Spirituality Without Religion

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The LA Times is reporting on a “Spirituality for Kids” curriculum being presented in some Los Angeles public schools.  

‘Spirituality for Kids’ is not religious,” said Karen Timko, who is in charge of elementary counselors for the Los Angeles Unified School District and has included the group in a resource fair for counselors. “It’s tools for navigating your life.”

This is another good argument for appropriate separation of church and state, religion and public education. (Yes, I’m in favor of that.) It’s also a good opportunity to show some of the confusion that exists on religion. The curriculum developers’ website says,

Founded in 2001, SFK was established to create global change by empowering children with the understanding that all possibilities lie within – their choices can influence the world around us.

This is close to truth, and close to a secular truth, except for that important word “all.” Yes, possibilities lie within us, and yes, as the same web page shows, education can yield positive character outcomes for children. I’m all in favor of teaching character in schools, a curriculum that has been sorely neglected or distorted over the years. As an education major at Michigan State University in the mid-1970s, when MSU was regarded as one of the top education (teacher-training) schools in the country, I was taught “values clarification,” the doctrine that every child’s values are to be brought out, respected, clarified, and celebrated. Our professors had apparently not anticipated Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s values.

No, it’s not character education that’s the problem. It is the teaching that “all possibilities lie within.” This is in fact a direct contradiction of historic Christian doctrine, which says we must rely on God. It is through Christ who strengthens that we can “do all things.” (The context counts on that, by the way; it’s not about being able to do everything we wish, but about living a life of spiritual power in any kind of circumstance.) Note that the point I’m making does not depend on your agreeing with Christian doctrine; the fact is that the SFK curriculum conflicts with a major point of Christian doctrine, and thus has definite religious implications.

But beyond that there is the title wrapped around the whole program: “Spirituality for Kids.” If they had called it Maturity for Kids, or Character Development for Kids, or Life Skills for Kids, that would have been one thing. But they called it “Spirituality for Kids.” They can say all they want that it isn’t religious, but are students that dumb? Do they even want students to think spirituality is divorced from religion? And if they do, are they not in this also teaching something definite about religion, i.e., that religion is optional for spiritual development?

The excellent National Study of Youth and Religion spoke of large numbers of teens who are “spiritual but not religious.” Obviously there are implications for religious belief in this. I would hope that school administrators in Los Angeles and everywhere would not be blind to this.

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10 Responses to “ Spirituality Without Religion ”

  1. This is in fact a direct contradiction of historic Christian doctrine, which says we must rely on God….the fact is that the SFK curriculum conflicts with a major point of Christian doctrine, and thus has definite religious implications

    This issue about the SFK curriculum in public schools strikes me as an interesting test case, worthy of consideration. Can we legitimately insist that SFK not be taught in public schools merely because it contradicts “historic Christian doctrine”? Presumably not. But then, are we objecting to SFK merely because it claims to be a “spiritual” teaching that contradicts an historic religious doctrine? That might lead to problems too.

    Perhaps a conception of “public reason” is required. How might that work? Perhaps we can work up to such a conception by beginning with a fixed point: arithmetic should be taught in public schools even if we discover that a certain theorem of arithmetic contradicts some historic religious doctrine, and certain religious people object. What sort of principle licenses our continued teaching of arithmetic in such a scenario?

  2. Can we legitimately insist that SFK not be taught in public schools merely because it contradicts “historic Christian doctrine”? Presumably not.

    Why the heck not?? Government-sponsored schools are not supposed to promote or denigrate any religion. SFK clearly promotes a non-Christian form of spirituality.

    Of course there are contradictions ahead, because there’s a religion for everything, and I don’t know what you’re going to teach without touching on one of their teachings. But I didn’t write the case law that screwed up interpretations of the First Amendment, so I don’t feel compelled to make it make sense.

    But the SFK people surely know they have to defend themselves against charges of being religious, and they’ve tried to do that. My point is that they have not succeeded.

  3. @Tom Gilson:

    “Why the heck not??” Because: “there are contradictions ahead.” Must one find a stronger reason? What would count as stronger?

  4. The contradictions are inherent in the case law, and cannot be avoided. I have presented an argument that SFK is religious and denigrates Christian theology, and that’s my reason for not including it in public school curricula. As I understand case law that ought to be sufficient.

  5. @Tom Gilson

    But they called it “Spirituality for Kids.” They can say all they want that it isn’t religious, but are students that dumb? Do they even want students to think spirituality is divorced from religion? And if they do, are they not in this also teaching something definite about religion, i.e., that religion is optional for spiritual development?

    I take it that this is your argument that SFK is religious. Are you equating “spiritual” with “religious”? If so, why? If not, what exactly is the connection?

    Though there might be good reason to avoid a curriculum that promotes one particular religion as such, it strikes me as at least questionable whether every curriculum that involves a “spiritual” element is necessarily doing this.

    Quoting the OED:

    spiritual A. adj. I. 1. a. Of or pertaining to, affecting or concerning, the spirit or higher moral qualities, esp. as regarded in a religious aspect. (Freq. in express or implied distinction to bodily, corporal, or temporal.)

  6. @Tom Gilson,

    I can perhaps understand if you want to avoid, for whatever reason, serious reflection about this SFK case to which you have drawn our attention. If this is your attitude, please just announce this outright and I’ll stop trying to pull your teeth.

    Assuming your last reply is serious, here is my response.

    I actually asked three questions, motivated by your “argument that SFK is religious.” Here again are the questions: are you equating “spiritual” with “religious”? If so, why? If not, what exactly is the connection?

    I can only assume that you are taking the OED entry I quoted to answer these questions. If the clause “esp. as regarded in a religious aspect” caught your eye, perhaps you misunderstand the nature of “esp.” clauses. Such a clause does not imply that “spiritual” must imply some “religious aspect.” Moreover, something can be distinct from “bodily, corporal, or temporal” without being religious. If you do take “religious” to cover everything that is not “bodily, corporal, or temporal,” then we have uncovered a significant confusion.

  7. I am not equating spiritual with religious, but I consider there to be considerable overlap between the concepts. I think the reason is obvious. Religions quite generally speak of developing one’s spirituality, and do so considerably more than any other social institutions. Spirituality is generally (not necessarily, but quite generally) taken to refer to a connection with a spiritual reality, distinct from material/physical reality, which again implies religion, and has distinct implications with respect to Christianity among other beliefs.

    Your question about whether I take “religious” to cover “everything…” is not the way I would word it. “Everything” is too strong a word. It’s more accurate to view it in terms of significant overlap. Significant enough, in my opinion, to cause us to raise a very concerned eyebrow over SFK curriculum in American public schools.

  8. I completely sympathize with “raising a very concerned eyebrow” over the SFK curriculum in public schools. However, the question is whether, after raising this eyebrow, we’ve actually found grounds for legitimately insisting upon its removal. It’s not obvious that the name “Spirituality for Kids” constitutes such grounds. Your observation that the meaning of “spirituality” overlaps with “religion” doesn’t take us very far. “Teaching” overlaps with “religious teaching”, but this is no reason to remove teaching from public schools. That the overlap is “significant” in the case at hand only shows that we are wise in being “very concerned”.

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