Can Public Schools Be Religiously Neutral?

Paul G. Kussrow and Loren Vannest

The Supreme Court ordered that all religious activities be removed from the public schools (Engel v. Vatale, l962) and in subsequent years strengthened its decision through further restrictions (Abington v. Schempp, l963; Stone v. Gramm, l980; Graham v. Central, l985; Jager v. Douglas, l989). Who can argue against neutrality? We who have a fundamental belief in God can point to the significant decline in standardized test scores, increase in student pregnancy, and violence in our schools since the Court's l962 decision. But the question remains, and has the Court been able to remove religion from the public schools or has only certain types of traditional (God based) religion been removed while non-God religions fill the vacuum? Is a religiously neutral public school education an oxymoron? Can individuals who think and work in what some term government sponsored institutions (public schools) truly be neutral and teach in what others hope will be religiously neutral zones?

While neutrality to the founding fathers of our country clearly meant neutrality between sects, e.g., Catholicism, Judaism, and various Protestant groups, more recent interpretations have extended the concept to all religious people in general. There is little doubt that the earliest common or public schools favored certain religious groups at the expense of others. While a limited number of the framers of the Constitution and Bill of Rights supported such practices, the majority wanted no one religion favored or sanctioned by the government. Thus we have the First Amendment. They clearly saw the problems citizens in other countries were experiencing when such practices were allowed. The founders never believed or advocated neutrality between belief and unbelief, God and atheism, absolutes and relativism. That perception was recently changed by the Supreme Court. The definition of neutrality as put forth by the Supreme Court, since l962, is the working definition we are concerned with.

The importance of influencing the value system of the school culture has been recognized by leaders throughout history. Abraham Lincoln felt the philosophy of the classroom today will soon be the philosophy of the government tomorrow! Adolph Hitler agreed when he stated, "Let me control the textbooks and I will control Germany." What is at stake is the minds and basic belief systems of the majority of the students--the future adults of America. The l960s generation are all grown up and their beliefs are now manifested in our government, our K-12 public schools, institutions of higher education, the courts, and throughout all walks of life. While much of mainstream America may still be operating on an earlier set of beliefs, it's the educated "elite", products of the Court's decision of 1962, who are interpreting and adhering to a profoundly different set of values and beliefs. The beliefs of these "elite" were often acquired through their many years of public school education. But were they, and the subsequent generations, being educated in neutral settings? Is there a massive collision of beliefs taking place, or about to take place, among the elite, mainstream America, and God based religions? What are the competing beliefs, world view systems, that are vying for the minds of America's youth?

What is Truth?

There appear to be three primary alternatives from which most American's choose to attempt to answer the basic questions of life, existence, purpose, and reality. Philosophy and religion blur when dealing with these basics, such as truth, while pointing to the ultimate questions and answers in life. The least evident, but growing philosophy/religion in America is pantheist. The more noticeable religions are the traditional Judeo-Christian and the Humanist philosophy. Although Eastern religious practices and Judeo-Christian sects are without a doubt considered by most as "religious", the labeling of Humanism or Secular Humanism as a religion, and possibly the dominate religion in our public schools, needs some clarification. Here the issue splits between those who believe in the existence of God and those who do not. Those of the Judeo-Christian background, who's practices and beliefs are no longer allowed in the public schools, do believe in God and will tell you so. This of course clashes with those who do not hold to a deity. Conversely the Humanist may or may not overtly tell you their beliefs. But is Humanism a true religion or are the traditionally "religious" people just calling it a religion because they can not share or practice their type of religion in the public schools? Although time and space does not allow for a full discussion of what constitutes a religion or what has been termed Secular Humanism, a brief discussion might point the reader in a direction to have these questions answered in depth and potentially to their own personal satisfaction.

Where does Humanism come from and why is it such a strong force in America? Henry M. Morris in his l989 work entitled, The Long War Against God, argues forcefully that evolutionism is the foundation of the humanistic, atheistic world view. The idea being that the final reality of life is indeed just impersonal matter--chance. From this line of human thought this philosophy/religion naturally flows into the external world as atheism-materialism-humanism including into the nation's schools and universities. Schaeffer asserts that those who hold to this materialistic belief in the final reality saw more quickly than their opposition, i.e., the Judeo-Christians, the conflict that was inevitable between these contrasting religions world views. He states:

The Humanist Manifesto I, showed with crystal clarity their comprehension of the totality of what is involved. It was to our shame that Julian (l887-l975) and Aldous Huxley (l884-l963), and the others like them, understood much earlier than Christians that these two world views are two total concepts of reality standing in antithesis to each other. We should be utterly ashamed that this is the fact.

Christians calling Humanists religious does not necessarily make it so. What do the Humanists believe and call themselves? It is true that all individuals base their decisions and actions on their world view, or base assumption, but what do the Humanists say is their view of themselves? While Humanists will admit when seriously questioned as to their base beliefs that they deny God and the supernatural and that the scientific method is the only sure method of arriving at knowledge--truth, they also come to the necessary theological conclusion that man is the supreme authority. Therefore it follows that there are no absolutes--no universal truths. Absolutes or concepts that are not modifiable by culture and circumstances are replaced by what the Jewish scholar Will Herber calls "the creeping conviction(s)" of the relativist. If there are no absolutes then the particulars are flexible and without real meaning--a shifting concept of truth. By denying the existence of God the relativist/humanist is confronted with the denial of truth. Since they see no moral standards, one cannot say anything is truly right or wrong. Humanists are ethical relativist, and if they are being consistent, they thus have to be consistently in conflict with the Judeo-Christian believers. Thus a blind faith in the scientific method and positivism, a de facto religious sect for the Humanist, becomes the source of all truth. Operating strictly within the framework of scientism the Judeo-Christian view on creation is automatically ruled out with evolution winning by default. Such a materialistic world view leads to a monistic view of man. Monism of course rejects the idea of a soul, that there is nothing special about the human mind, there is no immortality, and man is just a highly evolved animal. Since to the Humanist we humans are just complex animals is it little wonder that this belief system was championed by theorists of animal-conditioning such individuals as the Russian psychologist Pavlov or America's B.F. Skinner? These behaviorists believed a "stimulus-response" learning theory could be applied to the pre-industrial assembly-line model of American education. Thus we get its protege of classification schemes, levels of complexity (Bloomism) and mastery learning. Bloom and most education theorists of course believed that complex types of behavior are based on more simple kinds of behavior. Therefore the rationalized that instruction should proceed from one bit of learning to the next. This results in "units" of instruction, standardized tests at regular intervals, time and effort and repetition approaches, and a step-by-step instructional design. To date, there are over 10,000 "scientifically" developed programmed computer software "learning" packages that in essence say most people learn the same as pigeons, rats, and lizards. This humanistic approach to learning starts with the underlying assumption that man is inherently good, although humanistic historians and sociologists are having a difficult time explaining the discrepancies, and that people/students can be trained (S-R conditioned) to evolve into higher/better human beings. This approach to teaching and learning appears to be a non-neutral value advocated primarily by the Secular Humanist and it is receiving favorable treatment in our public supported schools, colleges, and universities.

But so as not to regress into the every day curricular reality and application of the Secular Humanist world view let us turn our thoughts to the "religious" nature of the Humanists. Blumenfeld states that: "Professor John I. Goodlad wrote that the curriculum of the future will be what one might call the humanistic curriculum and that it may become significantly evident by l990 or 2000." This prediction was indeed accurate in these authors' opinion. While Humanist Paul Blanshard writing in The Humanist, an article entitled, "Three Cheers for Our Secular State" says:

I think that the most important factor moving us toward a secular society has been the educational factor. Our schools may not teach Johnny to read properly, but the fact that Johnny is in school until he is sixteen tends to lead toward the elimination of religious superstition. When I was one of the editors of The Nation...I wrote an editorial explaining that golf and intelligence were the two primary reasons that men did not attend church. Perhaps I would now say golf and a high-school diploma. The Humanist magazine, as cited by Sowell, states, "I am convinced 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: a religion of humanity that recognizes and respects the spark of what theologians call divinity in every human being." We will not take the time to trace this humanistic educational "theology" through Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Dewey, Carl Rogers, and Abraham Maslow who all had a profound trust in the human organism. But this line of reasoning has given us such practices as values education, nondirective education, Drug Education, Sex Education, Death Education, Global Education but to name a few "conditioning" responses. This line of theology has some mainstream Americans asking for a return to the basics and to give back to the human service agencies, or others, such attempts at "social engineering." Although these examples of "religious" practices by the Humanist are forbidden by the First Amendment--i.e. "the establishment thereof" they are daily practices (established) in the public schools. Paul Kutz, a leading Humanist and signatory of the Humanist Manifesto II (l980) writes in its preface that, "Humanism is a philosophical, religious, and moral point of view." Kutz books call for the establishment of humanistic churches. Additionally, there is evidence that humanists consider themselves as a religion including the fact that four Humanist organizations call themselves religious. Noebel cites the Fellowship of Religious Humanists (300 members), The American Ethical Union (3,000 members), and the Society for Humanistic Judaism (4,000 members). The fourth source the American Humanist Association even has a religious tax exemption status approved by the Federal government. Nine times in the Humanist Manifesto I it calls Humanism a religion. Although the expression "religious humanism" is being dropped in recent Humanist publications, such thinking is not contrary to a Humanist since there is no fixed truth, but overt religious implications and terminology still exist. Including such wording as, "no deity will save us; we must save ourselves." Another quote can perhaps bring this relationship between public school education, religion, and the conflict between Judeo-Christian beliefs and Secular humanism into focus. John J. Dunphy writing in The Humanist states:

These (Humanist) teachers must embody the same selfless dedication as the most rabid fundamentalist preachers, for they will be ministers of another sort, utilizing a classroom instead of a pulpit to convey Humanist values in whatever subject they teach, regardless of the educational level--preschool day care or large state university. The classroom must and will become an area of conflict between the old and the new-the rotting corpse of Christianity together with its adjacent evils and misery, and the new faith of Humanism....

Since atheism is a religion under the establishment clause, (Malnak v. Yogi, l977), given the above facts, secular humanism must be considered a religion for the purposes of the First Amendment (Gove v. Mead School District, l985). Some Americans are and were disconcerted, especially God-based religious Americans, when the Supreme Court ignored the founding fathers' intent and reversed almost two hundred years of defining religion for purposes of restricting the federal government's authority in relation to religion. While it has been clearly shown that the First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion as well as religion and nonreligion (Epperson v. Arkansas, l968) and that there is no favoritism among sects or between religion and nonreligion (Walz v. Tax Commission, l970), such practices have not been applied to public education. By excluding more traditional (God centered) religions from public education the court has installed non-religion (human centered) religious practice i.e atheism and its prodigy Secular Humanism. Thus the Court has violated its own position of neutrality and it becomes impossible to apply the Court's original ruling. Although the State says it is firmly committed to a position of neutrality (Abington v. Schempp, l963) and that it will neither "advance nor inhibit" religion (Liberty v. Nyquist, l973) it in essence has created a legal fiction--a myth of religious neutrality. In these authors' opinion the Court has supported a national "religious" sect known as Secular Humanism that feels justified in using federal court interpretations of "separation of church and state" to persecute God-based religions. This fits nicely into relativistic thinking which can comfortably operate behind a mythical governmental wall originally meant to be a barrier to the Federal government from interfering in religious matters, and which allegedly stands between church and state. Thomas Jefferson's wall has definitely been infringed upon.

Admitting All World Views

James Sires' l976 work entitled The Universe Next Door states in its preface that, "For a person to be fully conscious intellectually he should not only be able to detect the world views of others but be aware of his own... and why in light of so may opinions he thinks it is true." Essentially what he and others are saying is the set of presuppositions (or assumptions) upon which a person consciously, or subconsciously, holds to be true about the makeup of the world needs self-examination. One's assumptions provide the lenses in which an individual looks at life, the filters from which he/she sees reality. These are the building blocks of what constitutes truth--or at least that individual's truth. Noebels definition of a world view points out its all encompassing nature and its religious/philosophical, and educational implications. He states:

The term world view refers to an ideology, philosophy,theology, movement, or religion that provides an overarching approach to understand God, the world,and man's relations to God and the world.

The point is we all have a world view even if we can not articulate it. We act in accordance with what we consider the ultimate truth for we cannot avoid forming a view. There is no such thing as being neutral to having a world view. C.S. Lewis wrote that: "An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate is useful. But an open mind about foundations either of Theoretical or Practical Reason, is idiocy." Failure to adopt an explicit world view in a philosophic position is in itself a world view. One may even be inconsistent in the application of one's view but all human thinking rests on basic assumptions or intuitions for it is impossible to think without them or to doubt all of them. Nor can one compartmentalize or privatize a person's world view, or religion, into secular and religious domains. For one's view of truth is not an isolated compartment of life to be brought out on certain days to be used as one wishes. Basic beliefs color all of one's life roles (vocational, avocational, spiritual, community, personal), in short all aspects of a person's life. Any discussion of a secular-religious distinction is self-refuting. For someone's values are always being advocated even in so called "neutral" settings. Benjamin Hart contends that everyone operates from basic presuppositions and those have religious implications. He states, "Man can never escape his religious nature." Religious neutrality appears to be an impossibility. A true oxymoron. Like government the public schools are administered by people who think, and in that thinking engage their world views. The question becomes should not all dominant world views be considered? Would not a relativistic thinker accept variant world views since they advocate no absolutes--including their own. And would not a absolutist be anxious to reveal his/her religious beliefs to show alternatives?

Neutral Exposure But Not Neutrally Religions

It is obvious that the traditional God based religions feel oppressed in the non-neutral setting of the public schools. Close to one-fifth of public school students (elementary through graduate school) attend traditionally religious institutions. This is only one workable paradigm. Could there be others? By recognizing the religious neutrality fallacy and providing an even playing field for all theologies to be openly admitted and expressed in the public school sector could be another alternative. Acknowledging that all humans have a spiritual nature and that different people seek spiritual truth in different ways would be a start. All major world views should be explained and discussed openly. Teachers and students would be encouraged to express their basis for reality and truth in a non-judgmental atmosphere. The implications of particular world views as they relate to various disciplines, life roles, reality, and existence could replace attempts at suppression, persecution, and enforcement of the mythical "neutrality." Under such a framework matters of the mind and the heart would be open to study. The antithesis between views would not change but accommodation would become possible.