The true unbeliever

Belief has never, for me, been a matter of choice.

A natural universe entails a transcendent (if misty) creator. Even in these times of STEM, from nothing comes nothing. And yet, more than a few human minds, some quite celebrated, simply shun that first principle of the very rationality they strive to personify.

In recent years, I’ve subscribed to the atheist magazine Skeptical Inquirer hoping to better understand this intellectual boycott of the origin of all things “natural.” I even offered an essay of my own, hoping to stir conversation on the cognitive legitimacy of this taboo of theirs and thus play my own part as skeptic. The rejection was polite – maybe deserved. In any case, I grieve that the atheist intellectual finds it so threatening to let his mind glance back over the shoulder of his own natural self and run the risk of a surprise encounter.

The atheist’s denial of all but nature can seem a matter of intense emotion; the true unbeliever often appears as untamed by his conviction as is the believer by his. Recently, the New York Tines ran a full-page front-section Sunday ad celebrating non-belief and declaring that the scummy behavior of a number of Catholic clergy liberates all of us from belief in God. It would seem divinity itself is to be tested by the behavior of hypocrites who betray their own moral code. The bad priest is evil by his own professed standard and, therefore … God is dead: This is a sequitur?

The ad makes clear that the minds of its signatory atheists actually share many of these same moral precepts pretended by these phony clerics – while pursued in practice by the faithful. Unbelievers and believers alike applaud most of the same “goods” and those humans who strive to realize them. It is hard to credit the anti-God mind with full rationality in this reproach to belief. Right or wrong, there seems a good deal more than intelligence at work here.

But what have such appraisals of atheist thought to do with the availability of subsidized school choice for the poor? My own experience as a child makes me grieve that such families to this day remain the indentured clients of a curiously narrow-minded school curriculum.

Such intellectually muffled schools are, by law, forbidden to present a coherent picture of the “good life” or even of life itself. The teacher is forbidden to consider the question of the source of physical nature, and the mind of the child is invited to shrink. Darwin is properly welcomed to the student’s mind; evolution of the natural world is highly plausible. But if the student cannot be encouraged to consider how nature, including Darwin himself, came to be, the mind of the child has been cheated.

This is not an argument against government schools. It is simply the observation that the poor, as a matter of both reason and justice, should be given the same options that, in theory, the Constitution guarantees to all of us. If parents prefer the narrow picture of life available in PS 42, they should have their choice. But so also should those who prefer a curriculum that invites the mind to a less provincial view of realty.

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BY John E. Coons

John E. Coons is a professor of law, emeritus, University of California at Berkeley, and author with Stephen D. Sugarman of "Private Wealth and Public Education" and "Education by Choice."