Don’t Send Those Kids to Church

Most religions serve an important role providing hope, comfort, and ethical guidance to their followers.

Some also manage to provide powerful tools for personal development, helping people to change their lives and shape the world around them. This is the highest calling of religion-as-such.

Once upon a time religions also made an effort to discover and explain the natural world. Philosophy, drama and art—three of our most powerful lenses for comprehending our world—have origins commingled with ancient religion. Then for a thousand years, monasteries were the main centers of Western learning. In the East it was longer.

Enjoyable double-learning happening at the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco (not a church).

As a priest, I have to admit: the religious have given up the fight. The history of religion involves a search to understand the universe, but contemporary sects have lost sight of that quest. They’ve codified traditional answers to the big questions and teach them as truth. Some outright oppose further scientific inquiry.

Why is that a problem? Take a moment with Singing Morgan Freeman to contemplate the complexity of our universe:

Think about that. Of the momentous discoveries in that video, zero were achieved in institutions of religion. The fundamental nature of our universe, discovered and explained, on the verge of complete understanding—will never be taught in church. Ever.

Instead of an hour of church or Sunday School, what if your kids went to programs at a science museum once a week?

What if they went to an arts program?

Would scripture really be missed?

Please tweet or share this post. Special thanks to Ross Hill for inspiration.


22 thoughts on “Don’t Send Those Kids to Church

  1. Sorry Drew. While what you describe is true in many and perhaps most religious institutions, you sell short liberal religion. In my Unitarian-Universalist church, in fact, these things are taught about the universe. We embrace the exploration of who we are and what this world is. We engage our children in religious “exploration”, not religious education. There are other groups that practice such liberal religion. Don’t sell us all down the same river of “useless”.

    • We need to make a distinction between mentioning or even “supporting” science and actually teaching science. I’ve heard lots of liberal clergy mention science in sermons, lessons and so forth. Does that mean that their flock is coming away with a solid understanding of cosmology and physics? I doubt it.

      As I’ve pointed out before, I don’t want to understate the value of religious community (whether it gives a nod to science or not). But it’s also hard to overstate the value of being scientifically literate.

      The question I’d like to raise here is, out of these two valuable but very different settings, which one actually does more for children – churches and temples, or engaging out-of-school arts and science programs?

      • Again, I respectfully take a different view. I fear you are posing a false dichotomy. Why must church/religious community be pitted against schools? And I’m a teacher, so I have something vested in both communities. I see my own religious community going way beyond “mentioning science” in what it does, but I will also be the frist to say that a ritual/liturgy is not supposed to be purely an educational event. It’s supposed to be ritual! And, I’d argue that a class at school is not supposed to be a ritual or liturgy (though it does share some common traits) but is supposed to be a lesson in the subject matter.

        Are we going to ask which is better for our children: the church or the doctor? False dichotomy. Each offers some healing (in the best scenarios) but they are not the same. Each offers comfort and insight, but they are not the same.

        • I appreciate that Bob. I agree, these things do not need to be separate.

          However, at present very few churches offer engaging science programs. In fact, I’ve heard of zero in my years of interfaith work. The only “scientific” programs offered by most religious institutions are either (a) creationist or anti-choice “education” in conservative churches or (b) painful misrepresentation of relativity and thermodynamics to support esoteric ideas in very liberal churches, temples and meditation centers. Both A and B use selective facts and loose interpretation to reinforce existing doctrine. That’s not in the spirit of scientific inquiry.

          I would love to see more religious institutions actively resume the organized, rigorous pursuit of knowledge about our world. But since they’re not, I still have to ask – would the time that children spend in catechism perhaps be better spend on other activities?

          If not, then what exactly is Sunday School providing that is so vital?

  2. I broomed the whole church-going thing to the curb 31 years ago. I gave it up for Lent, and never looked back. It got tiring to go to a service, and leave not feeling spiritually refreshed and uplifted, but spiritually crushed and oppressed. Everywhere I turned, I was told that I was bad, wrong, ill-conceived, inferior, hell-bound, not worthy, etc.

    That didn’t rub me right. I did have a calling- and I answered it, becoming a priestess myself. I even spent some time actively atheistic, although I never went militant. But after a while, even that didn’t hold water- and I pitched all religious trappings, including my Pagan ones, and went ‘naked’ for a time. I did not miss scripture, ritual, ranting, or any of it. I was truly free for the first time in my life.

    That was what vaulted me over the Abyss. I landed on the other side with the distilled understanding of my training and practice, but with a lightness of being that only a radical removal and reboot can give.

  3. I whole heartedly agree. I would love to see more art and drama depicting what we know of the world through the lens of science. Science needs to be more fun and active in our culture, and not just limited to text books or fields of study.

  4. I think it’s a false dichotomy to to say that this a matter of either scientific knowledge or ignorant retreat. Yeah, sure, there are churches out there (especially in some Baptist and Pentecostal denominations) who deliberately avoid and ignore science in favor of blind obedience to the word of a god written and interpreted by men, but what I think is being left out here is that as education has become more widespread and accessible to more and more people, the church (and its intermediaries) have played a progressively smaller role. Instead of a church who collects tithes to support its mission, or a state-sanctioned church who receives taxes to support its mission, we’re seeing the separation of religious authority from day to day living. Thanks to public education, public libraries, and other secular organizations, we’re no longer dependent on churches providing those services… and, because church leaders see that they’re no longer the primary provider of those services, they’ve progressively stopped offering them. I think a greater question that one could ask is if apathy has overtaken religion, and if the religious leaders of our day have substituted escapism and fantasy for life and responsibility.

  5. Interesting Rua. I often wonder about this. Honestly, science and imagination seem at odds to me. I think the differences may not just be institutional, but procedural. If you’re doing one, you can’t be doing the other.

    One of the Symphony of Science videos ends with a scientist saying, “But I have to stop somewhere. I’ll leave you something to imagine.” I felt like he was lying.

    If you imagine things, you’re not doing science. Only if you cherry pick your most rational imaginings, and then submit them to rigorous controlled examination, are you doing science. That kind of approach is anathema to most artists and writers I’ve met. They’d much rather tell the most interesting story, create the most engaging image, than stop and check every idea in their composition against known fact.

    Scientists also contribute to this. When scientific ideas are prettied up, reworked, popularized, dramatized, you get a thousand voices critiquing the inaccuracies and generalizations. Pop sci just doesn’t meet the standards of scientific discourse.

    Science and art are compatible, but I’m not sure one can ever become the other the way we might want them to. One is left brain, one is right brain. They use different processes.

    • Sci-fi is what aided in many developments in technology. Just look at the Hubble Telescope! Without imagination, none of that would of happened. Imagination has led to our advancements in every way.

      People imagined flying. Everyone said it can’t be done – science was applied to the imagination and we now fly. We now can dive to the depths of the ocean, we can orbit space! Because imagination and science came together.

      I see no reason art and science cannot come together, as they already have. Just look into how the images of deep space are made.

    • Jake says:

      I think we’re taking a rather narrow view of ‘imagination’ here…imagination is necessary when trying to think up ways to test ideas, or to think up theories to test in the first place. I think you’d have to be pretty imaginative to come up with, for example, the theory of relativity. The initial scientific endeavor involves intuition and imagination in spades…but the scientific method doesnt TRUST intuition and imagination. You have to back up what you say with evidence, and not argue from authority.

      The rigid division of science and art (and even science and every day life) is kind of ludicrous. If you mix colours on a palette. you’re using science to produce new colours; someone a long time ago mixed some colours together and through trial and error (i.e. a rough kind of scientific method) came up with what they wanted. But no artist would think of saying they do chemistry as a matter of course.

      Science is so intrinsically part of our lives that we don’t even think of it as science anymore. It’s just normal life, or ‘art’ if you will.

      And I’m not even going to get into the perils of defining what exactly qualifies as ‘art’, or, for that matter, ‘culture’. That would be even worse than the science vs. religion debate.

      • Using paint does not equal doing science, even if the paint or colors were originally developed scientifically. (If you use a DVD, we don’t call you a movie director; If you live in a house, we don’t call you a building developer.)

        I’m talking about learning the actual facts, theories, and methods to be science-literate. I do see your point that having a creative mind can help in scientific endeavors, and I may have overstated how far apart science and art are. But even so, making pictures and doing research seem like two very different spheres. Artists may use things developed by chemists but that doesn’t mean they’re well versed in how chemistry works.

        • Jake says:

          If you use a computer program, you’re a user. If you DESIGN a computer program, and implement it, what is it? Art? Science? It takes a combination of both (especially when designing graphic user interfaces). The same goes for the paint analogy. Using a brush does not equal science…but mixing colours on basic principles of observation (science) is applied science…you are using observable, repeatable phenomena in order to get an accurately predicted result. You are, in fact, using science to facilitate artistic endeavour.

          Artists do research all the time. Artists were among the first to examine and document human anatomy. Scientists, especially biologists. used to do detailed sketches or even paintings depicting the creatures they studied. These are now treasured artwork (e.g. John James Audubon).

          If I draw a galaxy is it art? What if I use rulers and various astronomic measurements to make my drawing more accurate? What if my drawing is so accurate it can be used for scientific purposes? What if my drawing is then printed en masse and used as an instrument of science? Is it art? Am I an artist? What if I’m a metalworker, and I craft a beautiful but extremely useful scientic instrument that is then mass produced?

          This isn’t meant as a criticism or critique (i wholeheartedly agree with your initial premise – teach kids to think, not to kneel). I just feel that people misunderstand science as some kind of abstract authority, separate from real life – when it’s bound up in everything we do.

          • Personally, my own opinion is that if you draw a galaxy from your imagination it is art and if you draw a diagram of a real galaxy for a scientific publication it is rote illustration work (the kind most artists will take to pay the bills but not the kind of thing they do because they feel inspired).

            However I see your point. I think I’m talking about science in a relatively strict definuition, i.e. research and testing. If you are including any observe-and-think process as science, then yes, mixing paint colors definitely fits the bill. So does archery and a toddler learning to walk. Is that usually what people mean by science? I’m not sure, because I tend to use stricter definitions than most people – but it definitely seems like an overlap. Good point.

  6. I agree with you Drew, However I don’t see why there is always this conflict religion vs science. Religion and science can refer to a lot of other domains. And the essence of religion according to me is not about trying to find the origin or the truth.
    I love science , I always did, but I am very glad I took catechism lessons when I was a kid. Sure it doesn’t match with scientific facts… but anyway all the science we know is probably partially wrong or peanut compared to the whole universe.

    • I agree with that Manu. I’m proud to belong to a religion that strongly champions and agrees with science, and even changes its teachings to match new discoveries in science. I wish more religions that did the same.

  7. I couldn’t agree more. You know what I think would be a cool project? Writing scientific/philosophical epic poetry. All religions have their literature, their hymns, their stories. Science doesn’t. Can you imagine writing from the perspective of an electron immediately after the birth of the universe, or telling the story of evolution in iambic pentameter?

      • Rua & Trent, I’d be interested to see that. I’d be surprised if there’s not already something like that out there already. I know there are some inspirational/spiritual books for atheists, some might have such language or even poetry.

        Let me know if you find (or even create!) anything.

Please share your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s