Education Commentary

What Should Public Schools Say About Religion?

By Thomas W. Goodhue — April 23, 1986 6 min read

Americans have learned to tread lightly where religious convictions are concerned. No one should want to return to the bad old days when school textbooks routinely denounced all faiths except Protestant Christianity. I, for one, would hate to return to the mandatory, meaningless prayers we recited in kindergarten, or the baccalaureate worship required of my agnostic friend in high school. Removing public schools from the business of promoting particular religious beliefs has certainly been good for both education and our society.

What disturbs many Americans, though, is that in seeking to avoid promoting religion, many schools seem to be avoiding all mention of religion--even though the same Supreme Court that banned mandatory school prayer upheld the constitutionality of teaching about religion (Abingdon v. Schempp, 1963). Some may fear that such instruction would prove a Trojan horse for introducing proselytization, but this is not what its advocates seek. A 1982 Roper Survey found, for example, that a majority of theologians--Catholic, liberal Protestant, and evangelical--favored requiring the public schools to teach about religion, but opposed schools’ setting aside time for silent prayer.

How, then, can public schools respect the beliefs of all students without acting as if differing beliefs do not exist-or do not matter?

To begin with, we can take a fresh look at how schools observe holidays, most of which are rooted in religious traditions, from the Druids’ Halloween to the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving. Public schools, like our commercial culture, have tended to secularize these holidays. The babe in the manger and the Incarnation are downplayed in favor of Santa Claus and gift-buying. Hanukkah’s miraculous tradition is passed over; if mentioned at all, the holiday is described in terms of presents and candles. Most schools never celebrate festivals such as Purim or Kwanza that do not fit into the melting-pot dogma.

We water down holidays, I suppose, because we do not know what to say about them and wish not to take sides in theological controversy. Yet in seeking to avoid giving offense, schools outrage those who see bunnies and fat men in red suits upstaging sacred traditions. These offended folks can easily be recruited for campaigns against public schools and nonsectarian education.

Instead of watering down religious holidays, and without either endorsing any doctrine or masking the real religious differences among students, teachers could say, “Some of you may be celebrating Yom Kippur next week; let’s learn a little about this holiday,” or “Let’s study the historical significance of Ramadan.” They could tell the stories of Hanukkah and St. Patrick without imposing their own belief or disbelief on the stories. Those who seek religious toleration should recognize that we need to know each other’s stories.

Wouldn’t teachers need guidance about how to approach such material? Of course they would, just as they need guidance about how to handle the Vietnam War or the civil-rights movement. If they are forced to learn more about St. Patrick or Ramadan, so much the better.

Second, in every subject, teachers should be honest about the importance of religion in people’s lives. We simply cannot understand Harriet Tubman or the abolitionists without knowing that their faith provided their motivation. Was not Christianity also invoked by slave-owners, though? Of course it was. Tell students both facts, and they will see that people often disagree about divine leading.

When teachers, curriculum writers, and publishers minimize or omit the role of religion in history, music, art, literature, science, and other fields, they give students the false impression that religious influence has been slight. One of the ironies of the public schools’ current difficulties in teaching evolution is that they themselves contributed to public perceptions that science and faith are irreconcilable. How many science texts, for example, mention that many of the great English naturalists--and first evolutionists--were also Anglican clergymen? To insist, as the Xerox Corporation does of writers for its Sweet Dreams novels, which are distributed in public schools, that there be “no profanity, no religious references, and no explicit sex” gives teen-agers the impression that others do not share their thoughts, doubts, or questions about matters of faith. Certainly the sort of book banning sought by the religious right wing is bad, but is not censorship of religious references also harmful?

Third, schools must take care not to present scientific theory as proven fact. Theory, as every scientist knows, is always tentative, and is meant to be modified or rejected in the face of new evidence. It is simply bad science teaching to present any theory as if established for all time. During 1985, for example, the once-dominant theory that life first emerged in the sea was supplanted by evidence that clay could have more easily sustained the earliest forms of life. Genesis does not belong in biology class, but neither does a description of evolution as immutable truth. Evolutionary theory rests on many facts and is accepted by most scientists as the best way of explaining the evidence currently available, but it is still only theory. And, it must be remembered, evolutionary theory emerged in the context of natural science and its bias against any supernatural explanations.

So, instead of saying ''The earth is 4 billion years old,” it would be better to say: “Many scientists believe the earth is about 4 billion years old.” Rather than declare--as I have myself, I must admit--that the ancestors of whales were land mammals that returned to the sea, with legs evolving into fins, teachers again should say: “Many scientists believe ... " This is not only less offensive to some religious people, but also more accurate, because there is not any clear proof that legs evolved into flippers. The fossil record simply does not include such “transitional forms” between land and sea mammals (or between most other species, for that matter). Indeed, Colin Paterson and other ''transformed cladists” are calling into question how evolutionists have interpreted the fossils that do exist.

Fourth, schools should be careful to teach science, rather than preach scientism. Students should learn to use the scientific method, but they should be aware that it is not the only--or necessarily the best--means of expanding human knowledge. If all teaching is based on reductionistic materialism (the doctrine that matter is the only reality and that things can be understood by reducing them to their material components) and material determinism (the doctrine that events always have material causes), they promote belief in one faith--materialism--over all belief systems that find a spiritual dimension to reality.

Good scientists know that their methods restrict their study to phenomena that are repeatable, measurable, and independently observable. They acknowledge that there could be a reality beyond the reach of scientific knowing. Science teachers need similar humility in approaching unscientific thought. Those who pray for healing or visit a shaman may be in touch with a reality unknown to medical science. Who are we to say that they are wrong?

If public schools would approach faith with humility, less fear, and genuine neutrality, they might both present material more accurately and help rebuild support for public education.