Religion is an understandable response to being human. It’s not always a good response—sometimes it’s counterproductive, and often downright dangerous—but it is an understandable impulse. Our brains have evolved to seek patterns and find causes. This pattern- and cause-finding is a good thing, something that has served us well for millions of years. And when we don’t know the answer, we guess—also a good thing, as long as you stay open to whatever new and better answers might float by.
I loved “religion” growing up and spent countless hours reading about it—though it wasn’t the religion of my neighbors and relatives I was soaking up, but the religion of Ancient Greece and Rome, better known now as myths. I found the stories fascinating and recognized them as creative attempts to understand the world. They revealed something not just about being Greek or Roman or ancient, but about being human. The ancients marveled at the stars, just as I did, feared death, and wondered why spring came so reliably, year after year, why Africans and Europeans look different, how the world began, how spiders got so good at weaving, why we go to war and fall in love. They didn’t reveal much about the world, these myths, but they spoke volumes about humanity.
The similarities between cultural myths can be striking. A deity miraculously impregnates a mortal woman, who then gives birth to a great leader and deliverer of men. A father, on divine instructions, prepares to sacrifice his only son, and moments later, a ram appears. A little guy defeats a giant with one blow. A divine one miraculously turns a paltry plate of food into a banquet to feed the many. If you were born into Western Civilization after the fourth century, you’ll clearly recognize these as stories from the Jewish and Christian scriptures. If you were born before then, however, you’d have recognized them as Greek and Roman myths. They are both.
Cultural legends and myths are among our greatest inheritances from the past. They are real treasures, insights into the human condition, diminished not one whit by the fact that most were once thought true by the great majority of those who heard them. Persian, Greek, Roman, Sumerian, Norse, Celtic, and Egyptian mythologies passed into the category of recognized fiction, while the Abrahamic mythologies are still considered “religions” by many. They too will most likely pass into recognized fiction, whether ten or ten thousand years from now, almost certainly to be replaced by new religions, most of which will borrow mythic archetypes from their predecessors… and on turns the great karmic wheel.
In the Preface to this book, I said that I had “set religion aside.” Actually, that’s a bit like saying someone who rides a bike to work has set traffic aside. I’m still in it, still surrounded by it, and I always will be. Religion, for better or worse, is likely to be a permanent part of the human world. Our job as secular parents is not to work toward a religion-free world, but to help our kids learn to happily and peacefully co-exist with religion.
Co-existence does not mean silent acceptance of all consequences of religious belief. To the contrary: Silence and inaction in the face of dangerous immorality is itself immoral. We have to engage religious people and institutions in just the way we wish to be engaged ourselves, as co-participants in the world. We should reasonably but loudly protest the intolerance, ignorance, and fear that is born of religion while at the same time reasonably and loudly applauding religious people and institutions whenever charity, tolerance, empathy, honesty, and any of our other shared values are in evidence. An important part of this is recognizing that not all expressions of religion and not all religious people are alike. Be sure to help kids recognize that the loudest, most ignorant, and most intolerant religious adherents—whether raving radical Muslim clerics or raving radical Christian televangelists—do not represent all believers, nor even the majority. Though institutional religion itself is an unfortunate thing, the majority of individual believers are decent and thoughtful people with whom we have more in common than not. Saying that to yourself once in a while, and to your kids, can move the dialogue further forward than just about anything else.
The vision we should encourage in our children is not a world free of religion but one in which no idea or action is granted immunity from discussion and critique—including, of course, our own. That is the vision of living with religion to which this chapter is devoted.
Some of the authors in this chapter warn against the ill effects of religious evangelism, including the demonization of honest disbelief and the erosion of our religiously nonpartisan public schools (see Stu Tanquist’s “Choosing Your Battles” and Ed Buckner’s “Secular Schooling”). Others are optimistic about the prospects of cooperation, right down to the sharing of a home and marriage between a believer and a nonbeliever (Wernick, “Parenting in a Secular/Religious Marriage”). We also hear from the first of two Unitarian Universalist ministers in the book, the Reverend Dr. Roberta Nelson. Like all ministers in the fascinating UU denomination (which is majority nontheistic), Dr. Nelson has an enormous amount of personal experience navigating the amorphous middle between religious belief and doubt. While raising children without religious belief is perfectly acceptable, she writes, raising children who are religiously illiterate is not. Here as well is Margaret Downey’s moving description of encountering discrimination fueled by ignorance, first as a child in a mixed-race family, then as a mother helping her son withstand the shocking transition from an open and accepting Boy Scout troop to one that demeans, insults, and finally dismisses him for his beliefs.
The Additional Resources section includes several resources for religious literacy. One of the most enlightening and gentle ways to help children accept myth for its insights into humanity while keeping it distinct from fact is to steadily trace the patterns of the complete human mythic tapestry. Buy a good volume of classical myths for kids and buy a volume of bible stories for kids. To whet kids’ appetites and introduce the pantheon of gods, read a few of the basic myths—Cronos swallowing his children, Zeus defeating the Titans and dividing the tripartite world, Icarus, Phaeton, and so on. Then begin interweaving Christian and Jewish mythologies, matched if you can with their classical parallels. Read the story of Danae and Perseus, in which a god impregnates a woman, who gives birth to a great hero, then read the divine insemination of Mary and birth of Christ story. Read the story of the infant boy who is abandoned in the wilderness to spare him from death, only to be found by a servant of the king who brings him to the palace to be raised as the king’s child. It’s the story of Moses—and the story of Oedipus. No denigration of the Jewish or Christian stories is necessary; kids will simply see that myth is myth.
Ideally, kids can come to a view of our mythic inheritance, including Judeo-Christian myth, as a creative attempt to understand an incomprehensible world when there were few other means to do so. With the rise of science, our real understanding has dwarfed even our richest mythic creations for pure wonder and awe-inspiration, but the myths remain dazzling, mesmerizing tributes to our collective imagination, to be admired and enjoyed. A child whose exposure to the explosive wonder of science (see Chapter 8) grows in parallel to his or her engagement with myth is unlikely to allow them to mix. Our creative fictions and our marvelous facts are each too precious in their own domains for us to do without either. The more we bring children to a real understanding of religious belief, the greater chance they will have of coming to terms with it, of living with it—and of having believers learn at last to live with and understand them in return.
MY WIFE AND I MET in 1969 at ages 23 and 24. After being raised a Jewish believer, I had been an atheist for about seven years. Joan identified as an “exCatholic” and was quite negative about her Catholic upbringing and the Church. Though not an atheist, she supported my penchant for writing and collecting uplifting nontheistic essays. We would improvise little heartfelt rituals and statements. At our wedding five years later, the ceremony we wrote and read to our gathered family and friends was full of heart and free of theism.
About eight more years later, around the time our son came along, Joan began returning to Catholicism. Eventually she embraced it fully, following the example of her parents, whom she came to think of as heroes, having lovingly raised nine children even after her dad was stricken with severe polio.
The schism between our beliefs seriously concerned us both. We recognized many problems in having different worldviews. The threat to our marriage was first and foremost. As both of us believed children strongly benefit from a unified home with clearly agreed policies, the threat to good childraising seemed even more dire. As enthusiastic and idealistic new parents, we felt strongly motivated to make it work.
An atheist and a Catholic in a marriage? It’s surely a head-shaker. The “soul connection” we’d had now felt to me more like a triangle. As a sociologist mindful of statistics, I knew well that marriages of religiously mismatched partners are less likely to succeed and generally “not recommended.” I had a vague dread that we might have hard collisions of will and a fear that deepening commitments would lead her toward patterns I might find intolerable.1 Indeed, in our marriage ceremony we acknowledged the threat of growing apart. Distressed, I started seeing a counselor and did a lot of complaining. The counselor settled on the mantra, “What are you going to do?” After weighing the agonizing alternatives, I finally knew I wanted to keep our family together and make it work as well as possible. With that as the goal, there was a lot of hard work to do.
We went to counseling together, where we received training in principles and techniques of fair communication. On subjects as complicated and volatile as religion and childraising, this was a must. We worked on hearing each other out without interrupting, pausing to consider before answering, respectfully acknowledging each others’ statements, and especially—one of the best inventions ever—the “I” statement, which replaces accusatory “you” statements. “You’re always interrupting,” becomes “When you interrupt, I’m frustrated because I need you to hear me.”
Addressing our marriage, the first and best exercise was affirming our common ground. We shared a deep love for each other and more than twelve years of good history. We both wanted to live good lives, follow reasonable morals, be kind and thoughtful, and so on. We both wanted to be with and give a lot of love to our son, to see him grow up well in a two-parent household. This powerful motivation helped us stay the course through many painful compromises and disappointments.
We individually inventoried the points of conflict, and with our counselor’s help developed fair policies on each.
A useful tool was the palliative “agreeing to disagree,” that is, not considering disagreement a problem if it doesn’t affect a decision about behavior. Most religious disagreements don’t directly affect what we do, but concern which abstractions we take as fact or not. I found I could sometimes consider her “outrageous” beliefs something like her having interests, hobbies, or politics that I didn’t empathize with. The challenge is greater regarding the different behaviors called for by differing religious beliefs (such as praying or attending different services or meetings), but in general these can go on independently, leaving lots of opportunity for common ground.
We well understood the importance of not introducing or stressing disharmony when not necessary. We pledged to avoid picking on each other’s beliefs, especially around Will. We agreed that to maintain harmony, anything provocative such as art, symbols, or statements of religious belief would not be displayed in common areas of the house such as the living room, dining room, or our bedroom. No books or movies addressing religious themes or issues. Our two individual rooms were and still are exempted—and indeed, we each festooned our respective spaces with photos of the pope and Mother Theresa, and blunt atheist cartoons. On the rare occasions we initiated conversation on religion, we did it with care, maintaining standards of good decorum as though in public.
It turned out that in raising Will, we agreed on almost everything (other than the obvious). The Golden Rule is really the main rule of good-hearted, decent people, and we had no disagreement on that. We agreed on restricting our son’s exposure to violence and sex on TV, both at home and at friends’ houses, and found in time that he was free to go his own way regardless of our leanings.
We also understood he would in time develop his own religious orientation but naturally aimed for a fair balance in his exposure to our beliefs during his most formative years. It seemed reasonable for each of us to freely talk about religion from our own view, always in the context of an understood choice of beliefs and with guidelines on how to phrase our beliefs: No proselytizing—that is, attempting to convince. Any comment on a religious subject should include “I believe …” not just stating something as though it were true. Note the difference between “God loves you” and “I believe God loves you,” for example, or between “There is no god” and “I see no reason to believe in a god.” Joan would often take care to add, “You know, Dad feels differently about this.” For a beleaguered atheist in a family of fifteen Catholic in-laws and twenty-six Catholic nieces and nephews, Joan’s gift of acknowledgment gave me solace.
Our agreement extended to requesting that family members honor our compromise and not upset our hard-won balance by giving religious gifts or talking religious talk to our son.
The fact that my wife’s extended family was much larger and nearer than mine caused an unavoidable tilt in the number of Catholic-context occasions we attended as a family, whether weddings, holidays, or even premeal graces at family birthday gatherings. Also unavoidable was the fact that many of these graces were delivered by the impressive Archbishop Stafford, a close family friend.
Naturally, Joan wanted to bring Will to Catholic church at times. I couldn’t deny her taking him on Christmas and Easter and a few other Sundays a year. There was no obvious “atheist” church I could bring Will to, but I settled on the local Unitarian church with its nice building and kids’ program. I can’t say I felt very much like a Unitarian “bringing my son into Unitarianism,” but I did find comfort that the beliefs fit me pretty well, and a bit of community was offered. Early in the service, the kids would leave for Religious Education classrooms. Not a big hit for Will, which led me to bring him less often than I might have. Taking him regularly perhaps would have established a routine that he would have accepted more, but with the assumption of parity between Catholic churchgoing and my choice of “services,” I felt better about the “neither” choice.
Joan would typically attend Sunday church while Will and I stayed home. We would walk down to creek in the back of our property, my idea of communing with nature. We’d sit and talk, and I’d try to steer the discussion to the wonders of the universe, and the need for people to be good to each other. Sometimes we’d talk a little philosophy, with typical themes being “If there is no God, how did we get here?” and “If there were a good god, why would he let so many good young people get sick and die?” That’s about as much as I had to offer him as an alternative to church, sad to say.
I acutely regretted that there was no easy way to provide “a secular infrastructure” for my son. There was no building, no costumed officiant, no history with stories to take the imagination back in time. It bothered me to think that for all the large numbers of atheists nationwide, there was scarcely any networking going on at the local level. Nothing at all kid-oriented. Virtually nothing written for nontheist kids.2 The more I explored what was available in reading material and local organizations, the more I saw a pretty inert, introverted, mostly older population with little vibrancy and spark.
One December when Will was about 7 or 8, the local humanists had a holiday party and asked me to provide some music. I thought it would be nice to bring my family, as perhaps a counterbalance to the heavy-duty Christmas style of my in-laws. The party was dour and dreary, just not any sort of fun. My wife quietly went out to the car and wept. I received a scrawled note from my son requesting, “Please don’t take me to any more humanist parties.”
I haven’t—and haven’t been tempted either. Will passed out of his young formative years with just about no chance of exposure to a secular infrastructure.
In recent years, I have taken great consolation in the words of my friend Joe: “Kids learn from modeling. How you live is more important than what you say your beliefs are.” How true! At this point, Joan and I feel we did the best we could in raising Will, now 24. He is a responsible, considerate young adult with a mind of his own and a willingness to work toward good goals.
Looking back, I see that over time we gained confidence that we could maintain our individual identities, and that we could trust our working compromise in how to expose our son to our divergent beliefs.
I came to a strikingly positive, though almost preposterous realization: What we were doing amounted to a model for world peace! I figured if we could live together with relatively low friction on this very divisive issue, there was hope for the Israelis and Palestinians.
Sure, this statement sounds ludicrous on the surface. But in fact we had learned to use some primary tools of the still-new discipline of conflict resolution:
• Finding and affirming common ground and a common goal.
• Agreeing to disagree on matters that are opinion only.
• Agreeing not to provoke unnecessarily.
• Developing policies concerning behavior, using compromise, and mediated if necessary by a professional.
• Maintaining parity and evenhandedness as much as possible: If something applies to one, it also applies to the other.
• In time, learning to trust the stability of the resolution, building confidence in it and satisfaction in the hard-won accomplishment of peace.
The science of maintaining individual dignity and balance through understanding and disciplined compromise may well be the science that saves the world.
TODAY WE ARE FACED with the need to be religiously literate in order to grasp the true significance of the religious dimensions that underlie the news, TV, films, and books and to better understand our co-workers, neighbors, and friends.
Unless our children are isolated and do not ask questions, they are bound to hear “stories” that are confusing, troubling, or raise additional issues. They will have questions: Who is Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed? What is the Bible; why do so many people think it’s so important? Why did Jesus die? What is Passover, or Ramadan? Why doesn’t Rachel celebrate Christmas, Halloween, birthdays? What is a savior? Where is heaven? Where will I go when I die? What’s this about some people going to hell? Who is this God guy? Why do people say we have to believe in him?
These are some of the questions and issues that I have helped parents and young people deal with as a Unitarian Universalist minister. Included among these were many secular parents who came to the churches I served because they found it difficult going it alone. They wanted answers and ways of dealing with complex religious issues. They wanted an education for their children and soon realized they needed it for themselves as well.
Choosing not to affiliate or join a religious community does not shield a parent from these questions—you will still need to be able to answer some or all of them. If you do not provide the answers, someone else will—and you may be distressed by the answers they provide.
I grew up in a Boston neighborhood where there were Catholic, Protestant, unchurched and a few Jewish families. Most of the neighborhood and the school I went to were white, with a small number of blacks. There were differences, but I do not remember hostility or anger toward one another because of our different views or religion. There was almost no division by class or race.
By the time my children were in school the number of unchurched families had grown substantially; there were still Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish families, but there were also children whose families were Muslim and Baha’i. There were more black families and a growing number of Hispanic families, and there was more diversity among the Protestant traditions. There were tensions in the school when differing views were expressed, often between homogenous groups dependent on race and class.
New Hampshire Avenue starts in Washington, DC, and ends a few miles later in Montgomery County, Maryland. In her recent book, A New Religious America, Diana Eck describes the religious pluralism evident along or just off this road: a Cambodian Buddhist Temple with its sloping tiled roof, a new copper-domed mosque of the Muslim Community Center between an oniondomed Ukrainian Orthodox Church and a Disciples of Christ Church, a new brick Gujarati Hindu Temple, a Jain Temple, and Hispanic Pentecostal, Vietnamese Catholic, and Korean evangelical congregations along with more traditional English-speaking mainline churches.
Our children are growing up and learning in this environment. As adults, it is our responsibility to adapt to the changes, engage with the issues, and begin to learn along with them about the rich histories, cultures, and religions of the people who are making our neighborhoods, schools, and wider communities a collage of race, color, and creed. Regardless of whether we call ourselves religious, we are our children’s first and primary religious educators.
In the UU church I grew up in, I learned about the dignity and worth of all people, the importance of asking questions and searching for answers, ethical decision making, and trust. I also learned that not all questions had concrete answers and that answers could change with time as I gained experience and knowledge.
We were a churched family, but my parents were extremely influential in educating us by example and deed about valuing and appreciating differences, as well as guiding us to realize that not all the decisions and ideas we saw and heard around us needed to be equally valued. There were conversations about the issues of the day especially around religion, politics, and race. We were encouraged to express our views and to listen to the views of others. In reality, my parents were my first religious educators. The church was their community of support for shared ideas and values.
As parents, we are our children’s guides and mentors and role models. It is an awesome responsibility. Today we are living in an age of increasing diversity in religion, language, sexuality, gender roles, class, and politics. All of these will raise issues that are polarizing and confusing, and at times frightening to our children and youth, maybe even to ourselves. Therefore we need to have an understanding of this new worldview and its impact on our lives. We cannot take these issues lightly, but we must not be overwhelmed by them. I believe that most parents can be excellent mentors if they take some time to honor their own yearnings, wonderings, and reflections, and then—most importantly—to share them with their children.
We need to ask ourselves how we can counteract the negative images and ideas that are written and portrayed of people who are not like “us.”
Like so many things, values are “caught as well as taught.” Our values cannot be esoteric or removed; they need to be lived in the everyday and undergirded by our principles. Family life is where those connections are made, where stories are told and remembered, and where a wider perspective is embraced. And just as they will indeed hear answers to religious questions, one way or another, children will indeed learn values, one way or another—if not from us, then inevitably from someone else. We have a choice to assume that responsibility or to simply allow it to happen, with what could be serious consequences.
What most of us hope for are happy, healthy, and ethical children. The world we currently live in makes it almost impossible to have the regular, dependable qualities we long for. However, we need to strive to create an environment that honors who we are. Some of the things that will help us are times to be and do together, time unstructured and flexible, time to be companions on the journey.
This journey will inevitably invite questions—questions that are hard to answer, conflicting ideas, shared feelings and emotion, painful consequences, risk, and compassion.
To be committed to the values that permeate our way of being together, we must learn to listen—really listen, to be flexible and open, and to share what we think and why. We also need to model taking a stand on what we believe and living with the consequences.
We live in a world of ambiguity and incongruity. We strive to be ethical and know that our paths are often strewn with pebbles, rocks, and an occasional boulder. Our ability to maneuver the rocky paths will help young people live with their own questions, issues, and concerns.
Our role is to help our young people to build an ethical framework, enabling them to become responsible adults who are capable of being responsible decision makers, understanding of and connected to those around them—including those significantly different from themselves. In a recent New York Times article, Thomas Friedman wrote of his daughter’s high school graduation from what is considered to be a neighborhood school. “I sat there for two hours listening to each one’s name pronounced. I became both fascinated and touched by the stunning diversity—race, religion, ethnicity. … As I mingled I found myself surrounded by families in which no one spoke English.”
Ten Ways to Promote Religious Literacy in Your Family
1. Find books about world religions in public or university libraries—many are available for each developmental level—or explore Beliefnet.com (see Additional Resources at end of chapter).
2. Watch and discuss television series about religions—on the air or on DVD.
3. Take a course in comparative religion at a local community college.
4. Accept an invitation from a neighbor or co-worker to join in a celebration of a special holiday or occasion. This can only happen if you have developed an ongoing relationship (for instance, being invited to a Seder at Passover).
5. Visit a variety of local congregations.
6. Visit and discuss special religious art exhibits.
7. A teen might choose to write a paper on an issue that has religious implications.
8. Share your own interest and ideas with your children about an issue, book, film, etc.
9. The UU Church of the Larger Fellowship () provides excellent materials for people who do not have access to a congregation.
10. UU ministers and religious educators are available to help.
It is in these awakenings that one of our central challenges as parents becomes clear: To raise children in the midst of this “stunning diversity,” we must educate for empathy, for a deep understanding of our shared humanity. And because so large a portion of our fellow human beings articulate their own meaning, purpose, and values through their religions, it is essential that our children know as much as possible about those religions: their beliefs and practices, their literatures and traditions, and their meaning to their practitioners. To be fully engaged members of the human society, they must be religiously literate.
An important part of this literacy is the recognition that humans have a “spiritual” dimension, broadly defined—a yearning for meaning and purpose, a connection to the rest of humanity and life on Earth, a sense of existential wonder and mystery. Whether expressed theistically or secularly, it is a part of being fully human. In Secrets of Strong Families, John DeFrain and Nick Stennett reported that the primary expression of families’ spiritual dimension is not in formal ritual but in everyday life. These families literally practice what they preach. They believe that the challenges and trials of life are bearable and surmountable because of their spiritual resources. They feel they need the spiritual dimension to give lasting meaning to their lives.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel writes, “The place to look for spiritual sustenance is in everyday existence. Even the most simple deeds can be full of wonder.” This reflection on wonder allows us to put spirituality in a different context and frees us to acknowledge it in our lives, regardless of our orientation to religious questions. My husband and I led a parent group where we asked the participants to write on the word spirituality. Some thought of it as being “fully connected—with nature, other people, and things.” Others called it “living a life in a fully conscientious, caring way,” “recognizing that we’re part of a life force that encompasses all,” or “the mysterious, the ‘awe-full,’ anything that transcends the individual’s consciousness”—or simply “experiencing wonder.” Thus broadly defined, secular parents can embrace the idea of spirituality and understand religion as one attempt to speak to this human longing.
It is my hope that we will make a covenant with our children to be their companions and guides on a magnificent journey, in which they know the meaning of transcendence, a process of moving over and going beyond real or imagined boundaries—and recognize the myriad ways in which the rest of humanity has done the same.
BEN FRANKLIN WISELY SAID, “In this world, nothing is certain but death, taxes, and religious zealots.” OK, so I added that last part. Were he here today, however, I suspect that Ben would add it himself.
There are many tolerant and respectful religious believers in this world, of course, and to each his or her own. By religious zealots, I mean those who feel a divinely mandated duty to assimilate everyone into their own world view. When their tactics involve imposing their faith on others—especially by telling children that they must believe in a god in order to be good—I get a bit testy. I don’t make their children eat my cooking. It only seems fair that my child shouldn’t have to swallow their wafers.
Aggressive evangelical movements like the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) specifically target children aged 5 to 12, working to secure “decisions to accept Christ as Lord and Savior.” They know that they need to hook children at a young age, before they are old enough to think for themselves.
But it isn’t just groups like CEF seeking religious allegiance from our children. There is also a subtler, often wellmeaning desire by mainstream religionists to share something that is meaningful to them or to save children from some imagined divine retribution. Well-meaning or not, such evangelism of children nonetheless seeks to cut off the process of independent thought before it begins. It’s this aspect of religious indoctrination that is most unacceptable—the idea that doubt is bad, that unquestioning acceptance is good, that there is only one possible right answer, and that someone else has already figured out what that answer is.
Our kids can and must be helped to fend off these unacceptable intrusions. As a secular parent, I feel an obligation to help my child develop effective reasoning skills so she can form her own conclusions in all areas of life. I don’t want her to blindly adopt my views. My hope is that her conclusions will logically follow from a careful process of critical thinking.
Of course if that were the case, this book would not be necessary.
It’s necessary to distinguish between religious believers and religious evangelists. An evangelist is defined as a Christian who actively attempts to convert others to his or her religion. And even in a secular home (unless you raise your kids in a protective bubble), conflict with religious evangelists is inevitable. Such evangelists include teachers who impose religious views on young captive audiences, outside groups who obtain privileged access to our public schools, or our own secular government legislating that children recite a god pledge in school. The attempts are relentless and unlikely to diminish anytime soon. I for one can’t wait until we are “left behind”!
While some problems cannot be ignored, the challenge lies in determining where to draw the line. Some issues are too trivial to address, and others are simply insurmountable. Some would require a high investment of energy for small gain, while others entail genuine risk. The challenge is determining how to pick your battles.
As a single secular parent living full-time with my 16-year-old daughter, I feel extremely fortunate. We have a wonderful relationship and truly enjoy each other’s company. We also appreciate living in a home that is completely free from religion—except for the occasional door-to-door belief peddler.
Our home life wasn’t always this way. At the impassioned request of my now ex-wife, our daughter attended Catholic school from preschool through seventh grade. At the time I was an apathetic nonbeliever. Knowing how important religious education was to my wife and her family, I agreed to pay for several sets of snazzy blue plaid uniforms and years of private school tuition.
Our daughter initially thrived in religious school, though she grew tired of the inherent rigidity and required conformity. By the seventh grade, she was a self-professed nonbeliever, though she achieved the high score in her religion class that year. That was the year she decided enough was enough. Much to her mother’s chagrin, she insisted on leaving her classmates for public school. She has never looked back—at least not fondly.
The change created new challenges in our home. Religious teaching in her Catholic school was to be expected, of course, but the promotion of religion in our public school system has been hard for both of us to swallow.
We have two explicit “rules” posted in our home: (1) Always question authority; (2) when in doubt, see rule 1.
These two simple rules—really one, of course—are a source of pride for my daughter and an ongoing wonder for her friends. And yes, these rules apply to my own authority as well. This may seem counterproductive to many parents, especially to those who struggle with disciplinary issues. Quite frankly, it has not been a problem. To the contrary, this simple concept has been a wonderful and positive influence in our home.
I should note that our rules encourage her to question my comments, decisions, and rationale, to receive justifications beyond “because I said so.” They do not authorize anarchy. Inviting questioning is not the same as a complete abdication of responsibility. As her parent and legal guardian, I obviously need to put my foot down from time to time. The point is that my daughter is encouraged to openly and freely challenge my views, without fear of consequence for the challenge. If I am a good parent, my parenting should stand on its own merit, both in terms of her perception and the kind of person she becomes. Conversely, if I blinded myself to criticism, how would I know if I’m a good parent or not? That sounds like a recipe for self-delusion.
Our house rules are a recognition of the error in reasoning called the argument from authority. People commit this fallacy when they blindly accept statements made by people in a position of authority. It is important to remember that regardless of expertise, credential, or experience, none of us is infallible. We can all be wrong and so should not be placed above honest question or challenge.
We live in a society that values authority. Political leaders cry treason when U.S. citizens oppose war and its related atrocities. Religious authorities expect us to sit silently and still while they tell us what to believe. In Minnesota, as in many other states, school authorities lead our children in reciting a weekly pledge to god and country—as if we don’t have enough unthinking patriotism on this planet. Children who opt out risk being ostracized by teachers and classmates. This potential soon became apparent at my daughter’s school.
While attending eighth-grade parent–teacher conferences, we were informed soberly that our daughter was not standing for the Pledge of Allegiance. I was unaware that she had made this choice and glowed with pride. Having children stand and recite a rote pledge to their country is something I would not expect from a free democratic nation—especially when they are further compelled to declare that nation to be “under God.” If our country deserves the respect of its citizens, that respect should be earned and freely and individually expressed. If we need to bolster love of country through semi-coerced oaths, something ain’t right. I love my dog because she makes me happy. Imagine making up for a lousy dog by reciting a dog pledge: “I pledge allegiance, to my dog…”
I asked the teacher why he thought it was important to share this information about our daughter. He began squirming in his seat, then said at last that it really wasn’t important—he just thought we would want to know. I retorted that it must be important to him since he felt compelled to bring it up. Again, the same awkward response. He clearly understood that our daughter was within her legal right to abstain, and it was now painfully apparent that I was unsympathetic to his concern. Recognizing that this issue was now a nonissue, I moved on to talk about things that really mattered, like our daughter’s academic progress and learning needs.
Things really got dicey the following year when my daughter brought home “values assessments” from her health class—a survey intended to measure a student’s developing moral and ethical sense, personal assets, and social stress. The survey consisted of a number of statements; each time the student agreed with the statement, she garnered additional points toward a high “values” score. In a cumulative assessment of this type, every “no” counts against the final total—which in the case of this survey would indicate a student whose values need some attention. Perhaps you can see why some of the statements caught my eye:
• I attend weekly religious services.
• I reach out to develop my spirituality.
• I have taught Sunday School class or have otherwise taken an active part in my church.
• I will take my children to church services regularly.
• I believe in a Supreme Being.
• I believe that it is important to support a church by giving time and/or money.
• Each day I try to set aside some time for worship.
• It is important to me that grace be said before meals.
• I read the Bible or other religious writings regularly.
• I believe in the power of prayer and meditation.
The assessments were clearly skewed to show that nonreligious students have higher stress, lower values, and worse assets. That was enough to raise my hackles. My first step was important—I spoke with my daughter to see if she had concerns about me pursuing the matter. It quickly became apparent that she too found the statements insulting and wanted to see the matter addressed. I considered scheduling a meeting with the teacher—something I recommend whenever possible before escalating—but this was not the first time I had been made aware of the influence of this particular teacher’s religious bias in the classroom. At an orientation earlier in the year, in a presentation reeking of religious language and influence, he had made clear his intention to focus on abstinence to the near total exclusion of birth control education. Given his tendency toward religious proselytizing in the classroom, I was concerned that he might initially recant, then resume his underhanded tactics once my daughter moved on. To prevent this, I turned to the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) for help.
As a life member of FFRF, I called co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor to see what she might suggest. She graciously offered to write a letter on our behalf—and boy did she. Annie Laurie wrote a powerful letter to the principal and copied the superintendent. Though initially resistant, the principal eventually replied that the issue had been resolved. Ninth graders at Burnsville High can no longer substitute health class for church.
My daughter was thrilled each time a copied letter arrived from FFRF and proud to have had the courage to do the right thing. She still managed to pull an “A” from the class, but then the teacher didn’t have much choice. Her test scores were stellar.
Adherents of competing religions are reasonably close in thought, especially different Christian denominations, so it doesn’t seem at first glance that intermarriage should present too many problems. But after seventeen years of marriage to a devout Catholic, I now understand why Catholics seek Catholics, Mormons seek Mormons, and jocks seek cheerleaders. While liberal believers seem capable of navigating a mixed marriage, the deck is clearly stacked against disciples of moderate and especially fundamentalist sects. They generally don’t mix with nonbelievers either. In our marriage, I tried to be flexible, and we both compromised. However, on matters relating to religion and our daughter, opportunities offered for compromise were few and far between.
As noted earlier, I entered our marriage as an agnostic who was indifferent to religious belief. I have since come to appreciate the power that religious emotions hold over the human mind. Because religion was so important to my wife, I supported her desire to require that our daughter attend church until she was an adult. We went to church as a family when she was young, but I found that my skeptical mind could only take so much ritual and repetition. I soon learned to savor my Sunday mornings on the deck with a good freethought book and a tasty cigar, a “ritual” I still enjoy.
Though I tried not to intentionally influence our daughter’s views on religion, she couldn’t help noticing that Dad no longer attended church. Church had always been a source of conflict in our home. Our daughter rabidly objected to obediently subjecting her rear end to another hour on a hard wooden bench. Her objections gradually became more forceful, to the point where her behavior ruined the otherwise desirable experience for her mother.
Weighing the Options
When considering whether to challenge religious intrusion in our lives, there are many factors to consider:
• Is your child concerned about the consequences?
• Could your child be negatively impacted by the challenge? Might he or she be ostracized at school by teachers or students?
• If successful, how significant would the change be? Would it positively benefit other families and children?
• Could you and your family be negatively impacted?
• What are your chances of success?
• How much time and resources are required?
• Do you risk damaging existing relationships?
• Is this likely to be a short-term or long-term fix?
• Is legal action necessary?
• Are there other parents or organizations that could assist you?
• Are you bored? Do you really need the spice this will add to your life?
• Would it feel rewarding both to you and your child if you succeeded?
I was quietly sympathetic to both sides of the conflict and strived to remain neutral, which is easier said than done. Things eventually snowballed when our daughter started questioning religious doctrine and later announced that she too was a nonbeliever.
I was eventually fired as a husband and found myself living full-time with our daughter. I kept the house, the kid, and the dog. What a sweet deal. I quickly purged the house of crucifixes, ditched the artificial Christmas tree, and sent Santa packing. My daughter loves the freedom and autonomy she now enjoys in our secular home. She was recently accepted as a full-time student at a major university, which she will attend in lieu of her junior and senior high school years. The religious zealots can be found there as well—but she has the reasoning skills to find her own way now, thanks in part to the battles we chose to fight so she had a chance to develop them.
The battle for your child’s mind is real. Many religious enthusiasts—some wellmeaning, some certainly not—are working tirelessly to derail our children’s ability to think for themselves about the big questions and to substitute the principles of one particular religious view for the plurality and freedom of belief inherent in our nation’s founding principles. Their tactics are sophisticated and sometimes bold, sometimes subtle. I have tremendous respect for freethinkers and liberal believers alike who make the effort to oppose assaults on our precious liberties. It is my hope that readers of this book will do their part to protect our freedoms. As with any form of activism, one person can only do so much. As a parent, you have many demands on your time, including attending to the needs of your children—though in some cases, standing up for their right to think for themselves is an important way of attending to their needs. It’s important to consider the most appropriate course of action. For minor infractions, try to start small and give individuals the opportunity to make corrections. Consider going directly to a classroom teacher, for example, rather than escalating the issue to the principal or superintendent—though in some situations, as noted, you’ll want to start at the top.
In some cases, a personal meeting is likely to be better received and therefore may be more effective than an impersonal email or letter, though the latter offers a written record of exactly what was said. If possible, solicit feedback from others before initiating contact. Bounce ideas off of trusted friends, family, or colleagues. And finally, try to maintain a positive, nonconfrontational tone. Remember that the ultimate goal is to resolve the issue in the interests of your child and other children, not to make the veins in the various adult foreheads stand out. You may find that some folks are willing to make changes if you make the effort to help them understand your concern.
Secular parenting can be a wonderful experience, even for those living in intolerant communities. We have the opportunity and responsibility to help our children develop effective reasoning skills, a trait sorely needed on our troubled planet. It is rewarding to know that our children will be empowered to think for themselves as they navigate this credulous world. I find it especially rewarding to know that the respect I feel from my daughter is sincere and not a response to an authoritarian parenting style. I feel comfort knowing that if I were a lousy parent, she’d be the first to let me know. Better to find out now when there is time to make adjustments.
Finally, remember the two rules on authority and consider establishing them as guidelines in your home. They apply equally well to adults.
THERE ARE TIMES WHEN being a good parent is easy and fun—times when everything falls into place, struggles are few and far between, and the way forward is level and well-marked.
But despite our best efforts and intentions, there are also times when the path is not so clear, times when we are forced to make difficult choices as our values collide with the world around us. These collisions are hardest when our children are in the middle. It’s often tempting to withdraw and easy to convince ourselves that it is in the best interests of the kids to do so. But when our most deeply felt principles are involved—principles like kindness, courage, honesty, and diversity—withdrawal can easily teach children that principles are only worth standing up for when the going is easy.
I absorbed this lesson in the way that is both hardest and best—by learning it alongside my child. But the evolution of my principles began long before I was a parent.
I was 15 years old when, after a long process of reading, thinking and questioning, I came to identify myself as an Atheist. My first marriage, to a Catholic man, dissolved when we disagreed on such questions as the baptism of our infant daughter. I married again three years later, this time to someone who did not attend church or believe in God. He was kind, honest, reliable, and a terrific father. I was glad to have another child with Tom as my loving husband. Matthew was born when my daughter Holly was 9 years old.
Tom and I had no family pressure to baptize Matt. Tom’s parents were not religious, and they never went to church. My mother and many others from my side of the family had given up their religious beliefs by then as well.
Unlike religious parents, we did not require our children to memorize passages from Atheist literature or attend a weekly Atheist meeting. There were no early morning wake-up calls to attend a Freethought sermon. We did not parade our children around like puppets, mimicking what we believed.
Our Sunday mornings began with the smell of a big breakfast. Our traditional Sunday “worship” took place in our kitchen. We worshiped each other and thanked the adult income-makers for providing us all with good food, a roof over our heads, and all the comforts we never took for granted. Sunday breakfast was a time for planning the upcoming week (we all brought our calendars to the table), discussing the events of the past week, distributing allowances, enjoying good food, and a lot of joy in being a family.
Before I knew it, my son was 12, and I was picking him up outside the public school where his Boy Scouts of America (BSA) meeting was held. But something was horribly wrong. The minute he saw me, he burst into tears. I immediately hugged him and asked what had happened to upset him so much.
Choking back the tears, he said, “We have to find a religion, Mom, and we have to pick one before the next troop meeting.”
We had moved to Bloomington, Illinois, from Sussex, New Jersey, a few months earlier, and the first thing we did was locate another Boy Scout troop for our son. The New Jersey troop had been so nice, so accepting of me as an Atheist, and so willing to accommodate our belief system. We naïvely anticipated the same open-arms welcome from an Illinois BSA troop. How wrong we were!
Apparently, the new Illinois troop leader looked through my son’s BSA handbook the evening of Matt’s first meeting. He noticed a page where the word God had been crossed off and replaced with the word “good.”
Many other pages that had been approved by the New Jersey troop leader were now considered invalid. How dare we replace the word “God” with “science,” “humanity,” and “nature”!
My son had never heard that word before and honestly answered that he didn’t think we were. On further questioning, the troop leader discovered that we did not go to church and did not read the Bible in our home. He demanded that Matt tell us that if he did not have a religion in two weeks, he was not welcome to return.
The traumatic event led to much discussion in our household. We talked about the importance of honesty and dignity. We discussed other religious beliefs my son knew about from his friends and even looked up a few unfamiliar religions that BSA troop leader said were “acceptable.” After all the discussions and research, we turned to our son and asked him, “Well, Matt—do you want to pick a religion now, or do you want wait until you are older?”
He said that he did not believe in any God, and he was thinking that maybe BSA troop just made a mistake. “The New Jersey people loved us, right?”
Yes, I assured him, the New Jersey troop loved us, and I, too, thought that perhaps the Illinois troop was simply misguided. I called the troop leader a few days before the date of the next scheduled meeting to discuss the matter. His first question was, “Well—have you selected a religion?” There was no discussion, no attempt at compromise, no kindness, and no respect for our family’s chosen life stance. When I answered that we would not be forced into selecting a religion just to fit in, he hung up on me.
Before I could investigate the problem much further, we moved again, this time to West Chester, Pennsylvania. Our next-door neighbor greeted us on the first day of our arrival dressed in a BSA troop leader uniform, along with his son, dressed in his Cub Scout uniform.
My kind and loving neighbor suggested that we join BSA right away so that Matthew could make new friends and join him and his son in BSA activities. “Great,” I said. “Where do we sign up?”
My neighbor told me to simply come to the next meeting. But what if Matt was traumatized again? I could not stand the heartbreak. I decided to submit an application but determine ahead of time if the Pennsylvania troop was more like the New Jersey troop (open and loving) or the Illinois troop (intolerant and mean-spirited). The application itself contained the word “God.” We replaced the word with “good” and sent the application to the West Chester BSA office with our membership fee.
Within a few days, the application and check were returned to us along with an official statement from BSA national headquarters: “No boy can grow into the best kind of citizen,” it said, “without recognizing an obligation to God.”
I was shocked and insulted. Had our time with BSA in New Jersey meant nothing? Apparently so. Then I got angry.
Reading the words that so demeaned us as an Atheist family and questioned our patriotism and our ethical values of honesty, kindness, and courage, I was reminded of what I had witnessed growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. My mother was an immigrant from Puerto Rico. Her first daughter, my half-sister Martha, was gentle, beautiful, and dark-skinned—the sweetest little girl anyone would ever want to meet. I saw strangers sneer at her. They did not know her at all. Why would they show such contempt toward her? I wondered.
“Martha can’t go in there with you,” my mother cautioned as I held Martha’s hand to enter the bathroom at our local public park.
“Why?” I asked.
“Just because. Now let go of her hand,” she insisted.
I saw the hurt and pain in Martha’s face as she let go of my hand. From that point on, the message of segregation dawned on me, slowly but traumatically. I began to notice that Martha could not drink from the same water fountain, sit at the front of the bus with me, or swim in the public pool when I took swimming lessons.
When we went to school, Martha was chased home by the rock-throwing children of bigots who screamed racial epithets at her. She ran home almost every day, and I ran with her. One day I heard my mother tell a neighbor that Martha was the housekeeper’s child and that she was just taking care of her for a while. Our house helper was an African American woman whom we all loved—but I knew it wasn’t true. The lie my mother told was so horrible that I decided right then and there to always be honest—even if it made life a little more difficult. Now, forty years later, my son was being prejudged, stereotyped, and insulted, his potential as a good citizen discounted, not because of the color of his skin but just because of what he was thinking. I could not fight injustices as a child, but I could do so now. I filed a discrimination complaint against the Boy Scouts of America with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.
The year was 1991. It took nine years for the Commission to investigate our complaint.
The wait was horrendous, and our family suffered greatly when the details of the case were publicly disclosed. My husband’s job was threatened, I received death threats, and we lived in constant fear that someone would reveal who our son was and where he went to school. BSA disclosed my son’s full name to a Philadelphia Inquirer journalist—one week prior to his high school graduation. This mean-spirited tactic was used purposely to prevent me from seeking any further action against BSA. The article was unexpected, and so was my son’s reaction. I went to his room to tell him how sorry I was that he had been exposed as the protestor against BSA’s bigoted membership policy. I thought for sure that he would be upset and angry that on his last week of school he had to face teachers and fellow students who were surely going to turn on him.
Instead, my son hugged me tightly and said, “It’s OK, Mom. I’m proud of what we’ve done and I’m proud of you.”
I cried tears that had built up over the years. His hug and his words made the trauma worth it to me, and I began to cry out of pure love and appreciation for my son’s understanding and devotion. I wanted so much to protect him, but I also wanted to show that through hard work, conviction, and determination, a social injustice can be corrected. I wanted my activism to be a role model for my children. I wanted them to remember their mother as someone who would not accept second class citizenship, negative stereotyping, and blatant prejudice—against anyone!
We eventually lost our case. In 2001, BSA declared itself a private organization, no longer servicing the public at large, which gave it the right to discriminate against whomever it chose. Today, it is gays and Atheists. Tomorrow it could be Jews, Mexicans, or handicapped children.
BSA has already begun the process of disassociating itself from the Unitarian Church because Unitarians are “too tolerant” of gays and Atheists. Many troops across the nation have been disbanded by BSA national office because they protested against the national membership policy that excludes gays and Atheists from the program. It is sad to see an organization we once loved, respected, and supported turn into just another private hate group. I can only hope that future generations will see the errors of BSA’s current leadership and reclaim the organization’s mission and purpose to bring back the true meaning of BSA tenets.
When my son wrote his college entrance essay, I knew that I had accomplished my goals. He wrote that his mother was courageous and principled and that he hoped to also tear down negative stereotyping when he entered Roanoke College in Virginia, a school with a Lutheran affiliation. He was accepted and did well. After receiving a degree in physics, Matt took a job in the United States Air Force, where he is entrusted with top-secret military clearance.
And this is the boy that the Boy Scouts of America said could “…never grow into the best kind of citizen…”
I urge all parents, secular and otherwise, to stand proud as role models and to advocate honesty when dealing with difficult problems. Never be a hypocrite in language or action. Core values are those your children will come to see as the true morality. And with them, and your guidance, your children will respect you, and you will respect yourself.
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?
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 home school 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 bettereducated 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 own 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.
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 different 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 church/state objections 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. And many state constitutions explicitly protect religious liberty. 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, making it most likely that public education would soon be reserved only for those with expensive problems and for those whose parents are too lazy or ignorant to move them. To those who say a common, standard curriculum, with free access to all, could be required as 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 own children in some ways to be educated apart from others with irrational religious beliefs, it seems likely that even our own 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. 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 the 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 anti-religious 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 being pushed aside by a different concept of God.
The Southern Baptist Conference 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 “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.
There are four basic ideas that together form the basic logical underpinnings of separation of church and state:
1. Not all U.S. citizens hold the same opinions on religion and on important matters related to religion (like whether there is a God and, if so, what god’s 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 7:1). 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 the United States, neither a majority of citizens nor the government acting on the majority’s behalf can make religious decisions for individuals. Anyone who might disagree with this idea should consider this question: If a nationwide vote were taken this fall and 99 percent of 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 U.S. 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 “A Memorial and Remonstrance,” 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 which 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?
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.
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 the following:
• Students may not disrupt classes to pray or witness about their religious or anti-religious 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.3
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.
1. See Tanquist, “Choosing Your Battles” for another perspective on the mixed marriage.
3. Much more detailed information on the exact rules is available from Americans United for Separation of Church and State (www.au.org or 202-466-3234).
• 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 anti-female 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 4 and up.
• Reed, Christine, with Patricia Hoertdoerfer. Exploring World Religions with Junior High Youth. Unitarian Universalist Association, 1997. Explores the development and features of different belief systems. Ages 11–15.
• 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.
• Brockman, Chris. What About Gods? Prometheus, 1979. A classic, a bit dated, and at times overly pat in its answers, this book nonetheless gets into the reasons so many people believe in gods—an important part of building empathy and understanding. Also addresses the fact that knowledge in recent centuries has made the god hypothesis ever less tenable.
• Armstrong, Karen. A History of God. Knopf, 1994. A brilliant exposition of the 4,000-year history of monotheism by one of the most lucid writers and thinkers of our time. Armstrong notes in the Introduction that after years as a nun, she “left the religious life, and, once freed of the burden of failure and inadequacy, I felt my belief in God slip quietly away.” She retained her interest in religion, eventually returning to the idea of God as a pragmatic, self-created construct. Start with this one, then move on to The Battle for God, The Spiral Staircase, and the rest. Adults.
• Also recommended, by Karen Armstrong: A Short History of Myth. Canongate, 2005.
• DVD: Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice. Directed by Norman Jewison. The Ten Commandments terrified and evangelized millions with an Angel of Death, rivers of blood, and an admittedly impressive (for 1956) parting of the Red Sea, while anti-Semitism and blood (is there a theme here?) got new life in Mel Gibson’s Passion. So 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 spastic-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, many fabulous questions that pop up during showtime. Works for children ages 6–18.
• Religious Tolerance (
A comprehensive and evenhanded clearinghouse of information about belief systems. Includes definitions, histories, belief tenets, and practices of every significant belief system—even many insignificant ones—plus over 3,000 essays on a wide range of topics. Great resource for school projects that include a religious component (e.g., reports on conflict in the Mideast, stem cell research, or the abortion debate). Defines religious tolerance as “extending religious freedom to people of all religious traditions, even though you may disagree with their beliefs and/or practices.” Notes that tolerance “does not require you to accept all religions as equally true” and offers as one of its mottos, “When people deviate from reality, others often get hurt.” Ages 12 and up.
• Beliefnet (
Home page has an “aura” of touchy-feely/spirituality/karma/aura/soul-healing/what’s-your-sign—not my particular ball of cheese—but the site includes extensive information about all belief systems. BEST FEATURE: the Belief-O-Matic quiz. Asks twenty multiple choice worldview questions, then spits out a list of belief systems and your percentage of overlap. I for one come up 100% Secular Humanist, 98% Unitarian Universalist, 84% Liberal Quaker, and more Jewish (38%) than Catholic (16%). Fun and fascinating for age 14 and up.
• Bible Gateway (
There are many times when quick access to the bible is useful to a secularist, whether self-education, 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.