Public Education Means Secular Education

Wayne L. Trotta

You hear often enough the cry from the religious Right that our schools are teaching secular humanism. What is this all about?

Having attended public school for twelve years and worked in a public school district for thirteen more, I seriously doubt whether one in ten superintendents, or one in a hundred school directors, could begin to tell you what secular humanism is, assuming they’d ever heard of it. Nobody is preaching, advocating, supporting, or even mentioning secular humanism in the district I work for, nor, I will bet, in just about any American school district.

While I can’t claim that my district is fully representative, it might still make a good case study when it comes to the issue of secular humanism in public schools. We are located in Pennsylvania, where, you may recall, the state legislature recently saw itself duty bound—in the midst of the most serious economic crisis since the Depression—to declare a State of Pennsylvania National(?) Day of Prayer and to proclaim the year 2012 the “Year of the Bible.” No doubt you have also heard the quip that Pennsylvania basically comprises Philadelphia on one side, Pittsburgh on the other, and Alabama in the middle. Well, this district is in the middle of that middle. This is hardly a place that is hostile to religion.

This is, after all, Amish country, where respect for religion means one needn’t bother about education past the eighth grade and where one is also free to drive a horse and buggy on a modern highway without having to outfit the vehicle with those graven-image orange triangles that might keep one’s horse and children from getting creamed by a three-ton Hummer. Tourists think all of this is quaint, which is all the more reason why those locals who refer to Amish society as something like 200 rules with 201 exceptions will cheerfully separate them from their money.

Religion is part of everyday life here. It is commonly known and accepted that some of our teachers gather to pray before the start of school. This occurs when no students are around, so “no harm, no foul.” Although “released time” was discontinued some years ago to conserve time for academics, at least one of our elementary schools reinstituted the practice just last year. I don’t think a week goes by when I don’t hear someone say something like, “Oh, yes, I know that student’s family; they go to our church.” And I often find that, just before leaving a voice-mail message, I am invited to “have a blessed day.” I think I know what this means, so I take it as intended and also with the hope that if a blessed day ever comes my way, when it arrives I’ll be at the racetrack.

As I write, at least three local school boards are being cited for conducting prayer before their regular meetings. And we are not very far from the Dover school district, where in 2005 a school board attempted to impose intelligent design creationism on students in, as it turned out, spectacularly unsuccessful fashion.

And yet, even in this area, just mention the Dover school board to school officials and the response is likely to be a head shake and a snicker that says, “Oh, those poor fools.” I don’t believe my district is perfect when it comes to First Amendment issues, but there does seem to be an understanding here that religion is a matter for home and church, not for the public schools. Prior to winter break, for example, teachers receive a bulletin created by the Anti-Defamation League explaining that holiday displays and activities must be chosen with all students’ beliefs in view, and that even the most traditional and popular of holiday rituals will be exclusionary and even offensive to some of our students. So, even in conservative districts where teachers pray and parents wish them a blessed day, the “public” in “public education” is generally understood to mean everybody, not just those who share the majority faith.


The religious Right would indict these people for teaching a doctrine—secular humanism—that most have never heard of and would reject if they did. In the eyes of the Christian Right, neutrality toward religion amounts to hostility toward religion, even when it is practiced by Americans who are so thoroughly religious that they practically assume everyone else is, too.

But of course the cry from the Right is not so much that our schools are teaching secular humanism as that prohibiting religion in our schools gives preference to the “religion” of secular humanism. In their view, secular humanism is the default religion of public schools, thereby bearing the government’s stamp of approval and leaving schoolkids with the impression that traditional religion is just not all that important.

How does the religious Right justify calling secular humanism a religion? David Noebel, president of Summit Ministries, has written (Free Inquiry, March/April 2012) that secular humanism is a religion because it is a “religious worldview” with a “theology—atheism” and its own “religious symbol,” the Darwin fish. Noebel uses the word religious a lot, as if he thinks this adjective carries such evidentiary weight that its mere utterance can be substituted for a cogent argument.

It seems strangely broad-minded of evangelicals to call secular humanism a religion when they are too stingy to refer to Mormonism as anything but a cult—certainly Mormons share more with them than secular humanists do. So-called cultists such as Wiccans, Scientologists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Rastafarians—even Pastafarians—would all seem to have better creds for official religion status than secular humanism. In fact, if secular humanism can be a religion, then anything can, and the word itself becomes meaningless.

Noebel is correct, however, to point out that both secular humanism and theism are worldviews. He would probably not object to my adding that all worldviews rest on assumptions that are at bottom untestable. It is perhaps for this reason that Noebel insists that all worldviews are necessarily religious. Secular humanists, for instance, are typically committed to naturalism and theists to supernaturalism, but we can no more prove that nature is all there is than believers can prove the supernatural real. But if this is the heart of the comparison, it establishes only a trivial similarity, not an equivalency, and Noebel’s assertion that all worldviews are inherently religious comes to seem more like a gambit than an argument.

However, even if we could prove to conservative believers that secular humanism is in reality the polar opposite of religion, they would still argue that excluding religion from public schools unfairly favors a secular worldview. They could also go a step further and make a case that religion can conduce to good morals, that good morals make for good citizens, and that, therefore, religion in schools would support one of the primary secular purposes of public education. George Washington, John Adams, and even Ben Franklin would likely agree. However, while the idea may sound reasonable, it is still the case that the Constitution protects religion as a private matter in which government-supported public schools should not interfere.

There are also some quite practical concerns, and they’ve been with us since the earliest days in the history of the nation and of public schooling. Back in 1834, for example, the Philadelphia Board of Public School Controllers responded to a controversy over sectarian practices in schools by issuing a set of resolutions. They noted that because parents alone bear the responsibility for the religious upbringing of their children, the rights of parents
“ought not to be interfered with, especially by a body exercising its authority by virtue of the laws of the commonwealth.” The Board went on to state its firm conviction of the “utter impossibility of adopting a system of religious instruction that should meet the approbation of all religious societies.” Further, because people of all sects paid taxes in support of the public schools, “the introduction of any religious or sectarian forms . . . must have a tendency to impair the rights of some,” while, on the other hand, injury to anyone was easily avoided by “confining the instruction in our schools to the ordinary branches of elementary education.” So it appears that, even 179 years ago, intelligent and articulate Americans had a full appreciation of the principle of the separation of church and state and of its practical importance in a pluralistic society.


Since their founding in the early nineteenth century, public schools have been a major force for unity in our individualistic society. As Benjamin Barber put it in The School Administrator (May 2004), our common schools put the common in commonwealth. Introducing a divisive force such as religion would undermine what is possibly the most valuable role public education can play for our nation. A public education must be a secular education.

Schools are preparing students to live in a world in which the secular language is the language common to all, whatever one’s religious or nonreligious beliefs. Secularism is the language of the classroom because it is also the language of the courtroom and the exam room, of the marketplace and the polling place. Because of its foundation in reason and evidence, a secular education is the only education that can inculcate the critical analysis, dispassionate argument, and problem-solving skills that are repeatedly cited as the key abilities for students entering the wider world in the twenty-first century.

The secular language is the common currency in which ideas can be exchanged and debated and in which the best ideas can win out. Secular arguments have the distinct advantage of being at least potentially resolvable. Religious arguments, based as they are on unfalsifiable claims, are not. This is, of course, one of the reasons religion is so divisive. Whatever you or I may feel in our hearts about a particular proposition, when objective evidence has the last word we have a chance of coming to an agreement, even if agreeing means one of us must change his or her mind. Religious arguments usually don’t end with minds being changed. How could they, when one’s personal identity hangs in the balance? And yet, as Sam Harris writes in The End of Faith, the capacity to change one’s mind in the face of new evidence and new arguments is the hallmark of a rational being—exactly the sort of being that we want every one of our students to become.

No school should prevent anyone from praying or reading the Bible, as long as the practice does not disrupt the school program. And all schools are perfectly free to teach about religion (and about secular humanism, too). But schools that include religious observances must realize that these are inherently coercive. The message to nonreligious students, or to students of religious minorities, is that in order to be true Americans they must be not only religious but, preferably, religious in just the way that most of their peers are.

A public education must be a secular education. The religious Right knows this, and thus they would prefer to undermine public education itself through voucher programs, promoting homeschooling, injecting Good News clubs into public schools, or crying to the Supreme Court about “viewpoint discrimination.” They are currently supported by a political climate in which anything public seems evil and by conservative politicians in whose minds carpooling is a form of socialism.

Do religious conservatives really believe that schools such as mine are actively promoting secular humanism? Do they really believe that secular humanism is a religion? I suppose anyone who believes Earth is only six thousand years old could believe anything, but I suspect that, to right-wing theists, it doesn’t matter whether they believe what they say or not. All they have to do is convince enough people and exploit the political power that comes with great numbers. In this, they may be their own worst enemy. As author John M. Barry recently wrote in The Nation (May 21, 2012), “When you mix religion and politics, you get politics.”

Our democracy depends today, as it always has, on public education. Education that is truly public must be all-inclusive, something that is only possible as long as a public education is a secular education.

Wayne L. Trotta

Wayne L. Trotta is a psychologist and frequent  reviewer for Free Inquiry.

You hear often enough the cry from the religious Right that our schools are teaching secular humanism. What is this all about?

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