Nel Noddings. Harvard Educational Review. Volume 78, Issue 2. Summer 2008.
We live in an age of great contradictions. On one hand, religion is playing an increasingly significant role in world politics; the Middle East is threatened with the displacement of secular government by Islamic law, and presidential candidates in the United States eagerly declare themselves to be people of faith. On the other hand, for the first time in Western history, books by openly avowed atheists have made the best-seller lists. People in both camps urge that schools do something to better educate our children about religion. Christian fundamentalists, for example, want to “restore God to our classrooms.” In contrast, Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation (2006), deplores “the failure of our schools to announce the death of God in a way that each generation can understand” (p. 91), and philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006) advises “that we gently, firmly educate the people of the world, so that they can make truly informed choices [about religion] in their lives” (p. 339).
Public schools in the United States almost certainly cannot satisfy either of the opposing groups. What, if anything, can schools do in the line of critical education about religion? Schools are constitutionally permitted to teach about religion, and it should be possible to make students aware of the various opinions and belief systems that characterize the contemporary debate over religion. In Europe, it is not unusual for some of these topics to be discussed in secondary schools, but this rarely happens in the United States.
In this essay, I make some suggestions about the possible contributions of English, mathematics, social studies, science, and the arts to the critical discussion of religion. Young people need such discussion to understand other cultures, to comprehend the many allusions to biblical names and stories that appear in literature, and to better understand their own positions on religion. I also look at the possibilities for expanded vocabulary, the nature of belief and unbelief, the role of logic in religion and the critique of religion, the connection of religion to morality, spiritual and aesthetic possibilities, and the need to find a means of communication across the chasm of belief and unbelief.
Readers should keep in mind, however, that I am talking about theoretical possibilities. The organization of curriculum in the United States and public attitudes toward religion in the public schools make it difficult to launch such a project. In the final section, I examine current impediments to critical religious education and a mode of communication that may help overcome them.
Improving Religious Vocabulary and Literacy
There should be no objection to increasing our students’ vocabulary of religious terms. In a study of the religious lives of American teenagers, Christian Smith (2005) found that teenagers are woefully uninformed about religions—even their own. For example, some professed to be “deists” but then also claimed that they felt “close or very close to God (the very God they believed is not involved in the world today) ” (p. 42). For most teenagers and adults, the terms agnostic, atheist, deist (one who believes in a possible creator but not a personal god), and secular humanist (one who believes that human beings can improve morally without belief in God) have negative connotations, or, in some cases, no meaning at all. Because these ideas are rarely discussed in our schools, many adults vigorously deny that several of America’s founding fathers were deists, among them Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, and Adams. These deniers want to insist that our nation was founded on Christian principles, even though Washington explicitly denied this. We simply excise a substantial part of our own history when we omit discussion of religion.
Some public schools do offer such courses as Comparative Religion or World Religions, and there are attempts to teach religious tolerance. These courses often concentrate on famous leaders, ritual practice, significant dates, costumes, and celebrations. They avoid the critical discussion of beliefs and refer to religious wars and persecutions with delicacy, often treating them as anomalies. Although students may emerge from such courses with a better historical sense about religions and a commitment to religious tolerance, they remain largely ignorant about the varieties of unbelief and have little or no tolerance for atheism or agnosticism. Christians, Jews, and Muslims learn to “tolerate” one another, but unbelievers remain beyond the pale. Today presidential candidates make a point of declaring themselves to be people of faith, and several years ago President George H. W. Bush answered a question about the status of atheists by saying, “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God” (quoted in Dawkins, 2006, p. 43).
It is not enough to learn the dictionary definitions of terms related to unbelief. To increase religious literacy, we must also examine the intemperate language used by representatives of both sides—believers and unbelievers alike. For many centuries, unbelievers were silent about their doubts; to say aloud that one did not believe in God (or the particular description of God sanctified by the religious group in power) was to risk torture and death. Even after the Enlightenment, unbelievers and those who rejected orthodox teachings were often publicly castigated.
The treatment of Thomas Paine is a case in point. Most high school students hear his name and that of his influential pamphlet, Common Sense, in connection with the American Revolution, but few hear anything about The Age of Reason and the bitter condemnation it brought down on its author. In this treatise, Paine (1819/1795) expressed opposition to both war and religious superstition, proclaiming as his motto, “My country is the world; to do good is my religion.” Once revered as a hero of the Revolution, he was labeled a “Judas, reptile, hog, mad dog, souse, louse, archbeast, brute, liar, and of course infidel” (Jacoby, 2004, p. 36) after the book’s publication. William Cobbett (without reading The Age of Reason) went so far as to say that “men will learn to express all that is base, malignant, treacherous, unnatural, and blasphemous by the single monosyllable of Paine” (quoted in Jacoby, 2004, p. 36). More than a century later, Theodore Roosevelt referred to Paine as a “filthy little atheist” (quoted in True, 1995, p. 14). How many students hear any of this in their U.S. history courses?
Intemperate language directed against unbelievers is still prevalent today. Educational sociologist Alan Peshkin (1986) documented the language used in a Christian fundamentalist school to characterize humanism; students were taught that its five basic tenets were “I) atheism; 2) immorality; 3) evolution; 4) the belief that man can do anything he wants to do; 5) ecumenism” (p. 77). In fact, it is not unusual for people to associate humanism with atheism, immorality, nihilism, and evolution. Some of this talk is deliberate nastiness, but much of it is a product of ignorance. How much responsibility do schools bear for this ignorance?
Fundamentalist believers are not the only ones guilty of using intemperate language. Promoters of the new outspoken atheism also use language unlikely to effect reconciliation. For example, in The God Delusion (2006), noted evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins starts his chapter on the “God hypothesis” this way:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully, (p. 31)
What a vocabulary lesson! Even those inclined to agree with Dawkins’s basic evaluation might wish for more temperate language. For example, when philosophical theist Martin Gardner (1983) responds to Robert Ingersoll’s similarly incendiary description of the God of the Pentateuch, he takes time to explore the possibility of a God living and “growing in time,” a God who “remembers all the past but … can guess the future only with probabilities … Because God is in time, not eternity, he suffers and rejoices with us” (p. 251).
One can imagine a creative mathematics lesson here. Starting with Gardner’s fascinating mathematical puzzles and moving on to his wonderful Annotated Alice (1963) and its logic problems, we might then engage in a brief discussion of his reasons for being a theist. Theists (even those in the Christian tradition) need not accept the Bible as truth or, for that matter, the dictates of any religious institution or sect. Few students have any understanding of the possibilities discussed by Gardner.
Dawkins is not the only atheist to employ intemperate language. In God Is Not Great, veteran journalist and provocateur Christopher Hitchens (2007) claims that the Palestinian-Israeli dispute could have been resolved long ago with the establishment of two neighboring states:
And so it would have been, decades ago, if the messianic rabbis and mullahs and priests could have been kept out of it. But the exclusive claims to god-given authority, made by hysterical clerics on both sides and further stoked by Armageddon-minded Christians who hope to bring on the Apocalypse (preceded by the death or conversion of all Jews), have made the situation insufferable, and put the whole of humanity in the position of hostage to a quarrel that now features the threat of nuclear war. Heligion poisons everything, (pp. 24-25)
In other parts of the book, Hitchens writes of the “nightmare” of the Old Testament, claims that the evil of the New Testament exceeds that of the Old, and suggests that religion should be thought of as an Original Sin.” He supports his conclusions with logic and historical analysis that will ring true to many thoughtful critics of institutional religion. Still, his language is more likely to inflame than to persuade those with whom he disagrees. In that sense, his book is unlikely to spread critical religious literacy among those who do not already possess it.
Sam Harris (2006), too, speaks in language that expresses scorn for believers. In letter to a Christian Nation, he writes:
Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you, dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we stand dumbstruck by you as well—by your denial of tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God. (p. 91)
Contrast the attitude expressed by these individuals with that of biologist E. O. Wilson—himself a secular humanist—in his book cast as a letter to a southern Baptist pastor. Wilson (2006) seeks to enlist the pastor’s help in preserving life on earth. He sees the possibility of active cooperation even though he recognizes the gulf of belief-unbelief that separates them:
For you, the glory of an unseen divinity; for me, the glory of the universe revealed at last. For you, the belief in God made flesh to save mankind; for me, the belief in Promethean fire seized to set men free. You have found your final truth; I am still searching. I may be wrong, you may be wrong. We may both be partly right. (p. 4)
It is clear that Wilson shares with Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, and Hitchens a skepticism toward religious belief. But he wants to communicate and to solicit cooperation on a project of vital interest to humanity. Communicating about religion with balance and diplomacy is an approach that should be tried in schools.
Enlightened treatment of the vocabulary of unbelief and discussion of the reciprocal verbal assaults discussed above should be part of every student’s education. Perhaps, too—at least in nations where Christianity dominates schools should promote biblical literacy. Indeed, Dawkins (2006) advocates teaching the Bible as literature, noting that “it is a major source book for literary culture” (p. 341) and that “an atheistic world-view provides no justification for cutting the Bible, and other sacred books, out of our education” (p. 344).
But how much of the Bible should be used? How should we select the parts to be read? The Bible and Its Influence, sponsored by the Bible Literacy Project (Schippe & Stetson, 2006), is an aesthetically beautiful book designed for use in secondary schools. It has apparently been accepted by many Christian and Jewish educators. But students reading it will not encounter the awful events of Numbers and Deuteronomy, horrors vividly cited by today’s atheists. They will have no way of evaluating Dawkins’s scathing criticisms of God. To which verses would Dawkins point to support his accusations that the god of the Old Testament is “infanticidal”? Where does God appear as a “bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser”? Students should be able to find the passages that support these accusations, but they will not get such knowledge from most courses on Bible literacy. Such partial literacy—omitting the stories and passages that have appalled many thoughtful theists, atheists, agnostics, and deists—comes close to promoting religion. Religious literacy, if we are serious about it, should be critical literacy. But now we encounter deep difficulties.
Belief is an important element in all religions—especially in Christianity. It would be very difficult to discuss Christian beliefs critically in our schools without incurring the wrath of many believers. If we hope to open dialogue in which believers (of all sects) and unbelievers can better understand one another and engage in common projects, we cannot begin by ridiculing religious beliefs as today’s atheists so often do. For example, Sam Harris (2006) comments as follows on recent discussions among Catholic theologians about the doctrine of limbo: “Is there the slightest possibility that someone will present evidence indicating the eternal fate of unbaptized children after death? How can any educated person think this anything but a hilarious, terrifying, and unconscionable waste of time?” (p. 66). Even those who share Harris’s skepticism of religious belief may want to find a more conciliatory way of stating their objections. One could, for example, enrich young people’s understanding of religious history by pointing out important changes in orthodox belief sanctioned by various groups. Today, the Catholic Church insists that human life (and presumably ensoulment) begins at conception. In the Middle Ages, however, and until the late nineteenth century, the Church taught that “God put the soul into the foetus when it took human shape, at about forty-six days for a male and ninety for a female; until that point, the embryo was not human and had neither human life nor human soul” (Orme, 2001, p. 14). Such enrichment of students’ historical understanding might take place in a science, history, or sex education course and would profit greatly from the inclusion of feminist perspectives. For example, Adrienne Rich (1976), a feminist poet and essayist, recounts the ensoulment debate along with discussion of contraception, abortion, and childbirth. Other significant changes in religious doctrine—about slavery, the status of women, treatment of children, race, and the status of Jews—could also be examined without causing undue offense.
Scientific beliefs with respect to religion have also changed, and such changes can be discussed in science classes. Respectable scientists were once engaged in studies designed to authenticate biblical accounts (Kitcher, 2007). However, careful scientific studies forced scientific/religious thinkers to revise their positions on the age of the Earth, the possibility of common ancestors for all living things, and the idea of periodic creation. These changes in mainstream scientific thought are a matter of fact. Recognizing the changes and discussing them does not suggest teaching them in a way that forces students to accept their conclusions. The suggestion is sometimes made that these matters be discussed in a history of science class, but there are few such courses in our secondary schools. If these topics are to be taught, they will have to be taught in existing classes. The traditional organization of the curriculum stands in the way of teaching matters of critical importance.
Perhaps the most powerful move to be made in discussing belief is to follow Dennett in questioning the nature of belief. Do people sincerely subscribe to the particular beliefs required by their religious peer groups, or do they merely “believe in belief? When we listen to presidential candidates proclaiming their belief in God, we have to wonder what they really believe. It is possible that they simply believe in belief—that is, that belief is somehow essential in itself and that a confessed unbeliever could not be elected. Dennett (2006) is critical of this stance: “Belief in belief in God makes people reluctant to acknowledge the obvious: that much of the traditional lore about God is no more worthy of belief than the lore about Santa Claus or Wonder Woman” (p. 210). People who believe in belief in God may or may not themselves believe in God. They may think that many other people need a belief in God in order to do the right things, to live a moral life. Dennett asks, “What do people do when they discover that they no longer believe in God? Some of them don’t do anything; they don’t stop going to church, and they don’t even tell their loved ones. They just quietly get on with their lives, living as morally (or immorally) as they did before” (p. 204).
And some seek a different conception of God and a different form of connection. Gardner (1983) tells this story of his visit to a Methodist church:
During the service everyone stood up and solemnly recited the Apostle’s Creed! I would have staked a sizable bet that more than 80 percent of those present considered the creed sheer nonsense. Young people in particular are sensitive to this kind of hypocrisy. It is one reason they are leaving the liberal churches in droves to go nowhere, or into Eastern religions, or occult movements, or to evangelical churches where they can belt out songs with moving melodies and lyrics that tell of the cross and the blood, (p. 352)
Somehow we have to give teenagers an opportunity to hear various, reasonable, and temperate views on belief and its place in spiritual life. Gardner is still an avowed theist, but he has given up beliefs that seem to him to be nonsense. Students should be aware that many people who reject religion retain interest in spiritual life, and some remain loyal churchgoers while shrugging off much of what they hear there. We really do not know much about people’s actual beliefs because, as Dennett points out, the belief in belief and the press to believe discourage expressions of doubt and outright unbelief.
Teachers and students can also examine historical facts about the consequences of various religious beliefs. Material on the witch trials and Inquisition appears in some history courses. Did Christian beliefs support these outrages? Which beliefs? Students should hear, too, about Muslim fatwas such as the one condemning Salman Rushdie to death for writing The Satanic Verses. What beliefs support such decisions?
Although Jews put less emphasis than Christians do on belief, Judaic history is not free of atrocities triggered by belief. In 1994, Baruch Goldstein murdered twenty-nine Muslim worshippers in Hebron. He believed he was helping to wipe out the last vestiges of the Amalekites, supposed descendants of Esau who were defeated by King David in the Old Testament. This story was recounted in a recent New York Times article by Noah Feldman (2007), who wrote that he is still somewhat nostalgic for the Orthodox community that ostracized him for marrying outside his faith. (Or perhaps it is fairer to say that Feldman is just sad for the loss of community that accompanied the loss of beliefs he can no longer defend rationally.) Letters to the editor revealed that the majority of writers supported the Orthodox community in shunning Feldman for the offense of intermarriage (Letters, 2007, p. 8). This seems to be an example of the sort of case discussed by Dennett (2006) and philosopher Philip Kitcher (2007) in which loyalty to one’s fellow human beings has been subordinated to fundamentalist loyalty.
In nearly all of the cases discussed here (and many more), it is often claimed that the horrible effects did not spring from “true” Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. Instead, the ugly behavior is viewed as an anomaly, an aberration. One job of critical religious education is to analyze these claims and to see whether the beliefs that support atrocities and personal cruelties have been convincingly rejected, whether they have been merely deemphasized, or whether they are still obviously available within the current religious texts for extremists to seize upon. Like Harris, Dennett (2006) is eloquent on the need for moderate religious believers to temper the extremists in their midst: “We must hold these moderate Muslims responsible for reshaping their own religion—but that means we must equally hold moderate Christians and Jews and others responsible for all the excesses in their own traditions” (p. 300).
An example of a pernicious belief, one deemphasized by many mainstream Christian denominations, is the belief in hell. Dawkins (2006) denounces teaching the doctrine of hell to children as child abuse, and Hitchens (2007) claims that its sole purpose is to create fear and, thus, obedience. Charles Darwin, too, found the Christian belief in hell both irrational and cruel:
I can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true: for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my father, brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine, (quoted in Browne, 2002, p. 432)
Atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell (1957) also condemned the doctrine and, noting that the Church of England no longer required its members to believe in hell, even judged the character of Jesus flawed because he believed in hell. We must note, however, that in the intervening years, the mainstream Protestant churches have steadily lost members, and more evangelical groups—still enthusiastic about hell—have gained impressively in numbers. Astute students may figure out that outright rejection of hell requires a complete revision in the doctrine of salvation.
At the very least, students should be encouraged to think about the concept of eternity. E. O. Wilson (2006) draws our attention to the numbers involved. Writing of damnation, he says:
The condemned will remain in hell … for a trillion trillion years, enough for the universe to expand to its own, entropie death, time enough for countless universes like it afterward to be born, expand, and likewise die away. And that is just the beginning of how long condemned souls will suffer in hell—all for a mistake they made in choice of religion during the infmitesimally small time they inhabited Earth, (p. 6)
High school students are regularly asked to construct time lines to illustrate historic events and prehistoric times. How might they represent a trillion years? Ah, good exercise. But how could they depict a trillion trillion years?
Because it is both disrespectful and unpersuasive, approaching the topic of belief with scorn and ridicule is almost certainly a mistake, but the topic should not be ignored. Schools can present factual material on beliefs and their effects on human behavior. And schools can also address belief through logic. One way to do this is to discuss classic “proofs” of God’s existence. The proofs might be considered in history, mathematics, or science, and their study provides a way to bring logic to bear on religious belief without directly opposing statements of current belief. Teachers can point out, however, that the claims made in classic proofs are still made in various forms today, often as challenges to unbelievers.
Students should have an opportunity to examine the three classic attempts to prove the existence of God logically, and they should be reminded that one cannot conclude from the failure of the proofs that God does not exist. All three proofs were resoundingly attacked by Immanuel Kant, a believer. Kant’s (1966/1781) rejection of the cosmological proof is both beautiful and deeply moving. The basic argument of the proof is that the universe or creation is visible; we live in it and observe it. A creation implies a creator; therefore God exists. But, according to Kant,
we cannot put aside, and yet also cannot endure, the thought that a being, which we represent to ourselves as supreme amongst all beings, should as it were, say to itself: I am from eternity to eternity, and outside me there is nothing save what is through my will, but whence then am I? All support here fails us. (p. 409)
If we answer that God created himself, we are defeated by the rejoinder that the universe might then have created itself. If we admit the possibility of selfcreation, why posit an invisible entity beyond the universe?
The ontological proof advanced by Saint Anselm and modified by Descartes is particularly suitable for math class, given Descartes’ profound influence on mathematics and formal logic. The basic idea—that a perfect being must exist or, lacking existence, it would not be perfect—can be profitably critiqued in either math, science, or English classes. Surely our ability to imagine the perfect in no way ensures that a perfect being exists.
Still debated today is the ideological proof- the proof from design. Kant’s response to this proof was to point out that God could at most be the architect, but not the creator, of the universe. To get at the cause—the creator—we would have to rely on the ontological proof, and that has already been disproved.
Current arguments against evolution lean heavily on the ideological argument—especially the idea of irreducible complexity—which speaks to the existence of organs such as the human eye that must have all parts in place to function. But this idea, so plausible on first hearing, has been shown to be faulty by evidence that the eye could have evolved gradually (Dawkins, 1996/1986). David Linden (2007) cites several references that show convincingly “that complexity is not irreducible at all” (p. 239). Indeed, Linden, a professor of neuroscience, claims that the marvelous human brain is itself an argument against intelligent design. The brain is “a design that is inefficient, inelegant, and unfathomable, but nevertheless works” (p. 6).
Not all attempts at proof have been directed toward showing the existence of God. Some try to prove the nonexistence of God logically (Martin & Monnier, 2003), but these also seem to be faulty. The conclusion would seem to be that we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God by logical means. Logical arguments are more powerful, however, when directed at the presumed attributes of God. Since the days of ancient Greece, it has been doubted that God, if he exists, can be omniscient, omnipotent, and all good. If God did indeed possess all of these attributes, how could there be evil in the world? Harris (2004) concludes as follows:
The problem of vindicating an omnipotent and omniscient God in the face of evil (this is traditionally called the problem of theodicy) is insurmountable. Those who claim to have surmounted it, by recourse to notions of free will and other incoherencies, have merely heaped bad philosophy onto bad ethics. Surely there must come a time when we will acknowledge the obvious: theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings. (P- 173)
But theology is an enormous domain of human knowledge. The “knowledge” may be material that should be regarded as fic-true- knowledge of “truths” that appear in fiction. An example of a fic-true statement is “Sherlock Holmes lived on Baker Street,” for in the world of the fictional detective, this is a true statement. Thus, even if Harris is right in his assessment of theology, some study of it adds immensely to both vocabulary and cultural literacy.
Some theologians have tried to overcome difficulties in the attributes of God by relaxing the claim of God’s omniscience. God cannot know the future, these theorists suggest. If he did, why would he put Abraham and Job to dreadful tests when he already knew how they would respond? Moreover, a God who knows the future would be devoid of worry, hope, despair, and joy—all qualities highly valued in human life. Other theologians soften the claim to omnipotence. God is enormously powerful, they claim, but he cannot void the laws of logic, and he exists with us in time, not beyond it. Arguments have flown back and forth on this since Gottfried Leibniz (1951/1710) made the claim that God is subject to the laws of logic.
While Dawkins has been accused of ignoring sophisticated theological work that might challenge his objections, attention to theological niceties would undermine his purpose. He looks at religion as everyday people understand it, and he criticizes that understanding for its demonstrable effects in the real world. Close attention to theological subtleties would grant dignity to a field Dawkins deplores.
Today’s atheists are united in challenging the all-goodness of God. Indeed, God’s apparent shortcomings in the moral realm are a major reason to challenge his existence (Noddings, 1989). What sort of God would allow babies and young children to suffer the agonies of incurable illnesses and handicaps? Or would allow earthquakes, floods, and fires to destroy the innocent? What sort of God would design a world in which its creatures must eat one another to stay alive? The lack of satisfactory answers to questions such as these have caused many critical thinkers to reject the possibility of God. Popular Christian writers such as C. S. Lewis (1962) have responded to these questions, but their answers have seemed woefully inadequate even to theists like Martin Gardner (1983, pp. 260-262). The Christian response—comforting to many—is that God has allowed evil in the world to bring about some greater good. But unbelievers object that there is no evidence of this greater good, and its existence must be taken entirely on faith.
The problem of evil and God’s role in allowing or supporting it is an old problem, and students should learn that dissenters in the late nineteenth century rejected theism primarily on moral grounds (Noddings, 1993). Their attitude was well expressed a bit later by Bertrand Russell: “The world in which we live can be understood as a result of muddle and accident, but if it is the outcome of a deliberate purpose, the purpose must have been that of a fiend” (quoted in Miles, 1995, p. 309). In fact, in his biography of God, former Jesuit Jack Miles (1995) titles the chapter on Job “Fiend.” Most reasonable people would rather accept the nonexistence of God than to entertain the notion that they might be worshipping a fiend.
This, it seems to me, is the major message we get from today’s outspoken atheists: There is little, if any, evidence of God’s goodness, and the persistent belief in a just and merciful God has led to more misery than joy. Students should be encouraged to discuss arguments that support or reject claims of God’s goodness.
Can there be morality without God? This is a question often asked by believers, but we need to press the question a bit to answer it adequately. What does the questioner mean by morality? And what role does she suppose God plays in it? Some believers suppose that God is watching every individual and that he will reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. Many of the teenagers interviewed by Smith (2005) said that they believed this. According to Dennett (2006):
Without the divine carrot and stick, goes this reasoning, people would loll about aimlessly or indulge their basest desires, break their promises, cheat on their spouses, neglect their duties, and so on. There are two well-known problems with this reasoning: (1) it doesn’t seem to be true, which is good news, since (2) it is a demeaning view of human nature, (p. 279)
There is no persuasive evidence that believers are more moral than unbelievers. In fact, depending on what they think God demands of them, believers may well be less moral—willing to kill and torture unbelievers, for example. And the carrot-and-stick view is demeaning. The watchful eyes of adults may be needed to secure acceptable behavior in children, but thoughtful adults do not need moral policemen. There is some evidence that adolescent believers are somewhat less likely than their unbelieving peers to engage in questionable behaviors, such as the use of alcohol or premarital sex (Smith, 2005), but they are not yet mature, and the effects seem to wear off when they reach maturity.
There are also differences of opinion on the meaning of morality. Philosophers and thoughtful unbelievers usually describe morality in terms of how we should meet and treat others. In this view, drinking, casual sex, and bawdy entertainment are immoral only if they hurt others, and then it is the hurting that is immoral, not the behaviors themselves. Believers and unbelievers often share the same judgment on various acts, but believers might speak of “sin” and offense to God, whereas unbelievers would point to the harm done to other sentient beings.
The notion of sin is hotly criticized by today’s outspoken atheists. Why, they ask, should we concern ourselves with offenses to an imaginary God and ignore the sufferings of millions of living human beings? Hitchens (2007) is particularly eloquent on this topic and titles one of his chapters “Religion as an Original Sin.” He provides many persuasive examples of the harm done by “obeying God,” as in the story of Abraham and Isaac: “Sacramental guttings and throat-cuttings, particularly of lambs, occur every year in the Christian and Muslim world, either to celebrate Easter or the feast of Eid. The latter, which honors Abraham’s willingness to make a human sacrifice of his son, is common to all three monotheisms” (p. 206). It is said that, many years after the aborted sacrifice, Abraham died and was buried in the cave where Sarah had been interred: “To this day, religious people kill each other and kill each other’s children for the right to exclusive property in this unidentifiable and unlocatable hole in a hill” (p. 207). Hitchens also connects this story (one condemned by many feminists as well) with the later willingness of God to sacrifice his own son:
Once again we have a father demonstrating love by subjecting a son to death by torture, but this time the father is not trying to impress God. He is God, and he is trying to impress humans. Ask yourself the question: how moral is the following: I am told of a human sacrifice that took place two thousand years ago, without my wishing it and in circumstances so ghastly that, had I been present and in possession of any influence, I would have been duty-bound to try and stop it. In consequence of this murder, my own manifold sins are forgiven me, and I may hope to enjoy everlasting life. (p. 209)
Given the bloody wars, persecution of Jews, and general mayhem that resulted from belief in the reality of this event, it is hard to say that Hitchens has exaggerated its horror. To this day, there is a loathsome glorification of suffering in all three monotheisms.
Faulty claims abound in the discussion of God and morality. Arguments are still heard in favor of displaying the Ten Commandments—supposedly the foundation of our law in God’s word. Students studying the Bible as literature should examine the Ten Commandments carefully. Only three of them appear in today’s laws, and those were almost certainly captured in tribal law well before the posting of the Ten Commandments. Feminists have also pointed out that the Ten Commandments are sexist. Why is there no commandment against rape (Noddings, 1989)? Why is there no commandment to love and cherish our children?
While God’s part in morality might be seen as more of a role model than policeman or lawgiver, today’s atheists make this possibility seem ridiculous. Who could reasonably use the God of the Old Testament as a role model? Consider again the adjectives with which Dawkins describes that God. The response of many believers is that “God is God” and cannot be judged by human standards. But this is a weak answer. If we cannot morally emulate God’s behavior, and if we should follow his commandments without judging, we might well inflict terrible harm on human beings -just as God did.
A more sophisticated answer is found in the work of Carl Jung, who dared to question God’s all-goodness. In Answer to Job (1969), Jung suggests that the Old Testament tells the tale of a God who is still struggling to manage his own omniscience; he embodies moral contradictions, an as-yet undifferentiated, unreflective consciousness: “A more differentiated consciousness must, sooner or later, find it difficult to love, as a kind father, a God whom on account of his unpredictable fits of wrath, his unreliability, injustice, and cruelty, it has every reason to fear” (p. 419). Jung is not the only thoughtful writer to note that God was taught a moral lesson by Job, a mere human. Jack Miles (1995) offers the following commentary:
After Job, God knows his own ambiguity as he has never known it before. He now knows that, although he is not Bertrand Russell’s fiend, he has a fiend-susceptible side and that mankind’s conscience can be finer than his. With Job’s assistance, his kind self has won out over his cruel, capricious self just as it did after the flood, (p. 328)
Lines such as these might be used to invite reconciliation between believers and unbelievers. Human moral consciousness is acknowledged, not condemned. It can be pointed out, too, that many unbelievers reject religion precisely because of the documented moral weaknesses of God and the immoral effects of religion on human life (Noddings, 1993). While viewing God as still striving toward moral consciousness might restore the possibility of belief, this attitude is often resisted by believers—almost with horror. Thoughtful people may agree with Leibniz that God is constrained by logic and thus not omnipotent, or with process theologians that God does not know the future beyond probabilities and is therefore not omniscient. But it is hard to accept that God—like lowly humans—is still learning to be good. As Jung (1969) said, “Man does not relish any all-too-human inconsistencies in his gods” (p. 419).
If God cannot serve adequately as role model, lawgiver, or moral policeman, and if God is not the source of morality, then what is the source? Dawkins discusses current work on the Darwinian origins of morality. This work, like new studies on the evolution of language, promises to increase our understanding and appreciation of nonhuman animals and our common ancestry. However, Dawkins depends somewhat too heavily on Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds (2006), and his notion of a moral grammar similar to linguistic deep structures is highly questionable. In linguistics, we often differ at the level of meaning but not at the level of syntax—of what constitutes a proper linguistic expression. In morality, we may differ even on the domain to which morality refers.
More persuasive work is being done on cooperation and altruism among nonhuman animals (Broom, 2003; de Waal, 2006; Dugatkin, 2006; Joyce, 2006). One can see how the need to cooperate in hunting might lead to moral thinking among men. One can argue, too, that the maternal instinct—a built-in form of altruism—might also lead to concern and compassion for others.
It is reasonable to suggest that high school students be introduced to a range of theories about the sources of morality and ethics. As this is done, however, attention should be drawn to the ways in which the theories sometimes lead us into moral error. Then, of course, a host of questions arise: Why do we judge certain theoretical consequences as wrong? How do ordinary people make moral decisions? Is there such a thing as moral intuition? Are there moral absolutes, and if there are, what are they?
Spiritual and Aesthetic Possibilities
A generous religious education should help students understand that the rejection of institutional religion does not imply rejection of a spiritual attitude or commitment to a spiritually satisfying way of life. Some people who reject institutional religion retain belief in God; others entirely reject belief in God but retain a spiritual view of the universe, nature, and daily life (Groenhout & Bower, 2003).
For many people, religion is aesthetically attractive. After all, religion has inspired great art, music, and architecture. As Dennett (2006) remarks:
… almost all religions … have given their lovers a cornucopia of beauty to ravish their senses: soaring architecture, with decoration applied to every surface, music, candles, and incense. The inventory of the world’s great works of art is crowned by religious masterpieces, (p. 251)
He also recognizes the power of love with respect to religion and writes that “nothing could matter more than what people love” (p. 253), but he still wants to press these lovers with logical questions about their beliefs. The love that inspires great art also generates feelings that defy rationality. People captivated by religious love are often offended by questions that challenge their logic. Paradoxically, they may commit crimes against offenders, thereby defiling their own religions.
Early in the twentieth century, psychologist William James discussed the role of aesthetics in religious life. Citing Cardinal Newman, James (1902) noted the aesthetic value of cathedral services. Words, he explained, are included in our aesthetic experience:
Intoning them as he [Newman] would intone a cathedral service, he shows how high is their aesthetic value. It enriches our bare piety to carry these exalted and mysterious verbal additions just as it enriches a church to have an organ or old brasses, marbles and frescoes and stained windows … Although some persons aim most at intellectual purity and simplification, for others richness is the supreme imaginative requirement, (pp. 448-449)
Indeed, James took pains to remind his readers again and again that he was describing and analyzing religious experience, not the contents of religion. It is this experience to which some of today’s atheists are insensitive. It is possible that many people who retain institutional affiliation do so because they treasure the pageantry, music, and architecture—not the beliefs—of their religions. As noted above, we really do not know much about what people actually believe. Dennett, unlike Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, is sensitive to religious experience and refers to James several times.
However, if pageantry and ritual are absent from the lives of atheists and secular humanists, awe and wonder are not. Harris (2004) observes the following:
Man is manifestly not the measure of all things. This universe is shot through with mystery. The very fact of its being, and of our own, is a mystery absolute, and the only miracle worthy of the name … No myths need be embraced for us to commune with the profundity of our circumstance. No personal God need be worshiped for us to live in awe at the beauty and immensity of creation, (p. 227)
And although Darwin (1859) recognized the cruelty and indifference of nature in its treatment of individuals, he also stood in awe of the evolutionary process and its products:
There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved, (p. 490)
E. O. Wilson’s The Creation (2006) is also filled with paragraphs expressing through plain facts the wonders of nature. In paragraph after paragraph, he describes the loss of species—this “ongoing biological catastrophe” (p. 80)—and offers this advice:
Finally, in your mind try to overlay millions of such species evolving forward in time and then far back into the history of each of them, at all levels of organization from gene to ecosystem. There in a nutshell is the transcendent and only dimly foreseeable complexity of future biology. There is to be found a new theater of spiritual energy, (p. 109)
But what is meant by “spiritual energy”? There are several recognized meanings of the word spiritual. The words of Harris and Wilson suggest a meaning common to philosophers and cognitive scientists: Spiritual refers to an emotional, nonrational complement to the cognitive and rational. It does not mean irrational. It does not fly in the face of science and rationality, but it enlarges the world of scientific work with an emotional and aesthetic appreciation. It recognizes enormous complexity and acknowledges the numinous or mysterious aspect of reality. It may or may not posit a supernatural entity behind the mystery.
In science, use of the word spiritual does not involve the supernatural. It is not irrational to feel a “rising of the spirit” on observing a beautiful sunrise over the sea; it is irrational to insist that Apollo is pulling (or Neptune pushing) the sun along. It is not irrational to be struck with awe in embracing a newborn infant, uncovering reddish seedlings in the early spring garden, or listening to Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto; it is irrational to thoughtlessly attribute each of these wonders to a supernatural entity. It is not my purpose here to ridicule the irrationality that supports faith, but merely to distinguish such irrationality from the nonrational that enlarges our lives without causing logical inconsistencies.
Some people use the expression “spiritual but not religious” to refer to those who believe in God but reject formal religion. Others use it to designate a direct relationship with God, one unmediated by a religious institution. And some use it to capture a feeling of wonder and awe at the universe itself. In Smith’s (2005) study, most teenagers who responded to the expression used it in one of these ways. Smith intended the word to refer to seeking, to looking for a satisfying mode of religious life. However, few teenagers (only about 2%) qualified as seekers, and most had never heard the expression “spiritual but not religious.” For educators, the important point is that the teenagers had never encountered the expression—that their “education” was entirely devoid of any discussion of the spiritual and the religious, or the distinction between the two.
Educators can promote the sense of spirituality associated with awe and wonder. Indeed, it should be promoted in every subject we teach. However, carelessly sliding from religion to spirituality, and vice versa, may be dangerous. Dennett (2006) points out that spiritual life is sometimes too closely associated with attention to individual souls.
There are many people who quite innocently and sincerely believe that if they are earnest in attending to their own personal “spiritual” needs, this amounts to living a morally good life … Consider, for instance, those contemplative monks, primarily in Christian and Buddhist traditions, who, unlike hardworking nuns in schools and hospitals, devote most of their working hours to the purification of their souls, and the rest to the maintenance of the contemplative lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. In what way, exactly, are they morally superior to people who devote their lives to improving their stamp collections or their golf swing? (p. 306)
This paragraph from Dennett might induce a lively discussion and even lead to a debate like that expressed by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1983/1843) over the primacy of ethics versus devotion to God. It is an important matter to discuss.
There are, however, possibilities for students seeking spiritual enlightenment that are far more worrisome than a retreat to the contemplative life. Young people, educationally abandoned, may fall into cults or questionable forms of religion. Hitchens (2007) warns that “there is no ‘Eastern’ solution” (p. 195) to the search for spirituality. He has harsh words for those who might seek comfort in Buddhism or any other Eastern religion. After recounting episodes of murderous rampages, religiously sponsored cruelties, and sanctified stupidities, he warns against uncritical acceptance of Eastern (or any other) views.
This warning, which applies to all religions, of course, should be complemented by the teachings and accounts of those who have been inspired by religion to live justly, actively, and compassionately. The primary message should be that spiritual seeking should be guided by reason and accompanied by a search for truth.
Kitcher (2007), too, raises doubts about what he calls “spiritual religion” (p. 152). Spiritual religion, as Kitcher describes it, abandons supernaturalism. Spiritual Christians, for example, may retain the great Christian stories but only as metaphors and symbols. They “place the value of the stories of the scriptures not in their literal truth but in their deliverances for self-understanding, for improving ourselves and for shaping our attitudes and actions toward others” (p. 153). But, Kitcher warns, the threat of sliding back into supernaturalism is always there. And what is gained? “The enlightenment case culminates in a (polite) request to the reflective people who go beyond supernaturalism to spiritual religion, to explain, as clearly as they can, what more they affirm that secular humanism cannot grant” (p. 154). The answer to this may be the richness described by James and Dennett, or it may be “community” (McGrath, 2004): the presence of an organized group that will encourage the best in its members and speak with one voice when the larger society falls into inhumane or unjust practices.
The critical study of religion and spirituality should encourage students to embrace a life that is spiritually satisfying, whether or not it includes affiliation with institutional religion or belief in the supernatural. Understanding that unbelievers as well as believers may be moved by awe, wonder, and concern for humanity may help reduce students’ fear that they have lost something irreplaceable if they give up belief in the supernatural.
Communicating Across the Chasm
In public life, perhaps the best way to bring believers and unbelievers together is to join in common projects. Wilson’s letter to a Baptist preacher is a good illustration of this approach. Recognizing the chasm that divides fundamentalist Christians from secular humanists, Wilson (2006) invites the preacher to join him in preserving the creation: “What are we to do? Forget the differences, I say. Meet on common ground” (p. 168).
It may not be possible to forget the differences, but we can put them aside to work on common projects. For example, pro-life and pro-choice women can work together to provide better conditions for children already alive. Baptists and secularists can work together to save life on earth. Gays and straights can work together to improve old neighborhoods. In such activities (some already successfully under way), minds may not be changed concerning the deep, basic differences, but actions may be greatly modified. Working together makes it less possible to treat each other disrespectfully. Instead of trying to resolve the differences, we can learn to work around them for the common good.
What can schools do to prepare students to live in a world of pluralistic values? Religion plays a significant role in the lives of individuals, and increasingly it is playing a political role that affects both believers and unbelievers. We cannot remain silent on this vital topic and still claim to educate.
It should be possible to present factual material on religious topics using history, biography, science, and literature. The worry is that because people feel so strongly about religion, such material will be presented dogmatically. This fear is well founded and may be impossible to overcome. However, we do overcome it in our best liberal arts colleges and universities. Surely, at least some of the material studied by our most privileged college students can be shared with students in public high schools.
The ignorance of Americans on religious matters is appalling, and that ignorance makes large numbers of people easy marks for unscrupulous politicians and corporate money-grubbers (Bageant, 2007). Thomas Frank (2004) argues that working-class, poorly educated people have become convinced that welleducated, liberal professionals are the enemy—destroying Christian values and subjecting children “daily to the leftist pro-homosexual pro-evolution proabortion propaganda of the leftist NEA” (p. 205). Neo-Marxists, Freireans, and critical theorists have argued for years that the oppressed are complicit in their own oppression. While the general questions raised by that observation are beyond the scope of this essay, recognition of widespread ignorance on religion should spur us to action to increase critical awareness. It should also warn us that such efforts will be vigorously opposed.
In making recommendations for educational action, I make a distinction between the theoretically practical and the politically practical. The recommendations here are theoretically practical; that is, they do not violate the Constitution and, in the hands of well-educated teachers, will add a muchneeded critical dimension to schooling. However, given the political climate—one in which fundamentalists insist that their religious perspective is under attack by liberal secularists—it may be impossible to promote historically accurate and critical discussion of religion and nonbelief.
There may be general acceptance, for example, of the recommendation to teach the Bible as literature. However, securing the acceptance of this recommendation should not require educators to consider only the parts of the Bible that portray God in the best moral light. It should be possible to use the starkly critical paragraph from Dawkins and ask students to find sections of the Bible that both support and contradict his claims. How can the criticisms be answered? To present the Bible as literature and to leave out the passages that many find morally objectionable is to abdicate our responsibility as educators. At no point should teachers claim that one interpretation is the truth but, rather, that students are looking at the range of ideas people have expressed on the topic. Students should hear both C. S. Lewis and Bertrand Russell.
I also argue that historical studies should be broadened to include the religious orientation of well-known persons when that orientation is significant. Certainly, the documented deism of many of the country’s founders should be discussed. The case of Thomas Paine should be considered as part of the critical study of both nationalism and religion. Students should be encouraged to debate the claim that an unbeliever could not be elected president of the United States. If this is true, why is it so? Why do people fear an unbeliever as leader of the nation?
We should add frank, critical discussion of evolution and intelligent design/ creation, and this discussion should take place wherever the topic arises—in science, history, mathematics, or English (Noddings, 1993, 2006). While most scientists accept evolution and find intelligent design unscientific, there are scientists who accept evolution and still firmly believe in God as designer of the process. Paleontologist Simon Conway Morris (2003), for example, sees a remarkable convergence in evolutionary processes leading to “inevitable humans.”
… the complexity and beauty of ‘Life’s Solution’ can never cease to astound. None of it presupposes, let alone proves, the existence of God, but all is congruent. For some it will remain as the pointless activity of the Blind Watchmaker, but others may prefer to remove their dark glasses. The choice, of course, is yours, (p. 330)
Here is a scientist who accepts evolution, who refers to the “idiocies of the socalled scientific creationists” (p. 316) and yet believes rationally in God. Again, is it not theoretically practical to share with students the various opposing views on God and religion and the role they may (or may not) play in scientific understanding?
It would be foolish to underestimate the forces that will continue to act against attempts to teach religion using critical thinking. Indeed, it is hard to promote critical thinking on any serious topic (Noddings, 2006). And it is not only religious fundamentalism that stands in the way. The organization of the curriculum works against such attempts as well. People argue that the social/ political debate on evolution does not belong in science class. Where, then, does it “belong”? Where can we look at attempts to prove the existence/nonexistence of God? Why not in math classes where we teach logic? The curriculum is organized into airtight compartments, but the world’s problems slop over into every aspect of life.
Our system of teacher education may also work against this movement. Some teachers are prepared and eager to do the sort of work suggested here, but many suppose that teachers must help students arrive at prespecified answers. We rarely give our students open-ended questions to pursue or math problems that have no clear answers. We too often suppose that teaching means getting students to give appropriate responses to predetermined demands. And this is part of teaching; we should not shirk our responsibility to teach specific skills and information. But if that is all we do, we have abandoned the beautiful Socratic vision of education: to guide students toward continuous, open-minded investigation, to reflect and thus gain self-knowledge, to inquire together respectfully on issues that matter to our individual and collective lives.
The new outspoken atheists discussed here are to be thanked for their insistence on telling the historical truth and pressing (gently) the question: Why do you believe these things? Our motto might become, as Wilson (2006) suggests, “Sapere aude. Dare to think on your own” (p. 137).