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Of Gods and Burqas: on Seeing a Student in a Burqa

The fight between religious freedom and both science and morality.

Walking across campus, I saw a student in a burqa. I concluded she was a student because she was carrying the ubiquitous and required accouterments: backpack and water bottle. I concluded that the student was a “she” since said student was wearing a burqa. Let’s just assume I was right on both counts.

Alamy Stock Photo
Source: Alamy Stock Photo

I wanted to say to her: “Women are people too; sexism can and must be rejected.” But I didn’t. Why? Partly because intruding on another person by commenting on his or her dress or appearance is considered rude in our culture. It’s not clear it is really and truly rude—more on this anon. But the main reason I said nothing is because the moral/religious situation at the secular, state college campus where I work has gotten so out of whack that anything that clashes with religion, even civil rights and liberties, is labeled bad. The short form is this: Religion trumps morality and science. And this is true across the schools, colleges, and universities of the nation.

How did we get to this sad state? (By “we” I mean the U.S., but one could mean by “we” the entire western world.) Our path to this predicament was fixed by two major social movements. The first was a legitimate desire to protect minority people from bullies. We needed to protect those belonging to locally rare religions from being harassed by those of the locally dominant religion, a social problem that has plagued humanity from its very beginning. In the U.S., this means protecting Muslims, Wiccans, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. from being harassed by Christians. This sort of protection was especially required after September 11. At the time and for the rest of his presidency, President Bush and his government strongly supported religious diversity, in its standard form, and strongly condemned attacks on most members of locally rare religions, especially Muslims. (Wiccans didn’t count: President Bush refused to allow the Wiccan pentacle to placed on the tombstones of Wiccan soldiers—until he lost the lawsuit brought by the families of Wiccan soldiers). The second movement was the illegitimate, nation-wide rejection of science, especially biological and psychological science. Both of these sciences, working together, have revealed to us that our religious feelings and thoughts are a biological adaptation, and further that morality is often confused with mere religious tradition and tribal proscriptions against certain behavior (usually having to do with sex, death, child-rearing, and eating).

The Rejection of science: colleges as mega-marts

The education managers at the school where I work say they support science, but they don’t. They support winning research grants. In the university-as-Mega-Mart model that governs my school and most schools in the U.S., students’ happiness comes first—they are the customers and customers are always right (technically, their parents are customers and it is the parents who are always right). So, it is wrong, i.e., bad for business, to upset them. Since most students, just like most Americans, reject evolution and so all of science, all their teachers are enjoined from upsetting the students in anyway by telling them any scientific truth.

The above paragraph needs some elaboration.

— “Most students reject evolution.” Only 33 percent of Americans accept evolution as the explanation of life. (Accepting "God-guided evolution" is rejecting evolution.)

— “And so reject all of science.” Evolution is a logical consequence of the facts and laws of atomic and subatomic physics as well as the facts and laws of chemistry that govern our universe. No universe with the same lower-level science facts and laws that we have could fail to have evolution as a biological law. Philosophers have a technical term for this relation: We say that biology logically supervenes on chemistry, which in turn, logically supervenes on physics. Consequently to reject evolution is to reject chemistry and to reject chemistry is to reject atomic and subatomic physics. (If A logically supervenes on B, then B logically entails A; so rejection of A is rejection of B.) Astronomy, cosmology, geology, and meteorology are also logically connected to this supervenience hierarchy, and since they are “lower down” than biology, they must be rejected, too, when biology is rejected. That’s not all of science, but its damned close. Because they are “higher” than biology, psychology (individual and social), political science, and economics survive, logically, but not practically. And that is all of science.

Note that evolution is rejected for one reason only: it clashes with our religious convictions, and this is true regardless of conviction and across most of the hundred thousand or so religions on planet Earth today.

The consequence is that the rejection, or at least the demotion, of science is happily embraced by many a university management. Since evolution and the rest of science is rejected for religious reasons, this leaves religion triumphant. Since a burqa is a religious garment, one cannot object on feminist, moral grounds to a female student wearing one.

Morality versus religion: Can we fix the clash?

What is the morality of taking religions seriously, putting them above science? Consider the immorality of wearing a burqa. This garment is straightforwardly sexist: it tells society that the person in it is second-class citizen, it says that this second-class status is due to the gender and sex organs of the wearer, it hampers the woman’s movements, partly because it is confining, and partly because it is uncomfortable to wear since it traps heat. But, though immoral, burqas are allowed for reasons of religious freedom.

Immorality masquerading as religious freedom is rampant in our culture. Three quick examples: Denial of birth control to women for "religious reasons", businesses refusing to offer their services to, for example, gays or lesbians for "religious reasons", and parents refusing to allow their children to learn the theory of evolution for "religious reasons." Criticizing such immorality is not allowed. To see how off-limits criticizing such religious immorality is in our culture, consider Catholicism (and various branches of Protestantism, such as the Anglican church) which forces young children (7 to 10 years old) to confess their sins before they have their first communion. What sins could a 10-year-old have? Eating cookies before dinner? So the child dredges up some very small thing that could, if twisted around enough, count as some sort of sin and “confesses” that. And from there, the child is taught, and learns, that her or his life is filled with sin. No one could criticize such behavior and make any serious headway in ridding our culture of it.

Back to the burqa. So here is a case where wearing an immoral garment is regarded as a woman’s right. Could anything be more upside down? We are told to ignore her brainwashing as a child which caused her to “choose” to wear the burqa in the first place. Furthermore, education managers at schools across the nation acquiesce to the power of the student body which, like the surrounding culture, is mostly religious and which thinks it is being highly moral by letting religions be immoral. Seriously, could anything be more upside down?

The situation is darkly Orwellian.

What to do?

Banning all religions is not in the cards. Indeed it is a recipe for disaster. Religions are in our genes. No one can be forced to give up their religion.

Something more modest? A recommitment to science and morality?

Not a chance. The U.S. is flagrantly and openly opposed to science and, many think, it is also opposed to important kinds of morality—inclusiveness and diversity, for example.

I don’t know what to do. Writing this blog seems the best I can offer at this point.

I find some hope in the fact that a student wearing Ku Klux Klan garb would be denounced on the spot. And I don't think that appealing to religion (the Klan embraces a kind of Christianity) would help said student. Of course, I despair that this case is similar to the burqa case.