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We live in country where by Constitution there can be no religious test for public office. On the other hand, we have a Bill of Rights that guarantees the free exercise of religion. We call this a secular system of government, and sometimes go so far as to use Jefferson's phrase that there is a wall between church and state. For the most part this secular system of government comports well with the teachings of Christianity based on Jesus’ remark that one should render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and unto God that which belongs to God.

John Richard Neuhaus once remarked, our’s is a naked public square. The reality however, is that the public square abhors a philosophical vacuum; and our so-called secular society has never really been a naked public square. Until the mid 20th century, for better or for worse, the philosophy permeating the public square was loosely that of Protestant Christianity. That effectively ended with a Supreme Court decision in the early 1960s banning prayer in schools. I suppose that many thought that we had arrived at where we should have been all along, that is, at a naked public square. But I suggest the public square really does abhor a philosophical vacuum and that today we often find philosophical secularism competing with various religious ideas for prominence in the public square. When it comes to science education in the public schools, I suggest that what we really need is something that might be called methodological secularism.

The notion of methodological secularism is an amalgam of ideas from Paul de Vries and Wilfred M. McClay. de Vries’ subject is actually naturalism in the sciences, which causes problems for theists given naturalism’s disavowal of supernaturalism. de Vries, however, argues that naturalism, can be, and is practiced in science regardless of any position on the supernatural. This form of naturalism he calls methodological naturalism, as opposed to philosophical naturalism. Just as de Vries argues that there are two legitimate ways to look at naturalism, Wilfred McClay argues that there are two legitimate ways to look at secularism. His and Paul de Vries arguments are analogous and so I propose that philosophical secularism be distinguished from methodological secularism. Naturalism and secularism represent philosophies that are deeply antithetical to theism. Methodological naturalism and methodological secularism, in contrast, shed anti supernaturalism presuppositions and promote the instrumental use of naturalism and secularism. As stated by McClay, secularism:

  • can be understood as an opponent of established belief--including a nonreligious establishment--and a protector of the rights of free exercise and free association. Second, it can be understood as a proponent of established unbelief and a protector of strictly individual expressive rights. The former view, on the one hand, is a minimal, even "negative" understanding of secularism, as a freedom "from" establishmentarian imposition. For it, the secular idiom is merely a provisional lingua franca that serves to facilitate commerce among different kinds of belief, rather than establish some new "absolute" language, an Esperanto of postreligious truth.

The balance of this paper addresses the difference between philosophical and methodological secularism, the problems for science education posed by both religion and philosophical secularism, and what the practical application of methodological secularism in science education might look like.


SLCSP Paper # 174

Published Citation

Cobern, William W. "The Competing Influence of Secularism and Religion on Science Education in a Secular Society." Workshop on Science Education and Secular Values. Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture. Trinity College. Hartford, CT: 22 May 2007.