America has long since got it wrong about religion in schools. I am an atheist, but I completely disagree with what some atheist students did in this school. It should be OK to talk about and discuss religion at school as long as it is open, free, and does not require people of one religion to participate in another. Any student or staff member should be able to talk about religion and there should be a religious education program in the schools that teach about all religions of the world.
One of the main reasons for this is that I find far too often people of the USA are ignorant of other cultures and peoples of the world. The only way they hear about other religion or cultures is through an increasingly biased and sensationalized television news. Most Muslims are not terrorists. Most Buddhists are not monks sitting in some temple in Tibet. People of any religion are about equally likely to become corrupt or saintly. People have always tried to corrupt or selectively follow religion to serve their own needs.
Here are some examples of where I think the line is when dealing with religion in school.
- Fine: Mentioning something in a religious text if the situation warrants it.
- Not Fine: Requiring others to read your religious text (and not others) and insisting to people that they should believe what you believe.
- Fine: Leading a prayer in school in a selected area
- Not Fine: Leading a prayer in morning prayer or in a school assembly where some students present may not share your religion
- Fine: The pledge of allegiance
- Not Fine: The pledge of allegiance including the phrase “under God” since that almost suggest that you cannot be a member of the country without first being Christian. It immediately makes people of other faiths not feel like they can be part of “the nation”
- Fine: Having religious education in schools that talk about the major world religions
- Not Fine: Having religious education in schools that says that only one religion is correct and demonizes the others.
- Fine: Having science education in schools
- Not fine: Having science education in schools that suggests that only one religion’s interpretation of history and events is correct (e.g. Creationism)
- Fine: Putting up sculptures and monuments related to religion
- Not fine: Putting up sculptures and monuments related to only one religion and banning all others
What a lot of people fail to see is that there is a lot to learn about life by studying other religions. There are thousands of years of wisdom, stories, advice, and ways to deal with problems contained in religious texts. Just because you are of a particular religion does not mean that the other religious texts are junk.
I have been brought up to respect others no matter their culture or religion. Where I loose respect is when religion hurts people (physically or emotionally). If your religion is modern and promotes the sacredness of life and liberty then I am glad to share the same space with you and talk with you. Wisdom, knowledge, happiness, and a productive society all come from when people of different backgrounds are able to reach an understanding and live together.
So, to all of those who want religion more in schools and in public locations, that’s fine. The price, however, is that you will have to give the other major religions equal time. Sure, make children read the bible in school, but you will also have to make them read the Torah, Koran, Ādi Granth, atheist texts, the Sutras, the Vedas, and others.
The only way we can fight extremism, really, is through education. Part of that education needs to be to learn about other cultures and religions. The problems arise when you have people in isolated regions who only learn about their own culture’s beliefs. When these people eventually encounter strange cultures, then they tend to react in extreme ways no matter what the religion. If they learned about the world religions in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way, then we would able to solve quite a few of the problems around the world.
If you start labeling some group as evil, then eventually someone will retaliate. There is one thing I have learned about religion in my 30 years of being an atheist, and that is that religion is personal. If you restrict a person’s beliefs, or start to force people to believe a different religion, then you attack their very core. It should be no surprise if someone reacts when they are treated like outcasts.
So, in America, and even in the United Kingdom, I am increasingly seeing a return of religion to the public sphere. I increasingly see the stereotyping of other religions and the segregation of people into different religious schools and areas of cities. I increasingly am seeing leaders saying that they will impose their religion and religious views in government.
There is a danger there that without understanding of other cultures, and without integration between the cultures there is a risk that isolated people will continue to retaliate against the other groups who are “in power”. I only hope that the retaliation never becomes large-scale again as the one thing I have learned from history is that religious wars can never really be won or lost. The only losers are the people who are caught up in the crossfire.