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Humanist Essay for November 2012
"Save Us From the Soul-Savers"
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At this year's AHA conference, I had the pleasure of meeting Katherine Stewart, one of the featured speakers. Recently she sent me a copy of her book, The Good News Club. I read it with alarm. It is a well researched and engagingly written account of a strategic, determined effort to insert one particular religious view into public schools, and it specifically targets the lower grades. The well-funded Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) has a sort of soul-saving franchise known as The Good News Club, which local churches are urged to sponsor. The package comes with training, branding, and a portfolio of legal strategies for allowing activities on public property under free speech rights that had once been forbidden on church-state separation grounds.

It boils down to this: If a church club or Bible study group can use school property when school is not in session in the same way secular clubs may; and if impressionable children happen to construe a religious "class" to bear the same weight of authority as the lessons taught during school hours; and if the children then repeat something they learned from the church group during their school classes, to their peers - well, they are only exercising their right to free speech and that should be (and has been judged to be) permissible!

Are you turning purple yet? There is so much wrong here, I'll touch on only two aspects that trouble me - and they are not the obvious constitutional issues.

My first concern has to do with the well-meaning, devout adults who are drawn into these Good News Club start-ups that inevitably split their communities (hence the arsenal of legal strategies). They are not blind to the strife they cause or unfeeling toward those neighbors, teachers and school officials who oppose them (and do sometimes win). But, they have surrendered their personal authority and common sense to a Higher Power whose earthly intermediaries have a ready answer for every twinge of conscience. "God will take care of it," troubled trainees are told. And so they answer Katherine's hard questions with, "God will take care of it."

What a cop out! Of course people have the right to their religion and the right to believe and voice such assertions, but how sad for them personally to forgo the use of their (God-given?) capacities for empathy and reason. Clearly CEF's mind-molding is not limited to the children.

Which brings me to my second point. When are we going to liberate our children? I mean, in concept, when do we acknowledge that children deserve to be given the truth, as best we can figure it, so that they can grow up to grapple with reality - and maybe figure it out better than we have? The objective of childrearing (this is the humanist view) is to produce free, functional, creative, confident, caring, rational adults capable of surviving in a changing world and eager to explore their full potential. Children are not chips to be pre-programmed with fears, guilt, insecurity and a weird combination of self-loathing and entitled superiority. "Our children are our future," we say (as though that weren't obvious), but we raise them to be slaves to the past or, worse, slaves to some authoritarian agenda of the day.

One is tempted to want to counter The Good News Club mission with a project to organize kids into unions to help them protect their own interests, or a movement to win children their suffrage. (If they can have free speech, why not an actual say in their own lives?) But wouldn't it be enough to simply let kids be themselves, and find themselves, while providing them with a fact-based, fun-filled, thorough education?

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Copyright © 2012 Zelda Gatuskin

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