Are We Really Atheists?
I have just completed my first year as a part-time substitute teacher in the Santa Rosa public schools. As a father, part-time pastor, and concerned citizen, it left me with a lot to think about.
On the one hand, I was consistently impressed by the many dedicated faculty, administrators, and zesty young people who displayed a love of life and learning.
On the other hand, I ran across too many students–usually at the high school level–who had somehow become hardened, turned off, troubled, and exceedingly difficult to teach.
If I were to try to explain the latter, I would follow the lead of my own spiritual tradition and trace their struggles to life in a fallen world. The villains in my analysis would be a fallen human nature, bad personal choices, negligent or abusive parents, and the powerful temptations of a debased popular culture that appeals to the worst in us all.
My purpose here, however, is not to analyze, but to suggest a way of helping our youth in the place where, more than most, they are shaped and prepared for adult life. And this entails mentioning one more problem: the practical atheism of our public schools.
I say “practical” because this atheism is not taught, but caught, largely in the atmosphere of what is not said and not done. Let me explain with a few observations and anecdotes.
At the beginning of the school day there is no prayer, moment of silence, or time set apart for spiritual reading to focus one’s thoughts on the Supreme Being. In some classes, there is no longer even a pledge to the flag, with its pregnant reminder that we are “one nation under God.” (In one school, I thought sure I heard the principal lead us over the PA system in saying “. . . one nation under all . . . ” ).
I have been pleased to notice various character traits prominently displayed in halls and classrooms. Faith, however, is never one of them. Colorful wall-hangings often honor the creation, but I have yet to see one that honors the Creator (e.g., “Respect / For the kind of Mind / That makes the cherry tree.” — A Zen Haiku)
Science texts nearly always purvey as fact the naturalistic theory of origins, ignoring the many lively arguments and evidences favorable to recent creation and/or Intelligent Design.
Similarly, school libraries carry no books or periodicals critical of evolutionism or favorable to creationist views. (I donated a number of such materials to one local high school, but they never made it onto the shelves or into the library data-base). Neither, as a rule, have I found Bibles, Koran’s, Gita’s, or other sacred texts (though in one junior high school I found the Religion section dominated by books on witchcraft).
History texts are factually informative, but I have never run across one that seriously discusses the faith of our fathers, namely, that there is a divine benefactor and judge who presides over the destiny of morally responsible men and nations. (e.g., “I tremble for my country when I remember that God is just, and that His justice will not sleep forever.” — T. Jefferson).
Likewise, I have yet to hear God, His blessings, or His judgments invoked as the primary reason why students should “do the right thing”.
Why Practical Atheism?
So why have our schools become islands of practical atheism? The short answer is simple: The courts have recently imposed an atheistic interpretation of the First Amendment upon them.
It hasn’t always been so. History shows that the First Amendment’s prohibition against the “establishment” of religion was designed simply to prevent the U. S. as a nation from identifying with a particular Christian denomination. We can easily see this in the fact that established state churches (e.g., the Congregational Church in Massachussets) continued unhindered well into the 19th century.
In recent years, however, the Supreme Court has tended to interpret the disestablishment clause, not as erecting a wall of separation between the federal government and a particular denomination, but between the state and God. In some sectors of public life (e.g., Congress, the military, etc.), the wall has yet to be raised very high. In the case of public schools, however, the courts have determined that their activities must advance strictly “secular” purposes. This view rules out even non-sectarian prayer, as well as the study of creationism, school-based chaplains, etc. In other words, it mandates practical atheism.
In my mind, this judicial trend raises an important question: Are we really atheists? In other words, is what we now must do (or not do) in the schools really reflective of our spiritual posture as a people and the intentions of the founding fathers?
Certainly not according to Mr. Gallup, who has found that over 90% of Americans profess faith in a Supreme Being. And certainly not according to the Declaration of Independence, or our U.S. Constitution, both of which affirm the existence of a divine creator and moral governor of the nations. And certainly not according to the practice of other public institutions, such as Congress, the Supreme Court, and the armed forces, where God is regularly acknowledged and His blessings invoked.
It would appear, then, that as a nation we are not really atheists. But if not, what can be done to align the practice of our schools with who we really are? Here are a few concluding suggestions.
First, we must recognize that young people–and all people–are spiritual beings. They have an innate awareness of, and curiosity about, God and spiritual reality. They cannot, as Christ taught, live by bread alone. If this is so, then surely our public schools–if indeed we are meant to have public schools–should somehow contribute to the spiritual development of youth. For if schools do not fulfill that role, we may be sure that in the case of many youth an increasingly destructive popular culture will.
Secondly, we need carefully to define what the spiritual responsibility of our schools really is. Most emphatically, it is not, in our pluralistic society, spiritual training or indoctrination. That role belongs to parents and clergy. The public schools can, however, play a supportive role, encouraging a generic faith in a Supreme Being, objectively exposing students to various ideas about Him, and preparing them for a life of tolerance, respect, and mutual inquiry vis-a-vis people of other faiths.
Such a posture must, of course, acknowledge the presence of agnostic or atheistic students in the classroom. Specifically, it must allow for the expression of their views, and guard against any violation of their conscience. On the other hand, the presence of a minority of atheists cannot become the grounds for abandoning a robust commitment to theism, as in fact we see occurring in the schools today.
Thirdly, we will need to become convinced that the incorporation of non-sectarian theism into the fabric of public education is fully constitutional. Seeing this will be relatively easy (the Colorado Board of Education, which recently commended the motto “In God We Trust” to schools, has definitely caught the vision); implementing it in the present legal environment will be very, very hard.
Fourthly, we will need to develop specific policies that reflect our commitment to “God-friendly” schools. These might include:
1. A moment of voluntary silent prayer or meditation at the beginning of the day (and at major school events), acknowledging God’s existence and seeking His blessing.
2. Ten or fifteen moments at the beginning of the day dedicated to voluntary spiritual reading, the materials to be chosen by parents and students.
3. Enthusiastic support of religious clubs and release-time for spiritual training.
4. The inclusion of a course in Comparative Religion in the high school curriculum, based upon the premise that the quest for spiritual truth is a vital part of the meaning of life and a quality education.
5. The selection of text-books and supportive materials that include theistic (and not just naturalistic) perspectives on science, history, government, etc. In particular, this will mean giving proponents of creation/intelligent design a voice in any discussion of the crucial topic of origins.
6. Improvement of libraries to include a well-rounded sampling of primary and secondary texts from the main religious traditions.
7. Creation of a school-based chaplaincy, staffed by clergy of different traditions who could assist in counseling those students (and parents) who desired their services.
8. Weekly, voluntary chapels led by each of the chaplains.
In today’s cultural and legal environment these are, of course, controversial proposals, so that any community serious about implementing them must prepare itself for a long and difficult fight.
But lest we shrink from the task, it is wise to consider the alternative. The poet Yeats described it well in these sobering images:
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
After the events of Columbine, and in the face of all they represent, I cannot help but fear that such a day is fast approaching. Moreover, I do not believe that any amount of money, technology, or mere academic restructuring can keep it at bay. If the poet is right, then there is only one way to recover “the lost ceremony of innocence,” and that is for us all somehow to find our way back to “the center.”
To me, this means a life-long quest to find, know, serve, and enjoy the great mystery that we call God. And this means, within the limits determined by our Constitution, that we enthusiastically encourage the students in our public schools to undertake this great quest for themselves.
Unless, of course, we really are atheists.