Reading Religion and American Education

religions_and_american_educationIt’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment when religion and schooling turned from a dance into a WWE match between mortal foes. Most may point to the “Scopes Monkey Trial” where local laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution were publicly questioned. Others may go back a bit further to the Harvard Presidency of Charles Eliot who eliminated compulsory chapel and instituted sweeping curriculum changes that are today observed across universities worldwide. Or, one might go back to the heyday of the Enlightenment itself where reason and observation began to push God out of the way as the necessary agent to understand the world and humanity’s place in it.

Regardless of where you locate the start of this conflict, the disciplines of science and philosophy, educating for professions rather than vocations, and the emergence of a truly public, state-sponsored education system have always created friction with proponents of the old curriculum that put the Bible and Christian devotion at the center of the curriculum. Today the ACLU, Freedom from Religion Foundation, American Humanist Association, Americans United for Separation of Church and State have been central to maintaining a strict interpretation of non-establishment of any kind of religion in public schools against organizations that promote a weakening of that “wall” from groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, American Center for Law and JusticeChristian Educators Association International, and other groups like conservative denominations and political action committees. Activism on both side of the issue has been gaining strength and financial resources in the past few decades. The legal rulings have favored those who argue for a stronger interpretation of the 1st Amendment keeping religion and state funded schooling as distinct and unrelated as possible. Yet the conflict persists unabated.

News about this tension pour in daily. Just this week there have been reports of schools whose doctrines are at odds with LGBT student rights. The voucher program promoted by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos may create constitutional problems not only with entanglement of state and religion, but with how religion impacts equal protection regarding admissions policies. Recently, Donald Trump said before the Faith & Freedom Coalition, “Schools should not be a place that drive out faith and religion, but that should welcome faith and religion with wide, open, beautiful arms.” One questions what faith he is talking about and how schools should practice that welcome. It’s a relevant question given his audience of conservative, evangelical Christians. Surely they would not applaud the wide welcome of Hinduism and Islam on equal footing with their own idea of Christianity, would they?

Legal issues abound with these ideas. But at the center of all of this are the students, our kids. What is school here to do for them and for society? What are kids supposed to learn before they get to college? At what point do federal and state funding of not only the public school system, but of the public tertiary education system get entangled? Where do Constitutional amendments start to conflict with each other and what has happened in the courts to sort these complicated issues out?

Part of my “research reboot” this summer is to take a step back, catch up on the latest research, and to sort through some of the older texts with fresh eyes – especially those that I have only read in part while working on my dissertation. The first of these that I am going to work through is Religion & American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma by Warren A. Nord. It was published in 1995 and while there have been titles since then which I will follow with, none of them go into the depth of this book from the time up until Nord wrote it. Sometimes you have to take a few steps back to put what comes next in context. My goal here is to offer a short post on each chapter in three sections which will sort of be a template for future books I go through.

  • The Gist – The main argument the author is making.
  • The Idea – I want to focus on one interesting idea that might be applicable more generally or might spark a research question.
  • The Relevance – This is the trickier part where I want to find a connection with what is in the text, especially since its older, with something happening today.

This is something I do through the typical research process anyway. I thought, hey, want not put it all here and if it is interesting to someone else, or if there are other ideas out there I have not seen in relation to it, sweet.

More to come.

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Secularization is Happening, and Liberals are in Trouble

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A narrow definition of secularization goes like this: “First, modernization induces people to lose faith in God and religion. Then, as religion is no longer meaningful, they stop identifying with it” (Hout & Fischer, 2014). In the mid-twentieth century, this was a common understanding of how the world would become less religious.

The evidence has consistently shown the contrary.

Throughout the twentieth century into the twenty-first, the world did not seem to become any less religious, but regions in South America, Africa, and Asia, became more religious leading some sociologists to argue that Europe’s secularization is an “exceptional case.” But this has left the United States something of a puzzle. There are parts of the country that are less religious while parts of it appear to be more religious, and there has been a sense that political alignment maps to this pattern. At the same time it seems that fewer and fewer Americans are enjoining themselves to any particular religion with each new generation.

In a recent paper, Michael Hout and Claude Fischer conclude that both politics and generational succession have real effects on religious preference and have significantly contributed to why fewer and fewer people are identifying with a particular religion. One-in-five people expressed no religious preference in 2012 compared to one-in-fourteen in 1987. They argue that secularization along the definition they use, did not have an observable effect on this trend which helps to account for the rather stable percentage of people who believe in God without doubt (61%) and life after death (81%). In several statistical models, secularization did not hold.

Religious disaffiliation is explained primarily in two ways. The first is that as one moves from a moderate to a more liberal political stance, they become less religious. This is in part because of the marriage between conservative politics and Christianity caused moderates and liberals to distance themselves from religious organizations, hence, the “backlash.” It’s not a reaction to religion per se, but leaving religion because of its perceived association with conservative politics, in general. The second and greater effect is generational succession. Each generation that replaces the previous has been less affiliated with religion in general, especially among liberal households, and the proportion of unchurched is growing. Moreover, those not raised within a religion are less likely to join one in the future. There was far less a change over time in affiliation among political conservatives who tend to enjoin themselves with conservative religion. However, given the decline in membership in the Southern Baptist Convention, we may be seeing the cracks in the conservative foundation as well.

This looks like a double-whammy for liberal and progressive religious organizations. Not only is there a general distaste for religious organizations among those who identify as liberal or progressive in their political, social, and cultural beliefs, there will be an increasing likelihood that they have never grown up in a religion and therefore see it as having little or no value in their lives. If we push this up against other explanations for secularization, it looks bad for progressive, God centered organizations. Religion is but one means of social bonding among many competing choices that happen on the weekday evenings, weekends, and holidays. Youth sports is one draw even though it has seen a recent decline in participation. It is also part of a wider trend of civic disengagement as argued by Robert Putnam.

Reclaiming the political position of the left might be one vehicle to reverse some of these trends. The position of Trump has caused a new vigor among religious liberals and progressives who feel threatened by right-wing policies and even betrayed by Christian evangelicals who overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump, who is ostensibly the least Christian looking candidate and President in a very long time. Religion used to be an important means to gain social capital in Western and American societies. During presidential campaigns, it has been normal for candidates to enjoin themselves to denominations and traditions because of their influence. Eisenhower joined the Presbyterians for this reason as Trump courted the evangelicals in 2016. We may see a liberal candidate hook up with progressive Christians with the same idea that religion feeds social capital even though the politically progressive have moved away from religion and continue to do so. But even if a reversal of political trend helps galvanize those in religions and attract people to religion, it will not move the downward trend on religious participation all that much. There is still a massive problem with a growing population in the country of people who have never been involved in any religion and are not likely to join one just because it seems to share a few political views and activities with them.

This is why Hout & Fischer’s narrow and linear definition of secularization needs to change. It is true that we have not seen people lose faith and then leave religion. Right now, leaving religion is happening first. Moreover, it might not be just that the modern ideas of reason and scientific progress are enough to dislodge belief in God from young peoples’ worldviews. It might be that with endless war, famine, economic inequality, murder, and oppressive political systems, that any doctrine of God does not come out looking all that loving, powerful, or knowledgeable about human affairs. It could be in the cultural disconnect between ancient texts and societies that look absolutely nothing like them.

Without a regular involvement in a religious community to help make sense of old doctrines and texts utterly alien to the people and events of this world, faith in them will not survive. This is a theological claim made in most Christian traditions where the center of worship is in baptism and communion. These are vehicles to nourish faith and without them, faith dies on the vine. Without these social constructs to nourish faith, we are left with vague spiritualities and temporary communities of interest that rarely gain enough momentum to act as vehicles for lasting spiritual practice. As Hout and Fischer conclude, “Time will tell if personalized religion is sustainable or if belief fades without public profession and community practice.” If this continues to happen, and it looks like it will, what is left to nurture or reinforce the notion of God or spirituality in any shape?

Religion Needs the Poor

A new study by the Pew Research Center predicts that the global percentage of those who are religiously unaffiliated will decline in the next coming decades. It is a prediction that seems on face value to go against trends of an increase in those who are ostensibly less religious than in previous decades – especially in Western nations.

One theory is that existential security is inversely proportional to religious commitment. Put simply, “existential security” is the level at which I feel my life is at risk. It’s a good measure of happiness as well.

So if I live in a society where healthcare is universal, for example, and quality of life is stronger and more secure, my religious commitment will likely decline. I will also have more access to birth control and engage in less risky behaviors. These are the pockets where religion has less a hold on the community. When we take away those social securities, behaviors are more risky, people are less healthy, poorer, and more desperate. Existential crises are petri dishes for religious experimentation, for religion to be a social carrier, and the psychological desire or assumed need for a God or salvation. A less economically advantaged nation will naturally have a higher probability of existential insecurity.

(S)ocial vulnerability and lack of human development drive both religiosity and population growth. This means that the total number of religious people continues to expand around the globe, even while secularization is also taking place in the more affluent nations (Norris & Inglehart, 2006, p. 64).

The happiest nations are by far not the most religious. These trends are deep in the sociology of religion literature. However, one variable to bear in mind is the way that different religions carry societies. In previous centuries, Christianity carried both wealth and social mobility in the West. It is not an effective carrier in these societies as it once was. Islam and its network of banks and other social mechanisms designed to institute and maintain existential security are creating different patterns of religious behavior and may actually aid in its expansion.

Some social theorists have suggested that as countries develop economically, more of their residents will move away from religious affiliation, as has been seen in Europe. But there is little evidence of such a phenomenon in Muslim-majority countries. Moreover, in Hindu-majority India, religious affiliation is still nearly universal despite rapid economic and social change.

It will be interesting to see if Islam follows a similar pattern. As it carries people into a more existentially secure state of mind, will it continue to have the same sway over belief?

Even with this variable accounted for, the relationship between having one’s life at risk and becoming more religious seems to be continually supported in what we are finding out about patterns in religion worldwide.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, indeed.

Being Christian after Religion

“Religion is for people who are afraid to go to hell. Spirituality is for people who have already been there.”

Those in programs of recovery from drugs and alcohol have no doubt heard this expression. For a while I thought I was alone in thinking that it was dreck. Now I know I’m not.

Religion is more than seeking a spiritual experience – it is a way to structure life around the search for deeper connections to the world, to each other, and to a sacred reality. With the vast options for religious structure in the world, spirituality without a religious structure doesn’t own the market on coming out of hellish and torturous experience.

Archbishop Rowan Williams made a not-too-startling admission that Britain has become “post-Christian.” The facts seem to support his claim:

  • 56% consider Britain Christian where the remainder either consider it non-religious or are not sure.
  • 38% of those who consider themselves Christian do not practice regularly.
  • More Christians feel threatened to talk publicly about their beliefs.

None of this is all of that new. Steve Bruce (2002) argued this trend and its implications:

“Our critics might gloss our work as predicting the imminent disappearance of religion, but this is not our view. Our case can be summarized as saying that religion diminishes in social significance, becomes increasingly privatized, and losses personal social salience except where it finds work to do other than relating individuals to the supernatural” (p. 30).

Similarly Grace Davie (2002) argues that while Europe is seeing a decline not only in the practice of Christianity but in religion in general, this is an exceptional case when compared to the United States, Latin America, Africa, and the Far East.

“In short, many Europeans have ceased to connect with their religious institutions in any active sense, but they have not abandoned, so far, either their deep-seated religious aspirations or (in many cases) a latent sense of belonging” (p. 8).

While the condition of these “deep-seated religious aspirations” seems to be failing in health, the personal connection of religious belief to institutions also looks unhealthy not only in Britain and Europe, but also in the US. What remains is the desire for connection to a sense of belonging and meaning.

However, maybe Bruce is wrong. Maybe there is another salience to religion other than a connection to the supernatural. David Putnam (2000) argued that while our social connections have lost value, they are still vital to a happy and good-natured society. It’s more likely that the value of these connections is something we continue hold dearly, but we no longer know where to find it. If so, existing networks can, and should, be reconfigured to create space to recoup the value of social connections. Religion is one structure that can continue to provide a function to cultivate the value of deep connections to each other, the world, and deeper meaning.

As Christina Patterson from the Guardian writes:

“There is a place to go when we don’t have the words. There’s a calm, quiet peaceful place where someone else will supply the words when your heart is too full and your mind is too weary to come up with words of your own. There’s a place that will give us the solace of ritual. Human beings have always needed ritual. And the rituals we’ve developed in our still-quite-Christian country are on offer to everyone, and make almost no demands.”

There is a value to social connections, ways to structure our beliefs, and space to explore deeper questions about life without fear or threat. Much of religion today may over-value an intentional lack of structure. But what people seem to need most is a safe place to structure their experience of being together.

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Sources

Bruce, S. (2002). God is dead: Secularization in the west. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers.

Davie, G. (2002). Europe: The exceptional case : Parameters of faith in the modern world. London: Darton Longman & Todd.

Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of american community. New York: Simon & Schuster.