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Among the many notable decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court in the area of religion was the 1963 case Abington Township School District v. Schempp, which held that tax-supported schools were only allowed to teach about religion. Meaning, of course, that government schools could not directly teach religion in the sense of encouraging belief. But teaching about religion “relativizes” or marginalizes it. It teaches children to see religion from the outside, from some perspective that is thought to transcend it. The Supreme Court recognized this in stipulating that the teaching of religion should be “part of a secular program of education.” Thus it would tend to undermine the claims of any particular religion, although perhaps it was meant to give children an appreciation of “religion in general.”

At the time, it was usual for intellectuals to think of the secular as the natural, and even as humanity’s destiny. By contrast, religion seemed doubtful and divisive; it was expected to fade. But things haven’t turned out that way. Philosophers, for example, have succeeded in showing that secularism itself is not a neutral, absolute position, rising above all faith commitments. Secularism may actually turn out to be a stage within history, rather than its final goal. For it is now commonly recognized that rationalism and science themselves are based on shifting intellectual commitments, commitments that are accepted before their principles can be formulated. There seem not to be self-validating principles at the basis of all thought. Logic does not take us down to bedrock, but merely to certain useful assumptions. It does not tell us how much truth there is in our thinking, but only how much consistency.

The result of these new realizations is that we can now problematize or relativize secular rationalism. We can see it as one way of thinking, among others. We can describe its history, assumptions, methods, and the institutions that support it. It is thus possible to teach “about” secularism rather than simply teaching secularism, as our universities, public schools, periodical media, and courts have been doing for so long.

Such a course of instruction would begin by noting that “secularization” means, in the first place, the separation of religion from other aspects of life and thought. Likewise, “the secular” or “secularity” refers to a highly developed state of this separation, when institutions and thinking itself become indifferent to religion. “Secularism,” by contrast, is something else entirely. It is the conscious or unconscious effort to keep religion marginalized. Above all, our lesson plan would indicate that there has been a substantial effort in this direction during the past century, but also that it is now showing signs of failure in all of the institutions noted above.

The first thing to note about our universities is that they have failed to fulfill their original hopes and are fast becoming marginal to American society. The idea that universities could be described as marginal may strike some as ludicrous. They are bigger and better funded than ever. And yet, they do not give the country intellectual, cultural, or political leadership. They do not seem to be swaying elections these days, or setting the tone for the arts, or raising the questions that occupy us. Size and specialization have made them increasingly ingrown, so that they are answering questions that no one asks and giving answers that no one can understand. Our media seldom look to them for enlightenment if they can think of an entertainer, politician, or journalist instead.

Not even scientists offer leadership any longer. They used to decide the next questions and then call for government or business support. Nowadays, it is government and business that set the agenda and then hire university scientists to do the work. The goal is patents. Like the liberal arts, the sciences are increasingly engaged with a technical rather than a philosophical approach to their subjects. They no longer capture the imagination of the young, and it is increasingly international students who keep the graduate programs going. Apologists for science have become alarmed at the fact that science is questioned within the academy itself, by historians of science and feminists. Edward O. Wilson, the late Stephen Jay Gould, and others have shown increasing resentment when science is treated merely as a servant, rather than as a metaphysic and an ideology, and accorded society’s highest respect. It would bother them to think that our high-tech hospitals are our major prayer centers. Americans think highly of science, of course, but don’t see that this requires them to ignore religion.

Postmodernism may not be as formidable in our universities as alarmists would make it seem. But it has fostered a recognition of the artificial character of rationalism. As a result, religious voices like those of philosophers Alastair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Paul Ricoeur, and John Milbank are closer to the heart of academic debate than they have been for several generations. The problem, however, is that the university is no longer characterized by debate. The metaphor of a “marketplace of ideas” seems more appropriate. Insofar as this is an apt description, it spells trouble for secularism. It was expected to argue religion down and to establish naturalistic or materialistic worldviews. But arguments depend on intellectual constraints, which now seem lacking. Our post-secular situation is governed by fashion rather than argument, responding to boredom and restlessness. So our narrative leads to a student generation that thinks that its views should get as much respect as anybody’s—at least after graduation.

Tracing the fate of secularism within the public schools means following their emphasis on tolerance. Tolerance is crucial to incorporating diversity or multiculturalism in the curriculum. It grew out of the relativism that was originally promoted as a means in the search for a many-sided truth. But as truth recedes ever further into the distance, tolerance has become an end in itself. This makes it hard for teachers to squelch the ideas that students may bring to school with them. To constrain debate, there needed to be something like rationalism to impose settled reference points. Now teachers can only silence religions by referring to the respect that is due to other religions.

Our courts have been mindful of public education, as they must be. But these same courts are beginning to realize that they have been promoting only the freedoms of secular students and parents. There are stirrings of something new when they rule in favor of those students who exercise freedoms of expression and assembly for religious purposes.

Student religious clubs may be resurrecting what school chapel attendance once accomplished. We find it quaint that colleges and even some state universities required chapel attendance, until secularism ended that in the early twentieth century. But at the very least, chapel attendance could remind students of the limits of their knowledge, and that choices should be made in the light of wisdom. There is nothing that does that in universities these days, least of all the timid ethics-in-the-professions electives. 

Then there’s the story of the media. In a secularist society the communications media take the place of tradition. The press, and even the periodical press, were expected to break the power of entrenched error. They would keep ideas in play so that reason would be unconstrained. Religion would lose out because it lacked the means of development that modernity depends on.

What has happened, we now realize, is that daily media have driven the more substantial media out of circulation. Books cannot compete with news. The print revolution that Marshall McLuhan made famous has been overtaken by a news revolution which makes its profits out of deconstructing culture and de-contextualizing “events.” This is required by the economics of the business, which needs to make each day’s edition seem vital. Though journalists may revisit the same story, it must be from a different angle, lest we lose interest. All the tricks of doing so have become more apparent in the last two decades, as the news industry has demanded greater profit levels. Capitalism requires that money find its most fruitful use, which means that news product has become entertainment rather than enlightenment. This is not good for secularism.

Of course the number of books published is greater than ever. There are seventy thousand new trade book titles each year in the U.S. alone. The upshot is that there is hardly any hope of debating things rationally. Indeed, we hardly try, being satisfied by the one big story of the day. People seem to imagine they are “informed” for having heard it. But the hope of a progressively more enlightened populace seems increasingly unrealistic.

When it comes to the courts, our narrative would begin in the mid-twentieth century when the American judiciary was guided by an interpretation of the First Amendment that posited a “wall of separation” between “church and state.” The difficulties in sorting this out led to noticeable inconsistencies and the expectation of a reaction. Judges have sheltered plaintiffs who objected to the use of religious terms even outside of instruction, while refusing to shelter those who object to the imposition of secularist curricula or New Age assignments. Irreligious children have been called impressionable and vulnerable, while religious children are told to get used to it. Courts have argued that exposing children to religious texts will have an impermissible effect, but that “mere exposure” to antireligious texts will have no effect.

Yet the view that government schools should be neutral rather than secular is now out in the open. Warren Nord’s Religion and American Education has shown that the Supreme Court has sometimes held that the First Amendment requires not just neutrality between religions but neutrality between religion and nonreligion. Nord’s own conclusion is that “neutrality requires the integration of religion into the [public school] curriculum,” since it is essential to the study of culture, history, politics, society, economics, and the uses of science.

But to teach about religion, as Nord suggests, would not achieve neutrality without teaching about secularism too. Neither approach will be easy, given the training our teachers have received and the dominance of the old paradigm. But in time, teachers should find how deeply religion is embedded in our thinking on all subjects. One cannot begin any study without tripping over concepts that carry religious freight, most notably in the idea of the human. Concepts of wealth, disease, sanity, justice, human rights, the humanities, do not make sense in the terms of naturalism. They all imply an optimal state, even a purpose implicit in the human, so that there would be no absurdity in teaching, with Jefferson, that all men are created equal.

Of course, one possible end to the story of secularism has already gone into the history books as the collapse of world communism. The often humane hopes that drew some Americans toward communism would make sobering reading if related to recognizably secular goals today. And the cautions of those like C. S. Lewis, who noted the elitist and manipulative nature of secularism in The Abolition of Man, will seem more prophetic even than Orwell.

  C. John Sommerville teaches history at the University of Florida.