Plato – Religion in the Classroom

My buddy Michael Plato (no relation to a certain expositor of Socrates) teaches Popular Culture, Film, and English at Seneca College in Toronto. He and I both are members at New City Baptist in the city’s downtown core. A week or so ago Mike did a three-part seminar on Mormonism that was fantastic. Some years ago he did a documentary for PBS on Mormonism, and even had the opportunity to interview Harold Bloom for it. Sadly, as with so many documentaries, it didn’t air. Mike’s been a huge resource of English lit for me, you can read about his literary habits in this interview here.

Michael recently wrote a piece for Seneca’s The SELS Review Vol. 2 (Sept. 2012) called “Religion in the Classroom.” In it he reflects on ways that professors can understand and respect the religious perspectives of their students. I asked Mike if I could post it here, even though it won’t be published until September. He was amenable, so here it is (I omitted the bibliography, so you’ll have to chase up the references yourself):

Not so long ago it was understood that if a family was going to survive Thanksgiving, three subjects were never to be raised at the dinner table: money, politics and religion. Extended families being fragile entities at the best of times, this maxim still makes good sense. The classroom, on the other hand, is the place discussion should be allowed to roam freely and widely, the more challenging, the better. That at least is how we like to perceive it in our most idealistic moments. Yet while debate on economics and politics are often encouraged in many classrooms, when religious views are raised, an unease or discomfort is more often the result. I do not think I am the only one who has felt that awkward silence when a student suddenly interjects an explicitly religious view into a class conversation. As religious historian George Marsden notes, even among those with strong religious convictions, “separation of faith and learning [are] widely taken for granted in our culture” (Marsden, 1997, p.5). As such, we are unsure of how to proceed when they collide.

To be sure, some of this apprehension may be the result of a paranoia stemming from political correctness – the fear that we may unintentionally offend someone of a different cultural background. More likely, it is founded on the growing assumption that religious views have no place in the public square, and by extension, the schools. This view is most succinctly articulated by Richard Rorty when he described religion as a “conversation stopper”. For Rorty, the exclusion of religion from public discourse is a necessary or pragmatic one. It is divisive and time-consuming to constantly argue over religion, while secular reasoning, as he sees it, is universal and available to all (Rorty, 1999, pp.166-167).

Stephen L. Carter of Yale responds, however, that it is impossible to leave our religious views behind when we are dealing with any issues of belief or moral reasoning.

Efforts to craft a public square from which religious conversation is absent, no matter how thoughtfully worked out, will always in the end say to those of organized religion that they alone, unlike everybody else, must enter public dialogue only after leaving behind that part of themselves that they may consider the most vital (Carter, 1999, p.90).

To that, author Timothy Keller adds that many secular assumptions are just as “faith based” as many overtly religious ones: “secular concepts such as ‘self-realization’ and ‘autonomy’ are impossible to prove and are ‘conversation stoppers’ just as much as appeals to the Bible.” In other words, as Keller sees it, “statements that seem to be common sense to the speakers are nonetheless often profoundly religious in nature” (Keller, 2008, p. 16).

So where does this leave us in terms of discussing religion in the classroom? Should we be encouraging it? Having little space here to develop strategies for effectively “managing” religious views in class dialogue, I hope at this point simply to address three common assumptions, or blind spots. Simple awareness of these three aspects of the nature of religious beliefs will not resolve all crises or concerns that may arise, but they will give the classroom facilitator a greater sensitivity to the views of students with strong religious convictions, and may help to make the classroom a more amenable – and less awkward – place for religious, or more generally, “belief based” discussions. They are as follows: 1. The non-syncretistic nature of most religions. 2. The superior claims of religion. 3. Religious beliefs have wider worldview implications.

A common assumption that has been growing in the west, at least since the Second World War, is the syncretistic view of religion. That is, all religions are basically about achieving the same goals or ends. A commonly used metaphor for this view is the one which states that the world’s religions “are different paths up the same mountain.” Promulgated by authors such as Huston Smith and Joseph Campbell forty and fifty years ago, many contemporary religious scholars now consider this view to be well meaning, but incorrect and often, inappropriate. As Stephen Prothero puts it:

No one argues that different economic systems or political regimes are one and the same. Capitalism and socialism are so obviously at odds that their differences hardly bear mentioning. The same goes for democracy and monarchy. Yet scholars continue to claim that religious rivals such as Hinduism and Islam, Judaism and Christianity are, by some miracle of the imagination, essentially the same, and this view resounds in the echo chamber of popular culture (Prothero, 2010, p.1).

One example of religious syncretism that is commonly found in modern western society is what Harold Bloom calls the “myth” of the “Judeo-Christian Tradition”. Though both faiths, Judaism and Christianity, share some historical origins, texts and concepts, the foundational formulations of each are radically “antithetical to each other” (Bloom, 2005, p.234). For believers of these faiths, syncretistic assumptions of them being essentially “the same” can be perceived not as insightful or unifying, but rather as patronizing. The same could be said for the common habit of lumping Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Shintoism, etc., into the category of “eastern religions”.

For many who do not profess faith, religion is no more threatening than when it is being proselytized. Practiced certainly, studied of course, but any attempt to convert someone else to it is seen as both arrogant and wrong. It smacks of superiority, even ethnocentrism. Yet, if we are completely honest, this view itself is likewise just as ethnocentric as any other religious or cultural claim. People from the majority of non-western cultures have no problem saying that their religion and culture is best (Keller, p.12).  For us to say that such a stance is wrong is in fact our own form of cultural superiority. We think that those who consider themselves superior are in reality inferior, in the end securing our own sense of superiority.

Mark Lilla, a professor of government at Columbia University, demonstrates this irony when he realized what was happening when he tried talking one of his students out of becoming a Christian:

I wanted to cast doubt on the step he was about to take, to help him see there are other ways to live, other ways to seek knowledge, love…. even self-transformation. I wanted to convince him his dignity depended on maintaining a free, sceptical attitude towards doctrine. I wanted… to save him…(Lilla, 2005, p.95).

Lilla’s self-knowledge reveals that his doubts about Christianity were in fact a learned alternative faith. We are all ultimately exclusive in our beliefs about religion, but in different ways. As such, when we hear proselytizing in the class, we should be aware of how our response may be its own form of proselytizing.

A final point to consider is: what are the larger worldview implications of religion? Religions are not simply a set of ritualistic practices or collections of narratives which engender personal fulfilment, but are in fact sets of presuppositions which are held about the nature of reality and provide a foundation on which the believer lives, moves and has being. James W. Sire points out that worldview answers such fundamental questions as: What is external reality? What is a human? What happens at death? How do we know right and wrong? And what is the meaning of history? (Sire, 2004, p.20)

Understanding religion as encompassing these widely diverse dimensions may help to explain why certain religious traditions respond in the way they do to certain aspects of culture and teaching. A prime example of this would be the antipathy many Christians feel towards the theory of evolution. What offends these Christians about the theory is not the complexity of the science, or that it does not correspond to the description of creation in the Bible, but rather the way certain secular thinkers use evolutionary theory to suggestively undermine supernatural claims which are beyond their scientific purview (Cunningham, 2010, pp. xvi-xvii).[1] In order to comprehend some religious responses to specific, seemingly non-religious subjects, such as the sciences or politics, a deeper understanding of one’s own worldview presuppositions and how they interact with or challenge those of a religious worldview may be necessary.

I do not intend for these cursory observations to be any kind of final statement determining practices within classrooms, much less act as the basis of college policy. Rather, I hope merely to draw attention to the complexities of an aspect of our rich diversity which has only begun to be addressed. For much of the 20th Century, a working assumption within schools and western society at large was that religion was a dying phenomenon (Keller, p.3). In 1966, Time Magazine asked on its cover “Is God Dead?” The affirmative answer given then was widely accepted. Religion continued its gradual decline over the next few decades. Then, in the few years following the millennium the trend suddenly appeared to be reversing itself. Surveys began to show that religion was again on the rise (Jenkins, 2011, p.6). The world was beginning to respond to Time Magazine’s query that no, God is indeed not dead.[2] Whether we welcome it or shun it, a decade in, the 21stCentury is turning out to be a century for faith. As educators, the onus is upon us to know exactly what that means… and to talk about it.


[1] An excellent examination of American Evangelical mistrust of evolution and its worldview implications is the essay by Marilynne Robinson, “Darwinism” in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, Picador, New York, 2005. pp. 28-75

[2] A number of works have appears in the past few years pointing to the remarkable resurgence of religion globally. Representative of this would be God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World by John Macklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Penguin Press,New York, 2009.