What Happened To The Promise Of A Humanist Manifesto?–Revisited
With the understanding that Humanists of Utah is a democratic organization that considers dissident views, I am writing this rebuttal to Bob Green’s article in the September 1993, issue of The Utah Humanist with the hope it can be printed in that publication so that members will be exposed to both sides of the issue.
I do not think we should be too quick to indulge in self-congratulation over the expression of support from the AHA President to President Wineriter of Green’s viewpoint in the article; I suggest there are some serious problems with the Editor’s expressed position that need to be addressed.
The article contains a good deal of invective criticism including name-calling, impugning of motives, and attacking of the character of writers of what Green considers to be objectionable pieces in the Grassroots News. He condemns “a militant anti-religionism, a rejection, (approaching hatred) of supernaturalism.”
I was puzzled as to what Green is talking about, since he fails to provide in the article a single specific example of the kind of writing that was upsetting him. Most Utah humanists, I believe, like me, do not take the Grassroots News, but do take The Humanist. Since he says that the offensive rhetoric was “encouraged by” the latter, I reviewed all the articles in that magazine from the September/October, 1992 issue to the present one.
I found that the articles on the subject he was referring to were informative: (1) describing activities and conditions promoted by some creeds and (2) including thoughtful analysis which indicated the implications of these for values cherished by humanists, such as religious liberty. The pieces discussed the need for freedom from religious libel and unfair and dishonest attacks by believers, fundamentalist and otherwise, and the absurdities of some religious beliefs, as well as the harm some of these do by promoting intolerance and persecution. Examples are the articles about Catholicism in the September/October, 1993 issue: “Sweet Land of Libertines? Fear mongering over Gays in the Military” in the May/June, 1992 issue; “The Great Satan of Humanism” in the September, 1992 issue; and the regular features, “Civil Liberties Watch” and “Watch on the Right.”
Green says, “Forget the insensate fight with the fundamentalists and old bugaboo of religion.”
If we did that, we would be signaling to the world that humanists are not concerned about the abuses perpetrated against people in the name of religion. We would also be abandoning the posture taken in the “Religion” section of Manifesto II, which forcefully criticizes traditional dogmatic or authoritarian faiths as doing a disservice to humankind and as harmful or inadequate in other ways. I suggest all humanists re-read this section.
The war in Yugoslavia is as much a battle of religious faiths between Roman Catholics (in Croatia) and Eastern Orthodox Christianity (in Serbia) as it is of ethnic intolerance; the Roman Catholic Church has established compulsory religious teaching and prayer in public schools in Poland; and Hindus and Muslims in India, spurred on by propaganda from the leaders of fundamentalist sects in both camps, are killing each other in large numbers.
Fundamentalist and authoritarian believers are unrelenting in their efforts to take control of the public schools and politics and to push their beliefs and practices upon others. Because of their tendency to practice thought control, their posture is a threat to freedom of speech, religion, and the press, as well as to the separation of church and state, principles which humanist support. They also continually spread misrepresentations about humanists.
It is obvious that we are talking about good guys here and we must not critique them and their activities.
Green argues for Roy Wood Sellars’ “basic interrogation of human life,” a concept with which I have no argument; but I question this author’s second point, which entails a change in dominance from attacking supernaturalism to describing humanism within a “new framework,” in which belief in supernaturalism simply fades out. Not many people in the United States have experienced this fading out, if we can go by public opinion polls. If people believe their traditional creeds provide the definitive answers to the important questions, are they likely to look any further for answers? Probably not.
The people who most influenced me toward humanism were such as H. G. Wells, Thomas Paine, Mark Twain, and Bertrand Russell who pointed out candidly that much in traditional creeds consists of superstitious and magical belief and blind obedience to authority. In everyday life I encounter many people who seem unaware of the potential for mind-control of these features of faith. How are we to make human beings aware of the problem, if we do not call their attention to it, as Manifesto II does?
Green believes we will persuade more people to humanism if we drop the fight with fundamentalism and authoritarian religion. His assumption is questionable. Even if it were correct, are people who cannot face the facts about traditional faith really very promising as recruits to humanism? Actually, he is asserting an accommodationist position toward such faith. Such soft-pedaling may offend fewer people, but we are being something less than forthright in telling the full story of what we are about if we engage in it. It is better to state our case fully and candidly.
Religious Freedom: America’s First Liberty Preserved Through Separation and Education
Introduction: Perilous Times
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” It is not by chance that these precious sixteen words are the first words of our Bill of Rights. These words were meant to be first. It is our most valuable liberty; it is our freedom of conscience.
Our nation was formed in perilous times. There was no assurance that it would succeed. When the Founding Fathers gave us the immortal words, “All men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” they put their very lives on the line. These words express the founding Father’s unequivocal belief of a relationship between God and Human Rights.
What is an unalienable right? Surely it is full religious liberty. Surely it is freedom of conscience. At an earlier time, when religious liberty was granted in the Virginia Assembly, Madison wrote to its author, Jefferson, who was then in Paris, “The enacting clauses passed without a single alteration, and I flatter myself to have in this country extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.”
Those perilous times were preceded by a century of religious wars in Europe, fought over attempts to control the human mind. Freedom from religion and freedom for religion weighed heavily on the minds of those who crafted our great constitution.
When our preamble stated: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” its authors knew it was a noble experiment! That this noble experiment has lasted for two centuries does not mean it will endure through its third century. I submit that we again live in perilous times.
Tragically, much of the world is torn by religious conflict. By one count, 14 of the 27 current wars in the world are deeply rooted in religious differences. We are not Bosnia, we are not the Middle East, we are not Ireland, but we do face a cultural breakdown. We are at war with ourselves. Bitter contentions over religion in public life erupt around us, extremes have surfaced, and in many areas of our land any sense of the common vision for the common good has been lost.
The desire to force the human mind still “runs amuck” in our own country.
How We Arrived At This Difficult Situation
An understanding of the educational and religious history of our country can not give anyone the idea that our past has been rosy: Political parties were formed in defiance of religious liberty; Irish Catholics were severely persecuted; My great-grandfather and many of your progenitors came to this barren land to have freedom of worship.
After World War II, the Supreme Court heard a number of cases involving schools and religion. Landmark cases in the 50’s and 60’s, such as Engel v. Vitale, Abington School District v. Schempp, Lemon v. Kurtzman, etc., produced many questions. Can we have a State prayer in school? Can the Bible be read to all students at the beginning of the school day? Can we just have a moment of silence for each child to recognize God in his or her own way? Can taxes pay for transportation of Catholics to school? These struggles about religion and the schools are not new and never have been.
The Removers and the Restorers
When the Supreme Court made these decisions (and in my judgment correct decisions), it left in the minds of the public and the teachers, administrators, and School Boards that it was illegal to talk about Religion. Unfortunately, they appear to have not read the cases. I quote from Abington v. Schempp (1983):
“It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of Comparative Religion or the History of Religion and its relationship to the advancement of Civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of Religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”
What happened? Many people became so concerned that Religion in the classroom was illegal that the subject was removed from the curriculum and it was “voided” from textbooks.
On one side of the playing field is the extreme left. It would remove all reference to Religion from the public place and particularly from education. For thirty years we were dominated by the “removers,” and all are silent on matters of Religion. Now we are “fraught with peril” from the Right. These “restorers” would demand Religion return to the public place and the schools. These are angry people and they are political, they are organized, they are well financed. It leaves us a litigious society. By and large, State legislatures are dominated by conservatives, and they take up the Fundamentalist cry.
The Breakdown of The Wall of Separation
Back in 1802, the Danbury Baptists deeply resented a legislature that presumed to pass laws regulating Churches and taxing citizens for the support of Religion. They sought the same liberty of conscience that Roger Williams had opted for when leaving Massachusetts for Rhode Island. In their letter to Jefferson they stated:
“Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty—that Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals—that no man ought to suffer in the name, person or effects on account of his religious opinions—that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor.”
Jefferson’s answer to their concern contained the significant words he borrowed from Roger Williams: “The Wall of Separation.” This metaphor was used repeatedly in the courts of our country to prevent government from the “Establishment of Religion.”
The most blistering attack on the use of the Jefferson metaphor came from Justice William Rehnquist in Wallace v. Jaffree in 1985. The Alabama Legislature attempted to authorize a moment of silence in public schools. Justice Rehnquist dissented from the Court’s decision prohibiting this exercise, and wrote that the clause, properly understood, “requires government to be strictly neutral between religion and irreligion, nor does that clause prohibit Congress or the States from pursuing legitimate secular ends through non-discriminatory sectarian means…” He thought the “wall” image should be given up entirely. He further wrote:
“The wall of separation between Church and State is a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor which has proved useless as a guide to judging. It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned.”
In more recent cases his opinion has prevailed. Probably the most frightening is the Smith case in Oregon, where the Supreme Court upheld the State Legislature in the restriction of the use of peyote in Native American religious ceremony. It made no difference that the use of peyote as part of their religious ceremony preceded the coming of European and Africans to America, or that peyote is a nasty substance that has no market value as a drug. (I have not heard of one case of a person’s life that has been corrupted because of an excessive use of peyote.) It is now simply and starkly illegal for Native Americans to use peyote in their religious worship.
Changes in The Rules of The Game
Equally, or more frightening, the Court severely weakened the “Lemon” test of what constitutes appropriate religious activity in the schools. For several decades this test was used to determine if a statute met the First Amendment standard. First, does the statute have a secular legislative purpose? Second, is the principle and primary effect to neither advance nor inhibit religion? And third, does the statute foster an excessive government entanglement with religion? The Smith case, prohibiting the use of peyote, changes the rules of the game. Local legislatures now are more able to make these fundamental decisions than are the courts.
What Freedom does this give? How can we depend upon state legislatures for religious liberty? This vital issue is currently before Congress to seek a remedy from the extreme position of the Supreme Court. We do not want to depend on some State Legislative body to determine whether a religion has the right to build in a given city or for instance, that it is illegal for youth to partake of sacramental wine.
The Question of Religion in The Schools
Cultural diversity makes this issue more critical. Most high schools on the Wasatch front probably have a Muslim student attending school with Jews, Catholics, Protestants, all with a majority of Mormons. Does the First amendment apply to everyone? What accommodation can schools make for Friday worship of the Islamic people? How can we solve religious holidays so our Jewish or Hindu neighbors will not be offended? We are housing children, not educating them, when students are not legally free to explore their religious similarities and differences. How can we expect them to live together in “domestic tranquility?”
Many Americans are angered by what they see as a loss of morality in the schools and they show a hostility, not neutrality, towards religion. The familiar charge is that the religious establishment has been replaced by secular humanism, or more recently, “new age religion.” There are competing visions of America: Who are we as a Nation? Whose values will prevail?
Questions schools must answer are many. What are they supposed to do about prayer at graduation? What control do they have over the lack of religious reference in textbooks? What do they do when a legislature demands that they teach Creationism as part of the curriculum? What about sex education and religious and moral beliefs? Isn’t abortion a religious issue every bit as much as it is a political issue? What do we do with religious holidays? Is it okay for a school choir to sing the religious music of Christian history?
There is enough here to strike fear into school personnel. In the minds of many, the very mention of Religion means litigation. Emotional debates among parents, teachers, and school board members cause great concern for those with legal responsibilities. The debate has been dominated too long by the restorers and the removers. The time as come for a new approach, a new vision for public education that offers a new understanding of the proper role of religion in the schools.
A New Approach
It is ludicrous to think that anyone can have a complete education without an understanding and knowledge of religious belief. This does not say that people need be religious. To not understand religion is to be ignorant, and no nation can survive ignorance! George Mason in the Virginia Declaration of Rights wrote: “No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people…but by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”
This first principle that any logical, rational, or spiritual person must agree with is, in my judgment, that no religious consensus is possible, but civic consensus is mandatory if we are to survive as a nation!
The First Amendment offers that possibility!
The three R’s of Liberty are:
Rights: freedom of conscience for all. A person’s conscience is the same as “free agency,” and this is what makes each person unique. We cannot sustain legislation that forces the human conscience.
Responsibility: protecting the rights of others, especially those with whom we disagree.
Respect: accepting each others differences. The right to be wrong. Debate that is civil. How we disagree on these issues is as important as the issues themselves.
Schools traditionally have been America’s hope for the future. A firm case can be made that it is the one institution that allows the “kid on the other side of the track” to compete with those of greater affluence for social and economic betterment. Our schools must be used to cement together our cultural diverse future.
Schools Can Accomplish A Return To Civic Decency
The religious liberty clauses of the First Amendment provide the civic framework for teaching about Religion in the public schools. Teaching about Religion is not indoctrination. A recent report by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development described the place of Religion in the curriculum:
“The proper role of religion in the school is the study of Religion for its educational value. The task is to teach about Religions and their impact in history, literature, art, music, and morality. It seems natural that the art curriculum, for example, must pay attention to the impact of Christianity on the work of Michelangelo, just as a history class focusing on the Colonization of American must pay attention to the Religious upheaval in Sixteenth-Century Europe that fueled that colonization.”
And, the National Council for the Social Studies has stated:
“Knowledge about religions is not only a characteristic of an educated person, but it is also absolutely necessary for understanding and living in a world of diversity.”
Public school teachers must have a clear understanding of the crucial difference between the teaching about religions and the teaching of Religion. It is as essential for professional teachers to be trained in this area as it is in any area of their civic responsibilities.
I have discovered that there is a broad coalition of educational and religious organizations which have distinguished between teaching about religion and religious indoctrination. In part, the guidelines are:
- The approach is academic, not devotional.
- The emphasis is on awareness and diversity of religious views, and does not press for student acceptance of any one religion.
- The study is about Religion, not the practice of Religion.
My experience tells me that Utah teachers are eager, capable, and “improved” when they have received training using these guidelines.
I believe America to be the most fortunate of all Nations. We do not have a single religion imposed upon us and we are not denied the expression of a variety of religious beliefs. In our own way we are the most religious nation on the earth. Religious opportunity is healthy in America because it operates in a free economy.
Religions are a part of the political atmosphere and our social fabric. We cannot be free and restrict the right of Religions to advocate their political agenda. This is true whether they be Moonies, Mormons or Muslims. However, all must work within the civic rules of our Republic. How we resolve our differences, especially our deepest differences, will determine the future of our schools, and the destiny of our Nation.
I personally believe that Religion generally improves people when it is used with intelligence and humility. When the beliefs and practices of many faiths are a part of the school curriculum, and when appropriately taught, I believe our Nation becomes better. It is most imperative that we understand the conscience of our neighbors. Maybe when we do we will understand ourselves.
About the author: Ray Briscoe has a Ph.D. (1970) in Education, specializing in Social Studies, from the University of Utah. He has taught in the Davis School District, at Westminster College, and presently is employed by the Research Division of the LDS Church. He was a member of the Davis County School board for 12 years, and is a National Advisor to the First Liberty Institute, a part of the Williamsburg Charter. He has conducted workshops for public school teachers on how to teach about religion in the schools.