Teaching Qs






Fairness for Freethought in Education


Why teach about freethought as subject matter?


What's the value of engaging students in such study?


Is nonconformity to religion even acceptable? 


Is our American situation unique?


Does my school have a responsibility?

< Why teach about freethought as subject matter?

Freethinking exists as an important factor both in history and in contemporary society.  So, shouldn't schools teach about it?  The religion realm, including dissent to religion, offers students some of the best examples of interplay between conforming and nonconforming thought in humankind. 

Throughout history there have been those who have held to ideas and worldviews far different from, or directly confronting, the strongly held religious beliefs of their neighbors.  Holding to an idea that challenges tradition or authority has seldom been easy.  In authoritarian nations, it can be dangerous.  Even today’s democratic societies can make things pretty tough for the different thinking citizen.  The social processes and pressures with respect to religion, whether they occur in history or in the present day, make for particularly interesting study.  

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< What's the value of engaging students in such study?

bullet Students need to learn about diverse worldviews in an academic way that provides solid information and helps them relate to the world in which they live. It is especially important that schools help youngsters to overcome stereotypes that lead to prejudice and discrimination.
bulletLearning about "different thinkers," some of whom are religious and others of whom exhibit nonconformity to religion, can help young people learn to handle religion and religious differences sensitively, and in such a way as to promote mutual understanding.  How better can you prepare young people for their encounters with religious diversity in the public realm?  How better can you enable them to handle all those they come across without having to be either offensive or defensive about religion?  Future citizens need to develop the kind of sympathy that gives serious hearing to diverse points of view within the public square.  Conducted appropriately, these studies will contribute directly to the building of a worthwhile civic order.  
bulletToday’s youngsters gain from learning about people whose belief systems and traditions set them apart from the mainstream.  Such study offers students many opportunities to look beyond themselves and their own cultural traditions and beliefs to those whose cultures, ideas and practices differ from their own.  
bulletLearning about freethinkers, students can consider the real-life situations of people whose contemplation and independent reasoning have resulted in their reaching conclusions or holding to perspectives far out of line with prevalent belief concerning important matters.  They can learn, too, from the widely varied responses of society.  Some examples: Voltaire was jailed for his nonconformist attitudes, whereas Mark Twain made a good living despite his irreverence. In our modern times, the reputation of Elizabeth Cady Stanton has lost ground to Susan B. Anthony, in part because Stanton as suffragist did not conform (despite having organized the first women's rights convention and written the 19th Amendment).  Many interesting lives and stories.
bulletStudents also can grow in empathy and understanding for others. What is it to be a minority, perhaps even a tiny minority, immersed within a population that generally holds to other understandings and practices?

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< Is nonconformity to religion even acceptable?  

Well, in the U.S., it is supposed to be so.  That is the civic promise of religious liberty the Constitution offers to every citizen.  And, on the whole, present-day American society and law does grant us all considerable liberty to think and to believe, or not believe, as we wish.  As a nation, we pride ourselves on being a pluralistic society that accepts all kinds of believers, even tiny minority religions.  But longstanding societal biases are not readily overcome.  Population minorities who think "too differently" (e.g., atheists) are not treated kindly by mainstream society.

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< Is our American situation unique?

The United States accords liberty of conscience to all its citizens.  Constitutional guarantees of governmental neutrality concerning religion exist to enable the entire population to live amicably and to believe as they wish concerning religion. 

Institutionalizing state-church separation into our laws (by way of the first sixteen words of the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights) was an enlightened and unconventional idea in western history.  But, like other ideals, such as "equality," it is still a "work in progress."  Even as our own nation loudly proclaims individual rights and freedoms for all citizens, certain “different notions” are not readily tolerated.  Society presses toward a conformity—to recognize and acknowledge at least some sort of deity or force (a religious worldview). For an individual to do otherwise (i.e., to hold or declare a nonreligious worldview) is proscribed.  As any nonbeliever can attest, society takes note of independent thinking that leads too far from mainstream notions.

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< Does my school have a responsibility?

Do you teach in a public school?  If yes, then you are part of its "neutrality picture."  The ideal of neutrality concerning religion has been a touchstone of Supreme Court decisions concerning public education since 1947.  The neutrality ideal helps ensure religious liberty within the nation’s schools, for all the students, irrespective of their religious or nonreligious worldviews.

Even though religions will vary in general cultural legitimacy, U. S. public schools, being government institutions, aren’t to privilege one religion over another; nor are they to privilege religion generally over nonreligion. With respect to the diversity of possible personal worldviews, they stay neutral.  

There would seem to be implied a curricular responsibility. To teach about religions, but not about freethought, would surely privilege the religious worldview over nonreligion as youngsters would not learn about the existence of freethought philosophies and life stance. They should know that there is an alternative to religion that "works" for a significant segment of the human population.

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Last Updated 5/15/2005

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