the odd clock IRREGULAR TIMES

An Irregular Relationship:
Religion, Science and Public Schools

On Wednesday, September 12, the following message was posted on our Irregular Retorts discussion board by a person calling themselves "oicu812" (Oh, I See You Ate One Too):

I would like to know what your answer is to the problem of religion being forced onto children in the public school system?
You want to take "under God" out of the pledge. That goes against my religion I believe that this nation is under God and my religion requires me to make that known among men.
You don't want prayer in schools but my religion tells me that I should pray throughout the day and that praying in groups will produce the Holy Spirit.
I understand that you do not want religion to be forced on your children but in removing my religion you are forcing your beliefs on my children. Atheism is a belief system. Leaving God out specifically goes against my beliefs.
Evolution is a belief system and it goes against my religion. I do not want my tax dollars paying to indoctrinate my children with the beliefs of others.
I propose privatization of the school system and a complete voucher system to be used. Each parent would be able to send their child to the school of their choice. Private schools can teach a child better and for less than the public school system.
I'm interested in your input. Keep in mind that this thread is not intended to argue my religion but to get your views on how the schools in America should be

The following response is offered by Irregular Times contributing writer J. Clifford Cook:


I'm glad that you wrote us this message, because it provides the opportunity to clear up some misunderstandings about what it means to maintain the secular nature of our nation's public schools. You state at the end that you do not intend "to argue my religion". Nonetheless, you cite your religious beliefs as justification for your proposal of school privatization. Because you're using your particular religious beliefs as premises for changes to the public schools, I'm going to have to refer to the way that those beliefs will affect the basic nature of public schools. However, I'll refrain from making arguments about whether your religion is true or worthwhile in itself. I hope that this approach will honor the intention of your questions while not allowing your religious beliefs to stand as unquestionable foundations for public policy.

The current status of religion in PUBLIC schools

Keep in mind as this issue is discussed that there are no parts of the Constitution of the United States of America, laws or regulations banning the practice of religion in public schools. What the Constitution, legal precedent and local regulations ban is the official promotion of particular religious beliefs or religion in general by the government through the public schools. Remember that public schools are governmental institutions funded by mandatory taxation of the entire population, and as such must follow the guidelines for Constitutional behavior of government-funded and government-operated organizations. Thus, rules and practices set up by public schools and by public school teachers or other employees may not promote religious beliefs. However, individual teachers are allowed to practice their religious beliefs individually, so long as that practice does not involve the harassment of others at the school or significantly interfere with the operation of the public school's academic agenda. For example, Muslim students in public schools are allowed to pray at the specific times of day that their religion calls for, either in private or in the classroom itself. Similarly, Christian students are allowed to form religious study groups to meet after school, so long as those groups are not promoted by teachers during school hours. On the other hand, it is unconstitutional and illegal for teachers to lead public school students in religious activities because such leadership uses the governmental authority of the teacher in a coercive manner. Christian students also may not use loudspeakers at public school events in order to force everyone else, including non-Christian students, to listen to their prayers. The idea is that everyone at a public school ought to be able to follow their own individual beliefs without being forced or pressured by the school to participate in any religious practices. The separation of church and state established by the First Amendment of the Constitution thus ensures that religion in public schools is a matter of individual conscience and mutual respect.

What I just described is the ideal, and is what the First Amendment to the Constitution requires. Unfortunately, many religious organizations and individuals seek to abuse the institutional power of public schools in order to promote their particular religious beliefs to the captive, and often unwilling, audience of public school children. As a researcher visiting public schools, for example, I have observed many teachers give extra credit to children who attend church on Sunday. Other teachers have their entire classes listen to passages from the Christian Bible during reading times. I observed one principal bring her entire school together for an assembly at which a Christian minister gave a religious sermon admonishing all students to go to church and blaming non-Christians for problems with drugs and crime in the larger community. In this larger context, many school districts across the country have official policies which establish the prayers of particular religious groups as mandatory activities for all students, or require all students to pledge an oath to the rule of religious beliefs over American government in the revised version of the Pledge of Allegiance. Such abuses show a disrespect for the democratic foundations of our nation, undermining the freedoms established in the Bill of Rights.


The following paragraphs respond to your statements in order, point-by-point:

You want to know what our answer is to the problem of children being forced to observe others' religious beliefs in the public schools. That's an easy one: we want the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States to be strictly observed. We want every public school student to be able to learn serious academic material without being subjected to religious propaganda. We want religious groups and individuals to stop trying to use public schools as a recruiting grounds. We want public schools to be secular, which means that we want public schools to be promote only academic education, not religious belief. This stance is not an attack on religious belief. It is merely official non-observance of religious beliefs.

You suggest that it is against your religion to not have an official, government-sanctioned pledge of allegiance to the idea that the United States of America exists "under God." Well, that's interesting, but it's against the religion of Muslims to eat pork. Would you suggest for that reason that all public school students should be forced to eat only pork-free meals while at school? If what particular citizens believe as a matter of religious faith were allowed to dictate the activities of government, then how would we choose which religions to observe at which times? Some religions promote contraception, while others forbid it. How would you have the government choose between these two religious perspectives and decide which one to encode in official law? Surely, you must be aware that many religious groups oppose the Pledge of Allegiance and forbid their followers to say it. Other religious groups believe that there ought to be a strict separation of religion and government. So, you happen to believe in a different way. If you believe that the United States government is really "under God", can you tell me how we're supposed to tell which God it is under and how we're going to break the news to all the millions of religious Americans who don't believe in that God? You write that "I believe that this nation is under God and my religion requires me to make that known among men." Fine. Go make your beliefs known among men if you must, but don't ask for the government to help you and let children study in public schools without harassing them, all right?

You're wrong when you state that the staff of Irregular Times does not want prayer in schools. What we don't want is for religious groups and individuals to usurp the governmental authority of public schools in order to force or coerce public school students to participate in their religious rituals. If a public school student believes as you do that it is necessary to pray all day long, I say that this student has the right to do so. The student will get a sore throat and will have extremely poor grades because of an inability to pay attention to what's going on in class, but fine. I would only ask that the student not show disrespect to the teacher and other students by praying aloud all day long during lectures or class discussion. Perhaps the student could arrange to use a special private space for the all-day-every-day prayers. You state that you believe that praying in groups invokes the "Holy Spirit". Please recognize that many public school students don't even know what you mean when you say "Holy Spirit", much less believe in it. If groups of religious public school students want to meet in school outside of academic class times to pray together, there's nothing illegal about that, so long as they don't bring in people from outside the school to participate, coerce others to participate, use school resources to promote the meetings, or force teachers and other students to interrupt their studies to wait for them to finish. I do believe, personally, that large prayer sessions are tacky and rude because they're intended as ostentatious displays to non-believers, but that's a matter of style, not constitutional rights.

When you state that refusing to allow religious groups to force their beliefs on other students results in forcing non-religious beliefs on religious students, you set up a ridiculous chain of illogical assumptions. Do you really mean to suggest that the only way to respect the beliefs of public school students who share your religious beliefs is to allow religious groups to force and coerce all public school students to engage in your chosen form of religious worship? If so, it must be tiresome to belong to a religion that requires you to force other people to convert to your way of thinking whether they want to or not. Allowing a religion to seize control of governmental institutions even though it seeks to convert all those who are not members by any means necessary would effectively kill democracy in the United States and replace it with a theocratic dictatorship much like the Taliban enforced in Afghanistan.

Another set of illogical oppositions you refer to is the false choice between using the power of public schools to force children to engage in religious worship or promoting atheism. First of all, removing public school mandates for religious worship does not lead to promoting atheist attitudes. All that we at Irregular Times ask for is that public schools stop promoting religion. Are you suggesting that the only way to get people to commit to religious belief is to use governmental authority to coerce them? If so, you're suggesting that when people are given the free choice, they would rather not be religious. This is hardly a strong argument in favor of the promotion of religion by the government.

I'd also like to know what you believe "atheism" to be. You say that it's a belief system, but you couldn't more wrong. First of all, there really is no such thing as atheism as a system. There is no central atheist authority to which all atheists show allegiance. There is no book that defines what it means to be atheist. There's no system of beliefs that atheists share. In fact, the only thing that atheists share is that they do NOT believe in the existence of theistic beings (gods). To suggest that such a lack of belief amounts to a belief system is as ridiculous as saying that everyone who is not a member of the New York City system of public libraries belongs to an systemic organization of non-New-York-City-public-library-members! Being atheist means only being without theism. That's it! Irregular Times has never promoted public school programs to get people to abandon their religious, theistic beliefs, and we don't know of anyone who has. We're only asking that religious groups stop abusing the system to promote their own beliefs and practices.

It may be that leaving God out of the schools (as you put it) goes against your religious beliefs, but then again, you're missing the point that the public schools do not exist in order to cater to your religious beliefs. If there was a family in your public school district that had a religious belief that everyone must wear red hats, would you support their right to force all public school students to wear red hats? No one is saying that your children have to leave their religious beliefs behind when they go to school. If they want to invoke God by praying before they start each class, they're free to do so. Public school students are free to behave in religious ways as much as they want, so long as they do so on their own independent initiative and do not try to coerce others into joining them. In our democracy, your rights to religious expression do not include the right to force everyone else to follow your religious beliefs. In fact, by preventing the government from promoting particular religious beliefs, the rights of individual public school students to observe or not observe according to their own wishes is strengthened, not weakened! In every theocracy, religious freedom has been less than what exists in democratic secular states.

Evolution is certainly not a belief system. It is a scientific theory built upon premises that have been rigorously tested according to the degree that they fit with cold, hard facts. Religion, on the other hand, is founded upon faith - what people feel like believing. The two could not be more different. Religions are complete systems that purport to hold absolute truth about everything. Evolution is an academic paradigm that has been constructed according to strict scientific standards of logic and reliance upon reliably testable information. Evolution does not purport to tell people what is moral and what is not moral. Religion does. Evolution does not involve the establishment of houses of worship where songs, incantations and rituals are performed. Religion does. Evolution is merely an academic idea. Religion is a system - a system of beliefs. Public schools are places for academic learning, not wishful faith. Religion refuses to submit itself to rigorous academic scrutiny, and so does not merit a place in the public schools. Evolution submits itself to constant academic scrutiny and review and has withstood that review for generations. Therefore, it merits a place in the public schools.

return to irregulartimes.comThere's no evidence that private schools can educate children better than public schools. In fact, charter schools set up to replace public schools have consistently performed worse than public schools. People say that American public schools are in disarray, yet they continue to produce the world's top scholars. The fact is that the problems of public schools, when they occur, are widely read about because public schools are required to open their records to anyone who wants to look at them (except to protect the privacy of individual students). Private schools are not required to provide all the information that public schools do, so we don't hear about their problems. Also, private schools are not required to accept below-average students, but public schools are. Many families that send their academically gifted children to private schools send their intellectually disabled children to public schools. Nonetheless, on average, public schools tend to perform fairly well. I will be the last person to deny that there are some public school systems that are terribly troubled. I have personal experience with the incompetence and fraud that perpetuates the Memphis City Schools in particular. However, public schools tend to perform worst in those communities where private schools are used to separate the children of the rich from other children. In these places, including Memphis, the public schools are underfunded because the wealthiest inhabitants of the communities are able to insure that the taxes that support public schools are kept low. In the larger scheme of things, private schools are part of the problem, not the solution.

The fact that private schools are exempt from governmental oversight and regulation makes them especially attractive places for abusive adults to take advantage of children. Surely I don't need to tell you about the appalling number of rapes, cases of sexual abuse, and other assaults that have taken place at Catholic private schools. These attacks by teacher-priests continued because the Catholic Church was able to operate its private schools in secrecy, moving the abusive priests from school to school instead of firing them and having them arrested. This plague of perverted abuse never could have taken place in a public school, where teachers are suspended if they are even suspected of having touched a child. Public schools are governmental institutions, and as such are subject to the oversight of the communities they serve. Private schools are not. For this reason, I believe that government funding of private schools would be disastrous for the state of our nation. Such a switch to private education would promote secrecy, abuse, and a lack of strong academic standards.

j. clifford cookThat's my input. It's not intended to insult you personally, but rather to serve as a strong rebuttal to the ideas you promote. My opinion is that those ideas are not only ill-formed, but dangerous to the health of our democracy. I hope you, and our readers, will reconsider them before lending support to the politicians who promote them.

J. Clifford Cook, Irregular Times contributing writer

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