Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Secular Education Is Not Religious Persecution

When I was teaching, I did not serve lunch during my class. None of the teachers in the building did. That does not mean that we forbid our students to eat any lunch at all during the appointed time. It doesn't mean that we were somehow suggesting that food is a bad idea, that they would be wrong to eat. It just means we left that part of their life empty and unclaimed, available to be filled by them at the proper time with the food of their own choosing. We can talk about food, about how it operates in society, maybe even talk about our personal preferences. But none of that meant I was going to serve up my preferred dish and demand they eat it. 

When I was teaching, I did not provide matchmaking services for my students. I did not fix them up with classmates or try to steer them to what I judged to be appropriate life partners. That does not mean I was suggesting that they should never date or enter a relationship with anyone ever. It just means that that particular portion of their life was something I left alone, for them to address, or not, as they wished in their own time and their own way. 

The repeated complaint from certain sorts of christianist advocates is that secular education-- education that takes place on the state side of the church and state wall-- somehow pushes "atheism as a state-sponsored religion."

That's baloney.

Secular education, like my lunch-free and non-matchmaking classroom, is education that simply leaves a space for students and their families to fill as they think is best. 

We might discuss religion (as a teacher of US literature, I couldn't avoid it), but as a secular educator, it was never, ever my job to suggest or require that a particular set of religious beliefs are correct. It was never my job to serve up my own faith for them to consume, willing or otherwise. That space, that religious faith-based part of their being, was (like many other personal spaces) theirs to fill as they saw fit. The absence of religion does not mean the presence of atheism.

Why do christianists insist that this sort of secular education is such a terrible threat to religion, some sort of government-enforced atheism?

A generous explanation would be simply that they simply believe so strongly in the correctness of their faith that they can't help but want to push it on others. That they see those who believe incorrectly as reckless drivers racing full bore for the edge of a cliff, and they can't just stand by and let that happen.

Or maybe it's a belief in a collectivist fate, the notion that a nation's citizens must follow the proper god in the proper way or suffer a disastrous national fate. A sort of spiritual socialism.

Or the less generous explanation, which is that they enjoy the power of being the dominant cultural and religious group and they are scared and angry in their bones about losing all that. Even less generous--we're talking about christianists who believe that freedom to exercise their religion must involve freely discriminating against and condemning all those with whom they disagree.

But what I find most striking about all of these is that underlying them is a lack of faith in their faith. These are followers of a tiny god, a god who depends so heavily on having followers train up more believers that this god could not survive without them. Schools should train young believers and fill that space for faith constantly and completely because... what? Because if schools don't do that, young folks would naturally not take to the True Faith? We need to enforce official school prayer and Bible reading because if we didn't, students would never pray nor read the Bible on their own? Because God's authority and appeal are so limited that a non-believing third grade teacher can overpower them?

It strikes me as a meager faith, a faith that needs human-exercised authoritarianism to survive, as if somehow the majesty and grace of God are inadequate to overcome human obstacles. 

Which is an even more problematic idea since a secular, non-sectarian school presents the exact opposite of obstacles to faith. Secular schooling, following the First Amendment, simply doesn't endorse any particular faith, leaving that space open and ready to be filled as the student chooses to fill it in whatever time and manner they choose. It may just be my own faith talking, but I think that space will be best filled by use of heart and mind and free will with which God gifted them, and not by force-feeding from the hands of humans.

1 comment:

  1. As a science teacher, I can perhaps offer another reason for the christianists' insistence that secular education is in conflict with their religious beliefs. Many of the scientific concepts that show up in my high school classroom certainly do conflict with their fundamentalist religious views. When I discuss evolution, Earth history and deep time, astronomy, climate change, and the inclusion of humans as animals in the great web of life, I am putting out secular, scientific facts and theories that are in direct conflict with what they believe and want their children to believe. So I can understand in some ways why they oppose secular education with such fervor. For them, what I teach is the same as atheism because it denies the god and the worldview they espouse. The fact that it is grounded in solid science, based on evidence and tested theory, is immaterial to them. They see it as a countervailing faith that threatens their own. But even more than that, it gets back to the points you make above, that they want to impose their religious views as the only legitimate ones and feel justified in this because the secular world of science so opposes these ideas as the unscientific and counterfactual things they are.