To educate a child perfectly requires profounder thought, greater wisdom, than to govern a state.
—William Ellery Channing, 1838
Few tasks undertaken by parents and communities are more important than the education of our children. Several key questions arise in any discussion of the nature and purpose of that education—questions that any parent should take seriously, consider with care, and answer. Some of these are of particular interest to secular families:
Why should secular parents support public schools (or oppose vouchers)?
Is moral education possible in the public schools (where it would have to be taught without a religious basis of some kind)? Isn’t it in fact impossible to separate religious belief or ideas from education, unless education is taken to mean nothing more than rote learning?
Why should parents support the separation of church and state within public schools?
This essay explores these issues and offers some suggestions.
All thoughtful citizens, even those who aren’t parents and never expect to become parents, should support public schools. The same goes for parents who want to homeschool their children or who pay to have them attend private schools, whether religious or secular.
Our society is more interdependent than ever. We all gain by a better-educated population and are all threatened by a less-well-educated one. Our whole economy—not just our own jobs or businesses—depends directly on workers having and maintaining complex skills. Our democratic governance will cease to be self-governance if most of us don’t understand our society and its political philosophy. And our culture will be cheapened instead of enriched if we do not have a broadly educated citizenry, a populace able to appreciate all that life and art have to offer.
Our children need to learn firsthand that different isn’t worse. All our children can gain greatly by seeing other children cope and succeed, the more so if those other children have a wide range of abilities, ethnicities, interests, geographical origins, and cultures.
Only a public school system has any chance of educating nearly everyone, and only such a system can hope to instill a common education, language, historical knowledge, and basic moral values across the population. Public schools deserve universal support for all these reasons. That’s why vouchers—grants of tax dollars to individual parents to spend at the private schools of their choice, supposedly as a way to encourage freedom and improve education—are a bad idea. Vouchers encourage, and may even guarantee, socially debilitating segregation. They certainly endanger religious liberty. Our children need to learn firsthand that different isn’t worse. All our children can gain greatly by seeing other children cope and succeed, the more so if those other children have a wide range of abilities, ethnicities, interests, geographical origins, and cultures.
A major argument advanced by private-school and voucher supporters is that we have, under another very successful program, done exactly what proposed school vouchers would do, without harm to public universities or to church/state separation or liberty. Veterans since World War II have had various public funding, usually known as GI Bill educational benefits, for going to whatever institution of higher learning they wish. And Notre Dame or Bob Jones University can be chosen as easily as State University.
But the comparison of vouchers with the veterans’ benefits misses a crucial set of differences: Veterans are adults making choices that are optional, including the choice to attend at all. As adults, they are full citizens, entitled to make choices that may not be deemed wise or in the best interests of the society at large. But children are generally unable to decide with any effective power of their own how much to let the beliefs of their parents affect their educational decisions—and parents deciding for their children is not the equivalent of adult veterans deciding for themselves.
An occasional argument advanced by voucher supporters against objections that church/state separation is violated is that education is a local matter, not a matter to be addressed by the federal government or the federal courts. That argument ignores the Fourteenth Amendment (and the bloody Civil War that led to it), which proclaimed in 1868 that the rights of a citizen of the United States cannot be abridged by state or local governments.
The other major basis for supporting public schools and opposing vouchers is, as already noted, that vouchers would encourage destructive segregation in our society. Taking tax dollars out of public schools and sending those dollars to private schools, even nonreligious institutions, would greatly increase the chances that students would spend most of their time with others much like themselves. Racial segregation has proven in the past to be extremely effective in undercutting justice, and voluntary segregation along racial, ethnic, class, sexual orientation, political, or religious lines would be harmful as well. Our society is strengthened by having most of our citizens educated in settings where they rub shoulders with people quite unlike themselves and where a common curriculum, with more or less consistent standards and with guaranteed access for all, prevails. Tax incentives for people to abandon this common education would unmistakably weaken it. To those who say a common curriculum with free access for all could be a condition of vouchers, the question must be, how will that be any better or any freer than what we have now? Public schools need more resources and more public support, not less. A much more fractured society, with much less practical understanding of what other people are like, would be the result of vouchers.
And as much as many secular parents might believe it would benefit our children in some ways to be educated apart from others with irrational religious beliefs, it seems likely that even our children would lose more than they would gain by being segregated—and for similar reasons.
All parents must of course have primary responsibility for the moral education of their children, including encouraging and supporting social institutions and organizations that have moral education as part of their purpose. While other essays in this book address moral education more generally, this essay will offer advice for secular parents on the role public schools should play in moral education. One frequent false belief is that public schools are prevented from engaging in moral education by separation of church and state. If moral education were dependent on religious beliefs, that might be true—but it isn’t.
Religious believers often think morals come ultimately from God, but that ultimate basis need not be part of the education, and of course those of us without any religious beliefs don’t agree about the source of morals anyway. No God is needed for—and it can even be reasonably argued that religion interferes with—moral development. How we treat each other, whether we lie or have integrity, whether we care about what is right and follow our code of right and wrong—all of this can and should be taught in public schools. Good teachers have always helped their students develop self-respect, an understanding of justice and fair play, respect for differences, and moral understanding. Good parents should encourage and appreciate this.
Despite myths to the contrary, separation is not a matter of being careful not to offend either people without religion or people who follow a minority religion.
Education certainly means more than making students acquire facts or information. The main goal of education should always be to learn how to learn, to become an independent thinker. While teaching students to think, any good teacher will always also teach them to treat themselves and others wisely and well. No secular parent can hope to do this alone, but every parent should consciously plan to do it.
Every citizen benefits from separation of church and state or, in the case of public schools, from separation of religious education from common public education. Despite myths to the contrary, separation is not a matter of being careful not to offend either people without religion or people who follow a minority religion. Nor is separation of church and state an antireligious principle. “Secular” means “not based on religion”—it doesn’t mean “hostile to religion.” As every public school teacher and every parent should know, the purpose of separation is to protect religious liberty. As government becomes involved in religion, interpretations of the true meaning of “God” and “faith” inevitably drift toward one narrowly defined denominational vision. Many Christian denominations in the United States, including Baptists and Catholics, have actively supported separation to prevent their own religious identities from being pushed aside by a different concept of God.
The Southern Baptist Convention understood the point so well that it included separation of church and state as one of its founding principles. The Southern Baptists adopted, in their statement “The Baptist Faith and Message,” these words: “The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work. . . . The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion.” Only by consistently denying agents of government, including public school teachers, the right to make decisions about religion is our religious liberty secure.
‘Secular’ means ‘not based on religion’—it doesn’t mean ‘hostile to religion.’ As every public school teacher and every parent should know, the purpose of separation is to protect religious liberty.
Four basic ideas form the logical underpinnings of separation of church and state:
1. Not all American citizens hold the same opinions on religion and on important matters related to religion (like whether there is a God and, if so, what his nature is; or how or when or whether to worship God; or what God says to us about how to live). Everyone thinks he or she is right when it comes to religion. But not all citizens have the same beliefs on important religious matters.
2. Human judgment is imperfect. For Catholics, the pope is sometimes considered an exception, with regard to official matters of doctrine, but even Catholics, like all the rest of us, don’t believe that human voters and human legislators always know what God wants us to do. The Bible is quite clear on this point: “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Mt 7). Most other books held sacred by followers of different religions also make this clear. The question is not whether God’s judgment is perfect—only whether man’s is.
3. Religious truth cannot be determined by votes or by force. In America, neither a majority of citizens nor the government acting on the majority’s behalf can make religious decisions for individuals. Anyone who thinks he might disagree with this idea should ask himself: If a nationwide vote were taken this fall and 99 percent of the U.S. voters disagreed with you on a religious matter, would that change your mind? If 99 percent of the citizens wanted this country to adopt Catholicism or Methodism or Islam or atheism as the “right” religious point of view, would you accept their decision? Would that convince you? And it’s not just voting, it’s the law itself, the power of government, in question here. One need only consider the poor guy in Afghanistan who was almost convicted and put to death in 2006 for the “crime” of changing his religious beliefs.
4. Freedom, especially religious liberty, is worth having and protecting.
It would seem difficult if not impossible for any citizen who understands American political philosophy to disagree with any of these four ideas, and it is equally hard to understand how anyone who agrees with all four would oppose separation of church and state. Since the fight waged in Virginia in 1784–1785 by James Madison and others—a struggle that almost certainly produced the archetype for the religious liberty established by the First Amendment—it has been clear that letting majorities or governments decide religious matters risks destroying religious liberty.
As a leader in that local battle, Madison wrote Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, a petition signed by enough people all over Virginia to defeat “A Bill Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion.” That bill, supported by a group led by Patrick Henry, was one designed to do what some claim the First Amendment does: support Christianity without choosing among denominations. The logic and facts that caused those wanting a “multiple establishment” to lose in Virginia are the best reasons for rejecting those interpretations of the First Amendment.
What does this have to do with separation in public schools? Keep in mind that the Virginia bill was intended to support Christian teachers, and read a little of what Madison wrote:
Who does not see that the same authority that can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions may establish, with the same ease, any particular sect of Christians in exclusion of all other sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute threepence only of his property for the support of any one establishment may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?1
Madison understood that governments must stay out of matters related to religion, or liberty is at peril, and this is at least as true regarding public schools as in any other case.
Many people do oppose separation of religion and public education, of course, but most do so because they lack good understanding of the principle and its purpose. The most common misunderstanding is that separation is designed to protect religious minorities, especially atheists, from being offended. Offending people without good reason isn’t ever a good idea, but that isn’t the point of separation. Separation is necessary to protect everyone’s religious liberty.
Students can pray, including saying grace before lunch or praying that they’ll pass the algebra test (though studying longer might be more effective). Students can bring a Bible or other religious book to school and can read it in free time at school.
Another set of misunderstandings relates to which behaviors are actually prohibited by separation, especially in public schools. Students can pray, including saying grace before lunch or praying that they’ll pass the algebra test (though studying longer might be more effective).
Students can bring a Bible or other religious book to school and can read it in free time at school. Teachers can also pray if they wish. Rules that do apply, reasonably enough, include:
Students may not disrupt classes to pray or witness about their religious or antireligious beliefs.
Students may not proselytize others who don’t want the attention.
Teachers may not lead students in prayer or direct students to pray or not to pray.
Teachers and administrators may not use government property or school time to promote or oppose religion.
Restrictions on teachers and administrators are the most important ones, and they are in every case intended to ensure that no one is using the power of government to impose religious decisions on students.* Secular parents owe it to their children and to their society to support public schools, to plan thoughtfully for and support the moral education of their children, and to support separation of church and state—especially the separation of religion and education in public schools.
ED BUCKNER has been a professor, a school administrator, and executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism. He and his wife, Lois Bright, have edited several books and published Oliver Halle’s Taking the Harder Right (2006). He coauthored In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty (2012) with his son Michael. He has debated and spoken across the United States, often about the Treaty of Tripoli and other historical documents establishing the separation of church and state, and “This Is a Free Country, Not a Christian Nation.” He serves on several national advisory boards and committees.
Trooien, Chrystine. Christian Mythology for Kids. Mascot Books, 2016. Myths fired my imagination powerfully as a kid. Greek, Norse, Hopi, West African animist tales—I devoured them all. But the stories of the Judeo-Christian canon were an exception. The retellings were always so mired in kid-glove sacredness that all the rich drama was drained out of them. Christian Mythology for Kids finally restores these fantastic tales to their rightful place among the compelling stories of humanity. I want to be a kid again so I can discover Christian myth afresh. Language sometimes too advanced for the youngest kids, but perfect for middle and high school. Ages 10–18.
McKerracher, Be-Asia. Secular Parenting in a Religious World. CreateSpace, 2014. A well-written and thoughtful exploration of the many issues that arise for nonreligious parents in a religious culture.
Hamilton, Virginia. In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World. Harcourt Children’s Books, 1988. Probably the finest volume of comparative religion available for children, In the Beginning is just what is needed: a book that celebrates creation stories of all kinds as tales that are fascinating, imaginative—and mythic. The Judeo-Christian creation story is mixed among creation myths of Native American, Chinese, Tahitian, African, and Australian origin, among others. As no one story is denigrated or exalted, children can examine the concept of myth without indoctrination or objectionable overlays of punishment and reward. Heads up: The myths have (fortunately) not been scrubbed clean of antifemale or racist themes, which can and should generate even richer discussion. Exquisite watercolor illustrations by Barry Moser. Read aloud to children as young as early elementary age, or self-reading for grades four and up.
Bennett, Helen. Humanism—What’s That?: A Book for Curious Kids. Prometheus, 2005. While learning about various religions, don’t forget to learn a bit about disbelief as an authentic worldview. This book provides a good, accessible introduction to humanism for late-elementary-aged kids.
Armstrong, Karen. A Short History of Myth. Canongate, 2005. A lucid, accessible overview of mythic storytelling as a human response to existence. High school and up.
Jesus Christ Superstar. 1973. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice. Directed by Norman Jewison. When it comes to family movie night, skip the indoctrination-fests in favor of the rich, conflicted, and naturalistic retelling of the story of Jesus’s final days in Jesus Christ Superstar. If you can endure the jerky-hippie choreography, you’ll find a “passion” centered on a socially conscientious Judas who accuses Jesus of getting too enamored of himself and his supposed divinity and ignoring their mission to help the poor. No miracles, no resurrection, and a balanced presentation of Christ, who is at turns wise, selfish, loving, raging, frightened, heartless, and courageous (not to mention, according to my daughter at one point, “a cutie”). Make sure kids know the basic story outline before hitting “play”—and keep a finger near “pause” for the many fabulous questions that pop up during showtime. Ages eight and up.
Patheos (www.patheos.com). The world’s largest religion website and a great source for comparative religion. Home to 450 bloggers in a dozen different religious and nonreligious traditions, plus an unbeatable Religion Library. Best feature: a “Side-by-Side Comparison Lens” that allows you to compare elements of up to three traditions at once. (Full disclosure: I am on the editorial staff at Patheos.)
Beliefnet (www.beliefnet.com). Includes extensive information about all belief systems. Best feature: the Belief-O-Matic quiz. Asks 20 multiple-choice worldview questions, then spits out a list of belief systems and your percentage of overlap. I come up 100 percent secular humanist, 98 percent Unitarian Universalist, 84 percent Liberal Quaker, and more Jewish (38 percent) than Catholic (16 percent). Fun and fascinating for ages 14 and up.
Bible Gateway (www.biblegateway.com). There are times when quick access to the Bible is useful to a nonreligious person, whether self-educating, weighing or defending against religious arguments, or understanding a religious incident or event. Bible Gateway is the best searchable database, even equipped with all major versions of the Bible for comparisons. Well worth a peek and a bookmark.