Teach Rational Morality, Not Religious Dogma

The Freedom from Religion Foundation recently threatened to sue public schools in the town of Muldrow, Oklahoma, if they refused to remove plaques inscribed with the Ten Commandments from classrooms.

Unfortunately, when Republican State Representative John Bennett weighed in on the controversy in his district, he upheld the popular yet false view that the Ten Commandments—and, more broadly, biblical morality—are necessary in order to teach children the difference between right and wrong.

Although Representative Bennett conceded that “the superintendent and local school board has no choice but to remove the plaques if they want to avoid a lawsuit,” he also warned of ominous consequences: “A nation that refuses to allow educators to teach children right from wrong will become a corrupt nation, where sin prevails, evil abounds and everyone does as they please.”

Surely children need to be taught the difference between right and wrong, and schools necessarily play some part in this aspect of children’s education. But educators should not turn to the Ten Commandments or to any other religious scripture for this purpose. Students should learn that stealing, lying, committing murder, and the like are wrong not because the Bible says so but because such actions are contrary to the requirements of successful living. Such lessons should be taught through the reading and discussion of literature, history, and science—not by posting contextless commandments on the wall.

As for having no other gods before the Judeo-Christian God, keeping the Sabbath holy, and the like, these ideas have no place in publicly funded schools. Of course, parents have a right to inflict such dogma on their own children (at least until the children reach adulthood), but they have no right to force religious dogma on other children or to have government force others to fund its dissemination.

Bennett should rest easy: Removing the Ten Commandments from the schools will in no way interfere with the ability of teachers to teach or students to learn rational moral lessons in school. It will only free them from some of the irrational ones.

Like this post? Join our mailing list to receive our weekly digest. And for in-depth commentary from an Objectivist perspective, subscribe to our quarterly journal, The Objective Standard.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Comments submitted to TOS Blog are moderated. To be considered for posting, a comment must be civil, substantive, and fewer than 400 words in length. If approved, your comment will be posted soon.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Barbara-Alison-Himes-Marinakis/100000243675669 Barbara Alison Himes Marinakis

    Many years ago I was asked to a meeting at a priest’s home to discuss teaching morality in the public schools. It wasn’t the priest himself, but one of his parishioners that was hostile to my view that God and religion should not be brought into it, that a decent morality did not depend on believing in God, and that even Christian children would benefit by seeing that right and wrong were rooted in the nature of of reality and the requirements of human happiness, and that even people who don’t believe in God have an interest in living by a code that respects rights.

    The rational parts of religious morality are shared by all decent human beings, religious and atheist alike – don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, treat your parents with respect – and the parts that pertain strictly to a religion such as “Keep the Sabbath holy” can be left to the Church and parents to teach.

    But what will happen in a school if the altruism versus rational selfishness issue comes up? How do you handle areas of moral contention in a public school that might trample on a parent’s religious or political convictions? Because if the class is going to discuss morality, any topic related to morality can come up. Even the topic of God may come up, and would have to be handled very judiciously.

    This is where a private school has the advantage over a public one, because a private school can have its own policy and a parent can find out beforehand how the school approaches moral lessons. You know what you’re paying for, and you don’t have to patronize the school if you disapprove.

    Hence, teaching morality in a private school is actually more *moral* that the hypocrisy of trying to teach morality in a school that gets its money by coercion both from those who approve and from those who *disapprove* of what and how it teaches its lessons.

    • Anonymous

      It’s common for the religious right to claim the commandments as the basis of U.S. law. As I see it, only 3 prohibitions are law: murder, theft, libel. And, it would have saved the world a lot of misery if women’s rights and slavery had gotten a mention.

      Lucky for us, the major founders weren’t Xn even though the religious right is trying hard to posthumously convert Jefferson. It won’t work.

      Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia page 286Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.

      • Nan

        Millions more were killed by their own godless governments in the 20th century.

        • Anonymous

          Andrew Bernstein, in a recent debate with D’Souza, allowed that religion was only the 2nd worst disaster of the 20th century. If you know anything about this blog, you should know that Objectivism advocates complete individual rights and not any sort of murderous totalitarian regime. (On an Objectivist blog, trying to insinuate a necessary link between atheism and such a regime will get you nowhere.) Political programs come from a philosophy’s ideals and not from its rejection of gods or the tooth fairy. The communists were motivated primarily by a faulty metaphysics, a collectivist ideal, fanatic anti-capitalism, and a thoroughly faulty notion of evolution by acquired characteristics (very un-Darwinian). There’s nothing inherent in atheism that determines freedom or tyranny. Christianity, however, has about 2,000 years of tyranny to its credit; God’s law, if actually applied, is very nasty; wherever it gets the upper hand, it will violate individual rights. BTW, if one were to use a man-years-of-misery metric for history, I’m sure the 1st prize would not go to the Communists. If you’ve bought into Christianized American history, I recommend the book Liars for Jesus by Chris Rodda. In it you will also find a chapter (“James Madison’s Detached Memoranda”) on Madison’s radical views about separation of church and state. Madison introduced the amendments in Congress that became the Bill of Rights.

        • Anonymous

          The ‘godless’ states of communism and nazism had their own religion.

        • Anonymous

          Those were COMMUNIST, FASCIST AND NATIONAL SOCIALIST governments.

          They merely replaced God with a dictator and they depended on faith to bolster them.

          As it is, religion enabled their dictatorships by teaching people not to think but to have faith.

  • Anonymous

    Who cares whether or not this, that or another teaching has a place in publicly funded schools. Since when & by who’s judgment does reason have a place in publicly funded schools? The question to ask is whether or not publicly funded schools have any place in the U.S., or anywhere. We should be fighting to get rid of such schools, in favor of private schools only, not over what’s taught in publicly funded schools. Public schools should be phased out by a system of tax rebates. Later on down the road, we can get rid of taxes themselves. Mike Kevitt

  • Anonymous

    Who cares whether or not this, that or another teaching has a place in publicly funded schools. Since when & by who’s judgment does reason have a place in publicly funded schools? The question to ask is whether or not publicly funded schools have any place in the U.S., or anywhere. We should be fighting to get rid of such schools, in favor of private schools only, not over what’s taught in publicly funded schools. Public schools should be phased out by a system of tax rebates. Later on down the road, we can get rid of taxes themselves. Mike Kevitt

    • Anonymous

      Considering the lack of cultural penetration that Objectivist ideas have made in the last 50 years, I expect public schools will be with us for the next 50 years too–and, IMO, much longer. If you want a taste of what will happen should efforts to keep religion out the public schools be stopped, watch the video about the 1948 Vashti McCollum Supreme Court decision that I linked to above. Until the last public school is gone, I’ll be very interested in keeping religion out of it. For every dollar I’d spend on improving education in the U.S., I’d spend .15 on advocating privatization of public schools and .85 on aiding the start of an independent rational system of private schools.

      You and I are free to write textbooks, develop curricula, and start schools. If you follow VanDamme Academy, you already know this can work. There are lots of private secular schools around. I wrote a comment about this on a recent education thread at LFB. As I sadly discovered, the idea that, generally, current private schools are doing better than the public schools is unlikely to fly as a selling point. It’s the educational philosophy that needs changing.

  • Anonymous

    I admire the work done by organizations such as FFRF in bringing lawsuits upholding Jefferson’s wall-of-separation. Without this, the religious right would make serious inroads into the public schools very quickly–which is why they want to privatize the schools. So far as opposing religion in the public schools is concerned, the major suit was won in 1948.

    March 8 was the 65 anniversary of the 1948 Supreme Court decision that gave Vashti McCollum victory in her fight against religion in the public schools. Her initial suit started in July 1945. (link) The Lord is Not on Trial Here Today is an awarding winning documentary about her fight. The Wikipedia page for Vashti McCollum has this comment

    (link)“All other cases that have since tested and continue to test Thomas Jefferson’s wall of “separation of church and state,” including school prayer, aid to parochial schools and sectarian religious displays on public property descend from this case.”

    This 56 minute, inspiring and informative documentary chronicles a truly epic battle started by a heroic young woman to protect her son from religion in the public schools. Although not the main point of the film, there are some shocking indications of just how far the pious had gotten in the quest to teach their pernicious nonsense in the schools. The case gave some muscle to the wall-of-separation idea. For those not familiar with how vital this Supreme Court decision was for the U.S., this is a must-see video. Vashti McCollum was a beautiful and totally confident atheist who took on the Xn dominion and won. From her old age, she tells us about the why of her case and the impact it had on her life. We owe a lot to this woman! She died in 2006.

    Somewhat backsliding, there was a 2001 Supreme Court decision that has allowed The Good News Club ((amazon link) “The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault On America’s Children”) to set up shop where they want. Another new strategy is to simply count on the fact that kids can say what they want on the school grounds; thus kids are sent to spread the nonsense.

    • Nan

      Separation of Church and State is not in the Constitution but rather in a letter Jefferson sent to a Baptist sect, assuring them that the government would not discriminate against them. There is no rational basis to keep religion out of the public square; in fact, to do so is to discriminate.

      • Anonymous

        Jefferson’s “wall of separation” phrase is a metaphor which is well known (even I know it) to refer to 1st Amendment rights. That’s exactly how Jefferson used it in his very famous letter to the Danbury Baptists.

        In part:Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

        Jefferson couldn’t do anything to help Danbury Baptists, but his satisfaction came in 1817 when CT ended its theocratic habits.

        The separation of church and state is one of the greatest political ideas ever and that seems to be the way the Supreme Court sees it too. Public funds shouldn’t be going to teach anything, but, so long as this continues to happen, the public schools should be teaching arithmetic and not religion or atheism. Supporting philosophic instruction or “witnessing” on public property is not a valid use of tax money and violates the rights of those who have to pay for the property. Religious liberty, like any other liberty, does not mean freedom to do anything one wants; freedom ends when other’s rights are violated. Ten Commandments rocks can be placed on every church lawn in the country and on on every private front lawn. (In my neighborhood, I don’t see even one church with such a rock.) If the religious right is able to achieve its goal of ending the separation of church and state, it will mean tax money going into promoting religion and passage of specifically religious rules into law. If the Christian Reconstructionists have an influence, it could go as far as providing death sentences and a complete end to religious liberty (See Gary North’s writings).

        • Anonymous

          Hi Mel,

          Excellent responses. Have you ever read anything by Anton Thorn or Dawson Bethrick?


          • Anonymous

            No. Why are they important?

  • http://www.facebook.com/tom.carsley Tom Carsley

    Except that the goals of government run schools is not to educate to begin with, it is indoctrinate and erase thinking. Produce good, compliant, non-questioning workers and voters with just enough skill and brain power to sweep the floors and punch buttons. For Progs, removing the 10 Commandments isn’t about ‘Reason’ and ‘Logic.’ It is about expanding acceptance of Nihilism-ish belief that there is no personal accountability and everything a person does is A-Okay because it just doesn’t matter anyway as there there is no Right or Wrong. (As long as one votes and follows the correct Party, that is.) This is not a 2-Front war for the hearts and minds of humanity- Christians vs. Atheists- it is at the very least a 3 and probably more than 5-Front battle for the hearts, minds, and civilized culture/moral/ethics/principles/responsibility of us all- Losers walking into their own chains, smiling and giddy as they do. Or maybe glowing in the dark because moral courage was eliminated and crazy people wanting those 72 Virgins are allowed to get nukes having there been no one with spine and conviction enough to stop them, we go BOOM.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tom-Moody/100002428505493 Tom Moody

    Is it better to deny reason, logic, and fact, so as to be controlled by belief and faith?

  • Joshua Edmonds

    Despite being a Christian, I have a hard time feeling passionately one way or the other on this subject. It is a great point that the appearance of the Ten Commandments on a classroom wall without context is truly worthless when it comes to a child’s moral development. The teaching of right and wrong in public schools does not advance with one more plaque on the wall.

    Meanwhile, the plaque on the wall is harmless. Those who take offense at its presence lack perspective and objectivity, and should refocus their attention to the destructive problems in public schools.

    More importantly, the push to completely rub out Christianity from our schools’ history lessons is purely revisionist. The Founders of our nation built from the Judeo-Christian belief that God is the source of all morality. I believe that a great follow-up article to this one would be “How to teach the Christian foundation of our country in public schools without teaching Christianity.”

    • Anonymous

      The plaque on the wall is not harmless. It is there to indoctrinate, just like the rote repetition of prayers before that was prohibited in public schools.

      This country was not founded on the premise that a god is the source of morality. It was based on the nature of man as requiring him to think and act for himself in accordance with Enlightenment ideals, which is why political freedom is necessary. Children should not be indoctrinated with false ideas of the supernatural as the source of morality and the notion that moral choices only involve treatment of others as a matter of duty, all without regard to standards based on the nature of human life in all realms of choice for the purpose of living, not dogma, faith, and imposed duty.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve alway thought that fighting over having the Ten Commandments on the wall was a colossal waste of time and it makes atheists look petty and zealous. When I was six years old, I was much more interested in playing tag than anything on the walls. What I needed before all of it, was to learn what was a contradiction and what wasn’t. And why this was important to know. If this is what’s taught and learned, it doesn’t matter what’s on the walls.

    • Anonymous

      The damage of the dogma recited and seen on walls every time you turn around is that it is not discussed in terms of contradiction and destruction. It is a constant background propaganda at a time when young children have not yet learned to judge logically and take for granted that their parents and teachers are telling them the truth and would not harm them. Both the content and the process of indoctrination are insidious, and take years to overcome as the children eventually learn better, if they ever do.