Conversation with a Textbook
You won’t believe what this textbook said.
This is a conversation I had with a few pages of the new edition of “Pathways,” a Social Studies textbook used in grade 8 classes. The section was called “Religion and Civilizations.”
Me: Since you are written for use in public schools, it must be a little dicey when you talk about religion given that you are supposed to remain neutral on this sort of thing. What do you see as the relationship between religion and civilization?
Pathways: “Religion is an important aspect of civilization. In many civilizations, both in the past and in the present, religious beliefs are one way a civilization defines and describes itself. Religion also influences people’s values and actions.”
Me: I see. And why do we study religion in grade 8?
Pathways: “Learning about different religions allows us to understand the civilizations to which these religions belonged.”
Me: That shouldn’t upset too many people, but as a religious person myself, I’d consider this a bit of a limited view. Religion is more than a means by which we understand others, but I guess you’re limited in how much you can say about religion and still maintain your neutrality. Tell me, what is your view on why we have religions in the first place?
Pathways: “Human beings have always asked what we call ‘big questions.’ You have probably asked them, too.”
Me: Yes, I love the big questions. That’s one of the reasons I like to blog. But just to make sure we’re on the same page, what do you mean by big questions?
Pathways: What happens to me after I die? What is the difference between right and wrong? Why am I here? Why do bad things happen? How was all this created?
Me: Yes, these are pretty much the same as my questions. I’ve heard them called worldview questions, and you are right; everyone asks them and everyone answers them (whether they admit it or not). So what do these “big questions” have to do with why religion exists?
Pathways: “Human beings like to have answers to their questions. Having answers make us feel more secure.”
Me: Whoa! I might be jumping ahead here, but are you one of those people who believes the function of religion is to create a feeling–a feeling of security? If that’s the case, then religion is pretty much a safety blanket for the weak, is it not? I’ve heard some call it a crutch for those who can’t face “reality.” Aren’t you supposed to be neutral on issues of faith? I mean, it is a pretty low view of religion, isn’t it? Most religious people understand that any security they may feel is merely a by-product of the more important search for truth and meaning–religion itself is actually a product of this search. I understand I’m not being neutral either, but I think it’s impossible. Is there no sense in which the big questions that religion answers might be rooted in a search for objective truth?
Pathways: “But these big questions cannot be answered the same way ordinary questions can be.”
Me: I understand that, but just because they cannot be answered in the same way–or are harder to answer–does not mean the answers aren’t true. Anyway, you were saying something about the difference between big answers and ordinary answers? Can you elucidate?
Pathways: “For example, science tells us that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen. This is based upon creating a hypothesis and then using experiments to discover if our original ideas were correct. With religion, people have to accept answers that are based on non-scientific evidence. “
Me: I’ve noticed your word choice. Did you know you consistently us the term “us” when speaking of knowing and the word “people” when speaking about believing? I thought it was interesting how you distance yourself, and, consequently, your readers from the act believing. Where were we? Oh yes, you said that ordinary questions are the ones that can be answered empirically and big questions can’t be answered empirically so their answers are non-scientific. That sounds bad when you put it that way. Are you implying they are just sorta made up?
Pathways: “In effect, [people] have to accept them based on their beliefs (faith).”
Me: You are saying that something can’t be” correct,” unless it is proven empirically: with scientific evidence. That means the only things that can be true are things having to do with the properties, history and function of matter. This would make sense, I suppose, if matter was all there is. Wait, if you think that, you just answered a big question: “Is matter all there is?” This is not an ordinary question, it’s a big question. You can’t know if you are correct because this answer is based on non-scientific evidence. If you are going to be answering big questions, I might accuse you of being religious. Then what would happen to your neutrality? Let’s move on. So how do you explain why we have so many different religions?
Pathways: “Different Faiths, Different Answers”
Me: Could you elaborate?
Pathways: “There are many religions in the world, and each one has different answers to the big questions.”
Me: Which one is right?
Pathways: “Which one is right? No one religion has the ‘right’ answers, because the big questions have no scientifically provable answers.”
Me: How do you know that to be true? Isn’t that assertion based on non-scientific evidence? I think you just answered another big question: Can something be true even if there is no empirical evidence to verify it? Your answer to this one can only be right if your answer to the last one is right, and you can’t prove that one so you can’t prove this one. Don’t forget about neutrality.
Let me ask you something. Isn’t a religion that teaches to love of one’s neighbours a little closer to the truth than one that teaches it’s OK to kill innocent children? That doesn’t make sense to me.
But, I digress. Your claim to neutrality seems to be a little suspect; you seem to have very clear views as to how we understand the beliefs of others, but you aren’t really admitting when you accept answers that are based on non-scientific evidence. I’m not sure that you are suitable for use in a public school, because you seem to support one set of unscientifically supported beliefs, over all other sets. My concern is for the students. What do you say to a grade 8 student who is thinking about the big questions? I don’t think it would be appropriate to explicitly discourage them from being involved in religion.
Pathways: In Canada today, there are many different religions. If you were looking for a religion to belong to, you could find out what different religions say about the big questions. Then you could choose the religion with the answers you are most comfortable with, or that fit best with what you already think.
Me: It doesn’t really matter what religion someone belongs to? At least you are consistent. You suggest that the choice between religions is to be based on feelings of comfort each offers or how well they conform to one’s preexisting ideas? I understand that you think you are being equally fair to all religions, but you are not really. You are being equally unfair.
People aren’t looking for comfort when they ask and answer the big questions, they are looking for truth–universal and objective truth–because they believe they can find it, just as you believe they can’t. Given this, people can’t just shop for a religion like they do for a dress–take the one that fits. (Nearly) every religion says that adherents need to conform to some objective moral standard. If you are going to respect religion, you must recognize that, the individual conforms to religion, not the other way around. Your method of selection is legitimate only if all religions were equal. They can only be equal if your answers to the big questions are right. But you haven’t proven that they are–because you can’t.
Aren’t you really saying that if everyone had your religion, then we’d all get along better?
Pathways: “Even if you had a different religion than your friends, that probably would not matter too much. If fact, you could probably learn something from each other.”
Me: I agree that people of different religions ought to get along. But I don’t agree that this cooperation is contingent of not taking our religions seriously. On the contrary, we can only get along if we give each other the freedom to take their faith seriously. Wouldn’t the picture of true tolerance be a materialist, such as yourself, talking with a Christian and a Muslim over a good cup of coffee, disagreeing, but enjoying the company, the conversation, and the coffee all the while respecting each others beliefs, because, even though they are not scientific, they are rational.
Wouldn’t this be a better picture to present to the grade 8 student?