I think it is important to give children a healthy dose of religious education early on, teaching them a broad range of comparative mythology and religion from a phenomenological approach. Children are naturally curious, and what is more interesting than the ancient belief systems that so many of our peers and ancestors have dedicated their lives to? By teaching them about the world’s religions, we are giving them the information they seek and filling a gap in their knowledge in the same way we do when we teach about history or politics.
Given the opportunity to study it, I think many would agree that mythology is an interesting subject — and modern mythologies are no different. Through an education in Religious Studies, I learned about the creation myths from various cultures and those myths’ earlier influences, about the similarities and inconsistencies within each belief system, and how each religion has grown from a localized cult to its modern global equivalent.
To clarify, I majored in Religious Studies, the study of religions from a phenomenological approach, which is not to be confused with Christian Theology — the study of Christianity as a fundamental truth. I found that, if you study comparative religion, it’s more difficult to be religious because the great faiths are all very similar at the most fundamental level. Each organization has similar cult beginnings and “prophets,” they each began as local and cultural myths before being applied to a global context, and they are almost always spread through a combination of violence and proselytization.
In the United States, public schools don’t generally teach comparative religion courses, although they legally can — and should. The Supreme Court has upheld the teaching of religious studies in American public schools time and time again, but the vast majority of students in the U.S. continue to learn very little about the phenomenon of religion from traditional educational outlets, and instead adhere to whatever faith they were born into out of enculturation and ignorance.
The American approach is in stark contrast to most countries in Europe, which often have compulsory religious education courses taught from an academic (i.e. secular) perspective. What are the results? In the United Kingdom, a 2008 European Social Survey asked the question, “Which religion or denomination do you belong to at present?" with 52.68 percent selecting 'No Religion' in 2008.
In America, the most recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 78.4 percent of the 35,000 or more respondents identified specifically as Christians — with only 6.3 percent declaring they were secular and unaffiliated with a religion.
The fact remains that people, more often than not, inherit their religious beliefs from parents or childhood mentors. There is a crucial period in which a child begins to ask questions about life and wonder about the origin of existence and, in a religious family, these questions are typically answered in a religious context. The process begins with childhood baptisms, forced participation in religious rituals from a young age, and teaching children who are too young to understand that their religion is the only correct one, and sometimes that all others will burn in Hell.
Once the child is old enough to think logically about the possible veracity of various religions, it is often too late — the religious instruction has been so successful that the child no longer accepts the possibility that they could be wrong. After all, these ideas were introduced by a loving and trusted family member — why would they lie?
But there is hope. By educating children about the world’s many religions, historical and modern alike, we can show them that each faith is simply one culture’s attempt to explain the unknown. They can learn about religion from the perspective of an anthropologist, with a proper balance of intrigue and detachment, and gain true insight into the origin of the world’s many belief systems.
David G. McAfee is a journalist and author of Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-believer and Disproving Christianity and other Secular Writings. He is also a frequent contributor to American Atheist Magazine. McAfee attended University of California, Santa Barbara, and graduated with dual-degrees in English and Religious Studies, with an emphasis on Christianity and Mediterranean religions.