Speaking of what should be taught to children, earlier I saw a quote from that landmark Supreme Court which (depending on your view of these things) either ordered the government to stay out of religion or ordered religion to stay out of the government. There is a difference, right?

In a letter (pdf file) to Tennessee school superindendants (which was deemed suspicious by the state’s Homeland Security department), the Tennessee ACLU director quoted from McCollum v. Board of Education.

Designed to serve as perhaps the most powerful agency for promoting cohesion among a heterogeneous democratic people, the public school must keep scrupulously free from entanglement in the strife of sects. The preservation of the community from divisive conflicts, of Government from irreconcilable pressures by religious groups, of religion from censorship and coercion however subtly exercised, requires strict confinement of the State to instruction other than religious, leaving to the individual’s church and home, indoctrination in the faith of his choice.
McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 216 — 217 (1948)

While that decision did not take religion out of the schools, it did hold that certain “voluntary religious education classes for public school students from grades four to nine” were unconstitutional. An atheist sued, claiming that her son was “ostracized” for not attending the religious classes. Apparently the school ignored her. The Supreme Court ruled 7-1 in her favor, because even though voluntary it was considered state-sponsored religious indoctrination.

I now find myself wondering whether the school might have avoided this result by including atheist indoctrination as one of the choices. After all, atheism is merely another hypothesis about the nature of the unknown, positing that there is no God, no souls, no spirits. Of course, as this happened 62 years ago, it may be too late for me to gratuitously play Monday Morning Quarterback — especially because this is a Sunday (and it’s also the day after Christmas, which is probably not the best time to have religious people and atheists sing “Kumbaya” together).

I do think that it would be a hoot to teach (or attempt to teach) comparative religion in a public school today, though.

As I recently read about huge commotion in Bethlehem over the image of the cross (which is being banned in Bethlehem to appease Islamists), that might be a good starting point for the class. 

Never mind dreaming of a White Christmas. This Christmas, tourists and pilgrims to the Holy Land will need to keep their piety under wraps. AsiaNews reports that in Bethlehem, the city of Jesus’ birth, the Cross has been banned for fear of stirring up unrest among followers of Islam (aka, the religion of peace). Writes AsiaNews:

Some textile workshops in Jerusalem and Hebron have begun to print and sell T-shirts depicting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem without the cross. Because of the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in the Palestinian territories, the cross was also removed from T-shirts of football teams.

Samir Qumsieh, director of the Catholic television station Al-Mahed Nativity TV in Bethlehem, is reported as having said, “I want to launch a campaign to urge people not to buy these products,” adding “removal of the cross is an intimidation against Christians, it is like saying that Jesus was never crucified.”

Yes, because that is precisely what Muslims believe. What is not being pointed out in the article is that Muslims consider the cross to be blasphemous, not merely because it is a graven image, but because it is seen as a denial of the Koran. It flatly contradicts the Koran, which says that that Jesus was a great prophet, that the proponents of the crucifixion belief are mistaken, because Allah did not allow one of his prophets to be killed like that. And of course, Jesus is not considered the son of God, because saying God had a child would be a form of polytheism. Interestingly, the three great monotheistic Abrahamic religions all agree on the existence of Jesus, but not on his divinity. So there’s a three way split. Unlike Christians, both Jews and Muslims agree that he was not a son of God, with the Muslims seeing him as a prophet, and the Jews seeing him as neither a son of God nor a prophet. I don’t think you need to be a rocket scientist or a theologist to recognize that these three views of Jesus are irreconcilable, and from a religious standpoint, incompatible. But in the United States, people are just as free to believe any of these things as they are none of them.

Stepping back from Jesus to the larger picture (what I prefer to call views of the unknown rather than “religion”) it is easy to see why monotheism, polytheism, skepticism, and atheism are also irreconcilable, and from a religious standpoint incompatible. Yet this country’s traditions allow all people to believe whatever they want. 

Right now, a lot of Christians are complaining about attempts to take Christ out of Christmas. It does strike me as contradictory to have the celebration called Christmas not be the celebration called Christmas. Whether it makes sense for non-Christians (whether of other religions or not) to be celebrating Christmas in a secular manner is worthy of debate, but nothing having to do with religion can be legally controlling on anyone in a country with freedom of religion. So if people want to say “Merry Christmas” when they don’t believe in it, if they want to celebrate the made-up “Kwanzaa” or revel in an undefined “Happy Holiday,” there is no way to stop them. Stores that want to maximize profits will probably try to appeal to whatever the largest common denominator their market researchers tell them is out there, and if people don’t like it, they can boycott the stores they think are being disrespectful.

But in this country the stores have no remove Christ from Christmas than Muslims do to remove the cross from Christianity. These things not binding on anyone.

Of course, I’m out of touch with reality these days and it could that I would be out of line raising these questions in class were I a public school teacher.

I’d hate to think that raising questions in a comparative religion class would constitute religious indoctrination in violation of the First Amendment.

But isn’t there a First Amendment right to indoctrinate? There has to be. Otherwise, how would they get away with forcing the kids to believe in a particular view of global warming? Should they have to present both sides? And if so, how far does the definition of “both sides” go?

Is not global warming theory (along with the related dogma called “environmentalism”) just another alternative view of the unknown? Sure, they say it is “known,” but so do believers in any faith. Ask any Scientologist.

Religion is perplexing. One of these days it would be nice to define what it is in absolute terms.

Or maybe in absolute relative terms.