religion. In other words, there are no nouns that describe people who oppose the growth of the professional sports industry, or who dislike green beans. Religion, however, is loaded with nouns for varying religious viewpoints. So, to get back to your question, I really don’t think I’m conscious enough to say I’m a true atheist. I do know that I care deeply about understanding the world. I know I put the utmost importance on evidence and the scientific method of reasoning, and I certainly do not subscribe to any one religion or faith that requires me to check my intellect in at the door before entering. So, I guess you could call me an agnostic social scientist with a passion for concrete evidence and logical reasoning
AP: Were you raised agnostic? Tell me about your upbringing.
JSM: As a kid I had the privilege of growing up on a Wisconsin farm. But my family was not your typical farm family. My father was a systems analyst for the Sperry Rand Corporation. This corporation made computer guidance systems for short and long range ballistic missiles – he basically worked for the Pentagon as a mathematician and was part of the first generation of computer geeks in the early 1960’s. Looking back, I can see that my father instilled in me a strong pragmatic approach to understanding the world. Still, to this day, he only reads books that help him understand things. His only hobby – and he will tell you this – is discovering new truths that are supported with concrete evidence and facts.
As a family we attended a small Presbyterian church less than two hundred yards from our house. The church had electricity, but no running water. Consequently, going to the bathroom meant going outside to an outhouse. During the summer this was no big deal, if you could tolerate the odor. But in the dead of winter it was kind of a pain in the ass, literally!
Although church was an important weekly thing for my family, religion was not. I was not raised to believe or disbelieve anything religious. My three brothers and I were all given permission to think for ourselves, and I am grateful to my parents for that. And I’m pretty sure if I had not been raised to be a “free thinker” I would have never ended up teaching a course that critically examines religion in a public school.
AP: Was the teaching of this class your idea?
JSM: Yes, it was entirely my idea, and I created the curriculum. It’s an elective course. And, thanks to a progressive forward-thinking school board that has been willing to stand up to threats of lawsuits from conservative Christians, I have been teaching the class for over sixteen years. And over two thousand students have taken the class.
AP: So why were/are some Christians so uneasy with your class?
JSM: They are uneasy with my class because I treat Christianity as one of many religions, and not the only “true religion.” And they are especially outraged that I treat Jesus as one of many religious figures rather than the only son of God who died for the sins of the world. What they fail to realize is that legally I must treat all religions without bias and as “social phenomena.” To do otherwise would be a violation of the Constitution. Ironically, the very groups that want prayer in schools and lament that God has been “shut out of schools” are the ones who most strongly oppose me.
AP: Why do you think that is?
JSM: Some of Evangelical Christians only want their view of God in the schools. And if they can’t have their religious ideas promoted in schools, they don’t want any. And they especially don’t want any critical examination of religion to take place in public schools. In other words, they don’t want children to be exposed to ideas, theories, and arguments that might discredit their dogma and doctrines. It’s clear to me that the religious right wants a monopoly on the education of youth in America in area of religion.
AP: What motivated you to create the class?
JSM: When I was in college I started to become aware of the important role religion has played in shaping human history. When I started teaching American history at Red Wing High School in 1995, I began to realize how high school textbooks ignore the topic of religion. For example, American history textbooks are very good at describing the women’s rights movement. However, they do not address the reasons that explain why women never had rights in the first place. The answer is undeniably wrapped up in religion, and specifically the Adam and Eve story and the writings of Paul in the New Testament. But this information is intentionally left out of textbooks because it might caste a negative light on Christianity, and no publishing company wants to offend conservative Christian clients – they want their books to sell. Consequently, discussions and information about religion, information that children should be learning, is left out of public school textbooks for marketing reasons, not legal reasons. And, most certainly, the recent attempt on the part of the religious right in Texas to rewrite public school textbooks is an example of how religion directly and indirectly shapes information printed and not printed in textbooks.
Another motivation for me to teach my class comes from my personal desire to promote tolerance and understanding of diversity. If schools are truly serious about teaching about diversity, they certainly cannot stop at the doors of religion, but most do. And this ultimately leaves a gapping hole in a child’s education.
AP: You have been accused of “bashing” religion in your class. Do you?
JSM: No, never. I let the evidence do that. I present facts, arguments, evidence, and theories scholars debate and discuss from the past and present. I let the kids make up their own minds. I’m just the messenger.
AP: Can you give me an example, an example that has provoked controversy?
JSM: The way I address the resurrection of Jesus has not been well received by some evangelical Christians. I make it very clear to my students that resurrection stories are a dime a dozen in world literature, as are miracle birth and conception stories. This comes as a total shock to my Christian students. I never tell my students that Jesus did not rise from the grave. But I do expose them to scholarly arguments that cast doubt on the resurrection. For example, it is very clear among historians that part of the Roman crucifixion policy was to not give the body back; it was part of the punishment. And this, I tell my students, might explain why there is no body of Jesus, and that the story of his resurrection might be either be a myth, or possibly a metaphor for the “resurrected” Jesus movement after his death. Conservative Christians find this to be nothing short of blasphemy in the school, but it is clearly not. My job, as I see it, is to help my students understand the religious debates and arguments taking place in our culture. What I do is no different from teachers who teach classes on health, government, or current issues. I just happen to focus on religion. I truly believe that religion is a monumental part of human history and is a topic that should not be ignored by public schools. The recent world-wide media attention given to the election of the new Pope is clear evidence that religion does matter to people and is something that needs to be taught critically and objectively to kids in public schools. To me, it’s a no brainer!
AP: So why aren’t schools teaching about religion in a critical fashion as you do?
JSM: I think there are a lot of misconceptions about what is legal and what is not. Many people think what I am doing is a violation of the separation of church and state. It is not. The Supreme Court has made it very clear that the teaching about religion is legal and even necessary. But I think the real problem is that there are very few teachers and administrators who want to risk the controversy. Trust me, I know it is every teacher’s and administrator’s nightmare to have angry parents and clergy in an uproar about what is going on in the classroom – I have been through it and survived it. The problem, as I see it, is that schools shy away from the challenge of truly educating children about religion because they don’t want the headache. This is one of the reasons why evangelicalism is so prevalent in America; public schools are not giving children a chance hear, discuss, and debate counter arguments made by the religious right. Consequently, America has a very large population of Christian fundamentalists. According to a recent Gallop poll, fifty-two percent of Republicans read the Bible literally. In Europe, this is unheard of! In Europe, where religion is objectively dissected in public schools, you have substantially lower numbers of conservative Christians. Over the years I have had countless foreign exchange students tell me how “odd” it is that students in America do not critically study religion, and they are always amazed to hear that my religion class is truly a rare thing in America.
AP: What is the danger in not teaching kids to think critically about religion?
JSM: The danger is that we run the risk of seeing a rise in religious extremism and the number of kids who are out of touch with what we know to be true. There is harm in being out of touch with reality. There is harm in the practice of ignoring evidence and facts. Can we really afford to have a growing number of Americans view evolutionary science as being from Satan? Just think what might happen in America if biblical literalists took over the country. Public education would be sent back to the Dark Ages. And keep in mind, the religious right is a multi billion dollar growing industry with a political agenda bent on increasing its influence and numbers – they have already taken over the Republican Party. To not allow schools to objectively and critically examine religion is to almost guarantee the religious right’s future success. And this is one of the reasons why they strongly oppose what I am doing - I am a threat to them. No, wait, let me rephrase that – the truth and scientific reasoning is a threat to them.
AP: You recently started a blog about your experiences, why?
JSM: I started my blog to give people a chance to peak into my classroom and hear about what I am doing. More importantly, I started the blog to generate some discussions on the topic of teaching about religion in public schools. My hope in all of this is to generate a national debate on this topic and to show people that the critical teaching and the questioning of religion is something that can be done and should be done. So far the blog is doing well. Michael Shermer, the founding editor of Skeptic magazine and bestselling author, has tweeted about me twice, so I’m slowly drawing the attention of some distinguished thinkers in America.
AP: You also have a book you are working on, tell me about it.
JSM: After 911 I really thought that public schools would be more deliberate in objectively teaching about religion, but it did not happen. As a matter of fact, I think religious stereotypes and confusion about religion has increased. So, a couple of years ago, I decided to poll some of America’s most distinguished writers and thinkers. I sent out hundreds of letters, all with the same question: “What (if anything) should public schools teach children about religion?” Much to my surprise, I received over a hundred and forty replies from a wide variety of prominent people. Forty responses came from national, international, and New York Times bestselling authors. I am presently gathering the essays into a book. And, like my blog, I am hoping it will raise public awareness about the importance and need to critically teach children about religion.
AP: Thank you so much