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Loving math and secularizing religious freedom

April 6, 2016

special

While criticizing Andrew Hacker’s book on math education, Evelyn Lamb wrote:

I am a mathematician, thinking about math brings me great joy, and I want more people to have joyful experiences with mathematics. Of course I think many of Hacker’s conclusions are incorrect. Most troubling to me is the idea that mathematics is important only insofar as we use it in our careers, and therefore anyone whose job path doesn’t involve math shouldn’t have to take math classes beyond basic numeracy. Education isn’t valuable simply because we use it in our jobs. Literature, music, and art enrich our lives and nourish our spirits. History and political science can make us more informed citizens. Science can help us understand why research is rarely conclusive. I reject Hacker’s idea that mathematics doesn’t help us understand other areas of life and enhance our experience of the world. In her recent Slate piece on Hacker’s book, Dana Goldstein described how her husband sees concepts such as derivatives as connecting the concrete to the abstract, of helping us understand the world. He’s right.

I loved the honesty in this paragraph. Sure Lamb used evidence and reason to rebut Hacker. But her argument ultimately depends on aesthetics and beauty. Math brings her joy, and she wants to share it with everyone. I–and most of my scientist friends–can identify with Lamb’s feelings. At times we’ve all felt joyous about science.

I bet we’d still identify with Lamb even if she were writing about music or photography or French literature. We may not share her enthusiasm. But we get that taste is subjective, that people find all sorts of things interesting, and they often want to share that love with others. To each his own, right?

This sort of live-and-let-live attitude would disappear if Lamb had written: ‘I am a Christian, thinking about Jesus brings me great joy, and I want more people to have joyful experiences with Christ.’ Faith, and especially Christianity, doesn’t fit into our existing norms. It is treated differently. This disparity is partly because many liberals–disproportionately represented in science and the media–have an anti-faith bias.

But I’m starting to think religious Christians share some of the blame. They want religious faith to be viewed as a special type of belief, unlike any other. But if faith is special, then we should expect it to be treated differently. Sometimes that special treatment will work out for religious Christians, and sometimes it won’t. You can’t insist on one without the other.

I’m starting to feel that it would be better for religious freedom if it lost its special status. If it were viewed almost like any other belief out there. If that happened, then evangelicals could talk about Jesus like Evelyn Lamb does for math: as something that brings them great joy.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Agellius permalink
    April 6, 2016 5:17 pm

    I would agree with you if we were only talking about the aspect of religious belief that produces the same type of joy that one experiences from math or music. That is, if we were only talking about the aesthetic or emotional aspects of religion. But aesthetics and emotion are not the essence of religious belief.

    Religious belief has special protections because at the time of the Founding, the vast majority of people believed that God was a higher authority than government. This is an idea that was ingrained in European culture from time immemorial, and explains why the Founding Fathers appealed to God in the Declaration of Independence, saying that “all men are endowed by their Creator” — not by their government — “with certain inalienable rights”. This being the case, religious people will go to jail or die rather than violate God’s commandments. For a Christian, to violate a commandment for the sake of avoiding legal sanctions is a sin. It can’t be done.

    Religious freedom was designed to avoid putting people in situations in which they are forced to choose between obeying the law or obeying God (exemplified by the ancient Roman Emperors forcing Christians to burn incense on a pagan altar or die). Taking away the right of religious freedom, the right to have our conscience formed by religion, and to hold religion as more sacred and inviolable than the law, can only increase instances in which people are forced to make that choice.

    The reason people are losing their appreciation for the inviolability of religious freedom, is that they no longer consider God to be a higher authority than government.

  2. victor permalink
    April 7, 2016 12:00 pm

    Great points @Agellius . I want to respond to Praj with three comments.

    1) The difficulty in your argument is that it looks at religion as belief. It definitely is a belief for many people, maybe still the majority of Westerners, or maybe for the people to whom you are referring. But more and more people see it as a way of life similar to how Buddhism is a way of life. Jesus’s first followers were not called Christians but people of the Way. This doesn’t refute anything you say, but I’m just adding another dimension. Violating someone’s way of life might have different implications than violating a belief (whatever that means).

    2) Ms. Lamb is definitely saying that, in her taste, mathematics is pretty amazing. But I think she is saying something even deeper beyond tastes. She is saying, like history, like science, like art, mathematics has actual utility in life outside of working hours. This is a huge statement. If math brought a person no joy AND it had no utility in life, then it may be right to argue it is a waste. But apart from subjective joy, it has usefulness in life outside of a job that may not use it (and I bet there are ways to use in that seemingly unrelated job). This is a strong point.

    3) I couldn’t understand some of your points in this just because they were vague.

    A – What does “faith is treated differently” mean? It’s treated differently than what in what way in what circumstances?

    B – Religious Christians want Christianity to be a special type of belief, unlike any other what? I can’t tell if you’re referring to other religions or to beliefs that cars should drive on the right side of the road.

    C – What did you mean that if religious belief is special it should be treated differently? Can you give an example. I can’t tell if you’re talking about allowing people to opt out of things or what you mean.

    Thanks.

  3. April 8, 2016 12:03 pm

    “This sort of live-and-let-live attitude would disappear if Lamb had written: ‘I am a Christian, thinking about Jesus brings me great joy, and I want more people to have joyful experiences with Christ.’ Faith, and especially Christianity, doesn’t fit into our existing norms. It is treated differently. This disparity is partly because many liberals–disproportionately represented in science and the media–have an anti-faith bias.” You are right about Christianity not fitting into our existing norms. At its fullest and deepest it is far beyond any mental understanding and speaks to Christians at the center of our being. Christians are something in Christ that people who are not Christian are not. On the other hand, Christians should not expect special treatment based on their claim to be children of God. Something that obviously cannot be scientifically or materially identified. Joy is a sign of Christian belief but not a determinant. Thanks for bringing up the subject.

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