Religion from the Outside

Thursday, June 15th, 2006

In Religion from the Outside, Freeman Dyson reviews Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, and makes this aside about religion and public education:

The control of education is the arena in which political fights between religious believers and civil authorities become most bitter. In the United States these fights are made peculiarly intractable by the legal doctrine of separation of church and state, which forbids public schools to provide religious instruction. Parents with fundamentalist beliefs have a legitimate grievance, being compelled to pay for public schools which they see as destroying the religious faith of their children. This feeling of grievance was avoided in England through the wisdom of Thomas Huxley, a close friend of Charles Darwin and a leading proponent of Darwin’s theory of evolution. When public education was instituted in England in 1870, eleven years after Darwin’s theory was published, Thomas Huxley was appointed to the royal commission which decided what to teach in the public schools.

Huxley was himself an agnostic, but as a member of the commission he firmly insisted that religion should be taught in schools together with science. Every child should be taught the Christian Bible as an integral part of English culture. In recent times the scope of religious instruction in England has been extended to include Judaism and Islam. As a result of this policy, no strong antagonism between religious parents and public schools has arisen, from 1870 until the present day. The teaching of religion in public schools coincided with a decline of religious belief and a growth of religious tolerance. Children exposed to religion in public schools do not as a rule take it seriously. We do not know whether Thomas Huxley foresaw the decline of religion in England, but there is no doubt that he would have welcomed this unintended consequence of his educational policy.

It is unfortunate that Huxley’s solution of the problem of religious education is not available to the United States.

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