Theology of Religions v. History of Religions

Over at HuffPo Religion, a well meaning Matthew Anderson suggests that all American junior-senior high school students should be required to take a minimum of two classes on world religions so as to be exposed to something other than their parents’ religion.  He supposes that these courses would foster tolerance and lead to a more ecumenical society:

I believe that it might be instructive for Americans to combine these two entities by creating a series of religious classes taught in every school between the seventh and twelfth grades. One requirement would be that those responsible for teaching a certain discipline could not belong to that belief. Christians could not teach Christianity and Jews could not teach Judaism.

But then, some of the best instruction would be left lacking if the experts in those religions were kept from instruction, you say? Well maybe, but the rudiments of religions could be taught quite effectively by those with no dog in the fight. The Bible, the Torah, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita and even the teachings of Bodhidharma and the Buddha would be required along with other religions.

Though Buddhism can hardly be called a religion (of the more than one million words attributed to Buddha, never was God mentioned once in his teachings), we would include it in our instruction because so many Americans mistakenly believe it to be a source of religious belief. Indeed, as this philosophy was being taught, perhaps those Americans who only read their Bibles might learn more so as to be informed in conversation.

On the surface this might seem to be a good idea, but further reflection reveals some real problems.  First, not one of these religious traditions exists in a singular, essentialized form, so which versions are going to be taught?  Is it going to be Protestant or Catholic Christianity, orthodox or mystical Judaism, Sunni or Shiite Islam?  Second, it would require the screening of teachers for their beliefs.  Such litmus test disclosures would have all sorts of ill effects, not the least of which is an unacceptable invasion of privacy.  Finally, Anderson himself could use an education in religion — you do not need deities to have what amounts to a supernatural tradition that can be called “religion.”

If we are going to alter the curriculum so that it addresses what we today call “religion,” a much better idea would be to require a course series tracing the genealogy of religions.  It might look like this, with each subject being a semester long class:

  1. Cosmology: formation of universe, stars, galaxies, solar systems, and earth.
  2. Earth History: geological history of the earth from formation through today.
  3. Life History: biological history of all life on earth, from 3.2 mya through today.
  4. Human Evolution: with particular emphasis on evolved aspects of brain-mind that give rise to belief in the supernatural.
  5. Paleolithic Supernaturalism: covering the history and ethnography of shamanisms.
  6. Neolithic Religions: covering the rise of organized religions, which coincide with the appearance of agricultural societies.
  7. Modern Religions: covering the history of “world” or Axial Age religions, which includes all those in Anderson’s list.

This curriculum would be long on explanation and short on justification.  It would not linger on matters of theology or correctness, but would instead address the two fundamental questions surrounding religions:  Why do people have supernatural beliefs?  How did supernatural beliefs develop over time into religions?

A curriculum that provided students with the knowledge necessary to answer these questions would enable them to decide from themselves what to believe or not believe; or preferably, what to think or not think.

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