Introducing my students to the “culture war.”

Since 911 the below image and words “IMAGINE NO RELIGION” have become popular among atheists trying to discredit religion. The message is clear: without religion there would have been no attack against the United States on September 11, 2001.

Culturally speaking, the popularity of this message is indicative of a growing “culture war” between secular liberals and religious conservatives, a war that has been escalating in America for a hundred years, a war I want my students to understand. Can you say Scopes Monkey Trial,1925?

The assumption that the Twin Towers would still be standing if religion did not exist is horribly flawed and completely ignores history. The idea that religion was solely behind the attacks of 911 makes about as much sense as saying Shintoism was responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor – I truly doubt if anyone during World War II would have taken the below message seriously.

Many of my students think the above message, the one showing the Twin Towers in New York City, would be more accurate if “RELIGION” was changed to “ISLAM.” This is understandable as it is unfortunate. It is understandable because my kids know almost nothing about the history of American foreign policy in the Mideast. Nor do they understand how US foreign policy has outraged many Arab/Muslim people for over sixty years, rage that was hurled at us by extremists in the attacks of 911 – so it is understandable why my students think the way they do. It is also unfortunate. It is unfortunate because they are not seeing the larger picture. Some students have formulated narrow-minded opinions that say all Muslims are inclined to violence, a notion I work hard to dispel (see my post “When shit happens take a hostage? Teaching students about Islamic terrorism”).

Religion can certainly play a role in aggression, but as I tell my students, there are many reasons aside from religion that can fuel violence: bigotry, fear, nationalism, greed for power and raw materials, ideology, and racism (to name just a few). An example I use in class is Joseph Stalin. Stalin was an atheist, and his non-beliefs certainly did not stop him from invading Poland in 1939, nor did it hold him back from killing millions of his own people. He was clearly a militant non-religious/atheist butcher! His crimes against humanity are clear evidence that religion is not a necessary prerequisite for committing atrocities, but nor is atheism.

Today’s children have been born into a culture war that is producing increased levels of animosity between all things religious and all things secular, and neither side is willing to shy away from negative campaigning. And, like any viciously fought smear campaign, the public is often left not knowing who to trust and believe. Teenagers are especially lost, and they struggle to make sense out of heavily biased arguments that depict religion as potentially violent and atheism as passive, or vice versa. Needless to say, the culture war is confusing to them. It is confusing, in part, because public schools are not helping them separate appearance from reality in areas of religion.

As an educator I want my students to understand the culture they live in, and it is one of the main reasons why I decided to offer a class that critically examines religion. No student should leave high school and not be able to intelligently and critically interpret the above cartoon. As an instructor in public education I am committed to the secular approach, and I am personally in favor of it. But this does not mean that I am in favor of attacking religion. Nor do I see any reason to belittle religion. As a secular teacher I simply try to dissect it, understand it, and teach it to my students as objectively as possible. Is there really any harm in this? My critics say there is, but I will always disagree.

If schools are serious about preparing students for the real world, and if they want students to participate intelligently in current issues and discussions, they must start helping kids critically examine religion. It can be done! I have been doing it for nearly seventeen years, and I am utterly surprised and concerned that more high schools are not seriously teaching kids about religion.

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