My dad enjoyed two things in life: sports and comedy. Not only did he take me take me to baseball games and hockey games (which is a parental requirement up here in the Great White North), but he also introduced me to a lot of classic comedies, including the Marx Bros. Abbot & Costello, Danny Kaye, and the Three Stooges.
My dad also had a soft-spot in his heart for George Carlin. You could imagine my surprise that the same guy who played the Conductor on Shining Time Station was also the guy who gave the world the infamous “7 Words You Can’t Say on Television” skit. Talk about playing against type!
While I do think Mr. Carlin was a very intelligent humorist who said a lot of profound things about the stupidities, excesses, and weirdness of Western society as a whole, when it came to religion, that’s where I think he crossed the line from being humorous to being vindictive. I’ve heard his famous “Religion is Bulls**t” sketch several times over the years, and I’ve often wondered, is religion really as stupid and evil as George thought it was, or did he just have very incompetent teachers?
A lot of people smarter than me have talked about education reform a lot; with good reason, of course; education is arguably the most important pillar of human civilization; figuring out how to fix our school system is easily one of the biggest crises of our time.
I’m here to talk specifically about religious education reform, a problem which has troubled me for a while, and I’d like to thank Mr. Walsh for giving me some space on his platform to share my thoughts on this issue.
Like Mr. Carlin, I was raised Catholic. Religion is a pretty big deal in my family. My paternal grandma prays the rosary every night before going to bed. One of my grandpa’s brothers was a priest. My aunt and uncle are regular church-goers, and my other grandma learned to speak English by reading the King James Bible. It’s hard to say whether my fascination with religion stems from genetics or environment. Most likely both. But to be honest I didn’t really care about religion at all until I was 16.
My mom and dad didn’t take me to Mass that much when I was a kid; we would go to church for several weeks straight when First Communion and Confirmation rolled around, but otherwise, religion, like politics, just wasn’t much of a concern for them.
I remember religion class being very boring. Movie days were always fun, but otherwise it was all about explaining what Christian doctrine was, and how we could apply it to our everyday lives. The only time we ever discussed something controversial, like atheism, was this one time in Gr. 6, when we read that very famous passage written by Nietzsche, where the mad villager goes into the town square and proclaims “God is dead! We have killed him!” unfortunately, these moments of “excitement” were very few and far between.
I did like a few stories from the Bible, like King David and Sampson, but I like good stories in general; once Harry Potter got me hooked on the stuff, I’ve never stopped reading. But like I said, it was boring.
Besides, my parents didn’t care that we were skipping Mass, why should I care about this stuff? I was way more concerned with doing regular kid stuff, watching cartoons, playing video games, doing homework at the last minute, enjoying my youth. Sure I believed in God and Jesus, but church just wasn’t for me.
Then I met Mr. Hill.
Mr. Hill was my favorite teacher in high school, easily one of the biggest influences in my life. He not only awakened my spirituality, but my intellectual curiosity as well. He was a devout man who not only tried to show his students how we should be Christian, but *why* we should be Christian.
He introduced me to apologetics and with it the idea of defending and explaining your beliefs to other people. This was new territory for me. I’d always assumed that religion was something private; you either practiced it or you didn’t. Mr. Hill changed how I saw religion; it wasn’t like being told that you had to visit the old, frail senile people in the nursing home because it was a nice thing to do (and you needed to take care of that community service credit). It meant being part of a living, breathing, growing community, who was doing, and had done, a lot of good in the world.
I’ve come to realize that a lot of Catholics don’t know a lot about their own religion. I could use Carlin as an example again. In one “brilliant” part of his sketch about religion, he deconstructs the Ten Commandments, showing that modern people should really only follow two, and the rest don’t make sense. According to him, religions are made up stories that the powerful people of history have used to keep the masses docile and ignorant.
But Jesus had already reduced the Commandments down to two: “Love the Lord your God with all your mind, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as you love yourself”. So why did everyone in the audience act like Carlin has given this brilliant critique of religion? And a lot learned and intelligent people today are deeply religious.
Mr. Hill also told us why abortion is wrong, not quoting the Bible, but using philosophical arguments. This was another thing that fascinated me, the idea of a “rational faith”, supporting doctrine with rational arguments instead of authority.
To a lot of atheists like Carlin, “rational faith” in an oxymoron; he constantly scoffed about how people constantly say that God is all good and all loving, but if you do wrong, he’ll send you to Hell to be tortured for all eternity. He’ll send you to hell for being gay, lazy, stupid, having sex before marriage, masturbating, divorcing your spouse; not just the big stuff like murder, theft, pedophilia, rape, etc.
Again, I discovered a different picture of God and Christianity. But it wasn’t just Mr. Hill who was setting the record straight. It was classic Christian writers like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and John Henry Newman, as well as religious bloggers, philosophers of religion, even historians.
Mr. Carlin never addressed other religious topics in his stand up, like Transubstantiation, just war theory, the principle of double effect, the doctrine of mutual submission, the doctrine of invincible ignorance, theistic evolution, “no salvation outside the Church”. You would think he would know this stuff, being Catholic. You would think my *teachers* would know this stuff; we didn’t talk about any of the things I mentioned. Being a religion class, you would think they would bring it up.
Sadly they didn’t.
The problem is, is that I can’t tell whether Mr. Carlin really believed that religious people worship “an invisible man in the sky who watches everything we do”, but it seems to me that he had a very simplistic view of religion. We’ll never know for certain.
I came to learn that the Church had a very long, very rich history. Sure there’d been a lot of controversy over the millennia; the Crusades, the Reformation, The Wars of Religion, the Spanish Inquisition, the Galileo affair, the execution of Giorgio Bruno, the persecution of the Cathars, the forced conversion of Jews, the sex scandal.
However the same Church, my Church, has been responsible for creating and supporting the first hospitals and universities in Europe, had preserved the great Greco-Roman works of antiquity for generations (along with Jewish and Muslim scholars, of course), had given birth to the writings of Dante, Chaucer, Boccaccio, and Thomas Aquinas; the great art of Botticelli, Da Vinci and Michelangelo, and a guy named Bartolome de las Casas, a 16th century Spanish monk who spoke out against the persecution of the native Americans in the New World, and is credited for being one of the first advocates of universal human rights.
I didn’t learn all this stuff by going on Catholic websites all the time. For over a year I lurked on The Internet Infidels message boards, the largest atheist/secular humanist community on the web. I encountered dozens of arguments attempting to show why religion, especially Christianity, was false: contradictions in the Bible, the Church impeded the progress of science, religion promoted irrationality, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism and racism. Evolution, quantum mechanics, cosmology, and neuroscience disproved the existence of God, angels, and souls. Pat Robertson and Fred Phelps were ignorant jerks; God shouldn’t have allowed the Holocaust to happen. On and on it went.
I find it sadly ironic that I learned more about Catholicism from lay Catholics and the irreligious than my own teachers. I don’t blame Mr. Carlin for abandoning religion. I would have abandoned it too if I hadn’t met Mr. Hill, who showed me that there’s a lot of misunderstanding, misinformation and hostility, the latter quite a bit of it deserved, quite a bit of it not, about the Church.
I hope you noticed though, that I discovered a lot of this stuff on my own. Mr. Hill was only one guy, and he only had so much time to teach.
So having learned a lot about the Church over the last eleven years, I’m not angry at the institution itself.
I’m angry at my teachers. How can you expect anybody, especially, kids, in this day and age, to be Christian, with all the confusion and hatred over its teachings coming from all sides and especially if you don’t make kids understand why they should? If you don’t explain why, then why should they? Why should we care? You teachers who teach religion at the elementary and high school level really have to know how to answer that question; I care about it, and I think every teacher should care about religious as they do (or should), care about every other type of learning under the sun.
My generation has already got advertisers, corporations, movie studios, politicians, artists, and other religious groups, fighting over our time and money. So all you Catholic teachers, it’s not enough to indoctrinate. Terrorists indoctrinate, cults indoctrinate, advertisers indoctrinate. You have to be passionate about the Faith, you have use the tools we are familiar with, otherwise we won’t pay attention or it’ll be harder for you to get the lessons across. Because I’ve learned something that a lot of people who talk about the crisis in our schools over look; the school system and pop culture may be destroying our minds; but they are also damning our souls.