The Washington Post recently highlighted the updated guidelines that the National Council for Social Studies advises for the teaching of religion in an educational curriculum. Specifically, they advised that, “The study of religion from an academic, nondevotional perspective in primary, middle, and secondary school is critical for decreasing religious illiteracy and the bigotry and prejudice it fuels.”
Clearly, the purpose of this increase in the study of religions is not to create a Bible study or Quran study based on the worldview of the individual social studies educator. The organization makes it rather clear that they want religions to be taught in the classroom because there is so much misinformation and misunderstanding in the world that leads to major problems.
I do believe that it is incredibly important to have religious education. Religious illiteracy is a major problem in our society today, and most people barely know their own religion much less anything about somebody else’s.
First, consider the political leanings of our educators. According to a recent study from Verdant Labs that shows a huge leaning in education towards political liberalism. My concern is that as a theologically conservative Christian, which I probably share with many theologically conservative Muslim individuals, is that as we can see from this recent research reported in the New York Times that our religious perspectives are very rarely held by political liberals who are by and large the ones in the classroom.
I tend to find that people who subscribe to a particular belief system are the ones who are most qualified to speak about that belief system. If I want to learn about atheism, I’m not going to read a book written by a Christian about atheism. I am going to read what has been written by atheists because they can speak for themselves. Similarly, if you want to learn about theologically conservative Christians, it is important that they have the opportunity to speak for themselves.
It worries me that you are going to have a lot of non-evangelical teachers talking about evangelical Christianity. Consider what I wrote about on Wednesday that for the first time ever, a majority of Canadians believe that religion does more harm than good. Assuming that teachers are distributed in a similar fashion to the general public, the people who are going to be teaching about these religions actually believe religion does more harm than good.
Of course educators are free to have a worldview because honestly it is impossible to not have a worldview. I am not saying that these teachers are not qualified to teach about religion because I do believe that most people have good intentions and will try to present the information in the most unbiased way possible. I am a product of the public school system, and very few of my teachers were conservative evangelicals, but I also did not see any overt bias against religion in the classroom. My teachers were very respectful.
What I am saying however is that it is very important to consider the sources that are going to be used in these classes. If you are going to talk about evangelical Christianity, you need to read evangelical Christian sources. You might even want to find an evangelical Christian guest speaker who can answer questions that students might have. If you’re going to talk about Islam, you need to read material written by Muslims and talk to Muslims. It is important to know what Muslims actually believe and what their texts actually say.
This leads into a very important second point about discussing religion in this manner. We cannot sugarcoat what these religions are. We all know that this is not politically correct, but we have to be honest. We cannot fall into this type of odd relativism where all religions are equally true. That simply cannot be the case. Many religions make contradictory claims and logically, they cannot be simultaneously true. They might agree on a great many things, but we also have to be willing to recognize that there are differences.
If you do not recognize these differences and try to create some kind of giant spiritual cloud where everyone fits in somewhere, you’re only going to increase the confusion and lack of understanding. If someone tells me that Christianity and Hinduism are basically the same thing, I am going to be really confused when my Hindu friend talks about the existence of many gods. That simply doesn’t seem compatible with my Christian belief. Naturally, one of us is right, one of us is wrong or we might both even be wrong. The only thing we cannot be is simultaneously right because it cannot be the case that there is only one God and there are many gods.
We also need to be willing to recognize the differences in consequences of these different belief systems. As we learned from the ill-advised special featuring Reza Aslan, there are still tribes of cannibals in the world. There is a large difference in a worldview that teaches that you to love your neighbor as you love yourself and a worldview that teaches you that it is okay to eat your neighbor. Again, I am probably going to offend someone with this because it is not overly politically correct, but the simple fact of the matter is that worldviews have consequences, and religious beliefs have teachings that lead to actions. When educating people about religions, it is important to recognize the very real consequences of those belief systems.
It is no secret that much evil has been done in the name of Christianity, Islam, Atheism, Hinduism, Buddhism and any other religious tradition in the world. Humanity simply tends to commit atrocities. Therefore, we cannot pretend to cover over the abuses of religion that have been done, and we also have to be honest about atrocities that might be consistent with particular religious teachings. Like I said, I find cannibalism to be evil, and if there was a worldview that embraced that evil practice as a core part of this doctrine, I think we have to be honest about that.
In our politically correct world, it is not hard to imagine someone trying to say that because we do not want to make followers of a particular belief appear evil or dangerous, we’re just going to say that cannibalism is not really a central part of this worldview. However, if it truly is a central part of the teachings of this religion, then there is no way that we can avoid that just to make people feel better about a particular religion. We have to look at each religion honestly for what it is and also realize which actions taken by followers of that religion are actually consistent with that belief or are abuses of that belief.
Consequently, as we look towards this new development of how religion is going to be taught in our public schools, I hope that the three points of advice will be taken into consideration by those who are implementing this type of policy.
- Listen to the actual voices of adherents to a particular belief system rather than using secondary source material.
- Don’t fall into the bankrupt relativism of affirming that all religious beliefs are identical or somehow simultaneously true. They logically cannot be.
- Rather than cover over atrocities to protect feelings, evaluate atrocities committed in the name of a particular religion to see if they are consistent with that religion’s teaching or are a perversion of it.