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Religion and the Mouths of Babes

by Mary Ellen Sikes

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 16, Number 3.

"Where do comets come from, anyway?"  Aaron, a curious second-grader, demanded. A bevy of seven-year-olds began to cluster around us on the floor. Hale-Bopp had been the "in" topic of conversation in the classroom that week, and no one wanted to be left out.

"What do you think, Kelly?" I asked, challenging one of Aaron's classmates.
Kelly got a serious look on her face. "They come from outer space, I think," she ventured, a little hesitantly.

"Sounds like a good start," I allowed. "How about you, Daniel-anything to add?"

"God made comets, just like he made the universe - the sun and the planets and us and everything," Daniel pronounced. Several children nodded their heads in agreement with Daniel's explanation.

Every public school teacher has faced the above situation at one time or another. In a minute, I'm going to make a statement that will sound a bit odd coming from a secular humanist. Believe me, it doesn't come from any wish to see religion enshrined as a sacred monument in public schools. No humanist longs more fervently than I for a larger percentage of rational students. But here's my story, and I'm sticking to it: religion, still an American cultural reality, can no more be left behind at the entrance of a public school than can our students' ethnic or economic backgrounds.

I'll go one step further: it's been my observation that discussion of controversial, even divisive topics (like race and religion and politics) can lead to the most instructive moments in a classroom, if handled effectively.

And heck, why not take it all the way: I've seen this kind of discussion actually further the cause of humanism.

I know some humanists will disagree with me, but that's okay. We can talk about it. And that's what I want kids to be able to do as well. No public educator wants to be cast as a speech fascist, grimly silencing unsuspecting children who happen to veer onto a subject that, to them, is a simple reality of their lives, like soccer and sleepovers. I want to encourage children to articulate their opinions, not self-censor any time they fear disagreement or controversy.

Now, I'm not suggesting that ridicule or harassment be allowed in these situations. Those would be out of bounds in any well-run classroom. And I'm opposed to unconstitutional practices like formal prayers and displays of religious symbols. What I'm talking about is religious speech of the kind that works its inevitable way into any serious study of art, literature, history, or science.

Here's a surprise to many nonschool types: the real issues surrounding religion in the schools-the ones that occur every single day and never make the news-aren't about how the football game starts or what happens at graduation. They are about what Johnny blurts out in the classroom when we're talking about frogs or fractions or the ancient Egyptians. They're about five-year-old Holly announcing to her classmates that she has the same birthday as the Baby Jesus. They're about third-grader Ellen, who chooses the pope as her biography subject and then wants to read the finished report aloud to the class. They're about Dean telling his friends at the lunch table that his older sister died at birth and became an angel in heaven.

If a child is stating his or her own opinion, if it doesn't target other students or present an untruth as fact, and if it meets the usual requirements of the academic or social situation, then I see no need to put a lid on religious speech. I may, however, see reason to comment upon it publicly-to put it into context, so to speak - so that no one assumes the child's opinion is "official."

As I see it, there were three possible responses to Daniel's theory of the universe:

  1. Ignore it and move on.
  2. Chastise Daniel for bringing up God in public school.
  3. Acknowledge that some people share Daniel's belief about God's role in creation; then introduce the scientific theory of the Big Bang. Promise to check the school library during lunch for a book on that topic.

One of the saddest aspects of our fear of religion in schools, in my opinion, is that administrators do so little to prepare teachers to handle sensitive situations with their best professional judgment. Out of uncertainty, many teachers will go for #1.

And out of fear and misunderstanding, some teachers will feel obligated to choose #2.

I know which choice this secular humanist prefers.

Mary Ellen Sikes is an elementary school teacher, a frequent contributor to SHB, and coordinator of the Central Virginia chapter of the Washington Area Secular Humanists.

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This page was last updated 12/04/2003

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