Freedom from Religion

Book burning on the rise

Senior year in high school included the long-feared ‘senior paper.’ A project of English class, the paper’s thesis had to be approved first then the long drudgery of research would begin. The paper itself, to be footnoted and typed, would form a significant part of the final grade in that class.

I was no stranger to research and looked forward to hours at the local library, which was located only a block from the high school. Unexplored wonders could be found in that quiet place, books on the history of the world and the various exploits of human kind. As I sought further information to prove my thesis, I jotted my notes on 4×6 index cards, another requirement for the project.

My thesis asked the question: Why did existential thought that existed throughout the history of mankind suddenly become an overwhelming condition of modern mankind?

The material I explored included Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization, James Gutman’s Philosophy A to Z, John Killinger’s The English Journal, and a long list of citations from the Bible as well as ancient writings from world cultures. In reading these materials and processing the information into a coherent statement in proof of my thesis, I realized that much of what I had come to believe in my eighteen years was right: Christianity—indeed, all organized religion—was a construct of humanity meant to salve our existential despair.

The difference with the modern age, as so clearly delineated in philosophical examination, is/was that by the very process of advancing civilization, humans have cut themselves off from key partnerships that once provided balm to our woe: Nature, tribal life, our gods, and ourselves, the latter with our frenetic pace and endless amusements. With these alienations, we find ourselves utterly alone, a condition so difficult that we endlessly seek escape in intoxicants, entertainment, and work.

The paper earned me an “A.” I packed it away along with the notecards in their little clasp envelope. I’ve always remembered the paper and the education I gained in my research, but I never looked at those cards again. If the question ever arose, I would have guessed they had been tossed out a long time ago.

Not so. My mother saved them, and they once again entered my domain when a few years ago she handed me a couple of boxes crammed with souvenirs of my life—photographs of junior high and high school friends, letters home from California or the Philippine Islands, clippings of my various public activities through the years. And the notecards.

At first, I picked up the small packet of cards not knowing what it contained. On the outside, at some point my mother had written “Denele’s – what helped her turn away from God!”

Well.

Yes, insomuch as I indeed turned away from the Church of Christ’s concept of God, this project helped. But what my mother could never grasp is that I had been questioning God, or more to the point, religion in general, since age five. By eight years of age, I had settled on key questions no one wanted to answer, typical questions for young people such as ‘Where did God come from?” and “Who did Adam and Eve’s children marry?” The answer always condensed down to “Don’t ask.”

Fast forward six or seven decades while I continued to read and question and discover. I have no regrets that I discarded the blinders imposed by my parents’ fundamentalist faith. I’m happy that my curiosity led me to explore philosophy, natural history, and science with the many mysteries of human existence. What makes me sad is that even today parents still seek to limit their children’s exposure to knowledge that exists outside the boundaries of their rigid belief systems or which violates the dogma of their faith.

The burning of the pantheistic Amalrician heretics in 1210, in the presence of King Philip II Augustus. In the background is the Gibbet of Montfaucon and, anachronistically, the Grosse Tour of the Temple. Illumination from the Grandes Chroniques de France, c. AD 1455–1460.

For example, I once lamented the limited extracurricular activities available at the small rural school my children attended, pointing out that so many opportunities were being lost. Where was the encouragement to attend college, learn music or art, explore the wonders of the world? The response from one parent actually struck me speechless. “Well, honey, somebody’s got to flip the burgers,” she said, fist propped on her hip. “What about that?”

Indeed, what about that? How tragic that her children and so many others would be trapped in that mindset.

The price of limiting the thinking of our children is immeasurable. We see it every day in intolerance even hatred for anyone different, whether ethnic, racial, or gender differences. We see it in embrace of authoritarian figures like Trump who fit a distorted concept of leadership based on an authoritarian god. We see it in the fear of change that leads to violence against those perceived as ‘Other.’

Frans Hals – Portret van René Descartes, Wikipedia

Much of what is written on those cards is nonsensical taken in isolation, like quotes from Heidegger’s book Being and Time (1927) about the two kinds of being, “Sein” meaning all things, and “Dasein” meaning only mankind. Or the postulation of Descartes in his 1637 Discourse on the Method wherein he wrote: Ego Ergo Sic, or “I am, therefore I am thus,” or more widely conceived as “I think, therefore I am.” Pondering these kinds of concepts is not easy and tends to take oneself out of the hum of routine. And away from the strict belief systems of doctrines undergirding religion.

What my mother exclaimed in her quickly penned remark about my notecards is true. Those learning experiences helped me abandon religion entirely. Another big step on that path was a college course in English Bible, where the three authors of the Books of Moses were examined with comparisons of material in Genesis to the Sumerian books of Gilgamesh—and much more. It’s been a lifelong study, full of empathy for others who, like me, struggle with the very essence of existence, remarked by feminist French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir in her book The Ethics of Ambiguity (1948):

“The sub-man is not very clear about what he has to lose, since he has nothing, but this very uncertainty re-enforces his terror. Indeed, what he fears is that the shock of the unforeseen may remind him of the agonizing consciousness of himself. …Everything is a threat to him, since the thing which he has set up as an idol is an externality and is thus in relationship with the whole universe; and since, despite all precautions, he will never be the master of this exterior world to which he has consented to submit, he will be constantly upset by the uncontrollable course of events.”

For de Beauvoir, freedom comes in the act of trying to be free and accepting that this journey is the freedom.[1] Freedom to believe, to act, to question, to reach out to others in individual acts of kindness—these fulfill us in myriad ways that counter the existential despair of modern life. Understanding that, and the awareness that our personal journey is best seen as an opportunity to make the world a better place, has helped me live a rich life.

I thank the notecards. I thank the Founding Fathers for enshrining my freedom of thought within the Constitution. And I thank my parents and ancestors for giving me the intelligence, if not the freedom, to choose.


[1] Summarized at https://fs.blog/simone-de-beauvoir-ethics-freedom/

The Homeschool Plague

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Last week the Arkansas Department of Education announced a public comment period on the implementation of new rules regarding home schooled students. The comment period ends June 29. If you haven’t commented already, don’t worry. Your comment won’t make much difference. These rules are mere housekeeping details in the wake of legislation enacted over the last few years which remove any accountability in home schooling.

Previously the state paid for standardized testing to assess student progress at specified points along the educational path, including home schooled students. But the teeth were removed from that effort when the state failed to institute any meaningful follow-up if the student performed badly on those tests. Now even the testing will cease to exist.

Touted as a money saving measure, the legislation actually satisfies a long-sought goal of the religious right. That is, nobody is going to tell my kid we’re descended from monkeys. And so forth.

As recently attested in a Texas court case, “…A lower court ruling allowed for Texas homeschoolers to legally teach their children absolutely zilch if they believe their family is waiting to be raptured.” Texas counts over 300,000 homeschooled students. There, in a nutshell, is the problem with Texas.[1]

An Arkansas family wishing to home school is able to choose their own curricula, accredited or not, pursue the education at whatever pace they wish, and accept whatever outcome suits their personal whim. The Arkansas law still stands that a child between the ages of five and seventeen must be educated, but for homeschooling devotees, this is sidestepped very easily.  Parents must sign a form stating they will homeschool. Period.

Currently in Arkansas, over 18,000 students are homeschooled. Undoubtedly not all 18,000 homeschooled students are failed utterly by the state’s willful abandonment of oversight. Some parents have reasons other than fundamentalist religion to homeschool—a child’s disabilities, perhaps, or the conviction that non-traditional education better serves their parental goals. Many parents may work hard to ensure their homeschooled child gains skills needed to enter college and/or otherwise pursue a successful life. Many homeschooling parents choose standardized tests to measure their children’s progress.

Unfortunately for the future, recent surveys show that the “most important reason” parents give to homeschool is “a desire to provide religious or moral instruction (36%). Typically the religious belief being represented is evangelical Christian.”  In these homeschool situations, modern scientific knowledge—geologic age of the planet, for example—is disregarded. Math and critical thinking are not highly prized. The objective is that the child obtain minimal literacy so he or she can read the Bible.

Or, put another way, the Koran.

Arkansas students in public schools are regularly tested so that if they are failing to learn, their school can provide remediation. No such option exists for homeschooled students. If they are failing to learn, the state doesn’t know or care.

The problem is bigger than homeschooled students. Non-accredited private and parochial schools also escape state oversight. If a school is not receiving tax dollars, it does not have to meet state standards. Whatever they teach and whatever the students may know or not know at the point of ‘graduation’ is beyond the state’s purview.

All this irrational fear of compulsory state education feeds the rising plague of intentional ignorance. It undergirds the success of extremist conservative politics. These folks don’t believe in global warming because they have no comprehension of science. To them, state standards are part of a humanist conspiracy to stamp out religion.

If only.

As far back as Ancient Greece, leaders advocated for compulsory education that started kids learning at age six. By the 16th century, European church leaders enforced compulsory education to ensure that people could read the Scriptures. Colonial governments in early American settlements required education as well, a practice that spread with the growth of the nation. These were largely private, tuition supported efforts. As more immigrants arrived through the 19th century, support grew for tax-supported schools that could provide education for rich and poor alike. The last state to pass compulsory education laws was Mississippi (1919), a circumstance perhaps reflected even today in that state’s continuing struggle to move out of last place in just about everything.

Compulsory education was good while it lasted.

The first challenge arose in 1925 and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that while the state had the right to enforce certain standards, it could not eliminate the right of parents to place their children in parochial or private schools. Generally, however, it was upheld through this and other legal actions that while states may grant exemptions for home schooling, that schooling must meet the standards required of public and state-accredited private schools.

This is no longer the case in Arkansas, one of fifteen states which require only notification of intent to preschool. As long as a parent signs that one form, they are free to home school in any way they desire. There is no follow-up, no checkpoint, no tests. Nobody looks in to see if the parents are teaching anything. There is no safety net.

While one might assume that parents want the best for their children and that any well-intentioned parent understands that education holds the key to a child’s successful future, one might be wrong. Some parents do not care and may select the homeschool route simply to avoid waking up early and getting the kid ready for school. Some parents may embark on homeschooling for vague reasons and fail utterly in selecting and teaching adequate curricula.

Worst of all are parents who intentionally subvert their child’s education in order to satisfy reactionary belief systems based on religious faith. Such parents are deluded with the idea that God is coming soon, or God tells them whatever they need to know, or that the holy scriptures are all the education anyone needs. (Feel free to substitute ‘Allah’ for ‘God’ in the preceding sentence.) The results are staggering: young adults unable to function even in minimum wage jobs, unable to reason through simple logical processes, and incapable of thinking past whatever dogma is imposed on them.

Which is—sadly—the objective.

That the State of Arkansas has disgraced itself by falling to such a low non-standard in its education of young people correlates exactly with the rise of extremist Republican government. It does not bode well for the state’s future. The greater the number of intentionally ignorant citizens, the higher the likelihood of more extremists being elected to public office. It’s difficult to imagine how far the state might fall.

But wait! We may not fall that far. We’re already damn near the bottom.

Surely there is legal remedy for this descent into religious lunacy. I propose that would-be voters be required to have obtained a GED or high school diploma. Literacy tests were ruled unconstitutional when used in southern states as a racial barrier, but if the standard were applied equally to all races, that objection would fail.

Democracy depends on reasoned political discourse and informed voters. It’s in the national interest that elections be conducted fairly. Neither bribes nor brainwashing nor willful ignorance should be allowed to subvert the democratic process.

We all suffer when young people aren’t taught to read, think, and process information in ways that are necessary in most types of employment. We suffer when people don’t understand and respect differences of race, ethnicity, or gender. We suffer when extremist religion dominates all other aspects of life.

We can see what the rule of extremist religion accomplishes for a nation by looking at the Middle East and even at the acts of extremists here at home. Fear is the first reaction in someone confronted with something he or she doesn’t understand. The next reaction after fear is hate. After hate comes violence.

With violence comes the downfall of civilization.

~~~

[1] Texas is one of nine states where parents are required to give no notice to the state as to their intention to homeschool. Arkansas is one of fifteen states where parents must only give notice of their intent. For a map showing all states and homeschool requirements, visit here.

Photo credit: Credit: ID 6706052 © Ron Sumners | Dreamstime.com