Yesterday an eight grade boy at Red Wing High School took his own life. I do not know all the details. We have been told that it was related to bullying. I am speechless. And the fact that there are still large and well-established churches around the world and here in Red Wing that teach that victims of suicide go straight to hell sickens me to no end. It sickens me! Someone on facebook made the below image in memory of Damon. I need to share it.
Most social studies teachers use videos in the classroom, and I am no exception. Three videos I use are Religulous, Kumare, and For the Bible Tells Me So. My intention is to push my students to critically think about religion, and these three videos are at the top of my list.
Religulous, a word combining religion and ridiculous, is a video that many people of faith find offensive. Bill Maher does not hold back. His treatment of religion is comically brutal and certainly borders on disrespect (in my opinion). Yet, he clearly raises valid questions about the role of religion, questions my students appreciate and find relevant. I like this video because it epitomizes the growing tension and animosity between secular humanists and traditional religion. The video underscores the present day “culture war” in our society, a war I want my students to understand. But, more importantly, I want them to be able to intelligently rather than cynically participate in the discussion. In other words, I don’t want my kids to leave high school aspiring to bash religion anymore than I want to see them go out into the world eager to join a cult – I want them to understand the issues clearly and objectively!
The second video is Kumare. I used this video this year for the first time, and my students found it fascinating. The video is about how a young man from New Jersey dressed up as an Indian guru and convinced and tricked many educated adults into becoming his disciples. I use this video as a springboard for a discussion about how and why it is so easy for people to be attracted to religion and spiritual ideas and leaders, and the dangers it can pose.
The third video is For the Bible Tells Me So. This video critically looks at the Bible and the issue of homosexuality. I use this video to engage my students in discussions about historical context and culture. More specifically, I use it to teach my students about the inherent problems of biblical literacy, and how the Bible – and religion in general – has been used to justify hatred and personal prejudice. Yes, the Bible does say that when a “man lies with another man” it is an abomination. However, the Bible also says that eating shrimp is an abomination.
Yet, for reasons unclear to my students, there are never any protests outside of Bubba Gump’s by the Westboro church. What would that even look like? I can only imagine (see photo)! The question I pose to my students is as follows: If the Bible calls both homosexuality and eating shrimp an abomination, why are shrimp eating people ignored by religious zealots? What is going on!? Needless to say, a great discussion then follows, and my student start to realize how problematic it is to argue that the Bible is the absolute word of God that must be followed word for word!
On the topic of “Biblical truth,” I also use the widely circulated (and fictitious) letter to Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Schlessinger is a popular American talk show radio host known for her conservative religious views. Several years ago she made it very clear to her audience and followers that homosexuals should be condemned because the Bible says so. For my students, the following letter to her is a great eye-opener about “God’s law.” Once again, my intention is not to belittle the Bible. No! Far from it! My intention is to help students understand the Bible. However, my critics do not see it that way. I’ll let you be the judge.
When I start my unit on Judaism I bring into the classroom my framed print of John Collier’s, Lilith. My students have no idea who she is, but many are familiar with Lilith Fair. When I tell them that Lilith (according to legend) was Adam’s first wife, their jaws drop. And none of them know that Lilith Fair, a celebration of female music and recording artists, is named after this mythical figure. Below are two of my students holding my print of her. Needless to say, my students immediately want to know more about Lilith, and they want to know why her story is not in the Bible.
When I tell them the story about how Lilith left Adam and the Garden of Eden after being denied equality, and how God was then forced to make another woman (Eve), their jaws drop a little further. The story of Lilith is an amazing and enduring legend, and my students quickly realize that it is no coincidence that Lilith is also the name of a popular feminist Jewish magazine (see below).
According to legend, Lilith later disguised herself as a serpent and returned to the Garden of Eden to tempt (help?) Eve gain knowledge of good and evil. Although this story is not in the Bible, the legend of Lilith was so popular in Medieval times that her image was worked into both the Sistine Chapel and Notre Dame Cathedral (see below).
The story of Lilith demanding equality is well known. But the story does not stop there. Over time Lilith became demonized in legend, and she is considered by many to be the first demoness in history. During the Medieval era the death of a child was thought to be a result of Lilith, and a sword was often put under the bed of a child for protection. The “sword of protection” can still be found on Judeo-Christian apparel (see below).
Hmmm… is it possible that Lilith was demonized by the early patriarchal leaders (men!) of both Christianity and Judaism in order to demonize the idea of gender equality and to keep women submissive to men? And why is Lilith’s story not in the Bible? Was it left out for political reasons? And what other stories were left out of the Bible?
As you can imagine, these questions are great springboards for discussion in my class. And my students become even more surprised, later during the Christianity unit, when they learn about the gnostic gospels, stories about Jesus that were excluded from the New Testament. However, in this case, typically, many of of students are aware that some gospel stories were excluded from the Bible. Why? They have seen The Da Vinci Code.
One day after receiving a wonderful letter of support from Bob Thurman (see my previous post) I received another letter from Daniel Dennett. Needless to say, April 17th and 18th were uplifting days for me. I’m feeling inspired!
Dan Dennett is the New York Times bestselling author of Breaking the Spell of Religion – Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2007). He is also the author of the critically acclaimed book and documentary, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995). He was also a member of the “Four Horsemen,” a round-table discussion video series produced by Richard Dawkins (2007). The four discussants (see below) were Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011). Mr. Dennett’s latest book, Intuition Pumps And Other Tools For Thinking, comes out on May 6, 2013. In short, Dennett is a giant in his field, and I am one of his biggest fans. Why? Read on.
As an instructor in a public school teaching about religion, I tell my students repeatedly that they need to be extremely careful when subscribing to any set of religious beliefs. I push them to understand what religion is all about, what needs it can fill, and what harm it can do. Consequently – and this should come as no surprise to my former students – I completely and wholeheartedly agree with the below quote by Mr. Dennett.
I think I can safely say that with men such as Bob Thurman and Daniel Dennett with me, who can be against me? Oh, wait, I forgot – the fans of Glen Beck. But, then, perhaps I should forget it! Below is Daniel’s letter of support that I received on April 18th, 2013.
P.S. If you are not aware of the negative comments directed at me and my class by the fans of Glen Beck’s online news network, TheBlaze, the link to the site is below. Enjoy.
A couple of weeks ago Glen Beck’s online news network, TheBlaze, did a story about me and my work. The article generated over a hundred and eighty comments in two days. Honestly, I don’t think I have ever had so much criticism thrown at me in forty-eight hours. And, if you have not seen the article, I have provided a link at the bottom of this post.
Two days after TheBlaze ran its story I received a wonderful letter of support via email from Professor Tenzin Bob Thurman of Columbia University. I was thrilled! However, nearly all of my students do not know the name Bob Thurman, but they certainly have heard of his daughter, Uma Thurman. Uma is a well-known Hollywood actress, and she has appeared on the cover of countless magazines. Personally, I first became aware of her ten years ago when I watched Kill Bill (see below).
In the field of religion, Bob Thurman is a giant. In 2011, Watkins Review listed him in the Top 100 Living Spiritual Leaders in the World. He is a personal friend of the Dalai Lama, and is one of the world’s leading experts on Buddhism. I have several of his books in my classroom. His most recent book, “Why The Dalai Lama Matters,” is pictured below, along with a picture of he and His Holiness.
Bob’s letter of support came at a perfect time – after reading some of TheBlaze comments I was feeling a little disheartened. But, as I reminded myself, they were from Beck fans and not from the fans of the Dalai Lama. Bob’s letter is below.
Needless to say, Professor Thurman and I are on the same page. And, if I can get more people like Bob Thurman behind me, I might be able to convince more public schools to consider the possibility of teaching children about religion. But… time will tell.
Last year I received a handwritten letter from Emmy Award winning actor Leslie Jordan. Jordan, an openly gay actor and very short (4’11”), won an Emmy in 2006 for his role in Will and Grace. In the series he played Beverley Leslie, Karen’s nemesis and “frenemy.” (see below). I love this guy!
Jordan responded to a survey question I sent out to hundreds of different people from all different walks of life. Each person was asked the same question: “What(if anything) should public schools teach children about religion?” My mailing list included prominent gay and lesbian figures in America, among others. What is interesting is every gay or lesbian person who responded to my survey question supports the teaching about religion in public schools, and many made it very clear in their letters that children need to understand how religion has been used and misused to inflict harm on people. Not surprising! Religion, and specifically the Bible, has certainly been used to justify hate and condemnation of homosexuals for hundreds of years. Consequently, what Jordan wrote did not overly surprise me. Excerpts from his letter can be seen below.
Personally, I greatly admire Jordan’s statement about “the religion of kindness.” Perhaps it is time to create a religion entirely focused on kindness and nothing else. No theology, no hell or heaven, no miracle stories, just kindness. Hmmm… maybe we could call Kindnessism or Kindnessianity? Just a thought. Any takers? Seriously, with a face like Jordan’s, how could you not trust this man to be a credible founder of a new religion of kindness? I would be his first follower!
About ten years ago a heated discussion broke out in class over the gender of God. Some of my Christian students were arguing that God is clearly male, and that the Bible was very clear on this matter. “So what are you saying,” a female student fired back, “God has a penis?” It was a good question. And she did not raise the question disrespectfully or sarcastically – she honestly wanted to know “how much of a man” God was to these others students. Other students quickly jumped in and argued that God is neither male nor female. At this point I intervened and called everyone back to the original topic: Taoism and the issue of personification.
Oh, before I go on, I should point out that one God who obviously has a penis is the Greek God, Priapos. Statues of him were traditionally set up in vegetable plots to promote fertility with the added benefit of functioning as a type of “scarecrow.” In the below painting he is depicted weighing his enormous member on a set of scales against the produce of the fiel.
Okay… Um, let’s get back to Taoism. Shall we? I’m starting to feel uncomfortable. Scroll down…quickly.
One of the major differences between Taoism and Western religion (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is in the area of personification. My students generally show up on the first day of my religion class with an understanding of the concept. In other words, they understand that Uncle Sam is the personification of the United States. However, the idea that the devil is the personification of evil is a strange idea to them. And the idea that God is the personification of both goodness and the creative energy that has brought everything into existence is even more radical and strange to them. Most of my students think there are only two ways to think about God and Satan; they are either real in the literal sense with human-like qualities, or they are not real. But, as I point out to them, there is a third way.
During my unit on Taoism I make it very clear to my students that Taoists do not talk about God, they talk about the Tao. And, unlike the God of the West, the Tao is the impersonal energy of life that flows through everything and is that which has brought the universe into existence. It is not human-like. It has no ears to hear prayers, nor eyes to watch over us – and it certainly does not have a penis! It is, in many ways, identical to the Force as described in Star Wars. In the Star Wars films no one ever prays to the Force – the Force is the impersonal energy of life. And, as a matter of fact, George Lucas was heavily influenced by Taoism, and it is obvious in his films. Needless to say, my students find this all pretty amazing! And they are very curious as to why God is depicted as a male in the Bible. Would anyone like to offer their explanation?
Last year I sent out a survey question to hundreds of prominent writers and thinkers. I asked them all the same question: “What (if anything) should public schools teach children about religion?” I was curious about what distinguished Americans thought about this topic. And, much to my surprise, well over a hundred of them responded, including forty national, international, and New York Times bestselling authors. Wow!
One person I was especially interested in hearing from was the Honorable Judge John E. Jones III. Judge Jones caught my attention back in 2005 when he presided over the now famous Klitzmiller v. Dover case. The case dealt with “religion in schools” and the ongoing war between religion, public education, and evolutionary science. The trial gained international attention. In a kind of reverse way, it was a modern day Scopes Monkey Trial. In 2007, NOVA aired its award-winning documentary about the trial, Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial. It is a documentary that I have used in my religion class, and my students are fascinated with it.
If you are not familiar with the case, here is a summary:
Eleven parents of students in Dover, Pennsylvania, sued the Dover Area School District over the school board requirement that a statement presenting intelligent design (aka biblical creationism) as “an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.” This statement was to be read aloud in ninth-grade science classes when evolution was taught. The plaintiffs were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) and Pepper Hamilton LLP. The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) acted as consultants for the plaintiffs. The defendants were represented by the Thomas More Law Center (TMLC).
The suit was brought in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. Since it sought an equitable remedy, by the Seventh Amendment, right to a jury trial did not apply. It was tried in a bench trial from September 26, 2005 to November 4, 2005, before Judge John E. Jones III, a conservative Republican appointed in 2002 by George W. Bush. On December 20, 2005, Jones issued his 139-page findings and decision ruling that the Dover mandate requiring the statement to be read in class was unconstitutional. The ruling concluded that intelligent design is not science, and permanently barred the board from “maintaining the Intelligent Design Policy in any school within the Dover Area School District, from requiring teachers to denigrate or disparage the scientific theory of evolution, and from requiring teachers to refer to a religious alternative theory known as Intelligent Design.” And, it is worth noting, all eight of the Dover school board members who were up for re-election on November 8, 2005 were defeated by a set of challengers who opposed the teaching of intelligent design in a science class (The ninth member was not up for re-election).
The trial is a great contemporary example of how religion, science, politics, and law can collide. Although religion may have lost this battle, the war goes on, and I want my students to understand this. And, needless to say, I was really hoping Judge Jones would respond to my survey question – I really wanted to hear his opinion! His office did respond, but, darn it, it was not what I hoped for. The response is below.
My critics have accused me of “polluting the minds of children with false and dangerous ideas.” I think, no wait! I know my students and former students would disagree. Let me explain.
I recently finished units on Hinduism and Buddhism. I asked my students to pick one to write about. I explained to them that they could write almost anything, as long as it was an honest reaction to one of the religions. I basically gave them a blank check to write about anything they found interesting. A vast majority wrote enthusiastically about Buddhism. Perhaps TIME magazine(1997) was right. Perhaps Americans do have a fascination with Buddhism (see below). If we do, it is certainly reflected in my student’s essays. Below are some truly heart-felt and thought-provoking excerpts. I love reading about what my students think. And it is very evident, at least from the perspective of my students, that my World Religions class is not pollution for the mind. No, far from it! Read on and decide for yourself.
“The Buddha said, ‘If you want to be happy, then be happy.’ This is a quote that has stuck with me. It has made me realize that the only one who can change what I am feeling is myself!”
“On Easter I was talking to my cousin about religion, and Buddhism came up. My grandmother joined the conversation and became quite upset that we were saying people can control their own thoughts and happiness. Being a strong, devote Christian, she claimed only God could determine your happiness. Needless to say, we ended the conversation, but it was interesting to see how much of a difference a generation or two can have on our ability to accept and appreciate other religions and the different ideas they carry. I like the idea of Buddhism, and it has caused me to change my mindset so that I can live a happier life. So far it has worked. It is amazing how much of a difference your life can be if you decide to control it and not let others decide your happiness.“
“For years I have gone to a psychologist and tried to pull myself out of my depression and unhappiness without the use of medication. Needless to say, I could not do it. And after two years, I reluctantly decided to give medication a try. Recently, after multiple tries to get off of my medication, I found myself thinking “Why can’t I JUST BE HAPPY?” Well, I found the answer right here in World Religions while learning about Buddhism. The answer is that I was not even trying to change my thoughts to the possibility that I could be happy, that I could have a good self-esteem instead of the ‘lowest and most shame-filled’ one my psychologist has ever worked with…I have now changed my thoughts to ‘I am happy’ and ‘I am going to have an amazing life.’ And, as soon as the weather gets warmer, I plan to go off my meds because I do not need them, because there is happiness within me. Yes, all of this came from the lessons of Buddhism I learned in World Religions, my last semester of my senior year. Thank you, Mr. Morrison.”
“I am a Christian, but I see no reason why I cannot follow some Buddhist beliefs.”
“I love all the Buddha’s saying! For example, ‘All we are is everything we have thought.’ What an amazing saying, and it makes so much sense when you think about it.”
“Although I found both units (Hinduism and Buddhism) to be interesting, I preferred the Buddhist unit. The thing that intrigued me the most was how Buddhism is more of a way of thinking rather than a faith. With all that I have learned in my science classes, I often find ideas in religion to be hard to believe. But with Buddhism there is very little of that. The Buddha himself is one of the most interesting religious leaders I have ever heard of; his thoughts and wisdom were so ahead of his time. His conclusions were simple, yet they have changed my way of thinking – particularly his ideas on suffering and emotional pain. After this unit, it makes me want to control my thoughts more, since they really do control my life and happiness. His ideas on craving and wanting were also very interesting. More people should be hearing the Buddha’s teachings because they are applicable.
“I like Buddhism because I feel I connect with it more than I do with Hinduism. I do believe in a greater power (God), but like the Buddha I believe it is more important to better yourself as a person and get to know yourself rather than worshiping and praying to a greater being.”
“I really like the idea of Buddhism. I am not a religious person, and I struggle with the idea of a god. So the fact that the Buddha did not teach about ‘god’ or the ‘soul’ is really great in my mind. The idea of ‘being your own authority’ makes Buddhism seem like a religion that is tailored to your own beliefs and what you can do with your life. You don’t sit around waiting for your prayers to be answered – go out and solve your own problems. Test out what works. Follow a good lifestyle. Be a role model. Change your life to be what you want it to be.”
“Learning about Buddhism was great for me. I love the idea of controlling your own happiness. I love how straight forward everything is in Buddhism. I recently put the hypothesis of maintaining homeostasis of the mind to the test. It was great. I was having a great day one day, but someone close to me was in a very bad place, so I went off on my own to study. I was wearing tall shoes and walked through a puddle, and this is when it really hit me: the water can’t hurt me, the situation can’t phase me. The control I felt was marvelous. I went on having the best day of my life.”
According to the recent TIME magazine, fifty-three percent of the country supports same-sex marriage. And, if the attitudes of my students reflect the future, I expect that number to grow significantly with each passing year.
In addition to teaching World Religion I also teach Advanced Placement United States History. My AP students are all sophomores and are in the upper twenty percent of their class. They are driven to succeed and are the next generation of American leaders. And, given the fact that they are all college bound with high aspirations, I decided to poll them and find out where they stand on same-sex marriage. The results were not too surprising. Seventy-one percent support it, way higher than the national average.
Yes… Minnesota is a liberal state, so no one should be shocked to see an overwhelming support for gay marriage among my students. But the fact that so many of my high-achieving students are in support of same sex-marriage is a clear indication that traditional biblical reasoning is losing its grip on how young people think and view the world. What next? A female Pope? A lesbian president? I guess the next generation will decide what they can tolerate and what they will embrace. But for now, they are clearly – at least here in Minnesota – embracing same-sex marriage.