Freedom from Loyalty

Blog 20140716

The evolutionary purpose of religion is to instill and enforce loyalty. The security of a family, tribe, state, country, or species is based on it. Belonging to a group provides protection from the macrocosm—generally other groups desperate to survive in the face of temporary scarcity. Each group has friend signs, such as dress style, uniforms, and jewelry, etc., that indicate membership. Each group has rules, such as those in bylaws, religious tomes, and verbal diatribes. Religion and the loyalty it commands obviously is very important, with probably 80% of Earth’s inhabitants adhering to one superstition or another.

A scientific paradigm, such as the Big Bang Theory, is similar in that it also commands loyalty for sustenance. Although generally not as geographically centered as most religions, scientific paradigms tend to develop infrastructure that helps them resist the tendency for less convinced adherents to stray. As in religions and other groups, the reins of power are held by “true believers,” who must benefit financially lest the group wither through lack of effort.

The upshot is that, without loyalty, society could not exist; with it, society could not evolve. The tension between what is and what will be is universal and eternal. When the macrocosm is in rapid flux, adaptation requires the opposite of loyalty: freedom. The paradigm, like the ice cube in your drink, dissolves from the outside, not the inside. The freedom from loyalty is as essential to paradigmatic change as it is to the melting of ice. Traditionalists, of course, have a tendency to “hate our freedoms.” Being entirely convinced of a particular creed, the conservative dogmatist tends to take loyalty for granted, considering freedom lovers as traitors or dismissing them as if they did not exist.

Below I reprint a poignant letter from an anonymous student from a small town in Missouri. It concerns an incident at a public high school where the principal triggered a nation-wide outrage simply by praying and mentioning his belief in a supreme being at a public graduation ceremony. Taken literally, this is strictly illegal whenever public institutions are involved. The U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom from religion.

The letter is from Jerry Coyne’s blog ( http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2014/06/03/yet-another-lebanon-student-writes-in/ ). It describes the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which group behavior suppresses those who seek freedom from loyalty. It is not so different from what many of us experienced while trying to make logical sense of the myths we were supposed to live by. We need to realize that the survivability of a group or paradigm is not based on logical sense or truthfulness. It is based instead on how well those particular microcosms are suited to their macrocosms. It is no accident that the situation described happened in a small town with no parochial high schools to relieve educational pressures. It is no accident that the Big Bang Theory came of age in a world filled mostly with indeterminists. It is also no accident that this student is already too educated and too intelligent to remain in such a stifling environment.

“Dear Professor Coyne,

I was a graduating student at the Lebanon High School 2014 commencement ceremony in Lebanon, Missouri.  I have been a Lebanon student my whole life.

I grew up in a secular home where I was neither encouraged nor discouraged in participation of religious activities.  This immediately separated me from most of my peers who would often talk about or discuss church.  I never thought much about it until I started attending Lebanon High School.

The school was definitely primarily religious.  With clubs such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Bible Club, I simply got used to religion being a driving force at the school.  I never attempted to impede on the rights of others to get together and pray, often personally opting out of prayer circles in preparation for tests before classes.  Prayers were also held before sports events, talent shows, assemblies, and other school events that I also did not participate in.  These things didn’t bother me too much, as it was student led.

What bothers me is the school's [tendency] to dissolve other groups that promote tolerance of differences.  My sister, a graduate of Lebanon High School, helped found the Youth for Tolerance club.  This club was met with great controversy, but was a safe place for non-Christians and LGBT youth to convene and promote tolerance.  This club never received a teacher sponsor, with teachers admitting to be afraid to lose their job in just hosting the club.  When I became an LHS student, this club was no longer in existence.

My absence in these prayers was noted.  Christian students often dismissed my opinions in class discussions about whether non-Christian sources were credible.  Political discussions in Social Studies classes were quite one-sided.  In response to my stances, people would frequently say to me, “I’ll pray for you,” knowing that I was non-religious.  To put the cherry on top, my yearbook is full of messages encouraging me to find god for my mortal soul.

What Mr. Lowery did at the 2014 graduation ceremony is hardly the first time that he danced around the Separation of Church and State for prayer.  At the previous graduation ceremony, he said that he is not allowed to say a prayer, but if he could say a prayer, this is what he would say.  He added that he would encourage everyone to bow their heads.  And if this was not ambiguous enough, he added an “amen” to conclude his statements.

I was surprised.  I tried to discuss this with like-minded classmates who informed me that he often prayed before school sponsored sports events.  This was of course allowed due to the majority of Lebanon being religious—a population around 15,000 and a church on every corner.

But he is a school official.  His actions as principal seem to represent that of a Christian private school.  Lebanon High School is not a private school.  The students felt safe to bully me and my non-Christian peers, as they were the majority.  And the principal seemed inclined to protect them.

At my graduation, I was prepared for him to say a prayer.  I did not expect a speech about America essentially being a Christian nation.  It was arrogant, aggressive.  I felt shamed for being a non-believer.  It was not a simple prayer.  It was an outcry of how he didn’t care about the minority.  I had already felt as though he had a personal distaste for me as he knew I was not religious.  His actions at the graduation were a slap in the face.

Let it be known that I am hardly a bad student.  I graduated as an honor student, received generous scholarships for college, and participated in a plethora of extra-curricular activities.  I attended classes, made good grades, and treated my classmates with respect.  As I was seated in my cap and gown, I was happy to be celebrating this accomplishment with the peers I had grown up with.  At that point, we were one.  We were united as the LHS Class of 2014.  We were the Lebanon High School Yellow Jackets.

What Lowery did, however, stole that from me.  It was no longer about my education.  It was about religion.  So as my peers around me clapped and cheered for his prayer, I realized.  This is not for me.  I am not welcome here.  I have never been.  Lowery is not proud of me or for my various accomplishments, no matter what my class ranking was.  I was not a Lebanon Yellow Jacket.  I was an unwelcome non-Christian.  Before Principal Lowery’s speech, I felt welcome.  I felt safe.  But after the cheers, the hollers… I was anxious.  I wanted to leave.  I will only have one high school graduation, and I will forever remember that feeling.

The public outcry from this is disappointingly not surprising.  I was aware that even though logic would state that this was unconstitutional, people would support him anyways.  They do not care about the minority, because they are the majority.  They protect each other, and collectively shame me.  No one cares if I leave the community or not, because my opinions are not welcome.  And Lowery further illustrates that they never will be.

Several teachers have voiced their displeasure with Lowery’s statements, but have admitted to being afraid for their jobs to do anything that was anti-Christian.  Even Christian teachers are upset by his comments.  Though take one tour through the Lebanon town Facebook pages, and you’ll see why.

I lived 18 years of my life surrounded by hateful people.  Principal Lowery’s speech endorsed it all.  He is no better than my school peers who bullied me for my non-belief.  I sincerely hope that he reads this and reflects on his actions.

Thank you for your attention to this issue.  Those of us within the community are too afraid to have a voice, as you have unfortunately learned.  But there are those of us who find comfort in knowing that others have empathy for our situations.”

Will these groups survive a changing world?


Westmiller said...


I applaud your courage in stating your secular sentiments and sympathize with the student suffering through a religious imposition. I was taught by Catholic nuns, priests, and monks for 13 years ... though I was an atheist for the last six of those years. I tried to ignore the preaching and simply fit in, mainly because I hadn't been exposed to rational alternatives. So, I applaud your stance.

However, I was concerned about one statement you made:
"... The upshot is that, without loyalty, society could not exist; with it, society could not evolve."

Social engagement requires common interests, but I don't think it requires loyalty to arbitrary dictates or majority rulers. One can be "loyal" to the truth, tolerate ignorance, and still have a vibrant social life. If society were to reject superstition and ancient myths, it would still evolve toward the true and good, in spite of ignorance and evil.

"... The tension between what is and what will be is universal and eternal ..."

I don't see it as a tension between present and future, nor even past and future. It is more an evolution from obstinate ignorance - which can be convenient and comfortable - and the progress of human knowledge toward something wiser and better. Of course, there will always be ignorant people who are proud of their stupidity, but "nature" and reality will usually select against their foolishness. Sadly, evolution - especially intellectual evolution - takes a long time. I'm just thankful that I'm not living in the Dark Ages.


Glenn Borchardt said...

Thanks for the comment Bill. I stand by my statement that "The upshot is that, without loyalty, society could not exist; with it, society could not evolve." Like many others, you may resist the part played by religion and the military in providing the adhesion that keeps today’s society together. Eventually, after a long, long time, neither will be around to serve that function. Society will think of other means to establish loyalty—most likely to the whole of humanity, instead of mere segments of it.

The generalization in that statement remains true nonetheless. Loyalty is always involved whenever folks get together. Marriage, for instance, becomes tenuous when loyalty breaks down. There is no reason to be for or against either loyalty or freedom per se. Whether one must be loyal or disloyal is situational: it depends on the univironment. As you suggest, one may not wish to be loyal to arbitrary dictates or majority rulers, but also as you know, they have their ways. You might defy the law, but you had better be ready to face the consequences.

Again, I stand by my generalization that “The tension between what is and what will be is universal and eternal.” This is little more than a restatement of univironmental determinism: what happens to a microcosm is dependent on the infinite matter in motion within and without. You can apply that generalization to any specific microcosm, as you did in assessing humanity’s historical and temporal state of ignorance.

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