Religious Education: An Analytical Series
In writing this series, I am aiming to explore a single idea to a more comprehensive degree. Rather than only writing on one question or idea, I will take a look at three different questions in regards to the topic of religion and its role in education. For my purposes, I will write from a strictly philosophical viewpoint. I will try and answer questions not only in a pragmatic sense but also in a logical and ethical sense. From this I hope to provide arguments with clarity from both the negative and the affirmative viewpoints. Ultimately, I aim to comprehensively address the debate of whether or not religion should play a role in education.
Religion Rounds-Out Education
“To prepare [a child] for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities.” This concept, phrased by John Dewey in his Pedagogic Creed, in many ways accurately represents the purpose of education. Working from this definition, the question of what shifts to the question of how: how do we educate? Or more specifically, what particular capacities are we aiming to develop?
Religion for many years was viewed as one such capacity. Man was given religion and from this he was to learn to apply it to his life. Through this, a more complete understanding of the world was to be achieved — supposedly.
This debate, that of religion and its ability to round-out an education, remains today. Is religion a capacity that we should develop, or is religion an inhibitor that should be denied?
To start with the negative end of the curriculum, religion can be considered as an obstacle in providing education. In this area, Karl Marx needs to be called to account. A famous adage from Marx was that “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature and the opium of the people.” In saying this, Marx is referring to opium’s desensitizing effect; religion is an agent that gives humanity hope for an after-life, and thus numbs them in this world. In this sense, religion is viewed as an inhibitor, a social construct that obstructs humanity. Man has no need of this. In fact, such a concept would only hamper man’s ability to go about his life. Things such as politics, economics, and education, when using a purist Marxist lens, are only held back when religion is involved. Clearly, a hardline denial of religious education is present with Marxism.
However, Marx is not the only philosopher to denounce religion; Émile Durkheim also took a critical stance on it. His most infamous maxim abut the topic is, “Religion is society worshipping itself.” Unlike Marx, he takes a sociological perspective in regards to the topic. From his point of view, religion is simply the misinterpretation of social forces. Society acts in place of a god and thus produces a religion, or more accurately quasi-religion. Religion’s only purpose, in this framework, is to form communities; and because communities can be formed in other more transparent ways, Durkheim comfortably dismisses religion as a useless construct. Once again, a stark denial of religion’s value in education is observed.
Many other philosophers have taken unique negative perspectives on this topic, but the overwhelming number of them is still not power enough to discount the positive end of the continuum. To contrast Marx and Durkheim, such great thinkers as Comte and Freud can be called to attest.
In the case of Comte, religion is seen as having significant value, particularly in scientific thought. During his time, the early nineteenth century, science was advancing in such a way that, similar to today, more questions were being found than answers. Scientists, as they now began to call themselves, were finding answers to questions that had gone unanswered for centuries, millennia even. Along with this influx of scientific activity came an influx of gaps. These gaps, unanswered questions, were beyond nineteenth century capabilities, and thus they turned to religion.
When thinkers of this period, and many following periods, were faced with certain incomprehensible aspects of life, they cleverly began to fill the gaps with divinity. This theory, also known as the “God of the Gaps” theory, if accepted as accurate, can be used as a supplement to education; to more or less, round-out the knowledge that is dispensed in education. However, its fault is also found in its merit: this theory is only plausible if you accept its premise.
The premise, that a god would fill in the gaps of science, is constantly proven false, as is evident with Galileo and Newton. This argument is simply one of ignorance: just because we are unable, at this moment, to prove that a god did not create the complexity of a certain matter does not mean we will not be able to so in the future. Logically, this theory is invalid.
At the latter half of this century, a new thinker came to the table, and with him he brought a new argument. Sigmund Freud, although highly critical of religion, presented the idea that it could be used as means for postulating concepts outside of human understanding, such as powerful emotions. However, this framework, from Freud’s perspective, was only suitable for a child; Freud believed that when a human leaves adolescence, reason and science would take hold. But even if Freud did not subscribe to the existence of religion, he unknowingly pointed towards one of its viable arguments, that of inhuman understanding.
As philosophers continue to prove, science can only answer so many of man’s questions. When things can be observed through sensory perception, science can most often be applied, and usually with reasonable results. Things of this nature are very familiar to us; all physical sciences and most social sciences fall into this category. Having said that, unanswered questions remain. For example, the physiological operation of the brain can be understood through rational science; however, the actual concept of thought cannot. When a human thinks something, we can comprehend what hormones and nerve cells are part of the function. What we cannot reason out with science, is how a certain sequence of physiological events causes a human to think a particular thought. In saying this, we return again to the possibility of an argument from ignorance. This inhuman understanding is only plausible if you accept the distinction between it and science.
If you do not accept that, religion can be discounted and subsequently ignored in education; but if you do, religion can be viewed as a means for balancing education. In other terms, religion can be utilized in education as part of the foundation: no longer is it only based off of science and reason, it can now be supported upon a pillar of sound incomprehension, conscious of the fact that somethings simply cannot be humanly known.