Science in Christian Perspective



Robert D. Knudsen, Ph.D.

From: JASA 11 (December 1959): 31-33.

For this issue I requested Professor Vivian Dow to take the column. Miss Dow taught philosophy as assistant professor for two years at Taylor University, Upland, Indiana. At the present she is working to complete her Ph.D. at Boston University. The first part of her contribution follows; the second part is scheduled to appear in a subsequent issue of the Journal.

The Christian Faith and the Public School

The question of religion and the public school has been discussed so much that I shall be charged by some of my readers with whipping a dead horse. Others will consider the topic out of place in a scientific journal, But scientists once attended school, and the status of religion in the schools to which they send their children should be of interest to them as Christian parents.

It can be demonstrated, I believe, that the public schools of America are, at best, unfriendly to the Christian religion, at worst avowedly atheistic. I do not expect all of my readers to agree with me, nor all of those who do agree to be unduly concerned. I am not the first person to have made the charge, however, as a glance at recent periodical literature will show. Let us examine the causes of irreligion in the public schools, and then ask ourselves what should be our response as intelligent Christians with a stake in education.

First of all, unfriendliness to religion in the public schools is a direct result of the American doctrine of separation of church and state, coupled with our heterogeneous religious population. While it is probably quite true, as the Reverend John L. Murphy asserts, that our forefathers were men of religious ideals who, in establishing the dictum, never intended that democracy and religion should be divorced,1 it is also true that a policy of fairness to all of our many religious sects demands that civil institutions favor no one religion above another. Most, if not all Christians would agree that the dictum of separation of church and state is the protector of our religious freedom; if the Christian teacher may not preach the Gospel to the Jewish child in the classroom, neither may the Catholic teacher indoctrinate the child of evangelical persuasion.

But we must recognize that we pay a price for this protection. The price is the inevitably secular nature of our schools. No one would deny that the public schools are and must be secular. Virgil M. Rogers, writing in The Christian Century says, "There is nothing sinister and unclean about that word. It is not to say 'godless,' 'antireligious,' 'in league with evil,' but merely 'secular'-like the courts or the presidency."2

In a sense this is true. The dictionary defines "secular" as "pertaining to the worldly or temporal as distinguished from the spiritual or eternal . . . not tinder church control; nonecclesiastical; civil; as secular courts or education."3 But the dictionary contiriues: "secularist . . . one who rejects every form of religious faith and worship, and undertakes to live accordingly; also, one who believes that education and other civil matters should be without religious element . . . secularize . . . to deprive of a religious character, observance, etc. . . . to convert to, or imbue with, secularism."4 These latter definitions, I believe, spell out the deeper implications of school secularization: the schools are, "without religious element" whether we like it or not.

..In his. article, Mr. Rogers does his best to show that the public schools are not irreligious, but his argument is not convincing. He tells us that the schools of America exemplify the Christian ideals of love to one's neighbor and the brotherhood of man, and he paints an endearing picture of innocent little children all religiously engaged in searching for "meanings," in sharing across the lines of race, class, and creed, and in helping their fellows to find "the more abundant life which comes from entering into a creative relationship with the universe."+ Scoffing at the idea that God has been taken out of the classroom, he asks, "How is that which was 'before Abraham was' to be thus easily exorcised?" and tells us that "no principle underlying the American public school system is in conflict at any point with the Judaeo-Christian ethic."6  Now it does not take a professor of philosophy to see that the "religion" described here is too diluted to deserve the name. We do and should laud every effort by the public schools to foster charity, eradicate race prejudice, and insure the emotional integration of the individual; but let us not mistake these efforts for religious instructon. Their goals may be quite compatible with Christianity, but they do not exhaust its doctrines. The religion eulogized by Mr. Rogers ignores the Bible's teaching that depraved man cannot, by unaided search, find out God, that the relationship demanded of us is with the Creator rather than the creation, and that in spite of God's omnipresence in His universe, men can still exorcise Him from their conscious thought and action. It is a religion of sheer humanism.

Another cause of irreligion in the schools is the Progressivist philosophy of education in vogue in America for the past generation. The chief apostles of Progressivism are John Dewey and his disciple and popularizer, William Heard Kilpatrick. A new and vociferous group of opponents are now proclaiming that Progressivism is dead and that  all things in the philosophy of education have become new, but a perusal of the educational journals reveals little change in the philosophic party line. In any case, we do not need a crystal ball to tell us that ' it will be some time before the last vestiges of Progressivist "life-adjustment" philosophy vanish from the scene; too many educators have been too thoroughly indoctrinated with it for too long a time for it to f old its tent and steal away overnight.

Neither John Dewey -nor William Heard Kilpatrick hesitates to proclaim his -unalterable opposition to religion.- For Dewey, the'origin of religion lies in man's fear of the unknown, and the origin of theology is myth and legend. The idea of 'the supernatural is an "encumbrance" in the way of moral progress', and all religious beliefs are relative to culture. "The religious,"which is "the uniting.of the ideal and the actual," should be purged of irrelevant "notions of un seen powers, controlling human destiny to which obedience, reverence and worship are due." Dewey considers religion to be inherently obscurantist, declares that there is outright opposition between his conception of religious values and traditional religions, calls for a "release" of these values by dissolution of "their identification with the creeds and cults of religions," and commends a "natural piety" embodying a "sense of the dignity of human nature . . . that rests upon a sense of human nature-as a cooperating part of a larger whole." He is opposed to any sort of religious instruction connected in any way with the public schools.7

Kilpatrick's opposition to traditional religion is even more uncompromising than Dewey's. He deplores the identification of religion with theology, which he considers "pre-scientific" and "no longer acceptable," lists religion with astrology and numerology as a "retreat from reason" and a deterrent to progress, terms belief in a Creator a "medieval 'attitude," and tells us that the "supreme being" of religious belief, whatever we choose to- name it, is merely a reification of a self -constructed ideal sounding board or "internal other which has been forced to pass supreme judgment" within our own beings upon our thoughts and actions.

Kilpatrick has fought the teaching of religion in public school on all fronts. He has. opposed release& time classes, Bible reading in the classroom, the placing of Bibles in schools by the Gideons (on the ground that the King James Version is unacceptable to Catholics, the New Testament to Jews, and any Bible at all to atheists), and even the singing of Christmas carols by school children. Not only has he opposed federal aid to religious schools of any faith, but he is opposed to the very existence , of private' religious schools (as well as any other private primary or secondary schools) on the ground that they "create snobbishness" and develop "cultural,' social and religious blocs" within our society. In place of the traditional religion which he seeks to destroy, Kilpatrick offers us faith in "the method of experimental inquiry" and a "new faith in man."8 Can a philosophy of education developed by men with such views be,' anything but unfriendly to religion?

Other factors contribute to unbelief in the public schools. Textbooks, for instance, are usually written' from a thoroughly secular viewpoint. Many science textbooks skirt the problems of the origin of the universe and of life,9 but others reveal their authors' acceptance of a full evolutionary theory.10 Authors of history texts discuss the Judeo--Christian religion from the Higher Critical point -of view and the origin of human life, language, and culture from a humanistic standpoint." These are far-reaching assumptions, and books predicated upon them reflect an un-Christian bias.

Another factor in the religious state of the schools is the religious situation in the adult populace. The average Protestant citizen's religious beliefs are so nebulous that he is unaware of the difference between Christianity and humanism and perfectly satisfied with his religious ignorance. With the optimism of typical self-sufficient prosperous American wordliness he is not alarmed at the idea of excluding his unneeded God from public life. He apparently views the universe as a democracy and God as a sort of enlarged President Eisenhower, fully as genial and no more awe-inspiring.

But whatever the factors may be, I believe that the Christian who troubles himself to investigate will be forced to admit that our public schools are unfriendly to anything but the vaguest kind of religion-certainly unfriendly to evangelical Christianity-and that the child exposed to these schools five days a week and nine months of the year during the most impressionable and teachable years of his life can hardly avoid gaining the impression that if there is a God at all He is not of vital importance. What is the Christian answer to the situation?

(To be continued)


1. John ' L. Murphy, "Religious Education and Democracy! Vital Speeches, XXVI, 1 (October 1, 1959), pp. 30-31, Rever end Murphy is a member of the Department of Religious Edu cation, Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., an Associate Editor of The American Ecclesiastical Review.

2. Virgil M. Rogers, "Are the Public Schools 'Godless'?' The Christian Century, LXXIV, 37 (September 11, 1957) pp. 1065-1057, p. 1065.

3. Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (5th ed.). Springfield G. & C. Merriam Co., (1936), 1943, p. 899.

4. Idem.
5. Rogers, op. cit., p. 1066.
6. Ibid., p. 1067.
7. Joseph Ratner (ed.). Intelligence in the Modern World John Dewey's Philosophy. New York: Random House, 1939, pp. 1003-1035.

8. This summary is drawn from Kilpatrick's works, prin cipally Philosophy of Eduxation (New York: Macmillan Co. 1951), and Selfhood and Civilication (New York: Macmillan Co., 1941).

9. See, for example, Wilbur L. Beauchamp, John C. May field, and Joe Young West, Science Problems 2 (Chicago Scott, Foresman and Company, (1953) 1957, p. 80). In only one of the school texts I examined did I find even a hint of  the existence of God. Carpenter and Wood's Our Environment (New York: Allyn and Bacon, 1957) states in a discussion of the universe.

10. See Gordon H. Clark, "A Fresh Look at the Hypothesis of Evolution", Christianity Today, IL 23 (September 1, 1958),
pp. 3-6, for a discussion of the Christian faith and evolution. and urban population,

11. See, for example, William Habberton and Lawrence V. Roth, Man's Achievements Through the Ages [New York]:
Laidlaw Brothers
(1952) 1954, pp. 15ff; pp. 52ff.