The Sin Of Teaching Intolerance To Keiki

In the religion department at UH-Manoa, we have T-shirts that read, “Sin Is Our Business.”

But sin — wherever it is and in whatever form it takes, whether real or imagined — also apparently is good for business, as it steers parents toward enrolling their children in increasingly popular religious-based schools. Perhaps too, it is the sinful temptation of good-looking professors behind the popularity of religion courses at college campuses across the UH system. Perhaps it is not.

Yet sin is everywhere for those who look for it, even if it’s only in the mind. And this form of sin can ruin everything, even the joy of fourth-graders on a school trip to Hawaii island. A religion teacher at one of the local private schools wished her excited students a fun trip, but in the same breath warned them against believing in the Hawaiian gods and in their stories while there. Such episodes would be amusing if they weren’t commonplace. Instead, they are sad and deeply disturbing.

Teaching children to be intolerant of other faiths (even different versions of the same one) — and by extension of other cultures — is wrong. It borders on child abuse.

Children subjected to such forms of religious education grow up wary of other religions, other cultures, other people and indeed the world.

This view is quite different from the perspective of healthy children. Instead of being encouraged to ask questions and think for themselves, to be open-minded and appreciative of diversity, they are told repeatedly that all the necessary answers for understanding life lie in the deciphering of ancient texts, and when present-day realities of the world contradict these texts, children are taught the world is wrong and should be rejected.

Such a worldview may cause harm that is long-lasting.

What is more, children fortunate enough to escape from such a restrictive worldview may have trouble assimilating into the wider social culture not just because it was alien to them for so long, but because they have been taught that it was wicked and to be feared. For children still trapped in this frightening worldview, Halloween is evil, celebrating Thanksgiving is wrong, bowing at martial arts practice is idol worshipping, learning hula is a form of pagan worship. These holidays and practices are not the insidious tentacles of sin, but wonderful expressions of diverse cultures and values that are held dear by many.

Teach children to be awe-inspired, not wary and afraid. Skepticism, inquiry and doubt can be great tools to give learning children. With them, children can build a world-view filled with wonder, beauty and awe.

In stark contrast, the absoluteness, intolerance and fear of sin preached in some forms of religious education impede innovation, exploration and discovery, and therefore should have no place in an academic setting.

Yet the academic study of religion is important, and not all schools teach religion in such a narrow-minded, fearful way. Indeed, religion is the most important subject of study at college.

This is not simply my opinion. More people love, hate, help, kill and die (and write nasty emails) because of religion than for any other college subject of study. No one dies for composition English. Nobody straps dynamite on their body, walks into a crowded marketplace and blows herself up for pre-calculus math. But for religion, people do incredible stuff, and incredibly stupid stuff.

Through the study of religion, one is introduced to history, politics, science, art and a host of other wonderful study subjects.

Religion, therefore, should be taught to elementary schoolchildren in the same way that culture is: with respect and appreciation for the similarities and differences, strengths and weaknesses, among various people living in different places and in different ways. Children should not be forced to believe that one is superior to the rest, and that the alternatives are dangerously wrong, even if their parents believe such nonsense. Imagine the uproar if all 9-year-olds were taught that Japanese culture is the best. This may be true, but it shouldn’t be taught.

The study of religion opens up fascinating glimpses for students to see and determine for themselves the true and untrue. Sin does not. But sin is business and — judging by the weekly emails I receive — business is good.