Guest Column1/15/09

On teaching beliefs in our schools

Jan. 15, 2009

By Stewart Cohen

It was nice to read a thoughtful Visions of Youth column from Kayla Purvis in the Dec. 24 issue. I am encouraged that our youth are able to question the educational structure that they have, and recognize that the spirit of inquiry is rewarding in of itself.

The letter in the Jan. 8 issue in response to her thoughts on evolution was likewise a thoughtful approach to the subject (“Religion and history (and science)”). I am in agreement with the opinion that religious beliefs have no place in the science classroom. It might be appropriate however, for teachers and scientists to point out that in the final analysis it may be impossible to prove that the mutations believed to underlie evolutionary change are totally random in nature. In other words, evolutionary theory does not exclude the possibility of directed intervention in the history of change on this planet. On the other hand, the evidence doesn’t point to that as the most likely conclusion, and the evidence very clearly refutes the idea that earth and the creatures on it were created as is in the fairly recent past.

That however, was not what enticed me to respond. I truly respect Kayla’s spirit of inquiry, and I do wonder why the subject of beliefs per se has remained taboo in our educational system. We owe it to our children to try to expose them to a comprehensive view of the world we live in. We have gone global, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the rift between the Western and Islamic worlds, and the concurrent rifts within each of these worlds between the isolationists and the modernists. The extremes of each of these cultures repeatedly try to hijack the dialogues of their societies and drag them back into the past.

I think that our schools could indeed embark on a path to teach those subjects that would help us move forward into a more harmonious world, and that would include the history of religion. That subject should include a much more vast breadth of information than we usually think of. Looking at the millennia of matriarchal and fertility-based religions of agrarian societies that were supplanted by the patriarchal religions of war-like city-states would be a start.

Understanding the changing concept of the deity from before Judaism (destructive) through Judaism (creative and also punitive) and onto Christianity (loving deity paired with devil) would be another useful step. Also examining how Greco-Roman and Nordic polytheistic concepts were incorporated into the European churches would be important to understanding how we got where we are. We need to understand the native African traditions that still influence large sectors of the Americas. How do these things shape our worldview and our choices?

Likewise, the incorporation of natural morality as well as superstitions into religions can be linked to the time periods during which they originated. Kayla mentioned the Buddha, and Gandhi, who was a political leader, albeit of great faith. These innovative leaders helped their societies move forward in pivotal times.

Included in a course on religious beliefs would also have to be a history of the Eastern traditions of Confucianism and Taoism, which have no deities to base their edicts and practices on. How it is possible to have a system of practice and guidelines for life that is not based on the words of a prophet (Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, etc.) would seem to be an essential question to help our society find our way through difficult civil situations when we have a separation of church and state in our democracy.

Likewise, the annals of the early Israelites (Judges, Samuel) offer invaluable insights into how a society can be organized around a judicial system. There are many valuable lessons contained within the history of religion that extend way beyond the “beliefs” contained within. Indeed, those beliefs themselves hold valuable clues as to our nature as human beings in this time we have on this precious planet.

However, only a scholarly treatment of these subjects would suffice to benefit our young citizens. This approach would not be too much different than discussing the implications of people like Adam Smith or Karl Marx on the economics past and present, and may be just as relevant. It would be important to not let the beliefs or their values become the centerpiece, but rather to address the origins of these beliefs and how they have impacted our history. We would need to go beyond the set of beliefs ascribed to by the small set of currently dominant religious groups in order to help our youth grow into good citizens of the world at large.


Stewart Cohen is a Williston resident.