I arrived at my daughter's grade one class with my visual aids: our Christmas advent calendar and a creche. As I was about to speak, the teacher leaned in and told me, "Don't get into religion, okay?"
I halted. Now, how was I going to go about extracting my religion from the traditions and symbols that embody them? I went on, tentatively, to explain how we used the advent calendar and nativity scene. I used the manger scene to show the kids the story that inspired the holiday -- the very first Christmas, Jesus' birth, 2000 years ago -- as the teacher watched anxiously. I engaged the class for ten minutes in a fairly lively back and forth. Grade one kids are far more curious and open minded than most adults -- lots of "why's" and begging for details.
It went fairly well. No religious wars broke out. The teacher didn't lose her job. And my daughter was proud of her dad. But I also went away saddened by our society's intense suspicion of anything in our public discourse that smacks of religion. Schools of all places should be places where such discourse can and should happen, in an open forum of thought and mutual respect, free of fear of ridicule for our viewpoints
Kids know the obvious, natural question: Why? Where did all this end-of-year holiday stuff come from and why has it risen to such a prominent place on our calendars? Furthermore, why are we not giving our kids the benefit of a full explanation rather than hiding among the fears and hush-hush? Are we so afraid our kids may fall off the deep end into fantasy lands of religion? So, we would rather expose them exclusively to our most trusted ally of the holiday -- Santa Claus -- rather than try explaining the origins of Hanukkah or Christmas?
Don't get me wrong. My kids love Santa, and I've gone to great lengths to explain how he gets down the chimney into every kid's house in the whole world in just one night, employing the simple means of a 19th century sled pulled by a bunch of wimpy but clever deer through the stratosphere. Granted, my belief about Santa is far different than my belief about the first Christmas, but that is my privilege. Just as it is everyone's privilege to believe what they will about the first Christmas.
I put no blame on my daughter's teacher. She is simply following the prevailing party line of the public education system and the code of society in general. Also, completely consistent with her message, "Don't get into religion," was the school's Winter Concert -- a medley of musical numbers. One glance at the program revealed a concert carefully disinfected of anything sounding remotely religious but replete with snowmen, marshmallows, saccharine aplomb and secular pabulum.
I understand the fears. We've inherited a history beleaguered by attitudes of religious intolerance, oppression and abuse, even in our fair land of Canada. It's painful. And thankfully, a good dose of multiculturalism has awakened us a bit. But rather than letting ourselves be freed up by pluralism, we've shut down free thought and exploration.
We've been driven to extremism of a different sort, enforced by our various institutions -- a blanket adoption of secularism and agnosticism -- the belief that humans are the only answer, that God is only a fantasy, and that rationalism is the only option since we can never know if God really exists. Ironically, these also are religious views. The warning "don't get religious" comes much too late. We're already religious and always will be.
A brief look at history and literature shows we are by nature religious beings. The desire to know the origin and meaning of our existence and our world is as natural as the urge to understand the inner workings of the universe. Religious inquiry, even debate, is as worthy as inquiry in any other field -- arts, psychology, politics, history, science -- yes, even at the elementary school level.
We've got to get beyond our fear of religious dialogue. Granted, it gets us into personal and murky waters sometimes and gets people excited. But why not grow up a little and take a chance at getting excited? Some of the best learning happens when people get uncomfortable.
Our kids know better. We are doing them a great disservice by sheltering them, as our public schools seem intent on doing, from the vast array of religious thought represented in our communities. Our kids should be equipped with the skills of curiosity, discernment, and critical thought in order to navigate the wide religious waters of our society. And they will come to their own conclusions. Let's not underestimate their intelligence.
We've done more than a fair job of training our kids in the ways of secularism and agnosticism. Now let's, as a society and as educational institutions, come out of hiding in fear, branch out a little, take a chance, and give our kids a chance. Let's get a little religious.