Teaching Humanism

In the why-didn’t-they-think-of-this-sooner department,  someone has come up with a way to diffuse the age old, should-we-teach-religion-in-public-schools question. In Australia,

The Humanist Society of Victoria has developed a curriculum, which the State Government accreditation body says it intends to approve, to deliver 30-minute lessons each week of “humanist applied ethics” to primary pupils.

What a great idea! It’s not really religion, per se, but it is a good alternative. It’s in OZ, also, which has a slightly different take on the separation of church and state, but if it was imported to the US, and done correctly, I might be able to get behind it.

“Primary pupils”, I presume, are what we call elementary school pupils. That’s the age when they should be introduced to humanist principles. Right now, because religion is the only form of morality and ethics formally advanced in the US, and even then primarily at church, Sunday School, CCD classes (for Catholics) or in the myriad of parochial and other religiously based private schools, children are not exposed to the type of ethics or morality that they should be exposed to, one which should be a natural if you presume that the one thing we all have in common – our humanity – is a good place to start.

I’ve never been opposed to teaching religion in the public schools, as long as it is done correctly. By correctly, I mean this:

  • Religion should not be taught as science, in science class, or as an alternative to science. Those are two distinctly different subjects, and they can be easily confused (read manipulated) by even well intentioned people caught up in their own beliefs. We’ve been down that road with creationism and intelligent design.
  • Religion should be taught as a historical fact, and placed in the context of historical and, perhaps, philosophical events.
  • Religion can be taught as a basis for morality, as long as alternatives are taught at the same time and given equal weight, without judgment.

The latter point is the one which always, in the past, has been my primary impediment for teaching religion in public schools. Most of the time that the more outspoken critics of our public schools have demanded that religion, and, by extension, god, be put back in to the curriculum, they are talking about one thing – Bible studies.  But Bible studies are often exclusive, and intolerant of competing worldviews. They are dogmatic in their approach, i.e. ” this is the proper way to think”, rather than simply informative of various ideologies, and are more often than not taught by proponents, and even proselytizers, of Christianity.

A better direction would be a comparative religion course, but even then, I have my doubts, because even in a curriculum that tries to study various religions, there is rarely, if ever a look at the alternative to religion itself – humanism and/or atheism. Comparative religion courses tend to assume the validity of religion itself as a viable source of morality, boiling down to a competition between various gods. Rather than competing gods, we need competing ideas. Children of elementary school age should be exposed to critical thinking at an early age, not just in science classes, but in all their studies. Even religion classes can be designed to allow them to use the scientific method, and make judgments for themselves about competing ethical and moral  claims. Religious claims, as well as humanist ones, should be put to the test, and allowed to be falsified, if possible, in order for students to understand which claims make the most sense, and which they will ultimately embrace as their own.

So, if they are receiving instruction in humanist values by teachers with no particular religious ax to grind, then the playing field is leveled, and I would have no fear of teaching religious studies in the public school system. It also takes away the church/state separation problem, because the state would not be “establishing” any particular religion, as proscribed by our First Amendment, but rather simply exposing children to the many varieties of thought that form the basis for human morality and ethics.

Humanism and atheism are not entitled to predominance any more than religion is. In the free marketplace of ideas, I have confidence that well educated and intelligent people will make the right choice. But choice depends on having access to all the alternatives, and historically, religion has cut atheism and humanism off at the knees, by demonizing it,  thereby handicapping it and insuring the prevalence of religion.

The proposal in OZ is a good start to ending that prevalence.

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9 thoughts on “Teaching Humanism

  1. Ideally you could have a comparative religion class. It would be no different than a comparative government class or a comparative art course. Unfortunately in the US, I think you’d be hard pressed to both find teachers who could do this objectively and parents who wouldn’t have a cow over their little snowflakes reading a Koran.

  2. The having no ax to grind bit is the rub, though. I have to admit that I’ve still got quite an ax to grind against religion. Bet you didn’t know that. ;)

  3. Of course, they are offering the old ‘opt out’ dodge. This way, the kids who (one would think) need this the most will be the least likely to actually be exposed to reality.

  4. @ Philly – I think the way to go would be to call it “Ethics and Comparative Religion”. The primary thrust being the teaching of human ethics with a secondary glance at how VARIOUS religions have treated these ethical issues in the past and how they have evolved (i.e. – biblical sanctions of slavery and female subjugation moving towards the more humanist ideals).

    It’s not a bad idea, SI. Just try getting it past the same biblical literalists who have fought for teaching the Holy Bible. It will be tied up in court for years and probably never get actively taught in some locations – just like evolution isn’t today.

  5. A course on the evolution of Christian morality would be interesting. You could go down the list to show how the Bible was first used to justify torture, murder, rape, polygamy, slavery, and of course deny the rights of non-believers, women, other races and of course gays and then show how that was all corrected (still waiting on the anti-gay thing though).

    A nice follow up would be to contrast Christian arguments against Relativism and this evolution of their own morality. Essay question for the final exam: How does Relativism differ from varied interpretations of Biblical text, if at all?

  6. Pingback: Daylight Atheism > The 30th Humanist Symposium

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