Thursday, September 27, 2012

Education Doesn't Have a Prayer



Gov. Phil Bryant

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant has come with an answer to the educational problems in this country. Prayer.  Admittedly, that’s not the most original idea, but he’s willing to advocate on its behalf.  Recently, for example, he told a group of school children all about the concept.

He said that school prayer would "let people know there is a God," adding, "those children should know that He does care about them, particularly within their classroom."

Of course, Gov. Bryant isn’t alone in the effort to shove religion down the throat of innocent youngsters.  The rich loam of religious fanaticism never ceases to produce a bumper crop of forbidden fruit in this country.
·          
In South Carolina, School District Five of Lexington and Richland counties have been sued over a district policy requires benedictions and invocations at school events.

·         In Louisiana, the state is using tax dollars to fund a church school under a program that allows low-income families in failing schools to move into an alternative private or public facility.

·         In Florida, voters will have a chance to reverse a law that currently bans public spending for religious projects.

Detroit-area mosque
Such short-sighted ideas.  Don’t the supporters of such proposals realize that any religion can be helped, including those the Christian supporters oppose?  Do you think a Southern Baptist will be happy seeing his tax dollars paying for an educational program in a mosque?  

That’s when prayer will really come in handy.

Let’s eliminate the possible drama by erasing religion from the classroom.  Religion is the enemy of education.  It has no place in a school.  Religion is based on belief; education is based on scholarship, research, the search for answers that may contradict a belief.  If that happens, will Bryant lead prayers to convince scientists to change their findings? After all, that was the technique in the past.  When the report on Global Warning produced during the George W. Bush administration was bowdlerized to match the president’s religious views.

If religion had any say in education, kids would be taught that the Earth was the center of the universe.  The Dark Ages, an era dominated by religion, didn’t get that nickname by accident.

Prayer won’t reverse climate change or force the Earth to move from the outer rim of our small, meaningless galaxy.  Knowledge requires data and the elimination of preconceived notions.  The next round of research will have to be conducted by today’s schoolchildren, in particular the ones whose minds have not been polluted by religious teachings that require faith, not facts.

The states pushing religion won’t have to worry about that.  It should come as no surprise that Mississippi ranked 43rd among all states in education in a September 2012 survey by Education Week. .In the Chance for Success category, Mississippi scored a D+.  Achievement was ranked F.  South Carolina wasn’t much better: K-12 achievement earned a D; college readiness was rated D-.  Florida?  D- in K-12 achievement; D- in college readiness; F in spending per student.

There was no mention how the educational systems did in those stays in religious indoctrination.

However, it’s no wonder those states are pushing religion with the fervor of a drug addict.  School children in those states don’t have a prayer when it comes to knowledge.  Looking to God for answers won’t help.  Only a textbook will do that.

God has His place.  It’s in religious institutions.  He’s more limited in algebra, history, science or any field where even Gov. Bryant knows we need an educated population.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.net.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1





Monday, September 24, 2012

Education Won't End Religious Attacks



A short film caused worldwide Muslim unrest.

The recent attacks on American targets because of a 14-minute film aired on the interest naturally evoked cries of patriotism as well as the inevitable calls for peace.  Why can’t we all get along despite religious differences?  After all, murderous attacks, which led to the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya among others, had obvious religious overtones: the terrorists were Muslims striking against a largely Christian society.  

One natural suggestion, which arises like clockwork, is to set up a few interfaith programs.  See?  If we all learn about each other’s religions, then we’ll be more tolerant, and less likely to pick up a gun and to shoot someone of a different faith.

That’s more like A Clockwork Orange, a famed English novel where an attempt to re-train the mind of a psychopath ends in disaster.

Jehovah Witnesses go door to door in an  effort to convert people.
Education is a great tool for expanding thought.  We should all learn about someone else’s religion, but religious zealots don’t want their minds expanded.  They want them closed shut.  Christians are convinced their religion is the only true one. Sects like Southern Baptists are hell-bent on converting nonbelievers.  So are Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons.  Jews have a system for allowing anyone to become a member of the tribe without actually converting, but they, too, are sure only their way is God given.

Muslims are so convinced of correctness of their faith that they completely ignore other beliefs and – as is rather obvious -- violently condemn any criticism of Islam.

Besides, who is supposed to teach such a course?  As far as each group is concerned, no one is qualified. As a youngster, I saw the first-hand in Ohio public schools.  

Every high school senior there once took a required class called Senior Problems.  The course was designed to introduce lots of different topics, including budgeting as well as comparative religion.  We had a great teacher, and I loved the course.  However, it was quickly ended because religious parents complained that the comparative religion portion did not exactly match their beliefs.

The same thing invariably happens in the religious history courses I teach for the Stetson University Continuing Education Department.  I’ve been doing those classes for 15 years on a variety of topics, such as the Bible as History, Comparative Religion, Translations of the Bible and so on.  There is always someone with a closed mind who insists that God wrote the Bible, hoping to eliminate any discussion.

Religious fanaticism condemns without recourse.
I have no problem with someone thinking God wrote the Bible, but it’s clearly a human document with multiple mistakes in both history and writing.  It’s well worth examining as a text, regardless of the author.
That’s not what a small percentage of the population prefers.  They demand complete subservience to their belief.  That approach is called indoctrination.  It completely undermines education.  For example, religious fanatics attack evolution because it counters their narrow beliefs, ignoring extensive body of evidence in support of that idea.  

We see the same kind of thinking in today’s political discussions.  Politicians were expected to toe a strict religious line in such areas or face withering assaults by the self-righteous zealots of the extreme right.
Unfortunately, not even the ideologues agree.  As soon as a class would be created that focuses on one criterion, someone would demand further changes.  We see it in today’s political world where one self-appointed guardian of a belief invariably clashes with another.

That’s the danger in a world dictated by religion, since few agree on an exact formula.  In fact, every faith is absurd to a nonbeliever.  

That view was comically captured in an on-line cartoon.  http://theoatmeal.com/comics/religion

In it, the author provides basic questions to explain “How to Suck at Your Religion.”  Some of the questions are:

·         Does your religion make you judge people?
·         Did you choose your religion or did other people choose it for you?
·         Do you ridicule other people’s beliefs?
·         Do you base your votes solely on your religion?
·         “Would you hurt, hinder or condemn in the name of your God?"

If the answers are yes, the author notes jokingly, “Then you probably suck at your religion.  You should give it up and take up windsurfing or ping pong instead.”

Puritans eventually disappeared.
Americans should be well aware of the inherent dangers of dictated thought.   Puritans sailed to this country because they were foiled in their efforts to “purify” the Church of England.  Finally, they resolved to seek the perfect “Jerusalem” in the New World.  Of course, when new people followed them and didn’t agree, the Puritans persecuted and prosecuted them until, eventually, the Puritans themselves no longer existed.

Instead, this country adopted the concept of freedom of religion to avoid the pitfalls of orthodoxy.

As a result, this country would be far better off if everyone stick to their personal beliefs in private and left religion out of the public discussion or the classroom.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.net.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1














Thursday, September 20, 2012

Fragment No Proof Jesus Wed



A recently discovered writing fragment about 1,700 years old is causing a stir.  It says Jesus may have been married.  The Bible doesn’t say a word about Jesus having a wife, although the popular novel, The Da Vinci Code, proposed that man from Galilee may have been wed to Mary Magdalena.

This piece of papyrus has created religious controversy.
The latest tidbit was discovered by Harvard professor Karen L. King, who identified the 14 lines of writing as a dialogue written by Coptic Christians in the 4th century.  It contains the comment ‘Jesus said to them [his disciples], my wife…will be able to be my disciple.”

The Roman Catholic Church is supposedly quaking over the idea that the fragment could erase the reason for celibate priests – imitating Jesus’ supposed lack of a wedding ring -- and open the door for women clergy as well as increased female roles in the religion.

Nonsense.

Authenticating that small bit of writing would prove only one thing: it’s old.

We seem to have some kind of fetish for old documents.  People pay tons of money for antique books.  There’s only one good reason for that: they are rare. Not a lot of old documents have survived the ravages of weather, insects and time.  Besides, there weren’t that many texts centuries ago: they were expensive to produce, most people couldn’t afford them, and the bulk of the population couldn’t read anyway.

No one buys an old book based on the accuracy of its content.  Old books aren’t accurate; they are just old.  

Today, we insist on documented history.  Yet, even with supporting data, multiple authors form different views of a single event, even though they all rely on the same information.  In the distant past, however, people didn’t bother with a lot of research or verifying sources.   They wrote what they heard, saw, read and/or imagined, regardless of actual truth.  That’s why they were sure the sun went around the Earth, for example.  After all, that’s what appears to be happening. 

That’s also why the Bible cannot be an accurate accounting of anything. It was written long before anyone thought about finding the true facts.  As the Roman Catholic Church agrees, the texts represent “the belief of the authors.” 

This fragment is no different.  Some writer created a dialogue, a common method of debating on paper.  The writer supports his own views by making the debate opponent look ridiculous.  Claims are easily countered that way.  Many early Christian writers took this approach to undermine the arguments of pagan philosophers against the fledgling faith.

Jesus and Mary Magdalene in a Scottish church window
That doesn’t mean a single quote in any ancient document accurately captures what Jesus said or did.  It doesn’t even reflect what the pagans or other philosophers felt.  This fragment does help us understand what people in that time period were thinking.  They thought Jesus was married.  That claim has no relationship to actual history any more than Mitt Romney has a connection to everyday Americans.

The fragment cannot be accurate under the best of circumstances anyway.   Jesus had to have died around 30 CE.  This was written at least 300 years later.  That’s quite a time lapse.  Of course, the dialogue could have been a copy of an earlier one, but Christianity needed time to develop.  Even at its earliest, the fragment must have been written at least several generations after Jesus was crucified.

Schweitzer
In addition, little to nothing is known about the historical Jesus despite extensive research and endless speculation.  About 100 years ago, biblical scholar Albert Schweitzer could report after a massive study of extant literature on Jesus that if all the mythology were removed from the New Testament, nothing would be left.

We don’t know any more about Jesus today than Schweitzer did then.  We don’t know any more than the Gospel writers did when they sat down, took stylus in hand, dipped it into ink, and began to write their books.

We may find more ancient books.  We may find additional writings about Jesus.  Not that long ago, the Gospel of Judas was discovered and translated.  In it, Judas said he was obeying Jesus’ orders.

Was that true?

Who know?

In fact, we will never know the truth.  That’s what belief and faith are all about.  If you believe it, it’s true.  Some document, no matter how old, is going to change that.  Facts have never really done a lick of damage to a single religion. This fragment is equally impotent.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.net.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1





Monday, September 17, 2012

Israel: Not on Sacred Ground



Reading from the sacred Torah
The Jewish High Holy Days, which began September 17 this year, are usually a time of reflection and prayer.  This year, apparently, it’s just another opportunity for the worldwide Jewish community to fuss and fight over deeply divisive ideas.  

According to a CNN report, the rancor has gotten so intense that some rabbis aren’t even going to talk about Israel.  Conservative Jews are demanding attacks on Israeli enemies while liberal Jews are counseling talks with the Palestinians and others that threat the country’s existence.  Those in the middle are torn in both directions.  Silence seems like a better option.

The real problem is not the debate, but that everyone has the wrong idea about the “Promised Land.”

I see the reality exposed on a daily basis.  For more than six years, I‘ve had the opportunity to teach English to foreign students attending a university in Florida.  Many of them want to work in aviation, which requires English fluency.   As a result, there are plenty of students.  Many of them come from the Middle East, principally Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates.  They are all Muslim and are often fearful of how they will be received in a country when their religion is typically associated with the word “terrorist.”

I have found all of them, without exception, to be intelligent and thoughtful young men and women.  However, they invariably have a blind spot in regards to Israel.  Most believe that Israelis somehow conquered a land called Palestine and forced the native Muslim residents to leave.  They can cite Jewish atrocities against their Muslim neighbors and insist that the so-called terrorist attacks are nothing more than brave people fighting back against an overwhelming adversary.

One student went so far as to say Jews were brutally attacked by Germans during World War II and are now turning around and doing the same thing to Palestinians.

I invariably suggest they research the topic   Most ignore basic facts and find something in the literature which supports their belief.  I understand that phenomenon.  A neighbor of mind once adored George Wallace and considered the racist Alabama governor to be the epitome of American politics.  I gave him a lengthy research article on Wallace’s diabolic and hate-filled career.  My neighbor found part of one sentence – which stated that Wallace did not raise taxes in his first term as Alabama governor, but did so disastrously in his second – said he was pleased the reporter was so supportive of his hero.  Many of my Muslim students operate on the same wavelength.

Israel has that kind of effect on many other people, too.  It is seen as some kind of special place.  At one time, Jerusalem was considered the center of the earth.   Even today, in our less-religious times, too many people are just as myopic about the so-called Holy Land.

I felt that way once.   As a teenager, I had a chance to visit Israel with my Sunday School principal Dov Pikelny.  We lost touch over the years after he moved to Massachusetts, but I hope he is still doing well.  We had a wonderful adventure.  

An El Al Boeing 767
His brother was a travel agent then and would invite his brother to fly on some tour whenever extra seats existed.  Mr. Pikelny told my family he was going to Israel on its national airline, El Al.  I was already deeply involved in studying religious history and couldn’t wait to see the famed sights in Israel.  So, I piped up that I’d love to go, too.  Mr. Pikelny thought that was a great idea, and my parents went along.

After some minor misadventures, including the temporary lack of an official birth certificate, I was soon on my way to Israel for seven days of wandering around the country.

What I learned completely changed my feelings toward the country.

First, it is a country, nothing more or less.  It is steeped in history, but so are Egypt, France, Russia and China, among others.  It is not special in any way.  No amount of caterwauling about biblical events will change that.  I know it is a Jewish homeland, but many countries developed as homelands – Hungary for the Magyars, for example.   Besides, many Jews oppose Israel as a Jewish state, pointing out that collecting Jews in one place makes them an easier target.  One rabbi told me that creating Israel could turn out to be the worst thing that ever happened to his people.   Comparing the creation of Israel to the Holocaust is saying something.

Second, the “holy” places are no more sacred than any other places.  In some instances, the sites are nothing more than old building.  In other cases, they are simply given a label that, in reality, is completely inaccurate.   Constantine’s aged mother, Helene, selected many of the honored Christian locales based on her own inspiration.  She wandered around Jerusalem some 300 years after Jesus lived and simply pointed out places she was sure were associated with him.  Later research proved she was wrong.

Wailing Wall
Regardless, there’s nothing special about the locations.  In another context, they would have no meaning what so ever.  The Wailing Wall, for example, is simply a pile of stones with some weeds growing on it.   Its association with the Temple gives it historical meaning, but its sacred aspect exists only in the mind of those who think it carries such a meaning.  In truth, it’s just a wall.

Third, whether or not some person walked there doesn’t matter.  Every inch of the Earth has felt the footprints of someone important.  So what?  We cannot live in the past.  Besides, few of these people were important in their lifetime – Jesus included.  Their footprints were quickly wiped out without a second thought until much later.  

My Arab students instinctively understand that.  Although Jerusalem is the third-most important city in their religion, they view Israel for what it is -- a country with no special distinction.  

More of us need to do that.  We should support Israel as a democracy in the midst of nations dominated by religion, as we should support any nation that shares our political philosophy.  We should respect and honor historical sites, as we do Valley Forge in this country or Shakespeare’s home in England.  

However, as many rabbis this year are doing, we need to focus our attention on reducing partisan rhetoric about a small country that has only known war and bloodshed through the millennia.  Maybe, in time, it will become again the “Land of Milk and Honey.”

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.net.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1