Broken Logic: Why Faith & Reason Can’t Go to School Together by Craig Segall (November 2000)

We’re all made uncomfortable by prayers blaring on the PA or crucifixes hanging in the halls during lunch, but that isn’t the fundamental reason why we should be concerned about religion in public schools. There are, of course, the usual arguments against it–its obvious unconstitutionality, the likelihood of social alienation, the potential for browbeating preaching–but the problem runs much deeper. At issue in the long and tedious efforts by misguided rightists to place state-sponsored religion in schools is not just educational quality or constitutional law; rather, these efforts jeopardize the quality of both religion and education, producing a debased admixture of no use to anyone.

Consider first what happens to religion when placed in an institutional public setting. Religion at its best is not a public activity. It is rather that singular spiritual aloneness that was and is sought after in deserts and high places ever since we evolved a metaphysical need for explanation. This is the state of mind described by thinkers from Buddha to Christ as enlightenment, a sudden and deep sense of spiritual well-being and understanding. This sense, experienced as a keen edge of beauty to everyday things, as a private awareness of connection and order, is what is being sought in churches and temples–is why, in fact, they are designed as places for personal contemplation amid objects of beauty. The core of the self for many religious people, this feeling of a personal relationship with the infinite, is not something that can readily be developed in a moment of silence before lunch or while listening to a crackly prayer over the PA before a football game. It is a private emotional state that grows from and requires solitude.

To nonetheless push for enforced and perfunctory displays of religious piety then is fundamentally misguided. It is an insistence on the form of the thing rather than its substance. Is this really what proponents of religion in the schools want? A prayer that touches no hearts, a moment of silence that inspires no contemplation–this slapdash devotion in classrooms, with children forced to sit silently staring at their school supplies, makes a mockery of the very reason for religion. It dismisses the internal peace sought by the founders of faiths in favor of the external show of it taken up by rushed followers who don’t bother with belief. This is transmuting private devotion into another period like lunch or math, and kids will view it that way. If religion, then, does manage to force its way into public schools, it won’t be religion. It will be the forms of it, waded through by bored school kids who can’t wait for recess. Religion, which has its roots in private spirituality, will not survive the forced transition into public secular space.

Nor will that public activity survive the mandated inclusion of spiritual activities. Education, fundamentally, is about rigorous ordered discovery, both of the self and of the world. It rests on a simple but profound premise: the world is fundamentally understandable and can be understood by investigation. This is the idea that produced the scientific and industrial revolutions with which we have ratcheted ourselves out of the mystical haze of the middle ages into the modern age. It is the ecstatic realization that the human mind can contain the pattern of the universe, that humankind is, as Shakespeare puts it, “noble in reason . . . infinite in faculties . . . in apprehension how like a god” (Hamlet, 2.2.327-330). Here we have, in supremely confident prose, the discovery of our own capacities, made with a wild joy at the full height of the renaissance. It is the same discovery of the self that education seeks in every child. The long process of a public education, for all its flaws, is largely an attempt to create a human being fully aware of his or her abilities as a thinking creature. We wish to create a sense of discovery and capability, of continually using the mind to pry open the secrets of the world.

This is the antithesis of the quiet spirituality and revealed truth of religious faith. Religion is about epiphany and knowledge external to the self. Abraham, about to slay Isaac on the mount, is not held back by a sudden burst of thought but by divine action. Buddha’s enlightenment comes in a flash of divine understanding. The faith-based tradition is just that: one where faith and the divine take the place of empirical reasoning and self-confident exploration. The God who thunders down abuse at Job until the poor man admits that “man is vile” is not one who belongs in a school whose entire purpose is the development of a self in the model of the Enlightenment West.

Even laying aside the obvious problem of scriptures that contradict established scientific and historic facts, this is clearly an irreconcilable conflict of interests. Are teachers to tell their students that they should believe in the power of their minds to comprehend the universe except during a moment of silence at the start of the day when the exact opposite is true? This is an intellectual puzzle a bit beyond the scope of most students (or metaphysicians for that matter): a complete shift of world views for part of every day clearly demands a great deal of mental gymnastics. Ultimately, these gymnastics will make education philosophically and practically impossible–revealed truth for a moment then back to empiricism, a messy hodgepodge of faith and reason warring for young minds and classroom time. It’s hard enough to understand the world anyway; understanding two entirely different worlds at the same time is an even stranger trick.

Educators are seeking to glorify the questioning mind, priests the believing, feeling mind. One curriculum cannot accommodate both goals. If we wish to create believers, we cannot shoehorn faith into a five minute passing period. If, instead, we wish to create empirical thinkers, faith, even the debased faith that advocates of religion in school want, has no place. We need to accept that education and religion don’t mix and that, as their logical underpinnings are entirely contradictory, they can’t mix without debasing each other. Both have important gifts to offer–education, the development of the confident mind; religion, if kept in the proper context, a more textured personal moral understanding. But put them together, as well-meaning people keep trying to do, and you end up with nonsense, self-righteous posturing, and confusion. For the sake of both religion and education, that can’t happen.

Craig Segall graduated from New Trier High School and is attending the University of Chicago. Although quivering in a state of near-chronic uncertainty over his major, he is currently leaning toward a double major in English and genetics or neuroscience. He hastens to add, however, that this is highly open to change. Segall reads far more than is healthy and spends the rest of his time either at Lake Michigan or haltingly seeking out some form of social contact.

Freedom From Religion Foundation