The God problem

GodApproximately 80% of the world’s population identify themselves as members of a religion, be it Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or any of a number of dozens of others.  It seems reasonable to assume that most of these people believe in a supernatural power of some form or other (I’ll use the word “God” for convenience, but it’s a word that can encompass everything from the Buddhist idea of an impersonal cosmic force to the Jewish concept of a tribal deity who guides his people to the promised land).  There are exceptions, of course; some people identify themselves with a religion by virtue of culture or ethnicity, yet may not subscribe to the tenets of that particular faith, including belief in the divine.  It is also worth noting that of the 20% of nonreligious in the world, not all are atheists or agnostics, but people who do in fact believe in some type of God or other, even if they shun traditional religions.

The point is, lots of people believe in God.  Probably the vast majority of human beings to varying degrees.  This presents a problem of sorts for educators at public schools as well as secular or non-sectarian private schools. The problem is this: belief in God is a widespread phenomenon yet most secular schools are afraid to address it in a serious, thoughtful way, preferring instead to treat religious faith as a private matter.   (Educators at religious or parochial schools do not have the same problem, since their institutions are at least partially based on the assumption that one’s belief about God is an important matter).

There are many areas of study where it is impossible for students to fully understand what they are learning if they do not understand something about how people throughout history (and in the contemporary world) have tended to think about God.  The English Civil War and the Protestant Reformation are two obvious examples, and there are countless more.  It is nearly impossible to have a meaningful understanding of virtually any pre-twentieth century scientific, philosophical, political or literary enterprise without understanding that the people involved either had significant beliefs in God themselves or were, at the very least, surrounded by others who did.

Even in the early 21st century there are very few truly secular societies.  How can an educated person today hope to have any claim to understanding the world while remaining ignorant of the thriving and complex supernatural beliefs of the 1.2 billion people of India? Or the 1.5 billion people in the Islamic world? In addition, for some people, their lack of belief in God is as much a facet of who they are and how they see the world as anything else.  The famous atheist Richard Dawkins suggested that there are degrees of atheism, and the more intense and dedicated a person’s atheism, the more it defines who that person is. Yet atheism, too, is a kind of belief in God (or at least a belief *about* God) and should be taken seriously on this level.

The Portable Atheist

Rather than debating whether or not an individual’s beliefs about God are true (an exhausting proposition which rarely leads to any kind of healthy dialogue or decisive conclusion) it is far more valuable for educators to focus on three questions: (1) When people “believe in God”, what do they mean by “believe” and what do they mean by “God”? (2) Why do people who believe in God hold those beliefs in the first place? (3) How does a person’s beliefs in God affect the way he or she lives (if at all)?

Even if a person’s particular belief in God seems completely bizarre to an outsider there is still a reason for it, and that finding that reason is far more interesting and valuable than criticising or ridiculing the belief itself.  Belief in God is widespread, and powerful.  Educators must take it seriously.