12/23/13

It’s Never too Early to Talk to Your Kids About…

For a couple years I’ve been dreading having a conversation with my son about (me) no longer being a Christian. Well, maybe not dreading, but it was a big unknown. How would he react? What would he think? I was looking forward to any questions he might ask, but concerned not to upset him unnecessarily. As I’ve noted before, his main contact with Christianity in the last four years (beyond extended family members and its general cultural prevalence, which is no small amount) is through the “prayers” we say together at night. They were prayers, originally, and gradually morphed, at least for me, into general statements of thankfulness, reflection on the day, and hopes for the future. My wife and I dropped the opening greeting to God or Jesus long ago, but made no fuss that my son maintained a “Dear Jesus.” Given this ritual, I wasn’t sure if he would be angry, disappointed, etc., thinking that these statements of thankfulness he had been addressing to a special deity were invalidated.

My fears were unfounded and the conversation was anticlimactic, to put it mildly. Since Christmas is coming, Harland has just turned eleven, and he seemed to be ready to handle the conversation, I decided to have it out. He hates “talks,” because they usually happen when we want to admonish him or a potentially embarrassing subject is going to be discussed. He protested loudly when I asked if we could talk until I assured him it was not about puberty, a topic about which he claims he has learned all he needs to know in school. The “conversation” followed in roughly this form:

Me: Do you remember when we used to go to church at the school when we were in Santa Barbara?

Him: We don’t have to start going to church again, do we?

Me: No. Did you ever wonder why we stopped going there?

Him: Well, we started going to that house, and I’d go in the other room and watch TV while you guys talked.

(This was a group my friend and I called “Exiting Christianity” and consisted of weekly readings ranging from Nietzsche to Thich Nhat Han deconstructing Christian thought with fellow ex-Christians and sympathizers. I never thought about it, but he just figured it was a different form of church.)

Me: Well, we actually stopped going because I don’t really believe in God or Jesus anymore. I kind of stopped being a Christian.

Him: Does that mean we can’t call ourselves Christian anymore?

Me: Well, it doesn’t really matter to me whether we call ourselves Christian. I just wanted you to know that I don’t think that there is some God up in the sky watching over us.

Him: Okay. Can we just have the conversation?

Me: We are having the conversation. I wanted to let you know what I think and see what you think about it.

Him: Well, it doesn’t really matter to me because we don’t do any of that stuff.

Me: Well, it’s important for me that you know. I just thought I should talk to you because we pray every night and that’s why your mom and I don’t say “Dear Jesus” or “Dear God” at the beginning of our prayers anymore.

Him: That’s what I was giving you a hard time about. (He had been on my case to use the “correct” address in my prayers.)

Me: I know. I think that God is something that people use to try to explain things they don’t understand. You know how when you miss a bunch of basketball shots you joke around and say something like “God doesn’t want me to win?”

Him: Yeah.

Me: It’s like that. People use God when they can’t figure something out, but I think we should look at evidence instead, like testing a hypothesis.

Him: So people are incredulous? (New vocabulary word from school)

Me: Yeah, kinda like that. We have a hard time not knowing things.

Him: Okay. Are we done with the conversation?

Me: Sure. We can be done.

And…he went back to watching basketball. In the week or so since then, I have been the object of his jabs about religion since he knows I’m a “religious studies” guy. At one point, he exclaimed “Thank you God!” about something and then looked at me and said, “Oh, sorry dad” with a smirk on his face.

I guess I was worried about the conversation because for a year or so after we de-Christianized, I figured that although Christianity was no longer acceptable for me, it was probably still good for my son. This may have been a way for me to avoid a difficult conversation. I know that there are many adults who feel the same way, who maintain some sort of nominal religious affiliation, in part because it’s “good for the kids?” But why would it be good for children if it’s not good enough for you? I just didn’t think I knew how to teach  any other way.

Since I had learned whatever morality I have in the context of Christianity, it took some time to separate the idea of morality from Christianity, though it seems so obvious to me now. This is a prime example of belief without evidence. I had believed for so long that I was (or tried to be) a good person because I was a Christian. Despite the evidence of millions of good people around the world without Christianity, as well as those good people who are without any religion at all, I was told and took on faith that Christianity produced my goodness, or any hope I had of goodness. There is no way to prove this claim, and it flies in the face of the bodily evidence of millions of people, as well as the counter-evidence of plenty of “bad” Christians. Sure, there are lots of ways to explain away any deviation from the belief taken as fact that Christianity makes you good, but all evidence shows that morality is not contingent on religion.  It’s comforting to me to know that my son, and people more generally, can be and are “good without God.”

12/5/13

The “Genius” of Cultural Relativism

Why is it that refusing to judge is often seen as a form of virtue? I’ve been leading discussion groups in a class that explores the nature of genius this semester. This week we explored the idea of “evil genius,” which is a significant cultural trope in our society, often in other guises such as the mad scientist or the super villain. We asked the students if it was possible for genius to be evil. While most lined up on one side or the other of the debate, a few vocal students protested, and one defended his protest with a classic “Who am I to judge?” line: “What some might call evil, others might call good.”

Now as an abstract statement this might be defensible. There are certainly cases, particularly involving violence, where one person’s (or one country’s) evil is another’s greater good. However, what this student (and many others like him) was doing was to use the fact of a multiplicity of perspectives to conclude that we cannot and should not make distinctions between perspectives. “That’s just their culture” is disingenuous, but it is seen as a modern, savvy, and politically correct response. After all, its better than “They’re just inferior” or “They’re just savages,” right?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that cultural imperialism is not—at least overtly—the norm in higher education. The problem is that many students conclude that the best response to lessons about pluralism and diversity is to adopt a position of cultural relativism, and many teachers either don’t know how to correct the trend or think the same way their students do.

Of course, none of us are really cultural relativists. We are cultural relativists in so far as we are personally unaffected by, distanced from, the cultures we are reluctant to judge. We are cultural relativists in so far as we reside in a culture that allows us the privilege to treat other cultures as thought experiments. Yet insofar as we are privileged, we should instead use that privilege to question thoroughly both other cultures and our own in order to make judgements for positive change.

So a historical shift has taken place from explicit cultural imperialism to an implicit cultural imperialism under the guise of appreciating and valuing cultural diversity. Religion plays a significant role in maintaining this separation. Echoing my own past religious experience, students who profess a strong Christianity usually fail to see a connection between their ideological ethics and their practical ethics, their way of operating in the world. Given, this is true to a certain extent with all students due in part to the infiltration of Christian values into American life, but it is more easily visible in the religious. These students are quick to defend Christianity from perceived attacks and extremist misrepresentation, but fail to see the ethical implications in their practical lives for the Jesus Christianity they profess.

I don’t think this is all their fault. The training to connect an ideological Christian ethic with reality is remarkably sparse from within the religious community. Christianity is personal salvation, after all, and it is rarely in the institutional interest to advance anti-institutional claims such as equal treatment for the LBGTQ community or universal health care. If anything, religious students are implicitly told to not make their religion a big deal in public for fear of being one of those extremists on the quad who screams at scantily-clad women that they’re going to hell. Higher education maintains a tacit agreement with religion to allow students to keep their faith unquestioningly, and even use it to make their decisions, as long as they don’t make it overly obvious.

This strongly contributes to the “Who am I to judge?” scenario above. It stems from an inability to engage complex issues because of a faulty and undeveloped means of reasoning. It may be that refusing to make any sort of judgement is better than trumpeting an overtly culturally biased one, but I’m not sure that it makes a lasting difference if the underlying mechanism of unjustified belief remains in place. If it was a success in the 20th century, it is no longer enough.

There has been much talk of the dim future of the humanities lately, and if pluralism and cultural diversity are the best things they have to offer, the analysis may be correct. Cultural diversity should absolutely be taught, but not in a way that allows students to keep their ideologies as sacred. We should at least not pretend that this makes for a productive and successful citizenry. What it makes is a body of people that profess love, care, and community support while they maintain bias and bigotry against others. Education is not about what not to say or what to think, but as David Foster Wallace claimed, “how to think.”