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Secular Humanism and Education

Should the State Support Religious Schools?

by Johnny Reb


It's been many years now and I've forgotten exactly where it took place, but I vividly recall the essential content of an informal chat with an associate, perhaps a colleague from the high school in which I taught. She told me that as a student of a Catholic school in British Columbia, she asked in class why the use of contraceptives was morally wrong. She wasn't disputing the position, but merely wanted to know what the justification for it was. As a result of her query, she was sent to the school principal to be disciplined.

The anti-intellectual culture her school fostered, at least so far as moral and religious education was concerned, was one of deference to authority - in this case, the submissive, uncritical acceptance of religious doctrine. She admitted that she was no longer a Catholic, but added that, even now, several decades later, she still experiences pangs of guilt and anxiety when her skepticism leads her to challenge a Catholic belief. The inculcation of those beliefs had proven to be highly effective not only in stultifying free thought and criticism, but also in creating an enduring condition of self-censorship and cognitive dissonance. The disposition is so deeply embedded that it continues to survive, long past the point when her religious faith had been rejected.

Every time I see a school bus full of private school students with logos on the side of the bus such as Christian Harmony or Our Lady of Perpetual Faith I think of this story  - and I cringe. The primary reason these kids go to school is not to be educated and enlightened by free thought and inquiry, but to be indoctrinated into a medieval world view. A truly democratic state can do nothing about these schools, and rightly so. People have the right to believe and promote nonsense, but when I think of the theft of a child's intellectual autonomy, I feel something ought to be done to put a stop to it. Children are not chattel. But by the same token, the state should not be using public money to subsidize their operations. The Catholic Church, one of  the wealthiest institutions in the world is at the same time one of the most powerful, draconian, influential, corrupt and vile institutions in history. It has been the primary obstacle to intellectual and moral progress in the past two millennia. The recent scandals involving decades of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests is just the most recent abomination. It's bad enough that churches  get a free ride on property taxes on their vast real estate holdings as well as a multitude of other perks and subsidies.

Yesterday on BBC News World (Channel 74 on Shaw) there was a program featuring Turkey, a country considered by many to be the most secular Middle Eastern country. Despite this perception, Islam is the state religion and any variance from its doctrines as expressed in the Koran is not tolerated. Alevism, for example is a liberal sect of Islam, having distinct differences to the practices of Turkey’s Sunni majority. In Turkey, the Alevi are persecuted by imams representing Sunni majority and claim that they are denied basic rights to religious freedoms. Al Jazeera (Channel 513 on Shaw) featured a program on a growing religious cult in Mexico called "Santa Muerte" a satanic spin-off of Catholicism and pre-Christian indigenous beliefs that is condemned and vilified by both the Catholic hierarchy and the Mexican government. One intolerant Catholic priest referred to it as "superstitious" and "false", implying that Catholicism is the true religion. It's comical when religions, especially those under the same religious genre, fight among one another as to which is the "true" religion when all of them are nothing more than faith-based superstitious nonsense, an insult to the intellect of a nine year old. Religion still persists, despite 400 years of the Humanist Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, and provided that it continues, there will always be a steady supply of bullshit to supplement the huge volumes churned out by politicians and the corporate world.

Historically, most religions and their schools have focused on instilling such unquestioning, docile attitudes among the their followers. In most cases, they still do. In fact one of the primary reason that critical thinking programs and courses in ethics are not offered in the public schools has been the strong objections from religious communities. But conservative elites and corporate power have also been instrumental in blocking the implementation of critical thinking. When maintaining the status quo of a powerful class interest is primary, the last thing it desires is a skeptical and critical thinking populace. This reactionary and regressive posture has been the essence of conservatism throughout history. I can attest to the fact that while doing graduate work at UBC  I was exposed to outstanding programs in critical thinking and ethics  developed at several universities in North America. But these programs haven't seen the light of day, despite compelling arguments by members of education faculties to introduce them into the public school curriculum. It's not difficult to understand why.

On Moral Education

Humanists are typically opposed to traditional, religious approaches to moral education that present morality as a set of inflexible immutable rules handed down by authority that individuals are obliged to unquestioningly accept. I believe that Bertrand Russell was for the most part correct when he said that "A good man is one whose opinions and actions are pleasing to the holders of power." It's really contentious whether moral propositions can be deemed true or false in the same way that "2 + 2 = 5" is false and "Crows are black" is true. One might attempt to resolve the issue by conceptualizing a lower grade of truth as compared with mathematical and empirical truth. Ethics is concerned with what sort of behaviour is acceptable in a community and what sort of society is desired by its members. The realization that moral assertions are relative in the sense that mathematical and empirical assertions are not should not detract us from considering ethics as an epistemological concern. We can perhaps say that "Torture and slavery are wrong" and declare it true, but surely not in the same sense that "2 + 2 = 4" or that "the earth is spherical".

Broadly speaking, secular humanists favor a liberal approach to moral education, one that emphasizes intellectual autonomy and individual moral responsibility. It must be admitted, even by the devout, that individual responsibility for making moral judgments is unavoidable, an inexorable part of the human condition. It is our responsibility to make our own moral judgments, rather than attempt to appeal to tradition or hand that responsibility over to some external authority, religious or secular, that will make them for us. And all moral issues cannot be detached from context.

But if what I claim is true, then shouldn't we ensure that we raise young people in such a way that (1) they acknowledge they each have this responsibility, and (2) they are provided with the kind of intellectual, social, emotional, and other skills they will need to make the best ethical and intellectual judgments? These are among the hallmarks of a humanist approach, the notion that only humans can solve human problems. Appeals to mysticism and supernatural absolutes will not do.

Many people appear to think that the alternative to traditional religious education is to abandon children to invent their own morality from scratch, to tell them that every moral point of view is as valid or desirable as every other, and to encourage them to choose moral rules by caprice. But that would be a straw man version of the kind of moral education that most humanists support.

First, take note that encouraging children to think and question does not require that we abandon rational rules of conduct and self-control. What humanists advocate in the classroom is freedom of thought, not freedom of action. No doubt children need self-discipline, and they need the inculcation of good habits. But even while we enforce rules, we can still allow young people the opportunity to question those rules and express disagreement. Without that inquiry, we'd still be condoning slavery and burning people at the stake for heresy. The more children can discuss why a certain course of action is right or wrong, and have a chance to think about choices and consequences, the more prepared they will be when faced with potential difficulties. Moreover we need to help them separate truth from falsity, fact from fiction and reality from fantasy - to develop "bullshit detectors" through a curriculum promoting skepticism and rational philosophical reflection. The Philosophy for Children program developed by the late Mathew Lipmann is a terrific model for such a curriculum.

Second, encouraging children to think and question does not mean that we cannot convey to them what we believe, and, most importantly  why we believe it. In fact, there is no reason why a faith school promoting a particular religion should not encourage its pupils to think and question. Its teachers may say: 'These are our beliefs, and here are the reasons we consider them true. We want you to believe them too, but we don't want you to just take our word for it. We encourage you to be skeptical, think clearly, and make up your own minds." But this is highly unlikely to happen because that's not the purpose of religious schools; it's intrinsic to the concept of faith that it will not happen. As Bertrand Russell has said, "Christians hold that their faith does good, but other faiths do harm . . . What I wish to maintain is that all faiths do harm. We may define “faith” as the firm belief in something for which there is no evidence. When there is evidence, no one speaks of 'faith'. We do not speak of faith that two plus two is four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence." Not unlike Christians, Humanists want to persuade their children that their  world view is true, but they do not want children to accept that view passively and unquestioningly. This is the spirit of the scientific outlook. Russell again: "It is not what the man of science believes that distinguishes him, but how and why he believes it."

In encouraging children to think critically and independently about moral issues, we are encouraging them to think philosophically. There is, as we have seen, a long, secular, philosophical tradition on which humanists can draw when looking for resources to help morally educate new citizens. And I have already mentioned the exciting programs on critical thinking programs in philosophy departments at universities throughout the world that have not been allowed to be introduced into the schools, thanks to a variety of conservative forces, both political and religious.

The Objections to Religious Schools and State Support

On the issue of religious schools, humanists hold differing attitudes. Some (though comparatively few, I would suspect) believe that faith-based schools should no longer be tolerated on the basis that faith is antithetical to free thought and free inquiry which is what one of the primary aims of education is supposed to be. They may argue for example, that if we are not going to allow political schools that discriminate on the basis of political beliefs, begin each day with the collective singing of political anthems, have portraits of political leaders and political logos on classroom walls, and promote party doctrine by readings of the works of revered political propagandists, then why should we tolerate their religious equivalents? Or why for that matter should the government not support schools in Christian Science, Scientology, Astrology or any other organization or religion based on a pre-Enlightenment pseudoscientific scientific world view?

Despite the rational objections, many humanists are prepared to tolerate faith schools, just so long as those schools meet certain minimum curriculum standards. It is one thing to tolerate faith schools, quite another to suppose the state should fund them. As I have stated earlier, most secular humanists strongly oppose the state funding of religious schools. Their commitment to a secular society that protects not only diversity of religious belief but disbelief and the "wall of separation between church and state" as expressed in the US Constitution leads them conclusion that there is no justification for state financial support of religious schools. It's ironic that in countries like England which has a state religion, namely the Church of England, taxpayer money, including the taxes paid by humanists  is used to fund religious schools that don't allow the enrollment of humanists children. Paradoxically, in Britain church attendance is almost non-existent when compared with the United States, a country that has the strongest statement concerning church-state separation. Moreover, in a recent British poll two-thirds agreed with the statement "the government should not be funding faith schools of any kind".

A further reason to encourage a philosophical approach:

There is a further reason why fostering a questioning attitude, rather than deference to authority, would be a good idea. Jonathan Glover, Director of the Centre for Medical Law and Ethics at King's College, London, conducted research into the backgrounds of those who joined in the oppression and murder in places like Nazi Germany, Rwanda, and Bosnia - and those who worked to save lives. As Glover explained in an interview in The Guardian:

If you look at the people who protected Jews under the Nazis, you find a number of things about them. One is that they tended to have a different kind of childhood nurturing from the average person. They invariably tended to be brought up in a free thinking non-authoritarian environment, brought up to have compassion and empathy for other people and to question and deliberate on issues rather than just think and do what they were told. Hitler and his inner circle of compliant thugs like Himmler and Goebbels on the other hand almost to the man came from submissive and austere religious backgrounds.

Glover adds,

"I think that teaching people to think rationally and critically actually can make a difference to people's susceptibility to false ideologies."

In The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe, Samuel and Pearl Oliner report the results of their extensive and detailed study into the backgrounds of both those who were compliant with the "final solution" and those who attempted to rescue victims from their fate. They found that the most dramatic difference between the parents of those who rescued and those who did not lay in the extent to which parents placed greater emphasis on providing rational explanations, rather than discipline and punishment.

According to the Oliners, "reasoning communicates a message of respect for and trust in children that allows them to feel a sense of personal efficacy and warmth toward others". The non-rescuers, by contrast, tended to feel as though they were "'mere pawns, subject to the power of external authorities".

Those who suppose religious faith and divine command ethics  is our best defense against such moral catastrophes should note Oliner's research shows that, while religious belief was also a factor, "religiosity was only weakly related to rescue".

The real danger of traditional, authority-based approaches to moral education is that they encourage obedient sheep (sheeple rather than people) – unenlightened citizens who may do the right thing but only because that is what some authority tells them, often out of fear, threat or promise of eternal reward. If a less benign authority then comes along, such unenlightened citizens will lack the intellectual and emotional defenses they will need to resist. [See the excellent essay by philosopher David O Brink called The Autonomy of Ethics.]

If we want to raise citizens who will withstand the slide into the kind of moral catastrophes that marred the 20th Century and most of prior history, it seems that our focus should indeed be on moral education. But not of the traditional authority-bases sort such as divinely inspired sort of mainstream religions. Our focus should be on raising autonomous and skeptical critical thinkers.


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