Archive for December, 2011

God in the Classroom: a Review Article

December 22, 2011

God in the Classroom:  The Controversial Issue of Religion in Canada’s Schools

Lois Sweet

Toronto:  McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1997, ISBN 0-7710-8319-X

pp.xv + 272,  $29.99

This is an important book which is bound to prompt much fruitful dialogue on the relation between religion and schooling in Canada.  The author, a journalist by profession, won an Atkinson fellowship in 1995-6, which gave her the opportunity to travel across the country (and to Europe) in order to gain first hand experience as to how religion is handled in our schools.  As well she was able to discuss the matter with a wide variety of Canadians of many beliefs and backgrounds.  The publication of this book was preceded with a five-part series in the Toronto Star as well as a two-part documentary on CBC-TV’s “The National Magazine.”  Both drew a huge response, a sign that Canadians are hungry for more discussion of this issue.

Sweet admits that she would never have dreamed that she would write a book like this a decade ago (p.9).  She describes herself as a secularist, but one who has come to recognize the significance of the religious experience (pp.213, 11).  Her book is prompted by a concern about our society which has somehow lost sight of the spiritual dimension to life (p.6).  And religion is denied and/or ignored in our schools (p. 239).  Sweet describes her son, now at university, discovering for the first time that Western civilization was based on religion.  “Nothing in his previous thirteen years of study had given him an inkling of that” (p.213).  A tragedy, indeed, and somewhat odd, given that schooling in Canada evolved from a decidedly Christian bias, as Sweet explores in Chapter 2.

It is this neglect of religion in our state-maintained public schools that has prompted a growing number of religious groups to set up their own schools – there are about 1,200 religiously-based schools that belong to the Federation of Independent Schools in Canada (pp. 6, 27).  Clearly the formation of religious schools is one way to address the problem of the neglect of religion in education, which is the overriding concern of the book.  But a major thrust of the book is to reject this option.  What Sweet proposes instead is a serious overhaul of our public school system.  Her central thesis is that given the pluralism that now characterizes Canada, we need, somehow, to accommodate religion in our public (common) schools.

Sweet defends her two-pronged thesis by drawing on the anecdotal experience of students, teachers, parents and educators.  The many stories are fascinating and at times moving.  This book will therefore appeal to a lay-readership.  But I would hope that academics will still read the book, even though there is little here by way of drawing on theoretical treatments of the problem.  Even when referring to experts in the field such as John Hull and Will Kymlicka, preference is given to comments made while interviewing them in person.  And there are no footnotes.

What reasons lie behind Sweet’s rejection of religious schooling as a way to bring religion back into education?  Chapters 4 & 5 record her impressions from visits to a number of religious schools (Sikh, Jewish, Islamic, Catholic, Protestant and evangelical).  A primary concern is that such schools are socially divisive and foster intolerance (ch.1).  Sweet also worries about the indoctrination that occurs in religious schools.  She is also very concerned about the lack respect for children’s and teacher’s rights in such schools (ch.9).   “[P]arents don’t have the ultimate authority over their children,” according to Sweet, “there is a need for the State to act in the interests of children” (p.178).

Sweet is further concerned that these religious schools will destroy our state-maintained system of public schools. Indeed, she also rejects the separate school system, i.e. Roman Catholic schools which are fully funded in several Canadian provinces (pp. 48, 103, 108f, 122f, 248, 252).  The ideal for Sweet is one, and only one system of state-maintained public schools.  But this will require a radical overhaul of the secular orientation that now pervades these public schools. We need somehow to bring religion back into the classroom.  If this is done, Sweet maintains, many religiously moderate parents would be much less motivated to put their children into independent religious schools (p.239)

However, according to Sweet, reintroducing religion into the classroom cannot involve the initiation of children into a particular religious dogma – an approach that was in fact rejected as unconstitutional in a 1988 Elgin County court case (pp. 13, 33).  Instead of indoctrination, we need multi-faith education about religion, along the lines of a 1994 memo from Ontario Ministry of Education (pp. 218ff.).  Sweet also recommends that a certain limited number of holy days of each Canada’s recognized religious groups be recognized through school closings where numbers warrent, using them as points of discussion (ch.10).

And above all, schools must take seriously the cultivation of religious literacy (pp. 10, 228, 239).  We need to acknowledge religious difference, and actually educate children about those differences in the classroom.  Here Sweet draws on comments made by John Hull in an interview in which he describes the approach of religious education in Great Britain (pp.224-8).

The journalistic approach taken in this book has its dangers.  While every effort is made to be fair, and the generalizations made are most often accurate, biases do emerge.  For example, much is made of the supposed denial of rights of children in religious schools in a chapter which begins with an emotively laden description of a spanking of a first-grader at an Alberta school (ch.9).   But, to link this episode with ritual genital mutilation, and to suggest that such physical abuse is responsible for violent criminal behavior in later life is simply absurd (p.170).  Contrary to Sweet, children at religious schools are generally loved for and cared for, and are viewed as having all the basic rights that she so much prizes.  Clearly there are different understandings of what is required to bring up children to be moral citizens, and we must be careful not discount the approach taken by religious schools, when, by her own admission, a major concern of many parents is precisely the failure of our public schools in this area (pp. 6, 64, 98).

A fundamental weakness arises from Sweet’s reliance on a traditional distinction between indoctrination and education.  She admits there is controversy regarding proper definitions of these terms (pp.149f), but unfortunately she rather dogmatically trots out the usual mantras concerning what these terms means. Indoctrination involves narrow initiation into a particular religious tradition.  Genuine education, by contrast, involves tolerance of dissent, autonomous thinking and behaving, and the celebration of diversity (pp.102, 159).  But, Sweet is forced to admit that the graduates from religious schools which she interviewed have become confident, critical and open citizens, who actively contribute to society at large.  The basic problem with her analysis is that she fails to do justice to the fact that nurture into a particular tradition is a necessary foundation for growth toward autonomy.  Narrowness necessarily precedes openness (see my Teaching for Commitment, Gracewing & McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993).

Interestingly, Sweet implicitly acknowledges this point in other contexts.  She is very sensitive to “the politics of recognition,” which Charles Taylor sees as the key to living in a multicultural society (p.14).  She tells a moving story of a Jewish mother who clearly identifies the seeming paradox – the more she helps her daughter to understand who she is, the better she will be able to live with others (pp.110f).  She is quite frank in acknowledging that we might have something to learn from the structure of schooling in the Netherlands where over 80% of all the schools are publicly funded religious schools (ch. 7; p.128).  Here it seems that recognizing differences has facilitated healthy integration as well as tolerance.

Sweet is also very cognizant of recent developments in epistemology.  She acknowledges that neutrality is impossible (p.7).  She realizes that there is an element of faith in every area of human study (p.212).  She approvingly refers to Postman’s End of Education in which he argues that schools have to serve some god – some story or narrative that provides a sense of meaning, continuity and purpose to life (p.150).  A secular system of education is still a value system that competes with those that are religious (p. 113).

But, these epistemological considerations as well as her sympathies with the politics of recognition support a system of educational pluralism.  However, as we have seen, Sweet is strongly opposed to religiously based schools.  And this makes the overall thrust of the book somewhat puzzling, because much of her analysis would seem to point in the direction of religious schools as a way of accommodating the interplay between religion and education

Even in the final chapter she gives us a glowing account of a unique Logos Alternative Program in Edmonton, Alberta, where five Christian schools operate under the public school umbrella.  But Sweet speaks favourably of this approach only because these schools are part of the public system of education and are housed in existing public schools which allows the children to interact with other children in the regular public program (pp.241-4).  In the end, she is still worried about their promoting “a limited kind of one-sided learning” (p.244).

What Sweet fails to realize is that the multi-religious approach to cultivating an appreciation for religion is not without its own problems.  Knowledge of other religious traditions does not in and of itself foster tolerance.  And she fails to face up to the fact that public (common) schools cannot ever make up for, or overcome, the lack of religious literacy and the religious intolerance that is fostered in the home.  The multi-faith approach to religious literacy, I would suggest is yet another expression of Enlightenment faith in universal reason. It rests on the assumption that it is possible to get an understanding of religion generally without becoming committed to a particular religion.  It allows us to participate in “the religious quest” while keeping religion at a distance (p. 8).  But this will hardly do justice to the concern of many religious adherents who value the importance of particular religious commitments.  And it is a fundamental error to associate all particular religious commitments with excessive sectarianism (pp. 17, 36, 165).

In the end, it would seem that Sweet is still captive to a secular faith-story which makes it impossible for her to go where the wind of her argument really carries her. And while she worries about the indoctrination that occurs in our public schools when religion is systematically avoided (pp. 211ff., 222), she fails to worry enough about the liberal educational tyranny that is still inherent in her multi-faith approach to religious education, and which she wants to impose on all citizens via a monolithic state-maintained system of education.

This is a preprint of an article in  the Journal of Beliefs & Values, Vol. 19, #2, Oct. 1998, pp. 251-4. [copyright Taylor & Francis]; the article in  the Journal of Beliefs & Values  is available online at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1361767980190211
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Ethics of Evangelism or Proselytizing

December 15, 2011

 

This blog is about my recently published book, The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defence of Proselytizing and Persuasion, published by Paternoster Press, in the U.K., and by IVP Academic, in the U.S.A. in 2011.

Why did I write this book?

Well, asking a philosopher why he wrote a book is a little bit like asking a mountain climber why he climbed Mount Everest.  Mount Everest is there to be climbed!  That is the way I felt about writing a book on the ethics of evangelism or proselytizing.  Indeed, I discovered that very little had been written on this topic heretofore.  So, I wanted to be the first to write a comprehensive treatment of the ethics of evangelism or religious persuasion.  What little had been written on this topic was in the main very critical of any efforts at evangelism or proselytizing.  When reading these objections against evangelism, I was disturbed by the fact that these attacks were often unfair and outright wrongheaded.  So again, I felt a need to answer these objections in the public domain by writing a book on the subject.  In part, my writing this book also grew out of my embarrassment as to what religious adherents sometimes do in the name of evangelism. Writing this book was a way of helping me to clarify this embarrassment.  I discovered that sometimes there is something immoral going on when religious adherents do evangelism.  I also discovered that Christians, and more specifically evangelical Christians, who are very much committed to evangelism, tend to skirt the subject of the ethics of what they are doing.  Indeed, one nearly gets the impression that for some evangelicals, evangelism is considered to be so imperative that the end justifies the means. Someone needed to show how terribly wrong-headed this kind of thinking is.  So I answered the call! Throughout my writing, I have been very concerned to bridge the divide that often exists between religious believers and those who are skeptical of religion.  I therefore wanted to write a book on evangelism/proselytizing that would at the same time be addressed to these two very different readerships.  Skeptics needed to hear a defense of evangelism or proselytizing, and religious believers needed to be told that not just anything is acceptable in trying to bring about conversions.

For the table of contents and endorsements of the book, see the IVP website:

http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/code=3927

For a recent review of the book, see one by A. Morgan as found on the Amazon books website:

http://www.amazon.ca/ETHICS-EVANGELISM-Elmer-John-Thiessen/dp/0830839275/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1323962877&sr=8-1

The book can be purchased online from:

http://www.ivpress.com/  (in Canada, order from www.DavidCCook.ca )

http://www.authenticmedia.co.uk/

http://www.amazon.ca/

http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/