What would you say if the school systems of the nation refused to teach children about a subject that affected the entire population of the world for all of known history, and has been used both as a motivation to liberate, persecute, build and destroy nations? Would you not justifiably wonder at the ignorance and cowardice of the institutions that are supposed to be teaching our children? And yet no one seems to question the fact that our public schools systems by and large do not teach about the religious beliefs around which (and sometimes in spite of which) the moral structures we build our society upon rest. We ignore them entirely, and as a result, students have almost no understanding of what religions have taught or do teach, and which inform the actions of millions within the nation and billions outside of it. The result of this is a citizenry that is incapable of putting together the most rudimentary theological statements. They can neither examine nor defend a religious position, nor comprehend a religious text. They think all religious statements are opinions, on the level of “I like strawberry ice cream,” or “I’m a Chicago Bears fan.” They do not understand that for many of their fellow Americans, let alone the people of the world, religious faith is a matter beside which matters of life and death dwindle into insignificance. And because of that, we are unable to relate to our fellow humans.
You see, whether you believe that the Bible (or the Koran, or the Bhagavad-gita, etc.) is the Word of the Lord to Mankind or whether you believe it is the biggest pile of bullshit ever delivered — and certainly whether you like it or not (as if the world cares) — religion is, long-term, one of the most successful ideas in human history. There have been gods before there were nations, before there were states, possibly even before there were economies. This is why I don’t take anyone too seriously when they say that the death of religion is just around the corner. These people are at best the equivalent of the liberal who, after Richard Nixon’s 49-state sweep in 1968 said, “I don’t know how McGovern lost; I don’t know anyone who voted for Nixon.”
Further, until the day that religion does go away, there is no one on the planet who can logically fail to have a religious position. “I believe in God” is a religious position. “God is a fairy-tale” is a religious position. “I don’t know” is a religious position. And your religious position, once known, affects the behavior of other people with religious positions toward you. Even refusing to declare a religious position will do that.
Therefore, we are doing a grave disservice to our children, to say nothing of our nation as a whole, when we do not teach about religions. And why do we not teach about religion? Because we are petrified of the potential consequences. We are scared that our children will be exposed to religions we don’t agree with. Our children might turn Muslim. Or atheist. Or Christian. To which I can only say: if you are so worried that being exposed to religious ideas other than your own in a class for a year or two might cause your child to embrace another religion than the “true” one you are teaching in your home, then you must not be doing a very good job of being the (un)religious leader of your household. I think that’s a big fear behind our unwillingness to consider this idea. We’re worried that our kids might become one of those people.
Oh, we pretend to have higher motives. We don’t want to “offend” anyone. Sure. So rather than make anyone the least bit uncomfortable, we, in the name of civil discourse, pretend that religion is either unimportant or does not exist. We are lying to them (which they know) and telling them that public discussion and debate about such things can’t happen because disagreeing with someone over such matters is tantamount to a declaration of enmity.
Is this the right lesson to teach in a democracy? Because we’re teaching it. That’s what we’re teaching by not teaching religion. That disagreement is hostility and war, and the only way to avoid that is to lie to one another. And a democracy cannot survive that loss of trust and honesty. No, what we need is a Comparative Religion course that forces our students to examine the different belief systems according to their own points of view. We take a comprehensive view of, say, the six-to-ten most practiced religions in the nation (yes, including atheism) and teach their historically-known origins, the origins as they see them, and an overview of the dominant doctrines. For kids who believe in a faith not represented, we let them have a day of class time to present their faith, or to invite a religious leader of their choosing to present it. No one is forced to pray to anything, or to participate in any overtly religious activity. No one is proselytizing. Everyone is studying, and learning what people believe.
Now about this time I expect to hear a few major whines:
“But why can’t Social Studies classes teach that? They teach history, and religion is part of that, right?”
Yeah, but it’s big enough to warrant its own class. That’s like asking why we teach US History and not just World History. Isn’t the US in the world? I can’t teach all the doctrines of even all the major religions. I’m not qualified to explain their theologies, and how they’ve changed, and why people act the way they do in support of them. I might be able to with some training, and time to teach them, though. Which means, having a separate class.
“But what about all those people pushing their own agenda? What about bad teachers who push THEIR religion onto MY kid?!”
Okay, seriously, you think you won’t hear about that? Treat it like you would any other incompetent or abusive teacher. Report it, complain about it, and if it gets bad enough, go elsewhere. If it’s real, and not just you being paranoid, it will be addressed. Bad teachers happen; this subject isn’t special.
“I like the way we do it now, because it does teach kids that religion is unimportant, and religion shouldn’t exist.”
Well, okay. That’s at least honestly said, but of course, you’re turning around and lying to the kids and they know it, as I said above. And you’re taking the position that it’s okay for the government to push the religious position of agnosticism on our children (because you acknowledge it is doing that), which is both unconstitutional, because it effectively violates the Establishment clause, and bad education, for reasons discussed above.
“But what if we get it wrong?!”
Okay, this one at least isn’t rooted completely in selfishness. But we get school wrong all the time. Ask any teacher. We will get it wrong, frequently. But it’s not the end of the world. We screw up, we learn, and we do better. We consult with religious leaders if we’re accused of misrepresenting matters of faith, we take their input, and we do better next time. Like adults who care.
Adults who care need to teach this, without fear or favor. Without flinching. Because otherwise we are further teaching a lie, and weakening ourselves.