Can Religious Fanatics Be Educated?

The recent disasters of the British Brexit referendum and the US presidential election have brought renewed calls for better education. It is argued that if people were better educated they would make better choices in electing leaders as well as be more productive in the economic sphere. Education teaches one to look at all sides of an issue, carefully weigh the evidence and come to an objective conclusion. It encourages compromise, avoiding conflict by seeking solutions that benefit both parties in a dispute. However, in encouraging flexibility of thought, higher education directly opposes the tenets of religion as propounded by fundamentalists. Many minds are set against acquiring new knowledge because all they need to know is already revealed in their holy book.

Fundamentalism in religion is at the root of many of the world’s problems. Ralph Waldo Emerson is reported to have said that he knew many people whose views were all cut and dry – very dry. But in those days before technology changed the world such people were not nearly as dangerous. Today, they can either subject mankind to a slow death by denying the science of climate change or bring about instant annihilation through a nuclear jihad. The search for a means to cut this Gordian knot becomes ever more urgent.

The Jesuits used to claim that it you gave them a child under seven years of age they would give you back a Christian. Early education is vital in forming a characteristic view of the world, so in the present situation it is essential that all children, irrespective of parental background, are provided with the same introduction to rational and scientific thought processes. Then whatever parallel religious instruction the children are receiving will be weighed in the balance of reason. Hopefully, many will be dissuaded from becoming creationists or jihadists.

A further step would be to provide children with the basic tenets and beliefs of all major religions. This could bring about a situation in which each person makes his or her own choice, free from the compulsion of the ancestral community and with a respectful understanding of all other beliefs. One of the world’s newest religions, The Baha’I Faith, does not allow a child to declare their belief until the age of fifteen. This would seem to be a wise provision in ensuring maturity of understanding rather than unquestioned acceptance. Religious freedom should include freedom to choose for oneself, and only better education can confer this fundamental human right.

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