Writing at a New Place

July 15, 2010

Please check me out at The Busy Signal a blog that covers a wide variety of topics, themes, and political persuasions.

Approaching Lent

February 14, 2010

Lent starts on Wednesday.  Almost every year that I can remember, I’ve given up something for Lent.  It’s something I find for me is an integral part of my year.  It’s not required by the Episcopal Church, and I don’t think I even do it for religious reasons.  I’ve taken the religious tradition and turned it into a semi-secular ritual for myself.  It’s not about self-deprecation.  It’s not about getting closer to God.  In some ways I think it’s for self discipline and personal improvement, but primarily its a way for me to mark the time.

In the past I’ve given up the usuals: chocolate, candy, meat.  I’ve fasted.  But i also use the time for contemplation.  (I’m hoping that means I spend more time writing and reflecting for this blog.)  It’s not a bad time to start a diet, either, cutting out very fatty foods.

I won’t be giving up meat again. I won’t be fasting.  I probably will try to avoid meat on Fridays, but that’s typical for me anyway.  I won’t be giving up alcohol.  I won’t be giving up chocolate.  The plan is to give up computer games (other than scrabble/solitaire) which enables me to focus on other aspects of my life.  Spend time not in front of my computer, read more books, watch movies I’ve been meaning to watch.  Spend time with Mike.  Reflect on the meanings of things.  Fight depression.  Get back to knitting.

I’ve found that Lent provides me important opportunities to reflect, even when I’m not going to church.  Perhaps i lack the discipline at other points during the year, but I don’t succeed as thoroughly during other seasons.  Perhaps that’s growing up as a clergy kid and marking much of my life by the liturgical year.  Or maybe the distinct end point of Easter makes more of a difference.

I’ll be giving up things for Lent this year, whether or not I make it to an Ash Wednesday service.  And for me, it’s a return to my self, looking inward, but giving outward in return.

“Have Faith In Love”

February 8, 2010

New York Times Op-ed piece from Sunday Feb 7.  “Have Faith In Love”  Go read it now.  It’s the best piece written on Anglicanism since Mary Glasspool was elected Bishop of LA.

“God is love.”  That’s the central theme of this piece.  Honestly, I have very little to add other than my affirmations.  Eric Lax’s piece is everything a progressive Christian of any denomination wants to read, though especially heartening to an Episcopalian and friend of Glasspool. 

Why is this piece better than all other pieces?  It hits upon the central message of Christianty-  love.  Love is the most important aspect of our religion.  Love instead of greed, instead of lust, instead of sin.  Without love we are lost.  Devout christo-centric Christians will say without Christ’s love we lost.  Others will say that Christ and Love are equivalent.  In my mind, Love is its own power, Christ’s or God’s, it doesn’t matter.  I’m always hesitant to say that we all worship the same God in the end.  I’m confident that we all have the capacity to Love and be guided by the same Love as every other human.

Says Lax:

My own faith has eroded over the years, though my father’s belief in the supremacy of love still guides me. And so I can’t help but wonder, how can Christians not recognize and honor love that binds two people, any two people, together unto themselves? And if a priest has fulfilled her sacred duties with the distinction that persuades those to whom she would minister to elect her their bishop, and has led an open life of committed love that honors the essence of their God, why should her choice of a partner matter?

Atheism as Religion

February 3, 2010

In the Washington Post this morning I found a blog I should have been reading a lot longer: The Spirited Atheist.  In this installment, Susan Jacoby declares the need for atheists to define themselves.  She respectfully disagrees with Stephen Prothero in his post in USA Today about the “Gentler Atheists” despite Prothero’s inclusion of Jacoby in his list of the gentler atheists.  Prothero, my ever wonderful graduate adviser with whom I tend to respectfully disagree as well, says that the strong-fisted atheism of Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris is heading towards extinction.  He sees women, like Jacoby, replacing the hard-line angry-white-man-atheist variety.  Jacoby, while not completely dissenting, says that Prothero’s piece “is a perfect example of all of the distortions of atheism cherished by anti-atheists.”  She takes the remainder of her column debunking the “Myths of Atheism.”  As a historian of religion with several students working on secularism-related projects, I’m surprised that Prothero is guilty of assuming some of these myths.  Or that he neglected to acknowledge them in his article.  I’m not surprised that Prothero’s list is almost entirely women, since he’s about as far from an angry-white-man scholar of religion as can be.  (Though he is still unmistakeably a white man from Massachusetts.)  Sorry Steve, the concept of categorizing atheists into “gentle” and “hardline” isn’t going to cut it for me.  And I’m going to guess that if I’d handed Steve a paper on atheism, he’d say the same to me.

Jacoby’s myths of atheism (for her complete explain go read her blog):

Myth No. 1: The “new atheism” is a phenomenon that differs radically not only from atheism as it has existed since antiquity but from the views held by forerunners of modern atheism, including deists and Enlightenment rationalists, like Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, who played such a critical role in the founding of this nation. Try as I might, I find little in the works of Dawkins, Harris et. al.–apart from their knowledge of modern science–that differs significantly from the views of secular thinkers of earlier eras. What is different is that today’s atheists are not hiding behind other labels, such as agnosticism, in order to placate religious sensibilities. …

Myth No. 2: Atheists think all religious believers are stupid. …

Myth No. 3: This brings us to the most common false stereotype about atheism–that it is a religion and, furthermore, that “atheist fundamentalism” is as intolerant as conventional religious fundamentalism. …

Myth No. 4: Atheists believe that science explains everything. No. We believe that science offers the best possibilities for explaining what we do not yet understand. Science–in contrast to religion–is a method of thought and exploration, not a set of conclusions based on unchallengeable assumptions. Science is always open to the possibility that its conclusions may be proved wrong by new evidence based on new experimentation and observation. Monotheistic religion’s bedrock assumption is the existence of a god who always was and always will be. Atheists (at least those with a scintilla of scientific knowledge) would never claim that the universe always was and always will be.

Myth No. 5: Atheists deny the possibility of “transcendent” experience. They can’t see beyond the material world. This stereotype is partially true, but it all depends on what you mean by transcendent. …

Myth No. 4 I will talk about in depth later when I address more science and religion concepts.  But in the meantime, I’ll say only that one who puts complete and infallible faith in science is as guilty as anyone with blind faith.  It’s rare that you’ll find a critically thinking person, religious or not, scientist or not, who would say that they don’t believe that science to a certain extent provides some of the “best possibilities for understanding” and that it is a method of thought and exploration in a way that religion can never be.

Myth No. 2 is what I spent most of my senior project talking about.  At a liberal arts school, you’re likely to find more atheists in a religion class than religious students.  (On the other hand, at most liberal arts campuses, I think you’re more likely to find atheists than religious students anyway.)  Only an ignorant atheist will consider religious person unintelligent.  I can only speak from experience, but I believe that my parents, both priests, are very smart, intelligent and very well-educated people, both holding terminal degrees in their fields (Mom has MDiv, Dad has MDiv, MTh, and DMin).  Many members of my church are MDs or PhDs.  And most atheists recognize that.

Myth No. 1 was my entire freshman year of college.  Bard’s First Year Seminar program “What is Enlightenment?” and the “Limits of Reason.”  Most of the philosophical atheists I know will spout Kant, et al.  Those who don’t quote the Enlightenment folk directly are paraphrasing their thoughts, know it or not.

Myth No. 5 I’m still undecided about.  I’m honestly not sure whether I think atheists can have transcendent experiences and consider themselves still atheist.  Jacoby is right, it depends on the definition of transcendent.  HOWEVER, i’m going to wager a guess that they can experience the transcendent, it’s called communitas, and it doesn’t have to come from a strictly religious experience.

And that brings me to Myth No. 3, what Jacoby thinks is the most common misconception of atheism.  And here is where I will disagree with her, and why I am still Prothero’s student after all.  While there is no “United Church of Atheism” it still falls under two types of religious categories.  It is one of John Cobb’s pseudo-religions, something like Marxism that may not fall under an organized religion but that still promotes belief and ethics.  Speaking of it as a sociological phenomenon, atheism is also a religion in the sense that it has every right to be categorized as a religionIn this sense, atheism is very similar to the spiritual-but-not-religious category.  There is no s-b-n-r seminary (schools for Wiccans do not count, Wicca is a religion), there is no Church of Spirituality, but there are groups of people who believe.  As a religio-sociological phenomenon to be studied by a scholar, that’s all that needs to count!  There can, and are, atheist fundamentalists, though more and more often I don’t always see Hitchens as a part of that group.  On the other hand, I think that the atheist fundamentalist character is largely a religious-media invention, just as the ignorant religious character is.

But what Jacoby wants, and what I want as well, is a clear definition of atheism, and of what an atheist is.  There are plenty of dictionary/encyclopedia entries on religion, but even still not enough scholars of religion are talking about atheism!  Once upon a time, our breed talked about secularism, thinking (in the 1960s-ish) that religion would die off in favor of secularism by the 21st century.  Of course everyone who said that was happy enough to eat their words at the inaccuracy of their predictions.  But secularism is still different from atheism in many respects.  Secularism is a belief that can simultaneously be held by a religious individual, and more often than not is one held by s-b-n-r people, because secularism generally implies the desire for a separation of the public and the private, the political and the religious.  (A very Protestant belief.) And for basic argument’s sake, an atheist is one who denies the existence of God.

But why isn’t “gentle atheist” an acceptable category?  Because it places a gender on religion or on atheism.  These are not things that need to be gendered!  Steve is a recovering Second Wave feminist trying to transition his way into the Third Wave.  I know this from conversations related to my MA thesis.  My understanding of the Third Wave, which in religion crosses more into Queer Theology, is to move beyond gender categories as identification.  Perhaps under old academic regimes and rigor it’s worth feminizing aspects within religion, but there is little point in doing so as socio-religious category at this point.

So here I am talking about academic categories, but that’s what Prothero will always be thinking about, as a historian of religion.  We religionists live and breathe on academic categorizations, even those like me who are trying to break out of the mold.  So let’s start defining atheism, but without gendered categories.  Let’s look at atheism as another religion–the academic construct of religion, that is–and define the faith that Jacoby and Hitchens share to a certain extent.

As always, more to think about later.  I will, however, probably always stand by my point that atheism is a religion.  And that’s primarily because I was academically raised on Geertz’s definition of religion:

(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic (Geertz 1985: 4)

Pardon the Momentary Lapse in Posting

January 18, 2010

Dear friends who follow this blog,

My apologies to those of you eagerly awaiting to next post.  My boyfriend recently underwent ACL Reconstruction surgery, and I’ve been helping care for him for the last week.  Hopefully I will find the time and energy to resume posting shortly.  Until then, I’ll be playing video games and watching Simpsons and West Wing with him.

Meg

The Second Post on Science and Religion

January 11, 2010

Another one inspired by 13:7.  Their post (from a week ago) starts by asking “Is an Equation on a T-shirt Enough?” 

Perhaps not on a t-shirt, but what about a tattoo?

My 4th tattoo

So that’s not TOE, The Theory of Everything, clearly, but it is a theory of everything within classical statistical mechanics.  And i spent a year tearing apart the equation, so I figured it was a worthy tattoo.

You cannot reduce everything to one equation.  I think any physicist will admit this.  And a TOE equation isn’t going to make sense to most people.  In fact, one of the most recognizable equations, E=mc^2 isn’t one that’s understood by most high school students. The goal of TOE is not to unravel the world, eliminate God, or diminish history.

This post is less about the theories of science and beliefs of religion than it is about the academic methods of both fields.  It’s about reductionism, and what it means to model an equation or to model a religion.  It’s a shorter version of a paper I wrote my first year of grad sch0ol, actually.

Models–equations and definitions–are utilitarian by design, meant as a guide and as a map.  Jonathan Z. Smith, one of my favorite religious theorists/historians of religion, wrote an essay called “Map is Not Territory” about 35 years ago.  His basic argument is that there are two kinds of maps or models, those of and those for.  A model of describes.  A model for is more like a map, an equation used to determine an outcome or a part of the process.  TOE would be a model of, once you reduce the theories of forces to a simple equation, it isn’t particularly usable anymore.  Something like religion is a model for.  It’s not meant to describe the workings of the universe, it’s meant to provide a guideline and a framework towards ethics, behavior, and community.  When a religion does serve as a model of, I at least prefer to think of it in terms of Buddhist or Hindu descriptions of the universe.  My favorite is one in which the earth is held up by a turtles all the way down.  These are models of that are so ridiculous that you can think of them only in simile, and in my opinion, provide more room to think and contemplate the nature of the universe. 

Of course there are examples of religions that are models of and equations that are models for.  What it comes down to, though, is that models–as equations and as religions–have their uses.  It isn’t reductionism to respect a model for what it is: a shorthand description for or of that which is represents.  No a t-shirt isn’t enough, nor is a tattoo, but for those who understand the mechanism of the equation, it opens up an entire universe.

My Favorite Quotes About Religion

January 11, 2010

I tend to collect a lot of quotes.  I used to more often.  When I was in high school I used to write quotes and thoughts on sticky notes and put them all over my wall.  There was a section by my bed that looked like sticky-noted wall paper.  A lot of those quotes were about religion, and I’ve been in the habit of collecting religion quotes (also definitions of religion) for the last 8 years or so.

Along with my comments about Reductionism in Religion and Science Part 2, it should be noted that while these quotes do not represent all of religion, they carry the distilled essences of aspects of religious views, beliefs, and practices.  (This is a post that will grow and be added to.  Watch for updates.)

“There is a rumor going around that I have found God. I think this is unlikely, because I have enough difficulty finding my keys, and there is empirical evidence that they exist.” -Terry Pratchett 

This is from a couple years ago, an article by Terry Pratchett in reference to looking towards the end of his life with Alzheimer’s.  “I create Gods all the time, now I think one might exist” reads the headline. He’s joking about thinking one might exist, if you can tell from first quote.  It goes along with what one of my grad school professors said about death and God.  Adam Seligman claimed that everyone starts to turn to God as they get close to the end of their lives.  Erin and I disagreed entirely: “I’m not going to find God on my deathbed if i’ve already spent my whole life disbelieving, why will I suddenly believe, especially when I don’t believe in an afterlife?”  But as Pratchett says, while he might not have found God, persay, he did have a rather hectic moment of understanding.

The Many Wines by Rumi (Coleman Barks translation); excerpt

God has given us a dark wine so potent that,
drinking it we leave the two worlds.

There are thousands of wines
that can take over our minds.
Don’t think all ecstasies
are the same!
Jesus was lost in his love for God.
His donkey was drunk on barley.
Drink from the presence of saints,
not from those other jars.
Every object, every being,
is a jar full of delight.
Be a connoisseur,
and taste with caution.
Any wine will get you high.
Judge like a king, and choose the purest,
the ones unadulterated with fear,
or some urgency about “what’s needed.”
Drink the wine that moves you
as a camel moves when it’s been untied
and is just ambling about.

The Many Wines was the first poem that made me love Rumi.  Here, the wine has always been, to me, a metaphor about religion and belief.  “Be a connoisseur/and taste with caution” and “any wine will get you high” warn about the dangers of sects that inspire only ecstasy and religious high and not true spiritual depth.

I’ll let you know when I find a connection to the Pratchett quote with this Rumi.

Mary Daly: Her Death and Her Impact on Feminist Theology

January 7, 2010

Mary Daly, feminist theologian, died Sunday in Gardner, MA at the age of 81.

Possibly the most radical feminist in the United States–worldwide, second perhaps only to Luce Irigaray–Daly set a standard for rigorous feminist theological inquiry.  She stepped on more than just toes with her books such as The Church and the Second Sex, Beyond God the Father, and Gyn/Ecology. 

You can read her obituary to find out what else she did.  I want to briefly judge her impact on feminist culture.  A classic Second Wave feminist, Daly falls into the category of “anger.”  Many second wavers were angry at the masculinity of the culture.  In my MA thesis, I use Daly’s writings as an example of the second wave in comparison with Kali, the Indian goddess.  Kali stomps around the battlefield in her destructive dance, drinking the blood of her enemie, tongue lolling in representation of her angry passion.  Second wave feminism capitalized on its anger and made the noise of Kali.  And yet midway through its movement, it found a different kind of hope.  Daly reflects in her preface to Beyond God the Father the changes in the five years since she had written The Church and the Second Sex, “[Beyond God the Father] [encasulates] essentially the same anger and the same hope…[as] the wellsprings of this book, but that the focus has shifted…”  (Daly xxxiii).  The focus moves away from the anger of being denied a place in religion and towards a reconstructionist theology productively allowing women’s religious participation. 

What kind of an impact has Daly had on the feminist movement within religion? I like to think that her overall theological influence has been positive, despite her radical methods and writing.  I think that she changed not only the feminist outlook, but by making enough Kali-esque noise she influenced the shape of mainstream Christian theology.  Her efforts to talk about a “post-Christian” ideology resonate with the post-modern/colonial/etc trend of rejecting traditional modes. 

I cannot blame Mary Daly for this alone, but her anger at patriarchal society contributed to a newer trend in young women: distrust of the second wave and therefore of feminism in general.  Two years ago, as a first year grad student at Boston Univeristy, I took a class with Donna Freitas on women and spirituality.  There were three grad students, myself, my best friend Erin, and our friend Kat.  All three of us are very liberal politically and socially, and all three of us are ardent feminists because that’s how our mothers raised us.  The rest of the class was mostly senior girls–all either Communications or College of Arts and Sciences majors–very intelligent, but who couldn’t wrap their heads around the concept of feminism.  “So what’s a feminist?” asked one girl nearly every day.  Others kept saying, “Yeah, I believe in womens’ rights, but i’m not a feminist.  I don’t hate men.” (Or “I’m not a lesbian. How could I be feminist?”)  These questions baffled us grad students and our professor.  Our question was, “How could this have happened?”  Even then, I think we pointed fingers to the radical second wave women, and Mary Daly, for all her brilliance, was as I said, the most radical.  Her reputation for not letting men take her classes is imfamous, and ultimately forced her to retire from Boston College.  And these classmates of mine were perhaps a little shallow, judging second wave feminists by their appearance as butch and not put-together, giving them less credibility. 

We couldn’t have gotten to where we are today without women like Mary Daly.  Anger and disappointment, but also hope, drove the second wave and helped to form the third wave, where we are now.   Daly merely theologized what other women were already thinking, talking, and acting out.  And she did so with the ferocity, strength and yet the underlying poise of Kali.

The First of Many Posts on Science and Religion

December 29, 2009

I was going to post on something completely different, and possibly Christmas related.  But I was wandering around the NPR website and came across a blog post in “13.7: Cosmos and Culture” called “What Connects Science and Religion.” The author suggests that there will be other posts from the group of contributors on similar subjects in the future.  I predict similarly for my blog, having double majored in a science (physics) and religion (pluralism).  Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at University of Rochester, and author of the above blog post, writes beautifully about his atheism:

For my part I am a-theistic. A willful intelligent deity whose powers and properties need to be articulated in a way that does not conflict with an order already articulated through scientific investigation does not make much sense to me as a physicist. A Being who decides on the Red Socks one year and the Yankees the next doesn’t match my lived sense of a universe that unfolds on its own – a universe whose mystery is its own. At the same time I can’t find much in common with the rabid schools of atheists that seem to believe they speak for science. Seeing only the horror and blindness religion have generated (no argument there) they willfully blind themselves to the full range of beauty, compassion, and insight that human spiritual endeavor have generated across time.

Responding briefly to Frank’s remarks seems as good as any a place to begin my own thoughts.  Indeed, I agree that a “Being that decides on the Red Sox one year and the Yankees the next” doesn’t seem a natural deity.  Why would a deity choose the Yankees anyway?  I especially appreciate his rejection of the atheists who “willfully blind themselves to the full range of beauty, compassion, and insight…” For truly how can people, even those who do not believe, not appreciate the great works of wonder and love both written and shared amongst people.  To not appreciate that beauty is to not appreciate humanity to its fullest.  Later in his post he talks about not holding science as the highest “box of answers”, needing to respect all options.

I’m not really responding to Frank’s post directly, though, because I have a lot to say about science and religion on my own first.  His post was the spark for this one, in part because of his elegant words of respect for religion.  In an effort to keep this post substantially shorter than the last, I’ll talk in many later posts about the various issues between science and theology and religion, because they are different conflicts.

Beyond the level of awe and mystery, which I certainly appreciate since that is what drew me into physics in the first place, there is the level of practicality and practice.  Never in my life have science and religion conflicted (unless you count class scheduling conflicts in college, and even then it was usually math that conflicted).

In part it’s because science and religion have different purposes.  I don’t consult my physics textbook on Christmas Eve.  And I don’t consult the Bible to solve a problem in fluid dynamics.  (No, the Flood doesn’t count.)  I could write equations about what happens to my voice and the sound waves when I sing a hymn, but that doesn’t tell me anything about the song, or the joy of singing.  It isn’t as simple science is the how and religion is the why, either.  Oversimplifying two great fields of inquiry and life into one word questions reduces them to bumper sticker answers.

It’s also in part because I’m not concerned with theology when I study religion.  And I’m not concerned with creation science (big bang, cosmology) or evolution  or other sciences rejected by conservative religions.  Thermodynamics is such a disregarded field in the first place that it doesn’t draw attention from religious media outlets.  But even sciences like evolution should be supported by religious groups, particularly established ones.  I know my church, among many others, has been celebrating the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species. Liberal churches have thrown support behind Darwin yet again upholding method of inquiry as a manner of faith.

And that brings me to my concluding point of this post: continuing inquiry as a link between religion and science.  I mentioned in an early entry that Episcopalians are raised to continually question–and therefore strengthen–their beliefs.  I don’t know much about Judaism, but Torah study seems to me a similar establishment.  Even forms of mysticism, particularly Sufism, endeavor to “let go” while asking about their faith.  The same holds with science.  Dogmatic science is as dangerous as dogmatic religion.  As a physicist I was taught to “Never stop asking questions” (paraphrasing Einstein), and I found that as soon as I stopped I no longer understood what I studied.  My senior project, “Investigations in ‘Intermediate’ Statistical Mechanics” focused on the examination of one equation (Grand Canonical Ensemble, interestingly enough called the “God Equation” sometimes for its ability to solve nearly all problems in stat mech): for a full year I looked at the pieces of the equation and what happened when you altered one aspect.  It’s what we at Bard used to call “Zog IV” problems, a la Professor Peter Skiff, a world in which the laws of physics are changed drastically forcing us to look at the mechanics of an equation and learn new intuitions.

Inquiry is the greatest tool and link between the two fields, either as academic enterprises or systems of belief.  And to inquire is to respect, which leads me back to the beginning of this post: respect creates a space for inquiry, which creates a space for true dialogue.

Public Education in Faith through Pluralism

December 23, 2009

Teaching Faith in America’s Schools by Dilara Hafiz

The above link is to an article that I found the other morning through ReligionUpdates on twitter.  It’s a well-written examination of education of religion in public schools from a Muslim perspective.  (While you don’t have to read the article before you read this, I recommend it.)

The article opens with: “The challenge of providing basic religious knowledge as part of the American school curriculum needs to be met with a bold, new approach.”  It’s a sentiment I couldn’t agree more with.  Fall 08, I took a class at Harvard Divinity School with Diane Moore, author of “Overcoming Religious Illiteracy” called Religion, Democracy, and Education.  We  read about the history of religion and public education, examined pivotal Supreme Court Cases, interviewed teachers, and looked at several “Bible as Literature” curricula for public schools.  It was among the best of my graduate classes in religion and society, giving light to one of the most heated issues in public [secondary] education.  If we are to teach religion in the public schools, we need to approach it radically: redesigning curriculum from the ground up and restructuring the way Americans view religion.  I cannot promise a full solution, or even a plausible one since so much stands in the way.  But I can examine the history and examine the ways in which religion could fit positively into public schools.

The tagline of the article reads: “Although the roots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are briefly studied in both middle and high school curriculums across the US, the historical focus leaves students unaware of the state of current beliefs and practices, as well as commonalities, within these faith traditions.”  First of all, unless I fell asleep for 7 years of my education (and I’m pretty sure I didn’t, since I graduated with a 3.91 from high school), my public school taught absolutely nothing about religious history and only briefly looked at religious literature.  None of it was Islam.  There were references to Judaism, but mostly to Christianity.  And you would think that Buddhism, Hinduism, Baha’i, Zoroastrianism, Wicca, and, well, anything else religious you can imagine, didn’t even exist.  Never once did I run across a text referencing Hinduism, or even India in high school.  (Fallstonians, correct me if I’m wrong!)  I didn’t know that some of these other religions even existed until college.  Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I went on to study religion in college.  Even still, you would think that Europe was a religious void, that Henry VIII just wanted to get laid and not to start a religious revolution, and that the Crusades were about gaining a bit more land and not religious fervor.  Worst of all, though, is that I didn’t go to a Bible-thumping evangelical school in the South.  I went to Fallston High School, a moderate to conservative public school only 20 minutes south of the Mason-Dixon Line (many of our teachers lived in PA).  Granted I learned nothing of evolution in school and got an abstinence-only sex education, but by limiting my access to an education about religion, the school limited my access to the history, politics, and culture of most of the world!  Thus, I also agree with the author when she says, “the historical focus leaves students unaware of the state of current beliefs and practices, as well as commonalities, within these faith traditions.”  If only I’d gotten some historical focus, then I’d have known at what point the Mughal Empire rose to power in India or when Constantine had a change of faith and lifted laws of persecution against Christians.  I had to wait till college for Constantine and grad school for Mughals.  I’m still trying to figure out some of the lasting effects of Colonialism in India, and can’t remember any of the dates attached other than 1947.  Hafiz presents the best argument I’ve read recently about teaching religion: immanent cultural and political relevance.

From the perspective of current affairs, world politics, globalization, but also for interacting with neighbors, the failure to educate in religion is the failure to prepare students to become global citizens.  Worldwide and at home, religion informs the decisions of leaders, no matter their attempts at separation of faith and politics.

Simultaneously, the deficiency of religious education fails to educate Americans about their neighbors.  Work that the Pluralism Project does provides maps and profiles of the religious landscape in America, showing us that we are no longer a country of different denominations of Christians.  Diana Eck’s book A New Religious America is the landmark publication outlining the history of “Other” religions in the United States, Supreme Court Cases they’ve fought, and what her idea of a pluralist community looks like.  Written for the lay audience, A New Religious America could serve as an introduction to current religious affairs for high school students.  It was published post-9/11, but most of the book was written beforehand, so only the forward addresses more of the 9/11 issues.  Pluralism.org, the Pluralism Project’s website, provides more up-to-date information on various religious groups.

When I posted Hafiz’s article on facebook, I got a range of interesting responses.  Those my age–20-somethings–have no recollection of learning the history of any religion in high school, though Emilia remembered hearing about Abraham in 6th grade.  My mother’s response was, “a necessary challenge to develop such a curriculum. there are scattered resources but nothing comprehensive that i know of (and what would that look like?)”  She makes a good point: some books exist for middle/high school students, though most are geared to be used in a church setting with a youth group.  A friend of mine from church who’s son is a freshman in high school, says that his curriculum requires him to pass classes in world religions, including in depth information on Islam.  According to Lisa, Rhys now watches the news in the Middle East and says, “They’re oversimplifying,” and he now has an opinion on everything.

However, Rhys is a freshman at St. Paul’s School for Boys, a private school in Baltimore City not bound by the same regulations as a public school.  Can we make such a progressive demand on all our school systems?  Sadly, the answer is probably not.  St. Paul’s is affiliated with the Episcopal Church, not taxpayer dollars, and can build its own curriculum based on the needs of the students and of the community, not bound by the Establishment or Free Exercise Clauses.  And while there are not two dichotomous sides the position of teaching religion in a public setting, the grey area causes extreme discomfort.  The two sides generally heard in such a debate are those who want absolutely no religion in public schools and those who want school prayer and no teaching of evolution.  What these two sides are both missing is the issue of education.  Both “sides” of the debate that I’ve mentioned are concerned with the practice of religion in the schools.  Education and practice are completely different issues.  (Something I think Hafiz, author of the original article, would agree with me about.)

Education (and not practice) of Religion in Schools

An education in religion is not a religious education.  To educate about religion does not mean to indoctrinate, to ritualize, or to demand belief.  There are ongoing debates about the study of religion, and whether one must be religious to study religion.  A good resource for this is The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion by Russel T. McCutcheon.  McCutcheon’s volume provides a series of essays on one of the more problematic issues with study of religion.  The question revolves around two similar premises: can you really understand a religion if you are an outsider of the faith and can you really study the religion (or anything) academically if you are an insider?  The positions range from needing to be an insider to have appreciation for the faith, or at least being a religious person, to needing to be as scientifically removed from the field of study, as in anthropology. In my opinion, though, you can absolutely be an atheist and successfully, productively, and respectfully study religion.

So to go about studying religion, you don’t need to be religious, but you need to be respectful of religions.  I don’t believe there’s such a thing as true academic objectivity, because it denies that the researcher is human.  Thus there can be no complete objectivity when it comes to the approach of studying religion, and therefore of teaching it.  I recognize that in a public school one issue will be the Evangelical social studies teacher saying improper or incorrect things about Islam, or the Reform Jewish teacher saying the wrong thing about Hinduism and thus offending everyone.  The first step is training teachers.  Harvard Divinity has a program in which they train those who want to be teachers not specifically in teaching religion in public schools, but in teaching with sensitivity and respect to the students in the class.  [Right now, they cannot train teachers to primarily teach religion because of lack job availability.]

I suppose if we’re going to train teachers, we need to do so along the guidelines of some sort of curriculum.  We really can’t (or can we?)  require high school teachers to take a comprehensive exam in world religions like is required of many religion PhD students.  My best friend just passed her first comp, in world religions, and read almost every intro level text on each religion she could find.  But Erin has also taken intense theory classes (thank you Adam Seligman, once again, for ruining our lives with theory) on the undergraduate and graduate level, and has been studying religion formally for 5 or 6 years now (Erin correct me if I’m wrong on time period there).  Can we ask that of our teachers?  Massachusetts requires all public high school teachers to have at least either an MAT or Master’s level degree in the subject they teach.

What kind of things should be taught?  Go right into teaching tolerance and pluralism?  But even I admit that pluralism is a loaded–probably politically so–term and as an “ism” is a sort of doctrine itself.  But can we approach the study of religion publicly without a form of pluralism.  I’ve written previously about types of pluralism: some forms are theologically and doctrinally plural while others are socially plural.  So while teaching pluralism may be out of the question until children are able to understand the finer nuances of a philosophical argument, using a pluralistic method is almost certainly required.

If you are going to teach religion in schools, you must pay attention to all religions, and not just the three “Abrahamic Faiths”.  I’m not suggesting that equal time is spent on Sikhism and Christianity.  Sikhs, while a very powerful religious group throughout India and the world, don’t have the same number of followers or as long a history.  On the other hand, you cannot spend four weeks on Christianity and one day on Hinduism.

On the other hand, teaching a religion means choosing which aspects of the religion to teach.  Each religion has its own controversial pasts, spin-off branches and cults, and violent histories.  How much of that needs to be taught to a 13-year-old?  For example, I’ve read articles on Hinduism that try to justify sati or the caste system using modern ideals and saying that the culture has progressed beyond that.  How do you explain to a freshman in high school that once upon a time, there were religious laws that enforced the chastity and austerity of widows in India, and that even now there are those still wary of old customs?  At what point does that start imposing external judgment on a foreign culture?  When it comes to Christianity there denominations that rely heavily on the history of the Church (Catholicism and Episcopalianism) while others focus entirely on the relationship with Jesus.

How do you choose what history to teach?  If you have a semester long college class, the answer is slightly easier, but most high schools would squish religion into a few week-long segment in social studies.  I don’t have specific answer, because I am not a team of curriculum experts.

I agree with Hafiz though, we must teach religion in relation to current events.  While I don’t think I ever made it past the 1980s in any history class, more of an effort should be made to include the religion’s ongoing effect on the global economy and on politics of war and peace.

How to go about it? Sensitivity, respect, and well- educated teachers.  Including more religion-as-literature texts.  I read bits of Genesis in high school lit class, but I’d never heard of the Ramayana until college.  Including any classes on religion as extra curricular or as electives may be the place to start, but it cannot be the only goal in introducing youth to religion.  And we cannot rely on parents, who have very little education in religion themselves to introduce their children to the religions of their future coworkers and friends.  It is our duty to ensure education in diversity.  It is our duty to say that while you may not agree with the teachings and practices of every religion, and that it is your right to disagree, each religion deserves respect and the knowledge that for someone that religion is real.