Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Religion and Education

Recently, I came across this incendiary video:

I believe that one of the things that makes a country strong is diversity - diversity of race, sexual orientation, politics, and faith (or lack thereof). The idea that all the atheists should just GTF out of America is absurd. That said, the idea that if the atheists left we'd have no intelligent people is equally absurd.

You'll note that this video does not cite its sources; it uses music as a tool to evoke an emotional response; and it makes claims that aren't entirely true. In short, it is a propaganda film. I find myself not only offended by this video, but disappointed. One thing I really like about atheism is the value it places on logic and reason - things I value as well. When an atheist person or group makes statements like these, it says to me, "Fuck logic and reason. I just want to piss people off." Since that seems to be the mantra of the Christian right, I am disturbed to find that some atheists are adopting it as well. Seriously, guys? Stop it. You're better than that.

In the comments on the last post, I found myself on a tangent about what I believe to be the correlation between blind faith and lack of education. In order to explore that further, I decided to check out some statistics (because I am just a barrel of fun, and this is what I do with my free time). Here's what I got (from Gallup):

So, the claim this video makes that says 10% of America is atheist is apparently fabricated. It looks more like 6% to me. Way to be part of the "reality-based community", video-making guy. Gosh.

As I'm sure we could all have predicted, the likelihood of fervent religious belief seems to decrease as a person's education level increases. That said, this data doesn't entirely support what's presented in this stupid video. But it does raise an interesting question: why are more highly-educated people less likely to believe in God? I have a hypothesis (which might sound slightly redundant to those of you who read the comment thread on the last post).

One of the most valuable byproducts of a good education is the learned ability to think critically. Children are naturally curious; but if they are taught facts without methods, numbers without formulas, and dates without context, they will, for the most part, lose their curiosity and wind up as mindless drones (to put it dramatically). Unfortunately, it is difficult for someone with a high school education or less to receive the kind of education that would lead to critical thinking. Public schools, for the most part, teach to standardized tests. The schools are measured on how much useless knowledge they can cram into kids' heads, to the detriment of the students themselves.

Thus, receiving a higher education will almost certainly impact a person's ability to think critically. University classes involve discussion, experimentation, and real problem-solving. If a person is going to get through, he's going to have to learn how to think. And, in doing so, he may feel inclined to apply his new-found thinking ability to other areas of his life, such as belief in God. I'm quite certain that the more education a person receives, the more that person will question his faith. Like I said, it's human nature to be inquisitive (if you can remember how). In questioning, he is more likely to find the idiosyncrasies* of belief; and in finding the idiosyncrasies, he is more likely to look for truth elsewhere. And really, I think that's fine and good and, in fact, the best thing a person can do with their faith. After all, faith is meaningless if it isn't questioned.

Lots of things in Christianity don't make sense. The virgin birth seems a little too convenient, the resurrection seems a little far-fetched, and the idea that the world was created in six days is in direct conflict with everything we know about science. Some people, when they are unable to reconcile these ideas with belief in God end up atheists. Some of them place such a high value on logic that they cannot excuse belief in God, even if it makes no attempt to argue with scientific fact, because there is not empirical evidence to support it. And, like I said, that's great. But here's the kicker:

This is just an example of one of the problems that arise for logical people raised in the Christian faith, but I think it is food for thought. According to this poll, 74% of postgraduates believe the theory of evolution to be true. Simultaneously, 90% of postgraduates believe either in God or some other higher power. What this says to me, is that these people, who are more likely than any other group (in my opinion) to have questioned their faith, have, for the most part, found a way to reconcile logic and God. Are the militant atheists going to accuse these people of stupidity? They're educated, they understand science... does belief in God make all of that irrelevant? I don't think so.

I'm of the camp that need for a higher power is a fundamental part of human nature. Sure, a small percentage of the population seems to get along just fine without it, but the rest of us really do need Him, whoever he is. That doesn't make us stupid, nor does it necessarily make us blind followers. If the people out there making videos like these and claims that religion causes all the worlds ills concentrated on improving the standards of education in the United States, they'd probably get a lot further. After all, it's got to be a hell of a lot easier to achieve education reform than it is to convince 93% of the population that there is no God. And, if they succeeded, they'd likely wind up with a few more atheists.

Were I a religion teacher (I'm not sure who would allow that. Maybe the Unitarians), I would encourage my students to find ways to relate their faith to daily life (and vice-versa), to relate their faith to what they know of the natural world (and vice-versa), and to try to find a place where faith and reality are not in conflict. If that means not believing in God, fine. But I refuse to believe that atheism is inherently superior to religion. After all, most of the faults the super-atheists attribute to religion are really faults in human nature. And, in the end, nobody really knows WTF Jesus would do.

*Holy crap! I spelled that word correctly on the first try!!!


Anonymous said...

i think this is a beautifully, fairly written piece. thank you for this. extremism occurs on both ends of the spectrum and whatever these people think they're going to accomplish with nastiness, they're shooting themselves in their own foot. i'm of the "in between, kinda lean toward there not being a God, but can't totally let go of the idea of one" camp so I really appreciate the fact that you don't persecute people who don't believe strictly what you do. i love this website.

LiturgyGeek said...

Wait, some things in Christianity don't make sense? Nooooooooo, don't do this to me right before a board meeting!!!! How could you?!?!?!?!?!

Jocelyn said...

Thanks, Anonymous!

And LiturgyGeek - :-P

LiturgyGeek said...

Whew....fortunately, your "doubter doubter" piece didn't totally ruin my meeting. My firm, unquestioning faith is still intact, and so is that of my "sheep."

Okay, I can't do it anymore! Sheep! Argh! They are people - smart, thinking, hopeful and inquisitive people!!!! And that's why I am so grateful to serve them.

Oh, and on your actual post, yeah. I find unquestioning acceptance of any dogma (such as two you name: Catholicism and Atheism) to be deeply frustrating on so many levels. In my tradition (the UCC), each generation has the responsibility to make the faith our own - which means we have to be actively engaged in the process of living out our faith. And this attitude is certainly not unique to the UCC.

You are so awesome, Jocelyn. Come teach at our Sunday school any time.

Marj said...

The thing is, there are still plenty of people who are very well educated, who are also blind followers, or worse, blind leaders. If there weren't, the religious right would not have a leg to stand on. There are plenty of people who have a college education, and go on to believe that the world was created in six days and that every person who has homosexual tendencies is going straight to hell (just two examples of the ridiculous bullshit). What I think they should teach in public schools is ABOUT different religions. Spend time teaching about what different religions believe, a little background on their history, some of their stories maybe, and people would really be more likely to question their faith, because they'd realize how stupid theirs sounds next to another, or that theirs really does make sense to them.

Dunno if that made sense....it's late and I'm tired lol

Jocelyn said...

LiturgyGeek - of course your peeps aren't sheep! And if I'm ever in Iowa, I'd be glad to tell your little kiddies WTF Jesus would do. ;-)

Marj - I think your idea makes perfect sense.

Of course, if we're being totally honest, some people are just blind followers. No matter how well you inform them, and try to teach them to think for themselves, there will always be people who just don't want to. But I do think that an improvement in the way we educate people would seriously decrease the problem.

Hannah said...

Isn't it possible that those educated "blind followers" aren't blind at all? Rick Warren has a doctorate in divinity or something - he's not "blind" but what he preaches is anathema to many of us. It does not necessarily follow that education and, more importantly, knowledge will "cure" religion. IMO knowledge is infinitely more important than education - GW Bush is a prefect example.

To a certain extent all faith is blind, right? What is faith? Believing something without empirical evidence - and we all do it everyday.

Jocelyn said...

Hannah, I don't believe any of us have said that education cures religion. On the contrary, I argued that one doesn't have to be an atheist to be intelligent.

All I said (or what I meant to say) was that learning to think critically means you can construct your own faith without having to be told what is right, what is wrong, what is true, and what is heresy. Obviously, this wouldn't apply to everyone. Some people will cling to what I would consider to be archaic ideals despite being given the tools to really think about this stuff.

I wouldn't say that all faith is somewhat blind. Blind faith is believing exactly what you are told despite a plethora of other, equally-viable options. Faith, however, is believing in something that cannot be proven. It doesn't have to be blind. One can easy acknowledge the non-empirical nature of their belief while simultaneously believing in it with everything they have. But there is a vast, important difference between having approaching your faith from a place of understanding and approaching it from a place of intolerance.

Hannah said...

Jocelyn, that was totally my word and I haven't finished my coffee yet - word choice is at the bottom of the cup so no offense meant at all.

That's one of many problems with words, then can mean different things to different people. Stupid English language.

Jocelyn said...

There really needs to be a way to make inflection happen on the Internet.

Shmee Skywalker said...

Attention Former Christians:

Welcome to the dark side!

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