Much of [religious education] is about presenting a range of myths and belief systems as a kind of metaphysical smorgasbord from which children can choose. But, like vegetarian sausage rolls at a buffet, the provision of alternatives to the dominant faith is largely token and not expected to be taken up by many. What's more, all are expected to eat up.
This way of teaching religion presents faith as a kind of fact of life which does not need to be justified or explained, merely described. You're taught what sacred texts say, but not to question their divine origins. You're taught what people of different faiths do, but it is considered disrespectful to question if they are right to do it.
Believers themselves are often resistant to the idea that religion should be challenged more, but if you do not believe that your most fundamental beliefs can stand up to the relatively superficial kind of rational scrutiny possible in compulsory education, that does not exactly express confidence in their robustness.
The kind of rational scrutiny I want to see brings in more of the history, philosophy and psychology of religion. The history is particularly important, for it is that which makes the human hand behind our myths of the divine abundantly clear. Christians, for instance, should know that there were numerous versions of the life of Christ purporting to be written by the apostles in circulation, and that what we now see as the New Testament didn't take shape until the Council of Rome in 382.
I cannot see how anyone could take a rational, critical look at the Bible and not conclude that even if it was the infallible word of God, so much had been added or subtracted in the translation that we would be fools to take it as such. I have much sympathy with Isaac Asimov, who claimed that: "Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived."
Children should also understand about the psychology of religious belief: how humans have an instinct to see causes and purpose where there is none; and how we have a need to divide the world into in-groups and out-groups. The philosophy of religion should also be taught so they can understand why intuitively plausible ideas such as that the universe must have had a divine first cause or that morality vanishes without God are much weaker than they first appear.
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Baggini: Take a rational, critical look at religious claims and stories
Some thoughts by Julian Baggini of the Humanist Philosophers Group.