A recent headline caught my eye about the teaching of Islam in some public schools in Franklin County, TN. Apparently some parents were concerned that students were receiving not simply an education in Islam, but an indoctrination. The article was essentially explaining that parents really don’t have anything to worry about as the lessons on Islam are no more biased in its favor than any other lessons on world religions are biased in their favor. Nothing really surprised me here. Islam is controversial. The fact that some probably conservative and Christian parents expressed some concern really shouldn’t have caught anybody off guard.
But as I was reading a detail in the story caught my eye. The authors sought out an expert opinion to help readers understand the difference between teaching about a religion and teaching a religion. To get this expert opinion they went to Dr. Tony Stewart, a religious studies professor at Vanderbilt University.
Dr. Stewart explained that “there is a distinct difference between teaching Islamic religion and teaching about Islam. The questions that the Tennessee teachers ask in their classrooms are rooted in historical facts.” For example, “If a teacher asked, ‘What does Sunni Islam teach about how a Muslim should act to reach paradise?’ that would have a demonstrable answer. . .That does not require taking a religious position at all.”
So far so good. I agree with him.
But then he said something else. “Facts have exact answers. . .Belief is less concrete.” That’s a very trendy idea, is it not? It is perhaps not surprising that a professor whose specialty lies in Eastern religions would make such a claim. It’s an expression of a worldview broadly called empiricism and which takes several different forms. The basic idea is that we can only really know things by empirical means. If we cannot experience or prove something with at least one of our five senses then it does not fit in the realm of knowledge, but rather in the realm of opinion. Empiricism has been around a long time but with the rise of philosophical materialism, naturalism, scientism, postmodern relativism, and the like in the last 150 years or so, it has planted itself very deeply into the basic worldview framework of our culture. Facts are things that can be tested by experiment and proven explicitly true or false. Beliefs or values are much more fluid and depend more on personal opinion than anything really…well…factual. Facts are drawn from things like science and history whereas beliefs fall more into the realm of morality and ethics.
So far I’ve probably not said anything that is blowing your hair back. Most folks would read something like that and think, “Well…yes,” because it’s all they’ve ever been taught to think. I wrote not too long ago about a New York Times Op-Ed in which a philosophy professor and father described discovering that his son was being spoon fed this fact-value divide in which all moral claims are held to be mere opinions instead of verifiable facts in second grade. This fact-value divide is part of the water in which we swim. Most folks assume it without really even thinking about it.
But let’s do that for a minute. Is there really this sharp line between facts and beliefs? Since this is a Christian and specifically Baptist news site, let’s use that as our example. Dr. Stewart used the teaching of the basic understanding on the part of Sunni Muslims of how a person gets to paradise as an example of a religious question with a factual answer that doesn’t require any belief on the part of the teacher or the learner. But what facts would someone teach about Christianity? How about Jesus who seems at least reasonably important to Christianity? That may seem like an easy question to answer, but a little more thought shows that it would be very easy to run far into the weeds here very quickly. For instance, are the following statements facts or beliefs? Jesus was a Jewish rabbi. Jesus performed many miracles. Jesus predicted His own death and resurrection. Jesus claimed to be God. Jesus died on a cross. Jesus was raised from the dead. Jesus walked around on earth for 40 days after His resurrection. After 40 days Jesus physically departed from the earth.
Again: Are those facts or beliefs? Certainly as Christians we believe all of those things. So then they are beliefs, right? Well, historically orthodox Christians at least hold that those statements propositionally describe historical facts. So then they’re all facts…er…beliefs…er…huh?
Perhaps the truth lies more in this direction: just because something is generally considered to dwell in the realm of belief does not mean it is not also factually accurate. Sure it takes a little more work to determine whether or not a belief statement is also a statement of fact, but this doesn’t mean such a determination is impossible. People are welcome to believe whatever they wish, but let us dispense with the relativistic nonsense that something can be true for one person but false for another. Every belief a person has is either true or false. If it is true it should be commended, but if false, condemned. For instance and to grab an issue currently in the news, the traditional culture of Central Asia holds that it is morally acceptable for (usually wealthy and prominent) men to rape young boys. This belief is false. It is factually incorrect. It is not morally acceptable under any circumstances to rape young boys (or anyone else for that matter). In the traditional Hindu culture of India it was (and still in some places is) considered morally acceptable to burn a man’s widow alive on his funeral pyre. This belief was and is false. It is factually incorrect. It is not morally acceptable under any circumstances to burn a woman alive on her deceased husband’s funeral pyre.
I understand Dr. Stewart’s point. I am in agreement with the state of Tennessee that it is a good thing to teach students about the various religions practiced throughout the world. But let me offer a suggestion. Stop trying to merely teach the “facts” of each particular religion. Indeed, the view that it is even possible to separate out the provable “facts” of a religion from the unprovable “beliefs” is itself rooted in a particular worldview that may or may not be true (spoiler alert: I’d go with the latter). Instead, broaden things out and teach a unit on worldviews. Explain to them what a worldview is and then examine each of the major worldviews currently held around the world as well as some which have been held in the past but which have fallen out of favor. As a capstone project, have the students write a paper examining several of the worldviews and presenting an argument as to why they think one is more reflective of reality than any of the others. This kind of curriculum will need to be developed carefully because the worldview of the writers and the teachers will unavoidably influence the students and the goal is to simply set the information before them and encourage them to critically examine it and decide for themselves. Challenge or not, though, this is a worthwhile goal because students do not need to be indoctrinated into a particular worldview position (something that unfortunately happens far too often, and if the comments of Dr. Stewart are any indication is in fact happening in Tennessee, just not in the way the concerned parents think), rather they need to be given the freedom to use their brains to seek the truth and when they find it to grab hold of it with all their might. This will both meet the government’s concern to avoid Establishment Clause issues and give the students the intellectual respect they deserve.