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Religious Education—and Other Oxymorons
Mike Treder   Aug 20, 2009   Ethical Technology  

Does religion have any proper role in education? Can faith-based teachings, whether conducted in school, at home, or in places of worship be of benefit to individuals and societies?

Some might say that this is a question for individuals and parents to answer for themselves, that neither the state nor any other group has the right to tell someone what they can believe or how they should raise their children.

But how far does that argument go? At what point does it stop making sense and become simply an excuse for perpetuating ignorance? What about when parents deny medical care to their sick children and rely on prayer to heal them—and then those kids die? Nearly all of us would agree that such abrogation of parental responsibility constitutes abuse and should be punished or better yet prevented. But is that qualitatively different from inculcating children with a belief in a strong version of God: an actual powerful invisible supreme being who sets rules and enacts punishment or grants rewards? Is teaching kids that prayer works—when all evidence suggests otherwise—denying them a fair chance at success in life, disadvantaging them versus their secular peers?

It’s a touchy subject. I am a naturalist, a secular humanist, a non-believer, an atheist, but among technoprogressives there are some who count themselves as believers, whether in an Abrahamic faith or in one of the Eastern religions. Often they will claim that spiritual beliefs or practices help them not only to be better persons but also to think more clearly, to be more rational (which seems a contradiction to me, although YMMV).

Some studies suggest that religious believers are generally happier and better adjusted than atheists (not really surprising if you regard ignorant bliss as preferable to existential angst), while other studies say the opposite.

So, is religion off-limits for discussion here? Is the matter too personal, and is it maybe not politically correct to raise such questions?

What prompted me to think about this a recently updated Arab Human Development Report from the United Nations Development Program. As highlighted in this article, we learn that:

  • 65 million Arab adults are illiterate.
  • Greece translates five times more books from English into Greek annually than the entire Arab world translates from English into Arabic.
  • The G.D.P. of Spain is greater than all of the 22 Arab nations combined.

Other serious problems identified include:

  • Raging deficits in human liberties, women’s rights, “knowledge-creation.”
  • All but zero economic growth for nearly the entire region, in spite of vast oil monies.
  • Rising desertification, water shortages, population explosion, manifest unemployment.
  • No real investment in scientific research, local industries, community innovation.
  • Autocratic and unrepresentative Arab governments, threatening not supporting human security.
  • An unacceptable lack of moral and material foundation in the personal lives of the majority of the 317 million people who live in the region.

Now, is it just a coincidence that religious belief is much higher in majority Arab countries than in most other places? Is it a factor than in many Arab nations, their governmental system is a strict theocracy?

But wait, maybe it is only a coincidence. In the same article cited above, Rabbi Ben Kamin happily congratulates Israel, another nation that is (arguably) theocratic, on its “universal health care, world-class university system, and 99% literacy rate.”

So, perhaps it’s not religion itself that is the problem, but the particular religion. Oh boy, now we’re really getting deep into it…

I’m not here today to propose any solutions (although I have pretty strong ideas about what’s right and wrong in the debate), but only to raise the basic question, to ask whether you think religion should be out of bounds in a technoprogressive conversation.

Is it too touchy? Too personal? Too ambiguous of a subject?

Or maybe you think we ought to feel bold and wade on in, because, after all, it’s those deeply personal and strongly emotional issues that so often play a vital role in determining our political positions and public policies. Shall we be brave and take them on, in a spirit of honest and respectful discussion?

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.



COMMENTS

I am fairly convinced that sooner or later, theocracy will shove aside fact for fiction (i.e. faith).  In the arab-speaking countries you cited, religion is used to perpetuate poverty and funnel the control of resources and revenue through the hands of the military-industrial elite.  This happens in South America, where the predominant theology is Christian. 

As for the example of Israel as ‘other’ or exception to the theory, I think maybe it is little different.  The access to education and societal benefits which amount to the shared benefit of the society’s resources and revenue - are not available to all.  The Palestinians in Gaza & West Bank see a different set of benefits.  They live behind a wall which separates them, quite literally into another world that is defined by dogma and not fact.

I think that your article points to dogma (based on vanity and ignorance) being used as a substitute for reason and as a hammer for oppression.  I think this is a good piece, but completely disagree that Israel is proof of any difference in the impact of dogma nor the intentions behind it.

That’s my view.  I may be wrong.

I hope you’ll proceed, Mike. Religion has extraordinary power, for better or worse; we need to understand why and how to encourage the better.

Yes.  I agree with Lincoln.  For transhumanism to be successful, we have to learn how to wield successfully the power of the great religious mythologies, which for the most part contain existential metaphors for the redeeming powers of the universe’s evolutionary mechanism.

That is how a transhumanist may interpret the spiritual traditions of humanity, not with fundamentalism or literality (for which education is certainly required to see beyond), but with a fuller understanding that synthesizes BOTH the past and the future. Most transhumanists are too eager to throw out the past in order to achieve the future.

“Some studies suggest that religious believers are generally happier and better adjusted than atheists (not really surprising if you regard ignorant bliss as preferable to existential angst), while other studies say the opposite. ”—- From the ‘other studies’ link:“This new survey reports that confident nonbelievers are more emotionally healthy with respect to ‘fence sitters’ or religious doubters, shows that ‘spirituals’ report less satisfaction with their lives than those who identify with other self-labels, and suggests that the common assumption that greater religiosity relates to greater happiness and life satisfaction is not quite true,” says a release from the Center for Inquiry (CFI), a leading association of secularists, humanists, agnostics and atheists “

I’d feel more comfortable with the objectivity of the study if the release came from a group that was an association of those four sets of people PLUS religious people, wouldn’t you?

On a different note: While we’re talking about what might be governmentally forbidden to teach your children, shouldn’t we also talk about what should be governmentally /obligated/ to teach our children?

” Israel, another nation that is (arguably) theocratic,”
I invite the readers here to click on the link (on the word ‘arguably’) and tell us whether you feel like the author is out of his stinking gourd.

Mike, I have a question on your statement:
~~Is teaching kids that prayer works:when all evidence suggests otherwise:denying them a fair chance at success in life, disadvantaging them versus their secular peers? ~~

Isn’t it true that over fifty percent of doctors believe that prayer works? Whether it works or not, I’m talking about doctors. Successful people. Not disadvantaged. So I don’t understand how they might have been “denied a fair chance at success in life.”

After saying that it is “arguably” theocratic, saying that you’re “not claiming that Israel *is* a theocratic state; just that the argument can be made, and it often is” is an appropriate backtracking, I suppose.

I am starting a new research project in which papers like this are very useful, and perhaps you can send me more information.

The *hypothesis* is that the exclusion of women from roles of religious authority is an obstacle to the *integral human development of both men and women*.

If so, religious institutions in which worship is always presided by a male are a significant obstacle to sustainable human development. And if so, these religious institutions should reconsider the social harm they are doing and the doctrines being used to rationalize the perpetuation of male-only religious hierarchies.

Could you point me to *scientific evidence* (as required in the social sciences) that validates/invalidates the hypothesis?

I would be grateful to hear from you.

Sincerely,
Luis

Luis T. Gutierrez, PhD
Editor, PelicanWeb Journal of Sustainable Development
http://www.pelicanweb.org ~ .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
A monthly, free subscription, open access e-journal.

Luis, I’m curious how one quantifies “integral (or sustainable) human development.” Thanks.

Mike, I know the feeling, and constantly work at patience, which (perhaps ironically) my religion both advocates and necessitates. During those moments when I’m more patient than others, I value both the advocation and the necessity.

If the gov’t is going to tell people what they can’t teach their own children, they’re going to need enforcers. So here’s an imagined conversation between a lowly, but loyal, government educational enforcement cop (g.e.e.c) and a head-of-his-department physician who believes in prayer.
GEEC: You’ve been caught by a neighbor teaching your children how to pray. This is your first warning.
DOC: What do you care whether I teach my children how to pray or not?
GEEC: Well you are denying them a fair chance at success in life, disadvantaging them versus their secular peers. Think about how YOU could have been if you didn’t believe in prayer.
DOC: You’re right, I could have been a geec.

The most practicable way to promote compassion and the acceptance of other cultures is through knowledge and understanding. Notice the use of the word acceptance here, as most organised religions freely promote the use of “tolerance” of other cultures and religious and non-religious beliefs. I believe this is a mistake (or maybe not such a mistake?) upon their part. For example most preach that it is compassionate to be “tolerant” of other peoples beliefs, yet at the same time enforces the opinion that you need not accept these beliefs, or these cultures, or in fact these peoples? This serves to divide us and serves to enforce their own doctrines.

And the same also applies to hard line atheists, who may themselves be very “tolerant” of religious beliefs, yet ultimately see them as either irrelevant or a threat to their own beliefs and positions. Note an atheist may not believe in a creator or God, yet this position is yet another belief in itself, it is merely a different viewpoint.

Education of our children, and self-education and enquiry by us as adults is the key to be able to make a personal qualified decision regarding the matters of science, philosophy, ethics and religions. It is with the knowledge of different cultures and religions that we may make choices based upon fact and not upon ignorance. And hopefully enable us to make choices which include both compassion and personal responsibility for our thoughts and actions, (existentialism : once more).

So : Theology should be on the list of every school curriculum around the world. And it was included to some degree when I was young, and I have reaped the benefits of such, although I am still learning of other religions and cultures even today, (it is of interest).

I believe by encouraging an interest and understanding of theology, philosophies and science, the world’s peoples will naturally select and steer towards an existential path, and a natural tendency towards a common understanding and that of common goals and values will emerge?
History has shown us that this is indeed the case, the rise of the Roman Christian church was more a case of necessity than of choice, and the whole Christian and Islamic religious movements around the world could only have taken place with the acceptance and sanction of its followers. Yet it is the political powers of the established churches and governments that stand in the way of change.

Is the problem of associated poverty the result of religious beliefs or political powers?

Unfortunately, I have to admit that there are certain so called “third world” countries whose governments know full well that it is in the best interests of power and control to suppress their peoples using organised religion and religious beliefs. This is ultimately doomed to fail, as information services and the world evolves and becomes a smaller place to exist for all of us, and doomed to fail because ultimately peoples will become enlightened and educated in the ways of the world. However, the fundamentalists and zealots will not go down without a fight it seems, so it is only with knowledge and freedom of choice that we may overcome these prejudices.

Apologies for the length of this post : it began life as a single paragraph!

“Note an atheist may not believe in a creator or God, yet this position is yet another belief in itself, it is merely a different viewpoint.”

This argument is ignorant and I’m sick of hearing or seeing it. Using the word belief as an umbrella term to justify an assertion of similarity between the two positions is a fallacious argument. There are reasonable and unreasonable beliefs. It is reasonable for me to believe a ring is stored in a ring box and it is unreasonable for me to believe a living elephant is stored in a ring box. You could say the law of identity and the spaghetti monster are both beliefs but to give them equal credibility is absurd.  Atheism and agnosticism are rejections of sets of beliefs based on those beliefs being unreasonable. So let us stop claiming non-belief is just another belief. That is absurd, poor rhetoric and has no epistemological value.

“Can faith-based teachings, whether conducted in school, at home, or in places of worship be of benefit to individuals and societies?”

No.  They’re no longer of benefit to individuals or societies.

Certainly it’s important to learn about religions and their beliefs: they are important historically and culturally. But “faith-based teaching” implies teaching religion as if it had epistemological value, and it has none. Zip. Zilch. Religious faith consists of tradition, emotion, arguments from authority, and magical thinking.

Santeria is big in my neighborhood. I have just as much respect for Santeria as I have for Christianity generally, (and much more than I have for some specific doctrines like biblical inerrancy and predestination,) but teaching a child to believe that slaughtering a pigeon will please the 7 African powers will not benefit that child, not by any reasonable definition of the term “benefit”.

(OK, anyone want to quibble with me? Maybe the belief makes her feel better or her inclusion in her faith-based community promotes social cohesiveness and eases her existential angst. Yippee. Few things are all-bad or all-good, and yes, religion probably evolved for a reason. Nevertheless, I think the primary point of education is to teach people true things about the world around them, and those 7 Powers don’t exist and that pigeon died in vain. The kid’s better off not being taught to think that imaginary things have the same ontological status as real things, is what I’m saying.)

Do I think faith-based teaching should be outlawed? No.  Individual liberty is important, too, and not everything that is wrong or even immoral is, or should be, illegal. Less extreme faith-based teaching—say, teaching the tenets of one’s faith in a sectarian school or in Sunday School—isn’t always harmful. But it has the pedagogical value of instructing kids that Santa prefers chocolate chip to sugar cookies with his milk, and Darwin damn me if I can see any benefit in it.

Teach kids to reason; teach them critical thinking. Teach them comparative mythology and the history of religion. Teach them to THINK, and let them decide for themselves what they believe.  JMO; apologies for length.

@Stacy: “Less extreme faith-based teaching—say, teaching the tenets of one’s faith in a sectarian school or in Sunday School—isn’t always harmful.”

That’s true, it’s harmful only 98% of the time.

@AP: “There are reasonable and unreasonable beliefs. It is reasonable for me to believe a ring is stored in a ring box and it is unreasonable for me to believe a living elephant is stored in a ring box. “

That’s true too. And it’s reasonable to believe that this little dot just happened to explode into 10^18 stars.

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