Educating Freethinkers

Frances “Fanny” Wright was the bane of American conservatives in the 1820′s. An atheist, a radical egalitarian and an economic leveler – oh, and a woman – she was everything they feared in one neat package.

In hindsight, probably her most radical idea was the the government should take the responsibility for educating children away from the parents. It wasn’t clearly fleshed out, but her idea seemed to be a system of national boarding schools where children would be educated in a secular manner and an integrated community.

It was a bit inconsistent, because Wright was generally opposed to government intervention in other matters. She seemed to believe that religion would always be a conservative force opposing human equality, and so the only way for humans to be free and equal was to break up the religious consensus. And the only way she could see to do that was to prevent parents from indoctrinating their children.

Flash forward to today and freethinkers are still grappling with the issue. Richard Dawkins has repeatedly gotten into trouble for suggesting that parents religiously indoctrinating their children is a form child abuse.

One solution is to use our public schools to teach children about religion in a secular manner. Our neighbor James Croft makes this suggesting:

You cannot trust parents to teach their kids about religion in an even-handed way: they are likely going to be interested in raising their kids in the same belief system that they hold. Nor can you simply leave it to churches and other religious organizations: they too are partisan. Therefore, it seems to me, public schools (if we are to have them at all – that’s a debate for another time) are the best place to teach kids about religion. With appropriate oversight, public schools could, in principle, develop a religious studies curriculum which presents the major world religions to students in a historical and sociological way, explaining how they developed, what role they have played historically, and their position in the world today.

It’s hard to argue that this is a bad idea. Just about everyone, atheist or believer, recognizes that our school system does not adequately teach about religion. As someone who works in the field of history, I’m constantly frustrated by how little many people understand about the religious underpinnings of historical events.

This also serves our goals as Freethinkers. We can’t, and probably shouldn’t, attempt to prevent parents from teaching their children what they wish. But at least we can counter-balance these ideas by showing children that their are other options out there.

But both God and the devil are in the details. In practical terms, how do you get a secular religion curriculum going without every conservative parent blowing up? How do you keep the school board or religious teachers from taking over the class to teach only their views?

And, of course, what do you do if large numbers of parents just decide to defect to private schools where they can indoctrinate to their hearts content? To some degree this has already happened in America as a response to school integration, so how do you keep it from getting worse?

The Inevitable Atheist Church
Overwhelming Religious Diversity and the Agnostic Chair
Hallquist on Eich
So Long, And Thanks For All The Memories (From Dan)
  • Black Belt Atheist

    No, no, no.

    Religion doesn’t belong in public schools. Imagine this: The Good News Club decides that we should be teaching all religions in schools, so they get together a curriculum and promise to teach about the world’s religions in a secular way. Every atheist worth her salt would be up in arms because we know that the goal of this group is to promote their own ideology. Like it or not, the first amendment swings both ways. I, as an atheist, don’t want others to promote their dogma in schools. Religious people will rightly not want us to promote ours.

    As a teacher in the Bible Belt, I can just imagine the goings-on if this were implemented. Every Evangelical Christian teacher that I worked with over the years would take the opportunity to promote their “true” religion over all others. Even if they didn’t do it purposefully,you’re deluding yourself if you believe that every devoutly religious person will present this material the way you think it should be presented. You even quoted Croft as saying “with appropriate oversight.” I’m sorry, but “appropriate oversight” is going to be hard to come by in some areas of the country (think Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, etc.).

    Instead of injecting a religious curriculum into public schools, why don’t we try a different approach. Let’s teach kids critical thinking skills so that when the time comes, they can decide for themselves. Let’s teach kids to question. Let’s teach kids how to properly research. Let’s teach kids how to test the validity of an argument. Let’s teach kids the value of self-educating so that they can go and learn about the world religions on their own (that’s what I did, and it’s worked out pretty well so far). If you teach kids these skills, the question of religion will take care of itself.

    • JohnMWhite

      Which is why places like Texas want to bar the teaching of critical thinking, putting us back to square one.

      I really think we’re reaching a point where we have to either accept that a lot of children are going to be robbed of a genuine education because of their selfish parents’ religious beliefs (and I am not entirely unsympathetic to how much of this selfishness comes out of abject fear), or we accept that doing this to children is a form of abuse and take steps to stop it.

    • blotonthelandscape

      In the UK we (technically) teach ‘about’ religion instead of teaching religion. In practice, CofE/RC/Muslim/Jewish/”Free”/etc schools get free reign to indoctrinate in whatever mode they see fit; likewise public schools often use this time to teach philosophy/ethics alongside secular religious studies. In state schools it’s (technically) strictly secular religious studies, but I know a few R.E. teachers who use it to proselytise/give unfair weight to their chosen religious views anyway.

      So good system with a poor execution imo. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that educating children about other religion’s/cultures, and indeed their own, is not in the purview of the public education system, but I do think that the regulatory system needs to tighten up.

    • James Croft

      I recognize the concerns you raise, but you’re missing a critical issue: this sort of religious education is already perfectly legal in the USA, and is quite common in many states. MA, for instance, teaches comparative religion much as I describe in many of its public schools. There is absolutely no legal barrier that I know of to public schools implementing religious studies classes like the ones I describe.

      Furthermore, I think you overlook the problems of not providing such an education: I would not want my children either growing up indoctrinated in a the public schools OR missing out on a solid religious education. I don’t want them having never read the bible and not knowing how it influenced English Literature, for instance.

      So given that such religious education is wholly legal already, and has many benefits if done right and drawbacks if done wrong, I feel the only choice is to work out how to do it right.

  • vasaroti

    I agree, there should be an introduction to world religions class, taught as early as 4th grade. Even if the teacher makes a mockery of the curriculum, the kids will still be aware that the faction they belong to is not alone on the planet and perhaps pick up some basic facts. I suggest free game apps as a sneaky way to present ideas.

  • Kacy

    My sister, a middle school Language Arts teacher, taught a unit on mythology she included Norse myths, Greek myths, Egyptian myths, and Hebrew myths (which happened to be Old Testament Bible stories). It was likely the first time many of her Texas students heard the Bible stories classified as myths alongside other stories in that genre. It’s not exactly the World Religions class you’re describing, but I wanted to point it out because it’s an example of what one teacher did within the boundaries of the current system.

  • Steve Pinkham

    I would love to have more comparative religion in schools, and think it’s a necessary thing in a pluralistic society.

    Yes, I have concerns about how fundamentalists might bias such classes, but I have the same concerns about what the fundamentalists do in teaching courses like history and science by virtue of talking to the fundamentalist Christian public school teachers in my family.

    After reducing income inequality, implementing universal healthcare and strengthening the social safety net, I think mandatory comparative religions classes is the biggest bang-for-the-buck action we can take in fighting extremist religion.

  • Kodie

    I don’t believe that teaching children there are other religions and what they’re about would have the effect you want. I’ve said about my experiences in school, and people still seem to go on the idea that school is a place to learn and open your mind and expand your horizons. More critical thinking, just more of it, would be a good start. Filling their heads with things to memorize and present to them is not the same. I also don’t think school is a good tool to break religion, nor do I think that’s what it should be used for. Parents seem to fall into two camps about school – school is already teaching children too many things counter to their upbringing and butting into the parents’ domain (except for kids who need a surrogate parenting experience like school); or school is a neutral place to learn about academic fundamentals. I don’t think mythology is an academic fundamental. Learning about myths, to me, is not a terrible thing, it’s just unnecessary and futile if it comes with an agenda. Furthermore, I think schools already don’t teach the academic fundamentals as well as they are perceived to do by the second type of group who think school is a great place for kids.

    In my ideal school-world, what I learned in 1st grade wouldn’t need to be retreaded – in an environment where kids are learning something, and emphasis on retaining it for future use would be included. I look back on my education and think we all could have been done by 5th grade if we didn’t go over the same subjects and catch up the kids who were failing because they didn’t learn it the first 4 times. The emphasis is on grades and grading the teacher on whether the students learned what was taught, not whether the children learned anything useful that actually sticks over the summer.

    If anything triggers a “when am I ever going to need this?” reaction, it’s mythology. And I’m not saying I didn’t learn some of it. I’m sure we went over the constellations at the planetarium visits every year, and a few Roman myths squeezed in with Roman Empire history (seems 6th-gradey?), and when we did our ONE semester (out of 24 total semesters) on local history, we learned the origin of the earth and life according to the Algonquins. Quaint but useless.

    It’s not that knowing things is a terrible thing, but I don’t see the practicality of exposing children to myths or presenting Christianity they’re taught at home as a categorical myth, which will backfire if included in the curriculum. Out of all the reasons I think not to become a teacher, dealing with parents is the winner. Already, schools seem to teach math as an abstraction rather than how to apply it. Kids hate word problems, but that’s how math is applied. No teacher ever said to me or classes I was in, in any words, “you will need to extract the equations out of most problems you will have as an adult and then do this to it.” Math is universal, it’s not just for kids pursuing certain careers, and those careers were never even introduced – hey, if you’re really good at this, you can get the advanced skills to do these other things as a job. No science teacher I ever had used the subject to broaden, but to narrow classes into kids who catch on and kids who can just go fuck themselves in art class. I didn’t learn any critical thinking at school whatsoever. I learned a lot of stuff, but more like a receptacle. I generated decent grades because I did retain information and when it was repeated several times, it was familiar to me. I do really good on game shows on tv.

    I don’t know where I learned to think critically. It is probably after college. I didn’t look around at school and say “when am I going to need this?” – a critical thinking question nearly every student asks at some time. I learned what they told me. I did my homework (most of the time). I pretty much was told and believed that I should do what the teachers told me to do, and that I was there to learn and not socialize – and I didn’t question it, and I failed to socialize correctly. There are so many life skills not even taught at school or emphasized when you are an adult, these are realistic problems you will face. Why do people think teenagers are so irresponsible? No one ever tells them they’re going to get old! Even the added responsibilities don’t really sink in. Why do people think there’s a “grace period” past the age of 18 when the adult actually comes into being and still has a lot of mistakes to make?

    I seriously, I don’t like people believing stupid shit about their myths, but it’s hard for me to think about engaging the public schools in breaking those habits intentionally, of taking children out of their homes by requirement, and telling them what their parents tell them is a myth. It’s a little bit undermining the parents authority in not just the single aspect of their parenting, and a little bit geez, I want to say fascist. I really want to say schools are the best and every child deserves a decent education, but parents are still their parents. School is for teaching kids subjects their parents don’t have the expertise or responsibility of doing, and beyond that, practical life subjects, of which critical thinking is one, but mythology is not.

    • vasaroti

      How can you understand any art, poetry, analogies and allusions used by great writers if you don’t have some knowledge of Greco-Roman mythology? Much of culture before 1940 is utterly confusing without that background. I do know a few people who missed out on that aspect of their education, and they they think that Asian art is full of “demons” and that every nude in Western art is porn. They have no clue that the architecture their Supreme Court building, their bank and in some cases, their church, is based on that of pagan temples.

      • Kodie

        In my experience, most people get by just fine not knowing that stuff. They don’t have oogie-boogie opinions about all the stuff they don’t know, they just don’t even think about it. I find it intellectual elitism to suggest that information is necessary just because it is interesting.

  • Noelle

    Of course it’s important to integrate religion where it effects other subjects, history especially. My 10th grade world history class teacher did this very well. You don’t have to teach actual theology or even the specific stories in a religion to do this. Do you skip the protestant reformation, the spanish inquistion, witch trials, and well pretty much everything? My education of how religion affected American history was sorely lacking. Pretty much everything I learned on it I picked up here from vorjack in the last year. Religion and history go hand in hand. Teaching one and completely ignoring the other’s existence does everyone a disservice.

    You can’t study literature without learning the basic stories from where so many authors get their metaphors. You would learn why thumbing one’s nose at someone was considered an insult in a different day and place while reading Shakespeare. Why wouldn’t you learn the bread and butter stories with religious origin, simply because they had or have a religious significance to some groups? Abraham sacrificing Isaac, Jesus being sold out for 30 pieces of silver, David having a man killed after getting off on watching a pretty lady bathe, and so many more like these are found so commonly. Many are used in daily speech, like David and Goliath, or Achilles and his heel. Why wouldn’t we teach the origin?

    Most HS offer some sort of humanities course where they present the basics on some world religions. They’re usually electives. I took one, and it was interesting. It could’ve used more information, but it was good. It was in a very Christian community too, and no one said anything about us learning these things.

    When science runs into politics, religion, history, and literature, I don’t see any reason to completely ignore an important piece of information. I love science. It is not sacred.

    Nothing kills mystery like more information.

  • smrnda

    One of the reasons why I support government education is that it gets kids exposed to more viewpoints than they would get at home, and more than if their parents got to ship them off to whatever religious or ideologically driven school of their choice. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot less likely to be indoctrination, and what goes on in public schools is the business of the public.

    A good course on world religions would help, but there’s always a danger of certain teachers or schools subverting the goals of providing simply information on all religious and would turn it into the promotion of just one, but I don’t doubt that that’s being done already. I think the main issue is to focus on explaining the history of religions and what they believe – you can do this without actually stating an opinion as to whether or not the beliefs are valid. If I say Christians believe Jesus was divine, but Muslims believe he was a prophet, I am not stating one belief is correct and the other is wrong, or even that either is wrong, just stating what people believe. It’s just good to know what huge chunks of the world population actually believe.

    If parents object to their children being taught this, well, schools are there to do the job of education children when parents are unable or unwilling.

  • FO

    Can’t you just have a proponent of each religion (selected how?) come at tell his tale?
    At least you have the kids exposed to different religious ideas (parents scream in rage…)

    • FO

      If parents complain we can just answer them “Teach the controversity”.

  • Bart Mitchell

    It isn’t financially feasible for most people to educate their children in private institutions or homeschooling. These groups will always be in the minority.

    Want evidence? Look at the trends for homosexual acceptance among those 25 years and younger. Our current strategy of keeping our public schools free, and secular is working. We just need to insure that the current trend continues, and in a few generations we will have whittled religious intolerance to almost nothing.

    • UrsaMinor

      Public schools ain’t free in a monetary sense, if that’s what you were getting at. Where I live, public education costs $15,000 per student per year. I pay some hefty school taxes to support the system.

      At best, you can say that there’s no charge at the door.