Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Sticky Webs of Belief

            This week in Polly’s kindergarten class the kids are learning about Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, and the idea of different cultures coming together to share a common space. To prepare for this activity, Polly’s teacher asked each student to create a small poster displaying what she called a ‘culture web.’ The culture web was to contain several general categories – food, language, music, etc – and the kids were to list specific examples of these things from their own lives. They were then instructed to decorate the poster with pictures of some of their examples. 
            Polly, as is her wont, dove into the exercise immediately, laying out a web structure with a box for each of the general categories at the end of each strand. Then she went about populating the web. She put pizza and hamburgers down for Food, English down for Language, Carnival of the Animals, Peter and the Wolf and BNL’s Snacktime down for Music. But then she came to a category that stumped her. Bringing her paper to me, she asked,
            “Daddy, what’s our religion?”
            When I didn’t immediately reply, she quickly pivoted.
            “Daddy, do we have a religion?”
            She asked this question simply, in much the same way she’d asked earlier if I’d ever seen a whale before.
            The straight-forward answer to this question is no. Neither Ava nor I have felt drawn to a religious environment and thus our family adheres to no specific creed. In part this is a matter of history. Ava went to Catholic schools from kindergarten until she graduated from college and remains skeptical about some of the priorities these schools taught her. I grew up going to church in sporadic bursts that led me to feel more like an outsider observing things than a participant in the rites. Our separate inclinations towards skepticism were later augmented by similar graduate educations that taught us to be wary of grand existential claims.
            That said, we do have some pretty well-established, universal beliefs regarding our place in the world. Most of these are grounded in the temporal relativism of the Golden Rule. In other words, we want to treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated. It is a simple dictate devoid of ritual and pomp, but I think it captures the best of what people of different beliefs can do for one another.
            This perspective, however, doesn’t fit within the standard set of possibilities when it comes to religion, so I told Polly to just leave that category off her web. It would be better, I figured, to say nothing than to put something like ‘none’ on there and have her subjected to the questions this might raise.


By coincidence this week, the school board in Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburb around Washington, DC, voted to remove all religious references from its published school calendar. This decision would have been a pretty routine and uneventful act – plenty of county school systems, including the one Polly and Pip attend, have done this over the years – except that the vote was taken in reaction to requests by members of the local Muslim community that the Eid-al-Adha holiday be included on the calendar with Christmas, Easter, Yom Kippur, Hannakuh, and the like. As such, the context of the school board’s decision made it look like board members would rather cut off their nose than include a Muslim holiday on their calendar.
I understand why the board voted the way they did. One of the fundamental ideas behind a secularism that protects the freedom of religious practice is that the state does not have any specific religion of its own. The easiest way to do this is to draw clear lines between individual and community practices which can be religious and state ones that cannot. When these overlap, the state version should take on secular, nondescript identities – Winter Break instead of Christmas Break – in order to avoid violating the principle.
There are two fundamental challenges to negotiate when taking this approach. First, the United States was created by Christians and many of the social patterns around which the institutions of government were built incorporated those cultural expectations. So, we wound up with ‘Under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance and ‘In God We Trust’ on our currency. We also ended up with government holidays taking place on Christmas and Good Friday. While efforts have been made to downplay the importance of these things given the diverse beliefs held by Americans, these efforts sometimes feel sly and hypocritical. People aren’t stupid. If you just change the name, it’s still Christmas break.
The second challenge created by this kind of secularism is that it posits that the only common ground to be found among different religious beliefs is an erasure of their beliefs whenever they come together. This negative approach to religious identity immediately puts people of different faiths at odds with one another. It implies that we cannot trust religious belief to exist in a world with other religious beliefs so all beliefs must be expunged from public practices. It is a very depressing view of the world and one that seems to exacerbate the very hostilities it seeks to overcome.
With that in mind, there is another route to secularism that the Montgomery County school board could have tried. This posits that a government can make all religious practice safe by engaging religious identities and taking the lead in spreading an understanding of them. This route would not be particularly easy. Given the reality of limited time and resources choices would have to be made about what practices or holidays merit recognition, and I imagine all sorts of odd competitions and compromises would come out of it. But this kind of negotiation becomes a significant force for education in itself. In talking about it, more people would learn that Eid-al-Adha celebrates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ismail to God and the ultimate substitution by God of a sacrificial ram in Ismail's place, and this kind of knowledge could go a long way to normalizing the presence of the broad variety of beliefs that exist in the world around us. Plus, it would challenge the state to seek common ground in good faith among those differences by accepting their value instead of denying their importance.


Living with difference is hard work. It requires a constant awareness that others around may not agree with our basic understandings of the world and a constant labor to figure out how to navigate among these conflicting beliefs. I don’t like that my first impulse when Polly asked about our religion was to tell her to skip it. I’d love to feel like she could go to school and talk about whatever convoluted beliefs our family holds dear without encountering a certain amount of consternation. I wonder if more institutions of state – school boards, county governments, state courts – looked toward the second route of secularism as a goal, if we would all know a bit more about each other and in turn be a bit more comfortable with all our differences. 

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