Monday, January 26, 2009

Right, wrong and religion

Patrick McIlheran continues the discussion teaching morality in public schools without religion. Can it be done? Ought it to be done?

My own view is that this is an area where government should tread lightly but it cannot refuse to tread. Or, perhaps more accurately, has chosen to tread.

You can, under current conditions, teach simple ideas of right and wrong without getting into religion. But that is not where the conversation is likely to end. If schools start to teach about more difficult questions or how one hues to moral standards under difficult circumstances, then two things start to happen. First, schools will inevitably begin to approach those questions in ways that are inconsistent with some of the religious beliefs of its pupils. I think that this cannot be avoided but it certainly belies the idea that we can achieve some type of neutrality between religion and irreligion. We can't so some other principle must define and limit what the state can and cannot do.

In a slightly different way, the absence of any religious perspective - where it is, under the faith traditions of students - clearly pertinent itself reflects a type of judgement on - and socialization into - what is and is not permitted in public discourse. If one thinks that secularism is preferred or is some type of neutral default position, this is not problematic. But if you, as do most of us and even the Court itself, reject the former proposition and believe, as I have argued that the latter is not possible, it is very problematic.

It's one thing to say that religious formation is the province of the churches and families. I believe that is so. But when government, through the public schools and otherwise, involves itself with areas with which that formation is inextricably intertwined, there is no neutral ground.

This doesn't mean that I believe that government ought to teach religion. It means that I don't think separation or nonendorsement or nonadvancement are helpful concepts. We ought to focus on the extent to which government recognition of religion constitutes a traditional establishment, is truly coercive or significantly burdens the ability of dissenters to be full members of civil society. Christmas decorations, prayers at graduation, moments of silence or allowing students to present religious themed work - all fertile grounds for litigation - doesn't do that. Being oblivious to the religious insult associated with secular messages doesn't do that.

The second thing that happens is we risk losing the foundation of these moral principles that we more or less agree on today. Propositions about the equality of all and the dignity of the person are not self evident and have not always been widely believed. They triumphed in the west as a result of a Christianity seen through the lens of the Enlightenment (This is not to say that they are not recognized in other religious traditions; properly understood.). Today we assume these values and argue about what they mean. We do not defend them. This does not mean that they cannot be lost.


Anonymous said...

It's amazing how public education was set up so people could read the Bible to be good citizens involved in their government. Now, we cannot discern between moral principals and religion.

Religion is a system of worship that was never taught in school whereas mutually agreed upon morals had been and should be taught. Afterall, our legal system is founded on them.

Anonymous said...

Heh, I do not think the first American public school teacher, The Reverend Ralph Wheelock, would agree with you Anon. Even today I would suggest using the term 'public schools'.

Anonymous said...


Please review the textbook "New England Primer" used for over 200 years and tell me the purpose of public education.

Anonymous said...

Anon you canny wordsmith, you must surpass me, because I do not know where you are going with this. I merely pointed out that I disagree with your second paragraph where you say "Religion is a system of worship that was never taught in school.."

I read a small bit about the "New England Primer" and it does not contradict that observation. In fact, the Primer specifically taught religious morals:

"The 90-page work contained religious maxims, woodcuts, alphabetical assistants, acronyms, catechisms, and moral lessons. Many of its selections were drawn from the King James Bible and others were original. It embodied the dominant Puritan attitude and worldview of the day. Among the topics discussed are respect to parental figures, sin, and salvation."

To me it sounds like religion was indeed taught for hundreds of years in 'public education'.

Even if your use of 'school' in your second paragraph meant 'public education' the Primer contradicts you.
What am I missing?

Anonymous said...

Tuerqas -

I think you are missing there are many religions with different systems of worship. For example, some systems promote baby baptism while some think you must be old enough to believe in order to be baptized.

There are many differences between religions and our government did not give preference to one other the other to prevent a state religion. However, our government did indeed promote the moral principals that all religions agreed. For example, thou shall not kill, steel, the Good Samaritan and the Golden Rule to name a few.

The education system encouraged reading and learning the Bible to know its stories and principals so you could understand our system of government and its laws, to be good citizens.

The goverment separated itself from religious systems. Moreover, the New Testament promotes religion as taking care of widows and childless children. Do you want goverment to stop from doing these things?

Anonymous said...

"Moreover, the New Testament promotes religion as taking care of widows and childless children. Do you want goverment to stop from doing these things?"

Excuse me, it should read fatherless children.

Anonymous said...

Anon, First as tangents seem to count, Catholic Schools teach specific doctrines or 'systems of worship'. In addition, the first public education was in a Puritan community where they did teach a specific system. It was not adapted as a more general primer not stressing specific Puritan values and rites until after the Revolution.

If you were saying in the first place that 'public education' used to be able to teach lessons from the bible while not endorsing a specific religion, and now that has been lost because all mention of any general term for 'God' is considered 'religious', then I agree with you.

I did not make that interpretation from your initial comments.

Actually I agree wholeheartedly with that. The mistake being made today is that any reference to God or a lesson taught in the bible is not at all what is meant by the 'separation of church and state' and certainly not 'church and public education'. That the Government give no preference to a specific system of worship is the basis of separation of church and state. Not mentioning the bible, the Koran, or the Talmud, among others, was never the purpose of that separation in any publicly funded venue until very recently. I believe that mistake has and will continue to impact the current lower morla standards of today. I also believe it does not portend the end of this nation, that swings of secularism and religion will continue to move back and forth through the spectrum, and that the continued migration to private and home schools is a sign that the pendulum has already started moving back in the other direction. I have 5 friends that are public school teachers. Every single one of their children go to private(and most private schools are 'religious') schools.