When shit happens, take a hostage? Teaching kids about Islamic terrorism.

I don’t use the word shit often in class. But when I do, it is to make an important point about how religion can be negatively stereotyped. Let me explain.

About five years ago my daughter gave me a t-shirt as a gift. The shirt has printed on it a list of all the major religions, accompanied by a one-sentence definition of each religion. In each sentence (definition) is the word “shit.” It is rather comical. Here are some examples: “Hinduism: This shit has happened before”(referring to reincarnation), “Judaism: Why does this shit always happen to me?” (referring to a very long history of persecutions and pogroms against Jews)? My favorite, “Atheism: No Shit,” always draws a lot of laughter. However, the laughter quickly stops when I read the definition of Islam: “When shit happens, take a hostage.”

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Islam is by far the most misunderstood religion in America. And whoever designed this t-shirt drew from their knowledge of our culture’s basic “(mis)understanding” of religions. Needless to say, my Muslim friends and students are sickened by the t-shirt.

One of the more important things I do in my religion class is to help students understand how religion is often used to justify violence against people. To teach my students how religion can become the soothing balm that medicates guilt, violence, and greed, I have them examine closely the idea of Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny was the nineteenth century catch-all-slogan for taking Indian land and forcing Native Americans onto reservations. Manifest Destiny was the idea that it was literally “God’s will” for native tribal lands to be taken. And once this idea took hold, it no longer mattered that Native Americans were here first – it was God’s will to exterminate and remove them. This idea was glorified in the nineteenth century painting (1872) by John Gast. The painting suggests that it was divine providence sending settlers west into Indian territory rather than greed for land. How convenient.

I make it very clear to my students that greed for Native American land existed long before Manifest Destiny came along to fuel and justify the Indian Wars. I also make it very clear to my students that Arab hatred toward the West existed long before Mideast “holy wars” were declared against the United States by radical Muslims. To make this point clear and understandable to my students I introduce them to Operation Ajax.

Operation Ajax was a covert CIA operation in 1953 that resulted in the overthrow of the democratically elected president of Iran, Mohammed Mossadeqh. President Mossadegh, the “George Washington of Iran” and “Man of the Year” according to Time Magazine, was considered dangerous by the United States and the British because of his determination to nationalize his country’s oilfields. In other words, he was a threat because he was planning to take Iranian oil out of the hands of western oil companies and put it in the hands of the Iranian people (how dare he!).

Oh, and if you are looking for a very, VERY cool Operation Ajax app, the link is underneath the below photos. Check it out!

http://www.cognitocomics.com/operationajax/

It is a well-known fact that the overthrow of Mossadegh and his government by our government – along with our support of the state of Israel – poisoned our relationship with many Arab people and countries. I try to help my students understand that hatred of America by some Arab groups is not because they are Muslims, but rather because of our aggressive – and dare I say shameful – history and foreign policy in the Mideast.

History tells us that Christians killed and slaughtered Native Americans during the nineteenth century, not because they were Christians, but because of their desire for land. History also tells us that Muslims have killed Americans, not because they are Muslims, but because of outrage and hatred with American foreign policy. In both cases, religion has played an important role in fueling unadulterated greed and hate – the REAL problems. Perhaps the American Nobel laureate, Steven Weinberg, was right when he spoke the following words:

“With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.”

End-of-the-semester essays

Climbing a Pile of Files

At the end of the semester I have my students write a reflection essay. Their assignment is to write honestly and openly about how they feel about having taken a world religion class, and I assure them they will not get a lower grade for being critical of the class or my methods of teaching. Reading them is always fun and eye opening, and it usually consumes my entire weekend. Most essays are “songs of praise” for the class, but some are not. The below excerpts reflect a variety of thought and sentiment.

I absolutely loved this class… but I’m not sure if my mom likes the fact that I took it. I think she dislikes the fact that I began to be more open about my personal beliefs, which differ from hers. Because of this I’m not allowed to talk to my little sister (eleven years old) about religion at all! I got in trouble for telling my sister “false ideas,” ideas that were not exactly pro-Christian. Despite this, I’m happy I took the class. Yeah for critical thinking!

- Sarah

The necessity of a world religion class has never been more obvious as it was the night I was studying for my Christianity test and I remarked to my mother how little I knew about Protestants despite being one. How she responded made me a little sad. “You’re not a Protestant, you’re a Lutheran,” she told me. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe she didn’t know that Lutherans are a Protestant sect.

- Olivia

Islam was the biggest shock to me. I thought they were all about blowing stuff up and terrorism. But learning about them made me think differently about them. I find it amazing how they can stick to such a strict prayer schedule and honor their religion every day. I will now think differently whenever I see a Muslim.

- Andy

One lesson among many that I will take from this class is how important it is to understand people and their beliefs before passing judgment on them. It is so very easy to have preconceived notions about a person/group without truly understanding them.

- Brian

Coming from a Christian home with many Christian friends, many told me that taking World Religions would not be good because “all Morrison does is bash the Bible.” Well, they were wrong. In no way did I find what you said offensive toward my religion or my personal beliefs. Many fear that their little Christian boys and girls are being corrupted by exposure to other religions, but to me, that talk is just silly and is nonsense. Exposure to an idea that is different from yours isn’t corruption of the mind, it is really the expansion of the mind. Through out the semester I have learned about so many interesting ideas, and I really wish the course was a year-long class,

- Nick

I’m really glad we talked about Buddhism because it is sensible information. I’m not a Buddhist, but I do believe in a few things the Buddha taught, especially the Eightfold Path. I have discovered it helps me to live my life better as a person, not as a Christian or Buddhist or someone from a religion, but as a person.

- Kandace

It has long been my opinion that all religions are equal – they all preach morality of some form. Therefore, it was quite refreshing to have my own thoughts on religion repeated to me during the first few weeks of class. It makes me feel good to know that someone else has come to the same conclusions that I came to while staring off into space during Sunday school.

- Ted

I am very happy I took this class, but I do know that it has kind of affected my beliefs – it has made me question my beliefs. I honestly don’t know what I believe anymore. Your lectures on Christianity flipped my perspective completely. You made valid points, but it is very difficult because these are the beliefs I have grown up with. Overall, I’ve really enjoyed the class. Now, I must try to learn for myself what to believe.

- Brigitte

This class made me think about what I believe in and made me wonder more about myself.

- Gage

I grew up in a mostly non-religious home. But for some reason my parents sent me to a private Christian school from preschool through second grade. It was a Lutheran school and they were very strict about what kids were expected to believe. Because of this I sometimes got into trouble for saying things like “wouldn’t it be cool if they made a potion that let people live forever.” In this case the teacher responded by saying “No, that would be against Jesus’ will for us.” As a first grader I thought the teacher was always right and all-knowing, so I stopped asking questions.

- Aiden

I didn’t really like that our study guides were all over one hundred questions. Although you gave us plenty of time to complete them, it was still very long and stressful.

- Nic

There was only one time when I felt uncomfortable in class, and it was during the Buddhism unit. I felt bad because I was raised a Christian, but everything in the Buddhism notes and lectures were things I connected with. It was really an eye opener for me to take this class. And it sucks that my family is moving next year, I really want my sister to take this class.

- Amanda

From the beginning, this class has challenged my beliefs and sparked many questions about what I have grown up to believe. It is hard to say exactly what I believe now that I have taken this class. Currently, I still call myself a Christian. My family and church have never followed all of the Christian traditions, so my beliefs are a mix of Christian traditions and morals. I believe that Christianity can lead you to be a person of good morals, but I also believe that other religions can do this for people as well.

- Jenna

Fixed beliefs in children vs. critical thinking and learning for children.

In 1996 the world religion class I created and had started to teach in the fall of that year fell under attack by conservative Christian parents, pastors, and students. The local newspaper broke the story with a bold banner headline on December 18 (see below). What followed was a long and controversial school year for me. Over the next few months letters poured into the newspaper and threats of legal action against the school were made by pastors and parents.

eagle-headline

The school district immediately called an emergency meeting to resolve the crisis. Attending the meeting were school administrators and twenty-two local pastors and ministers. Tension filled the room. Some ministers argued that my class was offensive to Christian students and thus violated the separation of church and state clause of the United States Constitution and they wanted the course cancelled immediately. Others pastors strongly disagreed.

About fifteen minutes into the discussion tempers started to flare. One pastor yelled “why can’t you just tell the students what other religions believe, why do you have to make them think!?” The room spontaneously erupted into a verbal brawl. A young pastor sitting behind me leaned forward and sarcastically whispered in my ear “It would be horrible if schools made students think, Jim.” I smiled. It was clear he was on my side.

My critics were upset because I was not just teaching about what other religions believed, I was daring to put religion under the lens of critical examination. Some were furious because I was teaching and encouraging my students to understand the difference between religious dogma and factual information based on physical evidence and research. Others were upset because I had the “audacity” to tell my students that resurrection stories and virgin birth stories are a dime a dozen in the ancient world and are not viewed as historical truth by everyone. To my critics this kind of “nstruction” was/is offensive, and consequently I was accused of injecting my own ideas into the course, misinterpreting the Bible, and generally being offensive to Christians (see below).

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The last paragraph in the above excerpt is important: “I want to know the facts… I don’t want to know people’s ideas.” When I read this sixteen years ago I sympathized with the student, and I understood where he was coming from. People often fear and experience discomfort with things they don’t understand. And facts can certainly “clear things up” and bring the comfort of knowing. I get that! Public education is committed to “fact-finding” and critical investigative thinking. However, in the area of religion facts are hard to come by. As a teacher I spend most of my time teaching about ideas, not facts. In other words I teach the idea that Jesus rose from the grave. I teach the idea that Muhammad was the “Final Prophet.” I teach the idea that the Buddha had a miracle birth. I teach the idea of reincarnation. Religions are collections of ideas and beliefs. They are belief systems. And like all beliefs, they are open to debate, discussion, and interpretation.

Discussions and debates about Jesus and religion are popular cover stories in American magazines. And I strongly believe that students should be aware of these debates and discussions, especially given the fact that religion can easily spill over into politics and law.

The below magazine covers (and many more) are on display in my room. My point in putting these magazines on display is to show students that religion is culturally debated and discussed. As an educator I want my students to understand the facts and reasons behind these debates and discussions. However – as I quickly learned in my first year of teaching my religion class – some people oppose any discussions in public schools that challenge a student’s fixed religious beliefs.

time-magazine

Secular public schools are dedicated to “factual knowledge” and the scientific method of reasoning. And it is no coincident that the biggest critics of secularism, the religious right, are also the biggest critics of public education. The tension between religious faith and factual reasoning is over four hundred years old and clearly evident in our modern society.

reason-as-enemy-church-sign

Last summer at the Republican State Convention in Texas, republicans voted to include in their official party platform a plank to oppose the teaching of “higher thinking” and “critical thinking skills” that challenge a student’s “fixed beliefs.” Don’t believe me? See the actual wording below (um… needless to say, I won’t be teaching in Texas).

texas-ban

The idea of “opposing the teaching of higher thinking skills” and “critical thinking skills and similar programs” that “challenge the student’s fixed beliefs and undermine parental authority” makes no sense to me. It has been proven that challenging your own beliefs is healthy for brain development (for more information on this see my post “Thinking outside the box. Literally!”). Plus, some children need their fixed beliefs challenged! We all know that parents have the power to instill in their children ideas and beliefs that can become fixed at a young age. Militant KKK parents can raise their children to hate as surely as Christian parents can raise their children to love.

Here are my questions: Is it okay for public schools to teach children to challenge their fixed beliefs? Is it ever okay for schools to teach things that go against what parents want their children to believe?

Oh… and if you want to see some comical and satirical commentary on the Texas republican position on critical thinking, click on the below link. Colbert rocks!

http://thecolbertreport.cc.com/videos/577ry9/the-word—on-the-straight—narrow-minded

Patrick Flueger and Hinduism

Patrick Flueger is a Hollywood actor, a rising star. And I’m pretty sure if Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio had a baby, it would be him (see below). Patrick is also a former student of mine. In 1999 he was in my world religion class. And in that year I had to gather up several weeks of homework for him while he shot his first film in California, Princess Diaries. It was the beginning of his career.

I enjoy seeing Patrick on the big screen, but every time I do I am pulled out of the plot and find it difficult to “get into” the movie. The Hollywood illusion is shattered and ultimate truth rushes in – I know that guy! I know his brother, his father, his sister and mother. All I can see is Patrick’s true self. It is a very “Hindu moment,” and one that I share with all of my students when I teach about the Hindu religion.

So what do Hollywood and Patrick Flueger have to do with Hinduism? Well… to answer this I need to start with a question, a question that goes to the core of human nature and Hindu theology: Why is it that what we think of as the first law of nature, self-preservation, suddenly dissolves in moments of crisis when people instinctively and spontaneously, without any regard for their own safety, risk their lives to help total strangers?

It is a perplexing question. It is a question that needs to be taken seriously by anyone wanting to understand human nature. Perhaps Hindus have the answers: we are all deeply connected – my life is your life. We are all part of a cosmic whole. And if I spontaneously and instinctively react to save your life, it is no different from me instinctively and spontaneously reacting to save my own life. We are one!

This idea of unity is one of Hinduism’s distinguishing features, but wait, there’s more! Hindus see all of creation (including humans) as eternally divine. In other words, we are all literally God. “And God poured forth creation from Himself, and in that way he became creation,” says a Hindu text.

The idea of creation and creator being one in the same is strange to the Western mind. The Bible clearly depicts God as creator, and everything else as creation. To say that we are all God is blasphemous to most Christians, and many of my Christian students are confused and offended by this Hindu idea. To help them understand the idea I ask them if they believe that God has always been, will always be, and cannot be destroyed? Unanimously they say yes. I then ask them if the same can be said about matter. Are descriptions of God and matter similar? My devoted Christian students hesitate to answer this question. Many are unsure of what I am asking, but my scientifically minded students are quick to point out the parallels; both have always been, neither can be destroyed, and both will always be. What’s interesting and thought-provoking is that Hindus see no difference between God and matter – God is the energy and matter of the universe, and we are part of God’s existence.

The idea that a Supreme Being is living through the substance of the universe is not totally incomprehensible to my students. They know that people live through the life of their cells. My students understand basic biology and how each cell is alive, and they understand how, right now, millions of their cells are dying and new ones are being born. They also understand how “war” is often waged between cells when sickness and disease race through the body. Yet, through it all, “we” exist! My students understand this, but they have a hard time imaging that they might be a small “cell” that God is living through. They wrestle with the idea that our true self is divine spirit, and that we are not physical beings in search of spiritual experiences, but rather spiritual beings in search of physical experiences. They wrestle with the idea that the physical world – their reality – is an illusion.

Nearly all of them believe that their “true self” is wrapped up in their personality. The irony is that the word persona is in the word personality. Persona, literally speaking, is the mask an actor wears. This – somewhat ironically – implies that there must be something more “true and genuine” behind the mask of personality. Hindus believe it is the timeless, eternal, and divine source of all being: God.

I know what you are thinking, if we are all divine then why don’t we act divine? My neighbor certainly does not act divine! To this, Hindus ague it is because we have forgotten and lost touch with our true selves; we think we are the masks we wear. Consequently we become obsessively caught up in the daily drama of our lines and roles and unaware of our true Self. Hindu literature is filled with stories emphasizing this point. One story is about a lion cub raised by sheep. The cub grows up bleating and eating grass. The other animals become concerned about the lion’s behavior. “Why are you behaving this way?” the animals ask the lion. “Don’t you know what you really are?” Another story is about a King who has been hit on the head and has lost his memory. Dazed and confused he wanders his kingdom as a beggar unaware of his true self. It is this ignorance of our true Self that is the source of human conflict, war, hate, and violence in the world, say Hindus. In other words, as long as we remain ignorant of the nature of our true existence and our divine potential we will continue to “act” as selfish children.

Christians often encourage people to “invite God into their life.” This makes little sense to a Hindu. Why? Because in the Hindu way of thinking we are all God! The task is to get in touch with the God within, to allow our true nature to surface, and to make ourselves transparent to the transcendent (through yoga) so that when people look at us they see the radiant light of the God within shining through us. It is a beautiful thought. And, if put in practice, I can see it working; to truly believe that we are all God and worthy of divine respect would certainly make the world a better place.

Every time I see Patrick Flueger in a movie I am reminded of this Hindu idea. But to a Hindu a Hollywood character is nothing but a mask masking the mask of the actor’s personality – it’s a mask on a mask. I get that. And I will be the first to admit that when I say I can only see Patrick’s “true self” when I see him on T.V. or in a movie, I am referring to the personality I got to know while Patrick was a student at Red Wing High School. Yet, for me, it is still a “Hindu moment” because it reminds me of the notion of a “true self.” A notion worth pondering! So… what is your true self? Do you have one? And, more importantly, are you in touch with your true self?