Religious Education vs Religious Instruction

March 4, 2018

I guess everyone knows why religious leaders try to get access to children as early and in as many ways as possible: to convince children they “belong” to a church — in other words, that they are owned by the church; to allow the church to seep into their identity to such a degree that the idea of leaving will feel like losing a limb.

When priests and other holy folk gain access to school children, they also have the opportunity to get children used to “religious talk” as a mode of communication — with its own social customs and unwritten rules. Children learn that when adults suddenly start speaking in hushed tones, usually beginning with a rising intonation, which soon descends into the calming tones of reassurance as holy knowledge descends to earth through the mouth of the preacher, the polite thing to is to remain silent and passive. Don’t, with a dubious sidelong glance, ask “Um, is that really true?” Or even worse, “How do you know that?”

Thus, when they grow up into adults, the preachers can still talk to them in these ponderous tones with the same intonation about all the things that God is, and God isn’t, without the adults asking “Hey, what happened to your voice just then? Do you talk like that all the time?” Rather, this special tone barely registers as weird anymore with most adults. It is simply accepted, even by the non-religious, that when we hear priests and popes talking in these hushed tones, we remain silent and look at our shoes rather than allow any involuntary “WTF???” to reveal itself publicly on our face.

Do to otherwise would be impolite, and a sign of poor character.

It’s difficult to go against social customs, when everyone else in the room is carrying on as if it is normal for a pope to be given fawning media coverage. I can understand why Catholics do it — they’ve been brainwashed into not applying normal ethical standards to their Church leadership; but why the hell do non-Catholics do it too?

Social pressure? Lazily accepted custom? Unquestioned habit?

Or do they subconsciously fear that God will strike them down for not fawning? Possibly; especially if they learned in school to fearfully display the required submissive signals in the presence of a holy person.

Another aspect of the religious infiltration into schools can be that teachers who otherwise have a highly developed idea of what “education” means, acquiesce to allowing “religious instruction” into their classrooms.

Instruction of course implies that there is only one way of doing it. And the “instructor” knows what this way is. And the “instructor” has done it (or is doing it) successfully himself. It is an open secret that there are other religious “instructors” who teach completely contradictory things, but it is impolite to notice this, and would be seen as inflammatory to comment on it. Children are insulated from hearing such stating of the obvious. They learn to mirror the acquiescent behavior of the adults, until any the recognition of the obvious is automatically dismissed from consciousness.

Alongside this subtle conditioning, and in perfect accordance with it, the ideas which children will encounter during their schooling will be unwittingly controlled by adults so as to avoid any expression of doubt. The idea that it is anything other than normal to “belong” to a religion; that religion is the only possible entrance to the realm of the profound or tragic; that religious leaders by their very nature speak from this exalted realm; will not appear in the normal course of schooling.

Never will they seriously confront the possibility that there are no gods, no heaven, or that none of the priests who routinely claim positive knowledge are being truthful.

Why is this?

Again, politeness, laziness, conformity, habit?

Religious “instruction” of course also implies an authoritarian power structure. And as such it grants a power and authority to the instructor immeasurably greater than what such a person can plausibly claim to know. But again, children’s conditioning for politeness in the face of grotesque absurdity is maintained. those who wear certain clothes are allowed to speak in certain tones and claim to know things without anyone having the right to expect a few qualifiers. “Perhaps”, “maybe”, and “I am speculating” are terms that are utterly alien to spiritual discourse. No one bothers to wait for them, and no one even notices that we gave up even expecting them ages ago.

To rewrite any of those nice priestly intonations about the nature God, but with qualifiers inserted would be impolite. No one would even dream of doing it mentally during a sermon, as it would swiftly render any church service intolerable.

No one would ever dream of giving it as an exercise for school children. The parents would rebel, and the children possibly placed in grave danger of being thenceforth incapable of suspending incredulity long enough to get through a religious upbringing without disowned or worse by their parents.

Education about various religions is of course perfectly in order, as long as it is treated like any other subject. I would however, argue that it should not merely be an uncritical look at the world’s religions. It should, especially in later classes, deal with problems and difficulties that arise as a consequence of religion.

Here are a few thoughts in this direction.

* Religion should not be presented as something that “everyone has”.

* Religion is often a matter of cultural identity, rather than a bunch of claims about facts. It is normal for people to identify with a religion while not believing all the finer details that a religion posits as fact. (Understanding this can later help protect people from domination by a priesthood.)

* Cultural identity linked to a religion allows a degree of conscious choice about which cultural aspects to follow and which to reject.

* Cultures change, and all religions change over time.

* The word “God” means not only vastly different things across various religions, but also within religions. Children can be made aware of the fact that two people from the same narrow sect might talk about “God” with each other every day for decades, and might one day discover they both mean something vastly different by it.

* Children can also be directly informed that no one who claims to know something about God really knows it. They may sincerely believe they know it, but they don’t. God is green and is surrounded by creatures whose bodies are covered in eyes, according to John the Revelator; has a long white beard and a particular set of genitals, according to other traditions; and is entirely free of attributes according to others. Everyone has the perfect right to say or believe what they want, but it would be polite to speak more reservedly about it in public, or not at all.

* Religious freedom is — and should always be — a universal human right. Anyone looking for “common ground” between various faiths, or science and various faiths can start right there. And it’s probably better to stop right there too, rather than piss everyone off by proclaiming all religions are “ultimately different visions of the same truth”. If you want to contradict the basic teachings of nearly every religion and form of belief that ever existed, fine, but do honestly — don’t stumble into it unwittingly by granting yourself the right to define all their core beliefs, while claiming to know all their contents better than their adherents. Don’t do that. It isn’t nice — it’s just dumb and arrogant.

* Do teach about evolution from an early age. Teach it as a fact first, without any tricky explanations. That way, no one will be shocked when they discover that there is a reason why we look and behave the way we do.

* Do not tell anyone that “evolution does not contradict your religious beliefs”, as the US’s National Committee for Science Education does. It’s arrogant and deceitful to claim such knowledge — it might be in accordance with them, but most probably it is not. Claiming it is, merely sets people up to either not fully understand evolution, or for a shock if they ever do fully understand it. You don’t want to wind up tricking people into losing their faith like that.

* Just teach about evolution without mentioning anyone’s religion, and let people figure out the implications for themselves. They’ll manage better without you.

Posted by Yakaru


  1. “Um, is that really true?”…“How do you know that?”

    Exactly my reaction reading this piece. I must say the very strong and definite opinions it expresses seem to be based on rather limited and prejudiced information.

    For what it’s worth, the teacher who introduced me to evolution happened to be a Benedictine nun. I can’t say I recall the subject ever coming up in 12 years of religion class.

  2. Thanks for your comment.

    This is of course a polemical piece attacking the problems it identifies, and not a survey of how often those problems appear. Though obviously I am of the opinion that they are common enough to cause concern.

    The experience I am drawing on is what of religious instruction I encountered personally as a child, professionally in the various times I worked as a teacher, and working as a social worker in schools in 2 countries and 5 large cities.

    Which of the problems I highlighted did you find unfairly presented?

  3. Very well, but I didn’t note any qualification in your original comment. It comes across as trying to make quite a categorical statement applicable to all religious formation, when obviously it is talking about some kind of bizarre cult.

    Perhaps you could have explained what specifically led you to the conclusion that what you describe is a common occurrence. We’ve established that you didn’t rely on a survey. So we’re still left with the question, how do you know?

  4. The problems that I highlight are embedded in religious ideology, which by definition has no place in an educational institution. It only gains access through social custom and failure enforce normal pedagogical standards that would exclude other ideologies.

    The whole article is centered on the difference between ‘religious instruction’ and education about religion — noting the difference in definition of instruction and education. (Instruction is ‘how-to’ where the instructor guarantees this will work; education develops skills that lead to independence of mind and the ability to engage in free inquiry).

    This is a clear distinction, and would exclude any religious believer from presenting their beliefs to children as if what they assert is true.

    Religious people are so accustomed to being granted free space to blab out unfounded assertions about the nature of reality, that they don’t even realize they are doing it.

    I am not quite sure what your argument here is. Do you mean that religious teachers don’t do ever do that in schools, or that if they do do it, it is ok?

  5. Thanks for this post, Yakaru.
    I have found in attempting such discussion with a believer, Abrahamic or otherwise, a separation that is not easy to overcome with logic, rational discussion or even casual examination of different definitions of basic concepts. Is it that people like you or I speak of ‘Religion’ more as a subject, a history, a massive group of beliefs, modern and historical, which are, individually, of little or no use when considering the validity of a rational argument? This raises in my mind points from your previous post and even from previous comments I have made on other posts here. At some common ceremony held in a church (despite my still fairly militant atheism) I stand proudly with my family, supporting and loving, nodding deference to the passing clergy. I stride beside them as they move appropriately within the structure of the ceremony and will most often be approached by a member of such clergy who is not just speaking to me, but to a supporter and protector of my whole family.
    Now that I have typed all of that i’m not sure what my main point was here so I with thanks I will go back to considering your many valid points, unafraid to admit that I seriously need to think more about them before I can deliver a more helpful comment !

    Thanks for reading,

  6. That sounds to me like you are dealing with a cross-over between the ritualistic and cultural aspects of religion (which do touch people deeply and can be used as a tool for showing empathy and solidarity), and the attempts by religious people and leaders to use this privileged role as a means to grab power.

    When I was 17 a kid I knew got murdered and the priest at his funeral used the opportunity to promote the Christianity to his grieving friends. Even if he was doing it out of sincere belief it was right, it was certainly done without any display of awareness of the conflict of interest or how it might be perceived, He did it because it was normal.

    Recently I went to the funeral of a friend who belonged a pseudo-Buddhist meditation sect. His family was deeply Christian and wanted a funeral in their church. The priest used the funeral to attack the sect and criticize the other followers there for smiling and appearing happy when greeting each other, and went on to imply that the deceased had wasted his life because of his “experimentation” drugs and sex and Rajneeshism in the 1980s and beyond. This is guy’s own funeral, and the priest is attacking him!

    Like a serial sexual harasser, they don’t know when to stop, and they clearly haven’t been told often enough or clearly enough to back off.

  7. Quite right, Yakaru. Many religions but particularly the Abrahamic ones can’t seem but to voice disdain for other beliefs ore even lifestyles. For me drugs was a time, a wonderful time. My social life has aged and my habits have seriously simmered down but it wasn’t a belief system, it was just a time and the exciting vices that went with it.

  8. As Blake said of priestly condemnations, “He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence.”

  9. I’m not so much making an arugument, as I am trying to grasp the basis of yours. You say, “I guess everyone knows…”, yet you concede that your argument is polemical. The only justification you offer for your strong opinions is personal and subjective experience, without further explanation. My own personal experience leads me to quite the opposite conclusion, so there we are. The countless teachers and preachers I’ve encountered run the gamut: a few mediocre, but many exhilarating, and some brilliant. The weird behaviors you recount are so far outside my personal experience that to suggest they are commonplace strikes me as patently absurd.

    Your distinction between “instruction” and “education” is tortured, to put it mildly. An aspiring young pianist must receive years of instruction in the principles and techniques of piano playing before she becomes an artist and virtuoso in her own right. It is thus with any field of knowledge, and not because the teacher wants to control the student, limit her learning, or thwart her creativity.

  10. “The weird behaviors you recount are so far outside my personal experience that to suggest they are commonplace strikes me as patently absurd.”

    One example of this that I give is the media’s fawning over the Pope. That is the norm.

    The distinction between education and instruction can be well illustrated by your analogy of learning piano.

    Learning to play music on the piano is a definable task, with definable set of skills. Instruction in this is possible, and depending on the wishes of the student, appropriate.

    Education in playing the piano (using the term clumsily for the purpose of showing the distinction) might involve helping a student develop the skills to compose music themselves — to express their feelings etc, and explore what can be done with music on the piano.

    So that’s the distinction. Education — regardless of what is being taught — focuses on the development of independence in further learning and creativity. Instruction sticks to teaching a defined set of skills, with the focus more on imparting content.

    Implanting ideas about God in the minds of young children is anti-educational. And religious instructors and religious people are so accustomed to having their pontifications go unchallenged, that they don’t even realize they are claiming to have factual knowledge that is in fact borrowed from someone else.

    This is exactly what you did yourself in the other thread, where you referred me to theologians who supposedly know that the soul is made in the image of God. Even though you asserted it initially as if you knew it for a fact.

  11. Mass media fawning over the Pope I would put in the same category as its fawning over Tinseltown celebrities and so-called “royal families”. It’s not like the media takes the Chair of Peter seriously. And of course they turn on a dime whenever the Holy Father dares to say something challenging or unfashionable.

    I don’t really disagree with your fundamental definitions, except to the extent you seem to dismiss “instruction” as something apart from if not antagonistic to true education. It seems obvious that learning, regardless of subject matter, almost always begins with some form of instruction. Truly self-taught savants are the exception. Pursuing a course of instruction hardly precludes independent thinking once the student has acquired enough raw material to engage in it. That’s no less true of religion than other areas of knowledge.

    Now, you have every right to your opinion, which you say is based on your experience. Nevertheless you haven’t given me much cause to override my own years of observation and experience, which as I’ve mentioned could not be more at odds with your views. Once a child’s temporal needs are satisfied, her parents have no more important duty than to introduce her to the pursuit of wisdom, and to share their own inner life.

    * * *

    “This is exactly what you did yourself in the other thread, where you referred me to theologians who supposedly know that the soul is made in the image of God. Even though you asserted it initially as if you knew it for a fact.”

    I do know for a fact (as I believe you also do) that Christians and Jews hold that we are made in God’s image. Whether or not you personally give credence to that doctrine is neither here nor there.

    To the extent I can discern what you’re trying to say in the other thread, it’s that religious communities tend to be hierarchical, and that this hierarchical tendency lends itself to anti-evolutionism. My answer simply was/is that (a) manifestation of anti-evolutionism actually is, if anything, *inversely* related to preference for ecclesiastical hierarchy and authority; and (b) your speculation about a hierarchy of souls is specious, inasmuch as it contradicts a foundational tenet that comes straight from the opening verses of the Bible. (Again, the context is what Christians and Jews believe, not what you believe.)

  12. Thank you for generously granting your attention, and for maintaining such a civil tone here — that doesn’t happen that often!

    I agree that instruction is a subset of education, and that mastery of any field will require a good solid dose of it at some point.

    I was trying to decry a type of religious teaching, and arguing that anyone who presents the information as fact is engaging it. You are carefully (and agreeably) avoiding it, when you say “Christians and Jews hold that we are made in God’s image. Whether or not you personally give credence to that doctrine is neither here nor there.”

    Part of my motivation for writing this was to emphasize this distinction. I don’t mind teachers sharing their own private beliefs, if, and only if, they feel it is in the interests of their pupils to know about it.

    Again, I was not trying to present a survey of religious presentations in schools, but note some of the dangers that are embedded in such material. I’ve never seen the media turn on the Pope as you say, nor have I ever seen any expectation that he do anything other than show up in order to get the media’s attention.

    Regarding hierarchies, all social groupings are hierarchical, and benefit and suffer accordingly. My concern with religion is that this hierarchy is extended, so to speak, into the clouds. You are right of course, to note that religious reformers have opposed this — I guess I could have added a paragraph about that too.

    But evolutionary theory is the one discovery and fact of science that religions on the whole unfailingly oppose. I argue that their motivation is that it takes away not only the main role accorded to God (the creation of humans according to some kind of design), but also the authority of the religion itself — regardless of priestly claims to a more democratic or humane hierarchy.

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