I go to church regularly and say things I don't believe. I justify this by saying that it's necessary to support an institution that I believe does more good than harm and that the usefulness of a statement is more important than its truth. I think my grounds are utilitarian and pragmatic, and do not share the vulnerability, among skeptics, of belief in the statements.
I am satisfied with my justification until I am asked to teach a seventh-grade Sunday School class. If I decline I leave it to somebody else, maybe as much a skeptic as I am, to give the support I want given. I can't do that, and don't expect a philosopher to give me a justification for it. If I accept the job I do the things that make me ask for help from a philosopher.
My question: How I can avoid harm, and if I can't will I do enough to tip the utilitarian balance and remove me from the church?
As I see it, I risk doing three kinds of harm. First, pedagogical harm. I will be teaching credulousness. They can't believe what I say (or repeat from the Nicene Creed) without suspending the tests for belief they know, or will soon learn, in general science. I, with the authority they still grant adults, will be teaching them "readiness to believe."
Second, the harm this leads to, civic harm. My church is in the Midwest, the Heartland, where the electorate’s readiness to believe President Bush’s statements about threats from Iraq had such dire consequences. I had to ask whether it was a coincidence that the region labeled by some British periodical (I think it was The Economist) “Jesus Land” after the election was also the region that carried Bush to victory for a second term. With all the other harm credulousness has done to nations (pogroms, etc.) I really shouldn't need the Iraq example to make me sensitive to it, but there it is, close to home.
Third, linguistic harm, the least clear to me but maybe the most important. I do this harm when I try to avoid the harm above by teaching my seventh-graders the non-literal ways of reading that skeptics attending the service upstairs use. I see it coming out like this: "There are ways to take these words, children, and ways you can use them to each other. The expression A doesn’t have to mean A and B doesn’t have to mean B. And C, that’s best left vague. Forget giving it a referent. You can be adult about this."
It seems to me I am teaching linguistic misbehavior, and I feel supported in my discomfort by what I remember J. L. Austin (I was a philosophy minor) calling the double performer: a backstage artiste. (HTDTWW, p. 11)
So there's my pain: I teach my thirteen-year-olds to be credulous dunces or I teach them to be backstage artistes. Is there consolation in philosophy?
Ohio English Teacher
Read another response by Jean Kazez