States like Indiana and Louisiana have been in the news of late. These states have foregrounded the importance of school choice, which includes so-called “faith-based education,” in breaking the secular state’s monopolization over the public school system.

Yet there are detractors. There are those who argue that while there is nothing wrong with sending your children to faith-based schools, we as taxpayers should not have to support the teaching of any religion.

It is the case that “faith-based education” is the accepted term that we use for what we would otherwise call “parochial” or “religious” education.

But what we have to understand is that there is something rather deceptive behind this term “faith-based education”: it erroneously suggests that there is such a thing as education that is not faith-based.

The concept of faith-based education perpetuates inadvertently the idea that we have on the one side mere education, which involves the introduction and mastery of the elementary constituents of linguistic, mathematic, and scientific literacy; while on the other side, we have faith-based education which accomplishes the elemental constituents of literacy while adding something to the educational endeavor, namely the initiation of the student into a set of moral values that are specific to a particular kind of religious persuasion.

The operative assumption here is that religious persuasion and what we call “public education” are in fact distinct; they represent two fundamentally different social domains: the public and the private, the objective and the subjective; that which teaches facts and data common to all, and that which teaches faith commitments and dogma common to only some.

The fundamental problem with this picture is that it is contradicted by over a century of cultural anthropological research, which has collectively found that “religion” is not merely a private or personal set of values or beliefs. For example, anthropologists have observed that belief in gods is by no means a necessary component to religion, as demonstrated by Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian societies that hold no explicit belief in any particular god. Rather, anthropologists see religion as constituting the rules, understandings, and goals that govern any social order. Anthropologists have observed that all social orders operate according to communally shared presuppositions that are considered absolutely true and unquestionable and thereby provide the foundation for a collective sense of the common good.

For example, if I get pulled over by a police officer for speeding and I tell him: “I really don’t like that law,” what’s he going to say to me? He might say (if he’s in a good mood): “That’s all fine and dandy, but you still broke it.” In this case, the law is absolute, it is unquestionable; I don’t define it, it defines me. I may want to have the law changed, but if I do, then there is a procedure to do so that is itself absolute and unquestionable. I change the law by following the law.

There is no social order that can operate without basic rules, understandings, and goals that define the common good for society in ways that are considered absolute and unquestionable.

So what does this mean?

What this means then is that there is simply no such thing as education that is faith-based and education that is not.

All education is faith-based. All education initiates students into a particular social order with its own vision of the common good that is considered absolute and unquestionable.

It is therefore not a question of whether we are going to have faith-based education; the question is: Which faith-based education are we going to have?

Now, this observation raises an obvious question: Is it not the case that our current public schools make it a point neither to favor nor discriminate against any particular religion? As a public space, people of all faiths are by definition welcome to our schools. Your faith is special to you and we respect that; but, what our public education has done is it has carved out neutral space so as to allow people of all religions to come together and learn facts and data common to everyone.

This certainly suggests that not all education is faith-based. In fact it makes it sound like the publicly neutral space of our schools established by a secular state is quite a noble and civic endeavor: no religion is favored or discriminated against in our state-sponsored schools. This certainly sounds reasonable.

But what if it turns out that it was in fact the secular state that redefined religion this way? What if our understanding of faith and religion as that which belongs in one’s private life rather than in the public square is itself the social invention of the secular state? What if religion has been redefined by the very institution that claims to ‘protect’ it?

That is what we will explore in our next post.

Until then, what do you think? Is there such a thing as education that is not faith-based?

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