Secular Humanism and the Public Schools

Secular humanism can be taught about in the public schools, but not as a preferred way of belief or living. This is the same rule as is applicable to all religions. With this important limit, the decision is for local school boards whether it should be taught about, and if it is, what should be included. There are substantial arguments that there should be education in public schools about religion in general, and perhaps using examples from a few religions. Because of the plurality of religious views and commitments in the United States and around our world, what can be taught about religion will inevitably be controversial.

What can be taught related to religion in the public schools is restricted by the First Amendment establishment clause, which makes clear that government may neither promote nor discourage religion. ‘‘Government’’ is viewed as composed of organizations, agencies, and the people comprising them, that do the work that governments do. Thus not only are legislatures, courts, and executive officers parts of government, but also police, school boards, and public school principals and teachers.

Whether ‘‘secular humanism’’ is deemed a religion or not makes no difference with respect to the First Amendment. Although sometimes referred to as a religion, secular humanism is generally considered to be a belief system that negates religion. Indeed, secular humanism typically views those systems customarily referred to as ‘‘religions’’ as actually inhibiting the best of human learning, activity, and experience. But the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that government actions may neither advance nor inhibit religion.

The most important word in the First Amendment religion clauses is the word ‘‘religion.’’ Surely the framers must have thought protection of religion was of exceptional importance to put it first in the Bill of Rights. Not only was it important in the eighteenth century, but obviously it is highly important in the totally different context of the twenty-first century. Yet the Supreme Court has never defined this word for First Amendment purposes. To be sure, definitions are available in dictionaries. But in deciding what is to be protected from government actions, and how, delineations are generally considered unhelpful.

Not only does ‘‘religion’’ defy a limiting definition, the Supreme Court has made is clear that the truth or falsity of a religious claim is an issue courts cannot litigate. This restriction was made in a case involving mail fraud, but clearly it is applicable in other contexts including public schools. Common religious claims and positions are understood to be matters of ‘‘faith,’’ which by definition signifies they are not subject to proof or disproof either by objective evidence, that is, evidence limited to the five senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste), or by circumstantial evidence. Yet an obviously sensible lower court judge held that use of marijuana could not be justified as an exercise of religion (any more than could human sacrifice).

As for teaching about religion in the public schools, language from Justice Brennan’s concurring opinion in the 1963 case invalidating a state’s daily Bible-reading requirements is generally deemed controlling: ‘‘The holding of the Court today plainly does not foreclose teaching about the Holy Scriptures or about the differences between religious sects in classes in literature or history. Indeed, whether or not the Bible is involved, it would be impossible to teach meaningfully many subjects in the social sciences or the humanities without some mention of religion.’’ Because of its clarity, this statement has often been referred to and never seriously disputed.

The importance of teaching about literature and history is essential in learning about how best to live usefully and enjoyably. The need for teaching about religion also may be viewed as similar to teaching about music and art. Although not engaged in or appreciated by everyone, these are among the variety of activities and pursuits that enrich many people’s lives.

The methods of teaching about a particular religion or religions in general are many and varied. Nonverbal communication by a teacher can be as significant as verbal communication. The issue is whether what the teacher says and/or does promotes or advances or discourages or inhibits. In one lower court case, an elementary school teacher was found to have violated the establishment clause by keeping his Bible on his desk, frequently silently reading from it during the class regular silent reading period, and displaying on the wall a poster that read, ‘‘You have only to open your eyes to see the hand of God.’’ Indeed, the Supreme Court has made it clear in several contexts that nonverbal communication by symbols can be as significant in First Amendment cases as verbal communication. An example of the power of nonverbal communication is exemplified in television commercials.

Although secular humanism generally disdains any formal organization, there is an organization known as ‘‘The Council for Secular Humanism,’’ in existence since at least 1980, that claims to serve ‘‘secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, rationalists, skeptics, and all those . . . who find meaning and value in life without looking to a god.’’ Among their themes is ‘‘emphasiz[ing] reason and scientific inquiry, individual freedom and responsibility, human values and compassion, and the need for tolerance and cooperation.’’

Secular humanists have given particular attention to the issue of teaching about the origin of life, which has been controversial since the famous 1927 Scopes trial, in which a public school teacher was convicted for teaching the theory of evolution in violation of a state statute. The origin of life issue was addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1987 decision in Edwards v. Aguillard. The Court struck down a Louisiana statute because the Louisiana legislature made clear the statute was designed to promote religion. The decision did not prohibit teaching about religious views on creation in a nonscientific (neutral) context.

Surely questions such as ‘‘What are we doing here’’ and ‘‘Where did we come from’’ should be raised and discussed—even though there are no indisputable answers—as matters intrinsic to human curiosity. The focus has been on teaching about ‘‘creationism’’ and ‘‘creationism-and-intelligent-design.html">intelligent design,’’ which are essentially religious explanations, and thus nonscientific—in opposition to evolution and ‘‘big bang’’ theories, which are supportable by scientific evidence. Because secular humanists reject supernatural beliefs, they have been adamant in rejecting nonscientific attacks on science-supported theories. Generally they are not opposed to teaching about religion in a nonscientific context other than being concerned about ‘‘the foot in the door.’’


References and Further Reading

  • The Council for Secular Humanism website, www.secularhumanism. org (last visited Dec. 14, 2005).
  • Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd Ed. 1989.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987).
  • Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962).
  • McGinley v. Houston, 361 F.3d 1328 (11th Cir. 2004).
  • Roberts v. Madigan, 921 F.2d 1047 (10th Cir. 1990).
  • School District v. Shempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963).
  • Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961).
  • United States v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78 (1944).
  • United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 167 (1965).
  • Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333 (1970).
  • Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 122 S.Ct. 2460 (2002).


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