Secularism in Public Schools

One of the most hotly debated issues of the day is whether the religion of the public schools is Secularism. When the Supreme Court forbade the teaching of the traditional religions in public schools, did it, in doing so, establish religious neutrality? Or did it effectively establish a new religion called Secularism?

In compliance with the Court’s decisions, most public schools have banned the teaching of religion. In doing so, they have effectively suppressed the teaching of religiously-grounded moral values. This was the rather startling finding of a research team, directed by Jonathan Friendly, and was reported in the New York Times (December 1, 1985). Friendly wrote: “At a time of increased pressure from top federal officials and some educators and parents groups for public schools to teach moral values, many educators in the New York area say they deliberately avoid trying to tell students what is ethically right and wrong.” Friendly continued: “Values are much less discussed in public schools now than they were in the late 1960s, educators say. And specific courses in values or religion or democracy, once popular in high school curriculums, are now rare, in part because they are controversial and in part because there are few teachers trained to give them.”

For these reasons, courses in values are rare, indeed. But more important, such courses are rare because they challenge the accepted religion of Secularism. Dr. Robert Laber, the assistant superintendent of curriculum in Darien, Connecticut, put it bluntly: “It’s outside the scope of our charge to teach moral values.”

According to Jonathan Friendly, the teaching of morals is not only “outside the charge” of public education, it is prohibited. He wrote:

City and suburban schools alike forbid teachers to advocate personal values, particularly on topics of current controversy, such as abortion or disarmament. As a result, substance-abuse programs … do not teach abstention [a moral value] from drugs and alcohol as much as they teach a thinking process that would lead students to decide against drugs and drinking, the educators said.

In other words, public school teachers are forbidden to advocate such religiously-grounded moral values as freedom, justice, equality, and democracy. Neither can they teach students the moral, social, and economic evils of drugs, alcohol, and pre-marital sex. Nor can they teach students such moral values as recognizing the dignity of man, the sanctity of life, and the importance of responsible social relations.

This is what is meant by the secularization of our public schools: the suppression not only of the teaching of religion but also of religiously-grounded moral values. Forbidding the teaching of such values is virtually the same as teaching that those values are false, or at least irrelevant to man’s affairs. But Secularists in state education have taken a big step beyond suppressing the teaching of religiously-grounded moral values. They have effectively censored from text books virtually all references to the place of religion in Western civilization and in American history.

Dr. Paul Vitz, professor of psychology at New York University, headed a research team that conducted seven different assessments, covering the ninety textbooks which are most widely used in America’s public schools. Entitled “Religion and Traditional Values in Public School Textbooks: An Empirical Study,” the study’s purpose was to determine the values that are being taught to today’s students.

Consider treatment of religion in the sixth grade “world culture” texts from ten social studies series. In these texts, the long history of the Jewish people is neglected. Further, Jesus of Nazareth, indisputably one of the most important figures in history, is almost totally neglected. He is not mentioned at all in four books, and three others give Him but scanty mention. Only one book has any significant coverage of the rise of Christianity.

Most astonishing is the neglect of Protestantism in the texts. While three do not even mention the Reformation, those that do give it an extremely superficial treatment. Only two texts refer to the theological issues that inspired the great religious leaders during that period.

The Vitz team also examined eight high school American history texts used by eleventh and twelfth grade students. These texts consistently fail to recognize the great religious creativity in American history. None of them give serious coverage to conservative Protestantism over the past hundred years, or to the many positive contributions of Catholics and Jews to American life.

While none of the texts is explicitly anti-Semitic, many reveal a strong nativist, anti-Catholic prejudice. All of the texts recognize the significant early Catholic settling of Florida, the Southwest and California, and the Catholic presence in Colonial America. Eight of the ten make no reference whatsoever to Catholicism in the United States after 1800.

Finally, the New York University team undertook the examination of religion and values as found in the third and sixth grade reading texts. They reviewed every story and article — a total of 670 items — in the eleven texts for each of the third and sixth grades. The team made a shocking discovery: “There is not one story or article in all these books in which the central motivation or major content deals with religion. No character has a primary religious motivation … No informative article dealt with religion as a primary subject worthy of treatment.” Even more amazing, 16 of the 22 books contain no reference to God, Christianity, or Judaism.

The evidence of the Vitz research is compelling and profoundly disturbing. Most public school students — 60 to 80 percent depending on grade level — must use texts which have been censored of virtually all references to religion. Furthermore, this censorship occurs most often in those courses that are most important — on both the intellectual and the imaginative levels — in shaping the moral values of students.

When they were founded in the middle of the nineteenth century, the public schools were firmly committed to the Christian religion, or at least to Christian moral values. Today, they have become the mission schools of Secularism.

What, then, is Secularism? The well-known Protestant theologian, Robert McAfee Brown of Stanford University, is quite candid that it is, in essence, a kind of faith: “Secularism is itself a ‘faith.’ The object and content of Secularism’s faith may be, and indeed are, very different from the object and content of the faith possessed by a Catholic or a Protestant or a Jew, but a faith it is and a religion it is.” Former Harvard President Nathan M. Pusey confirmed this view when he told a graduating class that Secularism has “itself become a faith and raised a hope that man can through his own effort — without God — solve all the remaining problems which stand between him and a secular paradise on earth.”

Sir Walter Moberly, a British scholar, underscored the pedagogical impact of so-called religious neutrality on children. In The Crisis in the University he observed:

On the fundamental religious issue [the existence of God], the modern [school] intends to be, and supposes it is, neutral, but it is not. Certainly it neither inculcates nor expressly repudiates belief in God. But it does what is far more deadly than open rejection; it ignores Him . . . . It is in this sense that the [school] today is atheistic.

Dr. Luther A. Weigle, former dean of the Yale Divinity School, agreed when he said, “The ignoring of religion by the schools inevitably conveys to the children a negative suggestion … It is natural for them to conclude that religion is negligible, or unimportant, or irrelevant to the main business of life. “

Dr. Henry P. Van Dusen, former president of Union Theological Seminary, emphasized the essential role of religion in education in God in Education:

Religion is the determinative principle in the educational process as a whole, affecting vitally and decisively the over-all philosophy and content of the curriculum and of its every part, reflecting religion’s basic premise that God is the ultimate Ground of Truth in relation to which every segment of knowledge and all particular truths must be oriented.

Weigle maintained that not to teach religion is to teach that religion is irrelevant:

A system of public education that gives no place to religion is not in reality neutral, but exerts an influence, unintentional though it is, against religion … The omission of religion from the public schools conveys a condemnatory suggestion to the children …

Writing in Commentary, the late Dr. Will Herberg, former professor of philosophy and culture at Drew University, concurred: “Today the spirit of public school education is, by and large, Secularist, and even militantly so.”

Charles Clayton Morrison, former editor of Christian Century, noted this fact with evident pain when he wrote: “The public school is confessedly and deliberately secular. I am bound, therefore, to lay at the doorstep of our educational system the prime responsibility of the decline of religion and the steady advance of Secularism, another name for atheism, in America society.” Answering those critics who say that it is the function of the churches, not the schools, to teach religion, Clayton continued: “Protestant children in public schools are under an influence with which the churches cannot compete and which they cannot counteract. The public school presents the church with a generation of youth whose minds have been cast in a secular mold.”

Scholars no longer espouse the myth that our public schools are religiously neutral. They recognize that public schools now teach the religion of Secularism, and that this teaching is destructive of the Christian and Jewish beliefs of our children. But is Secularism legally a religion?

In the Torcaso case (1961), the Supreme Court said that “among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others.” According to this decision, Secularism is a religion under the First Amendment, and has all the rights and liberties of our theistic religions.

And the Supreme Court conceded in the Eversion case (1947) that Secularism is in fact the religion of the public schools. “Our public school,” it said, “is organized on the premises that secular education can be isolated from all religious teaching so that the school can inculcate all needed temporal knowledge …”

The establishment of Secularism in public schools does indeed make them the mission schools of Secularism, with unlimited opportunities to proselytize. In 1983 the Humanist, the journal of the American Humanist Association, published a prize-winning essay which expressed the conviction that “the battle for humankind’s future must be waged and won in the public school classroom by teachers who correctly perceive their role as the proselytizers of a new faith.”

The findings of the Vitz and Friendly research teams clearly show how effectively the Secularist proselytizers are carrying out this mission. Sir Walter Moberly made this point most emphatically:

It is a fallacy to suppose that by omitting a subject you teach nothing about it. On the contrary you teach that it is to be omitted, and that it is therefore a matter of secondary importance. And you teach this not openly and explicitly, which would invite criticism; you simply take it for granted and thereby insinuate it silently, insidiously, and all but irresistibly.

When we teach our children that religion is to be omitted from their education, we destroy the very foundations of our moral values. For, as Dr. Bernard Iddings Bell of the University of Chicago School of Divinity wrote:

Neither the Jewish nor the Christian morality is a natural morality: both recognize supernatural demands and rest on supermundance sanctions … If there is no God, to take obvious examples, free love is entirely defensible, and politics based on force is inevitable.

This forcible indoctrination of our public school children is having a most detrimental effect on our society, argued the late English historian Christopher Dawson, while lecturing at Harvard University, He exclaimed in Jubilee magazine that “the existence of this deadening blanket of Secularist conformity which is stifling the spiritual and intellectual life of modern culture” is “a new threat to human freedom which is more far-reaching and profound than anything the past has known.”

“The socialization and secularization of education,” wrote Dawson in The Crisis of Western Education, “has created an immense professionalized organ for the creation of moral and intellectual uniformity.” This is the ultimate suppression of freedom, the uniformity of the graveyard.

Our forefathers built America on the principles of pluralism and freedom, not on the totalitarian principles of enforced conformity and uniformity. “The American way of life,” wrote Dawson, “was built on a threefold tradition of freedom — political, economic, and religious — and if the new Secularist forces were to subjugate these freedoms to a monolithic technological order, it would destroy the foundations on which American culture was based.”

The Supreme Court stated these same principles of freedom most emphatically in the Barnette flag-salute case: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

Yet, by establishing the religion of Secularism in our public schools, the government has in fact prescribed what shall be orthodox in religion and morality, and is forcing our children to confess their faith therein.


  • Virgil C. Blum

    Virgil Clarence Blum, S.J. (1913– 1990) was an American Jesuit and professor of Political Science at Marquette University.

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