Religion in the Schools

It occurred to me, after I clicked the Publish button on “Lurching & Staggering” this morning, that my point about conservatives preferring ignorance while liberals prefer education was open to counter-attack from a certain species of misguided person. They might say something like this: “You claim to favor education, but I’m sure you want to keep religion out of the schools. So you’re in favor of ignorance too!”

Not at all. I heartily approve of teaching about religion in the public schools. But I do think most of us can agree that the public schools shouldn’t favor one religion over another. I mean, if you’re a Baptist, you really don’t want your kids being indoctrinated with Mormonism, do you? I didn’t think so. So let’s not play favorites. If the schools teach about Christianity, they should also teach about Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, the 19th century Spiritualism vogue, and the neo-Pagan movement. Also about Mormonism and Scientology. Fair is fair — if we’re going to teach it, let’s teach it all.

Somehow I don’t think this is quite what religious conservatives have in mind.

And of course, if we’re going to teach kids about religion, we should teach them all about religion, not just the moral guidance part or the miracles part. We should teach them about how the Catholic Church once burned people at the stake for daring to propose basic scientific theories. We should teach about the burning of witches, the Spanish Inquisition, the troubles between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, the ongoing troubles between Muslims and Hindus in Kashmir, the persecution of Catholics in England during the Reformation, the way women are viewed by millions of orthodox Muslims, and the bizarre reinterpretations of history made by the Mormons.

When teaching how religion provides moral guidance, we should point out that different religions have quite disparate ideas about what is moral and what isn’t. When teaching about miracles, we should provide kids with solid information about altered states of consciousness, deliberate deceptions, and the reliability (or unreliability) of eyewitness testimony.

When teaching Christianity, we should teach the whole Bible, not just the nice parts. It would be interesting to ask a bunch of smart 9th graders to weigh in on the question of whether God really wanted, and still wants, people to be stoned to death for gathering firewood on the Sabbath, as is clearly stated in Leviticus. This question is difficult. One could legitimately conclude that the Bible is in error — that it’s not really God’s word at all, just the scribblings of a bunch of ignorant nomads. Or one could conclude that God is a bloodthirsty maniac. There really is no third option, as far as I can see.

But yes, let’s teach the good parts too. Let’s teach the inspiring stories in the New Testament right alongside the inspiring stories in the Bhagavad Gita and the inspiring stories in Greek mythology. Let’s give them all equal standing. Is everybody okay with that?

I have no problem with teaching religion in the public schools. I do, however, have a big problem with religous indoctrination in the public schools. Religious indoctrination is when you teach kids that one religion is right and the others are wrong.

The difficulty that arises is this: Religious conservatives tend to think that teaching evolution is no more than a different form of religious indoctrination. And it’s not possible to explain to them that they’re being idiotic, because they’re simply not capable of rational discourse on the subject.

I feel very, very sorry for the children of religious conservatives. I don’t agree with Christopher Hitchens about everything (he was a big proponent of the invasion of Iraq, which only proves that he’s as capable of being an idiot as you or I), but I agree with him that religion is child abuse. Give kids all the information, I say, and then let them make up their own minds.

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