When I heard the question, “Should we teach religion in public schools?” it made me cringe. Why? The United States is currently in the unenviable position of being near the bottom of the list of industrialized nations when it comes to teaching evolution in our public schools. As a consequence, at least half of adults outright embrace creationism and reject evolution. The rejection of reason, this religious revival we’re still in the midst of, is imperiling our international standing. How can a scientifically illiterate nation compete in global market? What does it mean for our future when half our population rejects fact and accepts fable?
It is in this context that we must consider whether typical public school teachers—particularly teachers at the lower level—can truly be trusted to be objective about “teaching” religion. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is continually contacted by students and parents who encounter teachers and principals who view their captive audience of students as a ripe mission field for recruitment. We handle more than 2,000 complaints a year by members of the public concerned about violations of the separation between church and state, and the vast majority of these concern violations in our public schools. We have to closely monitor our public schools to comply with more than 60 years of clear precedent barring prayer and devotional instruction in our public schools. We’ve recently had to complain in more than one state about kindergarteners being forced to pray by their teachers!
This year marks the 65th anniversary of the landmark McCollum v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, barring religious instruction in our public schools. Jim McCollum was the only child in his elementary school not participating in religious classes. He was persecuted, and so was his family, for pointing out that it’s up to parents to instruct their children in religious beliefs. It’s also the 50th anniversary of Abington v. Schempp, barring bible-reading and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. The plaintiffs in both these cases became pariahs for speaking out against religion in their public schools. Unfortunately, even today, students who stick up for separation of church and state still often become outcasts, as demonstrated by the mistreatment of high school student Jessica Ahlquist last year. After she won a federal ruling in Rhode Island removing a prayer banner from her public high school, Jessica at one point had to be accompanied to school by police escort. She retreated to private tutoring after repeated and vicious threats of violence and retribution. Religion in our public schools creates divisiveness, and awareness of religious differences often builds walls between students.
In 1890, Catholic parents in my state of Wisconsin brought suit against the practice of devotional reading of the (Protestant) bible in the public schools. In concurring with a ruling that declared such bible reading unconstitutional, a Wisconsin State Supreme Court justice wisely noted:
There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights, malignant opposition, persecution, and war, and all evil in the state, as religion. Let it once enter our civil affairs, our government would soon be destroyed. Let it once enter our common schools, they would be destroyed.
Devotional instruction and religious exercises, of course, are very different from academic instruction—learning “about” religion. But the very way this question is posed, using the singular “religion,” rather than plural “religions,” reveals one of the innate dangers of such instruction. Supreme Court litigant Vashti McCollum often responded, in response to the question about teaching religion in the schools: If we teach religion, whose religion? It’s nearly always the dominant religion that is “taught,” with token references to other religions thrown in.
In the best of all possible public school environments, it would be ideal, of course, to include, at least at the high school level, a class on comparative religion. Most social studies and geography classes already study the religious affiliations of an area, and some of their identifying tenets. U.S. students should not grow up in ignorance of the world religions. But by the same token, nor should they grow up in ignorance of the world’s dead religions, or the fact that the nonreligious and nonadherents are among the largest segments of the world, when it comes to religious identification. Today in the United States fully one in five adults and one in three young persons identifies as “nonreligious.” If we’re going to teach religion in the public schools, we must “teach atheism” as well. Are Americans prepared to do that in a fair and neutral manner? Will teachers point out that the nonreligious segment is the second largest “denomination,” after Catholics in the United States? Ultimately, the object of any public school class, no matter the subject, ought to be to teach critical thinking skills. Are religionists willing to agree that children should be taught in public schools to question religion?
Perhaps it is religionists who should be wary of “teaching religion” in public schools. Atheists and freethinkers are often much better educated about religion and the bible than typical believers. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public life released a survey several years ago finding that when it comes to religious knowledge, atheists and agnostics score higher than any believers, who were often woefully ignorant of the tenets of their own religions. Members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation often tell us they came to their rejection of religion after reading the bible. A dispassionate and academic study of religions’ claims, as opposed to devotional memorization and parroting of the more palatable passages of the bible, almost inevitably will lead any thinker to realize: There are thousands of religions in the world, all claiming to be the One Truth Faith. They can’t all be right … Maybe, they’re all wrong!