By Karen Walasek
Why this program promotes separation of church and state
In order for an individual to appreciate a reason for the separation of church and state, he or she must first have an unbiased background and be educated in critical thinking, history, and the philosophy of moral ethics. If the only available choice for a classical moral or ethical education is approached in light of a Christian worldview that is biased against separation of church and state, then there will never be an opportunity to understand a need for a secular option or that one even exists. Many, if not most, of the Southern American poor’s social safety net services are provided by a comprehensive network of Christian faith-based nonprofit organizations. Religious groups dominate the social life of the most vulnerable. While religious groups may not withhold services from the uninitiated, the climate of expectancy to partake in religious ceremony is all-prevailing.
Secular thinking may seem matter of normal due course for those not living within the constraints of the Bible Belt; however until one lives in a culture where secular thinking can only be found among those in higher education bubbles, one cannot truly appreciate the huge ramifications of creating a ‘secular safe zone’ for the uneducated. The Clemente Course promotes the concept of church and state first by raising awareness of a non-religious biased option, and secondly by providing a safe place in which to discuss philosophy and learning without the religious peer pressure found elsewhere. Questioning is encouraged as a part of the learning process. The Clemente course as overseen by Bard College is a secular introduction to understanding one’s role in the history of human culture. For most (if not all, participants) -this will be the first time a non-religious organized gathering embraces them. (Typically the poor are disenfranchised from the greater community and can only find solace among their community churches.)
The Clemente Course reaches those who might not otherwise find their way to college. Even if a participant successfully completes the course and DOES NOT pursue further education, this individual has become educated in the basics of critical thinking and exposed to an unbiased look at history, philosophy, and the arts. The American history section, for example, will not be overseen by any religious pressure that holds an agenda against separation thinking such as removing the thoughts of Thomas Jefferson from a syllabus or text materials. On the other hand, participants will be encouraged to discuss Jefferson’s thinking and while they will be free to challenge his thoughts, it will be done so through the use of critical thinking skills; so that even if one prescribed to a certain religious doctrine, their arguments will be based on thinking skills and not on something that is forced upon them by social pressures with a religious agenda. We believe the promotion of the separation of Church and State begins with allowing individuals; especially the most vulnerable, the freedom of thought. And that is what this course is all about.