Religious Knowledge — What Curriculum?

There has been much chatter over the past few weeks about what appears to be a general lack of religious knowledge among Americans.  Although I have not seen any surveys or studies from outside the United States, I think it safe to say this ignorance is not limited to America — it most likely is a worldwide phenomenon.

Underlying most of this talk is an implicit assumption: that a lack of religious knowledge is a bad thing. While I do not want to argue the point here, I think this assumption is well supported on several levels, the most important being a simultaneously conservative and Nietzschean concern for truth.

If truth about the beliefs which we characterize as supernatural and religious is a goal, an obvious question arises: What do we need to learn?  This is the question Diane Winston recently asked without providing much of an answer, other than “Knowing a bit of theology and religious history is good a first step.”  I would reverse that order and suggest the teaching religious history is essential — theology detached from the historical contexts in which it was created not only is bland; it is also misleading.

For quite some time, Daniel Dennett has been arguing (see this TED talk where he dismantles Rick Warren’s purpose pabulum) for a broadly enhanced religion curriculum that, in the end, would enable young people to choose a faith — or decline it altogether — because of truth correspondence.  This correspondence, however, goes far beyond apprehending which theology seems most agreeable or sensible; it includes evolutionary approaches to metaphysics.  As Dennett contends in Breaking the Spell, supernatural beliefs can be understood and are explicable as something entirely natural, but what we today call “religions” are produced by humans.

Achieving this understanding requires more than a “bit” of teaching about religious history.  It requires a curriculum (or course) organized along these broad lines:

1.  Deep History: the evolution of a brain-mind that generates supernatural concepts and beliefs;

2.  Paleolithic History: the manifestation of supernatural thinking as shamanisms; and

3.  Neolithic History: the transformation of shamanisms into more organized and systematic forms of belief that we call “religions.”

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