Megan De Wald
The following essay was written by a student enrolled in REL 100, as part of a unit test. Regardless ones agreement or disagreement with the position taken, it provides current students with an excellent example of a well written, well organized, and thoroughly argued essay that links issues in the academic study of religion to the wider geo-political world.
In the wake of September 11th, of tragedy striking American soil, of demonstrations of hatred with “pretenses to piety” (as President George W. Bush coined in his “War on Terror” speech to Congress), America is left aching for answers to impossible questions. America is longing for solutions to great mysteries. And still, America remains divisive along lines of freedom and its capacity. Many wonder, with our majority claiming this country as a Christian nation and after witnessing horrible acts of violence and destruction in the name of a god not so common to many of us, why do we continue to enforce particular legislation designed to facilitate tolerance? How can these concepts still hold any validity within our grief-stricken lives?… Perhaps these anxious cries are nothing more than the similar cries that motivated such attacks upon our nation. They are cries that motivated fear in the face of freedoms that we claim to revere, fear toward tolerance and pluralism and social harmony anyway, fear of the power that a society under these ideals can harness.
In 1963, a case was brought before the United States Supreme Court that was asking similar questions and questioning similar fears. The case of Abington School District (PA) v. the Schempp family nestled itself in the midst of other crises in America. The nation was undergoing massive scrutiny by its own citizenry and people were wondering just how powerful and real were freedoms prescribed in the Constitution. The Civil Rights Movement, which later spurred on the Women’s Rights Movement, called for social change, for freedom, for a better understanding of what it truly meant to be an American. The Schempp family wondered the same thing. The Schempps, a Jewish family who had children attending publicly funded schools within the Abington School District, read their Bill of Rights to include freedom of the free exercise and establishment of religion. They correctly understood that their son need not participate or have to listen to a school-wide prayer that honored only the Christian tradition every morning during regular announcements. Consequently, they challenged the school district all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court who, to the surprise of many, agreed. Yes, the stakes were risky with the nation already near explosion and drastically different ideologies living next door to one another. But the court had no other option but to adhere to the Constitution and to their own convictions. Progress simply could not ensue without the development of social, political, and religious tolerance. Today, forty years later, we again stand upon the threshold of tolerance and progress. Great crimes have indeed been committed against this great nation, but who are we to then turn our backs upon the truths we’ve come to honor and love because we’ve allowed terrorism to achieve its goal and make us fearful of our freedoms? We shall not. We cannot. And we will not.
Fortunately, in this free nation we do have the opportunity and the right, according to this same Supreme Court decision, to study religion(s), to compare and contrast, to soak in its history, and to internalize “its relationship to the advancement of civilization.” And then…to choose. Yet, as long as we cry out “liberty and justice for all,” we must take extra precautions to guard against the teaching of one over another, the definite possibility of making normative judgments and prescriptions that focus on the “oughts” and “shoulds” rather than the “is[es]” and “are[s].” It is the job of a teacher not simply to throw information to a student in a wasteful manner; it is the daunting task of granting the gifts of fact and information in a manner that calls for the student to think for himself/herself, the fruit of which will allow the student to choose, and in essence, to be free. We must also understand that it is the privilege of the student, then, to choose his/her type of educational experience, be it private or public. In the private education setting, one understands that funding comes from a particular sector of the population and consequently is free to teach as he/she may- though one would still hope (and expect) similar freedoms to be granted to the student body within the school’s jurisdiction. But in a public education arena, such freedoms are demanded and even fought for (as in Abington v. Schempp). We are a diverse nation and we must encourage diversity of thought lest our freedom be extinguished.
So, how do we define religion? How do we know what “counts as” religion and what “counts as” teaching about religion? Scholars have tried to define this concept for years, knowing that even some languages have no comparable word to our English “religion.” An essentialist approach to this question tries to define religion based upon one key feature/aspect without which something is not religion. This is the method of great Christian theologians Paul Tillich and Rudolf Otto who explain in terms of their own beliefs and experience what religion is. The minds of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud tried a functionalist approach to this question by defining religion based upon the role/function it plays in society, whether to be Marx’s “opium of the people” or Freud’s “wish-fulfillment” to quench anxiety. Both of these approaches are indeed useful for the purposes of their advocates, but yet, as we struggle to define religion for ours, both of these fail to meet our standards of description rather than prescription. So instead, the family resemblance approach proves to be the most useful since its primary objective is not to persuade but to describe based upon shared traits that group particular social entities as religions. Using this approach, we can determine what counts as religion and what does not. And through an anthropological study of religion rather than a theological one, we can also determine whether human behavior is being studied or whether the actions and doings of God/the gods is/are being examined. For the purposes of public education, we must strive for the former.
Having defined religion, we must now ensure that our publicly funded teaching of religion also takes on the challenge of claiming to know nothing. By this I mean that we must clear our slate of religious clutter (even if only in the academic setting) in order to both teach and learn objectively (again, that which guarantees our freedom of choice). We call this methodological agnosticism, the manner in which we study under the scholarly pretenses of no foreknowledge. Without this, we face the damaging impact of insider/outsider, which has plagued the world since its creation. We must put aside our perception as insiders in a particular or no religion (emic perspective) in order to cross-culturally compare the viewpoints of others (etic perspective). Again, this can be accomplished through methodological agnosticism, the first step toward tolerance in the schools.
It should be clear, then, from my case so far that I believe in our nation and its ideals. It may be found surprising that I am a devout and deeply spiritual Protestant Christian myself. Yet, through the expansion of my own mind thanks to the educational path I have chosen, I recognize that religion has to peacefully coexist in a social democracy. If not, then how are we any better than our enemies? How, then, are we any more advanced or free if we choose only to recognize the legitimacy of the manner in which others construct their social worlds? What we call Hinduism, the people of India call their way of life, their reason for existence, their social and “religious” duty and obligation to the utter unity of the entire universe. Hinduism controls their actions and socioeconomic rank. It is their motivation to strive for everything- all while striving for nothing, for action done for the sake of that action alone, for “release” from the cycle of birth and rebirth, for doing and being what is good and right and proper. From Hinduism comes Buddhism, which focuses significance upon each and every fleeting moment as an equally important time. All the while, Buddhists are clinging to four Noble truths and the Noble Eightfold Path of rightness. Even as a Christian, I see the similarities- we are all striving for a similar end though the means may differ dramatically. To ignore the fact that these other social worlds coexist in our society is nothing short of ludicrous. It is our honor and our right to see these similarities and differences. And it is our freedom to choose.
So to answer America’s questions, the legislation and Constitution and Supreme Court decisions that facilitate tolerance are vital to the life of American freedom. To overturn Abington v. Schempp would not only be unconstitutional, it would be detrimental to life as we have come to know and enjoy it. We must let freedom ring in the halls of schoolhouses and in the hearts of publicly funded universities. We must let freedom ring in our ears, filtering out any possible injustices and inequalities. We must never forget the feeling of freedom ringing, the sound of freedom ringing, the sight of freedom ringing, and the taste of sweet victory as the bells toll.