Religion in Schools?

3492674549_80fc0a1122I teach an online course on Religion in the Modern World (probably would have been best to name it “post-modern” world but that’s not my call).  In that course, we discuss the role of (in any) religion has within schools.  Here are a few thoughts that I’ve shared with my students along that journey.  Maybe you will find them enlightening, maddening…you choose.  

To be fully human, there must be an appreciation for that which is beyond the purely material.  Materialism, though on the surface a verifiable and popular philosophy, is in the final analysis a fatalistic and meaningless “religion.”  If life’s meaning is based upon only that which is material, humanity is in sad shape indeed.  No “Utopianistic” theory or reality could answer the deeper realities that most humans seek out of life.  Pure materialism is bankrupt in moving humanity toward meaningful existence.  The purely material can be destroyed, diseased, or rendered meaningless by many of the realities of life.  That being said, human beings are not just material beings.  Most would agree that human beings have a spiritual dimension in their lives as well…hence the word, “being.”

Here is something for you to “chew on”…

If we grasp Being, we will need to clarify the meaning of Being, or “sense” of Being.  A “Sense of Being” precedes any notions of how or in what manner any particular being or beings exist, it is pre-conceptual, non-propositional, and hence pre-scientific.  Some Philosophers and Religious thinkers believe that fundamental ontology (the nature of being) would be an explanation of the understanding preceding any other way of knowing, such as the use of logic, theory, specific ontology or act of reflective thought. In this manner, our sense of being is teeming with or “dripping” with meaning beyond the material.  In some of the work I have done, I discovered that one philosopher, (interestingly enough, one influenced by Nihilism) Heidegger, argues that a true understanding of being can only proceed by referring to MYSTERY.   The Mystery of Being can only be understood in, what Heidegger calls, “the hermeneutic circle.”  That “circle” is that which includes a variety of human experience and expression that acts as a “phenomenological interpretation” (i.e. interpretation of that which is beyond the material).  To be VERY clear, students can only achieve a sense of meaning in their education as they wrestle with reality beyond that which is purely materialistic.  Because of that, there must be exposure to as well as bold, productive conversation regarding life’s “mysteries” (I would state that religiously) or transcendent realities. 

In addition – another side note – I would contend that materialism is just as much of a “theo-logy” as believing in God.  If our understanding of “God” is that to which we give ultimate allegiance, in materialism, ultimate reality is material.  So essentially, materialism is the cultural deity.  Another insight that I have entertained is that IF materialism is our deity, then it is “worshipped” at the altar of expressive individualism, that being, the deification of self that is, in its utmost expression, the only way materialism has meaning (if it is understood narcissistically).  In other words, MY materialism only has meaning for me…it cannot have meaning for you because your materialism differs.  I contend that in order to promote healthy human growth and maturation within schools we MUST find ways to discuss the spiritual.  Our problem is that so often conversation of the transcendent “mystery” of life, the universe and existence is BOGGED DOWN with religiosity.  In other words, we get into a “pissing match” between religious systems as adherents vie for power and control of the “mystery.”  As I have mentioned in many past posts, dualism (that which poses everything in “us vs. them” realities) is ultimately that which keeps us fearful of engaging in spiritual conversation.  We are so “paranoid” of pushing one particular system or giving religiously biased guidance that we “throw the baby out with the bathwater”…in other words, we get rid of religious exposure to students.  You know what is really a “bummer?”  In the USA, we brought this on ourselves…we used the school system as indoctrination centers propagating one specific religious system for a LONG time.  Because of that we have a pendulum swing against ALL religions.

I sincerely believe that to say that there is a spiritual side of life IN school does not mean that we are promoting religious indoctrination.  I think we have to take it for granted that that side of life exists and NOT demean it.   One of my doctoral students commented to me recently,  “Learning about religions of the world and how people have chosen to express their spirituality is perfectly useful for students in developing their cultural mindfulness, respect, and tolerance; learning a certain religion, religious practices and dogmas of the majority religion group is detrimental to students in schools.”

Again, that last sentence is the reality that the system is reacting against…we can decide and, I believe, MUST decide to find ways to express appreciation for that which is “supernatural” and mysterious within human existence to be fully human.

Another one of my students wrote something that got me thinking – they proposed that maybe there could be Charter Schools dedicated to Religious Studies.  I think it is a provocative idea to explore Charter Schools that take religion seriously.  If we take Charter Schools and dedicate them to medicine, science, music, etc. why not explore the other aspect of the humanities, religion?  I find it extremely interesting to consider the idea that there could be a school where spirituality would be holistically explored.

“A purely secular society simply cannot survive in the long run due to historical and conflictual realities that make up the spiritual being of people on this planet.” 

Secularism, I fear, once fully embedded in culture will lead to a bankruptcy of the human experience.  Existential meaning and purpose (which is the foundation of many people’s religious experience) is beyond the “cold hard facts” of secularism.  Politics do not have meaning ultimately in people’s lives.  Political competition between have and have-nots, the powerful and powerless only takes us backward to a primitive struggle for self, power, and control.

In my humble opinion, Secularism is driven by materialism and sensualism, that being, only appreciating that which can be sensually experienced but has no meaning outside of it.  Again, I find that extremely depressing and ultimately nihilistic.

Inevitably, when the subject of religion and schools is broached, someone is bound to mention the separation of church and state.  Even so, remember, the separation of church and state was not meant to clear the public sphere “deck” of religion but actually PROTECT religion from the interference of the state.  We have reversed that to assume that since education is NOW the state’s prerogative, that we must separate it from religion.  I believe that is a mistaken interpretation of the church/state concept.  Yes, religion can be abusive but the state, bankrupt of any meaning beyond the political and material, is ultimately meaningless existing only for the benefit of itself, not for its constituents.

“Religion is not an unmitigated good; it can be a repository of evil as well.  But that is precisely why religion needs attention.  It has too much power to be ignored, and it is too enmeshed in life to be treated as irrelevant to the choices people make and the ways in which societies organize themselves.”

I would say that the fear of religious indoctrination is unfounded.  I believe that a sharing of ALL of human existence in schools would be productive.  There are other academic disciplines that can be and often are as dogmatic and in-doctrinaire.

One Scholar (Florian) who grew up in a Communist country said, “First and foremost, there is no chance in ever removing religion from the public school system.”  When he wrote that that, “resonated with me immediately because I am, in fact, the product of a communist public school system that for more than 50 years removed and actively fought against any religious education or even referrals to religious beliefs in its curricula.”  We DO HAVE in history specific examples of the futility of schools without religious beliefs and conversations.  We can see very specifically how THAT turned out.

Here are my final thoughts – Political correctness and secularistic globalism are gutting the schools of robust spiritual conversations…overreacting to the past is not a way to ensure a viable future.  In the end, I find myself agreeing with a friend of mine when he articulated something that for me was a “well, duh?”

“I am not going to pretend to know the answer, but I feel as though public schools are doing students a disservice.  Though a good portion of my students have some form of religious or moral grounding there are some whom do not.  I do not know that it is the school system’s job to help students’ build a belief system, but why are more schools not educating students in an objective manner when it comes to the field of religion?  Some of my students whom will choose to go to college/university will get some form of objective teaching, so why not give all students in secondary public education the same opportunity?” 


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