Objectivity, religion and the schools: yeah, right

P.Z Myers has unearthed a story that would, I’m sure, become a daily occurrence all over the country were comparative religion — currently a requirement for kids in the United Kingdom, I believe — taught routinely in American public schools. It would be seen as nothing more than a state-sponsored attempt to undermine the faith of Christian kids, and would, I am certain, lead to people withdrawing their kids en masse and placing them in Christian schools.
Depending on your level of cynicism, this would either be a blessing (“Good riddance; let the morons keep grooming their kids as moronically as they like if it means they’ll leave education in the thinking world alone”) or a shame (“Great, now we’re going to polarize the country further, with the godless kids becoming even better educated and half the nation being taught that the world was really created in six days”).


In a sense, those fearing mass deconversion are correct. Because religious belief is what it is, asking kids to do with regard to religion what we occasionally expect of them in every other realm (i.e., think) amounts to a direct challenge. The more that people are actually inspired think about unjustified beliefs they’ve held for a long time without questioning them, the more likely they are to alter or relinquish them if they decide that the evidence merits such a move.
The last thing religious people want is exposure to facts. Challenges to the faith — however well supported by science and history — simply cannot do.
By the very nature of religion, a sect has to maximize its numbers in order to be most effective. Not one religious sect has any evidence for the things it promises, so creating a veneer of legitimacy via bloating the membership rolls is critical. This ensures a steady influx of money as well as all of the benefits that come from having a large, unquestioning bloc of like-“minded” voters.
The dominant religion in any culture obviously stands to lose its advantage when the playing field is leveled. Pointing out that the similarities in religious belief across cultures hearken not to some divine edict but to basic elements of human psychology, and that the undeniable similarlity of the Genesis account(s) to pre-existing creation stories from various cultures implies exactly what it appears to imply, are not things that encourage people to keep pounding the same Kool-aid.
One of P.Z.’s commenters asks:
“Honestly, is calling biblical story a “myth” really so insulting?”
Yes, it is, when your world view hinges on lunacy. It’s one more “war on.” As tiresome it is to hear a nation of wall-eyed bumpkins wailing about this crap, they’re not making it up as they go; they believe it out of hand thanks to having more or less had their heds thwacked repeatedly against tree trunks as young children.
The implications of creationism being untrue go beyond what we see from the outside — the well-supported dismissal of a drastically unscientific (to be charitable) “explanation” of origins, not only of life but of everything. If it’s not true as written in the Bible, there was no Adam and Eve, hence no original sin, hence no need for Jesus to scapegoat himself on the cross to redeem all of our sorry asses, hence no need for Jesus at all, hence no Christianity. Therefore, unless you’re a liberal Christian, lose creation and you lose the whole funky shitball.
Strict isolation from the most basic of facts is a sine qua non for producing the kind of people capable of, well, this. Just look how effective Nathan Bradfield is at ignoring the huge body of refutations to his various claims. Blogging, in theory, puts hardcore religious believers at a special risk; those most apt to have counterevidence and those most likely to respond to what you say, so in a sense when you run a pro-Christian blog and invite comments, you esentially open the door to your own comparative religion seminar. This is why Nathan (see here) never follows any of the links people give him or actually reads their comments, and why he is exquisitely careful to get all of his news and “information” from within the nutty but sizable philosophical bubble in which he lives.

23 thoughts on “Objectivity, religion and the schools: yeah, right”

  1. “I keep hearing this, along with “mounting proof” …, but never see it. ”

    Did this fucking idiot witness his own birth?

  2. For what it’s worth, I went to private, Christian schools pretty much my whole life (basically everything but grad school) and we had required comparative religion courses. I can’t recall any teachers or parents complaining about exposure to other religions. I don’t recall any of them getting worried that by going to mosque or a Buddhist temple to hear what they believe that their little darlings would be challenged in their faith.
    One good thing about a comparative religion class is that statements like “The last thing religious people want is exposure to facts” would likely stop. Or, I suppose, you could just plug your ears and yell I’m not listening because I already know I’m right!

  3. For what it’s worth, I went to private, Christian schools pretty much my whole life (basically everything but grad school) and we had required comparative religion courses. I can’t recall any teachers or parents complaining about exposure to other religions. I don’t recall any of them getting worried that by going to mosque or a Buddhist temple to hear what they believe that their little darlings would be challenged in their faith.
    One good thing about a comparative religion class is that statements like “The last thing religious people want is exposure to facts” would likely stop. Or, I suppose, you could just plug your ears and yell I’m not listening because I already know I’m right!

  4. Also, I would hope that anybody who has ever taken a comparative religion course knows that “myth” doesn’t mean “false” and therefore really shouldn’t be insulting.

  5. Macht, I think that most people who use the word “myth” in reference to Bible stories are, in fact, using it as a synonym for “fictional tale” — certainly when they’re talking about Biblical creation.
    Also, although I haven’t taken comparative religion at either a private school or a public one, but I would no more expect them to be taught the same way in each place (not that I doubt that this happens) than I would biology to be taught the same way at each. Even where the curricula identical at each, teachers would be apt to bring their personal biases into classrooms.

  6. Yeah, you are right that most people take “myth” to be synonymous with “fictional tale” but this isn’t how the term is used in a comparative religion course. It has much more to do with how a story functions in a society than whether it is true or false. Some myths are much more historical than others (e.g., The Epic of Sundiata).
    I quite agree that comparative religion courses wouldn’t be taught the same way in a private and a public school. I also agree that all teachers bring their personal biases into the classroom. I had two reasons for commenting. First, your statement, “those fearing mass deconversion are correct” is incorrect – or, at least, the reasons you give don’t support the claim. Of all the people in my comparative religion classes, I’m not aware of any who felt their faith was challenged by learning about what other people believe and have believed.
    Second, was your ridiculous statement “The last thing religious people want is exposure to facts.” I’m honestly curious about what runs through somebody’s mind when they say things like this. My first thought was that it is a semi-serious, polemical statement written to an audience largely made up of atheists. My second thought was that I’ve seen statements all too similar to this much more frequently lately and that this chorus of statements tends to ironically reinforce itself with little regard to the facts. But the simple fact is that it isn’t true and a comparative religion course (I would hope) would dispel this myth (in the common sense of the word).

  7. For what it’s worth, I went to private, Christian schools pretty much my whole life (basically everything but grad school) and we had required comparative religion courses.

    Private school is often viewed as an investment. Public school is often viewed as an imposition. I believe this goes a long way to explain the differences in parents’ reactions to comparative religion.

  8. Second, was your ridiculous statement “The last thing religious people want is exposure to facts.” I’m honestly curious about what runs through somebody’s mind when they say things like this. Perhaps it’s stories like this:
    http://mickarran.com/2004/06/21/sc-secession/
    Do you think they’ll be teaching comparative religion in South Carolina?

  9. hopper3011,
    When somebody appeals to an obviously extreme group of religious people in order to make blanket statements about all religious people, what runs through my mind is that this person has very little understanding of elementary logic.

  10. “Second, was your ridiculous statement ‘The last thing religious people want is exposure to facts.’ I’m honestly curious about what runs through somebody’s mind when they say things like this. My first thought was that it is a semi-serious, polemical statement written to an audience largely made up of atheists.”
    You’re right in that claiming that all religious people want no exposure to facts of any kind would be ridiculous. You’re also right in that I recognize I am addressing mostly atheists (although comments here would be of less interest if I wholly alienated theists from commenting); this, however, makes my statement not so much polemical as lazy. Try this instead:
    “The last thing the sort of Christians often targeted by posts on this blog (e.g., Nathan Bradfield, many South Carolinans) want is for their brand of belief to come into contact with scientific facts.”
    You’ll have no problem convincing me that plenty of Christians are intelligent and scientifically literate and are not “deconverted” as a result; I already understand this. I have no quarrel with them. Hell, I have no quarrel with unintelligent Christians (or non-Christians) who aren’t agitating against progressive ideas, or homosexers, or the none-of-their-business cause du jour, for reasons they can’t reasonably support. But you won’t convince me (nor would I expect you to see a need to, based on my rhetocial concession here) that there aren’t a great many fundamentalists who rattle on about evolution and other matters while having no earthly idea what they’re even talking about — or more important, even wanting to really know.
    As an intelligent Christian, maybe you’re as baffled by people like Bradfield as I am. They’re easy targets, and their noise is probably disproportionate to their representation in the general populace, but I’m a lot more confident of the former than I am of the latter.

  11. “Second, was your ridiculous statement ‘The last thing religious people want is exposure to facts.’ I’m honestly curious about what runs through somebody’s mind when they say things like this. My first thought was that it is a semi-serious, polemical statement written to an audience largely made up of atheists.”
    You’re right in that claiming that all religious people want no exposure to facts of any kind would be ridiculous. You’re also right in that I recognize I am addressing mostly atheists (although comments here would be of less interest if I wholly alienated theists from commenting); this, however, makes my statement not so much polemical as lazy. Try this instead:
    “The last thing the sort of Christians often targeted by posts on this blog (e.g., Nathan Bradfield, many South Carolinans) want is for their brand of belief to come into contact with scientific facts.”
    You’ll have no problem convincing me that plenty of Christians are intelligent and scientifically literate and are not “deconverted” as a result; I already understand this. I have no quarrel with them. Hell, I have no quarrel with unintelligent Christians (or non-Christians) who aren’t agitating against progressive ideas, or homosexers, or the none-of-their-business cause du jour, for reasons they can’t reasonably support. But you won’t convince me (nor would I expect you to see a need to, based on my rhetocial concession here) that there aren’t a great many fundamentalists who rattle on about evolution and other matters while having no earthly idea what they’re even talking about — or more important, even wanting to really know.
    As an intelligent Christian, maybe you’re as baffled by people like Bradfield as I am. They’re easy targets, and their noise is probably disproportionate to their representation in the general populace, but I’m a lot more confident of the former than I am of the latter.

  12. Falwell and his ilk have shown that vocal extremists, while hardly representitive of most religious folk, have substantial political power.

  13. that this person has very little understanding of elementary logic
    Please show me the blanket statement? Elementary logic includes the action “extension of a system” which is perfectly valid in this instance. S’ is an extension of S if and only if every theorem of S is a theorem of S’.
    The South Carolina group are obviously extremist in their views, but it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the element of their religious world view which drives them to isolate themselves from dissenting voices is present to a greater or lesser degree in all Christian sects, since they all use the same base from which to arrive at their particular view.
    You aren’t the only person on this board who studied comparative religion (and you certainly don’t know as much about logic as you think you do), so my advice would be to read and understand what is posted before commenting.

  14. hopper3011,

    “…it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the element of their religious world view which drives them to isolate themselves from dissenting voices is present to a greater or lesser degree in all Christian sects…”

    I’d change that to read as the following:
    “… it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the element of their religious world view which drives them to isolate themselves from dissenting voices is present to a greater or lesser degree in all human beings …”
    Religious people, of course, aren’t the only ones who can and do isolate themselves from dissenting voices. If you think otherwise, you are fooling yourself. Any tendency to isolate one’s self from dissenting voices probably has more to do with being human than with being religious. Given how much those two sets overlap, though, I can see how you could make that mistake.
    Kevin,
    As I suggested in my reply to hopper3011, I think people like Bradfield (I haven’t actually read his blog, so I’m assuming what you wrote about him is true) has little to do with religion per se. Mark Noll, for example, has argued that modern anti-intellecutalism in much of American evangelicalism has to do with a long history of religious, cultural, and political factors (he focuses on revivalism, the separation of church and state, cultural changes in America after the War for Independence, and later fundamentalism). In that sense, no I’m not baffled by it because I feel like I have some understanding of where it comes from. I’m more baffled by people who want to blame it entirely on “religion” since that just simply isn’t the case. In another sense, though, of course I’m baffled by people who make lousy arguments, strawmen, etc. (bad grammar and (non-repeated) misunderstandings aren’t as problematic to me, though :) ).

  15. I think you are the one who is making a mistake. Once again you are attempting to force attribution of your blanket statement onto me. I have made no reference to the “remainder” of humanity and their preferences for inclusion and exclusion, I was commenting solely on that tendency among religious people. Did I say that these tendencies are exclusive to religious people?

  16. I also made no reference to the “remainder” of humanity.

    “Did I say that these tendencies are exclusive to religious people?”

    Do you think they are? If not, my mistake. You did talk about this being an “element of their religious world view,” which is what I was basing what I said upon.

  17. The point is that I made no reference whatsoever to any group of persons outside the adherents to various religions, so you have no basis, other than your assumptions, on which to claim that I have made a “mistake”. There could be a variety of reasons to practice exclusionary behaviour other than as an element of a religious world view, but, as I said, I haven’t commented on them, so please refrain from attributing your assumptions (which you provide without evidence, even though those assumptions cannot be classed as a priori knowledge) to me, and refrain from supposing that I agree with you.

  18. How are your assumptions germane to this discussion? Since when does the exclusionism (or otherwise) of the general population make the exclusionism of the religious less egregious?
    You were commenting above that poor arguments bother you, yet you proffer the ultimate in poor arguments “everybody does it, so that makes it alright.” And now you think that some stupid comment and a smiley and you’ll escape being brought to book for a pathetic and pompous attempt to fly that argument past.
    I suggest that in future you concentrate on the substance of your argument rather than telling others what you think they don’t know. You might actually make a valid point that way.

  19. As far as I know comparative religion is only compulsory in state schools in Britain, and even then in most cases the majority of time is spent on CofE brand Christianity. Thankfully this brand is so wishy washy and discredited (from both the atheist and the theist sides), that RE seems to dissuade rather than convert.
    I agree with Dawkins that (genuine) comparative religion should be a fundamental part of the curriculum. Personally I’d place it in the context of a broader philosophy/logic/critical thinking course – another area that is profoundly lacking in the UK curriculum.

  20. My point of course was that there is no reason for you to focus on religious exclusionism when the problem isn’t religious in nature (at least, you have in no way shown it to be). Well there is one reason – if my assumptions are correct.

  21. Once again an extremely error prone post! There is a perfectly good reason to focus on religious exclusionism – because I want to. And I have shown that it exists, two links, one about a small faction within the larger religion, but the first in relation to a Roman Catholic Cardinal (unless the Roman Catholic Church isn’t mainstream enough for you?). Both arguments are based in the need to exclude nonresonant voices from the lives of adherents.
    What I haven’t said is anything about exclusionism outside religion, I haven’t denied that it exists, and I haven’t confirmed it either. You know why? I don’t want to, that’s why. My prerogative.
    If you wish to debate non-religious exclusionism that is your right, but I have no interest in the subject.

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