Principles of Scularism and Freedom of Religion Do Not Limit Teaching of Truth in Public Schools—The Real Limit is Political

Dale McGowan, Jeff T. Haley

In a review of our book Sharing Reality in Free Inquiry (April/May 2018), Ronald A. Lindsay disagreed with our views on the topic of what may be taught in public schools. Lindsay argued: “There’s no need for schools to address the God question. And if there’s no need for schools to address this issue from one side, there’s no need to address this issue from the other side either. One of the key rationales for church-state separation is that the state has no competence in otherworldly matters.”

The rationale Lindsay describes has dominated secularist thinking for more than a hundred years. We state in our book that, for practical reasons, it will be best to continue to advocate this rationale in public policy debates for many more years to come. However, when one considers the importance of seeking and accepting the truth about all facts of reality (which we call “evidism”), this approach suffers serious philosophical flaws; we think it would be best to understand those flaws so that we do not reflexively apply the old rationale when it becomes no longer necessary.

The issue may be illustrated with hypothetical assertions that there’s no need for schools to teach:

1 – The Sun orbits around the Earth.

2 – The Earth is vastly more than 6,000 years old.

3 – The stories of the Norse, Greek, and Hindu gods are merely myths.

4 – All life on Earth evolved by natural forces without supernatural intervention.

5 – Humans evolved from apes and have no more divine qualities than chimpanzees.

6 – Heaven and hell do not literally exist.

7 – Humans have no souls that survive death.

8 – The stories of the god of Abraham are merely myths.

Each of the above assertions was once opposed by a popular religion. The first five of the assertions are now taught in many public schools.

Why is it that the last three assertions are not taught in public schools while the first five are? Although people will say it’s because the last three are not known for certain, this is not the real reason. All knowledge has an associated uncertainty. For people who never pray to a god, the uncertainty associated with each of the last three assertions is small enough that they rely on it as being true, and this is all that is required for truth.

The real reason is that a political majority accepts the truth of the first five assertions but not the last three.

Secularism protects the freedom to practice and advocate any religion, and this includes the freedom to teach false “facts” to children. Generally, secularism requires that the state refrain from telling adults that their religious facts are wrong or telling children that their parents are teaching them false “facts.”

But the state has a strong interest in the education of both children and adults and in teaching them all the conclusions of science. Should the state refrain from teaching facts that conflict with religious beliefs to implement principles of secularism? Should it refrain from teaching that the Earth revolves around the Sun, or that the Earth is much more than 6,000 years old, or that evolution, including the evolution of humans, is true?

Leading authors on the topic of secularism, such as Russell Blackford, argue that the state has no business teaching adults or children that facts asserted by various religions are wrong.1 They make an exception only for countering religious teachings that are likely to cause substantial harm. For example, these authors support teaching human evolution to children over the protests of parents because to do otherwise would cause harm to the children by leaving them scientifically illiterate.2 These authors would allow public schools to teach that there are no unicorns or leprechauns or that Zeus is only a myth, but they would allow secularism’s protection for freedom of religion to block teaching that there are no gods, souls, or afterlife, arguing that allowing children to believe these myths does them little harm.

For people who value the truth about reality (“evidists”), this rationale is deeply upsetting. The state should teach all scientific truths to all adults and all children, including the truth about souls and gods. There can be no political principles that block teaching of truth as understood by the scientific way of knowing.

At the present time, there are indeed limitations on which scientific facts that conflict with religion the state may teach. The resulting outcome argued by Blackford and other authors may be the best we can do in each particular case, but the theory asserted is wrong. Correctly interpreted, principles of secularism and freedom of religion do not answer these questions. These principles do not block the state from teaching any scientific truths, and they do not obligate the state to teach any scientific truths.

The relevant principle here is the principle of accepting the scientific way of knowing with respect to all facts (“evidism”). The principle of accepting the scientific way of knowing conflicts with complete freedom from having your government teach your children that your religious “facts” are wrong. How should these competing principles be balanced?

The answer is provided by political practicality. In an ideal world, the principle of accepting the scientific way of knowing would win out, and the state would teach all facts to all children and adults. However, so long as a voting majority believes any particular false “facts” asserted by religion, it is politically impossible to get the state involved in teaching against these “facts.” A political majority now believes the truth of human evolution, so this can be taught. However, in 2018, the public schools in the United States cannot teach that there is no god, no afterlife, or that people have no souls, because a political majority would block such teaching.

When cases presenting these conflicting principles are raised in the courts, such as cases in the United States striking down laws that prohibit teaching human evolution in public schools, the courts engage in legal sophistry with theories such as the assertion that principles of secularism stop the schools from teaching facts inconsistent with religion unless children would be clearly harmed. The courts cannot openly consider what a political majority in the country might believe, but this is what the judges are really thinking—or simply feeling as a member of that majority. Although they can strike down a law that prohibits teaching evolution, they will not be willing to strike down a law that prohibits teaching that the god of Abraham is a myth, because to do so would be exceedingly unpopular. And it may be impossible for individual judges who believe in that god and do not fully accept the scientific way of knowing (that is, who are not “evidists”) to even conceive of the correct answer.

It is proper that judges mask their real thinking with legal sophistry, so it is helpful to the courts and progress of human cultural evolution that authors such as Blackford help them by providing analyses they can use. Until a majority fully accepts the scientific way of knowing, it will help us move forward if authors such as Blackford provide helpful legal sophistry with their interpretation of the principles of secularism.

In our view—others disagree—the correct analysis of principles of secularism and freedom of religion is that they place no restraint on the state teaching scientifically validated facts that conflict with religious teaching. People are free to practice their religions and teach their children any factual assertions they like, but they have no grounds to ask the state not to teach conflicting truths validated by science.

The only limits on what scientific facts the public schools can teach are political. Once a political majority no longer believes that the Sun revolves around the Earth, the truth can be taught in public schools. It is the same for the age of the Earth, evolution of humans, the existence of hell, the existence of gods, and the existence of souls. As soon as a political majority no longer believes these things, we can teach the truth in public schools. In the meantime, it is political realitythat holds back public education. It will be an exciting day when a political majority accepts all the conclusions of science, including that no god is more likely to exist than leprechauns, so that all conclusions of science can be taught in public schools.

Principles of secularism do not require that we refrain from lobbying for teaching by the state of all facts to both adults and children. But we must accompany that lobbying with education of politically active adults, because we will never win the right to teach the truth without support from a political majority.

 


  1. Blackford, Russell. Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (Blackwell Public Philosophy Series), 2012 (p. 118, 145). Wiley. Kindle Edition. “The state should not consider the truth or falsity of religious ideas. Religious freedom requires that the state abstain from deciding which religion, if any, is correct … . The might of the state should not be used to impose, suppress, endorse, promote, or disparage any religious view … . The state should not be acting on the basis that it considers religious doctrines to be fantasies, falsehoods, or absurdities.”
  2. Blackford, Russell. Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (Blackwell Public Philosophy Series), 2012 (pp. 156–157). Wiley. Kindle Edition. “No child has a good scientific grounding unless she understands the basics of evolution. From a religion-blind viewpoint, then, the state should teach evolution in its public schools, and perhaps even require it in private schooling. It would do so if religion did not exist at all. The key value here is the welfare of children in a modern world that increasingly depends on science, and where scientific illiteracy closes off many careers.”

Dale McGowan

Dale McGowan is an author/editor of books, including Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, Atheism for Dummies, and In Faith and in Doubt. He was the founding executive director of Foundation Beyond Belief, a humanist nonprofit that raises funds for charities worldwide, promotes volunteerism, and organizes the humanist response to disaster recovery and international service.

Jeff T. Haley

Jeff T. Haley is an inventor, entrepreneur, chemist, clinical researcher, patent lawyer, public interest advocate, and former civil rights lawyer.


In a review of our book Sharing Reality in Free Inquiry (April/May 2018), Ronald A. Lindsay disagreed with our views on the topic of what may be taught in public schools. Lindsay argued: “There’s no need for schools to address the God question. And if there’s no need for schools to address this issue from one side, there’s no …

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