A comment made by reader Matt on my post about the whitewashing of Islam in American public schools proves the point I wanted to make: teaching comparative religion in American public schools won’t work.
There are good reasons, of course, to teach comparative religion in secondary schools, the most prominent being that religion has been an important factor in human history, and without knowing something about it you’d be unable to suss out things like the Crusades, the religious wars and conflicts of the Middle Ages, the transformation of the Roman Empire to Christianity, and so on (my bias is showing since I’m mentioning only religious conflicts). Richard Dawkins always emphasizes that the Bible itself—at least the King James version—is great literature that should be read for its beauty. I emphatically disagree; there are some good parts, but the vast bulk of it is stupefyingly boring. (Try most of the Old Testament.) But allusions to religion abound in literature (think Shakespeare, Milton, and Dostoevsky), and that’s a good reason to study scripture.
Finally, if you’re interested in the history of philosophy, ethics, or human thought in general, you’ll need to know something about religion. How, for instance, can you make sense of debates about abortion, gay marriage, or stem-cell research without knowing the dictates of Catholicism and other brands of Christianity?
That’s the upside. But I think it’s counterbalanced by several downsides. Which religions do we teach? It’s impossible to teach them all given that there are more than 10,000 species of belief on our planet, and you can’t teach “comparative” religion without at least a broad sampling—including the faiths of eastern Asia, Oceania, and Africa. Too, how do you teach them? You can imagine the squabbles between Sunni and Shia Muslim parents over the relative weights given to these faiths.
And what about the bad stuff that religion has inspired: the Inquisition, the Crusades, ISIS, and the doctrines of many faiths that oppress women, gays, or even unbelievers, as well as terrorize children. Do you neglect those issues, which, after all, comprise one reason to teach religion as a major force in history? How can you understand the colonization of America without understanding religious persecution? How can you teach about religious wars without mentioning the emnity produced by thinking that you, as opposed to your neighbor, have the absolute truth. And how do you deal with the Holocaust? Was that purely a cultural phenomenon?
The American solution, of course, is “fair play”: teach that all religions are not only good, but equally good, and that anything bad associated with them can be imputed not to religious beliefs but to culture. That is, you sanitize the entire endeavor to such a degree that students fail to understand religion. At best, as is done in Europe, you might learn learn a few of the milder things believed by adherents to different faiths.
But what beliefs do you present? Do you tell kids that Catholics think that unconfessed masturbation will send you to fry forever, that many Muslims believe it is right to kill apostates or infidels, and credit a woman’s testimony in court as worth only half a man’s. Of course not! That’s not the American way! You must sanitize all beliefs so they appear either good or at best neutral
To see how this would be done in schools, look no further than the whitewashing of Islam done by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), partly funded by the U.S. government. They have a “lesson page” on Islam (part of their “Global Connections” site) that covers terrorism, the roles of women, U.S. foreign policy, and so on. To see how Islam would be taught in American public schools, check out the “roles of women” page. What you’ll find is pure whitewash: the repeated contention that Islam is a woman-friendly religion, with its female adherents enjoying privileges that until recently weren’t given to Western women. There is lie after lie—or distortion after distortion—that makes us simply unable to understand why on Earth anyone would see the faith as misogynistic. The page is implicitly ideological, with the aim of showing Islam in the best possible light. Given the authoritarian-liberal bent of PBS, we know why this is the case.
Here are three bits from that page:
Let’s dispose first of the ridiculous comparison between American domestic violence and Islamic oppression of women. While some extremist Christians may beat their wives because they read it in scripture, most domestic violence in the U.S. has nothing to do with religion. That is not the case for Islamic “disciplining” of women (see here for evidence). Remember, too, that far more Muslims take their scripture literally than do Christians.
Most important, note that the oppressive practices of Islam are imputed to “culture”, not religion. That’s a lie, especially when you realize that in much of Islam one cannot separate culture and religion because the faith dictates all sorts of cultural practices. Is the forced veiling of women “culture”? If so, why did Iranian, Egyptian, and Afghani “culture” change so drastically in the late Seventies—changing in a way that women suddenly acquired the “cultural” habit of veiling? Was it just a coincidence that the Islamic Revolution began about then?
Reza Aslan and other apologists argue that the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) is “cultural” and has nothing to do with Islam. While there’s some truth in that, Heather Hastie has shown repeatedly that Islam not only helped spread the practice, but approves of or even mandates it. Here’s a bit from one of her posts:
Most imams will admit that the Qur’an and hadiths do not require FGM, but many still teach that it should be done, especially in Sunni Islam, which accounts for 80-90% of Muslims. There are four main schools of law in Sunni Islam: Hanbali, Shafi’i, Hanafi, and Maliki. The first two consider FGM obligatory and the other two recommend it.
And from another:
. . . there have been several fatwas issued regarding FGM over the years, the majority of which favour it. (Fatwas are not compulsory, but devout Muslims consider them morally imperative.) For example, Fatwa 60314 includes statements that express the importance of FGM within Islam and dismiss the opinions of doctors.
The belief that FGM is an expression of faith if you are a good Muslim is widespread, insidious and promoted by religious leaders. Even in those Muslim countries where it has been banned, there is push-back by religious leaders. In Egypt for example, FGM was finally banned after several failed attempts in 2008. However, it is still being carried out outside hospitals and the Muslim Brotherhood has a campaign to get the law overturned. Mariz Tadros reported in May last year that “the Muslim Brotherhood have offered to circumcise women for a nominal fee as part of their community services”.
As far as the “rights of women” enjoyed by Muslims but not Westerners, none remain. A Muslim woman can, in many places, be divorced simply by her husband saying “I divorce you” three times, and then she’s completely screwed (she has no similar ability to divorce her husband). In some places she can’t drive, in many she can’t appear in public unveiled, or without the company of a male relative. She must worship separately from men, and often is barred or discouraged from going to school or entering some professions. In Sunni Islam, a woman inherits only half as much property as her brothers (if a woman has one brother, for instance, he gets 2/3 of all the inheritance, while she takes a third). None of this is mentioned in the PBS “lesson,” and none of it is cultural. The bit above is simply a whitewash.
As is the bit below, for what the Qur’an states is not what has become practice, for practice depends also on the hadith and the sunnah. And actual practice has overriden many of the “Qur’anic” dictates below.
If we’re to teach religion, are we going to concentrate solely on what scripture says (but, of course, leaving out the bad bits, like Yahweh’s repeated genocides and the Qur’anic dictate to kill infidels)? Or are we going to include the practices brought about by religious custom?
There’s also a section on “Women political leaders” in Islam that mentions Aisha, Muhammad’s “favorite wife” who had “great political clout,” but conveniently leaves out the Muslim belief that she married the Prophet at six and was deflowered at nine—a tradition that has led to the widespread practice of child brides—who don’t, by the way, have the right to refuse a prospective husband.
Finally, there is veiling. Here’s what PBS says about that:
This is a bit more accurate than the bits above, but also flirts with the truth. Men’s “modest” dress is very different from women’s, and in many places men can dress as they do in the West while women must remain covered. Even if the veil was historically restricted to social class, that is no longer the case: in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan all women are veiled, for that’s what the law says. I’m not aware of any place where upper-class Muslims are veiled more often than those of lower social class (I may of course be wrong).
What about this statement: “covering of the face was more common in the past than it is today, more so in some regions than others”? Well, if by “the past” we mean fifty years ago, I suspect the statement is wrong. Whether it was true in, say, the eighteenth century I have no idea.
As for those veiling laws, the statement “Veiling rules vary from country to country. In the modern period, strict laws about women’s dress are often used to emphasize the religious orientation of a particular government, as in Iran or Saudi Arabia” is sort of true, but the purpose is more than just “emphasizing the religious orientation of a particular government.” Nowhere is it mentioned that women are covered to prevent them from exciting the lust of men, who are seen as sexually uncontrollable creatures in the face of an uncovered ankle or a wisp of loose hair. The very purpose behind veiling—which, once in place, can then become an “exaptation” for displaying one’s faith—is simply omitted.
I’ve used Islam here to show the way comparative religions would undoubtedly be taught in America, for PBS has an educational “unit” on that faith. (There are no comparable sections on any other religion.) But the treatment of other faiths would surely resemble that of Islam. Their doctrines would be sanitized via cherry-picking only the good bits of scripture—and the oppressive customs would be imputed to “culture” rather than dogma. The students would be taught that all religions are good, and all religions are equally good. (And would they be taught atheism or humanism? Those aren’t, after all, “religions.”)
Perhaps other countries would do it differently, but I know America, and I know the American sense of “fair play” that would mandate that no religion could appear better or worse than another. That would of course require sanitizing them all. I find it preferable to not teach “comparative religion” at all than to whitewash it in this way. It’s like teaching the history of twentieth century Europe and not saying anything bad about Germany.
h/t: Diane G.