Last year I decided to send out a survey question to America’s most distinguished writers and thinkers. I asked them one simple question: “What(if anything) should public schools teach children about religion?” I was unsure if I would get any responses. But within weeks I had my answer, and I discovered that I had hit a nerve with many people. Within a few months I had an impressive collection of over one hundred and forty letter responses (some hand written), forty written by national, international, or New York Times bestselling authors! The responses, an average of eight hundred words in length, reflect an amazing range of thought and opinion, and many of those who responded shared very personal stories. To name just a few:
(Former President and recipient of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize)
(International bestselling author and world-renowned physician)
(President of the American Civil Liberties Union)
(International bestselling author, Way of the Peaceful Warrior)
(National bestselling author and Founding Editor of Skeptic Magazine)
(National bestselling coauthor, The Last Lecture)
(United States Senator and Republican Whip, Arizona)
Stephen J. Dubner
(National bestselling coauthor, Freakonomics)
Last spring I gathered the essays into a book, and I currently have a New York book agent working on my behalf to get it published. Right now it is being reviewed by two publishers, one being HarperCollins. So…if you need to get in touch with me, have your people get in touch with my people (Ha ha ha). Just Kidding!
Over the next month or two I will use excerpts from the book as the focus of my posts. My goal is to generate some good discussions by examining the varying viewpoints of those who have contributed to my book. These people who come from all walks of life: mega-church pastors, atheists, politicians, Hollywood actors, highly reputable scientists, university presidents and professors, Pulitzer Prize winning journalists, filmmakers, Humanists, and prominent thinkers from all the great religions (including a witch or two). My hope is to spark a national dialogue on the important role that public schools can play in combating religious ignorance and bigotry, along with the role schools can play in helping kids rationally understand religion and “Why People Weird Things” (the title of one of Michael Shermer’s books that I use in my class).
Michael Shermer, the Founding Editor of Skeptic Magazine, is one of many distinguished contributors to my book. His credentials are too numerous for me to list and too impressive to go unmentioned by people with an inclination to approach life rationally, scientifically, and skeptically. The link to his “About” page on his website is below.
As a public school teacher teaching about religion and what the great religions believe I am obligated by law to approach the subject of religion objectively, not religiously. Hence, I subscribe to the “Shermer method.” In other words, I expect my students to critically examine and scrutinize all ideas that make up all belief systems. This, among other things, has made me very unpopular with local evangelical parents and pastors, and explains (in part) why most conservative Christian parents do not allow their children to take my class out of fear that their child’s faith will be destroyed.
I have used Shermer’s books as part of my curriculum since 1996 when I first started teaching the class. Needless to say, my students find it “very cool” that he chose to reply. His response is as follows:
What (if anything) should public schools teach children about religion? Either absolutely nothing about religion or absolutely everything about religion. That is to say, if religion is going to be taught at all it should be a year-long course curriculum on comparative world religions that includes the evolution, history, anthropology, sociology, and psychology of religion and covers all the world’s cultures and societies and their many religious faiths in each one, plus all the secular movements (e.g., secular humanism) that have actively tried to replace religion with another belief system based on natural instead of supernatural forces.
Such curriculum already exist at the university level so it would be easy to modify it down a notch to middle school or high school student levels, and give students the broadest possible education on religion. Anyone who is confident in their faith should not be threatened by such a proposal. Anyone who objects to this proposal on the grounds that their religious faith is being lumped in with all those fake faiths, should do some serious soul-searching and mind-expanding reading of other faiths because to an anthropologist from Mars the world’s religions are mostly indistinguishable in the big picture.
If such an educational program could not be implemented, and if there were any attempt whatsoever to favor one religion over the others (oh, say, just pulling an example out of the hat randomly here—Christianity) then the program should be immediately canceled and students should receive no religious instruction whatsoever in public schools.