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Education and Religion

Brian Horn

Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees must be put out of sight and ... know nothing but the word of God.
-- Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant branch of Christianity

A good education instills an appreciation for logic, reason, and verifiable facts. And it encourages students to question whatever seems dubious until they either understand the evidence for it, or they determine it's invalid or at least needs further thought. An education with those qualities makes trouble for religions because religious dogma rarely jibes with the reality revealed by logic, reason, and facts. The 2012 Texas Republican Party platform reflects this fear of clear thinking: "We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills, critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education which focus on behavior modification [i.e., learning to think independently] and have the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority."

The natural result of the conflict between religion and education is for religions to suppress the teaching of anything that disagrees with their dogma, and to suppress any ways of thinking that might lead an energetic and inquiring mind to probe for truth. For example, Islam insists that any teaching must be subservient to knowledge as revealed by the Koran. Many Muslim schools teach only the Koran, and Muslim fundamentalists deny the right of females to any education. The Taliban, a fundamentalist Muslim offshoot, have such a fear of educated women that they planned and executed an assassination attempt on a 14-year old schoolgirl on her way home from school because of her public support of education for females. Many Muslims did condemn this amazingly immoral and cowardly attack, but the Taliban responded that if the girl were to survive they would again try to kill her.

In the battle between truth and religious doctrine, truth may eventually win out, but it may take awhile. The Catholic Church burned Giordano Bruno at the stake in 1600 and put Galileo Galilei under house arrest in 1633, partly because their realization that the earth circled the sun contradicted Catholic beliefs. It was not until 1835, a mere two centuries later, that the Church dropped all official opposition to teaching how the solar system actually works, well after irrefutable proof of it had been widely accepted. (And it was not until 1992 that the Church finally pardoned Galileo himself. Religion is nothing if not conservative.)

The Catholic Church seems to have learned a lesson. Today, it accepts the Darwinian theory of evolution, including the evolution of man from earlier primates, and it accepts the scientific understanding of the creation of the universe. Now the battle between education and religion is being waged by Christian fundamentalists. They wish to teach a doctrine called creationism, which is based on the literal biblical account that says God created the stars, the earth, plants, animals, and humans in their present form in six days 6000 years ago.

Creationism has a cousin called intelligent design, which attempts to make its propositions more acceptable by dressing them up with scientific-sounding arguments. But the arguments of intelligent design are as much at odds with science as are those of creationism. Both breathtakingly ignore or misrepresent the many independent lines of overwhelming evidence, from all branches of science, that consistently support the scientific explanation of creation. Creationism and intelligent design have no more validity than any other creation myths. And yet, a lot of people believe these doctrines rather than science. They must, in order to believe that the Bible is literally correct. (Why they feel the need to do that is a total mystery to me.)

Unfortunately, Christian fundamentalists who hold creationist beliefs have been making progress in their efforts to destroy the teaching of science to American students. There have been battles in school boards concerning the teaching of creationism rather than evolution and cosmology, which in my opinion is like battling over teaching that the earth is flat rather than round. A recent news article reported one such battle: "A suburban school district north of Chicago will not fire a teacher who taught creationist beliefs about the origin of life in science classes, the superintendent said at a public meeting ..."

A number of state ordinances allow or require creationism to be taught alongside evolution and cosmology as a viable alternative. The recent governor of Texas and contender in the last Republican primary, Rick Perry, gave this answer to a child who asked him if he believed in evolution: "It's a theory that's out there. It's got some gaps in it. In Texas we teach both Creationism and evolution." That is consistent with an earlier remark of Perry's: "I am a firm believer in intelligent design as a matter of faith and intellect, and I believe it should be presented in schools alongside the theories of evolution."

And then we have Paul Broun, Republican U. S. senate representative from Georgia, who said in a speech in 2012: "All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell." Broun believes that creation took place in six days, and that the earth is about 9000 years old. Given such an intellectual stance, the following is hard to believe, but it is nonetheless true: Broun is a member of the U. S. House Science Committee. The denigration of science in the United States is a reality.

Todd Aiken, Republican U. S. senate representative from Missouri, was another unusual choice for member of the House Science Committee until his defeat in the 2012 elections. Aiken is a conservative Christian. He opposes stem cell research, and is an outspoken opponent of abortion even to save the mother's life. He stated that it is "common practice" for abortion providers to perform abortions on women who are not actually pregnant. He is infamous for his opinion that women who are "legitimately" raped do not get pregnant because their bodies have a way to "shut that whole thing down." It's hard to understand how someone so ignorant of biology got on the nation's science committee.

In today's world, our well-being depends heavily on advances in science, and on its cousin, engineering, which in turn is dependent on good scientific knowledge. Schools that blur the distinctions between superstition and science, and that fail to promote a confident exercise of creative and independent thinking, contribute to an ignorant and backward society--one that will be surpassed by societies without such shackles. At present, the only parts of the world where the teaching of science has been degraded in order to satisfy religious conservatives are fundamentalist Islamic nations and areas of the United States. The rest of the world is moving on while we are being dragged backward by a religious crusade against science and rationality.

* * * * *

There is another problem caused by the conflict between religion and education: the growth of home schooling. Parents most often cite religious concerns as the main reason for home schooling their children. No doubt the teaching of evolution and cosmology in public schools (to the extent that it survives) worries many of them. Also, many parents with a strong religious orientation may be uncomfortable with any tendencies toward independent thought that a public school education might stir up. Home schooling, in many instances, produces children who grow up ignorant of much of civilization's accumulated knowledge, and who have limited skills for rational, critical thinking.

But a worse problem with home schooling is the passing on of intolerance to the next generation. Humans have an unfortunate built-in instinct to dislike and distrust people they deem to be different from the circle of people with whom they identify. Widening the circle of ethnicities, backgrounds, and viewpoints with which we are familiar and comfortable is one of the most effective means of creating a better (safer, more interesting, more productive) society. In public schools (and in many private schools as well) children have ongoing social contact with a large number of other children from varied backgrounds. That is just the thing to give them a large circle of social comfort, and a tolerant and understanding outlook as they mature.

Unfortunately, the limited social contact of home-schooled children means a limited circle of social identity and tolerance. This may be compounded in some cases by the example set by parents whose very reason for home-schooling their children is to shield them from ideas and influences that the parents distrust. Home schooling may often lack the socially broadening environment inherent in regular schools, and thus lead to a more fragmented and distrustful society.

I don't want to leave the impression that parents' involvement with their children is any less important than a school's influence. On the contrary, I think nothing is more important for children than the examples parents set for them and the interest taken by parents in their education. Any education that parents take the time and effort to provide to their children is all to the good. The problems with home schooling are its intent to be the only source of knowledge, ideas, and ways of thinking, and its limited ability to provide regular, diverse social contact.

* * * * *

To summarize, the fitness of our children and our society depends on schools that can teach critical thinking and accepted scientific knowledge without compromises forced by religious fundamentalists. And our children can put those critical thinking skills to work to learn that different is not necessarily bad (and to learn how to recognize and cope when it sometimes is), as a free by-product of school environments that expose them to a diverse variety of their peers.

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  Evolution vs. Creationism, Science and Religion

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