I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Still getting snow up around here, but May is just around the corner. The weather wasn’t the only wild thing this past week. Here are a few of the stories from the interwebs that captured our attention in the past seven days:

I didn’t say what I said: Trump’s NRA speech fact-checked by NYT.

god guns trump

Make Buttons Great Again…

Michael Ruse on “Darwinian existentialism,” at HNN.

Darwin did not disprove God. When he wrote his great Origin of Species, 1859, he still believed in a deistic god, a god of unbroken law.  But he made it possible not to believe in God and to be, in the words of Richard Dawkins, a “fulfilled atheist.” More importantly, Darwin suggested that the deity is like the common perception of the God of Job, indifferent to our fate.

Unintended consequences: San Francisco’s deseg plans makes schools more segregated, at NYT.

You really didn’t do the reading. But you’re not alone. At CHE, an analysis of college-student reading and a prescription to improve it.

Women and the Christian Right: An excerpt from Emily Johnson’s new book at R&P.

Professor Coyne makes the case: Secular humanism is not a religion. At Quillette.

the absence of evidence is indeed evidence for absence if the evidence should have been there. That’s why most of us are confident that the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist. The same should go for most religious truth claims.

How has the religious composition of the major political parties changed since 1978? Great charts from RIP.RIP dems change

Houston high school enacts dress code…for parents. From AP.

“No one can enter the building or be on the school premises wearing a satin cap or bonnet on their head for any reason,” Principal Carlotta Outley Brown said in a letter to parents dated April 9. “You also cannot wear a shower cap of any kind in the building.”

Let em debate: A conservative case for free conservative speech at NR.

High-school artist takes heat for her painting, at IME.

trump nope

Acceptable student art?



Is Sex Ed Religious Persecution? Is Evolution?

Am I persecuted if my kid is taught sex ed that goes against my religious beliefs?  That’s the question coming out of Arizona this morning.

And it has echoes far beyond the questions of contraception and sex ed.  If kids have a constitutional right to protection from ideas that challenge their religions, it will change the ways we teach evolution, history, literature…really, everything.  But so far, courts have generally not recognized conservatives’ claims of religious persecution. The good news is that there is a simple solution, though it’s one that everyone might hate.

But that doesn’t stop conservatives from making their cases.  As the New York Times reports, a new sex-ed textbook controversy is roiling school politics in Arizona.  Back in 2012, conservatives pushed through a state law mandating that adoption be given preferential treatment in schools.  That is, children in Arizona public schools have to be nudged toward thinking of adoption as a more moral choice than abortion.  An alert parent noticed that a commonly used biology textbook discussed contraception, including the drug mefipristone. According to the NYT, mefipristone can be used to terminate a pregnancy.

A pro-choice lemur...

A pro-choice lemur…

In Gilbert, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix, the school board voted narrowly that the information violated the 2012 law. What to do? The Gilbert school board ruled that two textbook pages must be removed, somehow.

So far, so ho-hum.  In school controversies, textbooks have been snipped, blacked-out, removed, even burned.  What’s more, the narrative told by conservative school board member Julie Smith seems almost like pages from a tired old script. As I note in my upcoming book about educational conservatism in the twentieth century, nearly every conservative activist has told a similar story. From the 1920s to the 1970s, conservatives have insisted that they were floored by the salacious, socialist, or heretical material their kids brought home from school.

Mrs. Smith brings this tradition into 2014. As she told the New York Times, when her son told her what he was learning about contraception, “I almost drove off the road.”

But Mrs. Smith did not stop with this old chestnut. She also insisted that including this material in textbooks represented an unconstitutional abuse of her religious freedom. As she told the NYT, by having her son read about contraception, the schools “have violated my religious rights.”

Is Smith right? Do religious conservatives have a constitutional right to free exercise of religion in public schools? Is that right violated when public schools force students to learn ideas that contradict their religions?

This question received the most thorough examination in the tortuous path traced by the case of Hawkins County, Tennessee, in the late 1980s. Parents complained that textbooks promoted a bevy of anti-Christian ideas, including secular humanism and occultism. These conservative parents wanted to have their children exempted from reading such anti-religious material.

Mozert makes his case...

Mozert makes his case…

The conservative parents had some initial success in court, but eventually the 6th circuit court ruled against them. In the opinion of that court, the children did not have the right to protection from exposure to mainstream ideas. If the children had been forced to perform religious acts, the court ruled, the parents would have had a better case. But public schools have a duty, not just a right, to expose children to the best current knowledge about every subject, including presumably sex ed.

It’s not for me to tell conservatives what to do, but in this case, it seems Julie Smith is pursuing a losing strategy. Claiming to be religiously persecuted because children are exposed to mainstream ideas is not going to work. If, instead, conservatives could claim that their children were being forced to perform religious acts, conservatives would have a better case.

And, IMHO, contraception is not the right issue for conservatives to pursue with this strategy. Public schools don’t FORCE students to use contraception. Schools simply give students information about contraception.

Conservatives might have a better shot with evolution. Folks like me want to give every person in the United States more information about evolution. There is nothing religious about this goal. For me and other evolution mavens, evolution simply represents the best current science, and students must be exposed to the best current knowledge in every field.

The way I see it, exposing students to knowledge does not violate anyone’s religious rights. But here’s the kicker: The fact that I have a secular purpose in teaching evolution does not mean that evolution does not have religious meanings for others. Again, I don’t want to dictate political strategy to conservatives, but it seems to me creationists could have some success if they claimed that their children have a constitutional right to a certain sort of protection from evolutionary ideas in public schools. Not a right to be protected from hearing or reading those ideas. That would count as simple exposure.

But creationist kids WOULD have a right to be protected from performing religious acts in public schools. For some religious groups, saying that humans evolved from other animals is a religious act. For some religious groups, saying that the earth is billions of years old is a religious act.

In other words, IMHO, public schools have a right and a duty to expose all children to the best current knowledge in all fields. In biology, that means human evolution without any supernatural guidance. In geology, that means an ancient earth and cosmos. At the same time, however, creationist kids have a right to freely practice their religions. And they have a right to insist that the government does not push religious actions upon them. If their religion forbids them from saying that the earth is ancient, kids have a right not to be coerced into saying such things.

This may seem like an unsolvable situation, but there is a simple solution. Public schools and public school teachers have a simple two-word answer to all these conundrums. Instead of pushing students to say that the earth is ancient and that humans have evolved, teachers need only to help students to understand that scientists think these things to be true.

By letting kids say “Scientists say” humans evolved; by letting kids say “Scientists say” the earth is ancient, public schools protect themselves from charges of religious indoctrination. And at the same time, creationists get schools that will not be hostile to their faiths.

The bad news for Julie Smith from Gilbert, Arizona is that she cannot claim any similar sort of constitutional protection. Even if the fact that her son is learning about contraception causes her to drive her car off the road, the public school is not persecuting her by teaching such things.

Were the Fundamentalists Right All Along?

Is it time for atheists to celebrate? ThinkProgress calls a recent federal court decision a “major win” for them. In that decision, Oregon’s Judge Ancer Haggerty declared that Secular Humanism deserved to be counted as a religion.

But isn’t that what fundamentalists have been saying for decades? Is this decision really a long-term win for conservative religious folks, who have long argued that secular humanism is a religion? If SH is a religion, it can’t be promoted in public schools. Will fundamentalists be able to use this court decision to demand SH-free textbooks and state standards?

SH SchaefferI take a detailed look at this anti-SH school campaign in my upcoming book. The notion that SH functioned as a religion was popularized among fundamentalists by evangelical intellectual Francis Schaeffer. In his 1982 book A Christian Manifesto, Schaeffer defined SH as a religion that made the terrible error of denying God and making humanity the “measure of all things.”

Mel and Norma Gabler, the school watchdogs who pushed Texas’ schools in profoundly conservative directions during the 1970s and 1980s, denounced SH as a “religion with an anti-biblical, anti-God bent.” Beginning with John Dewey in the 1930s, the Gablers believed, humanists had taken over schools and pushed leftist, amoral ideas on generations of schoolchildren. SH was not a neutral arbiter between religions, the Gablers argued, but rather a pernicious religion of its own. As such, it should not be allowed to do its damning work in public schools.SH Gablers

Tim LaHaye agreed. The blockbuster fundamentalist author argued in his Battle for the Public Schools (1983) that SH taught kids in public schools to be “anti-God, antimoral, antifamily, anti-free enterprise and anti-American.” By 1980, LaHaye wrote, humanism had achieved a “stranglehold” on the US government. As LaHaye put it,

Public education today is a self-serving institution controlled by elitists of an atheistic, humanist viewpoint; they are more interested in indoctrinating their charges against the recognition of God, absolute moral values, and a belief in the American dream than they are in teaching them to read, write, and do arithmetic. I call these people humanist educrats.

SH LaHayeThis claim among fundamentalists has become ubiquitous over the years. Conservatives insist that public schools are only interested in freezing out real religion. False religions, especially SH, receive special treatment. Kids in public schools, fundamentalists insist, are not actually in a neutral environment. They are, instead, effectively in an SH madrasah.

So here’s the $64,000 question: will last week’s federal court ruling fuel this fundamentalist fire? In coming years, will fundamentalist activist groups be able to prove their claims about SH and schools by citing Judge Haggerty’s argument?

It will help to look at the specifics of the case. In this case, an SH prisoner complained that he was being treated unfairly. He had demanded similar privileges for his SH group to those given to a list of religious groups. If Catholics, Shias, Sikhs and Druids could have special meeting times, Secular Humanists should too.

The judge agreed. In Haggerty’s words, “Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes.” That is, as far as the Constitution is concerned, the government cannot favor any one religion over another. Judge Haggerty pointedly noted that his decision was in line with earlier court decisions that differentiated between Secular Humanism in general and organized groups of Secular Humanists who demanded equal treatment. It does not matter if SH in general is a religion. Those who claim equal privileges to religious groups deserve them.

So, in short, the judge did not decide that SH was or was not a religion. His decision was based on the notion that any religion or non-religion deserves equal treatment by the government. But here’s my hunch: For the coming few decades, fundamentalist pundits will refer to this case as proof that SH is a religion. They will ignore the niceties of Judge Haggerty’s decision. We might even see a re-do of the Mozert v. Hawkins County case from the 1980s. In that case, fundamentalist parents insisted that school textbooks pushed the religion of SH on their trusting children.

A new generation of fundamentalist activists might take heart from this decision. It is proof, fundamentalists might conclude, that they’ve been right all along.

Apocalyptic Academics: Conservatives and the Myth of Outrageous Schools

There it is again!

Today we find yet another example of conservative commentators lambasting the outrageousness of public education.  This firmly ensconced tradition of school-bashing doesn’t make much sense to me.  I would think conservatives would want to promote public education in America as one field in which conservative ideas and ideals have taken firm control.

Today’s example comes from the pages of Public Discourse, in an essay by Professor William Jeynes.  The opening paragraph highlights the terrible activism of public schools:

An inquisitive elementary school student asked his teacher, “Is it wrong to steal?” The teacher replied, “I don’t know. What do you think?” This incident in a major midwestern public school alarmed thousands of parents, and reminded myriad others why they value religious private schools: these schools are usually guided by a moral compass for academics and behavior that public schools patently do not offer.

This notion of vaguely outrageous teaching in America’s vaguely described public schools is a dominant theme of conservative talk about public schooling.

Browsers of conservative media hear about high-school students strip-searched during exams, or teachers rewarded for “stomping” on the American flag.

In all these stories, public schools and their teachers loom as out-of-control dictators, blasting away at traditional morality, patriotism, religion, and common sense.

Nor is this theme a new one among conservative pundits.

In the 1980s, for example, commentator Sam Blumenfeld warned readers that “the neighborhood school is controlled by a national educational and bureaucratic hierarchy completely insulated from local community pressures and answerable only to itself.”[1]

In the 1970s, US Representative John Conlan (R-AZ) worked hard to control what went on in public schools.  Debating House Bill 12851 in May, 1976, Conlan advised,

I think one of the things that perhaps the gentleman from Michigan is not aware of is that there is a significant current in education to teach children that there are no values, there is no right, there is no wrong, that everything is relative, and it all depends upon situational ethics.[2]

As I argued in my 1920s book, conservatives in that decade also insisted on the terrifyingly amoral or immoral dominance of public schools.  For instance, one well-funded insurgent group, the Bible Crusaders, warned that public schools had been taken over by a conspiratorial sect determined “to secretly and persistently work to overthrow the fundamentals of the Christian religion in this country.”[3]

In all these tellings, schools and teachers represent insidious threats to traditional values.  As with Professor Jeynes’ recent warning, a single example, often vague or imprecise, is used as proof of the continuing trend of public schools nationwide. For some reason, conservatives have long tended to exaggerate the perniciousness of public schools.

Of course, this is not only a conservative tendency.  Progressives, too, often hyperventilate over isolated examples of conservative influence in schooling.  As we noted recently, for instance, the specter of creationism often looms much larger in the progressive imagination than it does in actual schools.

In the face of such assertions of apocalyptic academics in public schools, more careful scholarship demonstrates that most teaching fits in with local community values.  Political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have noted that most teachers’ values match those of their school and district.[4]

Of course, there always are and always have been some teachers who flout local values.  But such events are newsworthy precisely because they are unusual.  In general, most teachers prefer to avoid controversy.  Most teachers, like most people, try to fit in.  The notion that teachers and schools are out to demolish the values of their students just doesn’t match experience.

Yet conservatives will presumably continue to trumpet examples of outrageous public-school teaching.  To a non-conservative like me, this does not make sense.  I would think conservatives would rather exaggerate the conservative nature of most public education.  These days, talk about public schooling is dominated by demonstrably conservative themes: privatization, competition, and union-bashing, to name a few.

Wouldn’t it make better strategic sense for conservatives to claim all of these as victories?

[1] Samuel L. Blumenfeld, Is Public Education Necessary?  (Old Greenwich, CT: Devin-Adair, 1981), 4.

[2] Congressional Record, May 12, 1976, pg. 13532.

[3] “The Bible Crusader’s Challenge,” Christian Fundamentals in School and Church 8 (April-June 1926): 53.

[4] Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 199-200.

Sex as Religion in America’s Public Schools

Try this one on for size: Religious conservatives are fighting to keep America’s public schools free from religion.  And they have been doing so for a long time.

Here’s the catch: the religion they want excluded is the awkwardly named faith of “sexualityism.”  The campaign by some conservative intellectuals to ban this newly identified theology joins a long history of conservative attempts to reframe secular, liberal, “progressive” ideology.  Such ideas as the relativism of value systems and the virtues of commitment-free sex, these conservative argue, are actually theological ideas.  As such, the conservative argument goes, the fabled wall of separation between church and state requires that they be kept far away from public schools.

For example, writing recently for the conservative journal Public Discourse, Greg Pfundstein denounced a new sex policy in New York City schools.  As we’ve noted here, the Connecting Adolescents to Comprehensive Health (CATCH) program offers contraception to public-school students without parental notification.  The program recently expanded to include “morning-after” pills, in addition to condoms and birth-control pills.

Pfundstein insisted that this program made no sense from a public-health perspective.  Instead, Pfundstein argued, “This is the work of religious fanatics, and their religion is sexualityism.”

At the core of programs such as CATCH, Pfundstein concluded, is nothing less than a “theocracy of the sexual emancipation of children.”

The strategy of identifying secular ideology in public schools as a religion has a storied history among conservatives.  In the 1920s, as I argue in my 1920s book, much of the anti-evolution fervor among religious conservatives resulted from the identification of evolutionary ideas as profoundly religious.  In this case, conservatives argued that evolution was merely atheism in disguise.

More recently, beginning in the 1970s, conservatives attacked public-school ideology as “secular humanism.”  Conservative writers, intellectuals, and activists insisted that public-school curricula embodied the religion of secular humanism, and, as such, violated the First Amendment ban on state-supported religion in public schools.

Perhaps the political high-water mark for this strategy came on May 12, 1976.  US Representative John Conlan of Arizona successfully amended a bill about the financing of higher education to include a denunciation of secular humanism.  As Conlan argued on the floor of the House,

“there is a significant current in education to teach children that there are no values, there is no right, there is no wrong, that everything is relative, and it all depends upon situational ethics.  This is the heart of the First Secular Humanist Manifesto of 1933 and the [13533] Second Secular Humanist Manifesto of 1973.

            “What we are really saying is that much of the social problems that are being dealt with in the schools came from the premise that there are no moral or religious principles.  What I am saying is that since we cannot teach and will not fund those grants and programs to develop the Judaic-Christian ethical concepts, then it seems to me fair that those curriculums opposed to Judaic-Christian concepts should also not be funded.  That is all we are asking.      

            “I have in my hand here the recently published Humanist Magazine article which brags that ‘humanism is alive and thriving in secondary schools.’  But we could go on and on documenting the case of what is happening in our schools.” (Source: Congressional Record, May 12, 1976, pg. 13532-13533)

This argument has had some success in courtrooms.  Most famously, the plaintiffs in Mozert v. Hawkins County (1987) had initial success with their claims.  Though a federal circuit court eventually disagreed, early hearings supported the Mozerts’ claim that textbooks in public schools ought not teach ideas that promoted “secular humanism.”

Could this strategy change the argument about sex-ed in public schools?  Could it shift the debate from talk of public health to talk of public religion?

If the history of conservative attempts to ban “secular humanism” is any guide, the answer is likely no.  In Mozert v. Hawkins County, for instance, federal judges eventually ruled that the Mozerts’ did not have a significant claim to have been harmed.  In essence, the judges disagreed that “secular humanism” represented a state-sponsored religion.

The same will likely be true with the awkwardly named “sexualityism.”  The religious nature of teaching sexuality seems plausible, but courts and public opinion will likely continue to see the public-health benefits of sex ed outweighing the religious objections of conservatives.