Education Opinion

The Great Secular-Humanism Debate Reveals a Truth About Public Schooling

By Stephen Arons — October 16, 1985 10 min read
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And both sides are happy to go on attacking each other for political gain and righteous self-satisfaction, while obscuring the fundamental dilemma of American schooling: that an institution designed to facilitate the intimate and global communication between students and culture undermines freedom of thought and belief with a structure that rations school choice on the basis of race and personal wealth.

Unfortunately, in responding to this attack, civil libertarians, political moderates, and members of the public-school establishment have wrapped themselves in the Constitution while concealing their own efforts to retain power over school policy and ideology. By overstating their case and adamantly refusing to recognize the legitimacy of fundamentalist disaffection with public schooling, the moderates have added to the hysteria and obscured the basic truth about the structure of public schooling--a truth that lies at the heart of the campaign against secular humanism.

To clear away the smoke screen of charges and countercharges surrounding secular humanism, it is necessary to know something of the genesis and evolution of the term.

“Secular humanism” had its legal birth in a footnote to a 1961 Supreme Court decision declaring that no state could impose a religious test for holding public office. After a decade of latency, the term began its potent political life with the rise of the theocratic right in the early 1970’s. Since then, the development and use of secular humanism as a political slogan--one capable of arousing fear and anger, and of justifying virulent attacks on the public schools--has far outstripped the term’s use as a legal concept.

In 1976, as the Heritage Foundation was proclaiming to local parent groups that secular humanism in the schools was “an issue whose time has come,” the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill amending the National Defense Education Act to prohibit the use of federal funds for any educational program “involving any aspect of the religion of secular humanism.” The Senate declined to go along. But the pamphleteers and intellectuals of the right began to generate millions of words aimed at showing that all the ills of American schools and society were caused by secular humanism.

After nearly a decade as a rallying cry of fundamentalists alarmed about youth culture and opposed to the ideology taught in public schools, secular humanism appeared again in legislation designed to prohibit the use of federal money for its teaching. Such a prohibition--contained in an amendment providing aid to magnet schools as a means of desegregation--was signed into law as part of the Education for Economic Security Act of 1984. On May 22 of this year, Education Department regulations implementing the act went into effect. Under these rules, local education agencies are required to define secular humanism before purging it from federally funded desegregation efforts.

The latest twist in secular humanism’s legislative history occurred late last month when the Senate passed a bill that would end the ban enacted last year. The bill, a measure reauthorizing the National Science Foundation, dropped the language on secular humanism in an amendment extending the magnet-school program. The amendment was not included in the House version, and the issue will now go to a House-Senate conference committee.

If the attempt to end the ban does not succeed, the political and legal paths of the amorphous term are about to cross. The New Right is preparing to use the 1984 law to sue or otherwise confront school districts that allegedly teach the devil’s doctrine. At the same time, some teachers, writers, parents, and civil libertarians have joined forces to convince the courts that the ban on using federal funds to teach secular humanism is unconstitutional. And even if the 1984 ban is repealed, the New Right can continue its fight on constitutional grounds.

The burdensome, lengthy, and repetitive litigation that is about to begin over the teaching of secular humanism will be based on its judicial, and not its political, history. That judicial history stretches over nearly a quarter-century, but includes just 20 federal cases. Originally, the Supreme Court used secular humanism as an example of a nontheistic religion that was as deserving of First Amendment protection as theistic religions. In 1970 and 1971, the fearsome phrase found its way into conscientious-objector cases in which nontheists opposed to all wars were exempted from military duty.

Since then, federal cases involving secular humanism have fallen into two rough categories: those that are part of a fundamentalist agenda for political action and those that are part of the federal courts’ attempt to arrive at a working definition of religion.

The political-action cases have included: an attack on the nontheistic nature of a school’s curriculum (the “irreligion of secular humanism”); an attempt to invalidate the expenditure of federal funds to provide birth-control advice; an attack on a Smithsonian Institution exhibit dealing with evolution; a defense of tuition tax credits; a claim that compulsory schooling applied to Christian fundamentalists amounts to an unconstitutional establishment of secular humanism; a defense of a Bible course that included prayer; and an attempt to ban a book dealing with the human experience of racism.

In not a single one of these cases could the courts be persuaded to find that secular humanism is a godless religion that has been established in public schools and other government institutions. For example, in Grove v. Mead School District #354, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against the plaintiffs, who had sought to bar the use in high-school classes of The Learning Tree, a book that supposedly “directly parallels and promotes the ideology of secular humanism.” The Supreme Court recently declined to review the case.

It is in the other, less direct cases--those dealing with the definition of religion--that it becomes easier to see that the right-wing position is based on a fundamental truth about public schooling. This truth has been so pushed, pulled, twisted, and stretched to meet the law’s own misconception of liberty in the schools that it is no longer recognizable.

An elementary principle of First Amendment law is that the courts may not define religion on the basis of the validity of the theology in question, because to do so would violate the freedom of belief protected by the amendment. But the inability to distinguish between a genuine religion and a religious pretext would mean that everything from tax-exempt status to conscientious objection to military service would be subject to abuse, while religious indoctrination or aid might creep into public institutions without being recognized.

As a result, the Supreme Court has turned to functional criteria to define religion. Thus, a set of beliefs--even if not based on a supernatural god--can be considered a religion if the beliefs meet certain criteria, such as the place they occupy in a person’s life, the sincerity and intensity with which the beliefs are held, and the existence of an organization, ritual, and belief structure serving the same purposes as traditional religions.

From the conscientious-objector cases to the banning of transcendental meditation as a public-school practice, the legal definition of religion began to expand. As the courts picked their way through a thicket of definition and doctrine, legal commentators renewed their discussion of the definition of religion in an atmosphere of apparent public religious revival. Two important judicial practices emerged and unwittingly gave shape to the right-wing crusade against secular humanism in the schools.

First, in protecting the free exercise of religion, the courts expanded the definition of religion to include nontheistic and arguably secular beliefs so that any errors of definition would not result in restricting religious freedom. Second, however, the courts made it clear they would not protect against the establishment of or government aid to particular beliefs in schools unless those beliefs could somehow be categorized as religious in the more traditional sense.

The pivotal case in this area did not even mention secular humanism, yet it displayed the apparent contradiction in the Court’s position on whether nontheistic beliefs fall under the First Amendment’s religion clauses. In 1972, in Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Court granted the Amish an exemption from compulsory schooling beyond the 8th grade on the grounds that the values taught in public (and private) schools violated the religious beliefs of the Amish and thereby undermined their religious community. But the beliefs at issue--e.g., competitiveness and the exaltation of intellect over wisdom--could as easily have been found offensive and destructive by atheists, nontheists, or any “secular” American family. The Court, however, closed this door to those who object to secular inculcation of belief in schools. It stated that its ruling could not apply to those whose dissent was based on mere philosophical, moral, political, or nontraditional religious grounds.

The Court’s refusal to protect sincerely held beliefs from being undermined by government-sponsored instruction unless those beliefs could be described as “religious” was further aggravated by school cases involving freedom of expression. In the very few cases involving attempts at indoctrinating students with secular values, the Court stated that the legitimate role of public schools includes the inculcation of traditional community values, whether social, moral, or political.

Lawyers in the employ of the right wing must have recognized the simple pattern in these complex cases. The decisions lead to a single conclusion: In order to get the federal courts to protect dissenting families from the imposition of secular, nontheistic beliefs by majority-controlled public schools, the dissenters would have to describe the secular beliefs imposed in schools as part of an established religion. In other words, the ideological content of a public school had to be described as the theology of the religion of secular humanism. The cases seemed to leave no other avenue open for arguing that the schools are unconstitutionally teaching values deeply offensive to fundamentalists.

It is difficult to see how anyone familiar with the secular-humanism cases could take seriously the idea that the imposition of belief that takes place in the schools is part of the “religion” of secular humanism practiced by fewer than 3,000 adherents in the United States. But it is equally hard to see how anyone familiar with our majority-controlled, bureaucratically administered compulsory schooling--which permits choice only to the wealthy--could deny that public schools undermine the freedom of belief not only of fundamentalists but also of millions of other American families.

Perhaps it was inevitable that those fundamentalists who feel themselves most put upon by the beliefs and values of majority schooling should seize on the phrase “secular humanism” as a means of protecting themselves and assailing their political opponents. Perhaps, given the long-term dominance of materialist and utilitarian values, ethical numbness, and scientific rationalism in the schools, it was inevitable too that supporters of public schools would try to cling to their power to inculcate their beliefs by attacking the anti-secular-humanism campaign as a violation of freedom of thought.

The truth lies somewhere between these two inevitabilities. The two sides are fighting with each other to control the belief inculcation and conscience formation that are inevitably part of any school. Neither side has it in its self-interest to support the real government neutrality toward belief that would result from a system based on equal choice of schools regardless of race or wealth. Neither side is willing to confront the law’s complicity in continuing the myth that once religious establishment is removed from schooling there are no further impositions of belief of any significance in the schools.

And both sides are happy to go on attacking each other for political gain and righteous self-satisfaction, while obscuring the fundamental dilemma of American schooling: that an institution designed to facilitate the intimate and global communication between students and culture undermines freedom of thought and belief with a structure that rations school choice on the basis of race and personal wealth.

A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 1985 edition of Education Week as The Great Secular-Humanism DebateReveals a Truth About Public Schooling


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