As Public Schools Week comes to a close, it seems a good time to reflect on the tremendous value and vulnerability of our secular public education system.

Their immense social and economic benefits aside, public schools are vital in creating informed citizens capable of thinking critically. That, of course, is crucial because a pluralistic democracy depends on informed citizens to function. As Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of the day.”

Maintaining secular schools, free from any religious agenda, is equally vital to protect students’ constitutional rights and to uphold the separation of religion and government.

That being said, our public schools are not perfect. But while evidence-based solutions exist (see: Finland) to alleviate schools’ actual shortcomings, too many policymakers and their Christian nationalist backers are more interested in burning it down than building it up. That’s because freethinkers, secular schools, and democracy are all inconvenient obstacles on the road to theocracy.

Earlier this week, the Public Religion Research Institute released a somewhat reassuring poll showing two-thirds of Americans either reject or are skeptical of Christian nationalism. Of course, that also means the remaining one-third adhere to or sympathize with it, and their support is highly concentrated in several states.

The survey found that Christian nationalists are twice as likely “to see political struggles through the apocalyptic lens of revolution and to support political violence.” Although the questions related to policy focused on guns and immigration, it’s easy to see how their beliefs — that America is a Christian nation, that our laws should be based on Christian values, that being Christian is an important part of being American, and especially that God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of society — are antithetical to a secular, democratic society and its public schools.

It’s no coincidence that many of the most pervasive and pernicious policies aimed at disrupting or dismantling public education all have a religious component — school chaplain bills, private school vouchers, book bans, school prayer, and religious instruction.

Thankfully, in the wake of the Alabama Supreme Court’s ruling that pre-embryos are people, there has been a dramatic increase in the quantity and quality of mainstream media coverage regarding Christian nationalism (and subsequent Christian nationalist attacks on those journalists). As Pulitzer Prize winner Linda Greenhouse opined in The New York Times, the decision seems to have “awakened the American public, finally, to the peril of the theocratic future toward which the country has been hurtling.”

That’s vindicating for American Atheists, which has been on the frontlines of this fight for decades. It’s really an exciting and important time to be a part of this organization, and I hope you feel that, too.

You definitely will if you’re able to join us in Philadelphia at the end of this month (Easter weekend!) for our 2024 convention. You’re not going to want to miss speakers like Kate Cohen, who recently wrote about book bans and whose latest book We Of Little Faith makes a powerful case that we atheists are well positioned to save the country given religion’s place “at the center of every battle against scientific and social progress.” 

I hope you’ll join us,

Nick Fish

PS: Our annual national conference is the best place to connect with hundreds of your fellow atheists from all across the country. Not only will you hear from great speakers like Kate, you’ll meet dedicated, committed activists who are working every day in their home states to stop book bans, protect the right to abortion, and build vibrant communities for atheists in places where they’re desperately needed. Get your tickets today, and I’ll see you there.

American Atheists is a 501(c)(3) non-partisan, nonprofit educational organization that relies on the support of members like you. Contributions are tax-deductible. Our Federal Tax ID Number is 74-2466507 and our Combined Federal Campaign number is 52217.

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