Every semester, I dread the religion unit for a variety of reasons, the main one being that it is so difficult to generate good, quality discussion from my students. Most of them were either raised in a Christian home, are still practicing Christians, and/or are self-declared atheists, who, regardless of actual religious affiliation, have been raised in a social paradigm that is fundamentally Christian: our educational system, our government’s relationship to religion, our national holidays. It’s difficult to transcend this cultural influence because it operates on the unconscious level. I have found, probably in large part because of this unconscious Christianity, that many of my students struggle to write about any religion objectively and academically. Those that are most successful are those who write outside their own faith. Those that write within their own… Well, there are some better than others.
I started off this semester’s unit with a conversation about biases, to lay it all out on the table, then spent the rest of the unit covering the stories – myths – of the major religions and some of their most prominent themes. Personally, I love exploring religion as mythology and vice versa, but I find it frustrating that I have to fight the uphill battle of getting around terminology. Joseph Campbell said in one of my most favorite quotes ever, “Mythology is other people’s religion. Religion is a misunderstanding of mythology.”
That said, I propose an approach to religious education that teaches it as mythology, with emphasis on the stories and arts rather than on doctrine or rote memorization of various passages. Such memorization doesn’t mean automatic education. In fact, I confess, for all the Sundays I spent at church, I have yet to be able to recite the Nicene Creed, but ask me to explore the metaphor behind the life of Jesus, I can be coherent and possibly enlightening.
In order for such a method to work, the terms have to come into alignment. Mythology isn’t a lie, and Religion isn’t an organization bent on muddling matters. And also, getting out of the habit of describing everything in terms of absolutes.