Church, State, Schools

by Harry on June 9, 2006

Peter Levine on “why I am not a zealot about church and state”; well worth reading, quite independently of his excellent choice of source material. (Previous thoughts, from me, here).



Russell L. Carter 06.09.06 at 3:47 pm

I wish people would not gloss over the distinction between teaching about religions in schools, and teaching that a particular religion can be a possibly superior substitute for mainstream science. I have faith that this is a fundamental error, and Peter Levine commits it in your linked-to piece.

Once attention is paid to this distinction, I’ll be all for teaching about religions in public schools.


LogicGuru 06.09.06 at 4:51 pm

There’s another distinction, between religious practices and teaching religious doctrines that are just contrary to reasonable empirical claims that needs to be observed. “Scientific Creationism,” “Intelligent Design” and variants are just plain false and have no more place in the public schools than the doctrine that pi = 3.0 which also has a Biblical basis. If parents want to sent their kids to private schools where kids are taught that pi is 3.0 and that humans walked with dinosaurs, and pay out of pocket to see to it that their kids are stuffed with misinformation–fine. I don’t see why we as taxpayers should foot the bill for this.

Religiousity is another matter. Put up crucifixes, have the kids sing Christmas carols and say the Lord’s Prayer every morning with the Pledge of Allegiance. I’m fine with that. But teaching kids doctrines that are just false–whether mathematical or biological or ethical has got to go. I don’t agree with “Christian values” and don’t want them taught to my kids. But I enjoy religious symbols, rituals and decor and don’t see why people get so upset about them.

Of course teach about religion–no one objects to that. But what is the objection to the myths and rituals? Is the worry that kids will find them so attractive that they’ll buy in? Seems unlikely.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.09.06 at 6:46 pm

I suppose I am a zealot when it comes to the separation of church and state. However, when it comes to public education, there is no reason religions (plural, hence Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Native American and aboriginal religions, etc.) cannot be taught as a form of social scientific ‘data’ in the sense of describing the basic beliefs and practices of adherents to the various religions (to teach ‘about’ religions is not the same as teaching religion or religious instruction). There is an appalling ignorance about many religious traditions, and just as we would encourage our young to learn at least one foreign language (in addition to English), we should encourage a curriculum that includes learning about the worldviews found distributed across the planet. This does not involve any sort of indoctrination and need not, indeed, should not presuppose any particular position regarding the relation between religion and science, given that many of our perceptions here have been shaped by episodic conflicts in the European tradition (and carried over into the states) between a certain kind of Christianity and particular scientific ideas, as well as various presuppositions and assumptions found then and again in the history of science. In other words, not a few of these conflicts have no bearing outside this history and geo-political circumscription. I teach the study of religions at the college level, but there is virtually no prior instruction to prepare students for classes like mine. And at present, I dare say there are relatively few individuals competent enough to treat all of the world’s religions in a even-handed manner that does justice to both etic and emic approaches to the subject.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.09.06 at 6:47 pm

correction: ‘in an even-handed manner….’


Russell L. Carter 06.09.06 at 7:08 pm

“Religiousity is another matter. Put up crucifixes, have the kids sing Christmas carols and say the Lord’s Prayer every morning with the Pledge of Allegiance.”

Even the Hindu kids?

“But what is the objection to the myths and rituals? Is the worry that kids will find them so attractive that they’ll buy in? Seems unlikely.”

Which rituals? I don’t know how to choose, do you? Is there enough time to learn ’em all?

I’m ignorant of European style government funded religious schools. Are they permitted to provide their students with something analagous to what private fundamentalist schools implement in the US? It seems like if they were, then interest in religion wouldn’t be so low.


Bernard Yomtov 06.09.06 at 8:18 pm

“Put up crucifixes, have the kids sing Christmas carols and say the Lord’s Prayer every morning with the Pledge of Allegiance. I’m fine with that.”

Then send your kids to a private religious school.


LogicGuru 06.09.06 at 8:32 pm

Why does it matter what sort of religious rituals symbols and rituals predominate and why should we care? Sure I know the response–but if if most of the religious stuff is Christian stuff in the US what’s the problem? Most cafeteria food is going to be American food–which includes pizza, Mexican food etc. Most music kids sing in school will be Western music. Why is it a problem if most religious stuff comes from the majority cultural tradition? If schools add buddha statues or images of Hindu deities so much the better–the more the merrier.

In India I’d expect and want most of the religious stuff to be Hindu stuff–and I’d expect curry in the cafeteria and ragas in music classes. So what’s the problem? It’s just local color.


francis 06.09.06 at 8:42 pm

what’s the problem? the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. One of this country’s great successes has been its avoidance of internal religious conflict.


KCinDC 06.09.06 at 8:58 pm

Logicguru, the problem is that lots of people actually take their religion seriously. It’s not at all the same as food or music or whatever cultural stuff you’re comparing it too. Forcing (or encouraging on pain of ostracism) children to engage in the rituals of religions they don’t believe in is offensive both to those practicing a religion other than their own and to those whose religion is thus being essentially mocked. Making Baptists eat curry is not the same as making them pray to Shiva, and making Hindus eat pizza is not the same as making them say the Lord’s Prayer (assuming the toppings conform to dietary restrictions). That seems obvious. Do you not know anyone religious at all?


Marc 06.09.06 at 9:49 pm

The religious pluralism in the US, and the lack of a state religion, is probably one of the major reasons why the US is as religious as it is. Those who want to force state-sponsored religion in the US probably don’t realize that secular western Europe is filled with countries with state religions. As noted by kindc, for instance, even among Christians there is the nontrivial fact that different sects use, for example, different versions of common prayers. Many of the adherents of these religions actually care about this.

I have to admit, however, that I stopped being interested in what the author had to say when I saw the author advocated intelligent design in the classroom. It’s a pretty neat trick to advocate both bad science and bad religion in one fell swoop.


LogicGuru 06.09.06 at 9:57 pm

Well let’s see–what this means is that if conservative Christians want prayer in the public schools and crosses on hilltops and creches in the park for Christmas than they will also have to accept statues of Hindu deities and pagan frolics around the Maypole–and recognize that when these symbols and rituals figure in the public square they’re nothing more than cultural artifacts, like market crosses in English villages or Buddha statues in Chinese restaurants.

What an interesting idea: when you have lots of religious symbols and rituals out there it trivializes religion. Maybe that’s why people take religion more seriously in the US, where we have a strong tradition of separation of church and state than they do in European countries with state churches where religious symbols proliferate and no one takes them seriously. Maybe that’s why Greco-Roman paganism collapsed–a zillion shrines, processions and cults all wrapped up with civic life, that no one took seriously.

So, indeed, let conservative Christians have what they want: lots and lots of religion in the schools, in the parks and on the mountain tops and see how they like it. Personally, as a liberal Christian I like it fine but I’m not so sure that conservative Christians will if once they realize that all these outward and visible signs aren’t going to get people on board with their agenda.


harry b 06.09.06 at 9:58 pm

He didn’t advocate it — he said it shouldn’t be unconstitutional.

I answer a lot of these questions in the piece linked to in the post of mine that I linked to (sorry to be so convoluted).


Russell L. Carter 06.09.06 at 10:11 pm

Harry B:
“He didn’t advocate it—he said it shouldn’t be unconstitutional.”

Peter L.:
“I would much rather lose a political struggle and live under laws framed by the opposite side than not to have that struggle at all. If a school teaches my kids ID, I suppose my children and I will lose a small measure of Constant’s “freedom of the moderns” (freedom from state coercion). But when a court bans the teaching of ID, it ends public participation on that issue and so takes away our political freedom.”

This is a lot more serious than your comment suggests, Harry. Basically horse trading away rationality for some entirely unjustified perception of improved civic peace. Are we historically justified in supposing that down this path lies progress?


Russell L. Carter 06.09.06 at 10:48 pm

Ok Harry B., I’ve now read your very nice argument.

I’ve been open to this sort of argument for a while, not least because so many believe, against what I believe, that feeding the religious beast appeases it. Contra my intuition, the evidence from Europe is striking.

I agree with:

“[…] a reform that would help both secular and religious schools facilitate personal autonomy for their pupils: prohibiting them from selecting students on any basis whatever.”

Yet how on earth would this get implemented. First past the post? Good lord the corruption.

And, to return to the initial post topic, your reform was not a prerequisite for what Peter L. was advocating. We have to use the context that exists.


Seth Edenbaum 06.09.06 at 11:05 pm

“Rationality” or rationalism?
And why the hell do others’ delusions bother you? If some people think the world is made of cheese, so what? Why does it offend you that some people will say “X” when you say “Z.”

You’re interested in ‘Truth” while perhaps the faithful just want their values respected; and the argument Moon=Cheese is just a means to an end.
“But the world is knowable!! you say. The search for TRUTH! must go on!!” etc…
No: It’s the unending search for facts, and your desire for progress, against their desire for stability.
It’s amazing how easily ‘rational’ people can become unhinged at the seeming irrationality of others. And the only reason is that they think that rationality=literalism (and that’s about as absurd as moon=cheese.)
Grow up.


Walt 06.09.06 at 11:19 pm

It’s not your irrationalism that bothers us, Seth. It’s the monotony of your grudges.


Russell L. Carter 06.09.06 at 11:32 pm

Seth, one of my computers is named ‘feyerabend’.


Jim Harrison 06.10.06 at 1:17 am

In the California of my youth, world religions were taught in public high schools in a respectful but objective way. I doubt if the Christian right would be happy with such course material now. And imagine their response to a Bible as literature course that reflected the scholarly consensus about the sources, antiquity, and nature of scripture.

Policy disputes don’t take place in a political and historical vacuum. It isn’t a matter of deciding whether prayer in the school is a big deal in the abstract–it obviously isn’t–but of recognizing that the separation of church and state is currently under serious attack. In that context, I don’t think it is a good idea to assume that the slope isn’t slippery.


Scott Martens 06.10.06 at 2:07 am

My experience of religious education is that it is the single biggest stimulus to atheism and secularism in the world. Russell, one of the reasons interest in religion in Europe is so low is because of the ineffectiveness of religious education at fostering religious values. Most people in Europe will still claim a religious affiliation, and religious schools do play a role in that. People say, “I grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school, so I’m Catholic, I guess.” And then they will get their children baptized Catholic and send them to Catholic school without ever expressing any strong attachment to Catholicism. I assume the same applies to the rest of Europe’s established and state churches.

Religious schools offer churches a mechanism for keeping people attached to a religious community despite their unwillingness to actually be religious. From the perspective of my evangelical upbringing, this seems like a bad thing, but it seems to provide some real value for people here in Europe.

I’m not against state support for religious education, subject to some provisos: 1 – State recognized diplomas should meet state curriculum standards, and it is entirely appropriate for the state to require the teaching of things that might not entirely agree with the convictions of the school’s operators. If the state pays, the state gets to say what has to be learned. 2 – If the state pays, the school cannot be picky about who gets to attend. Religious schools cannot demand their students participate in religious acts or require them to be members of a particular faith in order to be admitted. It can organize religious acts, and students attending religious institutions can’t complain because there’s religion in their schools., but it can’t compel acts of religious affiliation. 3 – Schools – religious or otherwise – that receive state funding cannot reject a student simply because they fail to meet some academic standard. It’s too easy for a private school to appear to produce better outcomes by intake selection. If you want to get state money, you have to accept the same responsibilities as state schools.

The first two provisos are already generally requirements in the US for religious post-secondary schools. In order for your students to receive grants and loans from the state, you may not practice religious discrimination in your admissions or retention policies. The evangelical religious college I went to organized religious services and required attendance; however about a third of the students were not Protestant. Students were expected to be respectful, but did not have to perform any act suggesting agreement or alignment with the school’s declared faith.

If this works in post-secondary institutions, I don’t see why it would have to be different for elementary and secondary ones.


abb1 06.10.06 at 3:10 am

I strongly object to teacher-led recitation of the pledge of allegiance every morning. I find it extremely tasteless and offensive in the N.Korean sort of way.

Could we make all government-sponsored mindless recitations unconstitutional, please.


Seth Edenbaum 06.10.06 at 9:08 am

How is the the attempt to understand irrationalism, itself irrational?
Is curiosity irrational? Should I refuse to read Wallace Stevens cause he makes no F’n sense?
Maybe it would be better if we took away the children of religious families and raised them in group homes and boarding schools.

But you’e right arguing with you is boring.


Seth Finkelstein 06.10.06 at 5:45 pm

The argument that Europe has state religion, Europe is more secular, strikes me as a logical fallacy of excluded factors. Remember, just to throw out one point, the US was colonized in part by religious fanatics who left Europe – so there was a net change in both directions!


"Q" the Enchanter 06.10.06 at 5:58 pm

I suppose I’m not a separation “zealot” (though I don’t begrudge the zealots). In my experience, even rank evangelism at school won’t have the desired effect without supplementary brainwashing by parents at home.


rilkefan 06.10.06 at 6:13 pm

Seth Edenbaum: “Should I refuse to read Wallace Stevens cause he makes no F’n sense?”

You should perhaps refuse to read him because you’re not up to it. Stevens is regarded as one of the most thoughtful and philosophical of poets. Amusingly, one of the things he says is that it would be nice to replace religion with poetry.

“The sea-clouds whitened far below the calm
And moved, as blooms move, in the swimming green
And in its watery radiance, while the hue

Of heaven in an antique reflection rolled
Round those flotillas. And sometimes the sea
Poured brilliant iris on the glistening blue.”

I’d much rather my kids be taught in school how to apprehend and describe the beauty of the world than be spoon-fed the doctines of Jesus pre-chewed to remove all the gristle.


Seth Finkelstein 06.10.06 at 6:30 pm

By the way, to perhaps restate the point of #1/russell, the article’s point on Intelligent Design is a pretty warmed-over talking point of those progandists:

1) Pretend relgious doctrine is science
2) Demand it be taugtht as science
3) When objection is raised, demand “teach the controversy” (they want to replace sience with their relgious doctrine, so that’s by their definition, a controversy).
4) If lose, claim censorship and, in terms of punditry-bait, “civic disenfranchisement”.

To wit

“Second, I would rather have the freedom to participate in a robust debate about the content of our children’s education than to see courts dictate a position, even if I agree with it. For instance, when a judge rules that the teaching of intelligent design is unconstitutional, we cannot seriously discuss the issue. Likewise, if a court were to rule that public schools may not produce Godspell, we would have less scope to debate that play.”

The courts have similarly “dictated” that disease comes from germs, not God’s punishment for sins, that weather is a phenomena of physics, not God’s wrath, and people die when their bodies wear out, not when God takes them. We don’t “seriously discuss” these issues in science class. They can – and should – be seriously discussed in social studies, and he is free to write about them to his heart’s content. Blurring this distinction as he does, is very inflammatory, and should not be accepted.


anon 06.10.06 at 7:38 pm

Ditto to Jim Harrison’s point. I too studied comparative religions in my DC-area high school 30 yrs ago. And the notion expressed at the link that by making ID unconstitutional to teach in science class eliminates the possibility of serious discussion is really unfathomable. We are all free to discuss ID as much as we like, but our public schools can’t teach it as science. And Scott Martens — there is a big difference in the level of maturity of post-secondary students and elementary school students. Perhaps you don’t have children, and are thus unaware of the digree to which peer pressure can impose behavior and belief on a child.


Chris Lloyd 06.11.06 at 1:20 am

FYI perhaps from Down Under. here in Australia there is no separation of Church and State required in our constitution – indeed there is no Bill of Rights and almost nothing is really prohibited.

Public schools do not teach a particular religion as part of their curriculum, but they can have voluntary religion lessons and may often cover non-Christian religions if there are enough students of that faith to make it worthwhile.

Private schools are funded by the government on a per student basis, ostensibly because the parents are saving the government money by not sending their kids to a public school. Though there is precious little evidence that this money is passed on to the parents through lower school fees (which are typically around k$15 per year). Around 1/3 of students in Melbourne go to some kind of private school.

Most private schools have some kind of religious affiliation though for most religion plays very littel role in school life. There are plenty of Jewish and Muslim schools, and there is continual public debate (and recent disquiet)about what is taught in these schools. But the fact that the government has financial leverage on these schools allows them to inspect and limit the curriculum. There is plenty of stuff that must be in the curriculum and plenty of stuff that must be out.


Seth Edenbaum 06.11.06 at 9:13 am

Spoon-feed anyone anything, Wallace Stevens included, and it will come to annoy them.
I’d vote to institutionalize religion if I could, if only because it would give me more atheists to talk to (and more Wallace Stevens readers)

But Stevens spent a lifetime domesticating then husbanding irrationalism, turning religious desire to secular wonder. He spent a lifetime because he had to work at it, fighting the temptation to simply believe. And he enjoyed himself.

The terror of the irrational is silly. Repression, and that’s all it is, just feeds the flame. Accept its existence and tends to fade. That’s the painful lesson of the 20th century.

Moralizing dogmatic reformers, puritanical technocrats, and efficiency enthusiasts can all kiss my fucking ass.
And as always: Libertarians should all be lined up and shot.
But I’m not going to listen to a lecture on rationality made by someone who uses ‘Rilke’ as a tag.


Martin James 06.11.06 at 3:28 pm

Anomie and autonomy live together in perfect harmony.

I think Harry is way too optimistic about the effect of publicly funded religious schools in the USA.

Rather than decreasing the market for extremism, I think it would increase it, particularly if the subsidy was all of the private school tuition.

Currently the cost barrier has prevented a primarily lower middle class right-wing identity from coalescing.

Turn full-scale public money loose on the USA and welcome to Sucks to Your Asmar High.

Harry (and Thumper’s mother) may be right that you don’t put yourself up by putting other people down and it may be that only those without easy access to autonomy turn harmfully other-directed, but history provides so many examples of people thinking that autonomy is zero-sum and that you only have it if you are lording it over somebody else who doesn’t.

Right now religion is just the beer of the masses, more public money would truly make it the opium, which is one scary pipe dream.


Seth Edenbaum 06.11.06 at 7:36 pm

“Anomie and autonomy live together in perfect harmony”

That’s the best pocket description of libertarianism I’ve ever read.
Hope you don’t mind if I steal it.


Martin James 06.11.06 at 10:10 pm

“Hope you don’t mind if I steal it.”

That’s the best pocket description of libertarianism I’ve ever read. Hope you don’t mind if I steal it.


Seth Edenbaum 06.11.06 at 11:47 pm

Bad artists borrow. Good artists steal.
A libertarian wouldn’t know enough history to recognize the difference (or the reference) and certainly would never be so civil as to make the compliment of even a rhetorical request for permission. Libertarians pretend they have no master, but good thieves were good students (and history is the master of us all.)

nice try.

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