THE TABLE

A setting to debate the issues of the day.

Should we teach religion in public schools? And if so, how?

To Teach or Not to Teach?

By | January 7, 2014

The question of whether religion should be taught in public schools has been debated at length. In theory, since the Supreme Court explained that we are to “teach not preach” and “educate not indoctrinate,” the analysis could be simple. The only question would be, “What is the underlying purpose behind the content?” If, for example, a comparative religion course teaches students that the Christian religion says Jesus Christ is the only way to God the Father, then its appropriateness within socialized education would be based on its underlying purpose. Is it being taught simply for the students to learn what is believed within the Christian religion, or is it being taught for the truth of the matter asserted, that Jesus Christ is the only way to God the Father? The former would be an acceptable form of education, while the latter would be an unacceptable form of indoctrination. If this were the only inquiry, then the debate about religious instruction would be simple.

Unfortunately, practical implementation does not present us with a bright-line demarcation as one would assume from the above hypothetical. Two real life examples may help to highlight the problem. From 2007 through 2010, I served as a member of the Texas State Board of Education. While we were dealing with the adoption of essential knowledge and skills in biology for Texas students, the issue of macro-evolution became hotly debated. When the board presented the academically unbiased position that all sides of any issue could be discussed within the classroom, the Darwinian evolutionists were livid. They demanded that nothing but their explanation for the origin of life be considered. This issue encompassed numerous sub-issues. For example, when the board held that students were to study the complexity of the cell, the Darwinian evolutionists were equally upset. Some went so far as to argue that the board was including this information in an effort to simply confuse students as to the sufficiency of macro-evolution to explain the origin of life. They argued that this was synonymous with injecting religion into the classroom. So, if having students learn the complexity of the cell is tantamount to religious instruction, how is any subject matter beyond the scope of religious instruction? This exposes the real problem. There already was an approved religion of secularism being taught in the classroom.

A second example occurred when we were when dealing with the area of social studies, and particularly American History. I made a motion that I thought would be benign and universally accepted. I dared to suggest that students fully understand the Declaration of Independence, including its substantive terms, such as unalienable rights, self-evident truths and the laws of nature and nature’s god. I received numerous complaints, even from history professors at the college level, demanding that I “stop injecting my religious ideologies into our children’s textbooks.” I responded that they should thoroughly review our Declaration, as those were not my terms, but rather those of Jefferson and our Founding Fathers. The point is not the lack of understanding of our Declaration, although that appears to be tragically lacking. The point is that if having students study the Declaration of Independence at more than just a cursory level constitutes religious instruction, as apparently so does studying the complexity of the cell, it becomes apparent that in application, no subject matter is beyond being classified as objectionable religious material.

What then is really taking place at the heart of this battle? The problem with the question of teaching, or not teaching, religion is that most assume that what is meant by religion is simply a list of traditions and rituals attributed to certain belief systems. However, as the aforementioned examples reveal, such superficial iconic practices are not the actual concern, but rather the underlying and all-pervasive belief systems themselves. The marginalization of what constitutes religion is dependent upon the acceptance of a secular realm. Such an acceptance or belief is itself arguably religious dogma. Such a teaching is in fact hostile to other religions. The Christian religion, for example, plainly teaches that there is no secular realm because there is absolutely no area where God is not. To coerce society-at-large to accept the homogenized belief that sizeable parts of their life are independent of their faith, when their faith teaches them otherwise, is to supplant the individual’s faith with a state-sanctioned one. However, once religion’s definition is expanded to encompass foundational worldviews, then we understand why the dilemma in classroom instruction is much more extensive. From this vantage point we can see that the question is no longer, “Should religion be taught?” but “Is it possible for religion to be avoided?”

Additionally, most assume that there exists some magical storehouse of objectively acceptable material for inclusion within textbooks and classroom instruction. No such mythical storehouse exists. Every miniscule piece of information students are taught, even down to the selection of what will and what will not be included, is decided somewhere by some group of people, and most of these decision-makers are completely unaccountable to the populace. People complain when these subjective decisions of educational content are made by elected officials, but it is clearly not any safer to place all this power in the hands of those insulated from evaluation. People presuppose that safety comes from majority opinion, but before we are too quick to adopt this methodology we should remember that it was once the predominantly held belief by the scientific community that the world was flat. Additionally, majority opinion in certain lights may sound appealing, but when made compulsory, it becomes short for viewpoint discrimination.

In conclusion, viewpoint discrimination is not merely a peripheral issue relating to elective courses of study. Unfortunately, it is a systemic and all-invasive issue. The question is not “Should religion be studied?” but rather, “Which religion or worldview should be the overarching filter through which all education flows?” The next and imperative question we must consider is: In light of our First Amendment, is it appropriate that compulsory, tax-supported, governmental schools be the source of this discrimination?

Cynthia N. Dunbar is an advisor to the provost of Liberty University.

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