Rules Are for Schmucks: Pushing Religion in School

Your ten-year-old arrives home from school one afternoon breathless with excitement about the new social studies unit for next term.

They’re going to be learning all about narcotics!

Different classes and homework assignments will focus on each of the major varieties, like heroin, meth, and cocaine, while not ignoring oldies-but-goodies like PCP, Ecstasy, and grandma’s LSD. The curriculum is replete with case studies, prepared by experts in the industry who know their products best, of people who use and enjoy these life-enhancers.

The idea, of course, is not to persuade children to use any particular drug, but simply to give them the facts and tools they need to navigate through a world of ubiquitous drug use. “Narcotic literacy” is critical, we’re told, in a country that spends over $100 billion a year on illegal drugs approximately the same amount that we give to churches. A fair understanding of the narcotics industry is also essential for comprehending world events, from the poppy growers financing the Taliban to the narco-politics of our neighbors to the south.

As an open-minded humanist, you’re all in favor of your child learning things she doesn’t already know. The one thing that troubles you, though, is that nowhere in all the voluminous course materials is there equal time—or any recognition at all, in fact—for the lifestance of those who choose not to use narcotics at all. Although there are a few scattered references to the occasional negative aspects of drug misuse, they are overwhelmed by the positive image the industry is keen to project. When you raise this concern with the teacher, you are haughtily dismissed: “We’re following the national standard. This unit is about narcotics, not the absence of narcotics. Don’t be such an anti-narcotics bigot.”

Substitute “religion” for “narcotics” in the above fantasy, and you have the gist of the new guidelines for teaching about religion in the public schools from the National Council for the Social Studies. Here is a slightly tweaked quotation from the beginning of their report that demonstrates the new guidelines:

[K]nowledge about [religions/narcotics] is not only a characteristic of an educated person but is necessary for effective and engaged citizenship in an interconnected and diverse nation and world….The school strives for student awareness of [religions/narcotics], but does not press for student acceptance of any [religion/narcotic]. The school sponsors study about [religion/narcotics], not the [practice of religion/use of narcotics]. The school may expose students to a diversity of [religious/narcotics] views, but may not impose any particular view. The school educates about all [religions/narcotics]; it does not promote or denigrate [religion/narcotics]. The school informs the students about various [beliefs/narcotics]; it does not seek to conform students to any particular [belief/narcotic].

God industry shills would say this is a false analogy, because religion is good for you but narcotics are bad for you. However, victims of religious violence, censorship, sexual assault and abuse, money-grabbing, and science suppression are a bit less keen on how good religion is for you, while patrons of some milder narcotics like alcohol, marijuana, and nicotine would be legitimately unhappy if their crutch of choice suddenly vanished from the earth. Karl Marx chose his metaphor shrewdly when he said that “religion is the opium of the people.”

Many prominent humanists, including some writing for this publication, do favor the teaching of religion in public schools, and specifically praise the new national guidelines. I exercise my humanist prerogative to respectfully disagree, as I’ve written here, largely because of my expectation that an enormous proportion of teachers will consciously or otherwise use these classes as a forum for pushing their own views.

I now present the nitty-gritty of the new national guidelines as Exhibit A for my argument. They are overwhelmingly biased in favor of religion, and any student taught by even the most scrupulously neutral teacher in accordance with them will be shoved hard in the direction of supernatural faith. Do you think a ten-year-old who was exposed to the “neutral” narcotics course described above might be a bit more disposed toward trying some of that awful stuff someday than one who wasn’t? Do you think a ten-year-old from an (increasingly commonplace not-too-religious family would be just as affected by the kind of “neutral” course described below?

Example: The guidelines say to teach “how religious beliefs, practices, and communities are created, maintained, and transformed over time.” Notice any verb missing? The single most salient feature of American organized religion over the past twenty years has been its steady decline, with fully a quarter of us now disdaining it—a fact students won’t get if they’re taught in accordance with the guidelines.

Example: The guidelines say to teach the “central texts…of several of the world’s religious traditions.” Not a word, though, about teaching the central texts of those critical of religion, like Spinoza, Paine, Darrow, and Speckhardt.

Example: The guidelines state that a good religion course “affirms the credibility of particular religious assertions without equating them with absolute truths about the traditions themselves.” Affirms the credibility? The whole point of centuries of religious skepticism has been to question the credibility of particular religious assertions, not to “affirm” them. The virgin birth is not, in fact, “credible.” Then there’s that word “particular”—is it up to the teacher to decide which “particular” religious assertions to affirm and which to deny?

Example: “Identify which religious individuals, communities, and institutions are represented in public discourse, and explain how some are obscured.” How many evangelical or Catholic teachers will use this as a convenient jumping-off point for ranting about how the “mainstream media” shuts out God? How many of them will note that even though the nonreligious comprise a quarter of the population, every single member of Congress claims to belong to the other three quarters? (Any teacher who did so would be deviating from the guideline, which limits itself to the obscuring of “religious” individuals.)

Example: “Religious influences are embedded in cultures and not separable from other forms of human expression.” That’s what the God industry wants everyone to think, but it’s patently false. Saying that everything is connected to everything else dilutes the usefulness of the term “connected.” Baseball is probably “embedded” in submarine design somehow, but not in any way that’s worth expending precious brain energy on. Nor are “religious influences” connected in any substantial way worthy of study with chemistry, technopop, or antitrust law. That’s not a test answer that will get you a good grade in this course, though.

Example: “Describe and analyze examples of how religions are embedded in all aspects of culture and cannot only be isolated to the ‘private’ sphere.” Some of us think that religion darn well should be isolated to the private sphere. If you want to put up a crucifix or a nativity scene on your own lawn, go right ahead—but don’t demand the right to put it on public property paid for by people who don’t share your belief. Students who are subjected to this course may learn to think otherwise.

Example: “Understanding religions as dynamic, diverse, and influenced by and influencing a complex set of cultural factors.” Dynamic and diverse? Talk about begging the question… some of us think that compared to nearly every other institution in society, religions are about as static and uniform as you can get. Protestants call it “biblical inerrancy,” Catholics call it “unchanging truth,” Muslims stick to what the prophet Muhammad did on matters as personal as bathroom hygiene. As for “diverse,” well, it’s a dumb idea to be either gay or female in just about every world religion. If the guideline encouraged students to compare the “dynamism and diversity” of religion with other institutions of society, like business, sports, science, or even narcotics—that would be fair. But it doesn’t, because that wouldn’t help further the God industry’s goal.

Example: “Applying religious studies frameworks to issues faced by local communities to encourage civic engagement and protection of rights associated with religious freedom.” How tendentious can they get? Today’s great buzzword, “religious freedom,” is the code for discrimination against LGBTQ communities, women, disabled kids, and members of the wrong religion. There’s not even a hint in the guidelines of respect for the idea of uniform treatment under the law for everyone, regardless of their supernatural beliefs.

Maybe Robbie the Robot could teach about religion in an objective, neutral manner. Maybe a handful of humans could as well. But the people who wrote these guidelines, the leading lights of the whole profession, don’t fall in this category. They fall in the category of subtle but savvy pushers of religion on the young.

We are faced with some massively brain-twisting problems in the twenty-first century. Whether we should teach about religion in public schools is not one of them. Going back to the drug analogy, we should “Just say no.”