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How about if we stop pretending religion is an important academic subject at all?

I was asked to promote this petition to stop forced religious indoctrination in Greek schools, and I support it and you should go sign it if you agree.

Greek public schools hold daily Orthodox prayer, schedule regular church visits as well as mandate the taking of a “religious studies” class every year. However, Greek law also allows students to opt out by submitting a simple form signed by their guardian if they are under 18. Unfortunately, many school administrators are either unaware or simply refuse to allow the exemption and ministry officials are not holding them to account.

The latest case is Stavros Kanias, School Principal in the Glika Nera suburb of Athens. Kanias is refusing to allow a middle school student to opt out even stating that his refusal is based on a desire to “follow the law of Christ”. Even though the required form has been submitted it is not being accepted. Many similar cases are often not publicized.

When Greek MP’s have raised the question in parliament, the Education Minister has simply reiterated the procedure and deferred to lower ministry officials.

But I do have one reservation: it doesn’t go far enough. It’s a good idea to give students the ability to opt out of religious instruction, but why is religious instruction in any school any where?

I’ve usually taken a pragmatic perspective on this issue before. We don’t have much choice to but to give way on minor compromises in school curricula, and this is often an easy one: if religion is taught comparatively and objectively, it’s a good tool for breaking dogma. I can’t get too irate at a school offering a “world religions” class, because I know that would be the first step towards atheism for the students (for the same reason, though, I’m suspicious. Our opponents aren’t morons, and they’d know this too — I suspect them of plotting to smuggle orthodoxy into the classroom under cover of objectivity, and for instance, knowing that a local priest of the dominant cult will often offer to teach the course.)

But here’s my major problem. It’s a useless subject. And no, I’m not one of those elitist yahoos who thinks art and philosophy are useless subjects, rejecting anything that isn’t a hard science; I mean, it is literally useless, distracting, and narrow. If right now students were getting an hour a week in a “religious studies” class, I think they’d be far better served by getting an hour a week for anthropology, or philosophy, or poetry…or sure, more math.

I know what the usual argument would be: but every culture has a religion of some sort, it’s a human universal, people find it important and we ought to acknowledge it. So? Every human culture has parasites and diseases, so why don’t we have a mandatory weekly course in parasitology? It would be far more entertaining, interesting, and useful. What wouldn’t be quite so useful, though, is a course taught from the perspective of the malaria parasite, praising its role in shaping human civilizations for thousands of years, which is pretty much equivalent to what kids get in a “religious studies” class right now.

I don’t think religion will ever disappear, but I’ll be satisfied when seminaries and theology departments all shut down everywhere for lack of interest.

Comments

  1. Dunc says

    The usual distinction is between religious education and religious instruction… The former is arguably too narrowly drawn (I’d like to see it widened to include secular moral and ethical philosophy), but I do think it’s worth keeping, largely because it can often be the first time students are exposed to the notion that whatever beliefs they were brought up with aren’t universally held. The latter should definitely be done away with.

  2. says

    If learning about human culture is important, then learning about religion is important. Religion is a cultural force, and an immensely powerful one throughout the world– even in the most secular of countries. Ideally a world religions course would be anthropological, including information on religious behavior as well as belief. Heck, if Daniel Pals’ Eight Theories of Religion was used in these classes, I’d die of pleased amazement.

    A comparative religion course isn’t just handy for making students into atheists– it’s essential for making students aware of the existence of other religions than the one they were likely raised in (most American students being raised in some religion) for a start, and of the impact of religious belief and behavior all over the world. They need this. Everyone does. Precious few ever actually receive it.

  3. says

    I’m not sure what you are saying. Yes, every human culture has parasites and diseases, which is why we have health education in school and also teach biology. It’s why we have medical schools. The study of religion is a perfectly legitimate subject – it is a subset of anthropology. I understand your concern that it would be hijacked by people who advocate for religion, rather than treating it as a phenomenon to be pondered, but that weekly anthropology hour you advocate could not avoid the subject of religion and still be legitimately comprehensive anthropology. I took several courses in religion in college and I’m glad I did — a survey course, a course in the Hindu-Buddhist tradition, and the development of contemporary religious thought which included both theologians, non-theist philosophers and motivated enemies of religion. I think it should be a requirement.

  4. says

    What wouldn’t be quite so useful, though, is a course taught from the perspective of the malaria parasite, praising its role in shaping human civilizations for thousands of years, which is pretty much equivalent to what kids get in a “religious studies” class right now.

    No, that’s theology. There is so much more to religious studies than theology.

  5. says

    “It is a subset of anthropology” — EXACTLY. So why is it promoted to a course of its own, rather than just teaching anthropology.

    Same argument for you, Gretchen. I don’t disagree that religion has been an important influence on humanity, but that it’s a mistake to be looking at it from the perspective of religion. I could name lots of things that have had a far bigger role in shaping humanity — malaria, dysentery, agriculture, sex, irrigation, etc. — but we don’t dictate that every student should get weekly instruction in how to water a field while avoiding nematode cysts.

  6. Sastra says

    I know what the usual argument would be: but every culture has a religion of some sort, it’s a human universal, people find it important and we ought to acknowledge it. So?

    So what is the difference between Hinduism and Buddhism? What do Taoists believe? What were the causes and results of the Protestant Reformation? What distinctions separate Sunni and Shiite Muslims and how has this had an effect on the current political situation? What is “the New Age?”

    I disagree with you on religious studies being useless. There’s a lot of practical information in there — for theists, sure, but also for atheists. We aren’t just acknowledging that it’s important for other people: we’re taking it apart and understanding what it is and distinctions between different versions. I think that we all need enough working knowledge of religion to be able to answer questions like the above and we’re probably less likely to get it if there isn’t a course which specifically addresses it.

    I agree with your concerns that the courses might instead be used for proselytizing, though. But that’s a different question than whether such a class would have any value at all. It certainly would — because religious belief has consequences. Too many.

  7. busterggi says

    Since before the beginning of recorded history holy men/theologians have been studying gods and all have determined that their interpretation is the only correct one even though most have used the same lame repeated arguments. And the result of all this studying haas been a constantly increasing number of religions all of which claim to be the only true one. No actual demonstrable non-biased evidence for any of these gods has ever been produced.

    Just think what might have been accomplished or at least how many fewer wars would have occurred if all those hundreds of thousands of hours of study had been directed at something useful or harmless instead.

  8. says

    I don’t disagree that religion has been an important influence on humanity, but that it’s a mistake to be looking at it from the perspective of religion.

    Great, but most of what is commonly called “religious studies” is not from the perspective of religion.

  9. Esteleth, Ficus Putsch Knits says

    As far as I am concerned, the only place religion has in schools is in history/anthropology class.

    I mean, sure. On the unit on the Assyrians, have a lecture on their religious practices. Might make some of their cultural practices make more sense.

    But the idea of “and now, we’re going to teach you why sacrificing to Ishtar is hugely important and required for you to be regarded as a good person in society” is utterly unnecessary. And a bad idea to boot, because imparting religious claptrap to anyone (especially children) damages them.

  10. says

    I always wanted to teach a “religious studies” course. The main direction of the course would be how religions are invented and what are the properties of a successful religion. The final project would be for each student to invent their own and try to proselytize a few converts. Because if people realized how easy it is…

  11. Esteleth, Ficus Putsch Knits says

    Seriously, when I studied the Thirty Years War in school, I was curious, so I dug into the theology. Because the TYW was a religious war, this was actually relevant.

    My conclusion: horror. Thirty years of indiscriminate slaughter and human rights abuses. Largely over the theological equivalent of comma placement.

    But then, that’s probably one of the things religious poohbahs fear: a clearcut discussion of the abuses perpetrated in the name of religion has the effect of driving people away from religion.

  12. glodson says

    I would just like to see modern theologists be seen in the same light as people who write bad fan-fiction.

    But yes, being taught about religion in the context of the influence on human history is good, but that’s a part of a history course really. Any time I see a public school with a comparative religion course, I’m rather sure I’m see an attempt to point out how stupid and wrong other religions are.

  13. says

    Well yes, Professor, religion is a subset of anthropology. But there’s nothing wrong with courses in particular elements of cultural anthropology. There are courses in ethnomusicology, nutritional anthropology, gender roles, kinship systems, and so on and so forth and yes, religion. The only course titled “Anthropology” is Anthropology 101, the introductory survey. After that, you get deeper into particular subjects. I’m still seriously missing your point, I’m afraid.

  14. Esteleth, Ficus Putsch Knits says

    Fine, Cervantes.
    Anthro 101: Intro.
    Anthro 201: Music
    Anthro 202: Art
    Anthro 203: Nutrition and Diet
    Anthro 204: Gender roles
    Anthro 205: Religion.
    Anthro 301: Music, Art, and Religion
    Anthro 302: Gendered Food
    Anthro 303: Gender and Religion.

    (etc)

  15. says

    Religion is a subset of anthropology…and philosophy, and sociology, and psychology, and history. You could teach about religion’s role in all of those things by simply teaching those subjects, or you could include perspectives from all of those disciplines in a course on religion (or several courses). I certainly understand being reluctant to do the latter– it’s probably impossible in American public schools anyway, for the reasons P.Z. mentions even though it’s absolutely legal (SCOTUS has explicitly declared this).

    It’s just…it’s important for American students to receive instruction about religion, in some form or another, and it doesn’t mean they have to be instructed in it.

  16. Genius Loci says

    I suspect whatever students might need to know about world religions could easily be incorporated into classroom units in history, literature, and the arts, where it could be taught in a context that would actually be useful. My tenth-grade World Cultures class focused on China, the Soviet Union (I was a late Cold War kid) and the Middle East, and as religious influence and/or conflict was a key factor in their histories and/or current state of affairs, that’s how it was treated in our classroom.

    And the same would be true of literature. It would be extremely hard to teach Shakespeare’s plays without going into the medieval world view that informed them. Disrupt the divine order of things, bring catastrophe upon yourself and your world, and all that.

    What’s certain is that religion generally doesn’t seem to fare well when taught in historical context–as I recall, throughout my world history coursework the narrative that continually emerged was that of it as a means of keeping social and economic control in the hands of a wealthy elite, whereas genuine progress was made only by defeating it, with the exception of its role in several civil and human rights efforts of the late 20th century. Yes, I can see why the fundamentalists would like to do away with social studies.

    However, in literature, religious thought and symbolism does sometimes redeem itself somewhat. Somewhat.

  17. strange gods before me ॐ says

    Both the arguments that we shouldn’t teach comparative religion because indoctrination, and we should teach comparative religion because atheism, sound prima facie plausible.

    The debate will not move forward without experimental data.

  18. logicpriest says

    Back in high school, in the US, the religion class was mandatory. There was no anthropology class even offered.

    On top of that, the instructor barely mentioned the existence of Buddhism, Islam, and Hindi while skipping everything else completely. Then we “learned” that Martin Luther was GOOD for Europe, despite pushing for a more conservative version of Christianity and that the Protestant reformation caused the Enlightenment. That is what a “comparative religion” class looks like in the US. My spouse’s version in Thailand wasn’t much better, nor do these Greek ones sound good.

    As a general class, perhaps offered by an anthropology department – not that I have seen a high school with one of those – is fine, but in practice they are always pro-majority religion.

  19. Sastra says

    When I was in 6th grade we had a large unit on comparative religion. The Hebrew myths were studied along side of the Greek and Norse myths, and iirc we had to understand the basic beliefs of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, animism, paganism, and Islam. There were tests.

    This was back in the late 60’s and in a northern suburb of Chicago. It was in an elementary school and I don’t remember any fuss being made by anyone. Except, of course, those who did poorly on the tests.

    I do remember that I learned a lot, though. And looking back I am amazed that this was not only taught but taught the way it should be taught — as useful information, not special and sacred truths. Being raised as a freethinker, even the stuff on the Bible was mostly new to me. And being able to fit those stories in to a world pattern at such a young age probably helped give me a good background in humanist thought processes, how we examine things.

    I think my own experience is strongly influencing my opinion here. It should, though. If you’re going to ask whether the study of comparative religion in public schools has any value at all you should probably look first at any best-case scenarios. I found it very valuable when I was ten years old.

  20. ulohtsa says

    My 16yo son, grade 11, took a grade 12 World Religions course last semester. He may have been the only atheist in the class, and I’m proud to note that he didn’t keep his trap shut about it. He was respectful but always willing to push back. It might have helped that this is Canada, and that there was a wide variety of belief systems in the class, not all evangelicals and fundies. I do have to say that if an anthropology class had been offered instead I would bet he would have snapped that one up.

  21. bradleybetts says

    Rligious instruction is pointless. it’s just indoctrination. Religious education on the other hand, is important. It teaches you enough about other cultures that you don’t go around needlessly offending people, and also teaches you that multiple different religions exist and holds your own up as no more or less than the others (which would help broaden minds and counter indoctrination into one religion), and it teaches you the ridiculous stories. I well remember laughing hysterically when my RE teacher was discussing the story of Noah. I may have only been 14, but I’d learned enough in Geography class to know that 40 days and 40 nights of rain would not be enough to raise sea levels to the point where they could cover Mt. Everest, and had absolutely no problem telling the teacher that.

  22. ButchKitties says

    I’ve started telling people that I majored in cultural anthropology because when they hear “religious studies” they assume I studied to be a pastor.

  23. glodson says

    The debate will not move forward without experimental data.

    This isn’t prefect, but I do have this report.

    The key findings as reported are:

    Many Bible course teachers lack the proper training required by the Legislature. Moreover, curriculum standards adopted by the State Board of Education are far too broad to help school districts create academically sound and legally appropriate courses. Consequently, many courses are not academically rigorous and include numerous errors, distortions and other problems.
    Many Bible courses reflect the religious beliefs of the teachers and sectarian instructional materials they use in their classrooms. In every course in which religious bias is present, instruction reflects a Protestant — most often a conservative Protestant — perspective, including a literal interpretation of the Bible.
    Many courses teach students to interpret the Bible and even Judaism through a distinctly Christian lens. Anti-Jewish bias — sometimes intentional but often not — is not uncommon.
    A number of courses and their instructional materials incorporate pseudo-scholarship, including claims that the Bible provides scientific proof of a 6,000-year-old Earth (young Earth creationism) and that the United States was founded as a Christian nation based on biblical Christian principles. At least one district’s Bible course includes materials suggesting that the origins of racial diversity among humans today can be traced back to a curse placed on Noah’s son in the biblical story of the flood. Such claims have long been a foundational component of some forms of racism.
    Despite the state’s failure to implement HB 1287 effectively, a number of school districts did succeed in offering Bible courses that largely comply with legal and constitutional requirements, are academically serious and avoid many of the serious problems noted in most other districts. These successful courses can be found in urban, suburban and rural districts.

    I think the pattern holds for other states with similar demographics as Texas, and a similar political climates. The guidelines were largely ignored. The religious freedoms of the students were mostly ignored. It lead to flawed teaching, which resulted in the courses being less about academics and more about teaching the religion itself.

  24. Dr. Pablito says

    Small point, but I don’t think it is true that “every culture has a religion of some sort”. 19th and 20th century anthropological field work did find (IIRC) groups of people living in remote but perfectly functional cultures who did not appear to have any concept of deity, religious ritual or rites, or creation myth. It’s pervasive, I’ll give you that, but I don’t think it’s universal.

  25. Dunc says

    logicpriest @21:

    in practice they are always pro-majority religion

    The fact that a subject is usually taught badly at the high school level is not in itself an argument against the teaching of that subject. If it were, we’d have to oppose the teaching of evolution…

  26. Rob Grigjanis says

    I could name lots of things that have had a far bigger role in shaping humanity — malaria, dysentery, agriculture, sex, irrigation, etc.

    Bigger? How do you measure that? Belief systems play a huge role in dictating how we interact with each other, how we think, how we behave. How can understanding them not be important?

  27. Rob Grigjanis says

    Dr. Pablito @27: Like the Pirahã?

    According to Everett, the Pirahã have no concept of a supreme spirit or god and they lost interest in Jesus when they discovered that Everett had never seen him. They require evidence based on personal experience for every claim made.

    They’d fit in well here!

  28. anuran says

    Gershom Scholem was the go-to guy on the history of Cabala even though he didn’t believe in it. Saul Lieberman introduced one of his lectures saying “it is forbidden to have a course in nonsense. But the history of nonsense, that is scholarship.”

  29. anuran says

    A case could be made for Comparative RE in schools. Learning that people with different beliefs don’t actually sacrifice babies to demons can make a child question other things she has been told. That is why fundamentalists of all sorts are opposed to it.

  30. frog says

    I just want to be sure I’m understanding the issue: It reads to me as if your objection is to terminology (“religious studies” vs “anthropology”), and the potential of the term religious studies for letting a class be hijacked into an indoctrination session rather than a thoughtful, critical discussion.

    That is not unreasonable. The question then becomes what would be a more accurate term? Anthropology may be too broad, particularly when considering the middle- or high-school level. At that level, anthropology is often folded into history class, or a “world studies” kind of class.

    Perhaps “Philosophy” might be a better term? I guess it all depends on what one is trying to accomplish with such classes.

    Back in the mists of time, I attended a Catholic high school. I realize it seems impossible now, but it was a high-end college prep school, and they wanted their students to attend top-tier universities such as Harvard, Duke, or MIT. Critical thinking was necessary.

    We were required to take a “religion” class every semester, all four years. For junior and senior year, there was a list of 10-15 different classes to choose from, and very few of them were actually religious. My sex-ed class was one of them, and it was real sex ed, with frank discussion of the practicalities of birth control, complete with demonstration–yes, I have seen a nun put a condom on a banana.

    I had a class on day-to-day ethics (in which the answers were not handed down as directives), a class of Zen meditation (yep, sitting on cushions and trying to get our brains to quiet down), and a class called “Death and Dying” (end-of-life care and decisions, including, yes, thoughtful conversation about self-euthanasia. That class is why I sign paperwork when I have surgery).

    I’m not sure what all these disparate classes could have been classified under. The official term for the schedule slot was “Religion and Philosophy.” I definitely leaned toward the “Philosophy” half of that.

    These were clearly not anthropology classes. But neither were they necessarily religious–the ones I chose would have been perfectly acceptable in a public school. They were intended to get teenagers thinking about some of the larger, more complex questions that humans must face as they gain life experience.

    I guess my point is that the details make the difference, not the nomenclature. I’m not sure how this can be standardized or reviewed or whatever to make sure some godbot isn’t trying to slip bullshit into a curriculum. But having a specific class about “the big questions of life and how different humans deal with them” was pretty valuable to me as a teenager, and expanded my view of the world.

  31. says

    It would be nice to see a course that taught about Arianism vs Trinitarianism, or about Iconoclasm vs Iconophily. Or the like even from xtian history.

    Something I still have to read about is Sunni vs Shia…….

  32. mythbri says

    I remember studying different kinds of religion and philosophy in my World History class in high school, and I found it to be very informative.

    I also had a free period during the day when I would walk off school grounds to the LDS Seminary building and receive religious instruction in the LDS faith.

    There was a world of difference between the two. Not the least of which, since this was officially considered a “free period” by my high school, if I happened to “lose my way” to Seminary class and find myself at a hamburger joint instead, it did not reflect on my academic records. Just my spiritual ones. ;)

  33. says

    I’ll add another tally for teaching religious studies as part of anthropology, along with some other fields. I’d say it’s worth knowing something about religion when it comes to philosophy, since religion has had a lot of influence on the history of thought, and it’d be worthwhile to point out the problems it caused. I also think comparative religion and/or world religions classes (or sections of history classes and the like) are worth offering to make students aware that there’s so much diversity out there, and that people with different beliefs are people, not abstractions or demons lurking in the shadows.

    Of course, you still have to find good teachers, given the report glodson cited. I’ve also heard of high school courses allegedly about “The Bible as Literature” that instead become indoctrination by the local preacher.

  34. says

    Come to think of it, I took a required religion course in high school. It was actually taught by a United Church of Christ minister, but it was indeed about religion, not indoctrination in it. I was already an atheist by then and I didn’t have a problem with it.

    Of course, that was a private school, and he was a very liberal preacher. (Probably a closet atheist himself, as Daniel Dennet has found is not so uncommon. That’s probably why he took the gig at a boarding school rather than a congregation.)

  35. kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith says

    I can’t get too irate at a school offering a “world religions” class, because I know that would be the first step towards atheism for the students (for the same reason, though, I’m suspicious. Our opponents aren’t morons, and they’d know this too

    Of course they do.

    The Quebec school curriculum has been implementing a world religions class ince a few years and, with very few exceptions, the only ones who’ve been criticizing it are the few religious (mostly catholic) nitwits we have left (you know, those who write angered letters to TV stations because of cussing or shows that mock religion).

    Some believe it will indocrinate their kids in a different faith, but there are some who believe it’s an evil plan designed to make atheists out of them.

  36. b. - Order of Lagomorpha says

    Quoth Gretchen:

    It’s just…it’s important for American students to receive instruction about religion, in some form or another, and it doesn’t mean they have to be instructed in it.

    I’m still not seeing why it’s important. It can be interesting, sure, but so can other things. Personally, I wish I’d had a lot more classes on bio and upper level math available in school. I’m honestly not getting why you think such instruction is so important; is it to better understand the motives and motivations of others? Or that religions are more alike than they are different? Or…?

    If it is a matter of understanding motivations, if someone is poking a stick in my eye, I personally don’t care why they’re doing it. Whether they think their god told them to, or that they believe that non-believers deserve a poke in the eye or it’s the Lunar Month of Eyeball Poking or that poking someone’s eye ensures a bountiful harvest, I just want them to knock it off. An appeal to empathy or to common human decency might work better than trying to argue theology with such a person.

    *Personal confession: I have proceeded through 53 years of life without receiving an ounce of any kind of religious instruction other than my own reading (bible, quran, analects of confucius, the vedas, book of mormon, etc., etc.). The closest thing was a Philosophy 101 class where we had a high, old time demolishing the “greatest conceivable being” argument.

  37. mythbri says

    Dammit, my comment got eated. :P

    @b #39

    I think that studying other kinds of religion and philosophy is helpful in the U.S., particularly in homogenous and/or isolated communities. Those communities grow children, you know, and that presents an opportunity. I think that learning about these things lessens the perception of the “other”. It increases the perceived humanity of people that these students only know in an abstract way. It increases recognition of Western privilege, which is definitely important in the U.S.

    I was raised in several communities that were saturated by Mormons. My step-dad’s mother thinks of any kind of religion that is not recognizably Christian as “voodoo” – and it’s not a specific attempt to denigrate. She literally thinks of other religions as “voodoo”. She’s completely ignorant of anything that is NOT Christianity, and particularly Mormonism.

    I also have an uncle who started his own Baptist-ish church, who firmly believes that all polytheistic and/or non-Abrahamic religions are devil worship. He even considers Taoism to be devil worship.

    Why would you have kids be ignorant, when the result of that ignorance is harmful?

  38. strange gods before me ॐ says

    glodson, good link. There shouldn’t be any pre-college classes focused on Christianity, nor “the Bible as literature”, the covertly anti-Semitic construct of “Judeo-Christian culture”, or whatever other cockamamie scheme they come up with.

    I was thinking about comparative religion classes — and statements like ‘I can’t get too irate at a school offering a “world religions” class, because I know that would be the first step towards atheism for the students’, a viewpoint shared by Dennett but which I have not seen compelling evidence for.

    +++++
    Dr. Pablito,

    19th and 20th century anthropological field work did find (IIRC) groups of people living in remote but perfectly functional cultures who did not appear to have any concept of deity, religious ritual or rites, or creation myth.

    Occasional vague claims like this are made, but I’ve never seen specifics, so I don’t think it’s true.

    The best that atheists have come up with seems to be the Pirahã, who nevertheless do have religion.

    On the chance that what you’re saying is you’ve heard of cultures who had a myriad of supernatural beliefs, just not “gods”, rituals or creation myths — so, perhaps ancestor spirits, other myths, and no rituals — that would be very interesting to hear more about.

  39. logicpriest says

    @28 Dunc

    While it could bet taught well, the issue is that it rarely does. The fact that it tends to be biased is a point against teaching it in public schools, especially since it doesn’t have a lot of real value as a standalone class. As part of various social studies and history courses, sure, but alone it tends to be awful.

    A general cultural studies class with a unit on religion would be a great requirement, however. I don’t think there should be a special semester to year long focus on religions, though.

  40. Rob Grigjanis says

    b @39: “I’m honestly not getting why you think such instruction is so important”

    Why are literature and history important? They’re about who we are and how we got here, how we live, how we think. If you want to subsume RS under anthropology or philosophy, that’s fine, but you can’t pretend religion is not important to most people now living, and in the past, and that it hasn’t shaped the world we live in. Its importance is the huge effect it has had, and continues to have in our everyday lives.

    And it’s silly to say that malaria or dysentery are important in the same way. Our species probably came close to extinction 60,000 years ago (the Toba event), but that doesn’t mean an understanding of vulcanology is crucial to our understanding of the human condition.

  41. says

    b. – Order of Lagomorpha said:

    I’m still not seeing why it’s important.

    Because ignorance doesn’t appear to stop anyone– including atheists– from making false statements about religious people.

    Because if you don’t care about why the people who oppress you are oppressing you, good luck getting them to ever stop.

    Because learning more about cultural institutions is what school is for, and that doesn’t suddenly stop applying when it comes to religion. It’s even more important, not less, for institutions you consider false and/or harmful. Schoolchildren study racism, war, slavery, torture, and abuse. They can study religion.

    Because studying human motivation is itself a worthwhile endeavor, and that doesn’t stop when the motivation is religious.

    Because religious students need to know that there are people out there who believe God is something directly opposed to what they think God is, and they can’t both be right.

    Because studying religion means studying secularism as well, and there’s a hell of a lot of ignorance about that.

    Because religion matters for most of us throughout most of our lives, regardless of how we feel about it, and things that fit that description are at least on first blush worthy subjects for school.

    Because learning changes minds– literally. If you don’t want anyone’s minds to change about religion, then by all means oppose teaching them about it. Ignorance is an excellent way to preserve the status quo.

  42. says

    I lived in Belgium for a year as an exchange student when I was in high school. In Belgium, which has no equivalent to the USA’s separation clause, the majority of schools are Catholic. For the first time, I experienced how stultifying and silly religious instruction classes can be. It was also encouraging to observe how, when given a choice between studying the contents of Christianity and studying the history of humanity, all of my Belgian classmates preferred the latter, and thus the religious instruction class was transformed into an anthropology class. But we still had to do field trips to spend time at a convent or monastery.

  43. jojo says

    I’m fine with religious studies in school, but I want to apply the same rules to it as the fundamentalists insist on for sex education. Religion courses would be required to be abstinence only.

  44. says

    There are courses in ethnomusicology, nutritional anthropology, gender roles, kinship systems, and so on and so forth and yes, religion.

    In secondary schools? Really?

    I see those kinds of courses at the college level all the time…but I get students coming out of the high schools who don’t understand basic algebra. I hope they weren’t taking a course in kinship systems, instead.

  45. Owlglass says

    It is some sort of mixed bag in my opinion. I’m an Anti-Theist so it should be my interest to have religion out of schools entirely, however I see how it infuses a lot of skeptical not too religous people into their systems and kind of “fade them into humanism” slowly, like it happened in parts of Scandinavia and Germany. In contrast, the way it’s being done in the US where you have a Wall of Separation, I get that there is all sorts of trickery (“good news club” etc.) and the congregations seem to be more extreme and fierce.

  46. Doug Hudson says

    I dunno, for non-science types, understanding modern kinship systems might actually be more useful than algebra.

    # of times I’ve used algebra since High School = 0
    # of times it would’ve been useful to understand how different cultures handle family relations = lots

    /only mostly joking
    /seriously though, I’ve never used algebra outside of a classroom

  47. maddog1129 says

    I don’t know. I feel as though I missed out on a lot of the context of literature in the absence of any knowledge of religious philosophy, ideas and themes.

  48. logicpriest says

    I don’t think the bible is very necessary for primary and secondary level literature courses. At least as far as required reading. Maybe just mention the KJV and such in English Lit.

    Also what PZ said, I meet plenty who don’t know algebra, so was an entire class on religion really the best use of resources? The same people who took those courses can’t name more than three religions and only rarely remember long division. Perhaps a formal logic course would be a better use of time, or a course on writing and test taking.

    The formal logic class would be wonderful. That way people (FB) will stop accusing me of Ad Hominems when I call them names.

  49. says

    SG:

    I’m sure it was very scholarly, yeah? ;)

    Oh, veddy. Heh. It wasn’t a bad class, and there wasn’t any proselytizing, but it wasn’t what you could call a literature class, either. I think it could have been much more comprehensive, first of all, by including non-KJV bibles, and definitely including at least some of the literature which referenced the bible.

    Alas, it was basically an hour to read the bible.

  50. logicpriest says

    @Doug

    You don’t do budgets then? Or taxes? Or any kind of advanced planning for anything at all? I’d bring up balancing checkbooks but I am pretty sure most people use online banking these days.

  51. Rev. BigDumbChimp says

    I’ve never used algebra outside of a classroom

    I find this hard to believe.

    Never once have you figured out %?

  52. kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith says

    You don’t do budgets then? Or taxes? Or any kind of advanced planning for anything at all? I’d bring up balancing checkbooks but I am pretty sure most people use online banking these days.

    My mom does all of these, and has never had any understanding of algebra at any time in her life.

    Sure you need it to “program” spreadsheets, or calculate compound interest and actualisation rates, but not to add and substract using a simple calculator.

  53. Artemis says

    I don’t normally post here (I do read most comments), but as an actual Greek that really went to one of these schools I thought I do have something to contribute this time around.

    In Greece the ties between state and religion are really strong. Orthodox Christianity is the official religion of the country and we do not have a Ministry of Education like other countries. Instead we have a Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs.

    The situation in high schools might vary from place to place, but in my small town things were really scary and it doesn’t look like they have improved. I hear from my cousins that attend my old high school now that students are still beaten if they try to opt out from the morning prayer. In year 2013! I would like to urge everybody to think about the situation, and please go sign the petition if you agree with it. Maybe something will change, although I doubt that a petition will have a chance against years of religious indoctrination.


    We had 2 hours of religious studies every week throughout high school. One year that was a World Religions kind of class, which was used to demonstrate why everybody else is wrong and the Orthodox Church is right. We had a textbook with one chapter per religion. The chapters were structured like that: Part 1: What they believe. Part 2: Why they are wrong. Part 3 (sometimes): Why they are bad people for believing what they do. Especially the Catholics, they were the worst in that book. My teacher managed to make things even worse by throwing some conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic propaganda into the mix. A thoroughly vile class I wouldn’t want anybody else going through.


    And we did have an ethics class too, for an entire year. In that one, we learned that our immortal soul is the most important thing by far and our first consideration in any situation should be how our behavior will affect it. This is where I first heard the question about what one should do if one has to lie to save a life ( Answer: do not lie, it is against the 10 commandments).


    Maybe in more enlightened places ethics classes and comparative religion classes would work to give some information to the students. But it can easily turn into a propaganda delivery mechanism, especially if the state has no interest in monitoring it to make sure it is taught well.

  54. says

    Perhaps we need to quantify the problem.

    For example, I graduated high school in 1995 (in California), and never once was I exposed to any religious studies class.

    There might have been a couple weeks of coverage during 9th grade history, or something like that, but after being forced to study math for 12 years to the point I can nearly launch a space shuttle, I hardly think 3 weeks is worth our concern.

    I realize that my experience is anecdotal though, and am interested in how much time others have spent on religious studies — especially with more current public school graduates.

  55. says

    I’m another voice for keeping that shit out of the school system until college, simply because of the consistent willingness of the religious to abuse their platform as teachers to force indoctrination. At least in college you’re expecting to be allowed to ask questions, instead of being bullied by people when you’re underage. I’ve had WAY too many mandatory chapels and religious courses in the K-12 system which were considered standard academic credits.

  56. Anthony K says

    but I get students coming out of the high schools who don’t understand basic algebra. I hope they weren’t taking a course in kinship systems, instead.

    Since we can pretty much be sure they weren’t taking courses in kinship systems instead, I’ll tell you why marriage and kinship studies would be useful at the high school level: nobody who’s ever taken one can say “Marriage is between a woman and a man, period!” without being a bald-faced liar.

    It’s a damn shame people aren’t learning enough biology in high school. It’s an even greater shame and much more socially deleterious that they’re not learning anthropology at all in high school.

    I suspect a shitload of the issues we’re dealing with in the atheist community might be ameliorated if people were given a better understanding of social sciences in secondary school.

  57. trina says

    I can’t speak to the American experience, but in Australia in public school we get an hour a week of religious studies (in some schools its called scripture) by a practicing Christian. As far as I remember (graduated 2006) he didn’t do a lot of preaching and we discussed ethics more than anything else- but I don’t believe that was because he couldn’t have simply preached to us. He simply knew an unsympathetic audience when he saw one. (In my last year of high school he started up a lunch time christian club that had exactly 1 member.)

    I think some relevant religious education would be useful- i.e the difference between the different factions of Islam, how the church influences government, what a secular society is and why it’s a good thing, the fact that 1 billion+ Hindus live on this earth and yet most kids at my school just know that ‘it’s the one with the elephant god’.

  58. says

    @logicpriest and others on the topic of algebra:

    If you take the literal definition of algebra, sure we use it all the time.

    I think the point others are trying to make is the excessiveness to which we study math, the amount of time we spend on it, and the detail into which we go.

    I excelled at math, up until calculus in 10th grade when I completely lost interest. By then I had been subjected to 10 years of repetitious solving for x. I can recite the Pythagorean theorem, tell you the limit of a function as x approaches zero, and find the cosign of most common angles from memory.

    Yet not once in 10 years did we talk about balancing a check book, the concept of interest on a loan, cash flow, accrued interest, or even basic business accounting principles. I didn’t know what an ARM was until I bought a home at 25.

    By 10th grade I completely hated my math class and refused to participate. My 4.0 GPA took a hit when I got my first ever Cs. The high school counselor wanted me to retake calculus in 11th grade and I make a very excellent point why I shouldn’t. Instead I took newspaper and yearbook, and have learned more useful skills there than anything I picked up in math since 4th grade.

  59. says

    Just think what might have been accomplished or at least how many fewer wars would have occurred if all those hundreds of thousands of hours of study had been directed at something useful or harmless instead.

    Just think if all that effort had been spent playing Dungeons and Dragons or rotisserie-league baseball!! It’d have about the same level of mysticism, ferocious arguments, details to argue about, funny hats to wear, and in all my years of being a dungeon-master I never saw anyone killed (though we did have one excommunication for cheating).

    Whenever some apologist for religion wants to talk about all its social benefits, I like to ask them how that compares to the social benefits of gaming, golfing, or bowling and how they subtract out the social costs of misogyny, homophobia, and sectarian violence.

  60. Esteleth, Ficus Putsch Knits says

    I grew up in the ass-end of rural Illinois. Overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly Christian, overwhelmingly conservative. However, for various reasons, the largest minority group in the area are immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. The majority of these immigrants are Muslim. So, there is a small mosque in town. When I was in middle school, a delegation approached the school board and asked if there would be interest in a class at the high school on a comparison (explicitly designed to be as even-handed as possible) of the Abrahamaic religions. This was accepted, and while there was some amount of GOD LUVES ME BESTEST, it was supposedly actually quite good and informative.

    They abruptly stopped offering this class my sophomore year. After the semester had started. The class was converted into a study hall. Last I heard, they started offering the class again last year.

  61. Esteleth, Ficus Putsch Knits says

    I realize that in my @65 I neglected to mention that I graduated from high school in 2003. So I was a sophomore during the 2001-2002 school year.

  62. tariqata says

    Hm. I’m going to agree that a comparative religion course isn’t an “important” academic subject in the way that math, sciences, history, and effective writing* are, in that I think the latter should be required to graduate while the former should not, but I did enjoy the high school “World Religions” class I took (2001-2002 school year, in Canada).

    It was actively comparative, covered primarily non-European religions**, and was really a course in history anthropology and cultural studies that used the lens of religious beliefs. More than that, I think it was a very valuable way to indirectly talk about the current state of Canadian multiculturalism: our teacher believed in direct exposure wherever possible, so he arranged a ton of field trips and invited a very diverse group of speakers representing as many different religions/sects as he could, and encouraged us to question them and each other. In a class that consisted of (at a minimum) several atheists, some self-professed Buddhists, Wiccans, neo-Pagans, and Wiccan-Buddhists, a couple of devout Christians of differing denominations, and both Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, finding ways to talk about our different beliefs in a shared society was probably at least as educational as learning about how Vimy Ridge made ‘Canada’ into a nation.

    If I were in charge of curriculum and had to choose between offering Mr. Shaw’s World Religions class and something like Canadian History, or the more general class my school offered in Sociology/Anthropology/Psychology, I’d have to choose one of the latter, but I’m glad that it was available and that I had the opportunity to take it.

    *I loved most of the more traditional, literature-focused English classes I took in high school, but the Writer’s Craft course I took in my final year was probably the single most fundamentally useful component of my secondary education (thanks, Mr. Wilson!).

    **The focus on non-Western religions wasn’t deliberate: the class voted to begin with an Eastern religion (Hinduism? Shinto? Sadly, my memory has faded). By the time we got to Christianity the semester was nearly over.

  63. Doug Hudson says

    I should’ve been more specific: I’ve never used formal algebra.

    Yeah, I do informal calculations all the time, but the connection between that ability and the long ago algebra classes is hazy (so is secondary school, for that matter).

    But I was mostly getting at what Anthony K and David Diskin said.

  64. b. - Order of Lagomorpha says

    @ 40 Mythbri, 43 Rob Grigjanis and 44 Gretchen–a general response. Thanks to you all for letting me know why, though, I’m not really sure how I suddenly became the cheerleader for ignorance by asking why you felt it was important. It was really an honest question (as opposed to “just asking…”). My apologies for not divvying this out more, but it’s already going to be a wall of text…sorry!

    Will it change minds? A very few, possibly. Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted:
    “One of the most amazing and perplexing features of mainstream Christianity is that seminarians who learn the historical-critical method in their Bible classes appear to forget all about it when it comes time for them to be pastors. They are taught critical approaches to Scripture, they learn about the discrepancies and contradictions, they discover all sorts of historical errors and mistakes, they come to realize that it is difficult to know whether Moses existed or what Jesus actually said and did, they find that there are other books that were at one time considered canonical but that ultimately did not become part of Scripture….They learn all this, and yet when they enter church ministry they appear to put it back on the shelf. For reasons I will explore in the conclusion, pastors are, as a rule reluctant to teach what they learned about the Bible in seminary.” (pages 46-48 in my iPad edition)

    People who set out to study “holy scripture”, who spent years and who-knows-how-much-money and how many class/study hours to do so, can’t be “made” to examine their beliefs, even when they’re directly contradicted. Will a class a week do it? A class a day? As sensitive as many people are about their religion, will they hear what is being said and examine and/or question what they believe or will it become an excuse to continue emphasizing differences? Science, on the other hand, emphasizes that there is only one race of us–the human race, we’re all part of it and connected to every other species, plant and animal, on the planet. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos speech about us all being “star stuff” moved me far more than Christian religion’s “Brotherhood of Man” (leaving aside the terrifically sexist language) ever did. Can’t science serve as a way of emphasizing our unity? That our planet is but so big and cooperation is a successful means of survival? Wouldn’t teaching empathy and sympathy for others from an early age do more than examining random religious beliefs? Or requiring extra-curricular community service introduce the students to people who have been “othered” due to gender or race or age or perceived disability or…?

    Finally, most importantly, what will you be willing to give up to make time for it? Humanities? Science? Math? Arts? All of which have already been cut to the bone (in the US, at least) thanks to NCLB.

  65. llbguy says

    I think I like the idea of a “cultural literacy” class instead. You can devote many classes to explaining religious history and beliefs, which may include even detailed examination of theological arguments and readings from sacred texts. It is important to acquire this literacy, especially for students who want further study in literature, philosophy, , classics, sociology, or other humanities. The interested student can also be pointed towards extra resources, or undertake a directed reading in religious studies. It can further be a forum for structured debate among those who really need to air their beliefs, moderated by a critical thinking teacher. Of course, you would still run into the problem of “whose cultural literacy.” But that might be addressed by having it available over a number of years (like other courses – history, math, english, etc), and also addressed in terms of flexibility for students to pursue individual interests in whatever appropriate degree. And if there are worries that *some* religions exposed will be more equal than others depending on locale or a teacher’s whims (or who mysteriously gets sick during Islam week) then you can have a standardized test to nail the highlights.

    This is just one suggestion. But it at least recognizes that what is important isn’t so much a moral indoctrinating mission as it is a cultivation of a repertoire from which students can enter university with (or the workforce) and avoid those embarrassing situations of fundamentalists who only learn about slavery in the Bible from a second-year seminar.

  66. llbguy says

    And I’ll say this too. This is a bit off topic, but I think students should have a “statistical argumentation” class, or section of a class. This is one of the things that many students don’t understand and abuse without knowing (and see how this statement was a kind of statistical claim?). Our world is a mess of statistics. Even if you don’t teach them how to compute standard deviations, you can still draw their attention to its pervasiveness in the media, everyday discourse, and politics.

  67. Pierce R. Butler says

    PZ Myers recently blogged, “I’ll be satisfied when seminaries and theology departments all shut down everywhere …”

    QMTFY

  68. says

    @27,

    Small point, but I don’t think it is true that “every culture has a religion of some sort”. 19th and 20th century anthropological field work did find (IIRC) groups of people living in remote but perfectly functional cultures who did not appear to have any concept of deity, religious ritual or rites, or creation myth.

    This assumes a very narrow scope of what religion encompasses. What do these people believe happens to their dead relatives? Do they have death rites? Do they believe in ancestor spirits? I think you would find that there is something there.

    As to teach comparative religion, I’d say great idea in theory, but likely to fail in practice, exactly because it is likely that the instructor will use a sectarian religious approach, or represent one cult(even if it’s not his or her personal cult, it is likely to be the predominant one of the geographical area I would suggest)in a better light than the others.

    Here in Victoria/AU for example, the government pays a mob of proselytizing Evangelicals to provide religious instructions classes to public primary school children, with no real oversight of what these creeps are actually doing.

  69. says

    Ah sorry, didn’t see SGBM’s @41 there…

    Something I still have to read about is Sunni vs Shia…….

    In a nutshell, they are bashing each other’s heads in because 1400 years ago some guy called Ali was busy washing the dead prophet, and thereby missed the meeting where Mohammed’s successor was chosen. Those who think that Ali should have been selected instead of Abu Bakr are called the Shi’i.

  70. Rob Grigjanis says

    b @69: I took your question as an honest one, and I certainly don’t see you as a cheerleader for ignorance!

    Will it change minds?

    I don’t see that as the purpose. The purpose should be to provide information without bias. Certainly, it may be prone to distortion by believers, but government guidelines can help (Ontario resource guide here.)

    Will a class a week do it?

    I think kids should be started on Comparative Religions early. Maybe as a module in social studies? Maybe two or three grades between 4 and 12?

    Can’t science serve as a way of emphasizing our unity?

    Has it? From what I’ve seen, it hasn’t accomplished much in that regard. Understanding our differences is at least a first small step towards that goal.

    Finally, most importantly, what will you be willing to give up to make time for it?

    Not up to me, thank Dog, but doesn’t it fall under Humanities? In a perfect world there would be plenty of funding, but in a perfect world, we wouldn’t need Comparative Religions.

  71. Pierce R. Butler says

    Esteleth, Ficus Putsch Knits @ # 13: … Thirty Years War … horror. Thirty years of indiscriminate slaughter and human rights abuses. Largely over the theological equivalent of comma placement.

    The Sophisticated Theology™ comprising the competing merits of the doctrines of consubstantiation and transubstantiation hardly reaches the importance of functional punctuation!

    I fear you may have slept through your lessons in applied crackerology…

  72. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Actually, I have fond memories if my comparative religions class–it fostered my agnosticism. It took Pharyngula to make me realize I was an atheist.

  73. Pierce R. Butler says

    Fwiw, the Thirty Years War ended in the Peace of Westphalia, the first western-European truce not negotiated under papal auspices for many a century. Christ’s Deputy on Earth would have preferred that the bloodshed had continued:

    When Innocent [X] heard the terms of the [1648 Westphalia] peace treaty, he was furious. He wanted heretics converted, not tolerated. And according to the treaty, the church had to hand over to Protestants numerous territories it had conquered since 1624 – three archbishoprics and thirteen bishoprics, a total of sixteen huge territories including thousands of churches, monasteries, and pious foundations. … No one at the table seemed to take the church seriously. … For centuries, the Vatican had been the great negotiator, the mediator of European wars. Not only was Innocent not invited to mediate the treaty, it was signed over his shrieking protests. … The treaty of Westphalia was a watershed event for the Vatican, marking the end of its diplomatic hegemony and signaling the rise of the modern state. … Innocent issued a bull dated November 20, 1648, declaring the Treaty of Westphalia ‘null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, empty of meaning and effect for all time.’ He was politely ignored. … To his great disappointment, the real victor of the Thirty Years’ War was France, which emerged from the conflict triumphant. Spain and Austria climbed out of the ashes exhausted, though Spain was still too proud to sign a treaty with France and would continue the war, sort of, until 1659.

    – Eleanor Herman, Mistress of the Vatican: The True Story of Olimpia Maidalchini: The Secret Female Pope

    Westphalia should be celebrated as a breakthrough for secularism (as well as peace, international relations, and human rights).

  74. Esteleth, Ficus Putsch Knits says

    The Treaty of Westphalia is also the underpinning of the modern concept of a “state,” to wit.

  75. jamb says

    First time poster, long time reader. As an assistant professor of religion at a major public university in the south, I must say that I strongly disagree with PZ on this one, at least if we are talking about religion classes offered in a secular university setting. Introductory religion courses force students to reflect, directly and for a sustained period of time, upon their own religious worldview in ways that few other courses do. They are confronted, often for the first time, with the fragility of their own presuppositions about “truth.” Certainly this can and does happen in other courses, too, but in the religion courses that I teach, student self-reflection is more intense than in other humanities courses that I have taught during my career. Furthermore, where else are they ever going to hear what Tylor, Frazer, Freud, Durkheim, etc. said about religion? Or learn about HADD and other scientific approaches to religion? In sum, religion courses, as part of a larger university humanities curriculum, are essential and valuable. I will grant, however, that if the great majority of the world’s population stopped being religious tomorrow (I wish it could be so), then teaching religion would become far less important.

  76. llbguy says

    jamb, I think the issue is more with public schools. If people want to pay to attend religion classes at university, that’s just not as intrusive on a political level. But I think the major criticism still applies, even on your own admitted terms, if I may say so. If your class has no religious objectives, and you openly state you oppose religion (or at least the “great majority” of people should do it in, whatever that means), then what is the point? Why not just call your class “Presuppositions about ‘Truth'” with focussed readings on religion? Why be a “religion” professor…at all?

    Forgive me if I am wrong, but this just sounds dishonest and nothing about this adds up. Why include in your syllabus outdated anthropologists and psychologists as anything other than suggested reading? Why would self-reflection be “more intense” in this class when that is basically the objective of humanities as a whole? I hate to sound…ahem…sceptical, but if this IS an actual course and you ARE an actual professor (who, by the way, says things like “in sum, religion courses are essential and valuable” when you haven’t even bothered to give reasons for this) what stops a person like me from suspecting that this isn’t just a cash grab for impressionable students and moreover a sly way for your institution to market a religious presence for the sake of parents choosing where to send their kids?

    Again, if I am wrong, I apologize. But this just sounds fishy. Do you actually have a better argument for religion classes than “it’s stupid, but we can sell it, and it’s good that students wrestle with it, I guess”? I’d seriously like to know.

  77. Rob Grigjanis says

    llbguy @81:

    If your class has no religious objectives, and you openly state you oppose religion (or at least the “great majority” of people should do it in, whatever that means), then what is the point?

    I don’t want to conquer the world, and am opposed to war, feudalism and classism, so what is the point of teaching history? Religion permeates our lives. What’s written on US currency? How many churches, mosques or temples are there within a mile of you? What is driving most of the wars being fought now? Do you have any religious relatives or friends? How many religions are represented by the kids in your local public school (mine; I’m guessing six or seven, counting distinct Christian sects)?

    I really don’t get the opposition to teaching the reality of our world and lives. It’s almost as if you think ignoring it will make it go away.

  78. llbguy says

    I see your point, Rob. But I think you misunderstand mine. I’m perfectly happy that people should learn about religion. I learned about religion, and I learn more about them all the time. I’m glad I did. But jamb is saying that a religion class is “essential and valuable.” I say he/she hasn’t made that case. If what is *actually* valuable is having students come to grips with their beliefs, and what barriers they pose to truth, then that is not a justification for a “religion” class, that is justification for a “truth” class or a “presuppositions” class, in which the focus on understanding on how we can know our world, and what obstacles religion places. Or if you think it is fun to just understand how religions work on their own terms, then call it a “Religion Appreciation” class and keep some honesty about it.

    And in case you think I’m just being fancy with terminology, well you’re wrong. I think these are distinctions with a difference. Teach what you mean, and don’t think that “Religion” is just a neutral term than can encapsulate all the issues. It validates “religion” as a subject worthy of investigation, which flies in the face of all credible contemporary evidence that it is anything more than varieties of superstition. Thus I had put it to jamb, why is *Religion* “essential and valuable”? Why should it be taught as anything but a subset of things like “dangerous presuppositions”, “world issues and impacts”,”sociology”, “mystical poetry” or whatever when jamb has already stated that he/she thinks it is bunk?

    If you can’t justify it’s relevance on its own rather than its relevance to something else, why teach “Religion”? And if you can’t justify its relevance on its own, how can jamb say he/she “strongly disagrees” with PZ, when he agrees that you can’t?

  79. Ichthyic says

    that is justification for a “truth” class or a “presuppositions” class

    or just a course in critical thinking.

  80. Ichthyic says

    Furthermore, where else are they ever going to hear what Tylor, Frazer, Freud, Durkheim, etc. said about religion?

    In philosophy 101.

    duh.

    I too took religious studies courses at univeristy. The philosophy taught in them was no different than any other philosophy course, the behavioral aspects were also just as well covered in courses on pyschology, and the religious parts themselves were either actually inappropriate (I recall a forced field trip to a zen monastery for meditation practice), or else DE-ritualized to again be nothing more than philosophy.

    so, no, you have not made your case at all, actually.

    and that is based on MY personal experience.

  81. Ichthyic says

    This assumes a very narrow scope of what religion encompasses.

    perhaps the real problem is that what we think of as “religion” encompasses too broad an area.

  82. llbguy says

    exactly.And the further point was that calling it “religion” smuggles in all sorts of unnecessary baggage that can be used for financial gain, capitalizing on a set of students who will naively enrol, thinking the course will be an opportunity to bolster and display pre-existing beliefs which jamb thinks would be the wrong outcome. False advertisement. If you think that an acceptable outcome is having a person pass the class, preserving their beliefs, but demonstrating at least better skills to think critically about it, then call it “Critical Religion.” Honesty. It’s that simple.

  83. Rob Grigjanis says

    @83:

    It validates “religion” as a subject worthy of investigation, which flies in the face of all credible contemporary evidence that it is anything more than varieties of superstition.

    If you can’t justify it’s relevance on its own rather than its relevance to something else, why teach “Religion”?

    Of course religion is a subject worthy of investigation, as opposed to the claims of religions. Its ubiquity, and the power it still carries in our lives, are what give it relevance. But saying “transubstantiation is a central tenet of Catholicism” does not give credence to the doctrine. It is merely descriptive.

    Thus I had put it to jamb, why is *Religion* “essential and valuable”?

    I take jamb at her/his word that the students responded more introspectively to this course than to others. Difficult to prove, but more credible to me than the notion that jamb might be posting here as some sort of institutional marketing ploy.

    @87:

    calling it “religion” smuggles in all sorts of unnecessary baggage

    Surely that depends on the actual course name, and description. If it is called “Introductory Religion”, I agree with you, but jamb was unclear as to whether this was the actual course name*. And I’m assuming (maybe wrongly) that jamb is teaching a comparative course. That should perhaps be clarified.

    *e.g. “Introductory math courses” could refer to several course names (Algebra, Calculus, etc)

  84. llbguy says

    Good points, Rob. And I know there might be a discussion as to whether I gave enough latitude, or poked aspects too much. I also happen to think that doing service to a subject involves exploring it on its own terms. I would then question why yo would do this in higher ed rather than the religion’s own teaching systems (as higher ed will always have a mediated approach. Even calling these systems “religions” is a type of lens). You’ll still only get an “aspects of religion” angle in university, which PZ agrees is not objectionable.

    I mean, you can say that some of this is quibbling with terms, or being overly narrow in what should be presented. But the broader philosophic issue is to what extent schools and universities are institutions of “education” rather than information, and to what extent “education” is inherently at odds with “religion.” So the parasite example is actually interesting. Is there a point in learning a day in the life of a tapeworm, or rather the uses of our knowledge to direct it to improved ends?

  85. llbguy says

    and not to reduce education to “take-aways” but we do have a recognition that there are some pragmatic goals to it. the point of learning about parasites is to know how to protect yourself from its ill effects. You don’t want students to be left with thinking that whether protecting yourself is just a matter of personal opinion. No study of parasites is complete without examining its deadly consequences in uncontrolled propogation. Many religion classes don’t impart that well enough, so what’s the point.

  86. Genius Loci says

    Can’t science serve as a way of emphasizing our unity? That our planet is but so big and cooperation is a successful means of survival? Wouldn’t teaching empathy and sympathy for others from an early age do more than examining random religious beliefs? Or requiring extra-curricular community service introduce the students to people who have been “othered” due to gender or race or age or perceived disability or…?

    And risk turning science into yet another religion?

    (Yes, those are good values to have, and shared by many scientists, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to emphasize them in a class whose underlying goal is to teach students to reason from evidence.)

  87. llbguy says

    Perhaps also I should be clear about my own views, as I did mention the cultural literacy angle before too. I think religions are fascinating, that it is interesting to see common and divergent themes develop over populations over time, and that a full appreciation of humanity includes a full appreciation of what people believed and their reasons for believing. However, at our point in time, the case must be clearly presented for why these systems of belief should remain organized. If people can do it, or if it presents students with an opportunity to come to their own assessments of it, then great. But since I don’t think that case has been made (and only recently have I been led to believe this) then I think it is detrimental to education to allow students not to appreciate the gravity of the matter, relegating it instead to the “miscellaneous objections” column of the syllabus rather than squarely at the top. So I actually agree with jamb that Freud and Durkheim and others allow for these meta issues to come to the forefront. What I don’t agree with is seeing the *value* of teaching religion to be an aspect of personal growth. I have no problems with personal growth, but that is just not discrete enough for an academic setting. The value is what can be obtained from inquiry. I don’t personally see this value with respect to religion being distinct from the value of anthropology or sociology or history or philosophy. If a person can demonstrate that it can, then that is the case I’d appreciate seeing

  88. Rob Grigjanis says

    llbguy, I think we largely agree, and (I hope) understand each other’s points. Maybe we’re both quibbling a bit, but sometimes quibbling can clarify cloudy areas. So I’ll try to clarify/emphasize a bit as my last word (I think!).

    to what extent “education” is inherently at odds with “religion.”

    To what extent is criminology at odds with serial killers? Understanding them is not approving of them. The parasite analogy breaks down, because most people don’t accept parasites as necessary for their salvation, or let their parasites dictate policy.

    If one line in the post stood out for me, it was this one (in context, talking about studying religions, rather than religious instruction);

    I know what the usual argument would be: but every culture has a religion of some sort, it’s a human universal, people find it important and we ought to acknowledge it. So?

    It’s treating religion as something “out there”, which many people find important, yes, but which we know is not just silly, but dangerous, like parasites. Thus, it can be treated perfunctorily and at arm’s length. That’s where I differ. We’re swimming in it, 24/7. It touches every part of our lives (I started listing them, but there are too many), and most kids are brought up in one or other of the truth-claiming faiths.

    The only practical way I can see of starting to break that down is to first educate them about other faiths*. It would be great if we could have courses called “The Horribleness of Religion”, but that is not going to happen. It would be great if teaching science could erode the grip of blind faith, but that’s not working very well (or very fast at any rate) as far as I can tell.

    Cheers (it’s vodka day today!).

    *There are other good reasons for RS, I think, but this is the main one.

  89. llbguy says

    I can see, in theory, what the benefit of first educating people about other faiths would be. If you saw other religions, removed them fromt he land of the other, saw the similarities to your own, and found that your bones of contention to their ugly faith actually applies to yours equally, then you’d be a little more humble about the nature of your claims (and I guess I’ll just I’m looking at fundamentalists here).

    But I don’t know if that actually does the trick in practice. To be open to question your faith you have to be open to question your faith. It’s tautological, but it’s just the nature of the beast. I mean if SCIENCE isn’t doing the trick to first educate people about the absurdities of the bible, then what we learned is that people are excellent at avoiding confronting their own issues if they don’t want to. I actually think the first step is to just be a bit bolder, and stop thinking that slow and soft approaches work better. Teach students what they can know, and how to go about knowing new things. There’s nothing you can examine in Religious Studies that you can’t in other classes except for applications of unfounded assumptions. And if you’re just trying to bring things to light, I would say don’t assume that by illuminating rabbit holes people aren’t still going to jump into them.

  90. Ichthyic says

    And risk turning science into yet another religion?

    authoritarianism is what drives organized religion to begin with.

    unless you plan to introduce some serious population genetic manipulations within human populations, we’re stuck with authoritarian behavior patterns for a significant portion of all populations for the foreseeable future.

    with that in mind, I would far prefer authoritarians organize around something that actually deals with reality, wouldn’t you?

    frankly, scientism doesn’t bother me at all compared to the alternative.

  91. Ichthyic says

    @ilbguy.

    I highly suggest reading this, as sociology bears on comparative religion questions directly:

    http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

    it’s free, it’s a quick read, and it summarizes 30 years of sociological data that really inform one on the structure of religion and politics.

  92. llbguy says

    Thanks for the link. Though I agree that the menace of authoritarianism is pervasive, I don’t think you can say it is the driving force of all religions. And I can prove this through one quick example: cargo cults.

    I certainly think authority is the *sustaining* force for religions. But, quite frankly, I think the value you ascribe to authority varies with your own sense of pessimism about people’s ability to direct their own lives. And that’s why we see both religious dictators and atheist dictators.

  93. Ichthyic says

    I’m curious how you see cargo cults as a counter-example to the influence of authoritarian personalities?

  94. strange gods before me ॐ says

    This assumes a very narrow scope of what religion encompasses. What do these people believe happens to their dead relatives? Do they have death rites? Do they believe in ancestor spirits?

    perhaps the real problem is that what we think of as “religion” encompasses too broad an area.

    Some definitions are too broad. Tillich’s, for example, is bad precisely because it is an attempt to be greedy and cast the net as widely as possible, rather than considering whether each item relates to religions-as-actually-practiced in the world.

    But the things rorschach mentioned are within the scope of religion. Boyer’s Religion Explained is a good introduction to work that’s been done in the cognitive science of religion over the last couple decades, attempting to explain why these things and not those.

  95. llbguy says

    I would see the driving force being the weird unexplainable event. Then as structures and institutions develop, authorities appear who can explain it. It is then sustained when the authoritarian personality asserts “believe me….or else.” This would be especially true as the driving force, the mystery, peters out like, for instance, if the initial phenomenon (gods, burning bushes, planes) was not seen again after the passage of time.

    so driving versus sustaining. But I’m just tossing this stuff out there. You tell me. What makes authoritarian personalities *necessary* for religions. The answer might be in that article, but obviously it would save time if you knew the summarizing points. I should say my hesitation with the concept is that you can have varying levels of powers of authorities in a religion, so I would imagine the effect would not at all be a constant. And tt depends on what you mean by religion. WHere *don’t* you find authoritarian personalities, and do any of these places have religious qualities?

  96. Ichthyic says

    no, read the book. authoritarianism as defined in sociology is more about group dynamics than deference to expertise.

    check the wiki for the quick reference, but really, read the book.

  97. llbguy says

    103 – oh okay, interesting wiki article. Since I’m not a social scientist or a statistician much of the actual book you sent is not something I’m qualified to interpret. But perhaps I can ask this. Is this phenomenon a validated precondition to religious belief, or a strengthener? I mean what I get is that the more conservative you lean, the more irrational, guilty, and deferential you are. Psychological and socially conditioned preferences. But is this going to be a determining factor for being religious? or just your flavour of religion?

  98. John Morales says

    llbguy,

    But is this going to be a determining factor for being religious? or just your flavour of religion?

    The latter.

  99. llbguy says

    John,
    Right, so not the “driving force”,.A nit-pick, but clarity is a good thing…even if I’m not always clear myself

  100. Johnny Au Gratin says

    If it is a matter of understanding motivations, if someone is poking a stick in my eye, I personally don’t care why they’re doing it. Whether they think their god told them to, or that they believe that non-believers deserve a poke in the eye or it’s the Lunar Month of Eyeball Poking or that poking someone’s eye ensures a bountiful harvest, I just want them to knock it off. An appeal to empathy or to common human decency might work better than trying to argue theology with such a person.

    Then again, it might not. You only have two eyes and the eye poking cult might have millions of members and be growing. Do you have friends with eyes? Are you concerned about their vision?

    If you care at all about how effective our response to religious terrorism is, then using the resources of people who have studied those religious factors is vital. If you want people elected who will use these resources, then we need better education in these fields for the public at large. This means effective comparative religion courses at the primary and high school levels. P.Z.’s concern about students not knowing basic algebra and his bluster that they were wasting time in other courses is a red herring. The real problem is that our society undervalues education. If we can fix that we will go a long way towards fixing both problems.

    If you want more things like the 9/11 attacks, the debacle at Waco, Ruby Ridge, the Oklahoma City bombing, the murder of Dr. Tiller, and countless similar incidents to continue to occur, then you have hit on the perfect attitude.

  101. llbguy says

    The real problem is that our society undervalues education. If we can fix that we will go a long way towards fixing both problems.

    No, that’s not the *real* problem, because that’s not a repairable problem. I think it is fairly uncontroversial that everyone believes acquiring true information is a good thing. But you will never get people to agree on “education” or the good of specific educational objectives. I mean, the situation between religious and secular education is ultimately the same argument from different perspectives: “well if only THEY knew what we know, then everything would be better.” Both VALUE education, just their education.

    So find a problem we can fix, and fix in ethical ways. We haven’t, for example, found strong correlations between religiosity in the U.S. and the availability of accurate scientific information. People are fearful and thus volatile and will seek comfort over knowledge when knowledge isn’t comforting.

    Here’s a thought. Rather than trying to get everyone to value education, how about getting people to understand their innate sense of morality? Instead of teaching comparative religions, why not teach historical events precipitated by, inter alia, religious beliefs and get students to reflect on the extent they think these events were justified. A problems of morality course. I’d be behind that. You have to remember, though, that not all high schoolers are *morally* developed, according to developmental psychology. That may possibly be your starting point for understanding why certain things don’t have the impact people hope they should. If the necessity for reason and moral judgment hasn’t been tested in kids yet, then there aren’t as many “hooks” to latch onto, despite whatever hopes for educational values we hope to instill.

    Another thing you could think about is integrating religious approaches into science classes to a limited degree. Have a discrete problem. Contrast the scientific approach to solving the solution to the variety of religious approaches. Get students to come to conclusions about what they find more persuasive. This way, you don’t have to talk about absolute educational values (the “rational worldview”), but pragmatic ones (religion sucks because it is useless).