PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Friday, December 10, 2004

Religion and Education

Religion and Education

Maybe the title ought to be 'religions' on the grounds that there are many
religions in the world.

The other issue we can consider is whether the title means 'religious
instruction' or teaching religious studies in schools.

In the former case we are looking at religion i.e. the practice of religion.
And in the latter case we are concerned about the study of that human
activity or activities known as religion. But before looking at this issue
we can take a detour and ask what is religion? The standard way of looking
at religion is of course the worship of God or gods. We can add to this a
little bit more and say that religion is also how to be good as God
instructed us. We can add a bit more and say.... Okay, you get the idea. So
what is religion?

An other epistemological issue is how justified are we in believing in God
or gods given the evidence we have? Of course we also have to discuss the
question of what evidence do we have of God? If we have any, that is. And
here I am referring to monotheism or even those religions which hold that
the gods are separate and different from us.

Of course, the strongest evidence people have for the existence of God or
gods is the creationist argument.

Dwakins* refers to Paley to illustrate the Argument from Design: Imagine you
were walking in the country and came across a watch, you wouldn't think that
it just sprung into existence from no where. Someone would have made it. An
interesting analogy but wrong, according to Dwakins.
A more complex argument
against the creationist argument is to reject the 'homunculus' hypothesis.
Although the brain controls the body, there isn't an other person inside the
brain controlling the brain. The brain itself is a self-organising system
whereas the body is not. A self-organising system is a system which does not
have a central control system and the removal of part of the system will
only hinder its function by degrees. A magnet is a self-organising system, a
flock of birds is, but not a jet engine. If one removed a blade from one of
the turbines the jet engine would not work.

This detour within a detour is leading us closer to the issue of religion
and education. The other side of the religion coin is that of behaviour.
Religions do not only tell us about God or gods, but also how to lead our
lives. It's one thing to argue that God or gods exist, but another matter to
use your arguments to tell people what to do. The epistemology of telling
people what to do ought to be different from the epistemology for the
existence of God or gods. I know, there are religions which are not about
the existence of God or gods, but it's complicated as it is already. So bear
with me for the moment.

Justification to influence behaviour must inevitably also involve issues
outside theology and morality. The obvious one is of course political
philosophy. What is not, perhaps, so obvious is language.

The reason why language is important in the debate is for two reasons. The
first is that language is the medium we have to communicate the individual
or collective experience of God or gods. More importantly, of course, is
that those who advocate the existence of God or gods do not make a big fuss
about language. They should and some do, but only in passing. After all, if
God or the gods created everything then they created language ergo our
language is God's or the gods' way to communicate with us. For example: Did
God or the gods give us a different language to communicate or is our
language the same as God's language? And if our language is God's or the
gods' language then does the private language argument apply to God or the

The second reason why language matters in religion is because it is the only
efficient means we have for instruction in most societies. We use language
to teach, to guide, to instruct, to advise, to bully, to coerce, to frighten
and most of all we use language to manipulate. For example, what impact does
the language we use for religious education have on human behaviour. I mean,
what is the difference between a) helping people is always a good win-win
strategy and b) God wants us to help each other? This is where the detour
comes to an end.

If we take education to mean teaching people how to be religious, then what
exactly is religion asking people to do and to believe exactly in what? And
if the title means teaching about religions in schools then what exactly are
we teaching about? Are we teaching something that refers to human group
activity, some fictitious character or God?

Take care


*Richard Dawkins: The Blind Watchmaker

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