Much Sturm und Drang last week over the revelation that Valley Park Middle School is allowing an imam to hold Friday prayer services in the school cafeteria. It’s one of those interesting stories that makes for strange bedfellows, with the Centre for Inquiry and Canadian Secular Alliance standing alongside the Canadian Hindu Advocacy, the Muslim Canadian Congress, and the Jewish Defense League to denounce the practice. With them is the populist Toronto Sun and the centrist Globe and Mail, against more supportive voices from both the left-ish Toronto Star and the right-ish National Post.
But what position for the skeptic to take? Where should we, who aim for reason over emotion; whose method is to question; and who are, frankly, a little suspicious of supernatural beliefs to begin with – where should we stand on such an issue? I started where I always do: by setting aside my personal inclinations on the issue in order to take a careful look at the arguments being made, their substance, and the motivations behind them.
I’m glad I did, because what I found surprised me: none of the major arguments being made against Valley Park’s decisions withstood closer scrutiny. I’ll go into detail – possibly too much – on why that is, but in a nutshell:
1). The faith groups that have come out on this issue are using the language of equality and secularism, but this is misleading. Scratching the surface reveals motives that are merely clannish. This is no reason for a skeptic to accept.
2). The argument from equality / fairness seems initially persuasive, however on closer look reveals an emotional core. That it doesn’t seem so is by design: there is significant research to show that humans, and other primates, have evolved a fairness instinct that overtakes reason in situations like this. Often, it’s the best response to the situation, but like all cognitive heuristics, it can fail us. For reasons I outline below, it seems to have done so here.
3). The argument from secularism, while certainly resonant for me personally, is not a categorical imperative. Ontario has a well-functioning school system today that includes a publicly-funded Catholic school district, yet miraculously we have not devolved into a theocracy. While important, there are times when we can maximize utility and serve the greater good by setting aside secularism, and this seems to be one of those times.
As I said, I was surprised to find myself arguing in favour of prayer in school – and to be clear, I’m not suggesting this as a blanket position on the subject. I’m talking specifically about Valley Park. Even so, I expect many of you are reading this with a jaundiced eye, so let’s dive in and look more closely at the evidence.
I’ll start with the argument that kicked this off, which was a complaint by Canadian Hindu Advocacy that seemed, from the coverage I read, to focus on the issue of equality. They weren’t asking for similar accommodation of Hindu belief, simply for the restoration of the secular norm. So I was surprised to find that the letter they sent to the TDSB started as follows:
The CANADIAN HINDU ADVOCACY, after successfully repelling Khalistani Sikh attempts to infiltrate the Conservative Party in BC, is launching a campaign to repel brazen attempts to Islamize the Toronto District School Board.
Well. Glad to see their sense of proportion is so finely calibrated. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that one imam holding a half-hour weekly service with no active participation or financial support from the school is hardly the Islamization of the TDSB.
Unfortunately, we don’t get much better from the Jewish Defense League, which claims to be:
…very concerned about The Islamic Society of Toronto [which provided the imam] because of there (sic) associations with other radical Islamic groups. Consider the following Press Release signed by the Islamic Society of Toronto together with other radical Islamic groups on the issue of Terrorism trials in Canada:
I guess they were hoping that their readers would just trust them on that point and not actually click the link, which is a three year old letter calling for bail to be granted for the remaining accused in the “Toronto 18” trials, given that they had already been in jail nearly two years, during which the Crown had whittled the case down to a mere “Toronto 11″ . The letter includes such incendiary language as this:
Balancing the pursuit of law, order, peace and security with the protection of individual human rights and civil liberties is a difficult task, especially when the balancing process involves individuals who may be unpopular. Are we, as a society, prepared to suspend basic rights, such as freedom of association and the presumption of innocence, in the name of anti-terrorism?
Seriously, read it – that’s the tone of the entire thing. It’s actually a lot less fiery than the Toronto Star’s coverage at the time. No surprise then that it wasn’t the letter itself that bothered the JDL, it was the “associations with other radical Islamic groups” that were, we’re to believe, created when they all signed the same letter. Weak, weak, weak.
It’s pretty clear that the real issue for both Canadian Hindu Advocacy and the Jewish Defense League has little to with promoting secularism or equality – it’s simply an anti-Islam stance. But surely that can’t be the case with the Muslim Canadian Congress, right? Well, kinda:
“This is a very big concern for us,” Congress president Farzana Hassan said. “We are concerned that there are some Muslim groups that are not seen as Muslims and may not be invited to pray.”
Hassan cited the Ismailis and Ahmadiyyas as not being recognized as Muslims by mainstream groups.
So there you have it, the same tribal bun fight among major religions playing itself out in Toronto as it does in the rest of the world. None of this should be persuasive to the skeptic.
Equality / Fairness
Still, despite the fact that its alleged champions are nothing of the sort, there is a legitimate discussion to be had about equality, and it’s the basis of the Toronto Sun’s position. Well, “position” may not be the right word. Let’s say “fulmination”, as these quotes from Joe Warmington illustrate:
Who knows which religious community is next. Why wouldn’t they complain? Why is one group special over another? What is good for one should be good enough for the rest.
. . .
Remember the case of the Gideons no longer being able to pass out free bibles to schools? If Christian bibles are off limits, so should religious teachings of any kind.
. . .
What if students wanted to have a nativity scene at Christmas in that same cafeteria or run a Christ passion play? Or how about readings from the Torah or to celebrate Hanukkah or Diwali?
You already know the answer.
Chilling stuff. Now let’s set aside (for the moment) the inconvenient fact that Ontario has a publicly-funded Catholic school system, which would seem to neatly deflate the above arguments entirely, because I think there’s something even more interesting at play here that needs exploring. But before we get there, we need to define some terms and acknowledge that there are (at least) two kinds of equality or fairness:
1) Level Playing Field Equality: Everyone is treated identically with no regard to their particulars. This is an equality of opportunity – we try to normalize the inputs to the equation.
2) Tilted Playing Field Equality: People (usually groups) are treated differently precisely because of their particulars. This is an equality of results – we try to normalize the outputs of the equation.
When it comes to social policy, the first of these underlies the populist sentiment – it’s what Warmington is advocating in the pages of the Sun. In fact, if anything defines populism, it’s the level playing field definition of equality – what’s good enough for me is good enough for them, and those that take more than their share are to be punished.
There’s a good reason for this – Level Playing Field Equality is probably hard-wired into our mind-design and functions as a cognitive heuristic. Cognitive heuristics are essentially short cuts that bypass our considered reasoning circuitry in order to allow us to make quicker decisions. We have them because the decisions and behaviours they engender have, on balance, served us well evolutionarily-speaking. Since humans are a relatively young species, such heuristics are often inherited from our evolutionary ancestors, and thus we can often see the same patterns in other modern primates that share those ancestors.
Take, for example, the well-known paper “Monkeys reject unequal pay” published in Nature a few years back. Two Emory University primatologists found that monkeys that had been trained to do a certain task in exchange for a certain pay (cucumber slices) effectively went on strike when they witnessed other monkeys being rewarded a higher pay (GRAPES!) for the same task.
Humans show the same tendency to see reward in relative terms – what behavioral economists refer to as “inequity aversion.” This shows up repeatedly in the classic Ultimatum Game, in which one participant has to decide how to split a fixed sum between themselves and a second participant, who is given a single chance to take the offer or leave it on the table. Traditional “rational maximizer” economic models predicted that the second participant would take any offer greater than zero, but in practice, anything too far off 50/50 tends to be rejected. In fact, the first participant rarely proposes anything too “unfair”, probably because they know it will be rejected.
Why might such behavior be selected by evolutionary forces? University of Washington psychology professor David Barash suggests — based on the above research, and that of biologist Lixing Sun (the “fairness maven”) — that because evolution operates by relative means, how one stacks up against the competition is more important than absolute fitness. Thus, bringing one’s competitor down a peg can be as effective a strategy as climbing up a peg oneself:
In the arcane mathematics of game theory, people occupy a “Pareto equilibrium,” whereby all parties are capable of improving their situations, but any improvement necessarily comes at the expense of others. As a result, such an equilibrium is bound to be a nervous one, whereby everyone is selected to be finely attuned to any departures from fairness; hence, the widespread concern for a “fair coin,” “fair match,” “fair play,” “fair exchange,” a level—which is to say a “fair”—playing field.
Which brings us back to Valley Park, with a reminder to be very skeptical of populist notions of fairness – especially one’s own instinctive belief in a Level Playing Field Equality. While appropriate in many situations, it also systematically inappropriate in others. It can be difficult to parse this out of one’s own positions – but thinking clearly demands that you both watch for it (aka metacognitive monitoring) and correct for it when you see it (aka metacognitive control).
Doing so required me to admit, against my natural inclinations, that the Level Playing Field sometimes needs to be sacrificed in order to maximize overall utility; that we often get a more “fair” macro outcome when we accept a less “fair” micro outcome; and that this was probably the case in Valley Park.
Why? Well first, no one is made worse off by the fact that Muslim students are better off – any more than I’m made worse off when someone wins the lottery. This is not a zero sum game. Second, 80% of this school is Muslim, and nearly half of those are availing themselves of the services — in other words, it’s adding value to the equation. And third, they’d be praying anyway – previously, they had been signing themselves out of school on Friday to do so, whereas now they’re remaining under the eye of the school administration.
There is literally no downside except to our faulty sense of relative deprivation — and that’s hardly a reason to oppose something that’s providing such a great value to a majority of students and harms no one.
The CFI and Canadian Secular Alliance may beg to differ, as they’ve taken the position that secularism is a valuable policy aim in its own right. From the CSA press release:
“The two fundamental problems in Ontario are the way we view religious accommodations and the continued public funding of the Roman Catholic School System,” said [CSA President, Greg] Oliver. “Both provide pretexts that encourage these sorts of outrageous demands by faith groups.”
Now I, and I suspect many of our readers, share that disposition. Our Catholic school system makes me bristle, and I had the same feeling when I heard about Valley Park. But set personal feeling aside, and the comparison with the Catholic school system is actually part of the reason why this argument doesn’t hold water.
For those outside of Ontario, I should explain that the public school system in this province includes both secular and Catholic options. The instruction is largely the same, with the exception of a religious component permitted in the Catholic system. In Toronto, these two are administered by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB), respectively, and Valley Park falls under the jurisdiction of the former.
It isn’t a perfect system, and there are certainly times when the TCDSB is at odds with the values of the broader population, but mostly these issues are small. A recent flare-up focused on whether a gay student support group could sell rainbow cupcakes at a fundraiser, for example. This isn’t to trivialize these issues – they’re important and should continue to be raised – just to say that in broad strokes, the system works and we haven’t descended into theocracy just because we provide preferential accommodation to Catholics.
Clearly secularism is not a categorical imperative in Ontario, much as the CFI and the Canadian Secular Alliance would like it to be, and therefore not a sufficient argument against the prayers at Valley Park. To make such an argument complete, the CFI and CSA would need to show that the utility provided by the secular ideal is greater than that created serving the needs of the student body. So far, they have not done so.
A Skeptic’s Position
Despite my natural inclination against religion in the public sphere, the arguments that are being made against Valley Park’s decision to facilitate weekly prayer services haven’t stood up to greater scrutiny. Whether based in tribalism, emotion, or ideology, they’re at worst dishonest and at best incomplete. Set this against the benefits provided to such a large subset of students — as well as the fact that this has been going on for three years already without significant incident — and I find myself compelled to reserve judgment.
And — possibly — to do even more than that. After all, I’ve argued before that skeptics should approach religion from the perspective of harm mitigation by encouraging religious moderation rather than crusading against it entirely. This position was based in cognitive science, viz. the fact that the magical thinking that underlies religion – essentialism, dualism, etc. – was too tightly woven into what makes us human ever to be fully overcome. And indeed, it would be undesirable to do so, considering that social interaction, love, and probably even our perception of free will rest on the same cognitive templates.
In the same article I also argued that:
…religions tend to be more moderate in places where freedom of belief is protected, and more extreme in places where it’s not. It’s a simple group dynamic, a bunker mentality – members of a religion that’s persecuted, outlawed, or otherwise insecure will identify more strongly with the religion and become more extreme. Without that pressure, other aspects of one’s personality can balance the magical beliefs.
It may seem counterintuitive, but if the prayers at Valley Park teach the students that their religion is compatible with Canadian society, it may well result in a more moderate Islam, rather than the more extreme one opponents are warning us of. That would be a lot of utility to set against the secular ideal, and would probably cause me to do more than simply reserve judgment. I don’t think we have enough data to support such a proposition yet, but I’ll leave you with the suggestion that maybe we should not only give Valley Park a pass, but also watch them very closely over the coming years. It may well be that this experiment yields lessons on how to successfully moderate religion in our society that we can apply more broadly.