He can get annoyed at the idea that religion’s too controversial a subject for American schools. Sitting beside an array of papers and books on a couch in his office, Warren Nord, lecturer in philosophy, points out that 20 years ago, women’s studies and black studies were also ignored in the public school curriculum. “You can’t say, ‘Look, feminism and race are just too contro versial. Let’s not bring them up.’

Now we all know that that position’s nonsense,” Nord says. You aren’t liberally educated if that’s the kind of education you get.”

Nord contends that public schools and universities today come close to indoctrinating students against religion by almost completely ignoring it. In Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma (UNC Press, 1995), Nord explains what he sees as deep political and constitutional problems with public education. The problems are largely unacknowledged, Nord says, in part because it’s tempting to see the issue as a culture war “between the religious fundamentalists who are anti-intellectual and everybody else—all right-thinking, reasonable folk.” But, as Nord points out, “the world’s a lot more complicated.”

Nord reviewed 42 high school textbooks in American and world history, economics, science, and home economics. Religion was mentioned only in the history books, where it was “exiled to the distant past.” Nord argues that even though modern secular education doesn’t openly attack religion, it sends the message that religion is irrelevant to understanding the world.

There is no appreciation of the fact that there might be a problem in teaching students to think about economics or sexuality, or nature or psychology in entirely secular ways,” he says.

Nord smiles at the suggestion that it’s hard to imagine thinking about economics in a religious way. “Most people can’t,” he says.

Nord explains that economics courses usually teach that people are “self-interested utility maximizers” who compete for limited resources. Nord points out that this view stands “in some tension, if not overt conflict” with most religious traditions, which teach people to overcome self-interest and work in cooperation for the common good.

While Nord acknowledges that it’s not possible for teachers to cover every religious view of each subject, he suggests that textbooks should mention that there are religious alternatives to the secular views being taught. “A liberal education exposes students to the major different voices arguing about the truth,” Nord says. “But do we do that? No we don’t. We only introduce them to the major secular voices arguing about the truth. We leave the religious voices out.

Is that politically just in a system that has public institutions? No, it disenfranchises many people,” Nord argues. “It doesn’t take their ideas, values, and traditions seriously.”

Nord contends that ignoring religion also doesn’t take the constitution seriously. He explains that, as the Supreme Court has interpreted the separation of church and state, government must be neutral among different religions, and also between religion and non-religion. “Everybody agrees,” Nord says, “that it’s perfectly all right for students to be taught about religions in public schools, so long as it’s done neutrally. The teacher can’t indoctrinate or proselytize.

My argument is a stronger one,” he continues. “Neutrality doesn’t just mean that it’s all right to teach students about religion, but that you’re required to teach students about religion if you teach them things that are hostile to religion.

Whereas once religion was common sense and indeed viewed as being reasonable, we now believe it’s a matter of private faith, that it’s irrational, that it’s superstitious, that it has nothing to do with our intellectual life, that it has no place in the academy. Well, is that neutral?” Nord asks. “That may be true, but is it neutral? Those are different questions.”

A national movement has begun to address the issue, Nord says. Organizations as different as the American Jewish Congress, the Islamic Society of North America, and the National Education Association have agreed that religion should be included in the public school curriculum and that it must be taught neutrally. Some history and social studies textbooks have begun to include more information about religion. In 1989 North Carolina became the second state to require the study of religion in history and social science courses in kindergarten through the eleventh grade.

Nord agrees with the intentions of the requirement but says the execution of the plan has faltered because there’s little money for educating teachers. Many shy away from mentioning religion because they don’t have a clear idea of what they legally can and cannot say, they don’t know when they might be offending someone, and they haven’t been educated about religious traditions other than their own.

Carolina’s Program in the Humanities and Human Values, which Nord directs, has tried to help by offering free seminars addressing these topics for teachers, administrators, and school board members. The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation funds the seminars, some of which provide materials to be used in the classroom, such as films or literature written by people within various religious traditions.

Even these efforts are not adequate, in Nord’s view. His ideal school system would require all high school students to take at least one course in religion, taught by someone with an undergraduate minor in religious studies. He would exempt students who, because of religious beliefs, felt that taking the course burdened their consciences.

Citing statistics from Gallup opinion polls, Nord points out that religion is not dead; 90 percent of Americans say they believe in the existence of God, while 55 percent of them say religion is very important in their life. “Now, how do we square that with the idea that religion and God are completely irrelevant to everything we teach students about our contemporary culture?” he asks.

Oftentimes the assumption is that anybody who argues for taking religious ideas or values seriously must be a conserva tive, must be a fundamentalist, must be out to preach and convert people,” Nord says. “Well, there are a good number of those folks out there, but I’m not one of them. My argument is that there are plenty of good liberal and secular reasons for requiring students to understand religion.” In the end, he calls for educators and intellectuals to have “a little humility,” to not be “so convinced we’ve got the truth that we don’t even have to bring up the alternatives.”