Taking the second part of your question first, the answer is that such discussions are not the making of laws "respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the exercise thereof."
"Respecting the establishment of religion," does not mean that the language of religion may not be examined.
Such examination of language is in fact an example of NOT "abridging the freedom of speech" and inquiry.
Such discussions are not RELIGIOUS but rather are an examination of the meanings of words which is a crucial part of the EDUCATIONAL (as opposed to SCHOOLING and TRAINING) process and thereby cannot be equated with proselytizing unless, of course, a teacher prescribes his own definitions, i.e., meanings.
Therein lies one of the reasons (of which there are many) why the answer to the first part of your question is that you are probably correct considering the intellectual temper of our period in history and the abysmal quality of our EDUCATIONAL (as opposed to SCHOOLING and TRAINING) institutions.
With few exceptions, our pre-college institutions are bereft of courses in critical and analytical thinking even though, "We teach critical thinking," has become the shibboleth of our day.
Few of our teachers are trained or educated to teach critical and analytical thinking though they insist that they do because they do not understand that it requires more than asking and letting the students ask questions .
Our political/commercial/military complex is not interested in supporting EDUCATION (as opposed to SCHOOLING and TRAINING.
Our universities do not emphasize or concentrate on teaching teachers to be critical and analytical thinkers or to recognize and question BASIC assumptions.
As Albert Einstein said: "The important thing is not to stop questioning."
Most of our students are not conditioned to respect or to become seekers of truth and knowledge as demonstrated by the fact that grades are more important to them than the knowledge that the grades are presumed to indicate.
Our students are persuaded to attend college in order to get better jobs, make more money, and to live a more materially comfortable life instead of learning to recognize assumptions, how and when to question them, and how to think critically and analytically.
Throughout the world, religious fanatics, zealots, extreme right and born-again believers, organized religions, people too lazy, disinterested, or too busy struggling to make a living to find time or make the effort to become educated and enlightened, people still carrying the baggage of two or more thousand year-old beliefs and concepts, and above all the three opiates of life: sports, corporate entertainment, and theism supported by trillions of dollars, these, and more, make it impossible to break through the barrier of ignorance that keeps us minions of those in seats of power.
Within all of the above lie the seeds for rancor, greed, struggle for power, dissention, contention, intolerance, prejudice, bigotry, terrorism, and war, particularly religious wars.
So long as we hold our religious tomes, written by chauvinistic men who by today's standards of knowledge were grossly ignorant, instead of reason and love for our fellow man to be the ultimate word as to how man should behave and what he should believe, we are doomed never to be at peace with each other.
So long as the parents of the world with all their diverse uneducated, blind, and conditioned beliefs and convictions that originated in a pre-scientific and unenlightened age of a few millennia past continue to determine what will or will not be taught in the schools, you are right in suggesting that more harm than good would come from an examination of religious and theistic terminology.
Witness the contention arising from whether organized prayer or proselytizing, teaching one's personal religious beliefs to a class of students holding diverse religious beliefs, should be permitted in public schools.
Imagine teachers of diverse religious orientation, or none at all, all over the country examining the meaning of the word, "God," with no knowledge of the history or the origin of the term or the difference between abstract and verifiable terms, the multiplicity of concepts of gods in the history of man (from one-eyed monkeys to the sun and the moon), with no education in critical and analytical thinking and examining assumptions, and only their limited conditioned concepts of a god as their orientation for explanation of the term.
Proselytizing would become a mainstay of pre-college teaching and our students of different religious heritages would become basket cases.
Obviously, until the governments of the world and our "educational" institutions come to their senses and give priority to developing reasoning minds instead of merely filling them with historical, current, outdated, and too often unverifiable "facts," data, and information, there is little hope that real EDUCATION will ever become the staple of our SCHOOLING institutions.
On the same subject, updated: June, 6, 1999
Related to an interview with Ian Barbour,
self-proclaimed theistic scientist, recipient of the Templeton Prize for Religion (note: not science) on channel 13 (PBS) on the evening news of May 28, 1999.
It strikes me as curious that a scholar of his repute would suggest that "scientists are [now] more aware of the limitations of their specialized disciplines."
Perhaps he has not read J. W. N. Sullivan's Limitations of Science (1933) and a host of critical analyses, in that period, of the foundation and methods of science.
No credible scientists, starting with Aristotle (philosopher-scientist) who proclaimed that talk of beginnings and endings of the universe is unintelligible, could possibly be unaware of their limitations.
To his credit, Barbour declares that no discipline has all the answers, yet in the same breath, he speaks of "God" as if he knows He exists.
He goes on to say that "theologians are rethinking the concept of god in an evolutionary world."
What can this mean -- particularly since there is considerable question as to when and how man's intelligence emerged (evolved?)?
Theism has already run the gamut of conceptions of deities in the history of man and in the vast diversities of cultures, religions, and theistic "philosophies" from one-eyed monkeys to the Spinozistic universe to the emergent evolutionists' "next step in evolution."
It is the role of scientists to investigate every aspect of physical things, and their functions, in the universe.
Citing Stephen Hawking who observed that if the force of gravity were smaller by one part in a thousand million million, the universe would have collapsed before it had time for planets and galaxies or heavy elements to form, Balbour, implies design and plays the IF game, discounting chance as a viable answer because the latter cannot be verified.
Balbour's WHAT IF game: "WHAT if it [gravity] had been just a fraction lower, it [What is IT, the "material" of the big bang, if not matter in some form?] would have expanded too rapidly for matter to coalesce."
Assuming Balbour knows the characteristics of his designer of the universe (perhaps a tall dark- skinned, blue eyed, blond haired super-intelligent scientist) existing in another dimension, let's play Balbour's WHAT IF game.
WHAT IF this scientist is sitting in his laboratory dreaming up prototypes of universes that he plans to create just as some of our own scientists have claimed to be doing?
WHAT IF he decides he'll experiment with 50 such prototypes?
WHAT IF, in prototype 1, he decides to give the universe a force of zero gravity?
WHAT IF, in prototype 2, he gives the universe a force of gravity smaller by one one thousand million millionths of our universe's gravity?
WHAT IF in the succeeding prototypes he gave various and different degrees of force of gravity?
WHAT IF, in those succeeding prototypes, he happened to give one of them a force of gravity identical to that of our universe ?
Would he have known in advance without previous experience that occurred by chance or from some previous model, which of the prototypes would give emergence to life and intelligence?
Balbour shows the naiveté of all theists who think such questions as the above and: "Why is there a universe at all?" "Why does it have the kind of order that it has?" "Why are the constants so finely tuned that life is possible?" and the like are intelligible questions requiring other than scientific explanations.
He opines: "That is the kind of question that, I think, is raised by science but not answered by science," implying that such questions can be answered?
He then goes on to ask, "Is there a kind of design there?" (by God, perhaps or his super-scientist?) ignoring (or unaware?) that such a question, too, is unverifiable.
He's confusing mental gymnastics with verifiable intelligible thought.
Citing the issue of cloning as an example of science telling us what's possible but not what's desirable, Balbour seems to confuse SCIENCE with SCIENTISTS and not to realize that scientists are first human beings with foibles and intelligence, as is the case with theists also, and are quite as capable of distinguishing among scientific techniques and methods and the value of a human being, a family, etc., as are theists.
After all, scientists do have wives, children, families.
But what has all that to do with the goals of scientists?
Does one ask an automobile mechanic to think of family values when he repairs a car?
It is absolute linguistic nonsense to claim that "science" can't deal with such questions as it is equally nonsense to claim that theism can.
It is human THEISTS (not theism) who attempt to deal with such questions just as human beings, some or whom are scientists, are capable of "answering" ethical questions, questions of value, family and human relationships, etc.
This is well demonstrated by the fact that a large school of (non theistic) soft sciences and professionals, such as psychology, psychiatry, philosophy, anthropology, family planners, family counselors, and a host of others spend a lifetime studying these issues and the practical application of them.
Theists show their naiveté and arrogance when they claim science cannot deal with such issues and that they (alone?) are qualified to explore and give answers to such issues.