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A Moral Education

The Ethics of Education in the Secular State

Andrew Copson considers some ethical problems for secular education in a pluralistic world.

Definitions of what makes a state ‘secular’ vary, but three aspects are common. First, a secular state is one in which there is separation of religious institutions from the institutions of the state and no domination of the one by the other. Second, a secular state seeks to maximise freedom of thought, conscience, and religion for all, with everyone free to manifest their beliefs within the limits of public order and the rights of others, and to change their beliefs. Finally, the state treats everyone equally and does not discriminate against or privilege individuals on grounds of their worldview, religious or non-religious. Almost a third of states in the world are secular in their constitutions according to these criteria, and many more are in fact secular even if constitutionally religious, in practice functioning not through their vestigial religious establishments but through democratic means. Even more states – over 90% of the world’s states – constitutionally reflect at least one aspect of secularism, in that their laws espouse a guarantee of freedom of religion or belief. If a state is going to take its constitutional secularism seriously, what might that mean for its education system?

Controversies about education have been a feature of secularism since its beginning. The rise in official state secularism coincided with the construction of many state school systems. Education moved from being the preserve of parents and informal communities (often religious) to being the concern of a class of trained specialists funded by public taxes. In many states today there are mixed systems, with some schools being secular (in that, for example, they admit children of all backgrounds and do not discriminate on religious grounds) and some not. Given the first aspect of secularism I outlined – the separation of state institutions from religious ones – it is obvious that the educational systems are non-secular in countries as diverse as Iran and Ireland. One particular favoured religious organisation has active involvement in state schools, and, whatever else it may be, the curriculum is a tool of religious instruction. In many other states too, it is the unsecularised part of the curriculum that seeks to deal with moral development, often taught through a religious framework.

Some secularists believe that some models of state-provided religion-based moral development are legitimate. For example, what if all religious organisations are given equal rights to participate in state schools? If religious organisations are allowed to run separate confessional classes in state schools, as they do in Belgium, or even run separate state schools, as in England, isn’t this equal treatment consistent with secularism? To make it fair, provision could be made in proportion to the number of parents in the schools that followed each religion. In this way, no one religion would dominate the institution unfairly, and everyone would be treated equally without discrimination. An obvious objection is that many parents have non-religious worldviews. But to cater for them, humanist organisations could also be involved, as they are in the Netherlands and parts of Germany.

Some secularists would defend such a system. Still, there may be good reasons to think that it would still not be compatible with secularism. The first is that it does not allow for real-time changing patterns of belief and affiliation. It could not react promptly to such changes, and so would privilege those religions or beliefs that are strong at the time the system is initiated or updated. This would provide some groups with recognition and resources whilst protecting them from the effects of waning popularity. At the same time, new worldviews would find it difficult to grow and gain recognition or equal treatment. So, in its attempt to maximise freedom, this system could actually inhibit freedom of belief.

Second, no state would be able to run such a system fairly. There are so many denominations of Christianity alone that providing a whole school for every one of them, or even a regular class in a shared school wherever a denomination is represented by a parent, would be completely unfeasible. Even more challenging, although some people think of religions as homogenous (‘Catholics believe this…’, ‘Buddhists believe that…’), the reality is that individuals are not so simple. One person may identify as a Catholic but believe in reincarnation and not think that contraception is sinful. She may be married to someone who identifies as a Muslim but in some of his beliefs sympathises with aspects of pantheism and at home keeps Christmas because of his upbringing. Belief and practice are so individual that to provide a school that catered for each parental situation without discrimination would be absolutely impossible.

Third, it is not right to focus solely on parents: children’s interests are as much the concern of secularism. The right of children to freedom of religion or belief (at least in line with their developing capacity) would at a minimum suggest that the education system provided by the state should be free of religious assumptions on contested questions such as the basis of morality or the purpose of life, and certainly that it should not enforce specific beliefs or practices. Going further, if secularism really seeks to protect freedom of conscience, we could argue that the state’s educational system should equip children with the ability and the experience to choose. This means that the school should teach about religions and non-religious worldviews in a fair and balanced way, allowing no confessional instruction, and actively seeking to equip children with the critical skills needed to make up their own minds about what they’re being taught.

This is the thinking behind the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1989. Article 13 declares: “The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice”; while Article 14 says that states “shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.” The Convention also says that parents can “provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.” But it does not say that the state has an obligation to provide this direction on the parents’ behalf.

Finally, we come to the interests of the state itself. Secularism accepts that it may be necessary to limit individual freedom of action or belief to protect the rights of others or in the interests of public order, and also to educate children for the same reason. The state’s interest in social cohesion and equal citizenship comes into play here. The state can be argued to have a legitimate interest in ensuring that children who will become citizens together learn with and from each other from an early age so as to develop the skills, habits and attitudes of living together in a democratic society. In light of this, the secular state is justified in doing two things. First, in its own interests to secure social peace, it may legitimately inculcate certain minimum basic moral values necessary for life in society, such as peaceful co-operation. Second, it may teach about a range of religious and non-religious approaches to life in a fair and balanced way. There are good secular reasons for this: religions and humanism have had significant impact on human society and culture, and so constitute a necessary part of a full education. As traditions, they contain insights from which young people may learn; and they do constitute the actual worldviews of a child’s fellow citizens, of whom each child should acquire some knowledge, in order to improve mutual understanding.

There will always be parents who plead their conscience to say that their children should not receive education, particularly religious or moral education, divergent from that in the home. But in states that take seriously the principles of fairness and freedom – for children no less than for anyone else – limiting this parental control is amply justified.

© Andrew Copson 2018

Andrew Copson is Chief Executive of Humanists UK. His book Secularism: Politics, Religion, and Freedom was published by Oxford University Press in 2017.

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