Greg Forster, Ph.D. | June 16, 2021

Secularization and schooling

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

Education policy may well be the primary contributor to the secularization of modern societies. Universal school choice—letting parents use their public education dollars at the school of their choice—would allow all schools (including public schools) to educate the whole person for a whole life.

One of the most important problems modern societies face is “secularization”—the withdrawal of religion from the public square into a strictly private sphere of life, removing moral inspiration and restraint from public culture. Education policy may well be the primary contributor to the secularization of modern societies, although not necessarily in the way some people think. Since secularization creates major challenges for a sustainably free society, it’s important to consider how education policy drives it—and how it can stop doing so.

Some celebrate secularization and some lament it, but it’s one of the dominant facts of our era. Until the late 19th century, every aspect of social organization—from politics and law to economics and business to public art and entertainment—had to harmonize with a society’s dominant religious identity. Religion didn’t actually dictate the detailed content of every decision. But it provided a cosmological background and a moral basis that every social structure at least had to accommodate.

That’s all gone. Over the course of roughly a century, religion has been privatized. It is treated not as one of the primary realities of human social behavior, but as a hobby some people choose to indulge in during their leisure time.

The major cause of secularization is pluralization: our determination to share our communities with people who believe differently than we do. This began with getting the power of the civil law out of religion—especially in our country, where religious freedom is at the heart of the American experiment. But it has extended to the development of a whole new way of life, encompassing our jobs, markets, art, schools and everything else in the public square, organized without reference to religion.

The aspiration to share our communities is still the right goal, but one thing we have learned is that unrestrained secularization is not a sustainable path to that goal. Getting the law out of religion was the right thing to do, but a society that secularizes all aspects of its public life cannot generate and sustain moral norms to guide public behavior. We increasingly have no widely accepted public agreement about what is right and fair. That means powerful people and institutions have more and more scope to lie, cheat and steal, while everyone else tends to slouch into a shallow materialism—or, increasingly, get dopamine hits from hate-driven digital culture wars.

Vicious polarization fills the vacuum left by the absence of a shared moral language in a secularized society. It turns us against each other, threatening to consume the original goal of building a shared community. We have to find some way to pluralize without secularizing—to live together and also allow our beliefs to be part of our whole lives, not just our private lives. Whatever you believe about God, he is not a leisure-time activity.

How can we keep moral standards in the public square—live all parts of our lives as if we were the supernatural creatures we actually are—in a religiously diverse society? No one really knows; figuring that out is the next great challenge for the American experiment. But I think the best place to start working on it is by removing the education policy that is the most important element of the problem.

To understand the role of schooling in secularization, it’s important to realize that secularization is not the decline of religion. In fact, religious belief has not declined, either in the U.S. or in any part of the world except Europe. What has declined is adherence to traditional religious identities, institutions and communities—and, even more, the influence of religious belief on business in the public square. But belief in the supernatural (that there is a God, that people have souls, etc.) and personal religious practices such as prayer have not declined. Google “moralistic therapeutic deism.”

The triumphant tale of educational progress away from religion that so many people told themselves in the 19th century has been falsified by the facts. Rising rationality and scientific progress are not making the world unsafe for religion. If anything, the movement has been from more rational forms of religion—traditional, organized theological schools of thought that felt they had an intellectual responsibility to develop reasoned answers to tough questions—to an individualistic romanticism in which everyone makes up their own supernatural cosmology as they go, based on unreflective sentiment.

Secularization is also not much caused by hostility to religion—that is, by secularists. There are, of course, people who hate religion, and organize efforts to push it out of the public square. But their numbers are tiny, and while they do sometimes punch above their weight class thanks to deft political maneuvering, their influence is never very large.

Secularization is so pervasive precisely because the overwhelming majority of people who are not themselves secularists—people who have religious beliefs of their own, however inchoate—are nonetheless uncomfortable with religion wielding public influence. They want, rightly, not only a law but a society and a culture that people of different beliefs can share. They feel, wrongly, that this requires us all to live our lives in public spaces as if we had no religious beliefs.

What’s true at the general social level is true in schools as well. Schools aren’t contributing to secularization either by causing a decline in religious belief or by carrying out a campaign to push it out of the public square. Learning biology is not making our kids atheists. And tales of secularist teachers discriminating against religious students on purpose are few and far between.

Our schools produce secularization because they are forced to educate students in a pluralistic society without allowing those students to integrate their education with the reality that human beings are religious creatures. We have a government school monopoly, which means one size has to fit all. But one size can’t fit all when it comes to the things that matter most.

Educating children without reference to religion produces secularization in multiple ways. Children learn from an early age that their own religion, whatever it is, is a private hobby, because it’s not part of what we teach them about in school. Children also learn that the parts of life that don’t actually happen in a religious setting should be organized without reference to religion, because the knowledge base upon which our social and cultural systems are based was taught to them in exactly that way.

Worst of all, while schools make major efforts to teach moral character to students, they can’t ground virtues like honesty, generosity and self-control in any adequate source. This leaves them either indoctrinating children in an essentially selfish morality (teaching students that “you’ll be happier in the long run if you don’t lie” also teaches them that “what makes you personally happy is the standard for judging what is morally good”), or just wagging their fingers and telling students to be good without telling them how or why. Neither approach actually forms students with the character and virtues that a free society needs.

Schools may matter more than any other influence in driving secularization. Education is, always and everywhere, the preparation of a whole person for a whole life. That is what the word means. It’s not a question of whether schools will form students’ souls, it’s only a question of how they will form them.

It was precisely to prevent this outcome that, for over a century, the government school monopoly indoctrinated children in religion. It was understood as a matter of course that schools had to train students in religion. How else could they be taught coherently how to live a good life?

The problem was that in a one-size-fits-all government monopoly, this meant oppression of religious minorities. One of the reasons Massachusetts created the first government school monopoly in the 1830s was because the Unitarian Brahmins of Boston wanted to reeducate the children of the Massachusetts countryside out of the Puritan faith of their forefathers. Later, government schooling across the country was seen as a means to cleanse Catholic immigrants of their filthy popery. Thank God, Catholic Americans were willing to bear the double burden (taxes for public schools plus private-school tuition) that we unjustly imposed on them out of bigotry.

It’s good that we no longer use the government monopoly to impose one religion on all people. But now, unintentionally, we’re using it to impose secularization on all people. That’s not sustainable in the long run, as the growing crisis of public order and social ethics in a secularized society attests.

Universal school choice, letting parents use their public education dollars at the school of their choice, would allow all schools—including government schools!—to educate the whole person for a whole life. Private schools would, of course, find this easier, because they’re allowed to know what they believe about the universe and the ultimate grounds of moral virtue. School choice would increase the number of students getting a truly integrated education that can fully explain how and why to be good.

But it would also liberate government schools, like my daughter’s charter school, to go much further than they do now in pursuing real moral formation, and preparation for non-secularized public life in a community of diverse beliefs. There is much untapped power in the stories and symbols of the American experiment—the inspiring story of the one nation in history that has chosen coexistence, founding itself on a deliberate choice not to force people in matters of ultimate belief. That’s not an ultimate cosmology, but it provides moral and cultural resources we could be using to train students to live in a diverse public square without privatizing what they believe.

The main constraint preventing government schools from doing real moral formation is not so much that students of multiple beliefs are present, but that students of multiple beliefs are compelled to be present. School choice removes the use of force from the educational relationship. This means government schools could experiment with methods for building sustainable moral community without assuming a shared religion. They would be free to do so because, unlike now, anyone who objects to their educational approaches would have full freedom to leave and seek an alternative. Taking the handcuffs off parents has the side effect of taking the handcuffs off government schools as well.

A government monopoly on schooling means either imposing one religious view upon all others—cultural genocide—or a secularized society with no moral consensus to guide its public life. We’ve tried both approaches, and neither is sustainable. Moreover, neither is compatible with what the American experiment is all about in the first place. School choice is the education policy fit for a people who have decided to be free, and let their neighbors be free as well.

Greg Forster, Ph.D.


Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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