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Charles Negy, Ph.D. Headshot

Religious Education Should Not Be An Oxymoron

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I have to wonder what the rest of the world thinks about the recent outbreaks of violence in Middle Eastern and other Muslim countries, supposedly in response to an amateur video that lampoons the Muslim icon, Mohammad. I'd also be curious to know the rest of the world's thoughts about the individuals who produced the video that sparked the violence.

For years I've been lecturing to college students about the perils of zealotry and in believing things for which there is no evidence. It never ceases to amaze me how passionate (to put it lightly) so many people are about their beliefs -- even beliefs that appear to be unsupported by evidence. The "My religion is the real religion" mentality (which I call religious bigotry) has never contributed to world peace. For example, the video that depicts Mohammad unfavorably is a classic example of religious bigotry. Was it necessary to make a video to purposely denigrate a dissimilar religion? Moreover, the Muslims who have attacked innocent Americans (e.g., our embassy personnel) for the actions of other Americans unambiguously exemplify racism. Religious bigotry mixed with racial bigotry almost always is a recipe for disaster.

Some suggest that a solution to these problems is to educate children about the importance of religious tolerance. I suppose that would be a nice start for minimizing social conflicts based on religion. But I think there is even a better solution to these problems. Why not provide children with a religious education? Explain to children that many people have different ideas or perspectives about the origin of life, why we're here, the afterlife, and so on. And parents could take their children to a different place of worship (temples, mosques, churches, and so on) each month to learn about the perspectives held by the followers of diverse religions in the world. Parents also can teach children about the importance of asking for credible evidence that would support the beliefs and tenets of the religions. And after exploring the array of religious faiths, parents can encourage their children to decide for themselves, when they feel like it, which religion, if any, they want to embrace. And parents can tell their children that if they conclude that there is no merit to any of the religious faiths, the parents will respect their choice to be a non-believer. To a reasonable person, that is what religious education is.

However, that is not the type of religious education most people provide to their children. For most, educating their children about religion entails taking their children, weekly, monthly, or yearly to the parents' place of worship exclusively. The children are instructed repetitively about the veracity of the religion held by the parents. And if the children were to inquire about other religions, in all likelihood, they are told the other religions are less valid or are even falsehoods. So, it should be of no surprise that the vast majority of adults embrace the same religion as their parents (which, typically, is the same religion embraced by their particular culture or region in the world). It is not accurate to assert that most people choose their faith.

This latter type education is not religious education. It is religious indoctrination. I encourage all parents to stop treating religious education as an oxymoron and instead provide a real education in religion that includes examining critically diverse religions and their tenets. Asking the leaders of diverse religions to provide credible evidence for the most basic of their religions' tenets (e.g., a "soul," "heaven," "angels," even a personal God) is crucial in helping our children develop critical thinking skills and discern for themselves fantasy versus reality, facts versus myths, and so on. I think this is a better solution for addressing some of the religious-based violence in the world.