“I could take you back to the very place where I lost my faith in God. I was 14 years old.” So writes Lee Strobel in the student edition of his book The Case for Christ. He goes on:
At Prospect High School in Mount Prospect, Illinois, the biology classroom was on the third floor in the northwest corner of the building. I was sitting in the second row from the windows, third chair from the front, when I first learned about Darwin’s theory of evolution.
This was revolutionary to me! Our teacher explained that life originated millions of years ago when chemicals randomly reacted with each other in a warm ocean on the primordial earth. Then, through a process of survival of the fittest and natural selection, life forms gained in complexity. Eventually, human beings emerged from the same family tree as apes.
Although the teacher didn’t address this aspect of evolution, its biggest implication was obvious to me: If evolution explains the origin and development of life, then God was out of a job! What did we need God for? ...
To my mind, this was great news! Finally, here was a rational basis for atheism. If evolution explains life, then the first chapters of the Bible must be mythology or wishful thinking. And if that were true of the first chapters, why not the rest? Jesus could not have been God. Miracles aren’t possible; they’re just the attempts by pre-scientific people to make sense out of what they couldn’t understand but which now science can explain.
For the first time, I had a rational reason to abandon Christianity.Strobel spent many years as an agnostic. He went on to college and to Yale law school, and then became an award-winning journalist for the Chicago Tribune. Later, after an exhaustive investigation of the claims of Christ, he became a Christian. But it is tragic to think of the millions of children whose stories don’t have a happy ending.
Tragic, but not surprising. After all, if Genesis is mythology, then there is no original sin, and thus no need for a savior. If you can do away with the first man Adam, who needs the last Adam? (For what it’s worth, the Darwinian story directly contradicts the words of Christ, who affirmed the historicity of Adam and the Genesis account, and with good reason: He was there. See, for example, Mark 10:6, John 1:3, Col. 1:16, and Heb. 1:2.)
But this discussion of origins is merely an introductory example, a point of departure. The real question is: How should Christians educate their children? The answer shouldn’t turn solely on origins, or sex education, or whole language, or fuzzy math, or the homosexual agenda in the classroom, or history textbooks that are more critical of Christianity than of Islam. These are all symptoms. Let’s go right to the heart of the matter. As a follower of Christ, are you required to give your children—His children—a Christian education? Indeed, what is the purpose of education?
A common refrain goes something like this: “I want my children to get a solid education so they can get a good job, have a high standard of living, and become good, productive citizens.” That is all well and good. But listen to John Milton, who understood that this world was not his home: “The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him.”
Now you may say, “That sounds kind of, well, religious. We can take care of that on Sundays.” But I would respectfully suggest that that kind of compartmentalization is not possible. Yes, Sunday school is religious, but so is Monday-Friday school.
Education Is Inescapably Religious
Education—because it deals with ultimate reality, with ideas and values of ultimate importance—is necessarily religious. Any “education” worthy of the name will address some of life’s basic questions: Who am I, and how did I get here? What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of history, and what is my part in it? Is there a God, and what does He expect of me? Teachers who pretend the crucial questions can be avoided for 12 years, or can be answered in some “neutral” or “value-free” way, are stunningly deceived.
Now you may say, “Can’t we just teach the kids math and history and science—the neutral stuff—and not worry about religious ideas? After all, facts are facts.” Well, not exactly.
Everyone has a worldview, what Ronald H. Nash calls “a set of beliefs about the most important issues in life ... a conceptual scheme by which we consciously or unconsciously place or fit everything we believe and by which we interpret and judge reality.” And as authors Herbert Schlossberg and Marvin Olasky point out, a person’s worldview matters: “The conclusions people reach are directly dependent on the assumptions with which they begin. Scholars start with a view of the universe, a philosophy of life, or a theology for existence—whether or not they call it that—and superimpose that view on documents, interviews, survey results, printouts, and other sources.”
For example: “When astronomer Carl Sagan says there is only the cosmos and nothing beyond that, we need to ask him how he learned that. We’ll find that he didn’t discover it by peering through a telescope, but by certain assumptions or presuppositions that he brought to his telescope.”
Many “facts” are not neutral at all; they come with certain presuppositional baggage. Fourteen-year-old Lee Strobel was learning plenty of “facts” in that third-floor classroom—facts about science, history, anthropology, and more—but they were filtered through the worldview of a particular teacher and textbook author.
There is nothing “neutral” about what children learn in school. This is obvious enough when the subject is sex education or biology, but it is even true in a subject as “neutral” as, say, mathematics. You may think that everyone, regardless of his religious worldview, can agree that 1 + 1 = 2. But it turns out that’s not the case. As educator Jim Nance points out, “one plus one equals two only if the numbers one and two reflect something about reality. This has been challenged or denied outright by many philosophers throughout history.” Some time ago I read a feature in the New York Times Magazine highlighting Marcia Ascher’s book Ethnomathematics: A Multicultural View of Mathematical Ideas. Ascher says that “much of mathematics education depends upon assumptions of Western culture and carries with it Western values.” She asks: “Is a square something that has external reality or is it something only in our minds?”
Schlossberg and Olasky write: “The problem, as [C. S.] Lewis knew, is that children in schools, and all of the rest of us as well, are bombarded with religious propaganda masquerading as general information, or even technical detail in subjects such as grammar or psychology. The information environment makes certain ideas seem plausible and other ideas seem implausible, without any arguments being made for or against them.”
One cannot separate “religious” information from general “academic” information, as if the God of the universe could be placed into a tidy little compartment. Christ will not be marginalized. He is holding the universe together, and in Him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. He is the central reality, the very I AM. He cannot be finessed. “Every line of true knowledge must find its completeness in its convergency to God, even as every beam of daylight leads the eye to the sun,” wrote the 19th century Presbyterian theologian R. L. Dabney. “If religion be excluded from our study, every process of thought will be arrested before it reaches its proper goal.”
Somebody’s religious assumptions—somebody’s worldview—will necessarily undergird and suffuse any curriculum. Is the student created in God’s image, or is he a meaningless collection of chemicals, the product of a blind, undirected, purposeless process? Is God the architect of history, or not? Does the government rest upon His shoulder, or not? And on it goes. From anthropology to zoology, education is intrinsically, inescapably religious. As WORLD magazine’s Joel Belz put it, both churches and schools “are so profoundly involved with shaping the minds, the hearts, and the souls of their people that it should be all but impossible for someone to draw a line saying where ‘education’ leaves off and where ‘religion’ picks up.”
Even the idea that education should be preparation for “getting a good job” is a religious notion. After all, “vocation” comes from the Latin word voco, meaning “I call.” Who is doing the calling, and what is He calling you to?
Alfred North Whitehead said, “The essence of education is that it be religious.” The question Christian parents need to ask themselves is, which religion?
Christianity or Agnosticism?
In the 17th century, Harvard students were to understand their education thusly: “The maine end of [a student’s] life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ, which is eternal life, John 17.3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.”
Christianity isn’t merely a Sunday diversion; it’s an all-encompassing, 24/7 worldview. St. Paul instructs fathers to bring up their children in "the nurture and admonition of the Lord." Author and school founder Douglas Wilson says this requirement to provide our children with a paideia of the Lord “is actually one of the most far-reaching commands of the New Testament.” In the ancient world, Wilson writes, “the paideia was all-encompassing and involved nothing less than the enculturation of the future citizen. The paideia extends well past the simple limits of an established curriculum; it describes an entire way of life. In short, the ancients understood that education was religious and that religious claims are total.”
“Even though there is no explicit biblical injunction to place children in Christian or home schools,” Olasky points out, “the emphasis on providing a godly education under parental supervision is clear.” As Christianity Today editorialized August 5, 2002, “Most parents instinctually understand that they (not the State) are responsible for training their children (Prov. 22:6; Deut. 6:4-9). They also understand that education has to be founded on a coherent worldview. To have students learning relativistic secularism in the classroom makes it that much more difficult to impart transcendent values at home, and it teaches children to compartmentalize, rather than integrate, their knowledge (as if one set of intellectual rules apply at school and another at home).”
Now why does all of this point to the need for school choice? Well, as you may have inferred by now, this kind of Christ-centered education is not possible in the government-run school system. (Nor should it be. Golden Rule-minded Christians shouldn’t use the coercive power of the state to foist our beliefs on others.)
In a letter to the editor of The Oklahoman, retired Oklahoma educator Jean Stackhouse lamented, “We had to give up discipline and God in schools.” That’s true. But that doesn’t mean the public schools are devoid of religious messages. Far from it. As Humanist Manifesto signer John Dewey understood, public education is religious—and whether you call the prevailing philosophy humanism, or secularism, or agnosticism, the public schools are soaked through with it. Their religious message is clear: God may or may not exist, but he or she is simply not relevant to what goes on in school.
This, I would suggest, is an outrage. “The school system that ignores God,” writes Gordon H. Clark, “teaches its pupils to ignore God; and this is not neutrality. It is the worst form of antagonism, for it judges God to be unimportant and irrelevant in human affairs. This is atheism.”
In The Christian Philosophy of Education Explained, Stephen C. Perks writes: “An education that denies God and His Word as the interpretive principle of all things, including all academic disciplines, is an education that implicitly denies the whole of biblical truth and the validity of the Christian faith. To subject our children to such an education is to deny the sovereignty and Lordship of God over our children ...”
There’s no getting around it. Every school—public, private, or home—will either acknowledge Christ or, like Peter, deny Him.
The late Catholic essayist Joseph Sobran once observed that “by omission and implication, the public schools teach that religion is unnecessary. And if it is unnecessary, it is superfluous. And if it is superfluous, it can be a harmless private interest at best and, at worst, an obstacle to progress and tolerance. These are precisely the attitudes many people emerge with after spending their entire youth in public schools.” After all, as Christ taught us, “a student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.”
Please don’t misunderstand. I want to emphasize—and emphasize strongly—that there are hundreds if not thousands of faithful Christian teachers in Oklahoma’s public schools. I know many of them personally. These men and women have a heart for children, and their investment in young lives is making a difference. But despite their best efforts, the hard truth remains that the schools are … officially agnostic. They’re agnostic as a matter of law and public policy. This isn’t a criticism; it’s simply a description, and an unassailable one at that.
State Rep. Kevin Calvey, a Georgetown-educated attorney, put it well: “The ‘religious neutrality’ enforced in our public schools is not really neutral. The lack of religion is in itself a religious viewpoint, namely agnosticism.” This court-ordered agnosticism “is not the fault of teachers or even school administrators,” Calvey says. “It is the fault of the U.S. Supreme Court and the ACLU. But regardless of who is at fault, it is time for the discrimination to stop.” (Unsurprisingly, Rep. Calvey is one of the leading school-choice advocates in Oklahoma.)
Christian parents need to ask themselves: Should we provide a Christian education for our children, or an agnostic education? Should we render our children unto God, or unto Caesar?
In his book Standing on the Promises, Douglas Wilson argues that “genuine Christian education is not optional. It is a biblical mandate.” The Bible expressly requires a non-agnostic form of education. “What area of life has God declared to be neutral, in which it is permissible to ignore Him, and His Word, while we instruct our children?”
Moreover, Christ requires—in the greatest commandment, no less!—that His people love the Lord their God with all their minds. “If our children are not taught to think like Christians when they study math, history, or science,” Wilson writes, “then they are not obeying the command to love God with all their minds.”
What’s more, God expects parents to protect their children. “Because pluralism (with regard to worldviews) is a false theology (it is institutional agnosticism), Christian parents are required to protect their children from this lie,” Wilson writes. “Because the public schools are an established institution, required by law to teach and practice agnosticism, Christian parents are obligated to protect children from exposure to this false teaching. ... It is hard to imagine us having this debate about Christian kids in Vacation Bible Schools run by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. So why do we treat agnosticism as a preferable heresy?”
Wilson dismisses the oft-heard argument that we should send our children to be “salt and light” in the government system. “Sending children into an intellectual, ethical, and religious war zone without adequate training and preparation is a violation of charity,” he writes. We wouldn’t send our seven-year-olds to an Iraqi battlefield or an African mission field; those are jobs for well-trained adults.
In sum, Wilson says, “Christian parents who seek to educate their children in the government school system allow their children to be instructed according to the tenets of another religion.”
Time to Get Out?
For years Dr. James Dobson told his readers and listeners not to abandon the public schools. But that changed on March 28, 2002. For the first time, Dobson told his radio audience (some 5 million listeners) that because of the radical changes taking place in public education (mainly regarding the homosexual agenda), he would not place his child in a public school in California or any other state that moves in that direction. “In the state of California, if I had a child there, I wouldn’t put the youngster in a public school,” he said. “I think it’s time to get our kids out.”
A few months later, Dobson went even further: “It isn’t just California that has drifted into this dangerous stuff. This is where we are, especially on both coasts, but to some degree throughout the nation.” And it’s not just about homosexuality, he said. “The shocking thing is that this threat to kids is much, much broader than the homosexual movement. It doesn’t stop there. It is aimed at the very core of the Judeo-Christian system of values, the very core of scriptural values. I’m telling you that is not an overstatement.”
“It is our vulnerable children who will be sacrificed if we keep them in a godless environment,” Dobson said (emphasis added). “Speaking personally, the welfare of my boy or girl would take priority over the need to influence the local public school.”
It's no secret that things have only gotten worse since Dobson's warning in 2002. By 2013 Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was asking the question if sending one's children to a public school is even a permissible option anymore. "For Christians who take the Christian worldview seriously and who understand the issues at stake," he said, "the answer is increasingly no."
In 2015 we learned that the Tulsa Public Schools are training teachers on the subject of "gender nonconformity" issues, including which bathrooms transgender children are allowed to use.
And in 2016 Richard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center, a public-interest law firm, warned that "parents must be ever vigilant to the Islamic indoctrination of their children under the guise of teaching history and multiculturalism. This is happening in public schools across the country."
Dobson and others are simply echoing Martin Luther: “I advise no one to place his child where the Scriptures do not reign paramount. Every institution in which men are not increasingly occupied with the Word of God must become corrupt ... I am much afraid that schools will prove to be the great gates of hell unless they diligently labor in explaining the Holy Scriptures, engraving them in the hearts of youth.”
Some of my fellow believers—indeed, most of my fellow believers—disagree with my point of view. They will choose a public school for their children, and I wish them nothing but success.
But regardless of what school they choose for their own children, I hope all Christians will acknowledge that we all have a fundamental right to choose a school consistent with our convictions. “Parents have a fundamental right—written into the various international covenants protecting human rights—to choose the schooling that will shape their children’s understanding of the world,” says Boston University education professor Charles L. Glenn. “But a right isn’t really a right if it can’t be exercised.”
After paying handsomely to prop up the government’s system, many overtaxed Oklahomans cannot afford to choose Christian education. That’s why we should pray and work for school choice.