Religious Education

religion – education – ethics – science

Is religious education dangerous; may it undermine ethics and science-based thinking?

Does religious education usually teach science-based thinking and broad ethics, compassionate empathy without us-versus-them thinking?

Religion and ethics:
– Religions are part of cultures. Many aspects of a religion reflect the culture in which it developed or which it is part of, particularly stories, legends, rituals, celebrations, artistic creations, ways of expressing emotions, and religious-moral prohibitions and mandates.
Religions often give people a sense of belonging, acceptance, cohesion and support in a community that includes members of all ages. Religious communities may provide opportunities for members to express emotions including pain, joy, hope, and love, often in ways that include music, poetry, traditional stories, etc. Religious communities and traditions may be particularly helpful and comforting for minorities that are isolated or segregated, people that are oppressed or very poor, and people who do not have family support and feel lost in society. The statement that religion is opium for the people makes some sense: when a person feels abandoned, lonely or depressed religion generally gives a feeling of comfort comparable to an opiate; opiates and religion may make it possible to feel good when alone and abandoned. However, similar benefits may be gained by communities that are not related to a religious belief system or tradition, for instance working together on a common goal that is meaningful and supported by positive emotions, or participating in on-going communal creative or artistic activities. Sadly, some find such comfort mostly in gangs and armies.
– Most religions also fulfill an apparent desire or need for supernatural stories or notions that are mysterious and considered sacred.
– Religions create belief systems and moral mandates and prohibitions that are mostly based on interpretations of religious texts and teachings of founders and leaders; and they often integrated some ancient pagan traditions, stories, beliefs, and moral mandates.
People may state that they believe what their religion teaches, but they can hardly define what they actually believe or attempt to believe or how their beliefs guide their thinking and decisions.


The ambiguities of people’s religious beliefs is reflected in the relatively common changes of a person’s religion when influenced by other people or prior to a marriage to please a spouse; furthermore, if specific religious ‘beliefs’ were taken seriously, how could people, including religious leaders, of different religions join in common prayer and support each other regarding their right to practice and teach their divergent creeds? And how could people have a harmonious friendships and marriages with persons who are members of a very different religion or are agnostics. Differences in political views or attitudes towards animals often cause more discomfort or conflicts in close relationships than diverging religious beliefs.
There is a growing percentage of people who are no longer affiliated with any religion and/or grew up without religious teachings; among agnostics and atheists, there is no apparent loss of moral guidance.

Important points regarding religion are:  

– Modern concepts of human rights and broadly accepted ethical principles developed from Enlightenment thinking and Humanism; they developed along with modern sciences.
– Earlier, religious and political leaders may have worked closely toget


her or competed with each other. Both, political-legal systems and churches treated adversaries with violence that is today hard to imagine.
– Religions are more poetic aspects of cultures than knowledge and guidance that people can live by. And people may change religions. They may like the religion in which they were brought up like an old set of clothing, but they are able to abandon it for something different.
– Humans have a propensity towards religiosity, adhering to myths and stories of their culture that create a narrative of their history and the realities they live in; they may even participate in creating and expanding them, for instance producing images that later have magical meaning and powers, writing stories while following intuitions and ascribing them to deities, etc. More prosaic is the debating and voting as to whether gay marriage is now accepted and no longer considered to be punished by God.
– As Children develop, they learn about myths that are part of their religion and culture, about fairies, guardian angels, Easter bunnies, Santa Claus, etc. They may learn about the religious-moral prohibitions and obligations, for instance to be circumcised. Later much early learning is discarded or lost, and religion may become rather abstract; God then can only be defined by what God is not.
– Being part of a religious community is generally comforting. However, people can feel good without association with a religion. People may state they have some beliefs, but they can hardly define what they actually believe or attempt to believe. There is a growing percentage of people who are no longer affiliated with any religion and/or grew up without religious teachings; among agnostics and atheists, there is no apparent loss of moral guidance.
– Humans are not able to have a coherent image of the world, religious and/or science-based. Religions may offer a mosaic of stories that teach morals and myths, some about the origin of the universe, our world, and people. Religious stories may attempt to explain the duality of the human mind and body, usually referring to a soul that survives the body’s death or a spirit that moves into new forms of life.
– Sciences create models that have value in explaining occurrences and in making predictions, but they are incomplete, leaving many issues without explanation, and, philosophically, they are not “truths.”
– Religious leaders have taught valuable ethical concepts, but broadly applicable, comprehensive ethical principles must be derived from human experiences and observations and scientific pursuits.


Religiosity and faith (focus on Christianity)
     Religiosity and faith are widely considered positive values, in fact many if not most people in the U.S. associate rejection of religion and faith with lack of solid morality. But we need to ask: what does it mean to have faith and how do religion and faith influence ethics in thinking and behavior. Regarding Christianity, it is important to be aware that the gospels were written long after Jesus had died. They are not eyewitness testimonies of what Jesus did and said. Hardly anything is known about the birth and life of Jesus prior to the time he started to teach. However, it appears clear that his message was to love others including enemies, to forgive, not judge and condemn, to be compassionate and help others who are in need, and not to seek wealth. Very few religious people make efforts to follow his ethical teaching, dedicating their lives to help others. As complex hierarchies developed ad Christianity split into multiple churches and sects, the very essence of the message of Jesus got mostly lost; instead, for Christians “faith” generally means believing in some interpretation of religious texts, traditions and rituals; “I believe in Jesus” is all many can affirm.
Belief systems demand absolute faith, and many people claim that they have faith. As a result they live with contradictory “truths”: they trust what they know from experience, logical and pragmatic thinking, and from science-based knowledge; at the same time they attempt to have faith in a complex religious belief system which disregards science and includes inconsistencies and sometimes mandates that contradict each other. In daily life however, people usually follow their emotions, habits, personal interests, and traditions of family, groups, and profession. Business as usual and many of professional traditions neither follow scientific insights nor religious morality.
Most people think of claimed religious beliefs only in certain circumstances. However, people generally learn morals as part of their culture and religion – these usually are integrated and ancient morality often become religious mandates. Natural ethical principles, mainly based on compassionate empathy towards all people and to a lesser degree sentient animals, without us-versus-them thinking, are mostly ignored, even though they fundamentally correspond with the teachings of Jesus.
Belief systems and faith are very problematic because they imply intolerance and a kind of arrogance: faith means that one’s beliefs and values are right, without consideration of science or negative consequences for others, and faith means that all people that have different beliefs must be wrong. Differences in belief systems, religious and ideological, often led to wars.
Ethical teachings of Jesus do not include moral concerns regarding abortion, contraception, or gender issues that do not conform to traditional gender stereotypes; however these issues have permeated religious institutions and led to cruelties that are contrary to the ethics of love that Jesus preached. (Additionally, the Old Testament clearly expresses that an embryo or a fetus is not a person and aborting an embryo or a fetus is not comparable to killing a person.) Billions of women, even today, have been denied good sex education, access to effective contraception, and medical abortions. Regarding irresponsible and unethical sex, we must acknowledge that thoughtful consideration may be impossible when strong sexual instincts dominate the mind; men are sometimes inconsiderate and aggressive when, consciously or unconsciously, wanting to impregnate women, and women may allow or invite sex trying to strengthen a relationship or not to lose a partner. Aborting an accidental pregnancy is often an act of desperation and necessity; even today millions of women suffer excruciating pain getting dangerous abortion procedures. A worldwide average is about one abortion per woman during her fertile years and there are countless hospitalizations and deaths in poor regions due to unsafe abortions. It is hard to understand how there is indifference and a lack of compassion towards women who have to deal with unwanted

pregnancies, unsafe, needed abortions, and complicated childbirths without medical assistance – billions of abortions were needed to avert catastrophic overpopulation.

Christianity must focus on the main issues that Jesus taught: to love others including to love our enemies; to forgive, not to judge, not to condemn; to be compassionate and help others who need help; and not to seek wealth. Members of other religions and cultures, including Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, spirituality of indigenous groups, etc., must focus on ethical values and mandates in their cultures, avoiding extremist sects and cults, and never allowing that us-versus-them thinking overrides peaceful teachings of spiritual leaders.

Regarding religious or ‘faith-based’ education.

There are major problems with “faith” (meaning: complete trust or confidence in someone or something; strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion). Faith is intolerant; it basically means: “I am right – anybody who disagrees is wrong”; and faith is, by definition, above science, knowledge derived from daily observations, and common sense conclusions.
Faith must never be part of school education and parents must be warned about so-called “Christian” education, values, etc. Children cannot see religion as poetic culture with ancient myths beautiful rituals, and art; and religion has little to offer for the models of reality that we live by and that children have to develop. As people mature, they usually find that the human mind cannot conceive answers to the basic questions philosophers and religions try to address.
Teachings about heaven, purgatory, and hell are disastrous: if truly believing that there is a place where souls are tortured with no end, or at lest for an extended time, we would be paralyzed with fear of making a mistake that condemns us to a place of cruel and unusual punishment, possibly eternal. Believing that good people enjoy heaven while others burn in hell encourages extreme us-versus-them thinking: what ethical person would not feel terrible with compassionate empathy, knowing of ‘sinners,’ possibly souls of persons they knew, suffering unimaginably with no end? For many children, religious teaching is child abuse or it brings out the worst in them.
Teaching children a “faith” aggravates people’s propensity to live in multiple realities: 1. Accepting the value of sciences in explaining things and making predictions, 2. Attempts to believe aspects of religious scriptures that are internally incoherent and supposedly above scientific understandings, 3. Attempts to establish a form of ethics that is broadly accepted, usually including legal thinking and a belief in military actions that contradict teachings of Jesus and other religious leaders, 4. Efforts to live pragmatically, following traditions and mandates of family, workplace, etc., and pragmatically pursuing egoistic and materialistic goals, as is the norm in one’s culture. Attempting to take religious teachings seriously may lead to extreme stress and psychosis.
A claim that ‘faith-based’ education addresses the whole person, implying that other forms of education do not, is reprehensible. Humans must learn to be humble: we know nothing about the origin of the universe (before the “big bang”). We do not understand what creates sentience, our conscious perceptions, the meaning of pleasure and physical suffering, etc. In other words, we cannot explain the body-mind dualism, the connectedness between body and mind. We recognize the sentience of the mind as ‘special’ – something we cannot explain as part of the material world, but we observe how the mind deteriorates as the body’s brain declines – there are no plausible models of how the mind (or soul) could survive the body; it seems that there is a soul that exists separate from our bodies, but scientific research does not in any way support the idea of a soul that interacts with our body and brain but is not part of the physical body.
Spirituality is not primarily about ‘believing in God.’ Spirituality is more about the aw we perceive when seeing beauty in nature and art, when feeling part of some social network where people attempt to express love and care for each other. If there is a God, we can only try to define God in negative terms, what God is not. However we need to help children find ethical, not-moral-traditional religious, values, and meaning in life.

Additional problems:
An additional problem is that today’s great religions incorporate contradictory doctrines and embrace much folklore and traditional beliefs; many predate the founding of the religion; often they incorporated what the powerful wanted the masses to believe.
Are people craving religion to find answers? People may get excited about knowledge and quasi-scientific explanations. Often they get more excited about absurd conspiracy theories than about valuable insights. Generally people just tend to follow traditions showing little curiosity. Strange legends and religious-mythological stories that seemingly explained natural phenomena and human accomplishments were accepted and passed on – people did not seem to mind their improbability or absurdity. Actually, through much of history, people generally did not differentiate between fiction and non-fiction. Until recently, it was fairly easy for curious people to understand most technologies at least in principle. People would have had little difficulties to re-invent musical instruments, the use of arches in bridges and buildings, windmills, even the internal combustion engine, and other more complex devices. Still the large majority of people did not care about their functioning and how devices could be improved. Until recently few people tried to understand evolution and how mountains and valleys develop. Today few children care about understanding how any device works – electronic devices are so far removed from our physical-visual thinking, they seem ‘miraculous.’
Associations made with religiosity or lack of it are often absurd. How can people associate Capitalism with Christianity and Socialism with Atheism, when Scandinavian Socialism grew out of the Lutheran Church’s social endeavors and Jesus’ teachings were the antithesis of greed-driven Capitalism? How are conservatives more Christian than social democrats?
About meaning in life: most spiritual leaders emphasized benevolence, love, and generously helping others in need. Finding a way to make the word a little better, spreading love and good will, helping others gives life meaning.
The theological problem is “Why are there so many people suffering, with no possibility of being helped much, unable to fulfill some of their potentials, and then dying prematurely?” At least until very recently: even if most people would be benevolently trying to help, many would still suffer in indescribable ways – until recently medicine could do very little to heal and alleviate severe pain; even if healthy and in a seemingly safe environment, many women died in arrested labor or got fistulas – there was no way to alleviate their suffering and suicide or compassionate killing was hardly ever even considered an option. And why have humans always made each other’s lives much more painful than it naturally was?
As the UT Austin physicist Steven Weinberg said: “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.” This is a sad truth: Christians torturing and killing other Christians and Muslims, Muslims becoming martyrs by committing suicidal acts of war, women having their daughter’s genitals sliced off, thousands of girls and women being burned as “witches”, stoning women because of premarital sex, Christians mistreating homosexuals and assassinating obstetricians – there is no ethics, and there is no justification we can find in Jesus’ or Mohamed’s teachings. Atrocities that were perpetrated in the name of religions result from old and occasionally newer religious-dogmatic traditional beliefs. Religions and occasionally religion-like dogmatic ideologies have been the cause of many wars and genocides.

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