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Saturday, October 2, 2010

America, Devout Yet Dumb

As someone who alternates between considering oneself an atheist, apatheist, ignostic and Buddhist, the results of the recent survey of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life make sense in hindsight. The top scorers were atheists and agnostics, with Jews and Mormons filling out the top three spots. With Jews and Mormons, I imagine the reasons for high scores are due to their emphasis on education and tradition, the Jewish and Mormon cultures both having historical precedence that would motivate believers to desire that their faith would persist through persecution that still exists today against them. With the lowest scorers appearing in the Christian faith, Catholic or Protestant making only slight difference, it makes one wonder how effective their indoctrination is. Catholics are well known for having an alleged record of strong education, which is no doubt why I was enrolled in a Catholic school for two years after kindergarten. With public school education from third grade onwards, I can at least recall how the class was structured and what we learned. With Catholic school, as seriously as they took their religious education, the secular educational aspect seemed to be lacking, since all I really took out of Catholic school was knowledge of the weekly chapel visits; the other things I could’ve learned just as well at public school without slowly numbing my mind. I don’t have a personal experience of how confirmation classes progress, but one has to wonder if that would even stick in one’s mind with the apparent subpar education I got otherwise. This isn’t to say I have any ill will towards my Catholic background anymore than I have resentment towards my Protestant roots. The deeper problem according to the survey is that people don’t genuinely have religious memory as to the texts and doctrines of their faith. The experiential aspect, as valuable as it is, seems to be overemphasized against the equally valuable religious practice of rereading and reexamining the words from which your faith is drawn. The real value of religion courses being offered in public school alongside those in private schools is that it would present religion as a social phenomenon, something that affects everyone’s lives in some way, regardless of shared beliefs.

There are such courses that already exist, as I noted, in private schools and in public schools, religion is not completely exempt in studies. English courses are permitted to teach the Bible as literature and make notes about other literary references to the Bible, such as in Shakespeare or Beowulf (Grendel’s descent from the Biblical Cain). But even a course in sociology that I took in high school was not a detailed enough study on religion, even though it was what got me interested in the phenomenon of religion, social or otherwise. With private religion courses, I only have my younger brother’s experience and such that I can glean from. It was certainly an academic study, but the difficulty is determining whether there was any bias (intentional/unintentional) towards the Christian tradition. With the use of Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions as a primary text, I imagine there was a potential emphasis within the parochial school’s standards that Christianity was still to be emphasized in some way as more “natural” to humanity or at the very least more relevant in Western history, which I could grant them (not so much on the natural part). But if this is the case, then one has to wonder how to get around the legal tape that exists for teaching religion or even involving religion in government sponsored public schools. I admit it’s perplexing, but it’s not as if there aren’t religion courses in state sponsored colleges or even graduate level education in religious studies in those same public colleges/universities.

Part of the distinction is that with primary and secondary education, it’s legally mandatory to attend, but college and beyond is voluntary and optional. Therefore, the detractors from the suggestion by Stephen Prothero for public schools to have religion courses would argue that high school or junior high level religion courses would be violating the principle of separation of church and state or at least the favoring of one religion over another by the federal government.

If anything, it’s not about whether the government would favor the religion, as opposed to purposely designing the class as such. The primary difficulty is moreso structuring it in such a way that there isn’t a leaning towards one religion or another, but a study of them as social phenomena first and foremost. A good start would be taking the example of a sociology class that isn’t completely focused on religion and then orient it in a way that you can study religion itself in a public school setting as something relevant in society and history. The first few weeks would be investigating the difficulty with defining the term religion as well as its effects on society (positive and negative), then considering the aspects and beliefs of those systems that we generally call religions, not making judgment values or normative claims about what is right and wrong. Instead we should analyze it descriptively and in terms of what is shared in common by the systems we call religion. I could imagine this actualized, albeit no idea is without potential for tweaking. Here’s hoping that America might overcome the imbalance of their devotion to religion and not forget that discernment (Christian or otherwise) is just as valuable in having faith. Until next time, Namaste and Aloha

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