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April 1983 · Vol. 12 No. 2 · pp. 34–39 

The Morals Maze: Religious and Moral Education in the Public School System

Judith Dick

Views on religious and moral education abound! The vast selection of literature on moral education, research on the cognitive process as it applies to moral development and the variety of opinions on religious and moral education create a vast maze in which it is easy to get lost. In order to gain a general understanding of the field, a classification with rather distinct categories will be used (see Figure 1). Although the categories may seem rather too distinct, they will serve as a conceptual framework.

Fig. 1. Summary of literature on moral and/or religious education.

The teaching of religion is illustrated by the use of devotional or specifically sectarian practices in public schools and is advocated by such populist groups as the Moral Majority and Renaissance Canada in their attempt to impose a particular set of values on all students. Although the formation of these populist groups is a recent phenomenon, the issue is not. The relationship between religion and public education is a complex one and continues to be characterized by confusion and anxiety. Part of this tension relates to the highly pluralistic nature of American and Canadian societies. The mosaic of dynamic and religious expressions ranges from those of Native Americans to those of the most recent arrivals from Southeast Asia. Many immigrants throughout the years have come in search of religious freedom. However, various Judaeo-Christian beliefs have generally ruled Canadian and American religious practices in education. Certainly relatively common religious observances, such as the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, have been fostered in the schools. The issue of the propriety of these practices in the public schools of the U.S. was brought to a head with the landmark decision in the U.S. Supreme Court in the cases of Abingdon School District vs Schempp, 1962 and Engle vs Vitale, 1962, which prohibited the practice of devotional Bible reading and the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools.

It is clear that the intent of the courts was not to turn the school into an atheistic institution but rather to reduce the possibility of religious proselytizing and indoctrination. A close examination of U.S. Supreme Court decisions reveals that study about religion is actually encouraged in public schools.

The holding of the court today plainly does not foreclose teaching about the Holy Scriptures or about the differences between religious sects in classes in literature or history. Indeed whether or not the Bible is involved, it would be impossible to teach meaningfully many subjects in the social sciences of humanities without some mention of religion. 1

In spite of the intent of the courts’ rulings, many people believed that these decisions were a victory for what has been termed secular humanism. The current hue and cry for “Judaeo-Christian values” by some populist groups is a resurgence of the idea that Christian practices and beliefs should dominate public education.

Many educators in the early and mid seventies were in agreement with the Court’s ruling and believed that the teaching of religion was inappropriate in the public schools. In their opinion, Bible literature and religion courses could be taught in a scholarly, academic fashion with objectivity and without encouraging or discouraging a personal commitment to either a Divine Being who somehow ordered the cosmos, or an ethical system which results in a particular set of attitudes and practices. {36} Various course outlines were developed which included a study of a variety of religions. The ways in which the Bible and Judaeo-Christian religions could be incorporated into an academic curriculum using this approach to religion are outlined below. The incidents, characters, parables, poetry, proverbs and imagery of the Bible might be studied as a source of allusion in other literature, past and present. Bible themes relevant to today’s world might be compared with themes in other great literature. In Hildebrand’s words:

. . . Bible heroes can be admired with secular heroes, from Billy Jean King to Frederick Douglas to Joan of Arc to Ulysses and Robin Hood . . . Certainly the marvelous cycle of tales surrounding David is as exciting as any chapter from King Arthur. The persecution of Esther’s Jews may stimulate our children to racial tolerance as much as Anne Frank’s story. 2

The Bible might be studied as literature in its own right: its language, similes, metaphors, parallelism; its universal themes, and its variety of style including narrative, dramatic lyric, meditative, expository and humor. The Bible as a foundation document of civilization in the western world lends itself to a study of the legal system, labor practices and other aspects of the relationship between religion and culture. The influence of religion on world history might be examined with reference to intellectual, philosophical, religious and social foundations of ancient and current developments in the world. The impact of religion on many great works of music, art, dance, drama and cinema could also be examined. This approach constitutes teaching about religion. It is not really known how extensively these courses were/are incorporated into public school systems.

A third approach to the subject emphasizes the non-religious teaching of morals. Those who hold this view deem certain morals as desirable and consciously attempt to indoctrinate these morals into students. People advocating citizenship training would fall into this camp. To these people, the religious foundation of values is replaced with nationalistic loyalty. Although the foundation differs, the actual morals and values which proponents of this view attempt to inculcate in their students are similar to the Moral Majority’s “Judaeo-Christian Values.”

Another non-religious approach to moral education emphasizes process and development. Researchers in this field take their cue from Piaget, a highly respected learning theorist, and attempt to explain moral development in terms of developmental stages. Kohlberg and Turiel, for example, found that:

the sequence of development is not dependent upon holding the beliefs of a particular religion, or upon holding any {37} religious beliefs at all: No significant differences appear in the development of moral thinking among Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, Moslems, and atheists. Children’s moral values in the religious area seem to go through the same stages as their general moral values. 3

Much fascinating research is being done in this area in an attempt to explain the process through which children go in determining moral values.

Programs such as Values Clarification are a curricular outgrowth of this theoretical and philosophic stance. These programs ask children to examine physical situations, inner feelings and interpersonal relations. Through simulated experiences, discussion and thought, children are to decide what they will do and why. The emphasis is on the process rather than on the value; on the child who must decide on both the action and the foundation for the action. Although concerns are frequently raised about the adequacy of teachers to handle these situations, the programs are being widely used.

Finally, there are those authors, who philosophically believe that while courses on various aspects of religion may be taught as part of the academic curriculum, studies in these areas can assist moral development and help students recognize the spiritual dimension in their lives. Weeren raises some concerns about religion and the concept of “commitment”. In answer to the question, “Should the schools teach commitment to religion?”, he states:

Not teach commitment to religion, but teach religion in a context of commitment. Teaching commitment to religion implies taking responsibility for leading the antagonistic or undecided person to adopt religious convictions. Teaching religion in a context of commitment means that when religion is taught, the operative assumption of those involved is that it concerns what is of ultimate significance for man. That is what religion means, and for it to be taught in any other way is to denature it. 4

Allen, in an article on religion studies, values clarification and moral education summarizes three central assertions of the same position:

    1. Social education dealing with values inevitably involves religious values.
    2. Social education using public issues, values clarification or moral dilemmas confronts religious philosophical phenomena at the deepest level—“Who do I think I am? What am I trying to do? Why?”
    3. Social education using public issues, values clarification or moral dilemmas ought to deepen the classroom approach {38} sensitively to raise matters of students’ commitments (as well as their decision and reasons) and to broaden the classroom approach sensitively to provide for studying the decisions, reasons and commitment of others coming from diverse religious-philosophical traditions. 5

This approach unites teaching about religion and moral education (process) but does not circle back to the teaching of religion. Advocates of this position assume that there is a spiritual dimension to the human which must not be ignored.

This article is not at all comprehensive and yet it does serve to outline various streams of thought in religious and moral education: 1) teaching of religion which attempts to impose Judaeo-Christian values on everyone, whether or not they so desire; 2) teaching about religion which acknowledges religion in an academic sense but does not acknowledge man’s spiritual needs; 3) non-religious morals instructions, which, like the first alternative, attempts to inculcate a certain set of morals without careful scrutiny and without choice; 4) moral education with its relativistic emphasis on process and its possibility of leaving children wandering in a vacuum; 5) an approach, not widely used but acceptable to people of various faiths, which utilizes a knowledge of moral development, which insists on academic teaching about religion and which acknowledges man’s spirituality. This approach does not attempt to indoctrinate. It calls for questioning, analysis and decision-making. It calls for examining self and the physical world. It calls for commitment although it does not specify to what. It calls for decision-making at the “soul” level.

As Christians, it is easy to see the flaws of the non-religious morals instruction approach—the foundation is inadequate. Further it is easy to recognize that more than an academic approach to religion is needed. For some of us, it may not be easy to admit that the research on moral development, even with its faults and non-religious context, has something to offer us; that knowledge of developmental process, exercises in thinking things through and clarifying the “why” of morals, while sometimes painful, are important. It may be even harder to admit that the teaching of religion (as defined earlier) is actually a process of indoctrination and force; one which we would strenuously object to if it were any religion but ours.

While the natural temptation may be to simply withdraw from the public school system and put our children into a private Christian school where the teaching of religion can and does occur, this is not the solution. The public school system needs Christians. It needs their encouragement to provide children with adequate “head knowledge” about religion and their insistence on the importance of man’s spirituality. We also need the public school system. Our children cannot make clearly thought-through choices if they do not see the alternatives. The public {39} school can present those alternatives in a more objective way than we can. It is difficult to give children choice. Ultimately, however, we will have to. Whether or not the public school assists us in providing our children with “head knowledge” about religion, with a process of moral decision-making or possibly with a sense of the significance of man’s spirituality; we, as members of a Christian community, while building a foundation of example, prayer, knowledge and spirituality, cannot make personal moral decisions for the next generation. We must resist the urge to indoctrinate, and, with faith in the strength of Truth, encourage decision-making on the basis of examination, thought, and conviction.


  1. Abingdon School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 300 (1963), cited by Lee Smith and Wes Bodin, “Religion in the Public Schools: Legal and Desirable,” Curriculum Report 8 (Bethesda, Md.: ERIC Document Reproduction Service, ED 172 448, June 1979.
  2. Ann Hildebrand, “The Bible Presented Objectively,” Language Arts 53 (January 1976): 72.
  3. Lawrence Kohlberg and Elliot Turiel, “Moral Development and Moral Education,” Psychology and Educational Practice, ed. Gerald S. Lesser (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1971), p. 438.
  4. Donald Weeren, “Religious Education and Secular Education, “ McGill Journal of Education 14 (Spring 1979): 226.
  5. Rodney Allen, “Supplying the Missing Dimension,” in Teaching About Religion in Public Schools, Nicholas Piediscalzi and William Collie, ed. (Illinois: Argus, 1977), p. 246.
Judith Dick is a teacher by profession. This article captures the gist of her book (Not in Our Schools?!!! School Book Censorship in Canada: A Discussion Guide) and explores its implications for the church. Judith and her husband, Harry, are currently on assignment in the West Bank (Israel) with Mennonite Central Committee.

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