5 Nov 2010

Does religion have any proper role in education?

Institute for Emerging Ethics & Technologies August 20, 2009

Religious Education -- and Other Oxymorons

by Mike Treder |Managing Director of the IEET

Does religion have any proper role in education? Can faith-based teachings, whether conducted in school, at home, or in places of worship be of benefit to individuals and societies?

Some might say that this is a question for individuals and parents to answer for themselves, that neither the state nor any other group has the right to tell someone what they can believe or how they should raise their children.

But how far does that argument go? At what point does it stop making sense and become simply an excuse for perpetuating ignorance? What about when parents deny medical care to their sick children and rely on prayer to heal them—and then those kids die? Nearly all of us would agree that such abrogation of parental responsibility constitutes abuse and should be punished or better yet prevented. But is that qualitatively different from inculcating children with a belief in a strong version of God: an actual powerful invisible supreme being who sets rules and enacts punishment or grants rewards? Is teaching kids that prayer works—when all evidence suggests otherwise—denying them a fair chance at success in life, disadvantaging them versus their secular peers?

It’s a touchy subject. I am a naturalist, a secular humanist, a non-believer, an atheist, but among technoprogressives there are some who count themselves as believers, whether in an Abrahamic faith or in one of the Eastern religions. Often they will claim that spiritual beliefs or practices help them not only to be better persons but also to think more clearly, to be more rational (which seems a contradiction to me, although YMMV).

Some studies suggest that religious believers are generally happier and better adjusted than atheists (not really surprising if you regard ignorant bliss as preferable to existential angst), while other studies say the opposite.

So, is religion off-limits for discussion here? Is the matter too personal, and is it maybe not politically correct to raise such questions?

What prompted me to think about this a recently updated Arab Human Development Report from the United Nations Development Program. As highlighted in this article, we learn that:

  • 65 million Arab adults are illiterate.
  • Greece translates five times more books from English into Greek annually than the entire Arab world translates from English into Arabic.
  • The G.D.P. of Spain is greater than all of the 22 Arab nations combined.

Other serious problems identified include:

  • Raging deficits in human liberties, women’s rights, “knowledge-creation.”
  • All but zero economic growth for nearly the entire region, in spite of vast oil monies.
  • Rising desertification, water shortages, population explosion, manifest unemployment.
  • No real investment in scientific research, local industries, community innovation.
  • Autocratic and unrepresentative Arab governments, threatening not supporting human security.
  • An unacceptable lack of moral and material foundation in the personal lives of the majority of the 317 million people who live in the region.

Now, is it just a coincidence that religious belief is much higher in majority Arab countries than in most other places? Is it a factor than in many Arab nations, their governmental system is a strict theocracy?

But wait, maybe itisonly a coincidence. In the same article cited above, Rabbi Ben Kamin happily congratulates Israel, another nation that is (arguably) theocratic, on its “universal health care, world-class university system, and 99% literacy rate.”

So, perhaps it’s not religion itself that is the problem, but theparticularreligion. Oh boy, now we’re really getting deep into it…

I’m not here today to propose any solutions (although I have pretty strong ideas about what’s right and wrong in the debate), but only to raise the basic question, to ask whether you think religion should be out of bounds in a technoprogressive conversation.

Is it too touchy? Too personal? Too ambiguous of a subject?

Or maybe you think we ought to feel bold and wade on in, because, after all, it’s those deeply personal and strongly emotional issues that so often play a vital role in determining our political positions and public policies. Shall we be brave and take them on, in a spirit of honest and respectful discussion?

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