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?

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