Rich Mayfield: It is not the time to leave religion unchallenged
San Juan Capistrano is about to become noticed for more than just the swallows that return to its mission each year. This week a federal lawsuit was filed against a local high school teacher that contends he has made disparaging remarks about Christianity in class that were “highly inappropriate” and caused Christian students to “feel ostracized and treated as second-class citizens”.
James Corbett, who teaches Advanced Placement European History at Capistrano Valley High School, finds himself as another potential victim of an increasingly popular movement that seeks to pit some followers of religion against reasonable pedagogical standards.
When a writer’s life is threatened for musing upon the less savory sayings of Muhammad, for instance, or when a college professor is silenced and accused of being anti-Semitic for criticizing the policies of Israel, our ability to objectively pursue intellectual insight suffers another blow. Sacrosanct belief systems can certainly be worthy of respect, even reverence, but they should hold no elevated status in an educational forum. Religions and religious systems should be subject to the same objective scrutiny as any other current or historical endeavor receives. Avoiding analyzing a religion for fear of offending its adherents makes a mockery of intellectual inquiry.
One of the great temptations of this hyper-sensitivity to religion is the current tendency to eliminate all religious references in the classroom. Appreciated or not, the Bible is arguably the most influential book in the development of Western civilization and yet most public schools shy away from offering a curriculum that includes any analysis of the book at all. Countless political movements, innumerable works of literature, causes of war and forces for peace have been shaped by biblical passages and inspired by scriptural interpretations and yet one is hard pressed to find much reference to the Bible anywhere in the classroom.
It is a prickly issue to be sure, but its difficulty should not be resolved by simply avoiding the problem. How does one understand the Zionist movement of the 20th century without a passing knowledge of the stories in Exodus? How do we make sense of Sunni and Shiite differences that may ignite a Third World War without studying the development of Islam?
All of Asia is permeated by a plethora of religions that most Westerners know little or nothing about. China and India are positioned to become the most economically influential countries in the world. Can we understand their political strategies or cultural differences without at least a cursory grasp of their religions?
Christianity’s history is rich with art and music, architectural wonders and even scientific achievements, but there is also a darker side of political intrigue, scholarly suppression and murderous wars. Surely understanding our present is at least partially dependent on scrutinizing our past and yet we have this educational void that threatens to grow larger with each egregious lawsuit.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m convinced that religion holds enormous power over both our history and our modern conditions. To ignore that power is to not just fail to understand how we got where we are but to fail to devise a workable plan for the future. You don’t need Santayana’s oft-quoted warning, “Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” to understand the importance of historical analysis. A quick survey of our Iraqi pre-war intelligence, an oxymoron if ever there was one, makes painfully evident what can happen when we are ignorant of religious and cultural histories.
Rather than run from potential lawsuits by relinquishing the importance of religious literature and history, schools should recognize the enormous threat to honest intellectual inquiry that is posed by such litigation. There are times, I’ll grudgingly admit, when discretion is the better part of valor but, as we are witness to religious wars being waged around the world and in our own nation, this is surely not the time.
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