I had to run an errand today while I was thinking and writing this post. When I got in the car and turned on the radio the station was playing REM’s “Losing My Religion.” So REM gets credit for the title of this post.
A Facebook friend posted this little ditty on their page this morning:
Twinkle, twinkle little God. Science tells us you’re a fraud.
Existing in the minds of fools. Stay out of our public schools.
It is attributed to Atheist Global. A number of my friends and acquaintances are atheists. Many people have heard me describe myself as sometimes feeling like a Jewish atheist. Despite what some people perceive, Judaism is a religion without much dogma and with a tolerance for ambiguity including doubt or denial of God’s existence.
My college campus, like many others, is grappling with how to address inequity, systemic racism, and other forms of oppression. I have contributed time and energy to Courageous Conversations, Teach-Ins, lecture series, faculty and staff meetings to discuss problems and solutions, conversations with city leaders, etc.
And through all this, especially in the past several years, I have increasingly had to grapple with my own desire feelings of just wanting to disengage and not deal with people who don’t hold the same opinions. I am struggling with what I accept as a commitment to dialogue and a responsibility to protect others (and myself) from toxic and dangerous ideas.
So where does this little poem come in? Many of you know that I have a PhD in historical theology, with a focus on the 1st-3rd centuries CE and specifically on a Christian theologian named Origen. I love this time period. It is full of energy and ideas, the struggle of Christianity to define itself as it expands, and the work of Judaism to establish an identity after revolt and loss. I love the ideas and I loved learning about them as an undergraduate and graduate student which is when I first encountered anything really meaningful about what Christianity is.
My understanding of ancient Christianity and its modern incarnations (pun intended), particularly over the past 100 years, seems a critical part of how I think about the complicated challenges we now face in the United States. The same is true about so many religious beliefs and faiths, all of which enrich our understanding of who we are as humans.
So, the poem made me stop for a moment first because it seems unnecessarily mean-spirited and just plain wrong. Science doesn’t really “tell” us anything about God. And people who believe in God, a god, many gods, are not fools. Are the institutions built up by people imperfect? You bet they are. Do some groups (and not just Christians or Jews) propagate dangerous and harmful ideas which they claim are based in religious doctrine including white supremacy, patriarchy, misogyny, and homophobia? Absolutely.
How and why do individuals and groups share religious beliefs, how have we and our communities developed over time, what impact have religious ideas and groups had and how do they continue to influence art, music, and politics? Why and how do we as humans seek the transcendent? I think all of these questions are worthy subjects of inquiry in school. Reading important religious texts is a part of that. And that also means including the vast and beautiful global array of beliefs and practices, perhaps starting closer to home with our brothers and sisters in Native American communities.
Studying religion has made me better able to understand differences around some difficult issues about which I have strong opinions. I am more comfortable with doubt and ambiguity. Spending much of my adult life studying early Christian beliefs strengthened my own Jewish identity much to the consternation of some of the Jesuits at Fordham University where I earned my PhD.
Study religion and being religious are not the same. Teaching about religion and “teaching religion” are not the same thing. The reason for separating the promotion of religion from the public school is not because God is a fraud or because people who have religious faith are fools. I’m sure there are many people of faith who believe the atheists are the fools. I believe there is room for all of us and I’m not sure I’m in a position to call anyone a fool.