A friend directed me to a recent piece in The Toronto Star about how Ontario schools have seen a surge in parents requesting that their children be excused from classrooms when the subject being taught conflicts with their religious beliefs (eg. evolution). This follows the incident several months ago involving a Catholic school board leader who was pilloried in the press for breaking Godwin’s law while trying to explain why her board refused to permit gay-straight alliance clubs on campus (she infamously and quite stupidly said “We don’t allow Nazi groups either”). This is one of those areas where there seems to be no middle ground; you either believe these parents are standing up for their faith and their most cherished values against offensive secular indoctrination, or you think they’re utter ignoramuses trying to shield their poor kids from truth and consequently crippling their ability to function in the real world.
If you have to pin my belief system down to a single philosophy for the sake of reference, I’m probably closest to what’s called a secular humanist. I like to know how things work and I’m unsatisfied with the explanation that life functions as it does because of the will of an insubstantial being who decided my fate long before I was born. Yet I acknowledge that there are numerous things I don’t understand and never will – and I’m okay with that. Rather like how not knowing the ending encourages you to keep reading the book, I’m happy for the continuing mysteries of the universe, because they keep me asking questions, keep me exercising my intellect in pursuit of truth. I recognize that I will never know everything, but I can always learn more. A man does endless reps on the rowing machine not because there is an acme of idealized muscular strength he needs to reach, but because he wants to make himself ever stronger. That’s the most wonderful thing about learning; there will always be something new to learn, and, if one is to extend the metaphor of the gym, simply working your chest and avoiding the leg press will only make you look like Donkey Kong. Shutting out the acquisition of knowledge because said knowledge fails to dovetail with ideology results in a state of imbalance – an inability to complete the equation or to advance the cause of truth.
Faith is not an easy journey. Whether it is faith in God, faith in one’s fellows or faith in oneself, it requires strength. Where extreme believers such as those who demand little Johnny not hear a peep about Charles Darwin fail their children in teaching them that lesson is in sending them the message that their faith is so brittle it cannot stand challenge. Unchallenged faith is no faith at all – it’s blind obedience, and I also suspect that the vast majority who consider themselves spiritual do not like to think of themselves as mindless followers. I have also never understood why some can’t accept the precepts of science while continuing to keep faith, that every word of the Bible has to be literally true for any part of it to have any weight. After all, scientific thought built the iPad on which you’re tweeting your screed against the evil atheist school system. It would seem to me that anything as universal as “God” cannot and should not be codified in human language, that the very concept defies the limits imposed upon it by the twenty-six letters of our alphabet. It remains an unanswerable question, but one that demands pursuit. Faith, then, is the sense that there is an answer worth going after – and if one is to approach understanding, then you can’t arbitrarily discount the information that might help you get that infinitesimal step closer. Deciding that my mind’s made up and I’m going to stick my fingers in my ears when someone says something that contradicts it, is sacrificing that most precious gift of free will, the most important quality that guides our brief journey across life.
I’m not saying that what I believe is what you should believe. Everyone deserves the chance to figure it out for themselves, because that’s the only way it’s going to work. It’s our mandate as human beings to not abdicate our responsibility to learn all we can while we’re here, otherwise life is truly Shakespeare’s poor player strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage, the tale told by the idiot full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. Let the kids learn about science in school. Let them learn about God in church. And most importantly, let them learn enough to be able to make up their own minds.