Is Nothing Sacred?

August 01, 1995 7 min read

Now consider a public school that requires students to study science, social science, and secular ways of making sense of the world for 12 years but requires no course work in religion (though religious beliefs are occasionally mentioned in history textbooks, which are, of course, written by social scientists). Neo-Darwinian accounts of evolution are taught in biology classes, Adam and Eve have been replaced in the cast of characters by various prehistoric anthropoids, and students learn either that morality is culture-relative or that it is essentially a matter of self-actualization. Needless to say, the school’s teachers are not required to have done any course work in religion--and few have.

Would students in such a school be indoctrinated? Would it make any difference, in answering this question, if parents supplemented their children’s schooling by taking them to church or synagogue?

Students are indoctrinated, I suggest, when they are socialized to accept, uncritically, some culturally contested way of understanding the world rather than another. They are educated when they have some significant understanding of the alternatives and sufficient distance from them so that they can think critically about them.

But if this is what indoctrination is, then public schools come close--perilously close--to indoctrinating students by socializing them to accept, uncritically, secular over religious ways of making sense of the world.

After all, public schools teach students to see nature as purposeless and devoid of sacred qualities. They take no note of the claim basic to all Western religion, that God’s hand shapes the structure of history. Psychology and home economics replace the immortal soul with the temporal self. Economics classes teach students that they are self-interested utility maximizers. Students learn to value the goods of this world, not those of the world to come. Indeed, they can learn whatever they need to know about whatever they study without learning anything about religion. Education relegates religion to irrelevance.

Religious alternatives--conservative and liberal--to the conventional secular wisdom of public schooling go unspoken and unconsidered.

It is sometimes argued that because religion is a matter of faith it is not a fit matter for education. Science and social science, by contrast, are grounded in reason--and hence are the stuff of good education.

But, of course, this too-simple distinction begs all the important questions. If some religious folk believe because of blind faith, most do not. Arguably, the mainstream claim of all religious traditions is that religion is reasonable. Not in a narrowly scientific sense, of course, but then why let science define reason? Similarly, many theologians argue that science is itself grounded in faith of a kind. And then there are, nowadays, many secular postmodernists who argue that science must dispense with its claims to Truth and admit that it simply provides yet another set of meta-narratives, no better or worse (in any “objective’’ sense) than others. That is, there are many ways of defining reason and faith. Typically, educators assume one highly controversial set of definitions--those provided by modern science and social science--and then convey them uncritically to students.

Now, it may strike the reader as implausible that students can be indoctrinated to accept science--for surely science depends on the critical use of evidence and public reason to test its claims. But no matter how scrupulous science and social science are about evidence and rationality within their governing frameworks, if the philosophical assumptions that define those frameworks are not themselves held up for critical scrutiny and compared with alternatives (such as those drawn from religions), then they are accepted as a matter of faith--and students who are taught to accept them uncritically will have been indoctrinated.

The astronomer Arthur Eddington once told a parable about a fisherman who had for many years used a net with a three-inch mesh. After never catching any fish shorter than three inches he concluded that there were no such fish in the ocean.

Needless to say, the kind of conceptual net we use determines what we catch. Public schools provide students with a conceptual net constructed almost entirely from scientific method. And when we teach students to think in entirely secular, scientific ways about history, nature, psychology, morality, and society, it should come as no surprise that after 12 years they conclude that there are no religious fish to be found in the sea. Or if there are, one must accept their presence as a matter of faith.

Consider miracles, for example.

Scientific method requires that knowledge-claims be (scientifically) testable and that experiments be repli-cable, the governing assumption being that reality is lawlike. Not surprisingly, this approach rules miracles out of the picture a priori--for the evidence for miracles is often a matter of religious experience (rather than the kind of “hard’’ data measurable by scientific instruments) and it is not likely to be replicable. While we might put nature on the rack to make her divulge her secrets, as Francis Bacon once recommended, we cannot force God to replicate miracles.

But for Western religions, reality has the structure of a story, and there are singular events--miracles, if you will--by means of which God moves the story along. Miracles fit into a different pattern of intelligibility than that provided by modern science. Indeed, what may be irrational to believe given scientific method and universal laws of nature might be rational to believe from within a religious worldview given the unfolding story and the religious power of the experience.

Public education does not indoctrinate students by attacking religion or promoting a militant secularism. Instead, it removes the awareness of religious possibilities; it makes religious accounts of the world seem implausible, even inconceivable. It fails to provide students with the intellectual and emotional resources that would enable them to take religion seriously.

It is not enough to teach students something of the role of religion in history. Students must learn something about contemporary religious ways of thinking about virtually all aspects of life. They should learn something of religious ways of making sense of history, religious accounts of justice and the economic world, religious views of nature (including creationism and theistic accounts of evolution), and religious interpretations of morality and human nature.

Indeed, religion is sufficiently important and complicated to require that students take at least one religion course taught by teachers certified in religious studies. (The claim, frequently made, that there is not now time in the school day to do this is revealing: The fact that we typically require 12 years of mathematics for college-bound students and no religion demonstrates just how parochially secular we are.)

I want to be clear that I make this argument not because I’m a religious fundamentalist (a possibility that may have occurred to some readers). Far from it.

My argument is both liberal and secular. Indeed, political liberals should be particularly concerned to include religion in the discussion, for it is part of our agenda to give voice to disenfranchised subcultures, and no subculture (well, hardly any subculture) is more thoroughly disenfranchised, more without voice, in contemporary public education than are religious subcultures.

This is also the constitutionally liberal view. As the liberal majority on the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the establishment clause over the last 50 years, it requires public schools to be neutral between religion and nonreligion. (This is, in large part, what the Court means by a “wall of separation.’') But public schools are now anything but neutral. They uncritically promote secular over religious ways of making sense of the world. It is not open to schools to promote or practice religion, of course; but they must treat it neutrally, taking it seriously--just as they do the secular alternatives.

Finally, my argument is a secular argument. I make no claims for including religion in the curriculum because some variation on it gives us the truth. Maybe, maybe not. Religion should be included because it is important and because not including it makes public education a matter of indoctrination--secular indoctrination.

Any good secular liberal should be in favor of requiring students to study a good deal more religion than they now do.

Warren Nord teaches philosophy and directs the Program in the Humanities and Human Values at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma, published by the University of North Carolina Press.

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Is Nothing Sacred?