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Is Secular Humanism Taught in Our Public Schools?

Many conservative Christians maintain that Secular Humanism is a religion and that it is being promoted as such in our public schools. This is a strange allegation to begin with, and attempts to prove it true are unconvincing. Yet, for the Religious Right this has some powerful connotations and plays well to the gallery. But is it true? In this essay, I maintain that it is completely false, misleading, and misrepresents both the mission and the reality of public education.

Since the absence of the Christian religion (or any religion) is mandated for public schools by virtue of the Establishment Clause, the Religious Right asserts that secularism or humanism is taught by default. Well, how is that being accomplished? Nobody really knows, of course, and definitions are as vague as the claim itself. Inasmuch as the majority of teachers in this country are Christians, it begs the question as why they would overtly teach or preach a philosophy counter to their own beliefs. I suggest they would likely avoid any direct curriculum content that had secular humanism overtones–again, whatever that means. I suggest that few–if any–teachers in the public schools in this country are standing up and promoting the philosophy of secular humanism in their classes. That is not to say, however, that teaching which is directly related to a given philosophy never occurs as part and parcel of an accepted curriculum involving a comparative religion or political science class, but those are rarely found in public school offerings to begin with. And although there are some teachers in English literature (or comparable classes) that may challenge a student’s interpretation in some literary offerings, exploration of this kind is usually so benign that personal religious views seldom emerge.

By contrast, however, there have been cases–some of them well-publicized–where teachers, especially in the sciences, have refused to teach evolutionary science, or sections of earth science, on the grounds that it violates their religious conscience. This is in spite of the fact that many or most knew full-well upon entering the profession that this would be part of the required curriculum. To subsequently refuse to teach the required curriculum because of personal religious preferences is inappropriate, to say the least, although it is certainly a great publicity stunt.

Some public school teachers are “stealth” fundamentalist Christians who purposefully enter the teaching profession with the desire and intent to teach science, history and other core classes with a decidedly Christian slant. Some certainly take advantage of their position as a means of religious influencing their young charges.

There have been several examples of this kind of activity that have made news on the national level. The cases of the science teacher in Minnesota (Le Vake) and Washington (DeHart) are two recent examples. The usual course for these teachers is reassignment, or accepting a placement in a private school that allows outright religious indoctrination.

The way that the Religious Right puts it, “Humanism remains de facto the established religion of our land, and the public schools are the main vehicle for the promotion of its world view.”[1] Thus, the public schools are allegedly a primary method to the nefarious (and malicious) indoctrination into humanist philosophy. Again, it this true? Statistically speaking, in a year’s time a student only spends 17% of his time in school. The rest of the time is spent with parents, peer groups, and in our Christian society as a whole. The question to Christians at this point is this: If you object to Humanism as the de facto established religion of this country and our public schools, what do you propose to replace it with that is completely nonreligious so as to insure that no one religion has the upper hand? Certainly not Christianity, Judaism or Islam.


It is vitally important that public schools remain neutral with regard to religious content. Neutrality, however, does not equate to secular humanism.

Where is the secular humanism content? Is it in the books? Is it in the curriculum? Teaching methods? Administration? The answer is that it is nowhere to be found. There is nothing to grasp at in order to prove the assumption; you just have to have faith that what these religious leaders are telling you is true. And since, according to them, it is true, secular humanism has pushed Christianity out. But has it really?

Very few public schools ever did have Bible reading, daily prayers, the Lord’s prayer, or religious indoctrination in the first place. In a very informal straw poll I once took, the only place where this was popular was the South and sporadically in some places in the Midwest and Northeast. In the West (where I am from) I could find no example of these practices at any time in the last 75 years. Christianity was hardly pushed from a place where it wasn’t.

Why do they care? Religious leaders believe, (and honestly so, I think) that even the act of asking questions is humanist in nature. Public schools teach children to question things. This is bad–the road to perdition. Soon children will question authority, their parents, their pastors, their church–and then the Bible. These religious leaders also know that if they can get to children early enough to make sure the imprint of religious faith is firmly impressed upon malleable minds, the child is theirs. And what better wedge to drive to accomplish their goal than that of “the religion of secular humanism” in the public schools teaching things that are “very unchristian.”

It is interesting, for example, that the Religious Right wants prayer in school, but not sex education. Sex education, they say, is a parent’s job. Well, then, what is prayer? We have sex education because parents don’t talk to their children about sex, but they will nevertheless insist their children go to Sunday school and pray.

The Religious Right has this backwards. We should leave religion to the parents and the church, and sex education to the professionals and the public schools. Or does the Religious Right think parents do such a lousy job of instilling religion in their children, that the public schools should teach that also?

To be sure, I know of no instances where prayer has prevented a pregnancy, yet sex education is targeted as part of “the humanist conspiracy.”

The secular humanist whipping boy

Evermore the Religious Right uses this argument to incite animosity toward public education. Some, such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and others have called for the complete elimination of the “evil public school system” in favor of charter, parochial, and private schools. The use by the Religious Right of a broad brush to paint a frightening picture has been so effective that this country is becoming splintered, “a ‘nation of strangers,’ characterized by isolation and disconnection.”[2] Ironically, the Religious Right proposes that the way to bring people back together is to pull them further apart into highly sectarian, tribal-like schools. Hence the picking and choosing of “the right” school for their children becomes one of separation from those parts of society deemed unworthy of association.

The neutrality of our secular system has been a boon for Christians. Consider that, of the millions of children who are educated in public schools each year, millions are or become Christians in that same period of time. Indeed, the public schools have become a virtual breeding ground for Christian outreach in the form of “student-generated” prayer clubs, Bible groups, Christian guest speakers, and distribution of tracts and pamphlets. And these are just a few of the overt religious activities in which students can engage under the guise of religious freedom.

I, for one, have a difficult time believing that students do much of this on their own accord. That a third grader,all by herself, thought up the idea of passing out valentines with the message, “Jesus loves you, pass it on”[3] is simply incredulous, yet I can certainly envision Mom and Dad seizing the opportunity as justifying the means. Undoubtedly many of these students are being encouraged from the pulpit and by their evangelical parents in an effort to push the envelope of religious freedom. If these Christians are so disenchanted with public schools, then why are they still sending their children if not to covertly proselytize, hoping to save their schoolmates from a certain hell?

Additionally, it has been my experience that many of the more-evangelical Christian teachers take advantage of their classrooms by wearing crosses and other personal items denoting their beliefs while knowingly inserting Biblical phrases or adopting such slogans as WWJD (“What would Jesus do?”) into their workaday world. I wonder what the equivalent would be for our humanist teachers? How about WWKD? (“What would Kurtz do?”).

I have yet to hear of a teacher disciplined or suspended for circulating secular humanist or atheistic slogans. But then I suppose that it could be said that this is part of the grand “conspiracy” of administrators, teachers, unions, and the state bias against Christianity.

Keeping our schools secular is the least-threatening, most-beneficial option. The fact is that humanism, secular or otherwise, is not being taught in the general sense of the word in public schools. That is not their mission. The mission of public school is to provide education to all children, regardless of religion; to provide a safe and productive educational experience; to instill citizenship and productivity as the means to success. Public schools teach the basics, offer a social base for children, and eschew religion-based courses for fear that they might just be encroaching on the job of parents and the church to teach religious dogma. The absence of Christian content is not proof of Humanist content in a school system that has the responsibility of teaching all children of all religions.

Look at these sentences:

1) See Dick pray. See Jane pray. See Dick and Jane go to church.

2) See Dick run. See Jane run. See Dick and Jane play with Spot.

Which “represents” secular humanism? Keeping in mind that “pray” does not necessarily mean to the god of your choice and that “church” does not necessarily mean the church of your choice, Which one would you like to see taught in public schools?


[1] “Is the religion of Secular Humanism being taught in public school classrooms?” at ChristianAnswers.net

[2] Dr. Gary Collins, National Liberty Journal, July 2002, p 1

[3] Mathew D. Staver, National Liberty Journal, July 2002, p 21

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