The Value of a Religious Education

The Elements of Character begins with this quotation from the author’s former pastor, the Rev. E. H. Sears:

“An exclusively intellectual education leads by a very obvious process, to hard-heartedness and the contempt of all moral influences. An exclusively moral education tends to fatuity by the over-excitement of the sensibilities. An exclusively religious education ends in insanity, if it do not take a directly opposite course and lead to atheism.”

I haven’t begun to read further into the book. So I don’t know what direction it will take. But I wanted to comment on this quotation before going further. In the first part, it is calling for balance between an intellectual education and a moral education. We need both, not just one or the other. The second part is ambiguous. On one reading, it is saying that atheism is the opposite of insanity. I’m sure many atheists might agree with this, but it is not what I would expect a clergyman to be saying. I think what he actually means is that an exclusively non-religious education leads to atheism, and he is calling for a balance between a religious education and a non-religious education. This fits with the first part about balancing an intellectual and a moral education, and it fits better with his occupation.

I will agree with this much, that an intellectual education, a moral education, a religious education, and a non-religious education are all important. Through this blog and my YouTube channel, I further an intellectual education through my Logic and Science videos, a moral education through my Ethics and Happiness videos, a religious education through my Religion videos, and a non-religious education through my other videos. Where I may differ is in what kind of religious education I advocate and in why I favor some kind of religious education. Instead of favoring indoctrination into one religion, I favor an exploration of the world’s religions, which involves critical thinking about religion but also a look into what religious practices or attitudes have to offer. I don’t agree with Sears that an exclusively non-religious education is bad for leading to atheism, as if atheism is something on par with insanity.

But there may be a kind of atheism which is. When some people become atheists, they may slip into nihilism or despair, feeling that life no longer has any meaning or purpose. When I became an atheist during college, I turned to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and Albert Camus. Nietzsche was grappling with nihilism in the wake of what he was calling the death of God, the notion that the idea of God has lost its relevance. Camus was writing about suicide, describing it as the most serious of philosophical problems. I was also looking into eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism.

One important idea I picked up from Hinduism was yoga. I don’t mean the body positions people do as an exercise program. In Hinduism, yoga is about connecting with God, and there are multiple kinds of yoga, each incorporating a different approach to reaching God. Types of yoga include Jnana yoga, which focuses on an intellectual understanding of God, Karma yoga, which focuses on leading a life of service, i.e. the doing of good deeds, Bhakti yoga, which involves the cultivation of devotion, and Hatha yoga, which involves postures, meditation and breathing techniques. Hatha yoga is the type commonly referred to as just Yoga in the west. Hinduism also has a different idea of God than the western religions teach. For Hinduism, God is your true self, and yoga is ultimately about getting in better touch with yourself. While for Christianity, God is a king who rules over us and the universe, for Hinduism, God is the universe (pantheism) or at least contains the universe (panentheism). Instead of being a ruler whose will we must obey, the Hindu God is a hidden reality it is up to us to discover.

Even if something like pantheism or panentheism is not true, Carl Jung gives us a different sense of understanding God that also fits with yoga. For Jung, God is an archetype of the collective unconscious. As an archetype, this notion of God plays an important part in who you are. If yoga can bring you in closer touch with this archetype, it is still helping you get in better touch with yourself. (Ironically, Richard Dawkins has quoted Jung as saying of God, “I do not believe, I know.” Jung was speaking of this psychological understanding of God, not of God as a supernatural being.) So it’s possible to be an atheist with regard to a supernatural God, as Jung was, and still get some benefit from the Hindu practices of yoga. For myself, I have studied religion intellectually (Jnana yoga), I have felt deep love for certain individuals (Bhakti yoga), I have done things for other people (Karma yoga), and I have practiced meditation (Hatha yoga). Notice that these engage different parts of the self in spiritual practice. Jnana yoga engages the intellect, Bhakti yoga engages the emotions, Karma yoga engages voluntary activity, and Hatha yoga engages involuntary activity. Although I have engaged in each to some degree, it is Bhakti yoga and Hatha yoga that I have used most consciously. Even when I have not been in a romantic relationship, loving someone, even Platonically, has been a great benefit. In this case, it is not about finding someone to love me but simply about directing love toward someone else. Even if that person doesn’t benefit from receiving my love, I benefit from feeling it. I have also regularly practiced meditation. This has helped me get in better touch with myself, and it has allowed me to cultivate feelings of happiness and joy.

There are certain elements of religion that I think should be included in education. We should seek an understanding of ultimate reality and of what gives meaning to life. We should learn to appreciate what has value in life, and we should expand our concern beyond ourselves. We should engage in activity that helps other people and that serves goals larger than our own self-interest. We should explore the inner workings of our minds and work at gaining greater self-mastery, directing ourselves toward what we may call spiritual experiences. Traditionally, particularly in the west, religion has been about faith in supernatural powers. Etymologically, religion is about reconnecting. If we take religion in the sense of connecting with something beyond ourselves, of connecting with something that will ground a sense of purpose and meaning, then we might consider religion a good thing for everyone, even atheists. We may reject the idea that supernatural powers exist but still seek a sense of connection with others, with the universe, with meaningful activity, or with a higher self. That is the kind of religion I think we should include in our education. Without it, we could end up as nihilists or efilists, and that would be on a par with insanity.

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