Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind


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Teaching religion

It’s been a while since I touched on topics of a religious nature, so here’s one that’s been on the back burner for a while.

I believe the teaching of religion is important. Not because it teaches what is right or wrong, good or bad, but because it teaches us a lot about the evolution of human thought and morality.

It can help us understand that good and evil, are concepts that change over time. It can help us understand why we value some ideas today that had little value in the past and why we have devalued some ideas that were regarded as sacred in earlier periods. Whether we like it or not, religion has played a significant role in how we have come to understand the world.

To a great many anti-theists and non-theists, bringing these two words, “teaching religion” is like a red rag to a bull. You can almost see their nostrils flare on hearing those words. But does it need to be that way?

For myself, religion is a means by which I can understand what I experience. It nourishes me in a way that other experiences of being human do not. I acknowledge that this is my experience, and what I experience is unique to me. If you wish to call it something else other than religion, that’s fine by me. 

The following video, and the transcript below describe what teaching religion means from a Quaker perspective. Whether or not you agree with the teaching of religion at all, it is not “indoctrinating people in the ‘correct’ way to think in terms of the cosmology or the meta-narratives of religious philosophy”.  Your feedback after watching the video or reading the transcription is very welcome.

Transcript

I am very clear in a public context that I never say, “I teach religion,” because I have learned in my life that that’s a conversation stopper. For most people that I encounter in the United States of America, they hear that as, “I participate in indoctrinating people in the correct way to think in terms of the cosmology or the metanarratives of religious philosophy.”

It couldn’t be further from the truth at a Friends school. That is not what we do. In fact, when I say to people, “I teach religions,” they say, “Oh wow, that sounds cool!” I’ve heard people say when I say I teach world religions, they say, “Oh that was my favorite subject in college, I loved that,” and it’s a conversation opener. And that’s what we’re doing at Friends schools, we’re opening the conversation, we’re not closing it.

For me as a teacher, my goal is to create an energized, safe space for students to get in touch with their own ideas but to encounter the ideas of other people in the room and other people from other times and other spaces, either through a text or through the internet or some other device that I share and I want them to be alive in the present with what’s real for them. 

Quaker Ethos

Quakerism is a wonderful container to have conversations around the edges. I often say that Quakerism is a great religion for people who are entering religion for the first time, or for people who are leaving religion. So we have a lot of people who are excited about Quakerism because they’ve thought of themselves as agnostics or atheists and then they encounter this tradition that permits that possibility but also invites exploration of the mysterious and doesn’t block out experiences of transformational or paranormal possibilities.

And then there are other people who have come from very doctrinal or creedal religions and they have felt oppressed or controlled by those traditions and Quakerism gives them freedom. Great, welcome!

So we have a tremendous mix within our community, and that’s a mix that we also have in our classrooms because at Friends schools, the majority of people in the room are not Quaker, and there is no expectation that they should be—and more often than not, the teacher is not Quaker either. So what we’re doing is we’re having a conversation that is possible because of the Quaker ethos of acceptance, tolerance, universality, and openness to the unknown.

Creating Safe Discursive Space

This is not a situation where there’s a catechism or a planned method of instruction so that you get the right answers or the right information. It’s quite opposite, actually. What we are doing at a Friends school is we are creating safe, discursive space for people to ask into the sublime, into the mystical, into the beautiful, into the mysterious. And it turns out that everyone has had that experience.

We’ve all had dreams. Are dreams real? Are dreams religious? Are some dreams religious? Are no dreams religious? In fact, what does it mean to be a person who is in touch with a dimension of reality that we can’t measure or see? It means to be fully alive, so let’s talk about that.

Exploring our Identities

And at the same time, I am very happy bringing in the language of scientific cosmology and what some people call atheism because that belongs in the room as well. So when I tell them that when I was young, I identified as both Quaker and atheist, I see their eyes get wide, like, “Oh that’s a thing? Like, I’m allowed to be that?” Sure! What are you, what’s your truth?

And then suddenly I hear a polyphony of different identities around the room and suddenly now we’re talking, because, “Well I’m Jewish and Christian?” Well, theologically speaking, how can you be both? Well it doesn’t matter, let’s not interrogate that question. Let’s honor that that’s your truth and let’s talk about what that means to you. Which stories speak to you? Which parts of those traditions have meaning for you personally, and why is it important that you honor both of those traditions when you were asked what religion are you? And let’s welcome all of that and stumble forward.

I want students to leave my class saying “That was fun!,” because it is fun actually. It’s fun to realize that you are having some dimension of reality that you know is true validated by somebody else and then you find out that there are rich traditions that offer different narratives, different names, different colors, different stories, different energies to exactly the stories that you personally have had. Wow, that’s cool!

Now turn to the person next to you and talk about your experience and listen to their experience and notice if there are similarities or differences. And now let’s come back to what we were talking about. Maybe we have a text from the Bhagavad Gita that says something really profound from a couple thousand years ago, and now let’s look at the Gospel of John, or the Gospel of Thomas even! Or maybe we’ll look at something from Deuteronomy and say, “How does this compare to your dream? What do you love?”

 


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Why do religious issues puzzle me?

I confess. I follow a number of religious and atheist blogs – probably more than are good for me. One thing I have failed to understand is why there is so much distrust, suspicion, and in some cases, open hostility between various factions. This enmity is part of the fascination that keeps me returning to blogs that I would otherwise avoid. I am genuinely puzzled as to why the enmity is felt so strongly by some people.

Some of my failure to understand how others feel about religious issues probably rests on the fact that I am autistic, but I think I have found another compelling explanation: I’m a Kiwi.

The Legatum Institute Foundation publishes a prosperity index each year, and among all the variables that go into measuring prosperity, are two pertaining directly to freedom of religion: governmental religious restrictions and social religious restrictions. The Foundation defines these respectively as:
Governmental restrictions on religion, efforts by governments to ban particular faiths, prohibit conversions, limit preaching or give preferential treatment to one or more religious groups
  and
The degree to which there are social barriers to freedom of religion in a country, acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations and social groups

As a comparison, I’ve selected the 10 countries that WordPress reports as being the all time top 10 viewing countries of Another Spectrum: Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Hungary, India, Kenya, Aotearoa New Zealand, United Kingdom, United States.

When it comes to religious freedom, it is apparent that NZ is head and shoulders above the other countries in this comparison. Religious restrictions, both governmental and social are measured on a scale from 0 to 1, and NZ is the only country gaining a score of 1.

Governmental Religious Restrictions

1 New Zealand (1)
0.9 – 0.99 Brazil (7), Australia (21)
0.8 – 0.89 Canada (29), United Kingdom (47)
0.7 – 0.79 United States (75), Hungary (77)
0.6 – 0.69 Kenya (103)
0.5 – 0.59 France (109), India (112)

(the number in parenthesis after each country is its world ranking)

Considering that the first amendment of the US constitution guarantees freedom of religion, America doesn’t do very well when it comes to governmental restrictions on religion, ranking at 75th. In fact, over the the previous 10 years, its best ranking was 58th in 2009, while its worst was 104th in 2010.

Social Religious Restrictions

Socially, all the countries apart from Hungary place greater restrictions on religion than does the government, and while NZ doesn’t fare too well on a world ranking (there are 28 countries that do better), it still fares better than the other nine countries:

0.9 – 0.99 New Zealand (29)
0.8 – 0.89 Canada (67)
0.7 – 0.79 Australia (80), Hungary (80),
0.6 – 0.69  Brazil (109),
0.5 – 0.59 United Kingdom (118)
0.4 – 0.49 United States (127), France (128)
0.2 – 0.29 Kenya (138), India (144)
0.1 – 0.19

(the number in parenthesis after each country is its world ranking)

Governmental versus social restrictions

What I find really interesting is that there is often little relationship between restrictions on religion imposed by governments and restrictions on religion imposed by the wider society. For example the Chinese government all but bans religious expression, and where it is permitted, it is under state control. Iran on the other hand is an Islamic theocracy. In both countries, governmental restriction on religion are severe, but when compared to the United States, there are fewer social restrictions. I was surprised to see that Iran does better the the US:

govt_social_religion-chart

This suggests to me that Americans are not as accepting or tolerant of different religious beliefs and non-beliefs as they think they are. It explains why a number of bloggers I follow are atheists, but are very reluctant to let that fact be known in their communities. It goes a long way in explaining to me why I and many other Kiwis are unable to understand why religion is such a hot topic in many parts of the world.


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The land of awkward terrorists, communists and fascists

For several weeks, I’ve been struggling with completing a post regarding the Kiwi propensity to avoid conflict and how it has a tendency to neutralise extremist views. Today I stumbled across an opinion piece first published in April 2017 which neatly summarises what I was attempting to write, and even poses a question very similar to what I wanted to ask.

So in the interests of getting a post out at all, I have abandoned writing my own, and refer readers to the Stuff article New Zealand: the land of awkward terrorists, communists and fascists.