Last in a SeriesThis series was an address given at Wright State University at the symposium marking the tenth anniversary of the U. S. Supreme Court’s Schempp decision and the founding of the Public Education Religion Studies Center. The entire symposium is available in both cassette and booklet form from PERSC, Wright State, Dayton, Ohio 45431.

The schempp decision requires that study of the Bible or of religion as part of a secular program be done “objectively.” Whether objectivity is at all possible has been seriously questioned. Certainly it cannot mean that the teacher is to speak in absolute terms, as if with divine authority, since the whole sense of the Court decision is quite the opposite of this. Does “objectivity” therefore envision a kind of presuppositionless mind, as if man’s mental apparatus were a tabula rasa on which only nature or experience writes? That in itself would be a philosophically biased view. No one can be wholly free of presuppositions; if man did not presuppose the law of contradiction, for example, neither theology nor science nor education nor law would be possible. Nor can objectivity mean that study about the Bible and religion has its paradigm in computerized analysis. Even history—whether military or political—is increasingly acknowledged to be a highly selective discipline.

On the other hand, just as no education would be possible were man wholly devoid of presuppositions, just so none would be possible were the entire process of education totally subjective. What the Schempp decision means by objectivity is probably some form of inter-subjectivity, that is, an approach that involves a certain recognition of the transcendence of truth, and agreed methods of verification. On that basis similar results are presumed to be accessible to all persons using an identifiable methodology.

The temptation to teach whatever one likes is not limited to private campuses; academic freedom is increasingly invoked in public institutions to justify communicating personal preferences (the issue is usually not the Bible!), and to approve even a literature of sexual deviations, simply because teachers are presumably accredited authorities on their subject. Academic freedom has traditionally been the liberty to investigate and report the results of one’s research; as such it involves accountability to a verifying methodology that is appropriate to the subject, and this presupposes a minimal critical distance between the teacher and his subject matter.

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The best way to determine what the Court intends by objectivity may be to consider a fourth point of the Schempp decision. Here we come face to face with the radical secularly now overtaking public educational institutions. The decision approves “study of the Bible or of religion … as part of a secular program of education.” In a very real sense the Christian community need not be at all apologetic or retiring in face of the secular, for Christianity is world-affirming; there is no need to abandon the world in order to cling to the God of the Bible.

Unfortunately some Christians capitulate to a prejudicial definition of the secular and consequently bequeath the world to the enemy all too generously. Seen from the right perspective, studying about the Bible and Christianity alongside other religions “as part of a secular program” should present no problem; there should, in fact, be evangelical eagerness for such intellectual engagement.

The biggest temptation facing modern Western society, however, is to elevate the secular into the entirety of human concerns. Picking up the pieces of a crumbling society, the public school is now increasingly pervading the totality of the child’s life. For those under sixteen the schools function as surrogate for the home and attempt to answer all questions and solve all problems. The secular spirit is unbelievingly carnivorous, devouring everyone and everything that obstructs its path; it becomes hostile to whatever has previously implied or represented a religious perspective on life.

The Schempp decision supports those who warn against the establishment of a “religion of secularism” in the public schools. It reads: “We agree of course that the State may not establish a ‘religion of secularism’ in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion, thus ‘preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe.’ ” It happens, however, that a religion of secularism is emerging in our time as the quasi-official commitment of American public education. If the warning of the Schempp decision has any significance for classroom instruction, it can only mean that teachers in public schools have no license to indoctrinate students in the comprehensive contingency, radical relativity, and total transiency of reality. Nor may they encourage student commitment to human autonomy as against divine authority.

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But what about implications of the decision also for fragmentary approximations, implicit concessions, and practical compromises with these dogmas? To say in effect that the state may not establish “a religion that is hostile to religion” is very fine—but is that not precisely what education does when it propagates secular values that preempt the field and thus exclude all other religions? Is not much of modern life already in the grip of secularism, and are not many of the schools steeped in it?

The enthusiasm for teaching about religion may multiply as the definition of religion becomes increasingly vague. There is no unanimity today on which if any ideas, rites, or inner experiences are indispensably religious. To critical observers it should be apparent that atheism itself now often appears in the role of a religion; the study of religion is held to require courses in atheism.

The new definitions emerging from the courts defer to the notion that any ultimate commitment is religious in nature. Recent court decisions in district and lower courts have allowed conscientious objection to military service on the basis of all variety of beliefs. One law journal commented that the justices in a given case (U. S. v. Seeger) must have been reading Paul Tillich, who held that God is whatever concerns one ultimately. If, however, whatever concerns one ultimately is religious reality, then secularism is the religion taught by a teacher who expounds the secular as one’s ultimate concern.

It is not the establishment of a sectarian religion in the traditional sense, but the educational disestablishment of such religion in favor of a “religion of secularism,” that presently reflects the pulsebeat of much education in the public arena. The premises on which our inherited culture rests are more unknown than known in debate; the educational ethos seems to have reduced the religious heritage of the West to irrelevance. The pressing question now, as Paul Ramsey affirms, is “how is it possible to become authentically a Protestant or a Roman Catholic or a Jew in a pluralistic society?”

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