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Religious “education”

Last week, Ian Bushfield wrote some thoughts on the idea of religious education in public schools:

By offering religious education/instruction, we could hopefully convince parents that the public school system is where their kids should be. Further, we can hopefully expose the children to different ideas about religion and morality, which, demonstrated by the uproar over the comparative ethics course in Quebec, can challenge the basic notions of faith as a virtue.

I happen to agree with Ian on this point (small wonder, we tend to agree with each other generally). Comparative religious education is like comparative literature or anthropology or history – presenting overlapping but non-redundant narratives presents fertile ground for developing a skeptic mind. Teaching kids that there may not always be a “right answer”, particularly when talking about humanity, invites them to consider and critique the evidence for the answers they are presented with. In the context of society, religion is something we should be particularly skeptical about.

Many atheists are wary of religious education in public schools, arguing that there ought to be an inviolable barrier between church and state. While those of us living in Canada do not enjoy that separation as a matter of law (we don’t have an equivalent of the First Amendment in the Canadian Charter), many of us still feel it would violate an important principle of a just society. Maybe those opposed to teaching religion in public schools are worried about something like this:

BBC Panorama found that more than 40 Saudi Students’ Schools and Clubs are teaching the official Saudi national curriculum to about 5,000 pupils. One text book shows how the hands and feet of thieves are chopped off…

One of the text books asks children to list the “reprehensible” qualities of Jewish people. A text for younger children asks what happens to someone who dies who is not a believer in Islam – the answer given in the text book is “hellfire”. Another text describes the punishment for gay sex as death and states a difference of opinion about whether it should be carried out by stoning, burning with fire or throwing the person over a cliff.

Well at least they’re teaching kids about their options…

I think the problem with the blanket objection to religion in schools is a failure to articulate the difference between teaching religion and teaching about religion. Religion, like science, or math, or art, or history, is an important subject to have a factual grasp on. I myself took a course on world religions in high school. Of course by the time I was that age I had pretty much dismissed all religions as having any claim to exclusive truth. However, learning about the historical roots of the different religions helped me better understand both the various faiths and their respective adherents.

I would argue that a proper understanding of religion requires a comprehension of world history and an appreciation for humanity’s foibles. The kind of education (for the former) and critical appraisal and mature cognition (for the latter) that is required for this kind of deep understanding might be beyond the mental capabilities of an elementary school child. However, kids can understand ethics on a more-or-less intuitive level. I would suggest instruction in ethics at that age – not simply a list of things that are right and wrong (the religious equivalent of “ethical instruction”), but instruction on how the kids can work their way through ethical dilemmas.

This would accomplish two things. First, it would help ingrain moral behaviour by equipping children with the tools to make good judgments in the absence of supervising authority. Second, it would help dispel the idea that morals come from religion, by showing the actual process by which we decide morality.

I am not opposed to instruction about religion in public schools. Just like we teach the orbital model of atomic structure as a way of showing what we used to believe, we can teach religion as one of mankind’s many failed models of the world, and what we’ve learned since then.

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