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Should We offer Religion or “Meaning” in our Classrooms?

Posted on 29 August 2017, 15:17

Should public schools put religion in classrooms?  That was the headline given to a feature editorial page article in my morning paper two weeks ago.  It came from Tribune News Services and involved a pro and con debate between Roger L. Beckett, executive director of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, and Max B. Sawicky, an economist.  While Beckett more or less straddled the fence and focused on the history of religion being taught in the classroom, Sawicky was concerned that God, prayer, and worship would be part of the curriculum, something he, being a non-believer, is totally against. 

As I see it, the issue should not involve religion.  It shouldn’t be religion vs. secularism, or theism vs. atheism, or Church vs. State, as the debate seemed to imply.  Nor should it be about God or gods. The issue is whether our children should be exposed to existential thinking or left without defense to be brainwashed and dumbed down by the entertainment industry, the advertising industry, and our scientific fundamentalists in academia.  If our children are led to believe that life is nothing more than a short march toward an abyss of nothingness, that it has no real meaning or purpose beyond pursuing a materialistic lifestyle, as promoted by the entertainment and advertising industries and academia, they are encouraged to make the most of each day by eating, drinking and being merry without restraint.  That clearly is the way things are going, though not just for the young people but for the majority of people. 

“Celebrity culture plunges us into a moral void,” offers Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize winner, in his book Empire of Illusion.  “No one has any worth beyond his or her appearance, usefulness, or ability to ‘succeed.’ The highest achievements in a celebrity culture are wealth, sexual conquest, and fame.  It does not matter how these are obtained.  These values, as Sigmund Freud understood, are illusory.  They are hollow.  They leave us chasing vapors.  They urge us toward a life of narcissistic self-absorption.”

Hedges goes on to say that this cult of self has within it the classic traits of psychopaths, including “superficial charm, grandiosity, and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying, deception, and manipulation, and the inability to feel remorse or guilt.”

In their book, The Narcissism Epidemic, psychologists Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell cite various studies indicating that young people today are much more focused on “becoming well off financially” than earlier generations.  In one study, 93 percent of teenage girls said that shopping is their favorite activity.  Can there be any doubt that television and Internet commercials have been the primary instigators in this regard? 
We need to get young people out of this hedonistic carpe diem or “seize the day” mindset that humanists and other non-believers promote as a substitute for seeing this life as part of a much larger life.  We need for them to understand that life is not all about “having fun.”  At the same time, we need to get it across to our politicians and lawmakers that religion, or the “Church,” did not give rise to the search for meaning.  The search for meaning gave rise to them.  To put it another way, separation of Church and State does not mean the State must not have anything to do with a search for meaning in our lives. The same argument applies to the removal of monuments with the Ten Commandments from public places.  That is, the Church did not give us the Ten Commandments; the Ten Commandments gave us religion and the Church.  Just because the Church incorporated them within their teachings does not make them the property of the Church and in conflict with the State’s objectives. 

If the State is concerned with the overall welfare of its citizenry, its first concern should be a foundation of meaning.  This includes looking at the strong evidence supporting the concept that consciousness survives death and that the earthly life is but a preparation for a larger life and involves certain trials and tribulations to help us learn and prepare – evidence coming to us from research in the areas of near-death experiences, spirit communication, deathbed phenomena, and past-life studies.  A life of pure bliss would seemingly accomplish nothing in that regard.  Such evidence comes to us from psychical research, a science, not from religion.  In fact, orthodox religion rejects much of it because it does not completely agree with established dogma and doctrine.

Moreover, believing in an anthropomorphic God or belonging to a religion is not a prerequisite to weighing and evaluating the evidence turned up by some very distinguished scientists and scholars that this life is part of a larger life and it does have meaning and purpose.

Carl Jung, the pioneering Swiss psychiatrist, said that most of his patients were non-believers, those who had lost their faith and did not believe in a larger life.  “They seek position, marriage, reputation, outward success or money, and remain unhappy and neurotic even when they have attained what they were seeking,” he wrote.  “Such people are usually confined within too narrow a spiritual horizon.  Their life has not sufficient content, sufficient meaning.”  Jung added that “a man should be able to say he has done his best to form a conception of life after death, or to create some image of it – even if he must confess his failure. Not to have done so is a vital loss.  If they are enabled to develop into more spacious personalities, the neurosis generally disappears. For that reason the idea of [spiritual] development was always of the highest importance to me.” 

Even Sigmund Freud, who was not spiritually inclined, was concerned that one’s attitude toward death has a bearing on his or her psychological health.  “Is it not for us to confess that in our civilized attitude toward death, we are once more living psychologically beyond our means, and must reform and give truth its due?” he asked. “Would it not be better to give death the place in actuality and in our thoughts which properly belongs to it, and to yield a little more prominence to that unconscious attitude towards death which we have hitherto so carefully repressed?”

It has been suggested that sowing brings greater happiness than reaping, and we have reaped so much that we have become bored and depressed. Renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl referred to it as “mass neurotic syndrome” – the result of an “existential vacuum,” a feeling of emptiness and meaninglessness. The more one seeks pleasure, Frankl observed, the more it eludes him. “Pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect, or by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree in which it is made a goal in itself.”  A human being, he continued, is not one in pursuit of happiness, but one in search of a reason to become happy. Self-actualization, he further opined, is possible only as a side effect of self-transcendence.

To answer the question stated in the first paragraph, no, we don’t need religion to be taught in the public classrooms.  We need Meaning to be taught.  Call it Existentialism 101, Cosmic Consciousness 101, or simply Larger Life 101.  However, we are not going to see that until our leaders get over the idea that meaning, consciousness, survival, and psychical research are all subheadings under religion.

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.


Next blog post:  Sept. 11



Michael D.

I agree with you to the extent that I don’t believe in door-to-door evangelizing and forcing things upon people, especially if they are not ready for it.  But getting our children to think critically about what it all means and what the alternatives are does not cross that line, as I see it. The kids I see around me are growing into into non-thinking robots.  It starts with them.

Michael Tymn, Fri 1 Sep, 21:50

Michael T: There’s a trend in modern thinking that never gets challenged that people need to be forced into doing things that are good for them, and various others elect themselves to perform that holy task. I think that idea needs to be questioned, especially in regard to topics like those under discussion here. At its extreme, it results in the most obnoxious forms of religious evangelism and extremism, directly causing some of the worst “features” of our time.

I’m inclined to let those people do what they need to, read escapist fiction, if that’s what they need to do at that moment. We all develop at our own rate.

I have come to these ideas through my afterlife reading: that death is a door not an end, that development continues past that, and (especially, and this has been my own experience) that people are given what they need, when they need it and are ready to assimilate it, not before.

Personally, I feel like I have moved forward the most efficiently if I stay sensitive to what’s in front of me and take advantage of that, rather than trying to force myself. Doors appear and open when one stops pushing so hard. I think this is the very essence of “Thy will be done”.

MichaelD, Fri 1 Sep, 13:27

Thanks to all for the comments. I agree for the most part with all of them.  However, I know many people who do a lot of reading but who would not touch a book that deals with meaning, death, or the survival of consciousness. They can’t get enough fiction, which is primarily escapism. 

  “They come and they go and they trot and they dance, and never a word about death. All well and good.  Yet, when death does come – to them, their wives, their children, their friends – catching them unawares and unprepared, then what storms of passion overwhelm them, what cries, what fury, what despair!”  – Michel de Montaigne

Michael Tymn, Thu 31 Aug, 20:00

For AOD:

My father was a great teacher, school administrator, and finally a school board member in the 1980s. One day he picked me up at the airport for a visit and immediately asked me what was the most important thing I learned in school, and I quickly responded:

“To read. Once I had reading, I didn’t really need school anymore—I could explore whatever I wanted to learn, on my own, and I have [and still do].”

“Exactly,” he responded. “They [the school board]  don’t understand that, and I can’t convince them. They want to spend the money on all sorts of things, but not on the basics.”

When I was a kid, in the 1950s teacher’s family, we didn’t have a lot of money, and I didn’t notice until later than anything I wanted that was reading matter, I immediately got. Books, magazine subscriptions, my “corner” of the living room was filled with piles of printed paper that my mom the careful housekeeper would push back behind within her imaginary boundary to my space when she passed, and I grew up that way. Even now, the spot next to my chair is filled with books I’m simultaneously reading.

For the last 10 years or so, it’s mostly been psi stuff that I can loosely relate to religion, and that’s why I’m here, at this page.

So there you go.

MichaelD, Thu 31 Aug, 13:19

Though politicians and school administrators may be hesitant to add classes on psychic and after-death survival these days, helping students to find meaning in their lives is a worthwhile investment: people can endure much in life if they have a higher purpose guiding them than if they believe there’s nothing on the other side of their problems.

One thing, though:

“In their book, The Narcissism Epidemic, psychologists Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell cite various studies indicating that young people today are much more focused on “becoming well off financially” than earlier generations.”

I’m one of those young-ish people who’s goal is to be financially secure. Not because I want to be a billionaire with a big mansion, lots of cars, and material toys, but because I want to be able to live without worrying about how I’m going to pay the bills. In today’s world, where wealth inequality and a lack of a living wage are a fact of life, all it takes is one disaster, and you’re on the streets.

Ian, Thu 31 Aug, 07:45

Interesting conversation Michael.  When I was in grade school many years ago, the focus was on reading, writing and arithmetic.  No time of course was spent on computers, sex education, or anything ‘politically correct’.  I think that if more effort were spent in grade school teaching children to critically read and then to express their thoughts in writing; critical thinking would be enhanced and everything else would take care of itself.  I am discouraged by the lack of reading and writing skills evidenced by those with college degrees today.

I enjoy many of the books and articles written by people 100 or 150 years ago.  They all seem to be—-for me anyway—-easier to understand, written to express, not to impress.  - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Wed 30 Aug, 19:14

If we’re going to add classes of this nature, I’d be much happier if the time were spent on an ethics class. Less risky and more to the point. The only way I could conceive of squeezing in a religion class would be as a subset of history or philosophy, and doing that kind of separation out of smaller topics within a field is the traditional role of college, not lower levels.

MichaelD, Wed 30 Aug, 13:26

Up to a point I agree with Michael’s every word. It is very well put. My “but” is that philosophy, science and psychic research help us to get closer to some kind of objective truth, whereas religion, with all its divisive and wrong teachings, is about the heart, emotion, and relationships. The highest form of every world religion proclaims the experience that we are conscious participants in Universal Spirit: and this gives rise to love, joy, peace..and all forms of creativity. Amongst the rubbish, the world’s religions provide a treasury of poetry, of faith and communion. Science and philosophy in themselves have their limits. I am reminded of the words in the epistle of James: “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” Religion is supposed to lead us beyond belief.  Apart from that, thank you Mike for a great article.

Michael Cocks, Wed 30 Aug, 05:05

Religion should be taught and learned in religious institutions (churches, synagogues, etc.), not in public schools.

Paul Hauser, Wed 30 Aug, 04:15

A friend sent an email asking why not just call it Philosophy 101.  I had considered that, but philosophy has become so bastardized by academia that it didn’t seem appropriate. The same thing might be said of existentialism, but I prefer the pure existentialism of Kierkegaard, who is considered the “father of existentialism.”

Michael Tymn, Tue 29 Aug, 23:38

Hi Mike,

I liked your blog so much I sent it on to four friends. The quest for meaning is what motivated my 450 pp text on Five Very Big Questions.
Keep up the great work.

David Stang, Tue 29 Aug, 23:27

Hi Mike, I agree with your conclusions. Like Sawicky, I would be concerned that dominant religious dogma would creep into the lesson plan. Rational thinking has nothing to do with religion, but it is conceptual, and classes could easily be biased.

From some perspective, meaning may be relative but the thinking tools for arriving at meaning are not. For instance, one of the reasons geometry is taught in high school is that teaching the “if-then” thinking tool should help the student through life in an “if this is true, then what are the consequences?” manner.

In my experience, learning to live in a mindful way by learning to habitually examine the consequences of actions and beliefs, will naturally lead to meaning.

Tom Butler, Tue 29 Aug, 21:41

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