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Christmas Reminds Us To Get Religion, but in What Sense?

December 21, 2013

The coming of Christmas certainly reminds us of the powerful influence of religion.  In the very word “Christmas” is embedded the name of the central figure of Christian religion.  To many people this is as it should be — the celebration of his birth on a national holiday level.  Of course it is a major international holiday as well, but in the American situation we are quite aware of controversy over just how culture-wide and tied to public life (displays on public property, e.g.) it should be.  

English: Religious symbols from the top nine o...

English: Religious symbols from the top nine organised faiths of the world according to Major world religions From left to right: 1st Row: Christian Cross, Jewish Star of David, Hindu Aumkar 2nd Row: Islamic Star and crescent, Buddhist Wheel of Dharma, Shinto Torii 3rd Row: Sikh Khanda, Bahá’í star, Jain Ahimsa Symbol (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not going to push into that thicket except indirectly.  The supposed “war on Christmas”, as we often hear it termed when certain people object to Christmas displays on public property or voice other objections, illustrates just how powerful religious feelings are, as well as feelings against either religion or the attitudes and actions of certain religious people.  It is not just about Christianity.  But as the overwhelmingly majority religion in America, here most of people’s concerns are either about Christian things or by Christians about other religions.


Now my contention, and I believe a very important one, is that the disharmony is largely wasted energy growing out of religious ignorance, whichever “side” it is coming from.  

In that ignorance or at least limited understanding of religion, I would include most pastors, priests and religious leaders.  So that’s the sense in which I mean we should get religion.  We need to understand the religious impulse, how that impulse gets channeled into “organized” religion, how the resulting institutions tend to act in pretty predictable ways, often to the detriment of their followers, etc.

If we are an “insider”, we need to be willing to critically examine our own beliefs and practices as if we were an observant, concerned outsider.  Probably many aspects will survive such scrutiny but many, perhaps even core beliefs, will not… and that is a scary thing to face.  But are we not better off for it? (Assuming one has reasonable stability emotionally and several years or more of expected life ahead.)

Incidentally, most religious institutions give only lip service, if not outright opposition to their members making serious analysis of what they believe, how such beliefs came into existence, what the real support for them is, etc.  The more open a given leader or denomination is to this process, the more likely it is to be oriented to the deeper truths that “religion” is capable of containing but so often fails to.   If your local leader or your wider organization is fearful of or reactionary against such questioning, you should be seeing red flags.

So we might say that this whole self-reflection process would be one key aspect of “getting religion”, if we were to line out what all is involved.  If you are a religious “opposer”, that would go for you as well….  What are your reasons for opposing religion? Specifically what is it in religion that you object to? Do your objections extend to all major religions in all their many expressions? (You will have to be widely traveled or somehow deeply exposed and have read extensively, over many years, to be informed on this last point.  One has to know an awful lot to be in any position to condemn all of religion.  Those with extensive knowledge tend not to do so, even if they personally are not religious.)

My next proposal is actually a modest one, though it will find plenty of strong resistance in this country (otherwise it might already be in place much more broadly).  It is that both public and private schools as well as churches institute courses that teach about religion and the role of religion in personal, community and public life.  

This approach would draw from a number of disciplines or bodies of work such as cognitive and social psychology, psychology of religion (a formal academic “discipline” for a couple decades about a century ago), sociology of religion, history, history of religions, philosophy and anthropology.  

This education would include more than one course through a 12-grade education. It’s that important. It should be emphasized more on the college level as well, perhaps as part of a “liberal arts” core curriculum.  I don’t see how one can be well educated without a good understanding of what religion is about, in personal and societal terms.  It should automatically go along with the expected understanding of history, one’s native language and literature, government, math and science, etc.  The fact that it is touchy and controversial is not an adequate excuse for excluding study of religion in public or private education.  This very kind of study will help to eventually lower the intensity of conflict, even if it might raise the amount of discussion taking place.  But the organization and general quality standards of our educational structures should upgrade the level of discussion while it also increases the amount of it.

What have your experiences been with education about religion? From what sources has it come — formal schooling, personal exploration of the field of religion or its sub-fields (as above)? Has that been in addition to your education within one or more religions, or what? 

Do you have suggestions for what should be included in any course or set of courses that would help people “get religion” in its most important aspects?  (I am beginning to formulate plans to actively push the points of this article and to outline my view of what is at least minimal to include, so honestly will appreciate your input, and whether you are American or not….  This needs to be an international effort ultimately.  Thanks!)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 21, 2013 11:55 am

    Very thoughtful piece, Howard! I resonate with everything you have said. Your point about religious education is valid, and why I encouraged my kids to take some classes in that. They’re so anti-religion and didn’t feel they wanted to have anything to do with that, but I finally persuaded them that knowing the cultural and historical basis for religion was important, especially if they wanted to be available as sounding boards for their religious friends’ questions and to engage intelligently in discussions.

    • December 21, 2013 1:08 pm

      Thanks! I appreciate the affirmation, and agree that engaging discussions intelligently takes more understanding of religion than most non-religious or anti-religious people have. They certainly can spot hypocrisy, inconsistencies, etc. But really understand all that is “beneath the surface”? No.

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