The case for a secular education system

by Michael Nugent on March 11, 2010

There are two reasons why State schools should be run on a secular basis. But first, it is important to explain that a secular school is not the same thing as an atheist school.

A religious school teaches that a god exists, an atheist school would teach that no gods exist, and a secular school is neutral on the question of religion: it does not teach that gods either do or do not exist.

Instead, a secular school teaches children in a neutral, objective way about the different beliefs that different people have about gods, and leaves it up to parents and churches to teach specific religious beliefs outside of school hours.

As a symbolic example, a recent European court case ruled that Italian schools should not display crucifixes on classroom walls. But removing the crucifixes would not turn the school into an atheist school: that would require replacing the crucifixes with signs saying that there is no god. A classroom wall with no religious symbols of any type would symbolise a secular school.

Secular schools are good for society

That said, here are the two reasons why State schools should be run on a secular basis.

Firstly, it is good for society for children to be educated together. We in Ireland can see from the recent history of Northern Ireland how separate schooling contributed to the problems of children understanding and respecting each other across religious divides.

Secular schools bring children together. They teach them the normal subjects that have a basis in scientific fact, like mathematics and languages and history and critical thinking. They teach them about different religious beliefs and help them to understand other beliefs and respect other people.

And, outside of school hours, the children’s parents and churches can teach them more about their own specific beliefs about the nature of reality and personal morality.

Secular schools respect human rights

Secondly, in practical terms, secular schools are the only way to ensure that everybody has their human rights respected with regard to education.

Under international human rights law, parents have a right to have their children educated in a way that is consistent with their religious or philosophical beliefs. I will outline in a later article the reasons why this is so.

At a minimum, this means that schools should not indoctrinate children with religious beliefs that conflict with those of their parents.

In theory, this could be done by having schools based on every religious view and atheism, and to have enough of these schools spread around the country so that, in practice, each child can attend one suitable to their circumstances.

In practice, this impossible to do. There is simply not enough money to provide so many schools, and even if there was it would be an administrative nightmare.

So that leaves the other option: have secular schools that are neutral with regard to religious beliefs, as I have described above. This option respects the human rights of all children equally. That is what a fair and just society would do.

The case for secular education

Combine both reasons, and the argument is clear. Secular schools are good for society, because they help children to understand differences and respect other people; and secular schools are the only way in practice to respect the human rights of all of our parents and children.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Helen Beattie February 19, 2013 at 3:00 pm

Hi Michael, I am using your ideas in one of my essays for University, I’m just wondering when you wrote this as i need to reference it in my essay.

Would be great if you could get back to me. Thanks.

2 Michael Nugent February 25, 2013 at 3:31 am

Hi Helen,

This was first published on 11 March 2010.

Michael

3 Ricardo Martinez March 11, 2013 at 3:04 pm

A secular school would be a atheist school in a way, because evolution is part of a religion and that is taught in science classes, as a requirement. and its the first amendment freedom of religion and freedom of speech but athesist and non believers are putting all christians down i believe they should add religion in schools, its just like a language not everyone wants to learn french, and not everyone wants to learn about evolution especially if it goes against their believes along the lines of christianity or any other religion

4 pam April 11, 2013 at 11:57 am

Hi Michael. I am in a fortunate position to comment. My parents are from different religious backgrounds. Mum is Anglican and Dad was a Hindu. They both brought us up to be non-judgemental and critical. Our schools were without religious bias and we had a simple prayer at assembly each morning. I am now 59 years old and a school teacher for the past 37 years. I teach children that are diverse in their worship and belief. Most are African and do participate in ancestral worship. I do not have the heart to judge them as they are all gifts to our world. I agree wholeheartedly with your thinking and comment on the situation. We should NOT condemn, disrespect or force any religion on anyone. Children should NEVER be made to feel they are any less because of their beliefs.

5 Julie September 13, 2015 at 2:47 pm

As I am embarking on telling Saint stories to children of the 2nd grade in my Public Charter Waldorf School in the United States, I am referring this article to the parents in my class.
It has been my experience that these stories are beneficial for children at this developmental stage not only from a social standpoint but as a way to feed their growing development as human beings. I would appreciate comments about how I can justify my secular reason for telling these stories to seven year old children from a secular place. Thanks in advance.

6 Michael Nugent September 16, 2015 at 11:55 pm

Julie, you could tell them the factual parts of the stories (insofar as the saints existed as real people) as being real, and tell them the supernatural parts in the context that some people believe this happened and other people don’t. You could also tell them stories about people of all religions and none who have done good things, without reference to what people believe happened to them after they died.

7 Ray Lautenbach November 11, 2015 at 10:39 am

“evolution is part of a religion” ? Mr. Martinez should receive censure for stating this. Evolution was a theory and my understanding is that evolution is now scientific fact for which considerable amounts of evidence exist.

8 Ray Lautenbach November 11, 2015 at 10:40 am

Provided incorrect e-mail address previously. Sorry.

9 Julie November 11, 2015 at 4:28 pm

Thanks for this answer, which is mainly how I have begun to tell the stories. Children love the stories, not only that they are good tales but also these stories carry elements of human qualities that do not exist in the same way as other stories from our ancestry. The saints stories came into the European world during the dark ages. In a material sense the world grows dark again. These stories were told and not even written down for hundreds of years. It’s good to be able to tell them apart from any religious motive. I have referred parents in my class to this sight and I thank you for that too.

10 Auson mutta May 4, 2017 at 2:00 am

Thank you a lot Mr Michael for your belief justification on secular education (school) since your ideas rescued me in tackling my assignment question from my lecture which wanted the difference between secular education and domination education am university student at eckenford tanga university thank you again my Friend

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