Secular vs. Nonreligious
Teaching About Religion
in support of civic pluralism
People usually pay little regard to which word above is chosen for use.
In the public education context, however, the two terms are not
interchangeable. The distinction is important for educators.
Abbreviated discussion follows below. For a more thorough treatment of the topic, see the
white paper "Untying a Terminology Tangle - Secular vs. Nonreligious."
U.S. public schools by law are secular. This means the educational
enterprise must be "religiously neutral."
Some religious advocates contend that schools - because they are secular -
favor a nonreligious outlook. Can it be that secular schools, by their very
nature, show partiality to a nonreligious stance (over a religious one)?
Warren A. Nord and Charles Haynes in their book, Taking Religion
Seriously across the Curriculum (1998) uphold this "school is skewed"
assertion and recommend, as corrective, augmenting the school curriculum
to include more teaching about religion so that students can come to
understand "religious ways of knowing."
Commentators who pursue this line of reasoning need to attend carefully to
how they are employing their terminology. Using the terms "secular" and
"nonreligious" casually can imperil fair debate about the religious neutrality
of public schools. To a large extent, these two words are used
interchangeably in everyday language. But, contextually—concerning public
education—the terms apply to different things. A teacher, by thinking about
the type of lessons one would use to teach youngsters about these two
concepts (secular and nonreligious), can easily sense the difference.
Secular (as in secular schools) refers to a form of governance. To teach
what "secular" means in this sense involves acquainting students with
aspects of the U.S. Constitution, its Bill of Rights, court decisions, and the
cultural and legal underpinnings of state and church separation.
To teach students about the meaning of "nonreligious" (or "religious," for
that matter), one employs content lessons that focus on people, not court
decisions. Any one person may have a religious stance or hold to a distinctly
nonreligious outlook. Lessons would pertain to how people describe and
account for their world, and would concentrate on features of daily living
through which they reveal their worldview.
Nonreligious, as in Worldviews
In the public school context, the term "nonreligious" applies to certain of the
students who attend, or perhaps to some of the faculty and staff who are in
charge of them. Such labels as "unbeliever" or "irreligious" may be relevant
in describing such persons and contrasting them with peers who are
religious. 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, and what happens after
Humans with similar worldviews may associate or organize so as 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 a typical U.S. school, most
students’ worldviews will be religious, but a substantial fraction will be
"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" 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 nonreligion can proceed in a
secular manner (the lessons stay neutral).
Secular, as in Governance
Practically everyone understands how a compass helps maintain a given
general direction during a journey. The compass direction for all government
institutions serving the public must by law stay pointed to "neutral." There is
to be no swerving toward or away from any specific worldview. Public
education has to aim for the same compass heading. Schools must by law
stick close to that heading, whatever the social pressures may be.
The way schools stay on course with respect to religion is by neither
promoting nor inhibiting any religion or any nonreligion. 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.) But, when something off course is noticed, correction is sought.
Schools must seek to remedy any policy or practice that connotes the "ship"
is showing movement in favor of or against a particular worldview.
Discussion about religion and public schools often takes place at a high
decibel level. Such issues as "prayer-before-football games," school
voucher initiatives, and graduation valedictories 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
According to reports, only a small proportion of the U.S. citizenry is not
religious (people: worldview). Most citizens hold a religious worldview. But,
from the inception of the nation, the fact that the United States holds to
secular ideals (nation: 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 serve the same end—freedom of conscience for citizens
of all faiths or none.
As with any national ideal, the nation struggles to achieve true religious
liberty for all citizens, the range of religious and irreligious 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. Nonreligious is a term that
should be reserved for peoples.
Corrections and comments invited. [last modified: 4/23/02]
Authors: Paul Geisert, Ph.D. and Mynga Futrell, Ph.D.