Religion as a “Live Option?”

Here’s an article for whoever might be interested that I wrote for the next issue of Catholic Education. The last one, you may recall, was about schools and sweets.  This time the subject is Religious Education (an old interest of mine). I was asked to write it after presenting the ideas at a provincial RE conference back in June. It’s called “Making R.E. a ‘Live Option.'”

Religious Education is only partially about teaching learners the facts of the faith—the dates, names, prayers and passages. It is also about conveying the whys and the wherefores of religious devotion. And this is the difficult part.

Don’t believe me? Try getting a straight answer to these questions from your learners:

Is having sex a moral decision? Is there a spiritual reason, other than crusty habit, why someone like Desmond Tutu would awaken before dawn each morning to devote himself to God? Can it possibly matter from whence the Holy Spirit proceeds in the Nicene Creed?

Of course, Christianity’s answer to all of these questions is “Yes!” Yet teaching learners why this is so is challenging, because for many of them religious answers to life’s questions are not “live options.”

Let me explain what I mean by “live option.”

You are probably familiar with Pascal’s Wager, in which philosopher Blaise Pascal advises us that it is always best to “bet on God.” He treats the decision between believing in God or not as if it was like betting the odds in a game. Assuming that there is a small possibility that God exists, and that living a godly life under such a possibility affords eternal reward, then the odds play out as follows:

 Bet that God does not exist and God does exist:      Eternal loss.

Bet either way and God does not exist:                     Neither gain nor loss, just death.

Bet that God does exist and God does exist:             Eternal gain.

As Pascal notes, the only way to lose is by betting against God; rationally, one should always choose to believe.

For some of us, it’s hard to disagree with Pascal’s conclusion. However, for many people—even many of the learners in our schools—Pascal’s Wager is a nonstarter. One cannot always believe a hypothesis, rational as it might seem.

William James, a Pragmatist philosopher and psychologist, argues that it is impossible to will belief. In James’ estimation, there are two categories of options between which one is asked to choose: “live options” and “dead options.” A live option is one for which a person has some disposition to believe or take seriously. A dead option is preceded by no such disposition. As their names imply, a person can only believe in an option that is “live.”

Let me illustrate the point.

Very few of us have ever actually spoken with Nelson Mandela. Yet, if asked, you would certainly agree that he exists. Now, imagine I asked you to believe that Nelson Mandela is a myth.  Suppose I offered you a year’s wage to believe that all of the images on TV, the newspaper reports, even the historic home in Soweto, were the work of storytellers and actors.  Could you believe that Nelson Mandela is a myth?

No, you could not. As nice as the extra money might sound, believing that Nelson Mandela is a myth is not a live option for you. 

For Pascal, a Roman Catholic, and for many of us, belief in God is a live option. Through religious education, family tradition, or personal experience, we are disposed to take seriously the idea of a Christian God. But there are many people in the world—even in our classrooms—who do not share this disposition. According to CIE statistics, 65% of learners in South African Catholic Schools are non-Catholics, which means they are disposed toward a different set of religious beliefs or none at all.

More challenging still are the cultural dispositions that learners hold. A child raised in our culture, where sex is often detached from the spirit, might not recognize the morality of sexual contact as a live option; a worker striving to succeed in our fast-paced world may think of Tutu’s daily devotion to God as a time management decision, rather than a spiritual one; and a citizen who can call his MP or write a letter to the President may not appreciate the theological importance of the Holy Spirit.

So how can religion’s answers to life’s questions prove to be a live alternative in the classroom? When the RE teacher presents religion in such a way that learners can authentically grapple with it.

In a classic book about teaching, Sam Intrator identified the essence of effective teaching by analyzing what he called “genuine teaching moments”—moments in the classroom where real learning takes place. He called the book Tuned in and Fired Up because the one consistency he recognized in every genuine teaching moment was that the learners had a deep psychological engagement with the material—they were tuned in and fired up.

Intrator says that it is the job of the teacher to facilitate this engagement, because most learners do not arrive at their desks grappling with the questions of history or literature or religion. Effective teaching pushes them to do just that—to choose between options. As James makes clear, unless those options are live, a learner cannot entertain them in good faith.

There are as many ways to present religion as a live option in the classroom as there are religious people and ideas. A teacher might use examples of religious devotion in the learners’ community as an entry point for teaching about religious life. “A day in the life of Sister So and So,” for example, is a better teaching tool than the “pray every night before bed” rule.

Another strategy is to take advantage of learners’ familiarity with secular concepts that mirror religious ones. Take the concept of sacred action, or liturgy. Every child who has celebrated a birthday appreciates the meaning inherent in actions like lighting candles, singing, and giving gifts/alms.

In both these examples, relating the sacred to the familiar helps learners to see spirituality as something personal and immediate.

Religious education can get learners “tuned in and fired up,” but first it must allow them to authentically grapple with religious devotion as a live option. After all, this is what RE is for.


2 responses to “Religion as a “Live Option?”

  1. Amen, Bob.

  2. I would like to see a continuation of the topic

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