Sommerville, C. John. The Decline of the Secular University. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Chapter 7, “Teaching About Secularism, or Teaching Secularism?” pp. 85-96.
In 1963 the United States Surpeme Court ruled that tax-supported schools could teach “about” religion. Sommerville takes this to be a view from the outside which undermines claims that the religion itself has legitimacy (Sommerville 2006, 85). The likely presupposition was that the secular was natural and normal, a neutral position which could rise above all else. However, secularism is now appearing more like only one of many manners in which we can conceive this world. It is therefore something which can be considered carefully as one of many traditions. Rather than doing so, Sommerville says “universities and the public schools have been teaching secularism in the sense of indoctrination and requiring the adoption of its assumptions” (Sommerville 2006, 86). He counters that, to be fair, universities should teach about secularism as one of many competing worldviews. One of many difficulties in such an effort is defining the difference between secularization, in which religion is separated from other aspects of life, and secularism, in which religion is excluded altogether (Sommerville 2006, 87).
Sommerville identifies a decline in the authority of universities, which he ties strongly to their insistence on secularism. The authoritative voice of the university has mostly been taken over by think tanks and a variety of news and talk media (Sommerville 2006, 88). The academy in general has disconnected from the averate American, who doesn’t find secularism to be required for intelligence or for recognition of the importance of science.
In publis schools, secujlarism first strove for tolerance, acceptance of people who are different, particularly in religion or other cultural elements. Sommerville finds the emphasis on tolerance now to be making moves against secularism, as we realize many immigrant populations are very dedicated to their religious points of view (Sommerville 2006, 89). Tolerance allows religion, rather than forcing it out, as secularism does. Sommerville suggests that as secondary schools spread along with the message of tolerance, we found a democratization of education in which the more erudite elements of society, including secularism, were washed out and tended to disappear (Sommerville 2006, 90).
Sommerville also finds that the explosion of daily media and the faster news cycle fights against secularism. The slightly abstruse world of the secularist doesn’t get a hearing among entertainment-motivated people (Sommerville 2006, 90-91).
The courts were envisioned as a bastion of secularism as well. Sommerville notes a pattern of the courts to protect nonreligious people from exposure to religious messages while purposely requiring religious students to endure overtly anti-religious messages (Sommerville 2006, 91). In recent years the courts have begun to conclude that teaching about religion is an appropriate and even necessary activity. Sommerville continues to advocate for teaching abou secularism as well (Sommerville 2006, 92).
Sommerville observes hat it is important that tax-supported groups should not impose religioon on others (Sommerville 2006, 93). There is a compelling question about whether religion would be able to contribute to intellectual debate (Sommerville 2006, 94). In fact, sommerville doesn’t see religion as normally entering into discussions so as to bring certain proof of its doctrines. However, it is important to allow religion to bring perspective to debates. This is likely the purpose of the First Amendment free exercise clause, which protects the right of poeple and groups to express religious points of view (Sommerville 2006, 95). It would therefore be appropriate to allow all religions and philosophies, including a secular philosophy, to have free access to discussion of ideas.