Friday, March 12, 2010

Mr. Dennett's Proposal

The philosopher Daniel Dennett has many insights to offer about evolution, consciousness, religion and atheism. One idea he proposes has a slightly radical feel to it at first blush. Dennett believes the world's major religions should be taught—in a "fact-based" manner—to all children in primary and secondary schools, both public and private, as well as to those who are home schooled.

Dennett says children need to learn as much as they can about the world's religions so they can better understand the role they have played in shaping our culture. By learning about the "history, creeds, texts, music, prohibitions and requirements" of the world's most prominent religions, Dennett believes children can construct a firm foundation for making informed decisions later in life. Says Dennett, "Religions are an important natural phenomenon that should be studied with the same intensity we study all the other natural phenomena."

Parents, Dennett reminds us, do not own their children; they are their stewards. As such, they have a responsibility to broaden their children's horizons and not simply indoctrinate them in the ways of one specific religious faith. This is problematic for many parents, who believe they have the right to do precisely that.

I believe Dennett may be onto something worthwhile, especially if teaching about the practice of non-belief is included, which Dennett suggests should be. Hard as it may be for those who insist they have a right to raise their children in the "one true faith," which is invariably the one they practice, the intellectual nourishment of children would be greatly served if they learned about all religions as well as non-belief. Also, educating children in some small way about the Bible, as literature, would no doubt diversify a child's intellectual portfolio.

In his article/blog post Teach Our Children Well, (The Washing Post, On Faith, March 8, 2007) Dennett lays out his case for teaching a comparative religious studies program to children. There is a lively discussion in the attached thread from many perspectives. He writes extensively on the subject in his 2006 book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

By advocating the scientific study of religion as a 'natural phenomenon,' Dennett seems to both acknowledge its staying power as well as put his own interpretational stamp on the whole concept of religiosity itself. It is likely an interpretation, however, that doesn't sit well with those unwilling to see their faith as anything but divinely inspired.

The idealism of Dennett's proposal notwithstanding, having young minds examine religion as a cultural phenomenon sounds like a good idea.

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