A Busload of Faith

Religion forms a large part of the American experience. Public schools may lean on the first amendment to duck teaching about faith, but belief and dissent are at the core of the nation’s foundation. In the depths of his 1990s dispair, New York rock icon Lou Reed sang, “You need a busload of faith to get by.”

For some, however, religious faith is not a part of their identity. Not that they would explicitly discriminate against believers. Maybe they just find the supernatural less relevant to their lives. God seems a bit ‘old school,’ and believers a bit curious.

We must guard against this bias, especially at an intentionally diverse school like ICS. Nearly 90% of Americans believe in God and statistically that means many of our families.

In 2015 I told The New York Times a complicated story about the tension between belief and doubt. In the article it was reduced to “Matthew Levey thinks he’s doing God’s work.”

Recently I was asked if charter schools that espouse a classical curriculum are part of a effort to indoctrinate students. And, given my newspaper statement, did my own religious beliefs align with this plan?

I was taken aback and did not respond particularly well.

The simple answer is that I’m not privy to plans to inculcate religion at any charter school in New York. Classical or otherwise. To my knowledge no New York charters have violated the 1st Amendment or New York laws regarding religion. Certainly not ICS.

Like yours, my religious beliefs are personal. But tolerance is critical, and not optional.

ICS espouses a coherent, content rich curriculum that challenges and informs. Our first graders compare and contrast the beliefs of Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Aztecs, and Mayans. Second graders study Buddhism and Hindu gods. Our third graders learn about Roman gods.

An education that puts facts first might find it challenging to teach about faith. Yet religion is critical to our history and must be taught, dispassionately. After all, it is a fact that Christians accept Jesus as their Savior, but Jews do not. Massachusetts Puritans disagreed with Pennsylvania Quakers, yet they found common ground to found a nation. Sikhs wear turbans; that does not make them Muslims. Factual knowledge of others’ beliefs can help heal our divisions.

Teaching about religion allows to us examine an inherently human phenomenon: the vexing, fascinating, ubiquitous fact of faith. Some argue that faith without factual foundation is just like today’s mulish insistence on one’s own political narrative. But there’s an important distinction: religious faith exists in absence of facts, not in contravention of them. Science has chipped away at religion, but believers still believe. There is room for subjectivity, and a case for contemplation. These topics need not compete with math and science.

That’s a hard concept for kids, or adults. Which is why the certainty of belief is so comforting. Psychology teaches us that whether it’s politics, religion, film, or sports belief is wrapped up in self-identity. Ask our Mayor, a faithful member of the Red Sox Nation, surviving among 8 million unenlightened Yankees fans.

Rather than ducking religious history – both the good and the bad – we must teach it, to build empathy, a critical predicate for the kind of understanding so sorely missing from our national debate.

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In 2002 reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and killed by terrorists who justified murder with a warped view of religion. Honoring his memory, Bret Stevens asked us “to believe in an epistemology that can distinguish between truth and falsity, facts and opinions, evidence and wishes.” To fulfill this request we must respect both facts and beliefs, and teach kids to know the difference.

As Stevens concluded, “Danny Pearl died for this. We are being asked to do much less. We have no excuse not to do it.”

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