipation. I’ll gladly grant her this, and i hope that it’s true. I hope teachers with her evident joy and dedication are as common now as they seemed to me in elementary school.

She also appears to have considered the experiences of any non-Christians in her class, presumably keeping her music soft and taking her prayer group aside as gestures of respect. (For all i know there were never any other students in the room; i’ve contacted the author for some clarification but have not yet received a response.) But i don’t see that this absolves her of misconduct, because it does not address the problem that her prayer group created: She divided her class into (a) a favored group of like-minded worshippers and (b) outsiders. However it’s done, no one benefits from a segregated classroom. (How long will we have to keep learning that?)

I get that privilege is a difficult concept. I don’t always catch it (and neither do many headstrong residents of Roanoke and Salem). I don’t think we should be expected to develop a strong sense of privilege without the institutions in place to help us hone our senses.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this predicament: Don’t pray during school hours. In fact, don’t pray in the school building. In fact, if you really care about your students’ emotional well-being and social maturity, don’t pray with them ever — unless you happen to find yourself at the same church (or mosque or temple or shrine or pastaria). And here’s why: You are not your students’ friend, or classmate, or cousin, or neighbor. Not first. First, you are their teacher. You are an authority figure. Your students emulate you, and they rely on you to prepare them for life in the pluralistic, cosmopolitan society that is ever-more-rapidly imposing itself upon them. And you will shape their understanding of communication, influence, compromise, and everything social. We don’t need to terminate every Christian — or Muslim, or nonreligious — teacher who abuses her authority, provided we clearly address the abuse and curb it in the future.

Personally, i aspire to witness a generation of schoolchildren who can hone in on the important part.

I won’t be praying for them. If they can do this then they’re already faring better than most of us.

A version of this post originally appeared on Cory’s personal blog.


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