An earlier version of this essay first appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of educational Horizons.

Religion, Intelligent Design and the Public Schools: serving God to Mammon?

Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.

There is, indeed, the Unspeakable... about which we must keep silence.

-- Ludwig Wittgenstein[1]

edited 6/4/18

Religion in the Public Schools

In the public schools, we are told, religion may be taught about, but not just merely taught.  That is, religion may be treated in its intellectual aspects only, its other dimensions mentionable only if they are properly reconceptualized as intellectual content, for example, cultural studies. What is to be avoided is indoctrination, or inculcation of specific religious formulary.

But it is far from clear in many educators' minds what this permits or forbids.  A teacher asks her third graders to stand in front of the room and tell the class their favorite stories. A boy stands up and begins to tell a tale out of the Bible. The teacher refuses to let him continue. This is, on the face of it, idiocy. Why is this teacher overly cautious?

In another community the tradition of praying at school community events are apparently conceded to by all involved. When a lawsuit is successfully brought to stop the practice, the most vocal elements of the community express their shock that the public school could instigate "anti-religious" practice. This misconception is at the other extreme from the example of the timid teacher above.

By failing to distinguish different aspects of religion and by jumping to the conclusion that acceptance or rejection of any part of a religion implies acceptance or rejection of the whole of it, public educators as well as the rest of the school community lose important parts of what is educationally relevant to even an officially secular environment.

Nothing muddles more the discussion of religion and schooling than the failure to mark three distinct and not infrequently competing aspects of religion: the intellectual, the organizational and the mystical.  The intellectual aspects of religion -- and this is more so with some religions than others -- consists of a literature, a body of doctrine or claims about the existence of special beings, and assorted formulary that, in the history of Western religions, at least, have warranted warfare in their promulgation. Those of us raised in a tradition where the intellectual aspect is emphasized find ecumenism either an easy transition or an abomination to the degree we insist on the domination of our own belief systems over others. Talking about religion, rather than teaching religion is either a simple distinction to make, or an impossible one.

 Organizational concerns grow out of the impulse to community[2], which in some religions becomes stratified into clergy and laity, often redefining the notion of leadership within that community. The impulse to community may well be the primary reason one finds why people, otherwise unwashed in theology and unsure of a calling, repair to church, particularly in times of trouble. A friend in graduate school long presumed to be a dyed-in-the-wool secularist startled us all by announcing his entering a particularly orthodox form of his family's religion. His reason: "Philosophy does nothing for me when it comes to birth, marriage or death!"

Jesse Ventura, interviewed on the road to his successful election as Governor of Minnesota, commented that religion was a crutch for the weak-minded. The fury of response sounded in the media was astounding: "Imagine that anyone seeking public office could say such a thing about Religion!"  This sanctimonious brouhaha was probably less a case of heartfelt dismay than public hypocrisy along the lines of "Sexual Behavior? Tut, tut! Do people really do such things?"

 If Ventura had said, "Religion is a crutch for the weakminded, my religious community being the exception" he would have expressed, one might suspect, something which the great majority of Americans believe. I was certainly taught to believe that in my childhood religious community. But, then, in that community there was great emphasis placed on doctrine and how important it was to separate ourselves from those whose lip service to that doctrine was not up to par.

The mystical is the basis for claiming any particularly religious experience at all. It is the fundamental justification for religion and, yet, organizationally, its most dangerous aspect. Mysticism tends to be indifferent to doctrine; other forms of it find the easy God-gabble of the one-day-a-week worshiper or the politico-cleric to skirt blasphemy.  The extent to which the laity has a voice in religious decision is one of the dimensions along which many religious traditions have fragmented. However, the mystic has been seen as problematic, if not threatening, by groups at all points along this spectrum. Mystics are loose cannon. In some religions they are, in effect, "locked up" in monasteries, since they tend to be seen as subversive of church authority, whether it rest in the laity or the clergy. What one group may certify as a vision, another will reject as delusion. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake condemned by authorities of the same church that later rehabilitated her as a saint. One need only try to engage, say, Roman Catholics and Baptists in the same discussion on the topic of Lourdes or Fatima to provoke dissensus in the present day over the validity of mystic experience.

An interesting diagram represents the three aspects of religion and the tension among them:

Figure 1.

It is not accidental that as one moves toward one vertex, one moves away from the others. This clearly represents what seems to be the relationship of the three aspects in many religious organizations.[3] (It inadvertently, perhaps, illustrates the possibility of simultaneously serving both God and Mammon.)

Scientific Prejudice?

Having worked in the Philadelphia public schools for over twenty-five years I have always been amazed that different religious organizations complain that the religion of the public schools is Secular Humanism. Philadelphia is the home of one of the centers of the Secular Humanist Society and I have never seen any of their literature distributed in the Philadelphia public schools nor heard of any of their representatives speaking at a school function.  The complaints about Secular Humanism are, I suspect, the paranoia of those who imagine that since their particular doctrines are not welcomed with trumpets at the gates, those of a competing -- and presumably radically different, more pernicious -- organization are.

But are those who promote Science (with a capital S!) free of religious bias? Unhappily, I cannot answer, yes. Most public school people would imagine Scientific American to be the paragon of a religiously neutral publication and unqualifiedly acceptable in the public schools. However, we find in the March 2003 issue of Scientific American that Michael Schermer in his Skeptic column[4] promotes a philosophically biased and anti-religious perspective in the name of Science. What I have referred to here as the "mystical," Schermer would completely class as psychological illusion.  He cites psychological studies which, "are only the latest to deliver blows against the belief that mind and spirit are separate from brain and body."  But the issue is not that some "visions" are delusions and misconstructions; but rather whether all such experience is. Shermer does not hesitate to pronounce on it: "In reality, all experience is mediated by the brain. It is the fate of the paranormal and the supernatural to be subsumed into the normal and the natural. In fact, there is no paranormal or supernatural; there are only the normal and natural -- and mysteries yet to be explained. It is the job of science, not pseudoscience, to solve those puzzles with natural, rather than supernatural explanations."

The reality is this: Shermer's claim is at best a surmise. In fact, there is no scientific way to substantiate his claims since he is committing the logical fallacy of arguing from Some to All.  Because some (that may even be "all, up to the present") apparently paranormal or supernatural experience may have been shown to be normal and natural, does not establish that all (into the future) will be.

Bertrand Russell on his first visit to the United States was accosted by a reporter hoping to exploit Russell's reputation as a freethinker and iconoclast. "Is it true, Professor Russell, that you don't believe in the Supernatural World?" Replied Russell, "My dear man, I don't believe in the Natural World!"

Even if one does not personally subscribe to the natural-supernatural dichotomy, one need believe neither that there is no "supernatural", nor that only the "natural exists".[5]  But much Western religious thought requires this dichotomy and religious proponents are rightly suspicious that an arrogance such as Shermer's might infect the public schools.

Intelligent Design - the sectarian bias

The issue for public education is not whether some formulation is religious or not, but whether it can be believed or disbelieved honestly by reasonable, scientifically educated people. What is to be avoided is sectarian claims imposed on those who are compelled to attend school, no matter whether those claims originate from within what are traditionally recognized as religions, or whether they are dogmas of more recent professional or disciplinary origin.[6]

One of the latest attempts to "reintroduce" religious content into the public school curriculum appears under the rubric, "Intelligent Design." It is not unreasonable to see the universe as the product of intelligent design, even though there are plausible arguments as to how it could have come about without such design. Probably, a poll of the citizens of the United States would turn up that the majority, if not the overwhelming majority of people believe in the Intelligent Design Theory (IDT).[7] Therefore, argue its proponents, IDT is not sectarian. There should be no objection to its being taught in the public schools, especially since theories postulating No Intelligent Design are already taught there -- read, "surreptitiously indoctrinated" -- in the name of Science.

In fact, ID theories are highly sectarian if only because those who propose to introduce them into the public schools have no desire for a full discussion of what Intelligent Design might mean. If we were to look at our experience for evidence of intelligent design, what kind of designer might our experience tell us is behind the world as we perceive it? Considering war, natural disaster, pestilence and plague, hate and pointless suffering, crime and No Child Left Behind, we might reasonably come to the conclusion that the Designer was an Evil Demon.[8] Even factoring in a few bright spots, love, fellowship, simple and complex pleasures, we might reasonably conclude that the Designer was majorly inept.

I daresay, such conclusions would be assiduously opposed by the proponents of IDT. But how could one avoid them in the normal course of teaching, unless such teaching were to take on the form of indoctrination of the belief of a Benevolent Designer? "God is good; so shut up and believe it!" is not a neutral alternative to Darwin or any other scientific theory.

Nor would such teaching necessarily support the communal aspects of any religious group for the mere fact of having opened up a line of doctrinal discussion. Again, this misguided hope rests on the confusion mentioned early above between the three different aspects of religion. It is just as easy to conclude that recognition of Benevolent Design compels us to undermine organized religion as to enhance it. It is not unreasonable to expect that introducing Intelligent Design into the public schools will have the effect that more students become adherents of Satanism.

See, also, Science Devolved: Darwin & Design Compete for America's Classrooms
"Intelligent Design," "Unintelligent Curriculum"

[1] Wittgenstein, Ludwig Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Sections 6.522 - 7 (my translation --EGR)

[2]  The impulse toward uniform religious community is one of the human weaknesses that Dostoeyevsky's Grand Inquisitor remonstrates with Christ about. See "The Grand Inquisitor Syndrome " on this website.

[3] Using the triangle as a graph, one could plot as points different religions in terms of the distance from each vertex the point would fall. The relative distances of a point from each of the vertices would indicate the inverse of the proportional importance of that aspect represented by the vertex to the other aspects for that particular religious group.

We could expect Zen Buddhism to be a point very close to the mystical vertex but between mystical and communal. Mahayana Buddism would be closer to the communal vertex but possibly as mystical. Roman Catholicism would be between intellectual and communal and relatively distant from mystical. Seventh-Day Adventism would be closer to the communal but farther from the intellectual. And so on.

Of course, if we postulate that the three dimensions are independent, we get no triangle and open up the discussion to some very different kinds of speculation.

[4] Michael Shermer, Skeptic, "Demon-Haunted Brain" Scientific American March 2003, p. 47.

[5] Bishop Berkeley's argument that the distinction between the material world and the spriritual world cannot be established empirically has never been countered. See E Rozycki, 8/4/2012 "Getting Down to Facts: can we avoid making assumptions?"

[6] For examples of such dogmas, see Edward G. Rozycki, "Conjecture Pollution: poisoning educational practice" in educational Horizons, Summer 2003, pp. 159- 161

[7] For example, see Jay Richards Intelligent Design Theory: Why it Matters . There are many articles on Intelligent Design Theory on the web. Not inconsiderable support for IDT comes from the anxiety that morality -- therefore social stability  -- requires religion, an opinion not strongly supported in fact.

[8] There is theodicy. But this is only open to those who appreciate an intellectual dimension in religion. This excludes most of the groups badgering public education.