• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Of Course Religion Should Be Taught in Public Schools

The recent controversies in Quebec about the government there requiring a course on  ethics and religious culture to be taken by every student in the public schools—particularly the current Supreme Court of Canada case of S.L., et al. v. Commission scolaire des Chênes, et al., also known as the “Drummondville case”—prompt a few reflections regardless of one’s feelings about the particular cases or the disposition of the courts.

1. Of course we should have education about religion in the public schools.  We must not keep confusing “formation in religion” with “information about religion.” The former is the proper sphere of the family and the religious group. The latter is the proper sphere of the state, as well as of the family, religious group, and other interested social institutions.

A school curriculum that did not include serious treatment of the role of religion in Canadian history and contemporary society would be obviously deficient. Christians, among others, have in fact been complaining for a long while now about the disappearance of religion from public schools as the vestiges of state-sponsored Christianity (which I am old enough to remember) have been sanitized in a pendulum swing toward outright secularism.

Now we have sensible people in Quebec, and in other jurisdictions, seeking to restore what should never have been lost and what was rarely properly offered in public education, namely, a neutral, descriptive treatment of the facts of religion in Canadian and world history. Christians, as well as all other reasonable people, should be supporting such ventures.

2. Of course such education must not imply that religions are all the same or that religious choices don’t matter. A good, basic education indicates readily enough that religions are not all the same. Their differences explain why people here and all over the world make a big deal about both religious conflict and religious conversion. Only people who don’t know much about religion or certain liberal elites who badly want all religions to appear the same ever suggest, in the teeth of evidence that abounds in any reputable textbook, that all religions amount to the same thing.

Any implication, furthermore, that religious choices don’t matter would be academically irresponsible as well. Religious choices have shaped Canadian history profoundly, as it mattered indeed which variety of Christianity would dominate this or that region, or how members of this or that minority religion would be treated, or on what basis governments would decide about issues ranging from  war and peace, to abortion and euthanasia, to marriage and divorce, to human rights  and immigration questions. We decide all of these things on the basis of our fundamental values, and since not everyone’s values (= religions) are the same, the decisions will vary. Any proper education in religion will highlight this fact.

Still, it is also a good thing for the Canadian state not to choose among religions, isn’t it? Freedom of religion and the disestablishment of religion mean that the state will play no favourites, will not speak or act as if one religion is better, truer, more noble than another. Just as I do not want secularism as a worldview privileged in the schools, I can appreciate that my fellow Canadians do not want my religion privileged there, either. And at the level of public interaction over issues of common concern–exactly what public schools are preparing students to undertake–it is exactly right that the state treat all religions equally, without making the religious claim that they are all basically the same, or that it doesn’t matter which one you pick, and so on.

3. Of course parental rights are not at stake here. Some of the lawyers in the Quebec cases, as elsewhere on this subject, have argued that parents’ rights are in peril if the state offers religious education that does not square with the parents’ views. Quite apart from the absurdity of conceiving of a program in religious education that would make everyone happy, the various pertinent clauses of Canada’s constitutional documents do declare that parents have the right to teach their children morality and religion as they choose, but such clauses do not exclude the state’s proper interests. And the state has the obligation to educate its citizens properly in matters that matter—which matters include religion.

On behalf of the general Canadian public, one might ask how good a job Christian parents are doing on their own in educating their children about religion. Polls from every source show that Canadians are as ignorant today about the basic matters of Christianity as any generation in a century. The polls don’t show other religious groups doing any better.

And how well are the same parents teaching their children about other religions? How many parents are even competent to do so? Answers: Few and fewer.

So why would Christians, or any other Canadians, fight against our schools teaching our kids what we clearly are not teaching them and clearly cannot teach them ourselves as parents? And let’s be clear: Canada’s churches and other religious centres are manifestly failing to educate Canadians in exactly the same respects. The state must not stand idly by while its citizens remain ignorant of one of the fundamental categories of human life.

4. Of course children will hear things in school with which their parents disagree. But so what if they hear something different at school than what they hear at home? Haven’t we all gone through that experience about a hundred times on a dozen different subjects? Did we all go immediately to pieces? Isn’t it part of growing up?

It is also part of parenting. The kid comes home confused because of what he’s seen in sex education or what she has studied in her science class or what he’s read in a novel or what she’s heard in the locker room. Whatever does one do? One talks with one’s kids and has, for once, a conversation about something other than what’s on TV or how the local team is doing in the playoffs.

So let’s support good, factual, impartial education by properly trained teachers. Religious studies should become a “teachable subject” for teacher training, the way English or physics is. That way we will have teachers who can give our children what we clearly are not giving them.

And then Christians, and those of other traditions, can give our children what no school can or should try to give them: rich, formative experiences of religious instruction, practice, devotion, and service. Schools can do what they’re good at, and families and religious societies can do what they’re good at—and the children, and the religions, and Canadian society all will be the better for it.