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Why Every High School Should Teach a Mandatory Comparative Religion Class

one true religion

Several days ago, Polly and I traveled to Jackson, Michigan to have dinner with Sergio and Russ, two people I had met through this blog and Facebook. Russ talked about how he had been exposed to a variety of Christian sects and how this cornucopia of beliefs caused him to be skeptical of religion. Teenage Russ quickly figured out that no two sects had the same beliefs. Each sect had different beliefs, yet all of them supposedly worshiped the same God. Russ rightly wondered, if they are all worshiping the same God, why is this God giving each sect different beliefs? Questions such as this ultimately resulted in Russ rejecting religion and embracing atheism.

Polly and I grew up in Fundamentalist Christian homes. Neither of us can remember a time when we weren’t part of an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church. After high school, both of us attended an IFB college, Midwestern Baptist College. We met, married, and several years later began pastoring IFB churches. We were in our thirties before we attended a church outside of the IFB church movement. Indoctrinated in the one, true IFB faith, we were certain that our sect and its beliefs were the faith once delivered to the saints. While we grudgingly admitted that there were Christians in other sects, we believed that our sect was the only one that had the right beliefs. Not only did we have the right beliefs, we also had a pure lineage that reached all the way back to Jesus and John the Baptist. While we would eventually abandon the IFB church movement for the friendlier confines of generic Evangelicalism, it would be another 20 years before we left Christianity.

By being exposed to a plethora of beliefs, Russ was able, at an early age, to conclude that Christianity was false. Polly and I, on the other hand, having been exposed only to a narrow set of beliefs, spent five decades of our life in the Evangelical church before we could extricate ourselves from its hold on our lives. Sergio had a similar background, having been raised in an Evangelical home. He spoke of the anger that came when he realized he had wasted much of his adult life believing a lie. And not just believing, but diligently trying to live according to the precepts of Evangelical Christianity. Polly and I had similar anger and regret. It is hard not to be bitter when thinking about wasting the most productive, healthy years of your life worshiping a mythical God.

Which path should children be encouraged to follow — that of Russ or that of Bruce, Polly, and Sergio? I think most agnostics and atheists would agree that blind devotion to religious dogma harms children and robs of them the critical things skills necessary to help them understand life. Instead of being immersed in Christianity, children are better served if they are exposed to a wide spectrum of religious beliefs, including non-Christian religions.

I have long advocated that public high school students be required to take a comparative religion class. Such a class would expose students to the various world religions and their teachings. Once exposed, like Russ, they will be in the position to compare religions. Since most public school students come from Christian homes, this means they would be exposed to religions different from their own. This exposure would provide an effective inoculation from Fundamentalism and religious bigotry.

Evangelicals continue to demand that the various trappings of the Christian religion be reintroduced in public schools. Often, Evangelicals will argue that morality requires religion, and it is our duty to give students a moral and ethical foundation. Fine, I say. Every school then should require high school students to take a comparative religion class. Middle school and elementary students should regularly be exposed to a variety of religious beliefs, taught from a historical perspective. What better way to turn out well-rounded students than to expose them to a variety of beliefs, including atheism, agnosticism, humanism, paganism, and Satanism? Doing this prepares students for choosing their own non-religious/religious path. By the time students graduate they will have a sufficient understanding of religion and will be in the position to choose accordingly.

Surely Evangelicals want their children to have all the facts about religion, including Christianity. Surely, they don’t want their children making ill-informed decisions about God and salvation. Well, actually Evangelicals don’t want their children to be exposed to other religions. Instead, Evangelicals diligently indoctrinate their children into what they believe is the one true faith. Children born into Evangelical homes are bombarded with calls to put their faith and trust in Jesus. Sunday school teachers and children’s church workers use manipulative and high-pressure techniques to induce children into asking Jesus into their hearts. If children make it through the primary years unsaved, they are handed off to youth directors who “encourage” them to put their faith and trust in Jesus. The goal is to make sure children are saved and on the narrow path before they become young adults. Church leaders know if unsaved children reach adulthood they are often “lost” forever.

The next time you hear Evangelicals clamoring for Christianity to be reintroduced into public schools, ask them if they would support teaching students about other religions. Keep pressing them until they admit that what they really want is a religious monoculture. In their minds, there is no King but Jesus and no religious truth but the Bible. If left to their own devices, many Evangelicals would burn freedom of religion at the stake and turn the United States into a theocracy.  Exposing Evangelical children to other religions is crucial in our attempts to beat back theocratic thinking. Once exposed, religious extremism loses its power.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    I think the issue of homeschooling should also receive attention. Most homeschooling seems to me to be based on not allowing children to be exposed to beliefs contrary to those the parents expect them to follow. As a result these children are hampered for the whole of their lives, not least by a lack of social skills that they would learn in a school environment, but also by the lack of subject expertise that very few parents will be able to impart.

    I might say that even here, in the UK, there could be an issue. A young friend of mine recently married a Roman Catholic girl and, even though he is an atheist, he was forced to convert to Catholicism (I won’t repeat some of the crude comments he received). He mentioned recently to me that his, now wife’s, sister is so worried about her children’s moral wellbeing that she is homeschooling them, and bear in mind that the UK is awash with Roman Catholic schools. I didn’t even know that homeschooling was allowed here, other than in very exceptional circumstances. Oh dear.

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    There is at least one other area that has become most dangerously unconscious in our society, another area than religion, I mean, and that area is education. We grow up, those of us who have religious parents, knowing two givens: Church and school. I was well into my life, at least a quarter century before I realized how I just accepted these matters as given. The first time I questioned religion, it was in terror of being destroyed on the spot. It was even later that began to look at our public school.
    Homeschooling has evolved a good deal since our version of schooling began, what, a century or so ago? Before modern schooling, most learning was done at home. School developed in order to get parents to work, not to open the minds of children.
    Children’s minds have never needed opening and much of what passes as school-learning seems to close minds at least as much as it opens them.
    My wife is an educator and has long worked in a consulting position helping families in alternative forms of education survive and flourish in a world that discourages learning in its rigid structuring of public education.
    My kids were first in public school, then in private, international school, then sort-of homeschooled and finally, the majority of their learning has been through unschooling.
    I absolutely abhor the fundagelical movement in homeschooling and see it as a sort of indentured servitude, meant to disempower and prevent free learning through cloistering and narrow thinking. But in Canada (I live in BC) alternative learning is wildly successful and not at all overrun by zealots from God. The United States might be a different story but what is clear to me is that there are many many people now insisting on freedom in learning and that they are leaving the public system in droves. (In fact, the public system is scrambling to introduce methods used by self-directed learners in order to stem the loss of students from the public system.)
    I am convinced, having observed my own journey with my kids and having read such visionary teachers as Gatto, Holt, Norm Lee et al, that self-designed learning is most natural and freeing for us. A child does not need to be taught but to be supported in free learning. They go in their own ways, naturally following their human passions. We parents have a hell of a time staying out of their way and supporting that freedom, of course, but that does not defeat them.
    The paradigm is changing rapidly, Geoff. Your assessment that “most homeschooling etc.” is based in CONTROL is simply wrong. In fundagelical circles, of course you are correct. Religion poisons everything but I am very thankful to have been able to offer my kids freedom to learn, freedom and support in their passions and choices in learning; curriculum only by choice as a result of natural interest. But mostly no curriculum, no demand to be a math expert or an artist. Kids will lead and will prosper if they are given the support they deserve.
    I am all for what Bruce suggests regarding comparative religion classes and after that class, how about comparative political systems, how about a smidgen less nationalist flag-waving and a bit more internationalism…

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      A very interesting comment, Brian. Clearly alternative methods of schooling can work, so it seems that the way forward is perhaps much better regulation than outright banning.

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        I am not sure about how much ‘regulation’ we need. Respectful dialogue is a good beginning. Those of us who have had horrendous experiences with the public system and/or private and/or alternatives have strong and lasting feelings about these matters. Still, there is sometimes common ground to begin.

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      Your comment touches me very deeply and resonates to me as closest to truth. I am a a former fundagelical, now turned secular humanist, and father of very young children. During my fundy years (IFB) we took our kids out of the public school system to homeschool them in order to protect them against (…fill in the blanks…).
      Since deconverting, I sent them back to public school. Of course my wife, who has remained a fundy, did everything to prevent them from going back, so that she can continue to brainwash and indoctrinate them.
      With my evolving and maturing views, I have come to believe more and more that what we need is to inspire our kids, expose them to as many experiences as possible in order to help them find their passion in life, and then they will self-motivate and self-direct their learning without us standing on their way. So your comment resonates with me a lot. Now, you have gone much further than my thinking, and you’ve actually applied and experimented it in a radical way.
      I would love to connect with you outside of this forum, to exchange and learn more from you and from your experience. I may never go to an extreme level as you did with unschooling your kids, if only because of my family situation, but I believe I can learn a lot from you, and raise my kids to reach their full potential as human beings. I’m a lifelong learner, and as I learn, I adjust and adapt. I too live in Canada (ON). If you don’t mind, I would ask Bruce to give me your email, and he can give you mine.
      Thank you to all of you, especially to Bruce for sharing his journey with us day after day, and giving us this opportunity to meet and exchange ideas.

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    I don’t think we should use the pubic schools to advance any cause, even one that I believe in. That said an elective in comparative religion would be a positive addition to any curriculum.

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        It sounded to me like you were hoping the exposure of comparative religion would inoculate students from Fundamentalism. While I agree that the class if taken seriously by an interested student might have this effect one thing I resent about Christians is they are always trying to use the captive audience of the students in public schools to forward their agenda. Keep in mind many Christians think to be well rounded is to be actively engaged and led in prayer, “they may come from homes that aren’t Christian”. So should we use the same tactics Christians use? Should we try to be better people than Christians even if it might stifle what we know is true, maybe even condemn a kid to a life of fundamentalism? After living a life mired in the fundamentalist box I completely understand your point of view.

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    I was baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal church. I attended catholic high school. Religion class was mandatory freshman year. That class was world religions (!). Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, Islam, Taoism and Judaism are the ones I still remember. The class was taught by nuns. And there was no one saying any religion was better than the other. E actually learned to respect the differences.

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    I’m on the ‘kids learn much better outside the public institutions’ train myself. I don’t see homeschooling as an issue, the issue is brainwashing by idiots… and it occurs no matter where the child(ren) receive their education. I can’t even begin to tell you how many fundy kids I went to public school with. And in my work inside our local public school, I have met many more.

    Our homeschooling journey went in much the same direction as Brian’s, it took awhile for me to figure out how well my children learned when I allowed them the freedom to do so. When we first began our adventure, I met someone who unschooled (and I don’t like the negative connotations of that word, but that’s the one currently en vogue, so I’ll use it.. I prefer life learner or just active learning, but whatever) and thought they were nuts. My views have changed.

    Also during our 16 years homeschooling, I met TWO families who were crazy fundy. The rest were people just like us.

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    And now that the thread is completely derailed, I want to add that learning like everything in family life can be done completely without punishment. Norm Lee’s ‘Parenting Without Punishment’ is a biography that demonstrates just how it is possible. The Church condones child abuse as if God ordered it. Religion builds in disdain for women and children. Religion as it has developed to 2016 is poison. That children would benefit from exposure to knowledge regarding many poisons, is not without merit. We need to respect what perpetually harms us, what has robbed us of potentially loving, connected parents/families, what teaches us to hate others and call it obedient love of God, what allows and condones abusing children for the gratification of clergy, what blames even the victims of rape and tells them to be baby factories for rapists. Oh, and spends some money from their profits to help the poor just as every huge corporation does….

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    The best thing about the welsh religious education curriculum that I used to have to teach was that we should arrange for our pupils to visit a local church, a mosque and a synagogue – and other places of worship if there were any locally. You learn so much about the practices of Judaism and Islam from actual believers, not from inaccurate books or christians heavily filtering their beliefs and coming at them from a biased ‘anti’ point of view.

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