The “How” of Religious Teaching is Just As Important As The “What”
Khrystine Danielle Kelsey
University of Utah
This paper explores the education, socialization, and goals thereof for Evagelical Christians as seen in the movie Jesus Camp and the social and moral implications of such methods for any religion.
In the movie Jesus Camp (Ewing, 2006), a documentary which follows children at a Pentecostal Summer Camp, we hear youth pastor Becky Fischer discuss suicide bombers. She laments that Muslims in the Middle East are taught such dedication to their religion. She says nothing of the suffering these bombers inflict—rather, she says she would love to help American Christian children to have faith strong enough that they would lay down their lives for Christ. She doesn’t explicitly say she wants these children to kill people, but she doesn’t seem very concerned about their lives—and, hopefully doesn’t realize the implications of the statement she just made. If she does realize the implications of her statement, one would imagine the FBI, CIA, or NSA would put her on some sort of list.
Later in the movie, we meet Levi, a young man who will soon be attending Fischer’s camp. He is being homeschooled by his mother. As we snippets of the school day we hear his lessons on creationism and the falsity of global warming. At one point he says he believes “Galileo made a good decision when he gave up science for Christ.” His mother homeschools him because she wants him to know that it is “good to be a Christian”. (It is interesting to note here that one characteristic of so called “fundamentalist” groups, or groups that advocate reliance on one “original” or “basic” interpretation of ideology tend to feel a sense of social pressure and persecution, even when they are in the majority of a population. (Page, 2013))
At the camp, Levi and others experience socialization that is similar to cult initiations—a degradation ritual in which they must publicly confess their sins followed by a purification ritual in which they are accepted generously back into the fold. While most religions and even some self-improvement programs have similar rituals, the confession rituals are generally private. George Lundskow (2008) explains that these become group rituals when an organization wishes to emphasize group loyalty. They do so by contrasting one’s individual feelings of guilt to the communal feelings of solidarity and acceptance when they are not rejected for whatever bad thing they did/confessed to doing. A cynic would also point out it gives the leaders “dirt” on the group members. Lundskow also says this serves to sublimate the individual—for better or worse their actions are not as powerful as the group. Some of these children are as young as six.
It may seem as if none of this is really any of our business. Why does it matter if some kids aren’t taught what evolution really is, or think Galileo recanted his theories based on a religious experience rather than being threatened? There are plenty of uneducated people. Is it really fair to single out one group for what they tell their kids it takes to be a good person when so many kids aren’t part of any sort of community?
Well, yes, it is fair. It does matter, and it should be our business. We have focused on evangelicals in the United States, but one doesn’t have to look very far to see that the same sort of problems exist within several religions. The West likes especially to look at the Muslims (as does Becky Fischer); Muslims will then point out Jews and Hindus who are just as vehement. If one has humanistic values, we best look at what these groups have in common and why we should care.
The first issue I wish to address is education. 73% of homeschooled children in this country are evangelicals (Ewing, 2006). This statistic does not necessarily, prima facie, mean anything. There are plenty of reasonable situations in which children are homeschooled. However, it is likely that Levi’s mother is not the only parent to homeschool her child because she actually wishes to prevent him from getting an adequate education. We see a video Levi is watching about “evolution”. Rather than explaining Darwin’s theories of natural selection or genetic mutation, the presenter asks the child to speculate whether humans were made out of goo (“Yuck!” he exclaims) or came from monkeys. Obviously, this is ridiculous. This is not educational, followed by a “But we don’t really believe that honey, because we believe in the Bible.” At least then we would know that this child was properly educated. One might wonder what I’m driving at, if the child is still being taught to disregard evolution. But even if he does reject the scientific theory at least he would know what he is rejecting. The point of education is not to convince the student of the truth of everything you say, but to give him information and tools that enable him to continue progressing in the world. He can accept or reject what he sees fit. If someone goes to Auschwitz and rejects that the holocaust ever actually happened, there would be nothing more any of us can do to convince her she is wrong. She has seen the evidence and some people may call her delusional, but she has exercised her own will or reasoning or lack thereof. When we teach children, for whatever reason, that there is no evidence the holocaust actually happened, or misrepresent history by saying, “Well, a lot of people liked Hitler,” (which is after all true), we are hurting ourselves. Later when Levi finds out or comes to realize that Galileo was threatened by death before he recanted his statements, there will be limited options for how his brain will make sense of this. He may feel a sudden sadness at the corruption of religion and may be forced into an existential crisis. Or he may think, “Wow, death threats seem extreme, but at least he accepted Jesus.” That second option should scare us.
Now religious people are not the only people that attack things they don’t understand. For example we have Religulous (Charles, 2009), a documentary in which Bill Maher claims to explore religious belief but in reality condescendingly asks people why they are dumb/hypocritical/crazy. He does not seem any more open to discussing religious experience than Levi’s mom does to discussing Charles Darwin. At one point he states that LDS people believe God has a physical body. The implication of this is that when Jesus was conceived, he was conceived via sexual intercourse between God and Mary. Maher plays a sexually explicit video while reciting scripture from the New Testament to make his point, which is that this idea was made up by some really dysfunctional people who are possibly voyeuristic in their tastes. This is an interesting counterpoint to Levi’s video about goo. Perhaps in a country as religious as ours, we should be teaching children philosophy. If Maher understood that everyone, including scientists, have struggled with the idea of reconciling mind to body, he would be better able to understand various religious interpretations thereof. It wouldn’t mean he would have to believe any of them. Neither he nor Levi would have to accept what they hear but they would know why people think the way they do and be better prepared for any conversation/science class they will ever have.
Education is also important for what is tells us about socialization, our next focus. One other defining characteristic of a cult is that it creates an alternate reality that is meant to replace, well, real reality. We will explore in greater depth why this is not functional shortly, but for now we will simply point out we should care about this because we have to share reality, however it is perceived, with each other. These children may not be taught to believe in global warming. When a gigantic tidal wave wipes out half the country, they will blame it on the homosexuals, or as they are drowning perhaps they will see it as the rapture. George Bernard Shaw has famously compared the peace of a religious man to the joy of a drunken one. I for one think if one is about to die, one can afford a little drunkenness. But all evidence suggests we can help the situation—and to subject those of us who would prefer to do so to those of us who prefer to get drunk is not just unfair, but possibly murderous. This is a dangerous alternate reality to have.
I have kept comparing these groups to cults, particularly regarding socialization. Many people use this word to describe people they don’t agree with. However, I am using it in the sociological sense. Bill Maher is obnoxious and I do not agree with everything he says, but he is not cult-like. A cult, as defined by Lundscow and others, is a group in which individual identity is sublimated to a group identity. Alternate realities are established. Often this happens in a degradation ritual. The individual is torn down and then rebuilt as whatever the cult leader or cult group wishes the individual to be. In a sense, most religions have this cultish aspect in which one dies to an old reality or lifestyle and is reborn in the new one. Actual rituals and cults have the important differences of this being semi-public (rather than internal/mental), sometimes physical (rather than merely symbolic), and (perhaps) more degrading. One doesn’t just discard aspects of the old identity; one completely destroys it and demonizes it. (The military is also cult-like in this sense, though the old identity is not discarded.) Socialization begins when we are very young, and probably never truly ends. However sociologists, psychologists, and unfortunately Becky Fischer realize that these forces are especially powerful when you’re young. Fischer points to the pureness of children, but children will accept negative socialization because as a child your survival depends on other people. It is this openness that leads Fischer to designate children as “such useful tools”. Again, this should frighten those of us who have humanistic beliefs. Children should not be dehumanized. If children are merely tools, why not make them tools of sexual pleasure? Or of death? Muslim groups that believe in the martyrdom of jihadists dress infants as suicide bombers. These children are “such useful tools” as well.
Furthermore, such socialization is abusive, all the more so if the person being socialized is a child at the age where these beliefs will not be easily shaken. A child fearing hell may be well behaved, but how happy will she be? And how will she know how happy she is? When the mother of a suicide bomber rejoices at his martyrdom, is she truly happy? Perhaps she is, if the socialization has been strong enough or started young enough. I am not saying that people who are religious are not truly happy, or that people who say they are happy are not being honest with themselves. But it does seem that with strong socialization, someone can be led to think that dissatisfaction with their life or occasional doubts are signs of a wicked heart. This imprisons people in their own minds. Similarly, those socialized to be irreligious may feel weak if they experience dissatisfaction and doubt. Whatever ideology we are being socialized to, to demonize the other, in the outside world or your own thoughts is extremely dangerous. This leads me to my final point: the goals of such groups as these are, by any objective standard, abhorrent.
Throughout this paper I have made several value judgments. Some I would hazard most people would agree with; murder is wrong, child rape is wrong. Some, as evidenced by the groups in this paper are slightly more controversial: liberal education is good, global warming is real. Some implications are not necessarily accepted at all, even in my own academic community: humans should have humanistic goals, individualism is important. Many might argue with the first term as being too vague or anti-environmental. To this my response is what other kind of values are we meant to have? Maybe we can’t know there is a God, we can’t know if Mohammed is his prophet or Jesus his only begotten son. But we know we are here now. It may be an illusion or not in any permanent sense but like Buddha, we can touch the ground under our feet and say, “This is my testimony.” We have an evolutionary drive to survive and propagate. So I would argue we must have humanistic values, values that honor the individual for who s/he is, his/her own mental processes and choice of goals, pleasures and values. We must protect this from those who would take it away. The next logical question is “Aren’t you proposing we do that from these religious groups?” And frankly I must say yes—but only because they are a group that wishes to take it away from other individuals.
Despite what these groups say and even think, they do not wish for good things. These people are spreading a worldview where people must be punished not just for the things they do but who they are. These people are spreading a worldview where killing groups of people and oneself is a reasonable career path. These people are spreading a worldview where their rights to land are so absolute that it’s all right to kill children. All of them believe that they should be the group deciding for everyone else. Furthermore, to emphasize the truth of these worldviews, they are willing to abuse and degrade their own children. Becky Fischer can speak in tongues. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can deny the Holocaust. Tom Cruise can believe in malevolent aliens. Bill Maher can make fun of all of them. But to abuse people, even and especially their own children, is cruel. It doesn’t matter why, it doesn’t matter the doctrine behind it. They may be right and we may burn in hell, but if we don’t change it, it won’t much matter. We’ll already have hell on earth and in our minds.
Charles, L. (Director). (2009). Religulous [Documentary]. United States: Lionsgate.
Ewing, H. E. (Director). (2006). Jesus Camp [Documentary]. USA: Magnolia Home Entertainment.
Lundskow, G. (2008). Cults. The Sociology of Religion: A Substantive and Transdisciplinary Approach (pp. 279-303). Los Angeles: Pine Forge Press
Page, F. (Professor) (2013, July 22). Fundamentalism. Sociology of Religion. Lecture conducted from University of Utah, Salt Lake City.