Public School (Neutral)
Secular Humanist School
A neutral learning framework of educational goals to be reached is set at the state level by professional educators; curriculum guidelines developed to implement the goals, usually with state-approved resources
Learning program is couched in a framework of religion and authority (the particular “church” determines what students “should know” and, within civil law, how they “should be taught it” and with what resources)
Learning program is couched in a framework of pragmatism and rationality as it is construed by these SHs with curriculum/ resources (students taught to interpret the world in terms of humans actions and results)
Portions of the required curricula essentially the same in all three schools
Nutrition; health; P.E.
History (sans teaching about religion/nonreligion)
Foreign languages, etc..
Like public school
Like public school
Role and history of religion as interpreted by historians; and teaching about religion as interpreted by historian-educators in the discipline
History interpreted by historians and also by key religious scholars; also teaching essentials of the general and particular religious narrative tradition/history and interpretation (religious way of knowing attuned to the particular denomination)
History as interpreted by historians; also teaching essentials of freethought narrative tradition/history and freethought ways of knowing: a critical/skeptical analysis of historicity of religions; tenets/ideas and of religious belief (religion seen as mythology)
Art and Literature
particular emphasis given to religiously-inspired or
Social Sciences and Civics, focusing on origins of and current constitution, civil laws, character education, focusing on how values develop and shared values (broad societal agreement)
Science as defined by scientists and as interpreted within state level curricular guidelines in response to civic/political context (example at right shows how our two schools depart from this in a contentious arena):
depends on specific dogma (*):
follows SH tenets:
Teaching about scriptures as examples of religious literature and in an objective manner (i.e., treatment of Bible similar to manner of teaching about the sacred literature of world religions)
Teaching about content of sacred books as religious mythology with elements of historic accuracy revealed by archeology and historical record; attention given to scriptural fallacies and contradictions
A striving for a balance during the “December dilemma” season and recognition of a wide variety of holidays; some use of holidays as opportune times to teach about varied cultural practices; ideally taught about in curricular context
Religious holidays of the specific faith are celebrated and certain level of observance required or encouraged of all students; likely little notice given to holidays of other religions or, depending on dogma, a kinship may be emphasized or a deconstructionist approach taken
Will not observe religious holidays or religious aspects of civic declared holidays, but seasonal celebrations are observed (the solstices and equinoxes), Freethought Day (Oct. 12), perhaps the birthdays of noted scientists and freethinkers; religious holidays studied as cultural artifacts.
Untying a Terminology Tangle—Secular vs. Nonreligious
By Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell
Source: Geisert, P. and Futrell, P. "Untying a Terminology Tangle—Secular
vs. Nonreligious"—04.28.02 [Duplication rights freely granted for
Courts have ruled that public schools must conduct secular programs of
study that keep religious espousal, guidance, and practice out of the public
schools’ curriculum and instruction. Schools also are required to serve all the
youngsters—both religious and nonreligious—fairly and equitably.
The aforementioned circumstance baffles many educators and the public,
and there is a need to clear up the confusion. The confusion derives in part
from reliance on common usage that equates the term “secular” to
“nonreligious.” In the context of public education, this is a serious semantic
In U.S. public schools the educational enterprise must by law be neutral
regarding religion—neutral among religions, and neutral between religion
and nonreligion. In other words, it cannot favor one religion over another; nor
can it privilege religion over nonreligion (or vice versa). The mandate that
public schools, as government institutions, carry out a general
evenhandedness concerning religion grows out of the Establishment Clause
of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and a school
system may be under further state constitutional constraints.
A considerable body of applicable law has accumulated since the 1947
Everson v. Board of Education U. S. Supreme Court interpretation became
a standing criterion regarding religion within public education.[i] Perhaps the
clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious
denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.[ii] The
Establishment Clause also precludes “conveying or attempting to convey a
message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or
preferred.”[iii] The law in essence directs that public school environments
and actions be unbiased vis-à-vis students’ belief systems (worldviews). In
short, public schools are to operate secular programs that serve all students
impartially. A school may endorse neither religion itself nor any specific
religions, and its programs and lessons related to religion must not
communicate a message that adherents of particular worldviews are either
outsiders (not full members of the school community) or insiders (favored
members of that community).[iv]
Accomplishing religious neutrality is a challenge for any school system, and
this challenge will increase, as school systems are required to serve
populations of widely varied faith and belief systems.[v] Nevertheless, the
directive is of great importance to the learning environment that schools can
construct for youngsters. The neutrality ideal translates into educational
policy and standard practice that make possible an academic milieu in
which children of all the varied religious and nonreligious worldviews are
able to participate in the educational program based on equal worth and
mutual respect. The result can be a genuine freedom of conscience for all
The Nonreligious/Secular Muddle
Some educational scholars contend that schools—because they are
secular—favor a nonreligious outlook. Their advocacy produces a linguistic
muddle. Can it be that secular schools, by their very nature, are in actuality
showing favoritism toward the belief system of citizens holding a
Warren A. Nord and Charles Haynes in their book, Taking Religion
Seriously across the Curriculum[vi] uphold this "school is skewed"
assertion and recommend, as a corrective measure, augmenting the school
curriculum to include more teaching about religion so that students can
come to understand "religious ways of knowing." In making their arguments,
they often apply the terms secular and nonreligious as if the two are
For example, Nord and Haynes reiterate the law established in Everson v.
Board of Education that public schools “… must be neutral between religion
and nonreligion.” But on the next page they switch the terms in stating that
“…public schools should not promote, much less institutionalize, any
particular way of making sense of the world be it religious or secular.”
(emphasis theirs).[vii] While the courts identified the corresponding
components (religion and nonreligion), Nord and Haynes have drawn their
neutrality boundaries between religious and secular.
In another passage Nord and Haynes state: “When students do, on
occasion, study religion (in a history course, for example), they are taught to
interpret its historical meaning in secular categories; they will not learn to
interpret history in religious categories. This is the core of truth in the claim
that schools teach students the (functional) religion of secular humanism…
it is that public education nurtures a secular mentality.”[viii] (See extended
comment in endnotes)[ix] This is a signally serious example, a jumble of
terminology and concepts, and it is representative of many other assertions
offered by writers that, collectively, have spurred our interest to sort things
Meaning and Context
Words often have multiple meanings, and so we must carefully consider
context. Further, there may be great disparity between a dictionary definition
(common usage) of any given term and its legitimate usage when seen from
a legal perspective. Both aspects come into play in the case of secular vs.
nonreligious. Confusing the terms "secular" and "nonreligious" casually
imperils fair debate about the religious neutrality of our public schools.
Largely, these two words are used interchangeably in everyday language.
But, contextually—concerning public education—the terms actually apply to
different things, and there is a serious semantic problem connected with
applying the word “secular” to all of the following: 1) schools, 2) programs, 3)
people, and 4) the concept of nonreligion and freethought.
The word “secular” does have many meanings. In common parlance, we
often pair it with “religious” (religious/secular; sectarian/secular) and treat the
two as antonyms. The dictionary invokes notions of worldly or temporal
(rather than sacred or holy) in support of viewing secular as “nonreligious.”
Many educators usefully employ this common dictionary contrast, such as
when, for example, they distinguish two types of humanists
Another sense of “secular” connotes that which is “unrelated to church and
religion” (e.g., religious/secular music; religious/secular architecture). An
even broader meaning encompasses civil notions, and for governmental
settings, the meaning of “secular” has been carefully defined by law in light of
civil intent. Public education, as an enterprise of government, follows suit.
As secular government is to serve all citizens equitably, the secular school
as an institution serves all youngsters equitably. In some sense, the school
is much like a theater that places all its actors on a level stage. The platform
of the secular school is a simply a neutral stage for all the players,
irrespective of their individual worldviews (be they religious or not). Thus,
secular in the civil setting also means “a level playing field.” The field is level
for the students. It also is level for teachers and staff, but their professional
role requires their keeping the field level for the youngsters. This may place
restrictions on their individual personal liberty.
The word “secular” as applied to government (hence to public schools and
their programs) is a legally defined term declaring the neutrality goal and
clearly not a synonym for nonreligious (or for the oft-used label, secular
humanist). In the school context, the legal meaning of “secular” must hold
sway. Public educators have to be precise on terminology because, clearly,
the laws are attempting to protect youngsters’ individual civil liberties, most
particularly their freedom of conscience.
Three Schools of Thought
Some have interpreted the notion of secular in the civil setting (e.g., the
public school) to mean secular humanist. The implication is not correct.
“Secular Humanism” is a type of nonreligious worldview for which organized
associations exist to support adherents. To help differentiate these two uses
of the term, secular, let’s take a look at the characteristics of three different
high schools: 1) a public secular school, 2) a religious private school run by
a particular denomination or sect, and 3) a nonreligious private school run by
a secular humanist organization. We will compare and contrast the “ways of
knowing” taught by the three schools.
Teaching About Religion
in support of civic pluralism
At school, the word “secular” denotes a neutrality
ideal, and is not synonymous with "nonreligious".
Is it not clear that if public schools really taught the values of secular
humanism that there would be an immediate parental and community
revolution? So, what does our Constitution really demand of our secular
schools? Quite simply, it is neutrality regarding the varied religious and
nonreligious worldviews—neutrality about students’ ultimate beliefs.
Another approach to understanding how secular differs from nonreligious
involves contemplating the type of lessons one would use to teach
youngsters to discriminate between the two concepts. By thinking about the
lessons, a teacher can begin to sense the distinction in usage and more
readily avoid using the terms interchangeably.
Lesson A: The meaning of
(as in secular schools)
Lesson B: The meaning
(as in nonreligious people)
To teach what the term "secular"
means in this sense involves
acquainting students with the
cultural and legal underpinnings of
state and church separation.
Lesson plans would address
aspects of the U.S. Constitution
and its Bill of Rights, certain court
decisions, and historical
situations and events. There will
be lessons on why their school
classroom is neutral in regards to
their varied worldviews and how it
is that any person under law has
the constitutional right to his/her
liberty of conscience.
To teach students about the
meaning of "nonreligious" (or
"religious," for that matter), one
employs content lessons that
focus on the worldviews of people.
Lesson plans would pertain to
how people describe and account
for the world they live in and would
concentrate on features of daily
living through which they reveal
E.g., An individual may have a
religious stance or hold to a
distinctly nonreligious outlook.
There are variants of nonreligious
worldviews (e.g., atheist, brights,
agnostic, humanist, rationalist) just
as there are many varieties of
religious worldviews (e.g.,
Catholic, Taoist, Methodist,
Mormon, Sikh.) A person
uninterested in religion will
nevertheless have his/her own
Nonreligious, as in Worldviews
The American Heritage Dictionary defines a worldview as "the collection of
beliefs about life and the universe held by an individual or a group." A
worldview encapsulates answers regarding broad questions of "life
understanding," such as how the universe and the human race came about
(origins), what is the source of moral values, what happens after death, and
so forth. Humans with similar worldviews may associate or organize in order
to express their shared beliefs, carry out their lives according to their
convictions, or better transmit them to youth. Today’s foremost world
religions derive from such conduct across countless generations.
In the public school context, the term "nonreligious" applies to certain of the
students and faculty and staff. Such labels as "unbeliever" or "irreligious" or
“godless” may not be relevant in describing such persons and contrasting
them with religious peers and may actually be seen as rude or pejorative.
One must be careful to avoid terminology that places individuals with a
nonreligious worldview in a negative light. For example, the word
“unbeliever” in general does not accurately describe nonreligious
individuals, for in actuality many have strong convictions. In those, they are
believers, not unbelievers. They simply believe in ideas not generally
included under the concept of “religious.” It is better to state specifics of
beliefs, the contrasting and alternate beliefs, than to categorize people
broadly with labels.
In a typical U.S. school, most students’ worldviews will be religious, but a
substantial fraction will be nonreligious. According to the American
Religious Identification Survey (ARIS 2001)[x], which asked adult Americans
to self-identify by their religious preference (if any), 14% of the U.S. citizenry
declared “no religion.” Some states (e.g., California, Washington, and Idaho)
have many such citizens (Washington state shows 25% without religion).
Many of these are merely indifferent to religious and nonreligious ideas,
whereas others hold to a distinctly nontheistic worldviews (e.g., Secular
The ARIS study reports that most U.S. adults (80.2%) self-identify with some
type of religion and hold a religious worldview. However, from the inception
of the nation, the fact that the United States holds to secular ideals of
governance is something the populace has generally favored. In fact, our
nation has given special consideration to broad diversity in worldviews. The
two religious liberty clauses of the U. S. Constitution’s First Amendment
function to the same end—freedom of conscience for citizens of all faiths or
The nonreligious individuals who maintain or organize around their
worldview and depart from many religion-associated cultural conventions
have come to be identified as “freethinkers.” Many have earned a place in
history books. Hence, the concept of "nonreligion" also can apply in
curriculum, particularly in an area such as in history or social studies, when a
class is learning about individuals, social groups, or specific philosophies.
"Teaching about nonreligion" (freethought) in history and social studies
parallels "teaching about religion." Academic study of either entails students
learning about the worldview(s) and actions of individuals or peoples who
have embraced a certain understanding of life (religious or nonreligious).
Teaching about both religion and about freethought can proceed in a
secular manner (the lessons stay objective, academic and neutral overall).
Secular, as in Governance
Secular governance regarding the handling of worldviews (and how they are
taught about) provides direction much like a compass. A compass helps
maintain a given general direction during a journey. The compass direction
for all government institutions serving the public must stay pointed to
"neutral" with freedom of conscience for all. There is to be no swerving
toward or away from any specific worldview. Public education has to aim for
the same compass heading, and schools must by law stick close to that
heading, whatever the surrounding social pressures may be.
The way schools stay on course with respect to student beliefs is by neither
promoting nor inhibiting any religion or any nonreligion. As stated by
Abrahamson and Smith:[xii] “In a public school a teacher must try to be as
objective as possible. To keep biases in check, he or she can imagine that
a highly educated, diverse committee of scholars is monitoring the lessons.
The imaginary committee includes religious people of various faiths and
nonreligious scholars as well. If such a group were actually in the classroom,
the instructor would take special care to see that presentations and activities
would be as non-biased as possible.”(p. 1) Similarly, thoughts of external
evaluation can aid a school as well as individual teachers in “keeping its
bearing” and make veering off the “neutrality heading” less likely.
An academic approach is to underlie both content and method. The process
is not perfect. (Full worldview fairness in curriculum and absolute impartiality
in teaching are ideals.) When students, parents, or other concerned
observers notice that the compass is not pointing toward neutrality, then
correction is to be sought. Drifting off course is not permissible. Schools
must seek to remedy any policy or practice that connotes the "ship" is
showing movement in favor of or against a particular worldview.
Civil Morality and Secular Schools
Discussion about religion and public schools often takes place at a high
decibel level. Such issues as prayer-before-football games, school voucher
initiatives, religious graduation valedictories, and postings of Christian
commandments and may bring forth near tornado force commentary. In a
political season, we encounter heightened public discourse concerning
religion as it relates to the processes of public education. Much of the heat
relates to diverse public conceptions of the schools’ teaching of moral
Larue[xiii] points out a “wall” pertaining not only to the establishment of a
religion but also to the establishment of religious codes of morality. What
particular religions accept as right and proper cannot control civil codes.
(Neither could convictions advocated by any freethought faction.) He uses as
an example the situation in which a given religion believes that divorce is
acceptable only on the grounds of adultery, and states: “Civil morality must
be secular morality, which is to say that the acceptable reasons for legal
divorce cannot be restricted by what a religious group claims to be proper.
Therefore, legal divorce becomes possible on other grounds ranging from
incompatibility to infidelity. Any given religious organization may have its
own grounds for acknowledging the divorce, but that policy remains within
the faith system and has no legitimacy or significance for the general
Under such a civic code, favor is not given to any given set of religious
beliefs; nor are nonreligious beliefs being favored. Civic laws are devised to
serve all the public sector regardless of religious or nonreligious
convictions. Certain religions and certain nonreligious groups do not like
certain civil laws, and may seek to change laws. However, those laws
equally bind all participants in the community.
For the same reason, this equality of position is true of the secular public
school. One cannot claim that not having religion in the school indicates that
the secular school is favoring nonreligion, any more than one would claim
that civil law favors nonreligion over religion. One must not confuse a level
legal playing field with a biased platform that is promulgating “secular
A level legal playing field for the citizenry is one of our nation’s highest
ideals. As with any other national ideal, the nation struggles as it seeks to
achieve its guarantee of religious liberty for the personal beliefs of all
citizens, religious and nonreligious alike. As long as the ideal remains, each
generation plays its role in moving forward toward a nation dedicated to
pluralism and freedom of conscience for all.
A secular public education is critical to that enterprise. The maintenance of
neutral public schools free of institutional bias or pressure guarantees the
right to believe freely on matters of conscience. It works for both the religious
and the nonreligious students of today, and for the U.S. citizenry of the future.
[i] Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947).
[ii] Larson v. Valente, 456 U.S. 228, 244 (1981).
[iii] Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 70 (1984) (O’Connor J., concurring)
[iv] Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, 120 S. Ct. 2266, 2279 (2000)
[v] Diana L. Eck, A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the
World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation. San Francisco, California: HarperSanFrancisco,
[vi] Warren A. Nord, Charles C. Haynes, Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum.
Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1998.
[vii] ibid., 19
[viii] ibid., 41-42
[ix]Robert J Nash, in Faith, Hype, and Clarity: Teaching About Religion in American
Schools and Colleges (New York: Teachers College Press, 1999), apparently endorses
this conception. Nash lists six main points scholars use to argue strenuously for requiring
formal study of religion in school curriculum. Preceding the listing, he cites Pannoch, Barr,
Barna, Carter, Nord, and many others with the comment: “I find the reasons they give
highly convincing,”(p.4) His listing includes: “Educators tend to promote a secular
humanist (i.e., ultimate values reside exclusively in worldly human beings and possess no
supernatural origins) account of the disciplines.”
Public school teachers most likely are representative of the population of Americans who
are predominantly religious (80.2%, according to ARIS 2001 [see endnote 11]). We have
found no research evidence that these teachers are in actuality systematically teaching
moral values contrary to religious principles. Additionally, because it is not legal for public
schools to “promote religion,” would it not be equally illegal to “promote secular humanism”
(as defined above)? Is there any legal case regarding a school or teacher promoting
nonreligion through “teaching secular humanism”? (We would welcome enlightenment on
Furthermore, the claim that secular humanism can be considered a religion for legal
purposes was considered by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Peloza v.
Capistrano School District. In this 1994 case, a science teacher argued that, by requiring
him to teach evolution, his school district was forcing him to teach the "religion" of secular
humanism. The Court responded, "We reject this claim because neither the Supreme
Court, nor this circuit, has ever held that evolutionism or secular humanism are `religions'
for Establishment Clause purposes." The Supreme Court refused to review the case (ergo,
it stands that secular humanism is not a religion).
For an authoritative definition of “secular humanism,” as practiced by secular humanists,
one can go to the Council for Secular Humanism
(http://www.secularhumanism.org/intro/what.html). An additional exposition of the issue is
Professor Paul Kurtz’s talk at the Harbinger symposium (see endnote 11).
[x] Barry A. Kosmin, Egon Mayer, and Ariela Keysar, American Religious Identification
Survey (ARIS). The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, October 2001.
[xi]Paul Kurtz, Great Religions in a Pluralistic Society, Harbinger symposium, 30 October
1997, available at http://www.theharbinger.org/articles/plural/kurtz.html
[xii] Brant Abrahamson and Fred Smith, Teacher’s Manual, History of the Hebrew Bible
(Old Testament): Current Academic Understandings. Brookfield, Illinois: The Teachers’
[xiii]Gerald A. Larue, Freethought Across the Centuries: Toward a New Age of
Enlightenment. Amherst: The Humanist Press, 1996.