Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/January 1887/Science in Religious Education I

972953Popular Science Monthly Volume 30 January 1887 — Science in Religious Education I1887Daniel Greenleaf Thompson




THE interest of the community that its growing youth become good citizens, extending as it does almost to a necessity for self-preservation, has developed a system of public education, supported by taxation, like any other instrumentality of government. Besides this there are a great many institutions, particularly of a higher grade, which are of a private or perhaps semi-public character, maintained beyond tuition fees chiefly by individual gifts and bequests, but sometimes also by state aid in addition. Education in such schools of the one class and the other, rather than family education, it is the present purpose to consider with reference to the leading topic.

The maintenance of the social order depends upon the needs of mankind in this world; not upon their desires, their wants, their speculations regarding a life to come. To be sure the interests of men in the latter do influence their conduct in the present life and thus affect their character as citizens. Hence the religious creeds of its members are not matters of indifference to the community. At the same time the great heterogeneity of opinions and faiths makes it a perplexing question how to legislate for the common weal in such personal concerns as that of religion. But yet it may be urged with force that, if we waited for universal agreement before we taught anything, the instruction given in every department would be very scanty.

About all the higher studies, such as philosophy, psychology, political economy, and philosophy of history, would certainly have to be excluded, while in the ordinary branches of science there would be breaks wide enough to destroy continuity of teaching. Men, however, will often submit calmly to having their children taught erroneously in physics or psychology, while they are up in arms if heresies in religion are inculcated. Upon this latter subject there is extraordinary bitterness. What ought to be done under such circumstances?

First, with regard to schools supported by public moneys. Every one is taxed in this respect on equal principles of property-holding, not in proportion to the amount of his political, economical, or religious ideas that is to be propagated through the school system. But it is not in human nature that a man should like to see the state using his money to advance notions of which he disapproves. Particularly is this true of religious ideas. Shall his objection be heeded? Suppose a person be found who thinks it contrary to equity and good conscience that his children be taught the binomial theorem. Shall instruction in algebra, therefore, be stopped at this point? Or, shall the objector be forgiven his tax? Or, shall a school be instituted for his benefit where the obnoxious formula is left out? Will not the same argument, whatever it be, hold good for both religion and algebra alike?

The great purpose of education within the domain of the state is, I conceive, to make men of their own wills do what is right; that is, to act for the welfare of the whole organism. They will not so act unless they have the right disposition. Hence good character must be formed to insure good conduct. I do not suppose it will be seriously disputed that to accomplish this end, as regards knowledge, truth only should be taught. A character based on untruth or error is not desired by anybody. The controversy always is over the answer to the query of Pontius Pilate. As a discerning judge in one of the law reports remarks in an opinion: "There is no doubt that the plaintiff in this case ought by his contract to have beans: the question is. What is beans?" There is, perhaps, room for doubt whether all truth ought to be taught, even admitting it to be truth; but I shall assume that no one will urge that falsehood should be the basis of instruction to youth.

Theoretical knowledge may or may not have direct, appreciable effects upon character and conduct. A good deal of this sort of knowledge, when acquired in school education, is disciplinary for the purpose of exercising and training mental powers. Such is the case, for example, with the binomial theorem just instanced. Perhaps no great harm would result to anybody if it were left out of mathematical instruction in public institutions. But some disciplinary instruction there must be, and some one must decide what it shall be. Men are taxed for the support of schools on the theory that it is for the interest of the state that children be educated. Each one must leave to constituted authorities the power to prescribe in what this education shall consist; and even if he has views of his own, he can not be allowed to make their rejection by the school board just ground for refusing to pay his taxes. For similar reasons he can not ask to have a school established for his own ideas or for his own benefit. Besides, this last would be wholly impracticable on an extended scale. It would destroy the public-school system altogether. Nevertheless, nothing that is here said should prevent any one from agitating matters of complaint as to courses of instruction and enforcing his opinions if he can make them appear reasonable, through the regular channels of influence and authority.

Thus there must be a common order with regard to school instruction, overruling the preferences of individuals until changed by the common will regularly expressed. The question always paramount and fundamental is, then, What does the common interest demand? According to the tenor of our preceding remarks we might answer, Theoretical and practical truth. It would be commonplace to say that youth should be taught not to commit crimes or private wrongs. And further, in accordance with the principle of organic growth, they should be informed, clothed on, if possible, with the altruistic character. In the direct relations of man to man there is comparatively little dispute over what is theoretically right and what is wrong. As to the elementary virtues and vices there is no serious difference of opinion, unless concerning sex-relations, which need not be discussed here. So also as regards elementary knowledge in general. The multiplication-table is well settled, and is universally conceded to be of considerable practical utility. The right use of language might occasion more controversy, but there are standards which are tolerably decisive of disputes. The geography of the globe, the common features in natural history, the principles of mechanics, the ascertained truths of physics generally, can be and are taught without arousing animosity, although points of doubt, of imperfect knowledge, of opposition between authorities, are discovered. In these and like studies it is expected by all intelligent people, of whatever sect or party, that wherever there is question the doubt itself with the arguments for one side or the other will be stated. This is the course usually adopted. The best text-books follow this method. In no other manner can truth be taught. But in this way the learner can be put in possession of the exact state of knowledge in a given branch of study, or upon a certain topic; and if he have the requisite mental capacity, he is placed in the best possible situation also to add to that knowledge. This is obviously for the public interest. The things that are settled, indeed, should be so taught; but when there is dispute the utmost care should be taken to state impartially and accurately the divergent views.

Now, when we come to those departments of knowledge which involve important personal and social questions of practical consequence, respecting which there is contrariety of opinion, we have three courses open. The first is for the public authority to select one set of principles and precepts to the exclusion of others, and command these to be taught as truth, and these only; the second is to refrain from teaching anything whatever on the subject; the third, to adopt the method just mentioned, namely, to present to the learner the different opinions, with the grounds of each, in the most impartial and judicial manner.

If the first plan be adopted, the risk must be run of the doctrines selected not being true. Experience has shown that truth will out; and when once error is discovered, there comes both a demonstration of the insecurity of the method and a hearty contempt for it. The one who has suffered by the teaching feels himself defrauded and swindled. Unless we can reason ourselves into the belief that falsehood or error is sometimes useful, we shall have to seek some better procedure. And even if we could persuade ourselves of the utility of untruth, we should still have the very perplexing questions to answer as to when, where, and what sort of falsehoods are useful.

But this is not the end of the trouble. If there be difference of opinion, the parties whose doctrines are rejected will inevitably oppose, by every lawful means at least, the principles adopted by those in power. They will nullify school-teaching by home-teaching; they will seek to disturb the school system by overthrowing its government; they will encourage disrespect toward the whole scheme of instruction; they will be in a state of chronic rebellion, which will create a present and pervasive social disorganization outweighing any advantage to be derived from the authoritative teaching. For, even if the latter be the truth, and the other error, the chances are that the force of authority will develop so great a resistance as to give a formidable strength and vitality to the erroneous doctrine; whereas, if its power were not thus artificially gathered and its life thus supported, it would die out from its inherent insufficiency.

Nor yet is this the whole of the matter. The adoption of any assumed truths by authority in the face of a manifest difference of opinion is an oppression which leads directly to anarchy and revolution, with despotism to follow. In order to maintain the teaching, the pressure in support must continually be increased to overbalance the opposition, which nevertheless grows in this very process, until by-and-by an upheaval is inevitable, perhaps with ruinous devastation. This is a familiar historical experience of which I need not stop to give illustration. I desire only to recall attention to the fact that, in the social and political as well as in the physical world, every action has its reaction. Revolution and anarchy are the natural and inevitable consequences of the establishment of truth by command. It may not come immediately, but disintegration is all the while going on, and the results will sooner or later appear. Thus, taking all these considerations, and even omitting the more special arguments which flow from legal guarantees of individual rights as established in a free community, we may be sure that, upon broad principles of the common weal, the first of the three courses suggested for public schools, in regard to education upon disputed questions of practical moment to the individual and to society, must unfailingly be most pernicious.

The second plan, that of teaching nothing at all, is not for the highest public interest, because its effect is to prevent the young from giving attention to, and acquiring accurate knowledge upon, subjects which ultimately will be forced upon them, and will call for opinion or action. Substantially the same reasons prevail against this course which exist against a negative attitude of the state with regard to education generally. There are thinkers of eminence who believe that the state never should undertake to educate the young, leaving that work wholly to private agencies. Their position, I think, is an unsound one, because education is a necessity for security, and thus a legitimate matter of governmental cognizance. At all events, we have public systems, and, having them, it seems important that some instruction be given upon those topics which evidently take precedence of others in the minds of the people, and are of enough consequence to develop actively an opposition of opinion.

If this be so, there is only the third suggestion left, namely, to extend universally the scientific method of teaching. State the question fairly, give the facts bearing upon it accurately, explain impartially the differences of views with the reasons favoring each; then let the individual form his own conclusions, entirely free from any of the arts of persuasion. This is the only method which subserves the public good, the welfare of the whole organism instead of the interest of a party, and which does not work injustice. Then the tax-payer can not complain; or, if he does, it will clearly be because he is more desirous of serving his own particular idols, whether of personal creation or of party affiliation, than of promoting the cause of truth, in which alone lies the well-being of the community as a whole. The school which educates after this fashion is a powerful help to the stability of the commonwealth; the teacher who thus teaches is a faithful and valuable public servant, for whose support no tax should be paid grudgingly.

While these remarks apply to the whole curriculum of instruction, the practical difficulty of giving such truly scientific instruction is often very great. There is little fairness between contestants; and most people, even teachers, are partisans. Each seeks only to become the oppressor. Ascendency, conquest, domination, is dearer than truth. When this situation occurs, deplorable though it be, there is no alternative but to exclude rigidly all instruction upon the topic which is the subject of such anti-social striving. The first of our three propositions is intolerable; the third and best may be impracticable; then we must resort to the second, in the hope that better conditions may arise. As between the first two, in adopting the second, we are certainly choosing the minor evil.

This I conceive to be the wise practice to follow respecting public instruction, as based on that theory of society which holds that each individual is united in organic association with every other, being at once the means and end of all the rest. Kow, with regard to religion, we are to-day in the position where we are obliged to consider seriously whether religious instruction shall be excluded wholly from public institutions, or be given scientifically and impartially. We can make no exception here to the rule that anything actively disputed by any considerable number of individuals in the community shall not be taught with authority in public institutions. There is not a single doctrine of Christian theology (save, perhaps, the altruistic law of self-abnegation as a rule of conduct) that is not doubted or controverted either within or without the aggregated Church. To begin with, there are two great irreconcilable bodies, the Catholic and the Protestant. Then there are the so-called atheists, the agnostics, the freethinkers. Again, there are multitudes of sects calling themselves Christian, but with differences upon expressions of supposed truth which they often regard as essential. Such being the case, for the sake of religious truth itself it would be unwise to have authoritative instruction given. In addition, there are all the reasons above cited, which militate so strongly against selecting a creed authoritatively out of the many that are put forward. Moreover, in communities like the American commonwealths, there are special reasons against such an adoption. It can not be done without contravening the organic law. Constitutional guarantees of religious freedom are in force in most of the States. For instance, the Constitution of the State of New York provides that "the free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed in this State to all mankind." Mr.R.C.Spencer, one of the Visiting Board of the Wisconsin State Normal School, in an address before the school criticising the religious ceremonies he witnessed (1886), thus expresses the Wisconsin law: "Under the provisions of the Constitution of the State, this school can have no religious purposes. The State has no religious duties to perform; therefore this institution has none. Teachers of public schools and in public institutions have as such no religious duties. On the contrary, the moment the teacher in his capacity as such begins to exercise any religious function whatever, to exert any religious influence upon the minds of those under his instruction, that moment he infringes the reserved rights of the people." Not to multiply examples, under such fundamental law as this, the teaching in public institutions of any religious doctrines as conclusive truth in the face of dissent, is such a misapplication of the powers of government as to demand the most emphatic reprobation.

Must we, then, altogether dismiss religious instruction from public schools? Certainly no complete knowledge of the progress of human civilization can be obtained without including the influences of religion and religious institutions. It is really indispensable knowledge; and, if not gained in schools, must be secured elsewhere. It also involves questions of the gravest practical concern. Perhaps this kind of instruction belongs to higher institutions than those the state undertakes to maintain; though in a normal school, for the education of teachers, it is most directly pertinent. And generally in public schools of higher, grade, those high enough, for example, to teach history, it would clearly be an advantage if some account of the leading religious ideas and the chief religious movements in the world's history were made the subject of instruction. The chief creeds of religion might even be taught, if the objections to them were given equal prominence with the points in their favor. I can not help thinking that a comparative study of articles of faith would be useful. Since, however, most of the religious sects would prefer nothing at ail to be said unless their own system be inculcated as infallible, it appears that we must for the present keep out of courses of study all religious teaching. It is a pity that sectarian bitterness makes this necessary. If those who belong to religious parties would only allow consideration to those who differ from them; if they would cease to claim for themselves a monopoly of wisdom and divine favor, there would be no need of this exclusion. But if they insist that their creed be taught, and no other; if they refuse equality of representation of religious ideas; if they are determined that the deficiencies of their own notions be blinked while the defects of others are magnified: then, indeed, the sole course left is, to do the simple justice of absolutely excluding religious instruction.

The extreme difficulty of adopting the other course is evidenced by the strenuous insistance upon the one thing in connection with religion in schools which is most indefensible of all. I refer to worship. This amounts to inculcation of religious doctrine by insinuation. It is the Jesuitical method, very potent indeed, but highly objectionable, because, without giving direct teaching, it operates to subtly instill religious creeds. It is neither open nor fair. Worship is something which belongs either to individual choice or to consentience. Those who agree in thought may unite in worship upon the basis of their agreement; otherwise it should be a personal matter. A form of worship implies the truth of the creed which it expresses or upon which it is based. What more dishonest and unworthy method of pre-empting and prejudicing the plastic minds of the young could possibly be devised than that of school worship? The solemnity of the exercise is impressed, all question and criticism are foreclosed, and then, under the sentiment of awe and respect for authority thus fully developed, beliefs are argued into the minds of children by prayer and collateral exercises.

So long as public-school worship is upheld, and the consciences of people are callous to its impropriety, it probably would be vain to expect the critical method of teaching to prevail. And yet in the present state of civilization it may not be a great while before it becomes feasible. A recent writer has asked, "Is there any reason why we should teach the life of Julius Cæsar in our schools and should not teach the life of Jesus Christ?"[1] I reply, there ought to be no reason, indeed, but there is one, which springs from the unreasonableness of those who urge religious teaching. That reason lies in the demand that the life of Jesus Christ be taught as the life in the flesh of a divine being, belief in whom is the sole salvation from eternal perdition. Granted, if you please, that this is true; it must also be admitted, deplored if you like, that a great many tax-payers do not believe its truth at all. But those who are represented by the writer quoted never would be willing to have the life of Jesus taught in the same manner as the life of Cæsar. They would not favor, for example, a fair setting forth of the arguments for and those against the miracles recorded in the gospels. They would be utterly horrified at any criticism of the character of Jesus. They would not allow him to be compared with Sakya-muni, as Cæsar might be compared with Alexander. The spirit in which they ask to have the life of Christ taught is that expressed by President Seelye in another part of the same article: "Why, then, on any consideration are not the gospels as proper a text-book in our schools as are Cæsar's 'Commentaries'? And if the teacher of the latter is to know them; if we make thorough inquiry respecting a teacher's qualifications for his task in other things, why not also here? If he does not, in the light of modern criticism, know that the story of the gospels is in the main true, he is ignorant; or if knowing its truth he would hide it, he is false; and in either case not fit to teach." There is an ambiguity in the expression "in the main true," which allows of wide differences. But no doubt the writer would intend to make his statement cover the miraculous events recorded in the gospels, certainly the story of the resurrection of Jesus. Now, upon this point it is to be feared that the ignorance lies on the side of the author cited. He says the historical accuracy of the gospels is "no longer doubted by intelligent persons." Who, having a tolerably large acquaintance of "intelligent persons," does not know that a considerable fraction of them disbelieve and a still larger fraction doubt the statements in the gospel record respecting the resurrection of Jesus? This is evidenced by journals, reviews, and even by religious organizations. If, now, a person who does not believe this account is not "intelligent" but is "ignorant" or "false" and "not fit to teach"; those who are fitted to teach the life of Jesus in the schools are only the ones who accept a particular "orthodox" view of Bible literature and are blind enough to be prevented from seeing intelligent difference of opinion! It is not the life of Jesus that a religious sect wants taught, but a particular theory of the life of Jesus. The Roman Catholics would like to have inculcated a similar theory of the Virgin Mary. How, under such circumstances, is it possible to teach the life of Jesus in the public schools? Until an agreement can be reached upon the platform of a thoroughly fair, critical instruction in religion, giving to believers and disbelievers alike the benefit of their views in equal degree, there is no other course open in a country of religious liberty than to interdict religious teaching in public institutions of learning.

Unless, indeed, we return to the rule of force. Listen to what President Seelye says, in concluding the article above quoted from: "Hence I say that the state should provide for instruction in the gospels for its own preservation. If the conscience of its subjects approve, well; if not, the state will be cautious, but courageous also, and if it is wise it will not falter." It is difficult to believe that in these days of enlightenment any "intelligent person" can deliberately give utterance to a sentiment like this, which is only appropriate to the times of Cotton and Increase Mather. Can one fail on reading such records to have rise up in his mind the vision of the wicked and bloody Past; the weary centuries of injustice, inhumanity, and woe; the ceaseless succession of robberies, tortures, and murders "for Christ's sake"? Can it be that in this fair American land, "sweet land of liberty," "intelligent persons" are still found who do not see the absolute necessity, for the common freedom, that the state in its governmental office keep wholly aloof from any attempt to inculcate religion or religious doctrine by or with authority?

A plausible suggestion is often made to the effect that the public moneys should be divided among different sects according to their numbers, and used to promote sectarian teaching. This is said to be fair to the tax-payer, and satisfies the desire of those who wish religious teaching according to their own views. But such a plan does not fulfill the idea of state education. Aside from any difficulties as to division of moneys, which might perhaps be overcome, such a scheme would tend to prevent that very growth into organic unity which it is the object to secure. It makes for separatism, prepares the way for consolidation of each sect, and a struggle for supremacy between them. It is the interest of the state not to foster sectarianism, but to eliminate it or keep it strictly subordinate to the common freedom. The young must be brought up to the understanding that their prime allegiance is to the state, the community as a whole, not to any denomination, church, or party. "When this is accomplished, private religious belief can be allowed to form itself as it may. But to divide public moneys in the way proposed is really to make the state the promoter of a sect, and to afford opportunity for the use of the public funds for the development of a character quite inconsistent with the public interests. Better have no state system of education at all, if we can not have one entirely free from sectarian control. It does not remove the difficulty that all sects are supposably to be treated equally. Organic development is what is wanted, not the separate nourishment of the different members independently. The public school ought to be a common well of pure water from which all may draw alike and unhindered; and it should be kept free from anything that taints or colors it so that it may not be partaken of by all.

Protestants generally would indorse the foregoing sentiments with regard to the division of public moneys among sects; but, strangely enough, they do not appear to see that their own claims give to the Roman Catholics the strongest case for their demands. The former are determined that the Bible shall be read in schools, with other exercises of worship, and that Protestant religious influences shall positively prevail. Such being their attitude, they can not consistently object to a division of the public moneys. They want sectarian teaching, but that of their own sect. This is what the Roman Catholics ask also. If these claims are strongly insisted upon, it seems that to divide the funds is not only just but the only thing that can be done in a free country, unless taxation for educational purposes be abandoned altogether. If Protestants desire the public-school system continued, they will be careful how they press the theory that the schools must be religious or under religious influences. On the ground which they ordinarily take, they have not the slightest right to oppose the division asked for by the Romanists. The only position from which these latter can be successfully resisted (I mean logically) is the platform of non-religious, or scientific teaching which has been above set forth.

[To be continued.]

  1. "Should the State teach Religion?" J.H.Seelye, "The Forum," July, 1886.